It’s the 30th of November, happy St Andrew’s Day everyone!
Outside a Westerly gale is howling in off the North Atlantic, winds are gusting at 55knots, that’s over 60 miles per hour, the rain swirls horizontally hardly touching the ground, but soaking everything that dares to be vertical, definitely not motorcycling weather!
Inside Dookes H.Q. the kitchen log fire is oozing warmth and comfort, which is greatly appreciated by Deltic, my old gun-dog, who firmly refuses to budge from his chosen cozy spot in front of the dancing flames, who can blame him! He’s like me now, retired and content, I hate to think of how many muddy wet miles he’s trotted alongside me, patiently waiting to pick up a pheasant, partridge or pigeon, he’s earned his time in front of the fire.
The espresso pot hisses as it produces a brew of strong, almost black, Italian coffee and my mind is transported back to sunnier days in Italy riding from Bolzano to Milan. I had to slightly rearrange my planned route on account of bad weather over the Stelvio Pass so I consulted the map for another way to go without too much Autostrada riding.
Hmm, Passo del Tonale with an elevation of 1883m/6178ft, that would fit the bill!
I wander into the lounge and settle in front of the other log-burner as my dear old dog won’t let me near the one in the kitchen. Hmm, thinking of Italy let’s have a Grappa to accompany the espresso! Ah yes, the ride. . .
Leaving Bolzano to we followed the wide Adige valley to San Michele, where we hung a right and crossed the pale green river.
The SS43 road soon began to climb up through vineyards and it became quite a pleasant day.
The scenery got more alpine as we approached Passo del Tonale, very pleasant indeed.
The thing about Tonale today is that it’s one of Italy’s biggest ski stations and unfortunately has been blighted with a whole bunch of, frankly, ugly apartment blocks! I’m sure that when there is snow everywhere and the place is buzzing with ‘Apres Ski’ activity, it must be quite pleasant, but it looked pretty grim to me as we rolled in. It didn’t smell too good either, the verdant ski slopes were well populated with goats doing a great job at keeping the grass nice and short and the air was full of their distinctive odour. Oh yes, I nearly forgot, their “calling cards” were all over the road as well!
One reason why I wanted to visit Tonale was because of its significance during World War One, when the whole of what is now Northern Italy, stretching from Switzerland to Slovenia, became known as “The Italian Front.”
Battles were sporadically fought here between 1915 and 1918, but mostly it was a cold, bloody, stalemate.
Italy had entered the war in order to annex parts of Austria, including the regions of present day Trentino and South Tyrol. The Italians had hoped to gain the initiative with a surprise offensive, but the front soon bogged down into trench warfare. This was grimly similar to the Western Front fought in France, but at high altitude. The fighting here was at times savage, but in reality the most deadly enemy was the weather. Both armies also suffered from poor logistical supply networks, meaning that not only ammunition, but more importantly food and fuel, was constantly in dreadfully short supply.
The soldiers had to contend with snow, ice and sub-zero temperatures and soon it was dubbed “The White War”. The civilian population was forced to evacuate and many thousands died in Italian and Austrian refugee camps from malnutrition and illness. The really sad thing about the war here, apart from the 1.2 million lost lives, was that the area has always been and still remains, somewhat autonomous, walk into a shop and you will be as likely to be greeted in German as Italian, the locals had always rubbed along just fine.
The front line passed directly through Passo del Tonale. Today a memorial stands in what was once No-Mans Land.
Built in 1936 on the instructions of Benito Mussolini and designed by architect Pietro Del Fabbro, it is dedicated to the soldiers of all countries who died fighting in the surrounding mountains during WW1.
Actually, its much more than just a monument, it’s also an ossuary, where the wall niches hold the remains of 847 soldiers.
I parked Baby and walked past the heavy wood and bronze doors into the Stygian gloom of a large square crypt. The atmosphere was oppressive and cold. A rack of votive candles flickered before a small altar, the light from their tear shaped flames fell onto a large marble statue of the risen Christ in the center of the room.
I paused for a moment taking in the scene and then lit a candle myself. I’m not big into religion these days, but it seemed the right thing to do as I stood there, being the only living one of the 848 of us who were present.
Walking around the crypt I paused frequently in front of the niches. Some were marked as “Unknown Italian Soldier” or “Unknown Austrian Soldier.” Some had names and others held fading photographs of the occupants, sometimes in uniform and sometimes in civilian dress. Some niches held multiple remains.
I only did one tour around the room before I had to leave, it was just too oppressive and hauntingly sad.
Outside, steps curve to a semicircular terrace above the crypt where I was able to sit in the warm sunlight and ponder the room beneath me. I was honestly glad to get out of there.
Today in the surrounding mountains, as snow and glaciers melt with climate change, further corpses and remains are being uncovered. Modern generations are still honouring the memory of these newly discovered soldiers of a hundred years ago, but thankfully the mountains are now playgrounds, not battlegrounds.
Playgrounds for people like me, free to play on a wonderful Harley Davidson.
Most of all, just grateful to be Free.
“‘Till the next time we say goodbye, I’ll be thinking of you.”
Catch you all soon.