Hiking in the Shadows of my Forefathers
In the 1850s my great, great grandfather decided that the rolling green orchards and vineyards of the valley near Sondrio, with the Swiss alps towering above was no longer the place he wanted or needed to call home. He packed up and left the little village of Bianzone forever. He left behind his parents and sisters, the beginnings of a career in the church and hit the road. The road led to a flat, hot and dry Victoria, Australia.
I have always loved Italy, it is a country I never tire of. I love the people, the landscape, the weather, the food and the general attitude to life here which is chill out, it is what it is. When is my bus coming? When it comes. I have always desperately wanted a Nonna. My friend at college used to go home to her Italian-Australian family and come back with pre-packed food. They would pick fruit from their orchard and cook pizzas in their garden pizza oven. To me, it sounded like the ideal way to spend your time. Plus a tiny Italian Nonna to cook for you, speak to you in Italian and constantly try to fatten you up. I want a Nonna to take me to the market and teach me how to cook old family recipes.
I just really want a Nonna.
My Italian adventures had taken me to the eastern shore of Lago di Como. To the north, you can see the beginning of the alps and not much further along is the border to Switzerland. At the top of the lake a valley leads to Tirano, one of the final Italian towns before the Swiss Border. It is green with sharp inclines up the valley walls where little towns have been plonked, their green orchards and vineyards cascading down. The tall, stone churches sit precariously on the edges. Every town is a vertical hike up from the valley floor. The weather is temperate in many parts of the valley. Bianzone, a small town of 1,250 sits on the eastern side, getting the winter sun making it a popular place once for people to spend their winters.
What brings me to Bianzone is I am on an adventure to find a Nonna, either my own great, great, great Nonna or a vague relative that’s willing to adopt. The town of Bianzone sits well above its train station on the valley floor. I begin the walk, with its steady incline towards the town centre. A lot of newer houses have been built resembling a little Swiss mountain town. When my great grandfather left in the 1850s there was a mass exodus from this valley, probably a few bad harvest seasons, no work and no prospects meant a lot of men from the area made their way across the world, a great many to Australia. The town would have died off and the houses on the valley floor are evident of newer development. As you meander through orchards growing different apple varieties, the occasional man or woman working hard in their fields, the streets climb up to the town centre. A mixture of old dilapidated buildings, some that have been left to rot others that don’t look much different but are still lived in. A few newer places peppered around. The older houses are made of stone so don't really go anywhere, their wooden structures start to rot away but the main structure of the house remains. You can tell some of these were poorer houses, they looked like they were made by gluing together a bunch of stones of various shapes and sizes. The all have a garden on a severe slope where there are vegetables, fruit trees and vines growing. It appears it was very much a town where people survived on these small farms, growing what they needed and perhaps selling the excess. Where they worked hard on the land for very little reward. The town climbs up, digs itself into the side of the mountains. The poorer people lived higher.
I passed a cemetery on my way up the incline and went in to look for names. There were Marantelli’s there, the name of my great grandfather as well as a few other names from my family tree many generations ago but I needed an older cemetery. There is not a lot of information to be had about small villages in Italy when you don’t speak the language and the town has very few reasons to have visitors apart from cyclists cutting through the valley. My parents had visited a few years before and managed to get a lift to the old cemetery from a priest. I knew it was very high into the mountain above my head. I had also read that there was a poor area of Bianzone called Bratta. To reach it was a road that went for several kilometres up, doing hairpin cross backs as it climbs.
The weather was warming up, I reached the town centre and knew that Bratta was about 5km above the town. I filled up my drink bottle from the town fountain and dunked my head. Was I really going to try and do this? I am not fit and there was not really anyone around to assist in any way, medically, emotionally or otherwise. I stood in the town square a minute contemplating my options. I wish I had more time, I was on a schedule because the train doesn't come through regularly. I had a few hours. I wished I had a car or a vespa. I wished I knew more Italian or had arranged to meet someone.
I watched an old lady walk down the steep road.
“Ciao,” we exchanged. She then walked into the pasticceria and came out with one dinner roll on a serviette.
Nonna is that you?
She went up the hill and reappeared on the balcony above the shop to hang out some blankets from the window.
A once in a lifetime opportunity, I started walking. The incline was high. The sun was hot, as it turns out it was pushing 38c which I didn't find out until much later, after I had hiked a mountain.
After a couple of unnecessary kilometres I saw a sign to Bratta. I looked above me and couldn't see very much. I started the trail. Hoping that someone would recognise that this isn’t the body of a hiker or professional alpine walker and give me a lift. There wasn’t a soul around in this sleepy, sleepy town. I walked but within minutes there was a fork in the road, one path weaved up between some houses, the other was a main road on the other side of a small river.
I chose the track. I walked up, the incline was high and I stopped regularly to catch my breath. The poor houses around me made me feel I was taking the right path. I sat for a bit under a canopy of vines. I picked a blackberry from a vine. I trudged on. I was hot, bright red, hot and sweating profusely, hot. I also really had no idea where I was going, I was hoping for the best. I continued on and found a little sign that said Bratta 2km. The paths were now getting smaller and I felt I was on the right track until the track stopped.
There were houses to my right. A paddock ahead. A mule track up the side of a mountain to my left. I walked up the drive way and it appeared to go in a house. I could see a German shepherd running freely which led me to investigate no further.
To the left the trail went up the grassy hill, a track cut into a mountain. At the top of the path looked like a power pole and a clearing of some description. Possibly a town? I thought if it was only 2km away that was a good bet. 2km up is further than your think.
I turned and started climbing up. And I mean up, like running up a playground slide type of angle. Given the altitude of this path, I was also climbing closer to the sun and I suddenly realised it was incredibly hot. I was incredibly worn out, hot and sweaty. What if I have a heart attack on a mule path on the side of a mountain in rural Italy? No one knows where I am. I drank water and stopped every few metres waiting for imminent disaster. There was a road above me and a clearing of some description ahead. I was still happy with my choice, it would be the perfect place for a hill top cemetery and everything would pan out and my efforts would be rewarded. I was wrong. As the rounded the last corner I saw a butt. A naked human butt. I froze then stood puffing against the mountain wall. I had seen 5 people for the day and there was a man ahead on a middle-of-nowhere mountain path. Semi-naked. I hoped it meant civilisation was ahead but it also freaked me out to be alone on a mountain path in the middle of literally no where and seeing another person. I waited in the sun and caught my breath. Leaning around the bend every few minutes to see if he had finished his business.
Once the crouching human butthole left, I had a burst of energy to the top of the path and the clearing ahead. In my mind there was a little town edge. Why else have a path? At the end of a path was a small, stone cottage amongst steep vineyard. A shack that clearly had no plumbing as the top of the path was his toilet. The shack was in the middle of nowhere on the side of the mountain. The path down to his house from above was so steep, like they had just poured some concrete from the road and let it slide down. I was going to need to go up there. I couldn't go back down the path. I could continue to trespass on what was clearly someones property. I sat on the ledge outside the old man’s house for a few minutes then did a metre at a time up the Gladiator-esque travellator driveway. It took some time to complete the 30m driveway. Vineyards were beside me and above me. Behind me the old stone shack dangled on the side of the mountain with a back drop of tall snow capped alps merging into a bright blue sky. Below it drops away to the valley. It was a beautiful sight and I was now quite high up, the train station was visible in the far distance below. What the hell am I doing? Why am I climbing a mountain? I am not mountain climbing fit?
I took a few selfies to get an idea of whether I looked as terrible as I felt. I looked worse.
I got to the top of old Guissepe’s path and was at the road. I felt good that my shortcut at least followed the road and that technically, hopefully, I was in some way up towards my destination. There was not a sign, car or person in sight. I sat on the side railing on the road’s hairpin turn and considered my options. Looking up for any clues that I could be vaguely going the right way or was in any way close.
It was a gamble. I also knew the further I got from the station the longer I needed to get back. I was nearly at the turning point. If I couldn’t find my Nonna in the next 30 minutes I had to turn around. Surely by now i’ve done the 2km since the last sign to Bratta. I looked up the road, straining to see any sign of life. Imagine if I came all this way, then walked all this way only to give up and it was around the next bend?
I decided I would go the last half an hour and see what happens. I headed up the road and again, I mean up. A steady incline up and then back around, hairpin turns probably make for a longer 2km. Around two more bends I found another old, stone house. I think these would have been reminiscent of what my family lived in. It had lot of open areas, it would be freezing in the winter and a few small plots of vegetables, vines and apple trees. I walked passed hoping to see someone and hoping I had the courage to ask “dov’e Bratta” and to have the old person say, “around the next bend” or “get on my mule, i’ll take you”.
I got to the next bend where the road seemed even more vertical and the trees ahead seemed even more dense. Almost rain forest-like. I sat at the bend under a tree. I looked at the pathetic map I had and thought, horrified “…what if i’m not even on the right mountain?” There were two paths up from Bianzone. I looked out over the valley. I could see the stone top of old man shitter’s house below me. I’m no mathematician but I was several kilometres above town at this point. It actually didn’t look like I could go much higher along this path. The area just above me looked like a nice, cool shaded location that would be great for a cemetery. I mean if I was going to build one, this would be the spot. I decided one more bend but it turned to dense forest. My clock was nearing 1:30pm, my train was at 2:30pm. Part of me was looking forward to going down the hill and I felt I really deserved it after going up it for so long. I stood at the bend in the road and made the decision that i’d buggered up, I had no idea where I was, I had to get the train and I was miles from the station.
“Sorry Nonna. Sorry Pappa,” I said out loud, because at this point I was possibly delirious.
I felt sad I never found them, sad that I had hiked a god damn mountain and not found them. But I also felt content in that, if I found them it was going to be a fluke and I had seen a lot of this little town. I vowed to come back with a Vespa or a small Fiat for driving on mule paths and I would find them.
I started down the mountain following the road. It didn’t seem to take that long to be back towards a little village. With a small bit of hope I hoped it was Bratta and I had overshot it. It wasn’t. I went back over the little river and hoped by vaguely heading down I would get back to town. I came down a path from the left and came to another fork in the road I saw a sign pointing to Bratta.
The road to Bratta headed off to the right. I stood in the middle of the small mountain road and looked behind me at the mountain I had just came down. I could see the shitting man’s house. I could see the reflecting strips someone had put up to scare away birds from their orchards. I could see the last house, the turning point shack was up there as well.
I then looked up to the right and could see the outline of another winding road with hairpin turns. I strained my eyes looking into the dense trees of the valley walls for any sign of a town. I wondered if I had time? Should I go up that path? I didn’t have time. If I missed the train I would be in Bianzone until 6pm, then most likely not be able to get back to Sondrio, then Vernazza then Olcio. It had been a long journey to find my Nonna. It hadn’t been successful.
I took a deep breath and headed back down the hill. Looking back intermittently at the two hills side by side. The stupid, dumb trick hill and the one I was meant to be up. Even so I couldn't see Bratta. As I made the descent through town on the road I meant to have been going up, I saw the start of the mule track I took up the hill in the distance. I saw the dead end houses. This ‘correct’ road didn't seem to attach to that dreaded fork in my path. So I felt better that there was no logical reason to avoid the mistake I made, I would have needed to cut through the houses and I would never have thought to do that.
I continued down and came to a little bend that took me back over the river. I stopped and stared at a makeshift track over the running mountain stream. I had started walking up this road earlier and decided that it looked too fancy this way for a poor village, and had cut back across the little path and went up a smaller street on the other side.
Oh I could see where I had gone wrong and where I could have gone so right.
I sighed as I thought about what could have been as I came back past the original sign. The one that said Bratta pointing right with no information regarding the fork in the road 2 minutes later or the fork in the road 10 minutes later.
I was getting back towards town. It was somewhat annoying how quickly I was back to town when I had literally slogged my guts out getting up. How I didn't vomit, or have a heart attack is anyones guess. As I was descending I started to realise how hot I was and how much I had over exerted myself. I went back past the tap I had filled my bottles up at earlier and filled them up again. Sticking my head under.
I hightailed it to the train station, picking streets that went down the hill in the vague direction of the station. As I got to the valley floor and was walking towards the station I looked back at Bianzone above me. The hill I was on, I could see the few markers I passed amongst the dense greenery. On the other mountain I could see the indentation of a road and the further away I got I think I could see a tall building at the top. A church spire? It was probably Bratta. I was disappointed but it was also at least twice, possibly more, the distance higher up the hill than where I got. I don't think I ever would have made it anyway.
I’ll be back. I looked back and thought once more about my great grandfather and how he left this beautiful, but challenging place. Most likely because he had enough of this walking up hills nonsense. He took that risk to cross the world on a new adventure to have a better life. He left his family behind. My great, great, great Nonna and Papa, Maria and Johannes stayed behind and tilled the soil here, growing apples until they dropped.
Martino went to Australia and became Martin. Marantelli became Telley and he completely assimilated into life in country Victoria in Australia. He married and had what was an Australian family, completely gentrified only he continued to have orchards and vines as he had grown up around. My family lost it’s italian heritage in every way, no language. No Nonna’s, no tomato sauce making day. The only throwback being that my grandmother was named Marie after my great great great Nonna, Maria. My middle name followed suit.
I waited at the sleepy train station. Every orange-yellow cement box train station across the country looks the same. Always graffitied despite no evidence of any young bored teenagers. I sat on the bench and looked at the green field ahead of me and up to the blue sky. There was still snow on the tops of the mountains as it was only the beginning of the summer. There were orchards and vineyards. It was beautiful. Martino probably sat here and looked at these for the last time all those years ago.
So I never found my great, great, great Nonna nor did I find some kind of vague relative Nonna I could claim. So I am still in the market and am taking enquiries. It was a day that didn’t quite go to plan but it was a once in a lifetime opportunity to walk in the shoes of my ancestors. To see the area that they called home for generations.
Perhaps it explains in some way my love of this country. It’s in my blood. Alpine hiking however, not in my blood, that was weeded out.