Norman Thomas di Giovanni

In the Apuan Alps by Norman Thomas di Giovanni

Comes a time in Italy, after you have absorbed so much beauty and so much decay as you can hold, when you long to break loose from the over-ordered, over-civilized Old World and taste again if only for the briefest spell clean and unencumbered desolation. For several months, sometimes thoughtfully, sometimes blankly, we had gaped at Italy's ancient stones from the Lombard-Gothic castles of Piemonte to the Byzantinish cathedrals of Puglia. Wanting at last to be done with all that, we made our way to the corner of Tuscany lying behind Carrara and Massa for some long walks and purposeless rambles in the empty chestnut woods and marble mountains of the Apuan Alps.

At a place called San Carlo Terme, on an overlook several hundred feet above Massa, we found a base in a reasonable pension. The locale - San Carlo could not be called a town - was advertised as a 'Centro di Cura', or health resort. 'Miraculous oligometalic waters' gushed from the rock not far from our hotel and were bottled in a plant so tiny that it was only the clinking of glass containers knocking together along a conveyor belt as you strolled past that gave the industry away. Italians came there for two weeks at a time to drink the stuff; Germans came for the day to enjoy the view. You could look up the narrow valley of the Frigido River into the heart of the mountains or, sitting on the hotel terrace, see down to the Mediterranean shore along an arc of coast some twenty miles distant to the light on Tino Island at the entrance to the bay of Portovenere.

At the beginning of our stay, the hotel's only other guests were two Italians, young businessmen who had come there for the cure. When during lunch on our first afternoon I asked them why they went to all the trouble and expense of the fortnight at San Carlo when they might have drunk the bottled water at home, they answered with melancholy resignation, 'Ah, but the water's more efficacious near the source.'

They left the next day for an overdue reunion with their families, and we did not see them again. That afternoon we took to the winding road for a hike up to the Madielle quarries. All the desolate mountains lay before us.

The Apuan Alps are a pocket range of extreme ruggedness whose principal peaks, just ten miles back from the sea, exceed five and six thousand feet in height. The impressive thing about these mountains in a country with many taller summits is that they rise right from sea level to more than a mile into the sky, with nothing but a narrow strip of coast separating them from the Mediterranean. It's an absolutely clean and sudden six thousand feet. Also impressive is the concentration of these alps. Compressed into a small area, this pile of jagged peaks and sharp ridges appears to be one massive impenetrable barrier of bare, awful rock - and for the most part it is. Yet in the midst of this stony wilderness one finds a tremendous industry of mountaintop quarrying. And up in the cul-de-sac valleys, in tiny gloomy villages that are remote, though fifteen minutes from the centre of modern Massa, lives a population of marble cutters, a people of remarkable, even heroic, endurance.

Early on the morning following our visit to the quarries, we set out again on shanks' mare - or as it is called in Italian, St Francis's horse - for a really good excursion. How far we would go and exactly where, we could not tell. From our eyrie at San Carlo we glimpsed three villages set on the mountain slopes one behind the other in a straight line. Pariana and Altagnana were on the wooded flanks of one mountain; Antona, higher up, was on the flanks of another. It was above Antona that we hoped to go, beyond where the road doubled back on itself in long tight turns, to a pass over the first treeless mountains that rose as a wall back of the village.

The morning road was cool, shaded by the thick scrub growth of chestnut trees. Being but a narrow shelf carved into the steep slopes, it kept to the contour of the mountain, winding in and out of the sides of deep wooded ravines. Each turn presented new sights, and from across the great open spaces the various sounds of quarrying carried to us and set our eyes searching for each source. A snarling engine miles and miles away turned out to be an old U.S. Army lorry loaded with an enormous block of marble. Looking like an ant under a huge crumb, it felt its way down a mountain track in first gear, more slowly even than a man could walk. A ringing of sledgehammers on steel made us lift our gaze to a spur peak, a lonely marble promontory of Mount Belvedere where the Madielle quarries were. There, three men astride a partially excavated block drove wedges into the rock. From somewhere else came a dynamite blast, no greater in sound than a gunshot, and then a pattering as of rain on leaves. Rocks and boulders showered down the mountainside, tumbling into the ravines as far as the battered tree line.

We reached Antona by noon. The place was touched by the highway, but no road entered it. None could. Its streets, cool narrow stairways and passages, were open only to foot traffic, for Antona was a jumble of stone houses piled together one above the other on a steep slope. Walking, or climbing, along its ways with just a crack of shining sky straight overhead was like walking down miniature canyons. Somehow we made all the correct turns and came to the centre of the maze, Antona's tiny square, a cement-paved opening among the doorways that was hardly bigger than a dance floor. At once, strangers being rare in such towns, we attracted attention. Children backed away in shyness, adults gaped. We went into a cave-like shop to buy bread and cheese, cold meats, and beer for a picnic somewhere above the town under the last trees.

Service in an Italian village shop is an ordeal you learn to surrender to. Queuing seems a foreign custom, nor can you tell the many loiterers from the few customers. The woman ahead of you deliberates in lengthy silence over every purchase, then semi-audibly makes up her mind, then discusses it from various angles with all those around her. Next item: deliberation, decision, thorough discussion. Third item: idem. You marvel, because the woman is buying nothing her mother and grandmother before her had not bought day in and day out for the last hundred years. But one-tenth kilo of salame - or should she make it one-and-one-half-tenths kilo? - becomes a drama. For me, always third or fourth in line, it's a form of medieval torture.

I wanted two bottles of beer to be drunk on the spot and another couple to take with me. This caused a stir, but a mere ten minutes' worth of fuss and bustle ironed it out. Two bottles eventually came, I made my other purchases, and only at the end did the other beer materialize. Two trips to a distant back room for four small bottles of beer! By the time the last of it arrived, my collection of packages was popping and the contents were sliding out. The wrapping paper had been cut too short; what was done would have to be redone.

'I'd better cut some bigger pieces of paper,' the lady grocer announced.

'No, don't bother.'

'It's no trouble.'

'All right, then.'

'You don't want it?'

'No, it won't be necessary.'

'But I've cut the paper now.'

While this transpired, I studied some postcard views of the town that lay dusty and half-buried under the litter of the counter. An old-fashioned sepia photo of a highway bridge spanning a gully and another of the local church, whose only distinction was that it was unusually ugly for Italy. Twice I leafed through the pile of old postcards for other views, but there were only the two scenes, the bridge and the church. Amid the wide natural splendour of the mountains, the narrow dreariness of the village suddenly struck like a blow. We departed in haste.

Out into the little square, bearing terrible appetites, we had to figure out how to get out of the place and reach the path above the town, which would cut off a couple of kilometres of looping highway. I asked directions of a group of women who sat chatting on the parapet of a wall. The possibilities of egress, it seemed, were infinite and subtle. A path existed all right, but there was enormous discussion and vast disagreement among them about reaching it. They pointed, but their pointing was valueless because their hands indicated only the blank walls of the stone houses. Besides, each pointed in a different direction. But among the five, one used such explicit terms as 'third left' and 'second right'. The others, who sabotaged her efforts, said things like, 'They should go to Francesco's house', or 'They might cut through Carlo's olives'. I pursued the first woman's instructions.

Five minutes later we were out of the maze, lunching at the edge of an olive grove under huge chestnut trees. A little woman came down the rocky slope striding with seven-league boots. Balanced on her head was a burlap rag the size of a bed sheet. It was stuffed with grass, and behind her, trotting to keep up, was a great female goat. The woman was more surefooted than her beast. Below, the roofs of the village were like one great roof gone crazy and fallen to many pieces.

Take Italians seriously, I reflected in the thick of all these incongruities, and they will break your heart. But stand back a little, see the comedy of the country, and you will survive and even enjoy it. However - as history amply shows - pity the man of strict principles in this fractured nation.

Now we began climbing. The old road, which once ended at Antona with only a track continuing over the mountain to the Fioba Plain, was being converted into an excellent modern highway, asphalted, and with great thick stone walls bearing the tight hairpin turns. We scrambled straight up between these long switchbacks to save ourselves miles of road. At the top there were no more trees, just rock and a burning sun. For a half mile we kept to the highway until we reached a small new hotel that was wedged in the rock and looked like a Swiss chalet. Its proud owner, a schoolteacher from Antona, was at work with masons laying paving stones in the drive. We had drinks with him on a small porch, looking far down from where we had come to a triangle of sea that showed between the mountains. He spoke enthusiastically about parties of Germans and Englishmen who drove up from the coast at night to watch the stars over the mountains and enjoy the vast silence and eat great meals of hare and polenta. We told him we were Americans. He said he was a sculptor and that his town, Antona, had commissioned him to do a bust of the late President Kennedy.

'How did that come about?' I asked.

'Antona is a very Catholic town,' he said.

'Aren't all these towns very Catholic?'

'Not the same as Antona,' he said. 'We loved your president. I have written to Mrs Kennedy.'

He led us to a corner of the hotel yard where the footpath wound up to the pass.

'Tante grazie.'

'Just follow the orange blazes.'

The path was a taste of real Alpine country. At first it turned between tall stone fences that bounded tiny pastures and bits of garden and vineyard, but soon it lay in the open. From here on, the ground was all broken stone and tufts and pockets of dwarf flowers - yellows and whites and blues. Back and forth and up zigzagged our way. Against the sky stood a hut that looked like a goatherd's shelter, and nearby, a thin cross of iron was planted in an outcrop of the rock. We were some time climbing before the cross and the stone hut appeared any closer. On entering, we found it to be a sanctuary marking the spot where a supposed religious miracle had taken place two centuries before. There were stubs of burnt-out candles on the floor and an old fresco, scratched and fading, on one wall. It was not a good piece of work, yet there was something touching in the devotion of men who would climb such heights and, with wet plaster and paints, commemorate an occasion that was dear to them. A marble plaque erected on the bicentennial of the legend attempted an explanation, but the text was so poorly composed I could not tell what it meant to relate. By nature I am out of sympathy with religious beliefs, but it was impossible not to admire the rough simplicity of the little enclosure nestled there in the absolute silence of the mountains high above all human habitation.

A few rods beyond the shrine lay the pass. There we sank down on the tufts of soft thick grass, and in awe and wonderment beheld all the Apuan Alps before us. Over the rim and across a vast bowl were the lofty stone peaks of Tambura and Cavallo and the Sellas. And far, far below, in gullies too narrow to be called valleys and where no trace of road could be seen, were a few isolated, sparsely settled villages. No more of them showed than their rooftops, a half dozen or so strung in a single row along hidden roads. The atmosphere was windless; we drank in the great emptiness. Here at last what what we had come for - desolation enough to soothe the sorest American soul.

The next afternoon, wanting to see what it was like down under the mountains, I went alone on the bus along the Frigido to the last stop, a forsaken little village called Forno. I should have imagined the place beforehand - the gang saws slicing the marbles into thin slabs in big sheds by the river, clouding the water with stone dust; the acres of pulverized rock around the stone-crushing pits - and not found it so depressing. But where desolate nature may be inspiring, desolate humanity is not.

Forno was pressed in at the bottom of a gorge that was wide enough to accommodate only the narrow river and the narrower road running alongside it. But somehow the men there had managed to squeeze tall houses in, both by the road and, spanning the stream with footbridges, by the river as well. No side streets, no sidewalks, just five- and six-floor row houses with rock walls pressing in behind. To turn around, the bus had to drive above the town and back into a slot blown out of the blue-black ledge.

I made my way towards the quarries, stopping only to take in a nightmarish tenement that overlooked the river. It was a long warren of five floors, with corridor balconies running its full length. Eight doors opened on to each balcony, and by the forty-eight or more chimney pots on the roof, I estimated some forty families lived there. Half of them swarmed the balconies, gazing down on the heap of garbage and refuse turning pulpy on the rocks of the shallow river. Where the women washed clothes, discarded rags thrown from the heights had been caught in the leafless shrubs and bloomed there.

I went on to the stone pits past signs that warned of the blasting. The place had an end-of-the-world reek about it. The rock face rose up suddenly in vertical stratifications, as if the bowels of the earth had gushed out in a flamelike column and then been frozen for ever.

On my return, I paused to speak to a man, and together in the late afternoon gloom we looked down from a bridge into the dizzying gorges. Wagtails bobbed among the stones in the stream bed. I had been reading the history of the Resistance movement and asked him what it had been like in Forno then. The partisans, who to my mind showed themselves the most principled Italians of recent times, had been ten thousand strong in the valleys of Massa-Carrara during the last months of the Second World War.

He himself had been a prisoner of war in Africa, he said, but the village had been quite active in combating the Germans during the summer of 1944 and the following winter. He then told me about the Germans' act of reprisal, the Forno massacre, when one day the enemy came into the town with a force of tanks, rounded seventy-five young men out their homes (they ranged in age from eighteeen to twenty-five), and machine-gunned them to death by the river below the town. After I heard that, the terror of the place seemed complete. Only a few minute later, barrelling along in the bus, I saw the spot marked by a memorial in a niche of the canyon wall.

Perhaps, after all, the human lives under the mountain were not so desolate as my eyes had superficially judged. Certainly, considering the record of the partisans, I had encountered splendours down in the valleys of these Apuan Alps as well as on the passes. So it seemed to me on the way back to the hotel at San Carlo.

First published, in somewhat different form, in The Atlantic, September 1965.

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