High in the Apennines: Cycling an Italian Summer

Once again I tried to dance on the pedals, rising from my seat, desperately and unsuccessfully dodging the boulders that passed for a gravel surface, leaning forward over the handlebars to prevent the bicycle from rearing up like a frisky horse. Once again I was forced to stop and leap off the bike before it tumbled down the mountain slope. And once again I checked the map: it clearly indicated that this was a paved road over the mountains and back to my lodgings in Pistoia, a village between Florence and Pisa in Tuscany. Obviously, the map was an imaginative, utopian work, perhaps a plan for 2100. For this ‘paved’ road was a track that would defy even the most agile mountain goat.

So I heeded the sentiments of my mountain-loving comrades and regretfully turned back, resigned to the long way back to Pistoia. As I did so I recalled the words of a young woman in a shop:

‘Are you cycling around Italy on your own’, she said.

I nodded and smiled.

‘You’re mad’, she said.

I had come to Italy on my first serious trip to Europe, released from a prison of a relationship, relishing that age-old feeling of freedom. And I had planned to cycle through Italy, or, rather, through a steamy, burning Tuscany for a week or so.


The small town of Pistoia was my base, where I had arrived with a newly-acquired fold-up bicycle, a Dahon tourer that turned out to be a sheer joy to ride. Soon enough, I settled into the Brooks leather saddle as though I were settling into a comfortable armchair. But why Pistoia, whose only claim to fame was a contested religious relic? Why not Rome or Florence or Milan or Venice, one of Italy’s famous cities? It came down to a slender Italian woman, who was studying in Australia. Her family lived in Pistoia, her sister owned an apartment for guests, which would be available for me cheaply. Perfect, I thought: a small town in the country; I had time to myself to ride; she seemed more than friendly, dropping in every day.

But she remained friendly and no more – over wine and pizza and coffee, introducing me to her friends, guiding me through Florence, posing for some extraordinary photographs, talking endlessly. So I concentrated on exploring the town and riding the mountains. She turned out to be the only English speaker in Pistoia. Otherwise, I was on my own. When I bought bread and cheese and tomato at the twelfth-century piazza, I would hand over far too much only for the smiling farmer to hand most of it back to me. I desperately plundered the phrase book to find the words to buy smokes, to get a raggio (spoke) fixed, to ask directions when the map failed me. I explored the walls and towers, wondered at how so many people could be well-dressed, even from the farms and villages, and absorbed the party atmosphere from the music festival that descended upon the town in my last days there.


Above all, I rode. I rode into the Apennines, was overtaken by a svelte peloton as I sweated up the long haul to Vinci, where I visited the birthplace of Leonardo. I sped along the busy road back from the fortress of Lucca, hard by Pisa, dodging the mad Italian traffic. I pedalled to Prato and eventually Florence to catch a train for the next phase of my riding in the Netherlands. All the while, I repeatedly became lost, aided by that wonderful work of imagination, the road map.

In more detail: on my first day, I rode via a twisting road high into the upper reaches of the Apennines, by villages and ruins and evidence of wild boar. I bumped over the cobbled village streets of Villa Baggio, pushing up and up until the bitumen disappeared and ruins began to show. Scratchings of wild boar became so common that I began watching for tusked hulks thundering out of the undergrowth. On my way down I paused for a piss just above Baggio, only to be met by a toothless old woman who shouted Italian at me ever more loudly, hoping that sheer volume would crash through my incomprehension.

‘Isn’t it beautiful?’ She might have said.

‘How wonderful to be able to ride these mountain roads’, may have been her meaning.

Or: ‘Don’t piss on the side of the road, dickhead’.

Or perhaps: ‘Haven’t you heard of the Mafiosi, dimwit?’

Smiling sweetly, I took my time about remounting the bike and coasting down the mountain.

On another occasion, a long climb suddenly gave way to a quiet, winding, single lane road and a uniquely Tuscan experience. The narrow road was bordered by low stone walls, centuries old. Beyond the walls were terraced fields of vines and olives. And it was all bathed in that unique Tuscan sun – which also left me chronically dehydrated.

But it was here that I discovered the tiny village of Tizzana. Tizzana? Is there not a winery by that name north-west of Sydney on the Hawkesbury River? Yes, and it was built by a certain Dr Thomas Fiaschi, an Italian surgeon in the early European colony (see www.winery.tizzana.com.au/history.html). That Tizzana became a refuge for him and his new wife, a former nun with whom he had eloped. But why call it Tizzana? This surgeon hailed from the village of the same name, in Tuscany up in the mountains. And while he took a break from cutting people open in the new colony, he developed the winery he had built, constructing a stone home and winepress such as those in his old village, and introducing Italian wine-making techniques to the land down under. Our surgeon-vigneron was also responsible for Il Porcino, the bras boar in Macquarie Street, Sydney, outside the original hospital. Or rather, the citizens of Florence sent, after Fiaschi’s death, the boar as a gift, a copy of the one in Florence itself. It is said that stroking the boar’s polished nose is meant to bring good luck, along with a rich cluster of collected bacteria.

On another day I caught a local train to the fabled Lucca, walked the walls, wondered at the round piazza with its overlooking balconies and then decided to battle the traffic for the ride back to Pistoia. But on this ride – relatively flat and fast and ridden with that extreme-sport thrill of an unhelmeted tussle with Italian traffic – it was the women in uniform who took my imagination.

On the train, the conductor was anything but frumpy. A sleek uniform, a shirt partially unbuttoned, a blue cap perched on perfectly made hair; at each stop she would saunter out onto the platform on high-heeled boots and casually blow the whistle in a way that was all too suggestive. And in Lucca a police officer was directing traffic around a building site. Once again the uniform was a sleek affair, a gun was slung well over a well-defined thigh and signals were given to traffic in a way that said, ‘Don’t mess with me!’ Yet all the time she smiled and flirted with the builders, who thoroughly enjoyed the game while not realising that they were thoroughly wrapped around her little finger.


Too soon did I have to pack my panniers and say farewell to Pistoia. Slowly I did so and slowly I rode, eventually to Florence and a long-distance train ride north. On that ride I pondered again the curious bifurcated politics of Italy. Here the communists have always been strong; here the imprisoned Gramsci wrote some of the most influential works of communist theory; here Negri had taken up the mantle, now residing in Venice after two decades of exile in France. But here too Mussolini had come to power and linked arms with Hitler. And now Berlusconi was dominating Italian politics as I rode.

When I was at school I had read that Mussolini’s claim to fame was that he had drained the Tuscan marshes and made the trains ran on time. A piece of hagiography, surely; a cute formulation from a witty historian. Curious, I asked people about the fascist past and present, about how Mussolini was remembered. The response I received again and again was, ‘Well, you know, at least he drained the Tuscan marshes and made the trains run on time!’

What about now? Do the trains run on time? Not at all. My train from Florence to Milan arrived two hours late, at the other end of an unannounced platform. Its air-conditioning was broken, the ratio of people to seats was about three-to-one, all of them deftly avoiding the train conductor as he moved about checking tickets.

So I now apply this foolproof test: if the trains run on time, then fascism has already arrived. If not, then one can relax. So it is with Italy.


The Impurities of Austria

Cloud-enshrouded and snow-capped alps, valleys that the sun touches with soft rays in summer, deep and pure lakes, neat houses clustering around streams or clambering up the lower slopes – Austria invokes these and more in the imagination of travellers, if not locals. We came to Austria in the summer, in June. And we were keen to avoid the traps of Vienna and Innsbruck, with their Disneyfied ‘authentic’ experiences that are now no different from any other city in Europe. So it was to Klagenfurt we came, close by the Slovenian border, indeed in a region – Carinthia (Kärnten) – that overlaps with Slovenia. Except to put it that way to turn the proverbial horse into a cart pusher, for the region itself is more ancient that either Austria or Slovenia, having originally been the Slavic principality of Carintania.


Klagenfurt abounds in those typical Austrian features. Out of our window – where we were couch-surfing – we could almost touch the rocky and icy peaks of the range that marks the border with Slovenia. In the other direction, the impossible steepness of the Austrian Alps poked into the sky. I swam in the local Wöthersee, a glacial lake, so clean you could drink it. Within minutes of walking we were in the forest, winding up a path to some lower peak with a grand view on almost every turn. One is almost spoilt for the glories of nature, and we could certainly not get enough. In the evenings, we found yet another bar with a view, sipping on beers and talking life politics, the universe.

Why were there not more people here, partaking of the pure mountain air, of the clear blue lakes? Once the tourists did come, in the earlier parts of the twentieth century. My paternal grandparents were among them, inhabitants of the Dutch sand flats keen to suck in the peaks and their glacier-formed lakes. Some visitors had since bought houses around the massive lake, but they were now – I was told – the not-so wealthy and not-so famous. Those who were so would be in Monaco or the French Riviera. But the effect was that more and more of the lakeshore passed into private hands. Without a tradition of common access to the common good, the shore was fair game – so much so that only by a narrow strip or two can the public access the lake. Of course, they are the muddy, reedy bits, the pieces of land and lake worth least on the real estate market.

Liminal Spaces


As we talked and explored a little deeper into the local area, a couple of features – not obvious initially – slowly rose to the surface. The first was the curious status of a border region, the liminality, the perpetual sense of transition that seems to be in the air one breathes. Klagenfurt and Carinthia may seem more locked into Austria, but even here a vote in 1920 – as to whether Carinthia should join the newish Yugoslavia or stay in a much reduced Austria after defeat in the First World War – was split 59% to 41%, in favour of the latter.

That sense of liminality was far stronger in Trieste, which we visited for a day. The multitude of Italian flags waving about, names like Piazza dell’Unità d’Italia, the heaviness of the buildings – these and more speak of an outpost nervously asserting its identity in the face of what it knows are competing assumptions. A quick look at the map shows you that Trieste is an anomaly in Italy, an outpost that is really part of the Dalmatian Coast, a spit away from Slovenia.

In fact, our Austrian guides kept pointing out that many of the buildings are indeed from the late nineteenth century, from the Austro-Hungarian Empire. German is still spoken here by many, and the small castle on the bay is a Habsburg construction, making its own futile statement of permanent possession. It was, after all, the major seaport of the Empire. We went searching for a traditional Austrian coffee-house, with its five-metre ceilings, ancient dark timber furniture, and vast space where you could sit all day and talk. To the chagrin of our hosts and after much walking and asking, we found that the last one had closed a while back. The name might have been on the stonework above, but now the stand-and-drink Italian versions were everywhere. Would the old style coffee house return if Trieste becomes once again an Austrian town? Among many Austrians, the wish is certainly there.

Resisting the Politics of Purity


A town with heavy buildings is one thing, but what about villages in the mountains? Here people have seen the colour of the national flag change more than a few times in their own lives. No wonder, then, that the region itself becomes far more important than any artificial sense of nationhood the shifty politicians from outside might try to impose. But it also generates an obverse reaction, in which ethnic politics are sharpened. It was not so much the trip to an unimpressive Ljubljana, the capital of Slovenia, as to the partisan memorial in Peršman that brought the ugly underside of local politics to the surface.

Peršman is a large farm up in the hills from Bad Eisenkappel, (Železna Kapla in Slovenian), in the area that is the traditional home of the Carinthian Slovene community. Peršman is also the site of a Nazi massacre, perpetrated just before the end of the Second World War. The Sadovnik family, who lived and worked the farm, had been supporters of Tito’s communist partisans from 1942. On 25 April, 1945, a detachment of SS troops and local police looted the farm, burned it to the ground, and executed seven members of this and the Kogoj families – four of them children. Although photographs were taken and evidence gathered by partisans in the hills, the Austrian authorities never investigated the murder.

That lack of action may be seen as signal of the perpetual political tensions in the area. In the surface at least, it may seem as though the situation now is much better than under the Nazis. Then Slovenian was regarded as merely a German dialect – Wendish – and many people may have changed the endings of their names to from –ic to –itsch. Then many were deported to concentration camps and had their homes destroyed. Then massacres took place.


Yet, right-wing politics continue today, embodied in a party whose leader, Jörg Haider, once said that Nazi labour policies were praiseworthy and consistently praised Austrian veterans who had fought on Hitler’s side.  Haider, the closet gay, may have died in a car accident in 2009, but it is telling that he made Klagenfurt his home and was state governor of Carinthia on two occasions, alongside national gains. In 2000, his Austrian Freedom Party (FPÖ) managed 27% of the national vote and formed a coalition government. Subsequent factional fighting led Haider to form a breakaway party, the Alliance for the Future of Austria (BZÖ), which once again gained national electoral success in 2008 with almost 11% of the vote. In Carinthia, it continues to be a major party.

The result is that today, Slovene Carinthians are still threatened and bullied. Today, bilingual signs have only recently been erected, even though national legislation long ago recognised the Slovene minority (Haider as governor of Carinthia consistently refused to erect the signs and tore existing ones down). Today, the very act of publishing a newspaper, a pamphlet, a book in both Slovenian and German is regarded as a radical, left-wing act. Today, the Slovene-speaking Carinthians are regarded by many as threats to the ethnic purity of Austria.

Perhaps this type of right-wing, ethnic politics is embodied in what can only be regarded as corruptions of the German word Adel (adjective edel). Its immediate meaning may be nobility or aristocracy, but its semantic field includes what is pure, fine, beautiful and good. That is, these aesthetic, cultural and moral terms have inescapable class associations – much like Plato’s loaded question, ‘what is good?’ Yet the words also have ethnic and nationalist connotations, for what is ‘pure’ and ‘fine’ and ‘authentically’ Austrian does not include ethnic and linguistic diversity – at least according to this type of right-wing politics. And that brings me back to the towering snow-capped mountains, the clean lakes, and crisp air. Here too there seems to be an association, a connotation that the purity of Austria is embodied not merely in its Aryan people and in its German language, but also in the natural environment in which they live.

In light of all this, one might be forgiven for thinking that the Austrian left is enshrouded in a perpetual gloom. At times it may seem so, for they spend a good deal of time bemoaning the gains of the right. Yet I have also met some of the most radical, articulate and activist members of that left – in all parts of the world. For them purity and fineness is not on the agenda, but rather multi-ethnic, multi-lingual, and multi-group politics. It is not for nothing that the Peršman farm, rebuilt and turned into a museum and educational centre, is regarded as a focus for cultural identity, as a place for the left to feel as though its resistance is worth maintaining.