Italy, Part One

Contrary to what Google Maps says, there are indeed navigable roads in Bosnia, as we discovered yesterday. Driving down the coast to Dubrovnik we encountered possibly the most superfluous border checkpoint in the world. Back in 1992, Bosnia and Herzegovina was given a minuscule bay on the Adriatic to give them a passage to the sea during the great post-war land division, and it interrupts the drive from Split to Dubrovnik like an annoying acquaintance forcing you into small talk on the sidewalk. In this case, the bothersome friend is an acne-ridden uniformed teenager who stops traffic at the side of the road for a bit of a glare at you before sending you on your way. The security-optimized huts around the frontier bear all the trappings of modern national borders, including windows and a nice shade of blue paint. Borders for developing nations are similar in nature to a child dressing up in his father’s tie and dress shoes.

Bosnia roads don't exist

They're there. Believe me, they're there.

But this whole area deserves its own treatment, honestly. We will soon be traveling through Bosnia and Herzegovina proper, in addition to Serbia, and perhaps Montenegro and Kosovo. I hope to have a more expansive view after we go through the region, but from what I have seen so far, the war wounds still aren’t totally healed. Our host in Dubrovnik served as a radio operator in the Yugoslavian army for many years and he still spoke of the war with visible emotion as he described the occupation of Dubrovnik. I’ve spoken with others, soldiers and civilians, describing war experiences before. As their personal tragedies fall away into the past, the gravity in their eyes is gradually muted by time. This man’s eyes still cried without tears.

Well it’s not easy to segue into more happy topics from that last morsel so consider this my weaselly attempt. The fact is we’ve covered a lot of ground since Switzerland, and I’ve been putting off a full update partly because we’ve been so busy driving and sightseeing and partly because of the daunting task of recalling the lot of my unrecorded witty comments. But no more! Italy, comin’ at ya:

Lake Como – Click here for photos of Lake Como

We arrived in Lake Como with great fanfare, greeted by the applause of steady rain on the roof of the tent and banners of grey fog flying over the mountains. But our welcome party disbanded soon after and we were left floored by the view of the lake and surrounding mountains dressed in their sunlit best. Think of the most beautiful and serene piece of music you know and imagine it as a natural landscape and it might come close to Lake Como.

We took some kayaks out on the lake in the morning before the Breva and other winds came down from the mountains. The consistent winds that are typical of Lake Como make it a joy for sailing and whatever other sports combine wind and water. Kayaking and rowing, not so much, unless you’re these guys:

The least efficient means of boat propulsion next blowing on your own sail.

There were only two kayaks available and one fat-hulled rowing scull, which I took. All of the reasons I loved and hated rowing in high school came flooding back, pretty much literally. The first clunk of the oars and swoosh of the water under the boat made me wonder why I stopped. But trying to rein in the oars for the next 50 strokes and almost flipping the boat while unintentionally rowing in a giant circle reminded me why I quit in the first place. That and ergs, aka rowing machines, which are the only exercise machines that can serve dual purpose as torture devices in third-world prisons.

Out on the water is really where you have to be to appreciate Lake Como, which is kind of obvious. On view are the enormous villas that have been a staple of the lake since the days of Pliny the Younger. It is easy to assume that there is a celebrity holed up in each one. From the lake you also best appreciate the towns and homes clinging to the slopes of the hills that slide into the water. Walking in the towns themselves is lovely enough, too, and you’ll never be short of shoe-shopping options, as seems to be the case everywhere in Italy.

My favourite part of this region, though, and this applies to several places we’ve been since, is the abundance of edibles on trees and in bushes. Apples, grapes, pomegranates, figs, you name it. Herbs like basil, thyme, and rosemary seem to grow wildly and abundantly, too. My own basil plant back in Montreal could have learned a thing or two about hardiness from these plants if it hadn’t died from a combination of all the things that are supposed to keep it alive, like sun and water. Picking your own food adds another level of satisfaction to eating, and makes me feel very hunter-gatherer. The kind of hunter-gatherer who stores his pre-packaged lettuce in an electric cooler in the trunk of his car.

My second favourite part of the region was that I could drink up while filling up. I have no idea how Shell justifies this, though the prevailing attitude here is that if there are no cops around it’s safe to drink and drive, which is not missing the point at all, of course.

Get a little buzz with your diesel.

Dolomites – Click here for photos of the Dolomites

The area precedent to the Dolomites, which is the region of Italy that borders Austria, is as if the Rockies sired a child with Algonquin Park. The forested area is beautiful, thick with pines and evergreens. Small rocky hills sprout from the forests like giant stony goosebumps. The hiking in the Dolomites themselves is on par with any other mountainous area, and the views from the top are often superior. A six-hour roundtrip to the most famous of the Dolomites, the Tre Cime, rewards the trekker with fresh mountain streams to replenish water supplies, caves and chasms that soldiers used for shelter in WWI, and rock faces so sheer and climbable you feel guilty for taking the long way up. But not matter how you arrive at the top, it’s a splendid view. The Tre Cime bowl-like subpeak is like nature’s Time Square. With a full 360 view, you can take in the Tre Cime themselves, three immense bouncer-like shoots that stand shoulder to shoulder guarding one face of the ridge. Turn in any direction and giant building-like peaks stand there beckoning, “Climb me. Go ahead, you know you want to.” If any of you have a crippling fear of heights you want to meet head on, try scaling these fellas.

There for the climbing.

The reason for all of the soldier caves is because this area, Tyrol, was the frontline between Italy and Austria in the First World War. Indeed, the majority of trails throughout the mountains are paths created by soldiers almost 100 years ago. Plentiful are the monuments to the Italian First World War dead in the area.

Tyrol itself might well have been its own country and locals are still proud and a little bitter that it isn’t. After the War ended, according to the locals, Tyrol was getting out of its seat at the kid’s table to join the table of Nations Proper when Italy and Austria told it to sit back down and finish eating and they’ll talk after. After dinner, they announced that South Tyrol was going home with Italy, while the North and East would stay in Austria with their father. But the children of divorce have turned out OK; South Tyrol, despite or perhaps because of its uber-German heritage, has done well for itself in Italy, bringing in millions of tourists every year to ski and hike, and who are almost all German. Which makes sense: the Germans get to go to Italy, but a region where everyone speaks their language and they’re not for want of all the trappings of home, like lederhosen and accordion music (seriously, it was on the radio). Like a kid going to university in Montreal and coming home to Ontario with a pretense of worldliness, they develop an affected air of Italian insouciance to bring back as a souvenir to Germany.

Dolomite culture.

You’ll forgive these cursory summaries of  what are really amazing places, but there’s much to write and update now that I have a computer again. So stay tuned for Italy, Part 2.

Next up: Venice, and how to bring a computer back from the dead.

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