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.

A History Lesson in Berlin

Our side trip to Berlin was only intended to be a quick visit with some friends and a stopover beween Vancouver and Poland.  Once on the ground, I was sucked in by its history, and my interest in the Second World War meant my eyes and ears were open to taking in more than just bier and currywurst.

The Berlin Wall

Bricks signifying where the Berlin Wall once stood.
Bricks on the sidewalk signify where the Berlin Wall once stood.

Kat’s friend and travel companion from southeast Asia now lives in Berlin. She gave us our first taste of history by pointing out the paving bricks that wind their way through Berlin’s neighborhoods marking the location of the mostly torn down Berlin Wall.  They are a stark reminder of how Cold War politics cut the world in two and literally divided a city.

Stolpersteine: Emotional Stumbling Blocks

On a walk along a quiet side street in Berlin’s Kreuzburg neighborhood our friend come tour guide directed our attention to a grouping of small brass plaques sunken into the sidewalk.  The words are in German.  There are dates and a name.  None of it has meaning until the last word is read. Auschwitz.

Stolpersteine on a sidewalk in Berlin
Stolpersteine on a sidewalk in Berlin.

Motivated by a conversation with a Cologne resident who denied that any Sinti or Roma (gypsies) had lived in her neighborhood before the war, artist Gunter Demnig began a quest to symbolically return the missing and murdered holocaust victims to their homes.  Stolpersteine, meaning stumbling blocks, are 10x10cm concrete paving blocks with brass plaques offering some details of a former resident or worker.

The stolpersteine are placed at the foot of the door of the last known place of residence or work of a victim.  These small and simple markers may not protrude from the ground for one to trip over, but do induce an emotional “stumble” as one walks the streets of Berlin and spots a shiny plaque on the ground in front of a doorway that reads, “Here lived Arthur Simon, born October 1872, deported March 2, 1943, murdered in Auschwitz.”

Topography of Terror: Where Horrible Decisions Were Made

Further into the centre of the city or mitte, meaning middle, we arrived at the site that once housed the SS and Gestapo headquarters. Now the Topography of Terror, an indoor/outdoor museum documenting the rise of Nazism, occupies the land, chronicling some of the cold decisions that were made inside the darkest offices of the Third Reich.

A preserved piece of the Berlin Wall, outside the Topography of Terror, Berlin
A preserved piece of the Berlin Wall, outside the Topography of Terror, Berlin

Here “the Jewish and Gypsy question” was answered with concise and deliberate plans of action.  The idea of erasing whole populations and whole cultures was drawn up in this place.  For instance, the plans to invade Poland, destroy Warsaw, and force labour upon, deport or murder its citizens were conjured up inside these neat offices by well educated men in pressed uniforms and peaked caps.  The heartless logic the Nazis employed is sickening, and some of the featured quotes really drive home that effect.

The Memorial to the Murdered Jews

In the heart of the capital is the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe, a huge site of stelae in varying heights and set in undulating terrain.  More than 2,700 concrete slabs occupy almost 5 acres right by the famous Brandenburg Gate: a site fitting to honor the Jewish victims, and a massive symbol of the responsibility the Germans feel as a people and a nation for the crimes of their grandfathers.

Concrete slabs at the Memorial for the Murdered Jews of Europe
Concrete slabs at the Memorial for the Murdered Jews of Europe

However, it feels somewhat insufficient as a memorial given the gravity of the occasion being memorialized. The signs referring to the Memorial are barely noticeable.  Without prior knowledge it is difficult to tell exactly what the area is supposed to be and there are no markings of any kind on any of the blocks.  Luckily, there is no graffiti thanks to a high tech anti-graffiti coating used on the blocks, but it isn’t without a perverse irony that the same company that made the coating also made Zyklon B, the poison used in the gas chambers where so many of the memorialized Jews here were put to death.

There is no mention of the reason these people were murdered, by what mechanism or by whose hands.  There is no information available, not one sign asking for respectful behavior. This utter lack of guidance means what you are likely to see are children and parents playing hide and seek in the maze-like setting, teenagers jumping on the blocks, families sitting and eating on them, and countless people taking tasteless selfies with thumbs up, big smiles and even middle fingers in front of what is supposed to be a solemn place.  It would appear that the only ones who come to reflect on the six million Jews who were put to death are the informed.

Berlin: An Important Stop

Being my first and long anticipated visit to Germany I am thrilled to have been pulled in by its history.  Despite what I feel about the need for more information around the Memorial to the Murdered Jews, I am mostly satisfied and moved by Germany’s attempts to atone for the sins of the Nazis.  I’m happy Berlin became a stop on our short European trip and can say that no trip here would be complete without a visit to some of these important sites.

this isn’t a food blog but…[montecatini]

en route to montecatini alto
Montecatini Alto

I can’t help but try the pizza here everywhere I go (this time I ordered one called the Positano: pomidoro, fiori di latte, prosciutto cotto and porcini – “the most important mushroom”) and today I also got to learn the story of “how pizza came to be.”

Starting out as a pita (meaning “press”) in Greece, the pizza slowly evolved into a dough pie sprinkled with oil and herbs and cheese. Pizza as we know it today originated in Naples in 1889 when a baker named Rafaello Esposito made a special pie for the coming of Queen Margherita that featured the colours of Italy: green basil, white fiori di latte (a cheap mozzarella) and red tomato. That was the first pizza ever made and was consequently called Pizza Margherita.

Another fun fact: While we might be used to having our slices with mozza cheese, fiori di latte is used almost exclusively throughout Italy, and, due to its sweeter nature, is also a very popular ice cream flavour!