Little Island In The Mediterreanean: Confining or Inspiring?

Villa Giulia, northern tip of Ventotene

It’s January 3nd, 2021 and Italy is red hot. No, it’s not the temperature, and the sun is barely lighting up the sky under those clouds that have been hovering over us for days up here in Veneto. It’s just Covid, the crimson monster, that’s leaked its color all over us. So we’re not supposed to wander around unless we desperately need food, exercise, drugs or a doctor. As far as the last two are concerned, I’m following all the rules and keeping my fingers crossed!

But it’s also why I spend most of my time inside, reading and doing a few jumping jacks when the urge comes over me. Then I try to remember a few of the good things that happened during that year of 2020 that turned everything upside down. Mannaggia 2020!   

For example, during those halcyon summer months which seemed deceptively virus-free, my husband and I and our Roman friends crept out of our respective nests to disembark on an island south of Rome. Yes, we traveled for hours by train and boat with our N95 masks, to find freedom on Ventotene’s rocky slabs of beaches!

Rock beach near the old Roman fish pools, with the island and prison of Santo Stefano

And it’s even more ironic considering that tiny little springless Pantadaria, as the ancient Romans called it, is most famous for being a place of confinement. Yes, people were sent into lonely exile there, to cut them off from all ties with society. Islands, of course, are by definition isolated. So a great place to keep enemies of the state, if that’s what you have in mind.

As we came into the port, we looked across a little bay to a miniscule islet with a yellowish 18th century building embedded with windows that look like gigantic unblinking eyes. Now abandoned, Santo Stefano’s high security prison is where Gaetano Bresci, the anarchist who made his way back to Italy from Paterson, New Jersey to assassinate King Umberto I of Italy, was given a life sentence. That life didn’t last long, as he was himself killed soon after by his jailers. I learned about Bresci from one of the most poetic and inspiring films I watched during last spring’s stringent lockdown – Paterson by Jim Jarmusch. Yes, I spend a lot of time catching up on movies as well. Movies talk to you and jostle your brain.

Villa Giulia

Anyway, to return to our destination island, diligent Augustus built a luxurious vacation home on Pandataria. But he then realized he was too busy consolidating his empire to waste time on frivolous pastimes and so he stuck his only child, Julia, there in 2 BCE, to wither away. She was leading a scandalous life in Rome. Was she also plotting against him with one of her lovers? Certainly, she would never have been censored for her flings or needed to conspire to get power had she been born a boy, his heir! But that’s how things worked and you can think about her as you stand on the ruins of what’s now called the Villa Giulia. It’s at the northern tip of the island, on a nicely windswept outcropping, surrounded by the blue blue sea. Julia, the first prisoner of Ventotene, could have looked landward to Circeo, the peninsula where the sorceress Circe hung out with her humanoid animals or to Vesuvius or north or south to other volcanic islands studding the waters. None of that would have helped her feel less lonely because she couldn’t have visitors or books. No human or intellectual comfort whatsoever while she ate her hard bread and gruel. At least she didn’t actually starve to death there.

To find out more about the unlucky Julia, you could go to a wonderful bookstore on the main square of the only town on Ventotene. At L’Ultima Spiaggia (literally, ‘the last beach’ which also means ‘the last resort’) I found John William’s great historical novel ‘Augustus’ (winner of the National Book Award).  I had already read it in English, so I purchased an Italian book, ‘La Macchina del Tempo (The Time Machine) by by Wu Ming 1 (one of the mysterious writers in the Wu Ming collective authors’ group). La Macchina del Tempo is about the dissidents confined to Ventotene during the Fascist era. What a group they were!

Main Square, with our favorite cafè and the ‘Last Resort’ bookstore (L’Ultima Spiaggia)

I dived into my new find in between walks on the few roads crisscrossing the island, visits to the hard rock slabs with my towel and new slimming swimming suit, and meals consumed on a regular basis with our friends. We ate fishy things such as octopus and mussels, and lentils too. All very tasty, as the people who live on Ventotene now descend from Neapolitans invited here in the 18th century. The Bourbon monarch of the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies had decided to repopulate an abandoned archipelago. The pioneers cleared some of the indigenous maquis vegetation to create a patchwork of fields for lentils and grapevines in the moister hollows.

Flowering caper

So I found out, as I rested on my narrow bed in our little hotel room after a taxing day of sunbathing and feasting in company, so strange and wonderful!, that Mussolini followed in the Bourbons’ and Augustus’ footsteps by putting any perceived danger to his regime in outlandish places where they too would languish in silence.  

However, the modern-day dictator wasn’t as efficient, for example, as the Roman he venerated. The communists, socialists and rebellious people from subjugated lands such as Albania and Yugoslavia, had some things Julia didn’t. Books, and each other. There were so many of them, and the island so small, that despite the rules of confinement, they managed to get together surreptitiously, talk, and amke audacious plans for a better future. One of them, Altiero Spinelli, is considered a father of the European Union, as one of the authors of the Ventotene Manifesto. Another, Sandro Pertini, became a partisan and later politician and finally president of Italy in 1978.  

      Even though we weren’t sleeping in the same lodgings, gravity pulled us down to the main square every morning from the steep hillsides we were perched on. There we had coffee and pastries at the same cafè every morning and discussed the day’s plans. A little beach, a little history, a little exercise, before more fish down by the Roman port for our noonday and evening sustenance.  

Port and lighthouse

The Romans were builders. No doubt about the fact that the Romans were master builders. Having taken a tour of the intricate system of cisterns and conduits they slaved away at (no doubt with slave labor) to collect and distribute rainwater on Ventotene, we tried to get into the archeological museum as well.

Stairs into Roman cistern

But the museum was shut because of the virus, so we decided to rent a boat instead. A friend who felt pretty familiar with the sea was at the helm as we skirted the island. It didn’t take long, so we also threw ourselves into the clear, clear water from time to time, trying, but not always succeeding in avoiding the rare jellyfish lurking there. We joked about various things. We’ve almost all known each other for some 40 years, so no qualms about showing off our post-lockdown bodies.

Our friend Massimo (left) manning the ship

       I finished off my Italian book after our communal activites were over. So I learned that after Mussolini’s fall from power, in 1943, Italy was still under the grip of his nefarious allies, the Germans. The latter didn’t leave Ventotene until a small group of US soldiers, helped by one of the few remaining political exiles, freed it through guile and luck. The story is told by John Steinbeck, a war correspondent, in his collection of articles, Once There Was A War. Well, he was a skillful writer and it’s worth reading. You can find this volume at archive.org and borrow it for a few hours.

It was time to go back home. We felt both soothed and galvanized by our conversations with our interesting old friends. Close quarters can be a good thing if done with the right tools! As we pulled out of the harbor, masked up, we could see some seagulls flying overhead. Ventotene signifies freedom from want and a respite for migratory birds heading north on their learned paths from Africa in the spring. Crazy birdwatchers descend on Pandataria in April to bathe in the sight of thousands of winged creatures finding refuge on this dry, greenish crag in the Mediterranean. But that’s another story.

Southern tip of Ventotene, closest to Africa

Monte Grappa

 

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Looking northward from crumbling remains of WWI trench at Monte Tomba, eastern edge of the Grappa Massif

There is a broad mountain in northeastern Italy, south of the Alps and north of the Venetian plain, that is famous for cycling and war.

The name itself, Monte Grappa, actually brings to mind a drink. Grappa is a type of aquavite, or water of life, which was originally supposed to have medicinal properties. It’s not very clear what those are now, exactly, other than killing the effects of the overly strong stimulant in your cup of coffee if you decide to wash it down with a shot of one of the many alcoholic beverages that Italians call ammazzacaffè (literally, kill coffee).

Grape, Grappa. They must have a common root. They do, or at least the fruit and the drink do, as they appear to derive from the Germanic Krappa (hook or bunch of fruit that looks like a hook – the Italian grappolo comes from the same word and refers to a bunch of grapes). But there are no vineyards on this massive massif in the Veneto.

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Eastern Alps, with the Monte Grappa massif circled in orange; Lake Garda is in the southwestern corner, the Venetian lagoon in the southeastern corner.

 

In the upper meadows of Grappa, elevation 1,745 metres (5725 feet), you find: sheep, cows, a few chamois, some birds, and a lot of rocks. So the geographical name might actually come from the pre-Latin (i.e. primitive) Krapp, which has to do with those rocks. Now the blunt primeval word could work if you are English speaking and frustrated.  Mount Krap might be what you say when you are scaling it in the rain or fog and haven’t trained enough. Translated, however, it loses flavor. Mount Rocky is just subpar. So we’ll stick with the word that rolls off our tongues more easily.

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The monument to the fallen soldiers of WWI at the summit

 

 

Cycling and war. Well, war comes first. Monte Grappa has a grim side, there is simply no escaping it. To begin with, what the name says to many Italians, actually, is ‘World War I’, or ‘defending your country’. The military song ‘Monte Grappa, you are my homeland…’ pops up in my head every now and then all by itself. The Italian Alpini (the Mountain Corps of the Army) still sing it in their famous choirs. They are also, by the way, stalwart drinkers. Well, the Alpini must have consumed a fair amount of fiery tonic when they were trying to hold the ice-glazed ridges of the mountain against the Austrians during the last year of the Great War. What I am saying is that it is quite possible that a lot of grappa was drunk around treacherous Monte Grappa in 1918, with good reason.

WWI, yes. Well, back then Italy had territorial ambitions as well as historic conflicts with its Austro-Hungarian neighbor to the north and the east. The young country had only managed to wrangle the Italian-speaking regions of Lombardy and Veneto away from the Hapsburg empire in the second half of the 19th century.  So in 1915, the kingdom of Italy entered the conflagration that was already underway in hopes of getting more lands, Italian-speaking or not, to add to its size and prestige. It attacked Austria-Hungary (and later declared war on Austria’s allies), thereby opening a front that some historians call the ‘White War’. What was white about it was the snow that soldiers found in the eastern Italian Alps, chiefly the Dolomites, and all the lesser peaks of the foothills where they lived and fought.

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Well, the Italians made a little headway into what is now western Slovenia in the first year. But then things stalled until the Austrians and Germans  launched a surprise attack, a Blitzkrieg, on their enemy at the village of Caporetto (Kobarid in Slovenian) in 1917. The massive, chaotic retreat of traumatized Italian troops and civilians, as described by Hemingway in his novel, A Farewell to Arms, didn’t stop until west of the Piave River. Just to give you an idea of how far that could be in some spots, the distance between the Piave below Monte Grappa and Caporetto is a whopping 190 km.

The Piave, now officially denominated the ‘sacred’ river of the homeland, comes down from the Dolomites, plowing valleys out of the limestone as it wends its way to the sea. One of those valleys forms the eastern edge of the Grappa massif. Thus the entire mountain, inevitably, whether it wanted to or not, was bound to become a fortress on the new front. From November 1917 to November 1918, soldiers turned a natural rampart of rocks and trees into a fortified one of tunnels and guns.

The mighty polyglot Austro-Hungarian juggernaut eventually surrendered and collapsed. Italy prevailed. But the dead were already dead and it is fitting that the remains of over 20,000 troops from both sides, victors and the vanquished, all soldiers obeying orders, lie in the huge ossuary on the summit of Monte Grappa.

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Monumental ossuary

The ossuary is omething you must visit if you happen upon Monte Grappa, even though its monumental aspect is reminiscent of Fascist architecture you see in other parts of the country. It was, in fact, built in the 1930s, during the Fascist ventennio (twenty-year period), and its purpose was not only to commemorate the fallen but also to glorify the homeland. It’s good to remember that Fascism as a movement started in Italy during WWI itself, and manipulated patriotism as well as other postwar issues to create a dictatorship in the 1920s.

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Each rectangle bears the name of a famous battle site

But it’s possible to separate the political rhetoric from the pathos you feel when you are up against the testimony of so many lives cut short. I, for example, am always reminded of the fact that my husband’s grandfathers were both conscripted from their villages in southern Italy to go to war in the north when they were barely 18. They had probably never left their respective valleys in Molise, let alone the south, in their entire lives before being shipped off to the northeastern border. They would only have known their local dialect, and must certainly have felt the contrast between the rhythms of an agrarian life spent with family and neighbors in the fields or tending to livestock, and the harsh discipline of the army.

One grandfather only made it out alive by the skin of his teeth, as a matter of fact. Accused of insubordination, he was tied to a fence where enemy snipers could have used him as target practice if they had felt like it. They took pity on him, for some reason, he survived the trial by fire, and went home to start a family when it was all over. He was lucky not to have been one of those brought down by the enemy, disease, or the elements, whether it was to enlarge or defend their country, whose deaths are honored by the monument.

Unfortunately, that’s not the end of the sombre side of the mountain. There was more violence on Monte Grappa at the end of WWII. In the fall of 1944, the Germans still controlled northern Italy along with the collaborationist Fascist regime of the Repubblica di Salo’ (a town on the western edge of Lake Garda). The Allies were making their way up the peninsula to dislodge the Nazis. The new government in Rome by then had made peace with the Anglo-American forces, but Italians who lived in areas occupied by the Germans risked being conscripted by the Fascists or having to flee. The number of anti-fascist partisans was thus on the rise and the Germans and their Italian cohorts decided to crack down on those hiding out in the folds of Monte Grappa.

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Memorial to partisans captured near Campo Croce

Some partisans were killed right then and there, whereas others were taken to nearby Bassano (called Bassano del Grappa after WWI, in homage to the mountain), executed and hanged in public along the main street. It’s hard to imagine such a horror taking place in this pretty town, the gateway to the far north, with its famous geranium-bedecked Palladian bridge stretching over the river Brenta, where tourists taste grappa and buy Alpini souvenirs. But that’s WWII for you.

Monte Grappa is a visible symbol of Italian resistance during wartime. But like all enthralling places, it is also multi-faceted. Nowadays, the truth be told, many people visit the area above all to do some hiking, fill themselves on inexpensive mountain food, throw themselves off a hillside in a hang-glider, or huff and puff their way up one of its ten road ascents on a bicycle.

The secret to Grappa’s popularity among cyclists is probably that incredible number of ascents. The massif is so spread out, has so many ridges and so many routes crisscrossing it that you can go at it from the four cardinal points. Montony is not an issue. Grappa is one of the most versatile mountains I have ever had the chance to become acquainted with. So when last May my husband and I decided that we needed to get into shape as quickly as possible after a winter of hibernating, we knew there was no better way than to go up and down our closest not-so-very-mountain as many times as we could.

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Map taken from Brevetto del Grappa showing all ten routes

The classic route is up the ‘strada Cadorna’ starting in the village of Romano d’Ezzelino, in the valley to the south. Cadorna was a WWI general who built this military access road before the Caporetto disaster, after which he lost his job. The surface is good, it is wide and well engineered, with about 28 switchbacks, and the grade never goes beyond 11%. You find the steepness at the beginning, which is a little discouraging, and some at the end, when you are getting tuckered out. Campo Solagna at 13 k is the last place to buy drinks so make sure you bring water with you. It is, in fact, a longish slog.

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Road from Semonzo to the summit

 

Another possibility is the route from Semonzo, a bit to the east of Romano. This road is narrower, but has less traffic and is a breeze for the first 12 k. After Campo Croce, however, the slope changes. It was around then that I started thinking about having babies. I mean, the pain of a actually giving birth to a baby. I know that’s a real stretch, comparing the process of bringing a new life into the world with a grueling, frivolous activity that serves no purpose whatsoever  But that is, in fact, what my mind did. I started considering the route from Semonzo, only 19 k to the top (max gradient 14%), and the one from Romano (27 k) and thinking that the shorter ascent was akin to going through labor on a hormone drip as opposed to doing without. Yes, that drip that increases the frequency of the contractions, making the whole experience faster but more excruciating. Romano-Cadorna, instead, was more like totally natural childbirth – long and slow and ultimately, more exhausting. Having completed Semonzo a few times now, I can vote for it. It is direct, has some beautiful forested stretches, a few tunnels, and gets you to where you are going fairly quickly. If your heart can put up with it, you will feel refreshed when it’s all over and still want to go to a mountain diary, a malga, and eat fried cheese and drink wine. There, I’m for the drip.

As far as the Caupo option is concerned, all I can say is that it is long yet delightful (28 k, max. gradient 12%). Shadier and narrower than the Romano road, with a view of truly tall mountains to the north, it only has short steep sections, interspersed with some downhill stretches. We did it right ahead of the Giro d’Italia in 2017 and so had a crowd of spectators lining the route, offering us beer and encouragement and comments about who was faster, my husband or me. People seem to be intensely interested in whether a woman can overtake a man around here. There is a whole story there, for another time. Anyway, that was a wonderful experience, especially when I was cheered like a champion because I happened to cross the finish line of the climb by myself, just before the professionals arrived. My husband had got ahead of me right about then and I was all alone and somehow, in my tipsy, disheveled state, a star.

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Top of 20% climb from Seren del Grappa

Seren del Grappa, (25 K, max. gradient 20%) however, which also starts from the north, is a different kettle of fish. The advantage is that there is very little traffic indeed, it having barely more than one lane in some spots. It has too few switchbacks, and some awful ramps that go straight up and are too narrow to allow you to ‘paperboy’ them from one side to the other. The scree on the road made my bicycle slide and I was worried about getting a puncture in my tire or my leg. A man I crossed paths with who looked as if he’d participated in Ironman multiple times told me when we met again on top at the capacious Rifugio Bassano (good food and basic lodging, part of the Alpine hut network) that Seren was the second-most difficult route of them all. Hmm, I said. Well, it’s the last time I’m ever doing that. Until next year, right? was his answer.  I guess that’s the spirit. I’ve only completed four out of the ten climbs so far, but what’s to stop me from trying the others? Nothing. It can’t be any worse than childbirth, after all.

So I think I can hum ‘Monte Grappa, sei la mia patria’ to myself as I crawl up one of its byways and give my own meaning to its words. I’m just hooked on the place, as you can see.

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Further information:

Romano d’Ezzelino is 88 k from the city of Venice and 88 k from Trento.

Rifugio Bassano: Via Madonna Del Covolo, 161, 31017 Crespano del Grappa (located just below the summit of Monte Grappa)

Brevetto del Grappa: You can buy this informative ‘license’ attesting to your endurance and prowess at bars and restaurants located at the start of each climb. You get a stamp at the bottom and one at the top and are expected to complete all ten in one year…

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Brevetto (‘license’) attesting to your endurance and prowess. You have to ask for a stamp at the designated venue at the bottom and top of each route.

Getting religious in southern Utah

Boulder

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Birds hanging out in downtown Boulder at sunset

Last December, my brother Will and I took my father, who now has serious trouble walking and resides in an assisted living facility in Austin, Texas, to Utah. The aim was to meet up with some of his longtime friends, mostly members of the Sierra Club, who are infatuated with the Colorado Plateau. These pals and comrades-in-arms have been gathering in a tiny hamlet to ring in the New Year for decades.

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My father checking out bygone prices

Boulder, Utah. Where the heck is that, you might say? Well, you’d be forgiven for your ignorance and yet you would probably want to know more, because it’s a pretty far-out place in many ways. For one thing, it’s in the middle of the southern part of the state of Utah. The big, weird rocks and utter loneliness of the whole area have such an effect on people that I understand my brother when he calls it ‘the church of southern Utah.’ Being there is, in fact, like going to church, in the best sense of the term. You feel reverant and somehow purged of all bad feelings by its mystery, minus the mumbo-jumbo.

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Waterpocket Fold

Now Boulder is supposedly the last town in the lower 48 states to receive mail by mule. The poor mules walked along a scenic trail which some of them apparently fell off from time to time.

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Boulder Mail Trail

Their service to the community ended in the 1930s, when the federal Civilian Conservation Corps finished a gravel road connecting the two metropolises of Boulder, population 266, and Escalante, pop. 878, further to the south. This circuitous link, which goes up and around and down, is called Hell’s Backbone and is kind of a wild ride, too, as the name implies. Most drivers these days would prefer Highway 12 from Escalante or Torrey, to the north. But another possibility is the semi-paved Burr Trail that comes in from the east, and that’s what my brother decided to take to get our father to Boulder for New Year’s Eve.

 

 

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Looking eastward from Burr Trail

When I was a teenager in Salt Lake City, I did some backpacking in the canyons of the Escalante (the last river to receive an official name in the lower 48) and its tributaries, including a lovely place called Death Hollow. It may have gotten its name from the long-suffering mules falling into it. It is truly lovely, though. And those trips changed my attitude towards a state I was new to and not getting along with very well. That church of southern Utah experience came over me, and I realized there was something sort of magical down there in those fissures and streambeds and rocks.

I then moved away from the West, and didn’t go back to that part of the state until after Clinton created the Grand Staircase/Escalante National Monument. That seemed like a wondrous thing. Extraordinary land protected forever. Until the end of time. That was the reasoning behind the designation of the first national monument, Devil’s Tower in Wyoming, in 1906. It was supposed to go on like that, forever!

 

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Grand Staircase/Escalante

But as my father loves to say, after Chaucer, “all good things must come to an end.” I guess that is true, but don’t know it should be so. In any case, the US has had its ups and downs as a country. For example, the bit about the end of time, wasn’t that what the government said to Native Americans over and over? In the 1868 treaty with the Sioux, the Indians were promised the Black Hills of South Dakota forever and ever, until the end of the world. I remember reading that somewhere, maybe in a museum. But the agreement, signed and sealed, only lasted until the next gold rush.

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My brother Will enjoying winter landscape (Grand Staircase/Escalante)

 

 

 

We know, in fact, that the US has not seen the end of the gilded eras of robber barons, blatant and tolerated corruption and total lack of respect for treaties and people’s rights,etc.  Our current president, who doesn’t like exercise and knows nothing about natural beauty, has declared that the monument lands of Grand Staircase/Escalante and Bear’s Ears, created by Obama at the request of five local Native American tribes, have now been reduced by half and 85% respectively. This is to open up these places to oil and coal development and save them from being overprotected for the general public. The general public, ordinary people who like walking, in goobledygook language, have been referred to as ‘special interests.’

 

 

 

 

 

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Bear’s Ears from highway 95

Well, when we, my brother, sister-in-law and father, came into southeastern Utah on December 30th (from New Mexico via a tiny piece of Colorado) we drove past the southern end of Bears Ears on state highway 95, a road that doesn’t get much traffic in the winter. We crossed paths with one car on the 90 some miles to the Hite Bridge over the Colorado river. We had a schedule to stick to but I couldn’t help gawking. Bears Ears is sacred to the Navajo, Hopi, Zuni and Ute peoples and is chock full of well-preserved artefacts from ancient dwellings going back over 10,000 years. Not to mention an incredible trove of Triassic fossils.

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Westward-ho along highway 95

But most of that has to go, to allow coal mining or oil drilling to boost the local economy, say local politicians, Secretary of the Interior Zinke and Trump. They think nothing of tearing up places that are akin to Mayan temples or the Vatican. I shook my head. Surely there had to be a way to save all of this fantastic land from fly-by-night activities.

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Looking southward near Hite

We reached the Colorado, crossed the striking white bridge at Hite and then went over the Dirty Devil river soon afterwards. This is the northernmost point of Lake Powell, the reservoir created by the Glen Canyon Dam on the Colorado. The lake is receding and what we saw below us was unnavigable. We stopped to take pictures and I let my old dad out of the car to stretch his numb legs

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Standing tall at Hite Viewpoint

Then we piled back in to continue our drive over to highway 276, which we turned off of just before Lake Powell’s Bullfrog Marina to get onto the Burr Trail. I had never traveled on this particular route before and was wondering why that was so. How could I have missed it? But here we were, at last, on a perfect day in the dead of winter. It’s 67 miles to Boulder and the only sign of humans or development that we encountered, apart from what we were rumbling on, were two gung-ho cyclists and some cows grazing in the southern end of Capitol Reef National Park. No towns, no farms, no houses, no telephone poles, electrical lines, no nothing except for mountains, plateaus, escarpments and canyons. All of that overwhelms you, and also makes you feel thirsty for water, even when it’s cold. No country for unprepared people, that’s for sure.

 

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Who wants highways? Shortcut to Boulder on Burr Trail

The Henry Mountains (last peaks to be named in the lower 48) appeared off to the east, and the Waterpocket Fold to the west. Capitol Reef was due north.

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My brother and sister-in-law Mia feeling reverent along Burr Trail

At a certain point, we went up over the Fold, which looked as if some gods were messing around and started hurtling slabs of rock into a line of clay. The pieces then got stuck every whichway. That seemed about as plausible an explanation as anything else. What the heck. We all did a lot of gaping and picture snapping and sighing. If we’d lingered a little bit longer, with some alcohol, we might have started speaking in tongues or something.

 

 

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Henry Mountains from top of Waterpocket Fold

Our party reached Boulder just after sundown and joined my parents’ old friends at one of their homes. I found a calendar there with pictures of reunions from bygone years, including one with my mother in it. I touched her face. She was gone, but her spirit was here with these people. She had fought the good fight for air quality and preservation of public lands. She also liked Boulder. I remember when she was thinking of selling her house in Salt Lake and buying property here, where the nearest supermarket is over 30 miles away and state liquor store many miles more. “That’s crazy,” I told her. “You like malls, boutiques, theaters….and wine, for god’s sake!” My mother reconsidered, and she and my father, still on more or less amicable terms after their divorce, contented themselves with visiting their community of friends on a yearly basis.

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Easy hiking in Grand Staircase/Escalante

Our hostess this evening thanked me for bringing my father. “Like old times,” she said. Her husband, Gibbs Smith, had passed away very suddenly a few months beforehand and the get-together in 2017 was a tribute to this man, a publisher and man of ideas, who had sort of started the whole Boulder adventure to begin with. After the northern part of highway 12 was finally paved in 1985, the village became easier to get to from the capital. The good road basically put it on the map for nature-loving city slickers.
Gibbs printed some beautiful volumes about the Escalante area itself, one of which I look at fondly now and then. Some of the people I met at our New Year’s Eve gathering, where we quaffed wine that had been brought from all over, included the developer who designed and built the attractive Boulder Mountain Lodge, where we stayed, and a photographer and alpinist who lives near Boulder but travels the world. He said that after going to Ladakh in the winter, he most looks forward to exploring the unknown, unnamed canyons of southeastern Utah in the spring.

 

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View from terrace of Boulder Mountain Lodge

We briefly discussed the fate of Grand Staircase/Escalante and Bears’ Ears. I was struck by the fact that these seasoned activists didn’t seem to be terribly worried about sudden rampant destruction. They pointed out that many things, such as coal mining on the nearly impenetrable Kaiparowits Plateau, to the west of where we were, had been tried in the ‘70s, and come to nothing. Mining and energy companies want things to be cost effective. Hauling ore that might not be as desirable as in the past from places that have few roads and no people makes even less sense than before. An encouraging sign was that a power plant, the Navajo Generating Station, just south of the Glen Canyon Dam, was slated to be closed. It is the sole customer of a local coal mine. So much for more of that.

 

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Grand Staircase/Escalante

Utah, as we all know, is a red state, which means that ‘development’ is considered synonymous with ripping up the earth. It is unfortunate that one of the most interesting and intact landscapes on our planet is under the stewardship of people who couldn’t care less about it. But that’s how the cookie crumbles, sometimes, and why you have to be constantly on your toes if you disagree with lax stewards.

 

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American History in a cave

We spent the next few days with our friends who knew every little cave and slot canyon in the neighborhood. I cajoled my father into trying to do part of an easy trail strewn with pieces of petrified rock. I held his hand to get him over slightly steep spots, and waited for him to creep along the flat ones. I knew it might be the last time he had the opportunity to actually hike in the church of southern Utah.

 

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Old pilgrim

…..
Recommended reading:

Wallace Stegner’s Beyond the Hundredth Meridian, about John Wesley Powell and his explorations and legacy, is a must. Powell, by the way, was the man who named Glen Canyon, the Escalante river (after Father Escalante, the 18th century Spanish explorer), the Dirty Devil river, the Henry Mountains, etc. After getting through the first half of the book, which describes Powell’s trips down the Green and Colorado, you’ll want to throw on a pack and run out into the wilderness yourself.

Trail Guide to Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument by David Urmann, publisher Gibbs Smith

Desert Solitaire by Edward Abbey

The Monkeywrench Gang by Edward Abbey

Red by Terry Tempest Williams

Archeological significance of Bears’ Ears:
https://www.nature.com/articles/d41586-017-07794-5

Information about Boulder: http://boulder.utah.gov/;

Boulder Mountain Lodge: https://utah.com/boulder-mountain-lodge

Burr Trail: https://www.nps.gov/glca/planyourvisit/driving-the-burr-trail.htm

 

 

Somewhat bird crazy

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Coal tit and me

Origins

My Italian husband was already crazy about birds when I first met him. At that time he still had stories about duck hunting in his ancestral village in the southern Appennines.  He would take up a gun and go tramping around with his cousins in the sparsely wooded mountains of Molise. There wasn’t a lot to do there back then, apart from going to the local bar and playing card games. So going after the little game left in those arid hills that had been inhabited for millenia was a pretty good pastime, for men, at least.

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Foci, hamlet just up the valley from my husband’s birthplace

The idea of enjoying natural areas and observing wild creatures for their own sake might not come easily to people, male or female, who make a living off a hardscrabble land. We once stopped to ask a weather-beaten shepherdess who could’ve been anywhere from 60 to 90 which way to turn when we were driving up to the top of the mountain that looms over my husband’s birthplace. We were on a dirt road, crossing a grassy plateau graced by boulders and a few small oak trees. Small sheep were milling around us. Rocky pinnacles ringed our meadow. A few crows cawed in the distance. The herder asked us why we there and I said that it was beautiful. Beautiful? Her mouth twisted.  “Chess’e’ r’diav’r!” she answered in her dialect. “This is the devil!” I only half understood the last word but I got the drift as she gestured with her crook towards all that infernal nature that had enslaved her. She had a point. She really had a point.

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Road to mountain pasture, r’diav’r

 

By the time I met Annibale (Hannibal in English), however, he had been living in a large city, Rome, for over a decade, and he hadn’t fired a shot in a few years. He, instead, was always going on about song birds. He had taken care of a wounded green finch for a week or so when he was a child. So my first Christmas present to him was a pair of prolific canaries. They lived in a cage, where the male trilled, and the couple mated often. The female, subsequently, spent a lot of time brooding her offspring. We finally decided to cook up a few unborn ones to reduce the growing avian population in our little Roman apartment. One of the weirder sights I’ve seen in my life is a canary egg cooked sunnyside up and eaten on a tiny morsel of bread.

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Our canaries, Liebchen and Mario Merola (a famous Neapolitan singer)

Back then, caged birds were all the rage. Every Roman neighborhood had an uccelleria, a bird store. They were almost all run by men, who would hang out there with their buddies, shooting the breeze. You’d walk into these narrow, dank shops full of stacked up cages, and twitterings and flutterings and guys smoking and gossiping. The smoke helped cover the smell of the bird excrement, pretty much.

The Italian word for bird, ‘uccello’, is also a colloquial term for penis, by the way. I had a certain knack for picking up street talk. That’s not to say that I wasn’t trying to learn more highbrow terms too. Anyway, when a gregarious American co-worker of mine told me she wanted to look for a lovebird, I told her I was 100 percent sure that the translation probably wasn’t an “uccello d’amore”. She scoffed at me for being so nitpicky and sashayed out the door of the office we worked in to head for the nearest bird store.

The next day my colleague sidled up to me, looking a little sheepish. “Hey, what was that other meaning you were talking about…? I mean, I kinda have a feeling I was asking for a love-dick! Ha, ha. One guy said, ‘I have one for you right here, honey’, and pointed to below his potbelly!”

Now this might explain why in this country ‘birdwatching’ is just called, well, ‘birdwatching’. If you ask a casual Italian acquaintance whether they are interested in looking at ‘uccelli’, they could easily take you for a voyeur of the male anatomy rather than someone who wants to enlarge the community of aficionados of fowl.

The English word is also appropriate because they, the English, invented the whole thing: the idea of observing birds in the wild instead of only shooting, and eating them.

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Birdwatching in Pian dele Femene, in the foothills of the Dolomites

In northern Italy a few people still like catching and munching on little songbirds, roasted on a spit. It’s illegal but some will tell tell you they have tried this specialty. One of my students said he loved it, but his girlfriend “didn’t like getting all those little bones stuck in her teeth.”

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Nets to capture live migratory birds (from Bird Fair in Comacchio)

 

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Cages to hold live ‘bait’ birds, which sing and lure wild birds into nets and traps (from Bird Fair in Comacchio)

We now live just south of the Alps and not far from the sea. There is definitely more fauna here. It’s easy to see hawks sitting erect on telephone lines running parallel to the tollroad from Venice to Slovenia, for example. The predators, mostly buzzards or kestrels, stunned us at first. How could they be perched there with all those cars and trucks whizzing by? But now we look out for these fascinating scourges of field mice.

So my husband has put aside the attitudes he used to have towards feathered, flying creatures. Hannibal no longer shoots them and tries not to eat them. Now he’s more interested in spying and stalking, another English word incorporated into Italian. Once we moved to Veneto, the region of which Venice is the capital, he started following online birding sites.  Then the Venetian Birding Group was formed and we started participating in their outings.

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Experts

I go along to be a good sport because I don’t know very much about the creatures we look at. I admire the big ones flying around like little airplanes. How do they do it? How do they get themselves up there? But, ultimately, who cares if it’s a tundra or whistling swan? Or a sparrowhawk or a merlin? I do admire the people that can do all that identifying, though, and I am in awe of their competence and dedication.

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Area east of Caorle called ‘la Brussa’

Birding on a cold day

In December, I agreed to go along on an outing in the Venetian plain that was reclaimed from the sea in the 20th century. The lonely low-lying area between the seaside towns of Caorle and Bibbione, east of Venice, used to be marshy and malaria-ridden. Then drainage projects were carried out and farmhouses were built. Ambitious plans were made for development. Some have been abandoned, but others still thrive. Now there are emerald green fields, even in the winter, and the flatlands are  dotted with small lakes which attract all sorts of water birds. They fish in the ponds and then go over to the fields to look for grain. This is at the northern edge of the Adriatic Sea, a quiet stopping point for migrating species.

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Waterfowl in coastal pond with wind

It was freezing cold that day and I dragged a ugly down coat out of the mothballs . What with global warming and changing fashions, I hadn’t used that garment for a good while. But it put up with the buffetting wind pretty well. I felt as cozy as the teals and the shovelers and the wigeons in the water, which were totally undeterred by the blasts of icy currents coming down off the Carnian Dolomites to the north.

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Greater white-fronted geese and Carnian Dolomites (south of Austrian border)

 

One advantage of the low temperatures was that we never stayed very long in one place. Our leader set up a spotting scope, explained what everything was, made sure we all got a look, and then had us we move on. Now that is my kind of birdwatching.

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Bewick’s swans

Greater white-fronted geese and Bewick’s swans and common cranes flew over us. A common kestrel, like an extra-large hummingbird, hovered over some muddy furrows, checking for mice. A greater spotted eagle, like a flying dinosaur, circled higher up, scaring the hell out of everything under it.  Great egrets stood stock still by the water’s edge, always graceful and elegant. Always eye candy, every time.

Our little group, less than 20 that day, occasionally heard some ominous sounds. There are hunting reserves along the coast, called “valli”, which are privately run and sometimes very exclusive. Thick shrubbery hide them to the point that you would never even know that a whole little world of lodges and wealthy hunters and a whole staff of helpers gravitating around lagoons full of waterfowl and migratory birds exist there until you hear the sharp cracks of gunshots.  In some ‘valli’ hunters still fire from inside barrels, what Hemingway did back in the day and described in his melancholy book ‘Across the River and Into the Trees’. His alter-ego, instead of killing birds, and getting soused on Valpolicella while waiting for death to take him, might have been happier had he spent his time with binoculars and a camera.

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No hunting

 

 

 

 

 

I Love Rambling

Montello – my favorite little cycling hill

What better thing to do on a clear fall day in northeastern Italy than hop on a road bike and head for the nearest hill? Leave the tedious flood plain surrounding my city of Treviso and go for the closest personal and geolographical relief?

In my case, it’s an elongated mound attached to the northern horizon like a limpet. This greenish limpet is called the Montello, which means “little hill”. “Little” is an understatement, considering the pretty big hills rising up behind it. When the air is free from pesky particulates, you can see the Dolomites standing tall beyond yet another range of foothills.  I always look for those mountains in the paintings of Venetian masters. They were paid to bring Christ and the Madonna and an incredible multitude of saints to life, but couldn’t help adding those fantastical mirage-like backdrops to their work.

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The Montello, preceded by vineyards, topped by a WWI ossuary and half-ruined abbey, and set off by the foothills of the Dolomites.

Pinarello

I pass the flagship store of the Pinarello bicycle makers on my way out of town. I have one of their creations and used to feel proud I was helping the local economy. Now it turns out world-famous Pinarello has been sold to a private equity firm.  But I will always feel loyal to the brand because I’ve had so much fun tooling around on my low-end racing model.

I also liked the old man, the founder and ex-racer Giovanni Pinarello, who would hang out in his store and share his thoughts with customers in a strong local accent, using bicycle jargon when possible. He once poked my brother in the stomach with his cane and told him that he needed to put on the brakes when he got home. My brother used to be as thin as a rail but had expanded in his midriff after moving to Texas, and didn’t take kindly to this kind of comment about his eating habits. Mr. Pinarello was a trim octogenerian himself and a bit of a ladies’ man. When I bought my bike eight years ago, he told me that I’d have men coming after me. My exceptional new speed, of course, would allow me to stay ahead of any male who wanted to compete. Another time he told my husband that I had a good ‘frame’, as if I were a window or a loom, although I was swathed at that moment in a shapeless floor-length winter coat. Yet I didn’t mind being compared to a pair of glasses. I was just happy that anyone was taking my desire to ride a decent bike seriously.

Well, it was a strain for me to understand Mr Pinarello’s lingo. I’ve lived in Veneto for over ten years but have been lazy about picking up the accent or dialect. I thought standard Italian would be enough but I am sometimes stumped when dealing with older people and the populace in general after they’ve had a few glasses of wine. And now that a referendum on some sort of autonomy for this region won by a landslide a few weeks ago, maybe the time has come to take an accelerated course in Trevigiano. The best place to start would be a bar.

Venetian Timber Reserve

But let’s go back to my great day riding to my little hill, which was one of the Venetian Republic’s timber reserves for at least three centuries. The Serenissima guarded their trees with vigor. Although that fine example of forestry vanished when the Republic disintegrated after Napoleon’s arrival in the late 18th century, the Montello still has something special about it.

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Presa 16 from the south

Getting to the Montello from Treviso

I take the Via Montello, which starts right outside the ringroad circling the historic center of Treviso. There can be a lot of traffic on this route for the first ten kilometres, depending on the time of day. Some stretches have cycling lanes which then end abruptly. I mostly stay on the road and make sure cars have to pass me rather than force me into the ditch. I could break a leg and become a cripple for life, whereas they might lose ten seconds of their time.

It’s amazing how all these close encounters with cars in the last few years have made me more daring. It’s just a question of habit!

After crossing the Via Postumia, a major thoroughfare, traffic gets sparser and the whole experience actually starts becoming pleasant.  I pedal on and guzzle water, trying to stay focused as I get closer to Giavera, a town at the base of the Montello, to see the British War Cemetery.

Montello and WWI

Oct. 24th, 2017, was the 100th anniversary of the battle of Caporetto (Kobarid), in Slovenia, during WWI. The Italians suffered a horrific defeat there at the hands of the Austrians and Germans. ‘Caporetto’ was such a bloody massacre that it is a kind of old-fashioned Italian synonym for disaster. Hemingway, always looking for action, happened to be there. In between bouts of drinking, he wrote about the Austro-German Blitzkrieg and the chaotic Italian retreat in ‘A Farewell to Arms.’ The retreat ended hundreds of kilometres to the west, just across the Piave River.

The Montello on a map looks less like a mollusk than a kidney nestled in a sharp bend of the Piave. So the little hill was crisscrossed with trenches and became a crucial part of the Italian front, where British and French troops also fought in the last year of the war, from December 1917 to November 1918.

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British War Cemetery

I cycled up the steep ramp to the cemetery. A man in a saffron-colored caftan was standing by his car and speaking on his phone in what sounded like Arabic in the empty parking lot across the street. This humble hill, just a lump of soil tucked away here between the sea and the Prosecco hills and the mountains, sees a number of foreigners these days. There are tourists from Germany and Great Britain and immigrants from all over who live in the many small villages in the province of Treviso.

The tidy walled graveyard, maintained by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission, is an uncommonly peaceful resting place. The men who are buried on this grassy hillside, some of whom died in the very last days before the armistice (November 4th in Italy), will always be remembered because they get a fair number of visitors, including me. I think about lives cut short and the horror of war and that sort of thing as I walk past the symmetrical rows of white stones embedded in green, green grass and spruced up with flowering plants. I study some of the stones and see that the men were mostly non-commissioned officers or privates. There were a few lieutenants. Some were decidedly Christian, some less so. Some were Jewish. All died for King and country. I always think that in a perfect world, politicians should be shut up alone in a war cemetery for a few hours to contemplate exactly why those markers are there.

But, as I said, the aesthetics of this particular spot mitigate the sadness of what happened. Someone also takes care good care of the olive and magnolia trees leading up to the entrance of this Anglo-Italian hanging garden.

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Giavera British Cemetery

The ‘prese’, good enough for a world championship

Well, it is now time to get some real exercise so I make my way down to the flat canal road that runs along the bottom of the rise, the Montello Riviera. That’s a pretty loaded name, but it really is a relaxing ride. Gazing at rushing water while racing along makes everything better. I weave in between mothers out with their strollers and couples with their dogs until the I reach the start of ‘presa’ number 10. ‘Presa’ comes from the verb ‘prendere’, i.e. ‘take’. The Venetians must have traced the original prese to get to their forest gold. The tracks were then modified when the Montello was privatized by the unified Italian state in the late 19th century.

There are 21 of these ‘prese’, which get steeper from east to west. So presa 1 is a piece of cake, whereas presa 16 has a nasty spot. They all go up to the central ridge and then curve down again towards another canal and the Piave river to the north. In some cases, the northern ascent is harder than the southern, or vice versa. So the number and variety of these prese, some of which are paved and others still gravel or dirt, are a boon to all sorts of cyclists looking for a series of short winding challenges. It’s encouraging to remember that the UCI Road World Championships took place here in 1985, with Tour de France champions Joop Zoetemelk and Greg Lemond coming in first and second respectively in the men’s road race. Maria Canins took silver in the women’s road race.

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The Montello ‘Riviera’

Food

Although privatization was supposed to lead to extensive farming, it didn’t work everywhere. So many trees grew back, even after the ravages of the war.  There aren’t that many houses on the hill itself, just a few restaurants. Going to fill up on food on the Montello is a thing to do on a weekend. The prices and portions are competitive. The best time to go up a presa is at 12.30 on a Sunday. Everyone will have parked their cars by then and be seated at a table, drinking an aperitivo and about to dig into a plate of polenta and meat on a spit. That’s the sort of food that sticks to your ribs.

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Appetizer with pickled broccoli, onions and cold cuts. The wine is Phigaia, produced by Serafini Vidotto.

Presa 10 and Santa Maria della Vittoria

I don’t get any of that, because I have to finish my tour. Now no. 10  has become my favorite training ascent. It starts out steepish (going up to 15% in the first two kilometres) but then becomes more forgiving. There are some slippery chestnut burrs on the road, and people in the forest, poking the leaves with sticks, looking for mushrooms. I’ve also seen hawks and brightly colored jays here from time to time. The Venetians helped to keep this place relatively wild because of their voracious appetite for wood to build ships in their ‘arsenale’. Ironically enough, the Montello ultimately benefited from all the planning for conquest in the Adriatic that went on during the mother city’s heyday.

 

I huff and puff my way along, then turn left when I reach the central ridge road and go up to the hamlet of Santa Maria Della Vittoria, the highest point at 371 metres above sea level. This proves that you don’t need high elevation to find a good climb. The Victory in the name of the cluster of houses refers, of course, to a battle in WWI. You also feel victorious because you’ve made it to the top and can have a snack, fill up your bottle at the fountain, and even use a bathroom put there specifically for cyclists, who are mostly men. It’s so clear that mostly men use the toilet that I would go in the bushes if there weren’t a monumental church right next door.

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Sturdy patriotic public toilet next to Santa Maria della Vittoria, highest point on the Montello.

 

Winezal,ò.u

The fun part is the fast descent down the western edge of the hill, past more woods and fields and vineyards, towards Biadene. There is also some good wine produced here, which I’ve often drunk in local restaurants. Loredan Gasparini in Venegazzu’ (as well as Serafini Vidotto and Giusti, in Nervesa della Battaglia, on the eastern side of the Montello) make some tasty stuff. I do believe that if you’re going to kill brain cells, you might as well do it in style and not waste your time on some worthless vintage.

I make it home, bored to tears on the flats just before Treviso, but ultimately galvanized by all the endorphins I have activated. I have also breathed in a lot of car exhaust, which might shorten my life. But then, not cycling would shorten it too. And there is the evergreen allure of euphoria. It never hurts, ‘non guasta mai,’ as they say in Italian. Is there a local version of that saying? Guess I’ll have to do some research the next time I go out for an ‘ombra’ (glass of wine).

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Part of the Loredan Gasparini winery which once housed the Venetian Republic’s Montello forestry headquarters.