Monte Pasubio: A Hike of 52 Tunnels

Monte Pasubio, a rocky summit in Vicenza, was the site of some of the most important battles of the Italian Front in the First World War.  Today it attracts hundreds of hikers each day who come to climb and even scramble up its steep trails and tunnels.

Getting There

The two hour drive from the tiny town of Cornuda passes through vineyards, corn fields and other villages before arriving at Paso Xomo.  Yes, unlike Italian, there are x’s in Venexian the language of my ancestors which is spoken in these parts.  At Xomo, there is parking available for 5 Euros. The trail head begins with a large sign marking the entry to the Strade Delle 52 Gallerie as well as information plaques in Italian, German and English.

Entrance to Monte Pasubio hike
Start point of Monte Pasubio hike

The 52 Gallery Hike

The hike takes you up a 6.5 km mule track that served as a supply road for the Italian military positions here in the First World War.   2,300 meters of the path are contained within 52 tunnels and the 2.5m wide path has an average incline of 12%, with 22% at its steepest.

Monte Pasubio Scarubi road
Monte Pasubio Scarubi road

Recognizing the importance of holding onto Mt. Pasubio and the whole alpine plateau, The Italian miners constructed this supply route in just 9 months. The road and tunnels are a fine example of Italian alpine engineering and hard work: Tunnel n.19 is the longest excavated passage at 320m and tunnel n.20 makes 4 helical turns as it rises steeply inside a rock spire which provides access to higher portions of the mountain. It is akin to walking inside a giant corkscrew.

Monte Pasubio inside tunnel
Monte Pasubio inside tunnel

Not far from the exit of tunnel n.52 is the Porte del Pasubio, the final halt of the Austro-Hungarian Strafexpedition (Punitive Expedition) offensive. One hundred meters from that is the Refugio Generale Achille Papa, a lodge where weary hikers can refuel with local meals like polenta e funghi or minestrone.

I made my descent from Porte del Pasubio at 1928m, via the Scarubi road, a much wider supply road that winds its way down the northeast face of Pasubio, to Paso Xomo at 1058m.

Trail markers Monte Pasubio
Trail markers Monte Pasubio

History of Monte Pasubio

Monte Pasubio tunnel n.1
Monte Pasubio tunnel n.1

Monte Pasubio was of great strategic importance to both the Italian and Austro-Hungarian forces and huge efforts were made to gain control of it.  The Austrian offensive in the Trentino was comprised of 18 divisions, 400,000 men and more than 2,000 cannons.  By 1916 at least 50,000 Italian soldiers were living, fighting and dying on Pasubio’s windswept slopes.  The Italians constructed makeshift huts that were attached to the side of the mountain and safe from Austrian artillery.

In the winters most of the fighting subsided as both sides were busy just trying to survive the frigid temperatures and the terrifying threat of avalanches.  During three winters of alpine combat at least 60,000 soldiers were killed by avalanches. To put that into perspective, on the entire Western Front a total of 25,000 troops died as a result of poison gas attacks.

Scarubi road and cliff Monte Pasubio
Scarubi road and cliff Monte Pasubio

With fighting on Pasubio resulting in stalemate, each side began mining under each others’ positions in an attempt to detonate explosives underneath sections of the opposing forces’ front line.  On March 13, 1918 the Austrians ignited a 50,000kg explosive under an Italian position completely destroying it.

However, Monte Pasubio never fell and the forces of the Triple Alliance were eventually repelled as Italy marched to victory in 1918.

Canova, by chance: The Gypsoteca [possagno]

It was only by chance that I visited Canova’s Temple. Stuck in the environs of Treviso, surrounded by gently rolling farmlands, sloping vineyards and rows upon rows of the Colli Asolani, I wanted to be excited, wanted to learn, but Rome had spoiled me with its grandiosity, Venice with its romance and Florence with its art.

But the temple seemed to loom over as I approached it. Its majesty was so undeniable and it was so unlike anything else in the region that though it was not the highest structure on the highest hill, it may as well have been the only thing in sight.

canova's templeDesigned by Antonio Canova between 1804 and 1818 to hold his works and eventual ashes, the Temple combined the elements of an apsidal chapel, the round body of the Pantheon, and the colonnade of the Parthenon in order to represent what Canova considered to be the main phases of culture: Greek, Roman and Christian. With its double rowed Doric columns, Attic architrave, round atrium and perfect hemispheric domed roof, it stood imposingly on an ascending cobblestoned base and made chins lift for a better look and jaws drop at its relative enormity. Inside, a self-portrait of Canova in marble, his tomb, and Latin inscriptions I could no longer understand quoting his name – I knew this Canova, I was sure of it, but I wasn’t sure from where.

It wasn’t until we passed the Gypsoteca down the street entitled Canova e Danze that I reached for my excessively used guidebook and found what I was looking for: it was in the Galleria Borghese in Rome that I had learned of him – his was the famed Venus Victrix! Yes! I had something to hook onto and off I went to the gallery of his works.

It felt calming to be in a grand hall of nothing but statues again. There were white walls, white sculptures and silence. Many of the statues were plaster casts and not Canova’s originals as those were sold off in order to raise money for the Temple, but they were still remarkable. Perseus with Medusa’s head, Venus and Mars, the Three Graces, Hercules – all bringing back the history, the myths, and the memories to me. And then, there she was, reclined on a heavily pillowed chaise, the Venus Victrix. Of course, this was the less detailed cast – the original was showcased amidst Bernini statues in Rome – but she was beautiful. Though that was her official title in the Galleria Borghese, the subject of the sculpture was actually claimed to be Napoleon Bonaparte’s sister, and Prince Camillo Borghese’s wife, Paolina. And sure enough, her plaster cast plaque read “Paolina Borghese” – it was her after all.

The rest of the Gypstoteca consisted of a studio explaining how Canova worked using his plaster casts, and rooms and hallways of his terracotta models, sketches, and paintings. In the center of the last room, with the lights dimmed, a Danzetrice seemed to move to the soft harp music playing from above.

I seemed to have found it then, the treasure of this place, a little bit of Rome hidden amidst the villas and the olive groves. The Danzetrice, yes, but also the renewed desire, the restlessness for knowledge – that is what I was looking for.  And here she was, the star attraction, right in front of me.

Her arms in the air, cymbals in her hands, posed mid-step on her slowly turning base, she floated to the melody as a ballerina might upon a jewelry box. And I was mesmerized.

the appeal of the café

“Vuoi un café?” You’re asked as your empty piatto secondo is taken from the table. It is the next logical step in the sequence of servings; the question is never of content, the answer is always a given, and within minutes a small tazzini is placed in front you, espresso within.

So is espresso a brewing method? Or the drink? Technically, it’s both.  Espresso is made by forcing steam through finely ground and compacted coffee beans, thereby “expressing” its flavour. [1][2] But it is also the default setting for the Italian coffee – the technical term rather than the everyday one [3] for the frequently consumed and culturally essential “café.” Continue reading the appeal of the café