Monday, 27 April 2015

Leaving Belluno for Castelfranco

Visions of places seen during that trip in 1998 - nearly all in Cadore - still haunt my mind.  

I say 'nearly', because  the one place outside of Cadore I can never forget is Belluno. I had stayed for two spells at the Casa per Ferie 'Al Centro' - which means literally 'holiday house in the centre' (of town). My bill for a stay of five nights still survives.  Like me, it is a little wrinkled nowadays.  It shows that you can holiday cheaply in Italy if you choose the right place.

I settled my bill on returning from my trip to Castello di Quero on Thursday 3rd September so that, with my rucksack packed (mainly with my dirty laundry - a lucky break as I was to discover later) I could leave by an early morning train.  I also loaded up a new roll of 100 ASA slide film into my Pentax (or so I thought, but the film leader hadn't engaged properly, and I was to lose all the photos taken the next day).

The Casa per Ferie 'Al Centro' 

At the beginning of my stay I was lucky to be directed  to 'La Cantina di Bruno' where an excellent evening meal could be washed down with the local vino rosso at a price that wouldn't buy a fish supper in Aberdeen!  

Not only was the food splendid, but so was the view over the Piave valley to the South. Magical times!

Researching The Door of Perarolo  was no easy task.  Not only was it important to get all the factual details of the story right, it was also necessary to understand and feel what it was like to live in Europe in the early nineteenth century.  To do that for many years, in my vacations, I tramped the old coach roads of France, Switzerland and Italy, seeking out the old towns mentioned in diaries of the time, and trying to visualize how they might have appeared in those days.  

The engraving [below] executed  in 1750 shows the town as it would have appeared at the start of the nineteenth century, when Xavier Fortin rode in on his horse Eclair.  To the left of the picture (left of the cathedral tower) the old castle can be seen.  Also visible are the town walls and the watchtowers.  

Detail from 'Belluno Capitale del Bellunese' by Tommaso Salmon

The wooden bridge to the right is supported, as it spans the river, on buttresses built onto the riverbed. These buttresses were a major hazard to the giant rafts, the rasi, used to transport ships' masts - described in The Door of Perarolo - as the rasi were only launched on the river when it was in flood.  The area around and to the right of the bridge is the district of Belluno where the zattieri lived, Borgo Piave.  (Note the rafts on the river downstream from the bridge.)

Try as we may, we cannot fully imagine or feel how people interacted in Europe in the 1800s.  Here is an excerpt from the Aberdeen Journal (now the Press and Journal), Wednesday, February 19th, 1812, which illustrates this:

'A quarrel has occurred between the French and Russian Ambassadors in Naples, the particulars of which are interesting, as they indicate the ill-humour which prevails between the two powers they respectively represent.  On a day of gain and ceremony, the French ambassador entered the Apartment of State and immediately proceeded to the highest situation assigned for the Foreign Ministers.  The Russian Ambassador soon followed, and hastily passing the Frenchman, placed himself above him.  A dispute arose, the parties mutually expressed their sentiments, and the next morning fought a duel when both of them were wounded.'

As mad as a box of frogs?

'Veduta di Borgo Piave' by Girolamo Moech (Belluno 1792 - 1857) [permission Cierre Edizioni Verona]

The painting above shows the stone bridge built later, during the Austrian occupation, that replaced the wooden one.  The foundations of the bridge on the left bank were built on soft rock, and the bridge did not survive the flood waters of the Piave.  The painting also shows Borgo Piave in more detail.

Belluno in the late nineteenth century [A. Simoni, Belluno]

When the Reverend Robertson (Through the Dolomites from Venice to Toblach, London, George Allen, 1886) arrived in Belluno towards the end of the nineteenth century only one arch of the bridge remained, and it still stands to this day.  The lattice-work iron bridge shown (in the photo above) downstream has been replaced in modern times by a concrete bridge that links Belluno to towns to the east.

Early on the morning of Friday September 4th I cycled to the railway station in Belluno and bought a ticket to Alano.  I had the recurring experience of curious glances in my direction, mainly on account of my bicycle Una.  I didn't see another folding bicycle on that trip and concluded that the Italians didn't regard them as having style - always an important thing in that country.  On the platform, as I disassembled Una into her component parts and stored them in my sacco, I became aware of another cyclist watching me with contempt.  He had an expensive touring machine with fifteen gears, whilst I had paid £5 for Una (with her three gears) in a charity shop in Scotland.  His attitude and dress was as if he had the words 'Brit abroad' stamped all over him.  

The train arrived, the doors opened and the conductor - whom I had seen many times before on this small district line - stepped down.  I smiled and  pointed to my sacco and he gave me a nod and I climbed aboard. 

As my fellow Brit attempted to do the same he was challenged by the conductor and asked to show the ticket needed for his bicycle.

'But,' he spluttered in bad Italian, 'you didn't ask him for an extra ticket, and he has a bicycle too!'

'His bicycle is in a sacco,' said the conductor, 'yours is not,' and with a stiff finger he pointed the arrogant man back in the direction of the ticket office.

The view as the train headed south was very familiar.  In between stops at the wee stations en route to Feltre the view was of trees, saplings, and vegetation of all kind.  In the summer in these parts things grow fast.  

Porta Castaldi, Feltre [A. Simoni, Belluno]
My thoughts turned to Feltre as the train slogged up the hill.  

I was taking the journey described by Robertson in his book, but in the reverse direction.  

He entered the town through the same ancient gateway as I had done when arriving via tractor and trailer.

In the second chapter of his book entitled 'Treviso-Cornuda-Asolo-Feltre' he says:

'Impatient to see old Feltre we quickly passed underneath the Porta Castaldi, the ancient wooden gates of which now hang idly upon their rusty hinges, and began to to climb the Mezza-Terra, the main street, which passing over the hill on which the city stands from west to east, devides it, as the name indicates, into two equal parts.'

Lucky to see Feltre during my visit, I had no further time to spare to see more of this remarkable ancient city.  As the train took me down the hill towards Alano, I managed a last glimpse of Castello di Quero.

Robertson had travelled to Feltre on same railway line.  Earlier in the chapter he writes:

'The Piave is one of the longest and most rapid rivers in Italy. It is the Silis Plavis of Pliny, and the name
Piave is said to be a corruption of Plavis. The first view we obtained of it was a striking one. Its bed is at least half-a-mile broad, and it consists for the most part of a dry channel of white, bleached, rounded stones. The channel first catches the eye, then the water of a milky colour is seen flowing in several separate currents, the biggest one coming close up to the bank along which we were travelling. Here the railway is buttressed up by massive stone walls, and along their foundations huge blocks of rock have been heaped so as to act as a protecting breakwater. Such bulwarks are needed, for after heavy rains, or the melting of snow on the mountains, the whole channel is filled up with a roaring, rushing flood, that sometimes bursts its banks, and devastates the surrounding country, sweeping whole villages away.
Perarolo, showing cavaletti  on the bed of the Piave  [Davide Riva, Calalzo]

Curious erections are seen here and there in the water. These consist of triangles made of beams of wood, with platforms near their bases, on which are piled up pyramids of rocks and stones. They are called cavaletti, and are used to check the current, or to change its direction when it is wanted for purposes of irrigation, or to form a mill-race. They are in use everywhere throughout this country of rapid mountain torrents.'

Cavaletti can be glimpsed in this old photograph of Perarolo, on the riverbed downriver from the bridges.  Robertson continues:

'As we run up the Piave valley, which now turns eastward, the river gradually narrows, and at one point an iron bridge is thrown across it, which leads to the old, interesting Roman town of Valdobbiadane. A little higher up, at Quero-Vas, there is a ferry, which is worked by the help of a wire rope stretched from bank to bank. Without such an arrangement it would be impossible, or at least unsafe, to attempt to cross in a boat the swift current.'

I describe the operation of such a ferry in some detail in The Door of Perarolo.  In the story the ferry is located at San Donà, though in truth I based the description on that of a ferry operated by an old lady (a hundred or more years ago) on the river Don, to the north of Aberdeen.  Robertson's description of Castello di Quero is most interesting:

'Beyond this is Castelnuovo (the new castle), and opposite, across the river, are the ruins of a tower. The castle used to be joined to the tower by a massive iron chain, which could be lowered to stop the traffic of the river. It was the toll-bar of the Piave.'

I am indebted to Padre Maurizio Brioli, General Archivist of the Ordine dei Chierici Regolari Somaschi, the actual owners of the Castelnuovo (Castello di Quero). 

I am also, as is often the case, indebted to my good friend Giancarlo Soravia of Venas di Cadore for making an inquiry on my behalf.

Padre Maurizio's information about the history of Castello di Quero answered many questions that had puzzled me over the years.  In acknowledgement I have added a footnote to the blog post 'Castello di Quero' and also added details of the artist behind the fine 19th century lithograph seen in that post.

Robertson's book ranks alongside Amelia Edward's fine book Untrodden Peaks and Unfrequented Valleys as one of the most important written in the English language about the Piave valley in general and Cadore in particular.  But Robertsons's habit of raking the attics of the impoverished people of Cadore (described with some zeal  in his book) in order to furnish his house in Venice with their family heirlooms - acquired for little money - did not endear him to me. 

As the train pulled into the station at Alano-Fener-Valdobbiadane (the stop serves the three towns) my mind was on an incident that had occurred the previous day.  Just before leaving Castello di Quero I took the photograph above, then turned on my heel and followed the path downstream until I came to an idyllic spot by the river where a young man was sitting, looking totally miserable.  

I am a trained counsellor, so sat with him for a while.  He was an intelligent young man, studying at a local university.  His girlfriend, whom he loved very much, had finished with him, he said.  I was thirty years or so older than him, and explained that I had been through such an experience, but was nowadays enjoying life to
the full.  I shrugged, smiled.  He nodded, smiled back and thanked me.

few minutes later, as I pedaled my way back to the railway station,  I was hooted by a passing car - nothing unusual when cycling in Italy.  I glanced across at the driver as the car passed me, expecting to receive a hostile glare.  
Instead I saw a familiar face, and received a smile in return.  He waved to me as he disappeared up the road.  

Some days are worth waking up for...

The Piave valley between Alano and Vidor [Touring Club Italiano Veneto, Fruili Venezia Giulia]
The train arrived at the station of Alano-Fener-Valdobbiadene and, not having breakfasted, I carried my sacco into the refreshment bar to get a morning coffee and a brioche.  As I entered the bar, my big bag received the usual interested looks from the old men who had gathered there for their morning cappuccino.  (Italians never drink a cappuccino after 11 am, and are always amused to hear tourists ordering such a thing in the afternoon.)

As I dumped my sacco on the floor there was heard the distinctive ting of Una's bell.  One of the old men (I was 54 at the time and he told me he was 67 - but I am now 70 as I write this... so perhaps he wasn't really  old?) spoke to me.

'Una bicicletta?' 
'Si,' I nodded, 'Una bicicletta.'

The word went round in hushed tones.  I ordered a brioche and a coffee and seated myself at a table and chatted away the next half hour.  My audio diary tells me that as I bit into the brioche I managed, like a child, to squirt apricot jam down the front of my last clean T shirt.  

I returned from the washroom having removed most of the jam with wet tissues, opened up my sacco and assembled Una from her component parts.  Then I fixed the empty bag and my cool box onto Una's rear carrier, shouldered my rucksack and rode out  into the heat of the day to thunderous applause and shouts of  'Bravo!'  I knew at that moment, that when I finally arrived back home in Scotland, that I was really going to miss Italy.

This is the same camera (photographed in April 2015) that I had used to take all the photos on that trip through Italy, together with thousands of others on various trips through France, Italy and Switzerland while researching my novel The Door of Perarolo.  

Nowadays it has been replaced by a modern, digital camera, but still remains fully functional.  But on that day in 1998 I lost all my photos, as the film hadn't fully engaged in the take-up spool.

So... I have many friends in Italy to thank for helping me rescue this blog post.  Giancarlo Soravia has sent me many useful links to images; Luigi Boatto has sent me images from his amazing collection of images from old postcards; Aldo de Bastiani - who has allowed me to use his images in the past - has sent me four more, and Gianni Desti Baratta has allowed me to use one of his images from the Comuni della Provincia Treviso site.  I shall acknowledge with gratitude all help given by these good friends.

Small is beautiful  - photograph courtesy Aldo di Bastiani
From the images of Alano di Piave sent to me I've chosen this charming photograph of the tiny church of San Vittore taken by Aldo de Bastiani - you can view another of Aldo's images here at the  official Comune di Alano di Piave site.

I cycled south along the right bank of the Piave, passing by Fener before taking the bridge over the Piave to the left bank.  Then I took the road that winds up to San Vito.  The road is steep and winding at first.  On  bend and to the right is this lovely little church set among the trees.  There is a view of the same church in winter to be found here.

The church of San Giovanni Battista on the road to San Vito [photo Aldo de Bastiani]

Slogging up the hill Una and I passed through the narrow streets of San Vito, whereupon there appeared on the left the church of San Vito di Valdobbiadene.  There is a fine photo of the church on these San Vito di Valdobbiadene pages, but my interest at the time was in getting a good photo of the lovely campanile, which was remote from the main church. But this proved impossible due to the walls and trees masking the view from distance.  

But the front profile of the church is characteristic of many to be found in the region.

The church at Altivole [photo Gianni Desti Baratta]

This church at Altivole,  has many similarities to the one at San Vito di Valdobbiadene.  Altivole is a town 10 km to the north of Castelfranco - and curiously, there is another town named San Vito close by.  The photo above is used with Gianni Desti Baratta's permission, provided I acknowledge the community site Comuni della Provincia Treviso which I am more than happy to do so.  There are many fine image of places in the region of Treviso to be found on Gianni's photo site here.  Thank you Gianni!

The church is the picture above is very similar to the one at San Vito di Valdobbiadene, and the campanile too, is of a similar design.  The main difference between the two is in the number of arches in the belfry - there is a single arch on each face of the San Vito Campanile.  

Gianni would have been able to stand well back from the church when taking the photo above, which is impossible at San Vito, where my [audio] diary tells me 'I’m in the little church courtyard, recording this, and I’m looking at my favourite bell tower - campanile - in all of Italy.  It is delightful.'  

I also went on to venture (in 1998 the Apollo missions were still fresh in the memory of most of us) that the engineers at NASA might, before designing the Saturn V rocket, had seen such a Venetian campanile.  Who knows?  It's all there, the exhaust system, the launch stages, the crew module, the re-entry capsule...

After all, the Catholic Church and NASA were both in the same business of trying to connect man with the heavens - the former by prayer, the latter by burning 947,459 gallons of liquid fuel per launch.  I know which approach seems the most economical to me...

My last comment in my diary was 'Ididn't have enough baroque trimmings - the Saturn 5 - in my opinion.'  I think I had that right - I mean, surely the budget could have have stretched to fitting a clock on the side of the thing?  No style, I say...  But enough of all that.

At eleven o'clock that morning I was passing the Santuario Madonna di Caravaggio with its four great Greek columns before stopping at the Cucina Locale to buy a cheese and tomato sandwich.  I sat in the shade outside the little bar and washed the sandwich down with water from Una's cool box.

Piazza Guglielmo Marconi [photo Aldo de Bastiani]
Una and I arrived into the main square at Valdobbiadene around midday.  I'm obliged once again to Aldo de Bastiani for supplying a fine photograph (above).  

Heading for Castelfranco...  [Venezia, Carta della Provincia, Litografia Artistica Cartogrfica]

I was still many miles from my final destination - Castelfranco - so, after a quick look around, it was time to take the Viale Giuseppe Mazzini down the hill to Bigolino and thence the bridge over the Piave to Covolo (marked red on the map above) on the right bank.

At Covolo I was attempting to take some photographs of the beautiful war memorial to be found there, just as some men were emerging from the local bar.  When I turned round, they had vanished and so had my rucksack.  It was no great loss, being a lightweight thing, a freebie collected at a conference I had attended in France a previous year.  Thankfully, I kept my passport and other essentials in a money belt round my waist.  Apart from my dirty laundry, the only other thing lost was a copy of an old engraving presented to me by friends in Belluno.  

Detail from Belluno circa 1780  [designed by Henricus Ville, engraved onto copper by Marco Sebastiano Giampiccoli]

Years later, at wonderful Ristorante al Borgo in Belluno, I was presented with a replacement.  I owe a big debt of gratitude to Umberto Olivier and other friends for this.

Cornuda, around the middle of the twentieth century [Courtesy Luigi Boatto]

The next town reached down the road was Cornuda.  Here I was still attempting to take photos - I wasn't to discover the awful truth lurking in my camera until the next day.  

I am therefore indebted to Luigi Boatto for sending me two charming images from his collection taken from old postcards.

But my pressing problem at that point was to find somewhere to buy some replacement clothes.  Mainly socks, T shirts and underpants.  

Central Cornuda 1960  [Courtesy Luigi Boatto]

I explained to a passer-by that I had lost all my clothes, and asked for directions to a shop where I could buy replacements. Once she'd stopped laughing she directed me down the street to a department store.

T shirts and socks were no problem - it was the underpants that were the undoing of me.

'Che taglia?'  the two nice young girls asked me.  'What size?'

How to convert from size 34" waist to an Italian size?  Simple, I said to myself, There are 2.54 centimetres to the inch, so 34 times 2.54 is  about 80...

'Ottanta,' I said.

To give them their due, they did try to not to laugh, but once they started it was a while before they stopped.  

Then they explained that a size such as that would be a comfortable fit for an elephant.  They fed a tape round my waist and divided the measurement by two, and told me my size.  

I bought two pairs, paid the bill and legged it out of the store as fast as I could.

At the railway station I bought a ticket to Castelfranco, put Una into her sacco, and boarded the train.  

It had been a long, eventful day.

At Castelfranco I was met by my friend Michele Berton whose lovely family allowed me to rest up with them for a day or so, before we headed off to the final destination of the whole journey - Venice.

I'd like to say 'thank you' one last time to Giancarlo, Aldo, Luigi and Gianni for rallying round with offers of either images or links to images to replace my own missing photos.  And, oh, yes - I did make sure the next film was loaded correctly in my camera!

Note: This blog supports readers of The Door of Perarolo, a historical novel set in Cadore, Italy in the early nineteenth century.  You may examine feedback from readers in the UK here and in the US here.  The Door of Perarolo is a Kindle ebook comprising 140 chapters.  It can be downloaded from Amazon sites worldwide. The launch post of this blog gives further details.  The second post provides links to maps, etc.

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