No Picnic on Capraia

Ex agricultural penal colony on Capraia

I’ve been on a small land mass kick recently. Pandemic permitting, of course. So what’s with those islands, anyway? Is it because you’re stuck there once you arrive and so just have to make the most of everything? Gawk at blythe birds while walking against powerful breezes and tripping over volcanic rocks? Is it because they are all kind of weird, in their own way?

Well, here’s another one for you. Capraia, off the west coast of Italy, once home to pirates, monks, and convicts. And goats, of course. In fact, we could easily dub Capraia ‘Goat Island’ (capra means goat in Italian). A humble name for a backwater that Alexandre Dumas, the famous French writer, snubbed when choosing the location for his book about a haunted man hunting for treasure in the Tuscan archipelago, between Italy and France. Of course, the Count of Montecristo sounds much more beguiling than the Count of Goatland.

The monastery is an ivy-encrusted ruin, the corsairs’ run is over, and the prison was closed decades ago. There are no springs, and no beaches. No beaches in the Mediterranean?? Come on. So why would anyone waste their time on a place that takes two and a half hours to reach from the mainland? Well, the sea is protected around most of the island, part of a marine preserve. The water is clean. Birds also abound. And there are some pretty determined bird stalkers, as well as walkers and boaters, where the sea is open.

And that’s how my birdwatching husband and I found ourselves climbing up a lumpy track on Capraia on a brilliant spring day in 2019. It was migration season, in those halcyon days when humans could flit about like birds.

Loaded down with binoculars and cameras, we had decent footwear, but were definitely not as nimble as the wild shaggy creatures that used to wander around this stoic land mass eight kilometers long and four across.

Modern-day domesticated goats thrive here

In the Inferno, Dante, ever imaginative, calls on Capraia and the neighboring island of Gorgona to move and hedge in the river Arno. He wanted them to drown all the citizens of Pisa. What had the inhabitants done to deserve such a fantastical death,? Killed by roving islands? Well, the true part of the story is that a nobleman, Count Ugolino, and his sons got locked up in a tower in the middle of the Tuscan city, and starved to death. It is a reminder that Italy was not always just a holiday destination, and times were tough in the Middle Ages.

Upper reaches of abandoned colony. Notice the monumental arched entrance on road below the wall

Now Dante knew his geography, he did. Capraia and tiny Gorgona are pretty much just across the water from Pisa. And strangely enough, both have hosted agricultural penal colonies (Gorgona still has one). So although they don’t go floating around at any poet’s bidding, the two stony islands are actually used to dealing with crime and punishment.    

By Afnecors – Image:Tuscan archipelago blank map.png, CC BY-SA 3.0,
Spotted Flycatcher (muscicapa striata) sitting on the branch of a lentisco (pistacia lentiscus) shrub

 We were there for Liberation Day, April 25th, a holiday to remember the Italian Resistance’s victory over what was left of the Nazi-Fascists in northern Italy in 1945, at the end of WWII. Some people would appear to like to forget what happened during Mussolini’s dictatorship (often simply referred to as the ventennio, literally, two decades, the years from 1922 to 1943-5) and his diabolical alliance with Hitler.  But everyone, no matter what sort of nostalgia affects them, takes advantage of a day off, or even better, a long weekend. We celebrated by going to investigate yet another far-flung corner of this patchwork peninsula.

First we drove to Livorno or Leghorn, on the Tyrrhenian coast. There we managed to find a restaurant at ten o’clock at night that still had some of the local spicy fish soup, cacciucco, sitting in the pot. Then we stumbled into bed and got up early to catch the morning ferry.  

We passed Elba as we drank coffee on the deck and stared at the sky and the sea.


View from the southwestern tip of Capraia of her bigger sisters: Elba on the left, and Corsica on the right

Although the biggest island in the archipelago is pretty and forested, the conqueror who changed the face of Europe was restless in his tiny princedom. Napolean couldn’t end his days governing a bunch of Tuscan hicks from his smallish mansion. No. Waterloo just had to become more than a little town in Belgium. Not only was Elba too confining for the Corsican, it was also just too close to home.

In fact, Corsica loomed up ahead. Our barren destination came first, though, 25 kilometres from the French coast. No, not barren! Not in April. Even downright green in some places. But shadeless, practically treeless. Except for a few planted umbrella pines. The live oaks, the ilex, that idled here back in prehistoric days are gone. Capraia didn’t have much else to offer demanding, relentless folks such as the Romans. No fresh water to feed luxury palaces, no metals to make a profit. The only tangible asset was wood, yes. And so the ilex all got cut down and carted off. 


Port, and town of Capraia, connected by the one paved road on the island

We walked off the boat. The tiny port is below the town with its impressive fortress-luxury rental property on top. These two places are where people actually live and work and rent rooms. Apart from a few farms, that just about does it for human habitation on Goat Island. The rest is for the birds. Hopefully, the elusive Corsican finch, for one. Napoleon may have turned his back on his birthplace, but it has other claims to fame. This finch is a must, apparently.

Now I had chosen a ‘farm-stay’ on a promontory above the port. I had chosen isolation even in spring, when it’s too cold to swim and there is no crowd to speak of. I also didn’t realize that getting to and from our accommodation meant walking up and down, every morning and every night, through the abandoned penal colony with its striking and also stricken umbrella pine trees lining the road. Night on a pebbly road with no lights except our phone flashlights. Strangely enough, we were the only guests at our bed and breakfast which vaunted sustainable practices such as no use of plastic, organic jams for breakfast, no air conditioning and other good things like that.  It became clear to me pretty soon that not everyone was into strenous exercise, especially after dinner.

Pockmarked volcanic rock viewed from the sea

But we were. After taking a a thrilling boat tour of the islands cliffs to see birds, and gasp at bizarre geological formations caused by volcanic eruptions, we just had to do some real hiking. I studied the brochure in our room.  It said it would take nine hours to circumnavigate the island on foot. Ridiculous. We’d do it in less. So my husband bought cheese and salami and bread in the town, and made huge sandwiches the night before. Then at breakfast we told our host about our plan.

Cala Rossa (part of an ancient volcano)

‘Oh, that’s a long walk. A good nine hours, I’d say,’ said the sturdy man gravely. Surprised, but not dissuaded, we wolfed down as many pieces of dried toast and jam as we could manage without choking. He then asked us how much water we had.

‘Well, not much, just this bicycle bottle here that we filled in the bathroom.’

‘No!’ Our host’s sense of humanity was suddenly activated. No longer eco entrepreneur, he ducked into the kitchen and came back with a liter and half of ice- cold fizzy mineral water encased in plastic. ‘Take it, please! There are no fountains and no houses on your itinerary, do you understand? Only wilderness!’

It sounded wonderful. But we did accept the bottle, despite its being another piece of reckless, planet-damaging waste.    

Backpacks filled with birdbooks, nourishment, and liquid, we set out.  

First of all, a word about the penal colony. Now I’d never been in favor of them, starting from when I had to read Kafka in high school. Of course, his tale of a diabolical machine that scratched the names of prisoners’ crimes onto their bare backs was bound to freak out any 17-year-old. And connect bizarre execution methods with islands and detention centers. Well, there is something to that. But this was an agricultural penal colony, self-sustaining, and more like a modern-day Norwegian prison than Devil’s Island.    

I mentioned pirates earlier. Well, the first ones got ousted by the Romans. Then came the monks. But the return of other pirates, especially Dragut, a famous corsair from the Barbary Coast, made life very difficult. In the end the Genoese took over, built a fort, and held onto the island for centuries before Italy unified in 1861. What then to do with little Capraia? In 1873 the government built a special open-air penal colony for prisoners about to end their sentences, and make the prisoners herd domesticated goats, produce cheese and honey. The prisoners’ families settled in the town, and modified the local dialect, which was very close to what is spoken in Corsica. The colony closed in 1986. But the buildings and trees remain, and the place has a gloomy allure to it. Reminds me of another German-speaking writer, W.G. Sebald. How can one not be fascinated by decay and oblivion?

Well, we passed the upper part of what was left of the complex, including the sheep pen, and then started on our jumbled trail. It is what you call ‘unimproved’. The type you can twist your ankle on, that sort of thing. So we placed our feet carefully between the jagged rocks as we climbed and climbed under a shining blue sky.

Gariga on the hills

After almost four hours of huffing and puffing through shrubs, and a bit of traversing of the aromatic gariga, the low-lying drought tolerant plants, the lavender, thyme, cistus and elicriso, that are ubiquitous in the Mediterranean, we reached a little pond. The only one, which disappears in the summer. There were a few people, too many for us, of course, and so we walked a bit further. Then we sat on some boulders, absolutely famished. “Ok, where’s the sandwich with the pecorino and finocchiona?” I said. My husband stared at me. ‘You always bring the food! I mean, don’t you?’ We started cursing. A short discussion ensued.

Who said I was the steward of the victuals? And what about the obvious rule that sandwich makers should also be sandwich packers? But we stopped because it was heartbreaking. Resignation and silence then, prevailed, something I’m sure the ancient monks knew all about.  

I also thought, as I looked over towards Corsica, that the brochure might be right. it looked like we had many hours to go to reach home that night.

Corsica across the channel

We kept going. Soon we were scrambling up a hill to an old radio tower, called the Semaforo, used for communication and spying by the Italian Navy till 1943. A group of hikers from the city of Modena were spread out around the metal structure, munching on all sorts of goodies. I was salivating. My husband got sidetracked in some bushes, looking for the finch, of course, and I sat down to rest on the springy thyme covering the ground. A man sat next to me, introduced himself, and told me that all his hiking companions, from the Italian Alpine Club were trying out different sorts of cheeses they’d brought with them from their region, Emilia Romagna. ‘It’s a veritable cheese sampling here!’ he exclaimed. I had to control myself. If I told him my sad story, he would feel obliged to offer me some of his lunch. His friends too. Then my husband would pop out of the shrubbery, and he would have to be fed as well. The Modenesi would be generous. They’d ply us with what they had. Emilia Romagna. Home of warm-hearted gastronomes. Where parmesan, Parma prosciutto, Bolognese meat sauce, come from, for god’s sake. I bit my tongue.

The Semaforo

We trudged on. The path continued to be unimproved. Uphill and downhill. We finished our water. Then we reached the southernmost point of the island. My husband walked out to a tower, la torre dello Zenobito (cenobite, a monk who lives in a community, as opposed to a hermit)  while I sat in the prickly, grayish gariga, one step up from desertification. The macchia (called maquis in French) includes bigger shrubs and small trees, and is greener.

I decided to draw a picture of one of these tough flowers making up the gariga. I fished around for a pencil in my husband’s backpack. And then, voilà, I found a packet of candied ginger and another one of pistacchios! I’d stumbled onto his birdwatching emergency stash! The type of stash you always forget you have! I fell on this treasure and gobbled up my half before my husband had made it back with his zoom-equipped camera swinging from his side. Now refreshed, we were able to trudge on for another three and a half hours.

Racing toward the Torre dello Cenobito on an empty stomach

We crept around the remains of the old monastery of Santo Stefano. What attractive, tough vegetation. Glossy honeysuckle, myrtle, lentisco, all plants that withstand frying-pan-like heat in the summer and wind all year round. I was impressed by the feistiness of the corbezzolo, small trees that produce a strawberry-colored fruit.  Why had it died twice on my terrace?? The guantlet had been thrown at my feet, and I would have to take up the challenge again. If something could grow here, it could grow just about anywhere, without too much coddling.

IWe crossed a lush marshy area. We heard some funny rhythmic sounds. “Bee-eaters!” said my husband excitedly. And there they were, yes, straight from Africa, making a fine spectacle.

Showy European Bee-eater (merops apiaster)

We were getting close to the end. The track was paved in places. We crossed paths with a few other birdwatchers. And then, we saw it! The inconspicuous but resilient thing that we had come for. Napoleon would have been proud of his little namesake. The Corsican, at last.

Corsican Finch (carduelis corsicana)

We dashed into a bar in town and bought some fizzy sugary junk drink that was going to keep us going until dinner. We needed to drag ourselves up through the penal colony and come back. I said goodbye to the asphodels on our way up the corrugated gravel road. How many hours out? Nine. We had been humbled by humble little Capraia. We didn’t have four legs and cloven hooves. We were just run-of-the-mill walkers and stalkers.


While eating our pasta later on, I asked my husband about his bird list. ‘How many lifers, apart from the Corsican?’

Useful website: (also available in English)

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 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


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.

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.

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.


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.

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.

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.

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.

20181001_111641 map of Monte Grappa road bike routes
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.

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.

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.



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…

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.

Somewhat bird crazy

bird and me
Coal tit and me


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.

road to mountain pasture
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.

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.”

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


cages for live bait birds
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.


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.

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.

Greater white-fronted geese flying south of the Carnian Dolomites
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.

Bewick's swans
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.

No hunting