For us, the bridge represents the final dramatic landmark on what has often been a long and tiring journey. From this point there are only two more hairpin bends and a tight right hand turn before we arrive in Corfino itself, where (no matter what the hour) a warm-welcome, a hearty meal and a bottle of rustic tuscan wine await.
It is only in the last couple of years that I have become aware of the bridge’s more proper name - “Ponte Attilio Vergai” and it was only on my most recent trip to Corfino, while taking an invigorating morning run across the bridge, that I asked myself ‘who is/was Attilio Vergai?’
Vergai's story, played out in these hills, is a little known story of of drama, tragedy and mystery.
For nearly 20 years now, I’ve been coming to Corfino, a small village high in the north Tuscan region of Garfagnana. Accessible only by narrow, winding mountain roads, driving here is not for the faint-hearted!
At over 800 metres above sea level, the most dramatic moment of the journey to Corfino is surely crossing the Ponte di Corfino. Constructed in 1935 with the help of donations from Corfino’s diaspora, the Ponte di Corfino is in fact a double arched viaduct. In order to fully appreciate the complex geographical landscape it traverses, I’d recommend walking (or running) across the bridge, rather than simply driving straight over it.
When I proposed a day trip to Venice, my six-year-old sons' immediate reaction was decidedly luke-warm. Unconvinced by the prospect of spending a day in a city-built-on-water, a magical place midway between the setting and the rising sun, the home of countless artistic and architectural treasures, a labyrinthine network of canals with boats of every kind imaginable, it was only the prospect of making the journey from Verona to Venice on the Frecciabianca, the Italian white arrow train, that finally awakened his enthusiasm for our mid-term excursion.
In our excitement to catch the train, we arrive at the platform 35 minutes early and eagerly await the arrival of the 09.59 to Venice. A further five-minute delay adds to the already heightened sense of anticipation. The train finally arrives and we soon find our seats, quickly devour our rations for the day and rapidly exhaust the extensive library of reading material we had packed for the journey. Now experiencing something of a mid-morning lull, this seems like a good time to share the history of this magical city with my young travelling companion.
“Lets start at the beginning”, I suggest, as he amiably nestles in.
A very-long time ago in a far away eastern land, there lived a mighty warrior-king. This fearsome warrior conquered and ravaged his way across central and eastern Europe, killing his own brother along the way.
Equipped with the latest military technology, the battering ram and the rolling siege tower, for decades Visgoths, Ostrogoths, Vandals, Suevi and Burgundians had terrorized the Eastern Roman Empire. Now these barbarians invaded what is present day Italy and sacked Aquileia, Padua, Verona, Brescia, Bergamo and Milan.
Refugees, fleeing the barbarian onslaught, sought sanctuary in an inhospitable coastal lagoon. The lagoon was littered with tiny, muddy islands created by river sediment. Here, the refugees made a living harvesting salt and fish. The streams they fished eventually formed canals and a collection of about 120 natural islands, in time, formed a settlement.
The settlement these refugees established became known as Venezia. The feared warrior-king they were fleeing was Attila the Hun.
“What happened to Altila, daddy?”
Maybe Venice wasn’t going to be so boring after all!
By now, the train was pulling out of Mestre and crossing the causeway towards Venice itself. “Look Leo”, I said, “You can see the city!”
Arriving at Santa Lucia, we quickly purchased our tickets for the Vaporetto and were soon pleasantly cruising down the Grand Canal. It was standing room only, but we managed to secure a prime spot by the gangplank. Resting his chin on the railing, my young travelling companion gazed curiously out at the passing traffic and at Venice’s unique architecture.
“Daddy”. I sensed another big question coming.
He looks at me skeptically, as he often does when he thinks I’m pulling his leg.
In fact, it is said that Venice is built on 1,156,672 wooden stakes. Great trunks of larch and oak that were driven through the soggy mud-banks and into the layer of clay called caranto. The absence of oxygen in the clay petrifies the wood and prevents it from decomposing, providing a solid foundation on which to build.
Notwithstanding the ingenuity of these ancient engineering techniques, Venice is, thanks to the rising water and compressing mud, slowly sinking into the lagoon.
“Wow!” said Leo, looking rather worriedly at the buildings, as if they might disappear before our very eyes.
We disembark the Vaporetto and navigate our way through the throng of tourists, before finally emerging into the asymmetrical splendor of Piazza San Marco. The Piazza is considered by some to be the world’s most beautiful urban space. Home to countless contrasting architectural treasures, for many, it is the highlight of a trip to Venice. For my young sidekick, it was time for lunch.
We promptly leave St Marks in search of more economical fare. In order to avoid what the Italians call a crisi di fame (a crisis of hunger), we choose in haste from one of the many tourist restaurants that surround the Piazza. Leo is happy with his choice and declares the spaghetti pomodoro to be the best he has ever had! I'm less impressed, but the bill, by Venetian standards, is reasonable.
Re-fuelled and rested, we make our way on foot along the tourist superhighway that is the waymarked route to the Ponte di Rialto. Swarming with tourists, we stop only long enough for the obligatory picture before heading off in search of some respite from the mindless multitudes.
“Where to now daddy?”
A ghetto is a part of a city, especially a slum area, occupied by a minority group or groups. The Jewish Ghetto in Venice was the world’s first ever ghetto. Indeed, the word itself is thought to derive from the Italian getto (meaning ‘foundry’) because it was established on the site of an ancient foundry.
Jews have traded in Venice since at least the 10th Century. Since then their fortunes in Venice have varied. Generally tolerated, but sometimes persecuted, they have rarely been completely free. In 1516 a compromise was reached which allowed Jews to live in Venice but confined them to the Ghetto. During the day, they had to wear distinctive badges or headgear and at night the gates to the Ghetto were locked. They were prohibited from most trades, with the notable exceptions of moneylending and medicine. Despite these restrictions, they were generally safe from the kind of persecution that was taking place elsewhere in Europe. For this reason, the Ghetto attracted Jews from all over Europe. When Napoleon arrived in 1797, they were given full rights of citizenship, but many chose to remain in the Ghetto.
More recently, Venice itself emerged relatively unscathed from 20th century conflict. Indeed, scouring the indexes of my second world war library, few references to Venice are to be found. While neighbouring Mestre was heavily bombed during the Second World War, Venice's remoteness, her lack of strategic importance, ensured that she was spared the worst carnage of the Second World War. The remoteness of the island settlement was once again her salvation.
Venice, of course, wasn't completely spared the horrors of fascism. In his detailed account of popular attitudes towards the Italian fascist regime (Fascist Voices), Christopher Duggan records that the anti-Semitic German Film Süss l'ebreo was warmly applauded at every screening in the San Marco cinema.
An inscription on a wall of the Ghetto records that 200 of the 8,000 Italian Jews who were killed during the Second World War, were Venetian, including the chief rabbi and 20 residents of an old people’s home.
Today the Ghetto is once again the spiritual, social and cultural centre of life for Venice’s Jewish community. It is a haven of peace and tranquility, even during the otherwise hectic carnival period. Despite the much-reported global tensions, it is reassuring to observe Venice’s Jewish community going about its business in peace and security.
By now dusk is falling and it's time to make our way back to the train station.
In many ways Venice is wasted on a six-year-old. But we both board the train back to Verona content and with much to think about.
I’m not entirely sure why, but "la bella Trieste" has long been on my wish list of places to visit. To the east of Venice, Trieste is enclosed on three sides by present-day Slovenia. At the foot of an imposing escarpment, the town proudly faces the Gulf of Trieste and, beyond that, the Adriatic.
Trieste is familiar, but somehow unknown. It has an air of mystery and mystique the likes of which Rome, Venice and Florence, for all their ostentatious beauty, cannot compete.
The Istrian peninsula, in which Trieste sits, is the meeting-place of 3 great European races – the Latino, the Teutonic and the Slav. For centuries, it has been an important port and trading centre. As a frontier town, it was an important battleground in the struggle between the East and West, before, during and after the Second World War.
A literary city
Culturally rich, it is the place where the archetypal Irish author James Joyce spent some of his most formative years. Italo Svevo, the pioneering Italian writer, was a contemporary and friend. While I know enough about the lives and works of these authors to be intrigued by their relationship with Trieste, I confess to never having read either. Perhaps a visit to the place they called home would inspire me to do so?
Seeking employment as an English teacher, James Augustine Aloysius Joyce, a struggling Dublin-born writer in his early 20s, arrived in Trieste with his partner Nora Barnacle on the night of 20 October 1904. Abandoning Nora on a bench in the square opposite the train station, Joyce ventured off in search of lodgings. He did not return until the next morning.
Not long after leaving Nora, he had met three drunken sailors who were having some difficulties with the local constabulary. Trying to intervene on their behalf, Joyce himself ended up in jail. The following morning, with the help of the British consul, he is eventually released to be reunited with his unfortunate wife.
Notwithstanding this inauspicious welcome, the Trieste in which Joyce was to spend much of the next 15 years was a cosmopolitan port in which ethnic communities of Italians, Slavs, and Austrians coalesced alongside a wealthy Jewish intellectual and business class. Being a busy port full of sailors, Trieste had certain other attractions, in which Joyce is said to have fully indulged. Even today the nightlife of Trieste is lively, certainly compared to the more genteel offerings that Verona has to offer.
Trieste's Jewish community
Many of Joyce’s friends and students, including a local businessman named Aron Ettore Schmitz, were from the Triestian Jewish community. Schmitz, better known by the pseudonym Italo Svevo, wrote the ground-breaking Italian novel La Coscienza di Zeno (Zeno's Conscience). Were it not for the intervention of Joyce, who worked to have the novel published, this seminal work is unlikely to have seen the light of day.
The existence of a Jewish community in Trieste can be traced back over 800 years. Despite a turbulent existence, by the 19th century Jews formed a sizeable and important part of the community of Trieste and occupied important positions in banking, commerce and insurance. In 1912 the grand synagogue on via San Francesco d'Assisi was opened.
In 1915, with many of his friends and students conscripted and Trieste facing an uncertain future, Joyce seeks refuge in Zurich. In 1919 he returns to a much-changed Trieste, but in 1920 he once again leaves, this time for Paris, where he remains for the next 20 years.
The inter-war years are turbulent times for Trieste and, with the rise of fascism, the port town becomes a Gateway to Zion, an emergency exit for Jews fleeing Europe for Israel. The family of Rita Rosani (see A school called Rosani) are amongst those who pass through Trieste from central Europe.
Unfortunately not all those seeking refuge in Trieste escape the fascist onslaught.
The Risiera di San Sabba
The Risiera di San Sabba was a former rice-husking facility that was built in 1898. From 8 September 1943, when Trieste, like the rest of Italy has fallen, under Nazi occupation, it is used as a prison camp, from where partisans, political and Jewish prisoners are detained and deported. On 4 April 1944 a crematory plant was installed at the Risiera. The plan was drawn up by Erwin Lambert, who had already designed a number of ovens for concentration camps in Poland. It was tested with the cremation of the bodies of seventy prisoners, shot the day before at a nearby shooting range.
By April 1945, the tide of war had changed and the Germans in Italy were on the retreat. On the night of 29 April 1945 the building housing the crematorium and the chimney-stack were dynamited by the fleeing Germans to remove any evidence of their crimes. Human bones and ashes were found among the rubble in three paper sacks. A brutal looking club was also found amid the ashes.
Now a museum, the club formed part of a commemorative display at the Risiera, until it was stolen in 1981 by neo-fascists. A replica of this brutal object, alongside the note left by the thieves, is now on display in the museum, an emotive reminder of the regions grim past.
Trieste is a fascinating place to visit and I'm truly captivated by its remarkable story, not least the life and times of the illustrious author James Joyce who, during a particularly turbulent period in the city's history, called Trieste home.
Gathering dust on my bookshelf his magnus opus, Ulysses, remains unread. Perhaps one day.
Update: For those, like me, who have been confounded by the density and complexity of Joyce’s seminal work, a comic adaptation of Ulysses is now available for the iPad generation: http://www.ulyssesseen.com/