Conquering the Strada
Written by Anne Wittrick
Encouraged by history professor, Anne Wingenter, I decided to join the weekend trip she was leading for 23 of our intrepid students, the highlight of which was a hike up the 52 Tunnel Road on Monte Pasubio in the North of Italy.
We left on the now efficient Italian train service early on Friday morning and our first port of call was Verona. Part of the large Roman amphitheater known as the Arena was being restored, but the barriers were decorated with a display of all the posters advertising the operas held there going back to before the First World War. It was fascinating to see how the styles changed through art deco, futurism and Fascism. Our meanderings took us through charming streets, past cute balconies and into intriguing churches
Next stop was Vicenza where we visited the fascinating Teatro Olimpico with its trompe d’oeil stage set designed by the architect Andrea Palladio. His Four Books of Architecture influenced styles as far away as St Petersburg, Russia, Great Britain and the United States. Vicenza is his hometown and features many town houses of his elegant design. Next, we climbed up a porticoed sidewalk, 700 meters long made up of 150 archways to a church with a panoramic square dedicated to the fallen of the two World Wars. It afforded great views over the city and the mountains, our destination the following day.
The 52 Tunnel Road was built during the First World War from February to November of 1917. Its purpose was to create a supply route up to the front line on the crest of the mountain, which faced down onto what is now the Trentino region of Italy but was then part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. If the line had fallen the Austro Hungarians would have had a free run across the vast plains of Italy’s Veneto region. Using a photograph of a view of the mountain, a rough sketch was made of where the track should pass. When the mountain blocked the way, the engineers hewed through the rock from both ends. The meeting place in the middle sometimes had to be adjusted with a few steps. One of the tunnels spirals upwards, others offer ledges where the magnificent views can be taken in, but it should be remembered that their original purpose was as a defensive position. The tunnels were often pitch black so we made good use of our torches aware that the troops and their supply-laden mules will have been thankful for the shelter from enemy fire. I’m sure the pictures portray what a unique experience the hike was and how lucky we were with the weather! You’ll also realize that we “adults” had our hearts in our mouths as the students climbed to the most precarious spots to get ever more spectacular photos!
Our outing ended with a visit to the Ossuary built in 1923 on the conquered soil of Trentino. It was not the bones we went for, or the view which was amazing, but the chapel decorations: portrayals of fighting soldiers, hand grenades, swords and calls to arms, in attractive liberty style surroundings, incongruous to say the least, a reminder of the ideals of Fascism which was taking hold at the time.
The next day, Sunday, was an “ecological day” in Vicenza, which meant no motorized traffic in the city center. Compared to many other Italian cities, there were relatively few tourists, meaning that the locals, families and groups of friends could enjoy their city’s magnificent squares and Palladian houses. The atmosphere in the streets and in the bars and restaurants throughout the weekend was relaxed and easy-going from the early morning barman who gave us extra goodies to the fine dining restaurant out on the road to Padua, which served delicious fried polenta (cornmeal) and some excellent beef, at a price unheard of in Rome. Thanks go to Student Life Assistant Dan O’Brien who secured all the restaurant reservations and ensured we made our train connections. The poignancy of the history of the places we visited was firmly imprinted on the students’ memories but that did not deny us a good time.