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Thursday, November 11, 2010

Tutti Al Mare, or Why Don't Italians Love their Mountains More?

"I am a Med man," he wrote. 
 Tutti al mare!  Everyone to the sea!  It's a commonplace that Italians--Romans, anyway--love their beaches; a long weekend, a day off here or there, and you'll find them headed for the "Med," as a Facebook correspondent (left) labeled the waters that surround the peninsula ("I am a Med man," he wrote, celebrating an early October day at the seashore, to which Antonella responded, "I am a Med woman, too! Always at the sea."   And why not?  Why not, indeed.  Why not the mountains: the splendid Lepini, only an hour's drive to the southeast, the sublime Lucretili, even closer to the northeast, or the dramatic Abruzzi range, up to 10,000 feet in height, less than two hours to the east? 

A sweaty Bill surveys the landscape from Monte Semprevisa,
the highest peak in the Lepini range
To be sure, a handful of Romans--many of them partipants in one of several hiking organizations--have found these and other ranges and enjoy them.  But by-and-large the trails and peaks are empty, or virtually so.  With the exception of Monte Gennaro, a lovely, varied, and exceedingly accessible climb with a view of Rome's basin fom its peak, the city's nearby mountains don't draw much foot traffic.  We scaled Monte Marsicano, a spectacular peak in the Abruzzo, without seeing another hiker.  And most of our climbs are similarly solitary, with our only company the occasional herd of frightened sheep and, less often, their Albanian herder.

So what's up?  Why don't Italians--again, our focus is Romans--love their mountains more?  In response, we offer a few of what we call 50 cent hypotheses:  untested possibilities that might have some validity--and might have none at all.  An especially compelling hypothesis might be worth 75 cents, a mundane one 25 cents.   

Beginning the descent of Monte Nuria (Dianne at right)
 1) Hiking is hard work--harder than lying on a towel at the beach, let's say--and foreign to the dominant Mediterranean perspective, which favors short work weeks, lots of holidays, and early retirement (witness the latest crisis in Greece).  Too harsh?  Maybe, maybe not.  Hey, it's only a 50-cent hypothesis. 

2) Getting to the top doesn't matter.  This 50-cent hypothesis brings to mind our experience hiking with one of the local clubs. After several hours of (granted) quite physical climbing, we were approaching the top of Monte Nuria, when our leader called a halt to the effort and everyone hauled out their lunch kits. The peak was only a few hundred, easy yards away, and visible, yet only one of about 20 hikers agreed to join us for the brief trek to the summit. [For more on hiking with Italian groups, see our post from last February.  This group, Altrimonti (a take-off on "other mountains" and "otherwise") is the most serious of the groups we've joined.]

Of 40 hikers on the long ridge of the Cima di Vallevona,
only 5--the four above and Dianne, who took the photo,
reached the highest point,
That was true on  other peaks we climbed with groups of Romans.  They're not "baggers"; they don't care about conquering the peak.  We think this attitude may account for the small numbers of Italians who hike; if the pleasure of getting to the top isn't a pleasure, then one of hiking's stimuli doesn't exist.  We would suggest that this stop-short-of-the-top mentality is one aspect of  Italians' rather limited desire to conquer anything, at least since the fall of the Roman empire.  Italy came late even to the nation state (state-building requires the conquering mentality) and its imperial adventures, mostly under Mussolini, were feeble by European standards. 

3)  It's a Catholic country; not enough Protestant ethic to get Italians up those mountains (see Nuria story above).  "No pain no gain" is not in the Italian language.  The Italian fondness for bicycling on mountain roads (burning thighs unavoidable) would seem to belie this hypothesis, but we're keeping it anyway.  3a) Perhaps all the "no-pain- no-gain" Italians are on bicycles.  Put another way, with Catholic confession  available to deal with guilt, who needs the cleansing effect of a hard mountain climb?  This is a 75-cent hypothesis. 

4)  Italians hike to eat.  Of course, if that's your goal, you don't have to hike very far.  They do eat well--elaborate lunches, fresh dishes passed around, home-baked cookies.  And we're sitting there with our trail mix, a piece of cheese, and an apple; we eat to hike. 

The Apre-Hike Meal
5)  Italians hike to socialize.  That's fine, but if your goal is sociability a) you don't have to get to the top and b) the beach is a better option.  On a recent occasion, we joined a small group in the La Duchessa area for what turned out to be a rain-soaked and foggy expedition, conditions that forced a halt to the journey.  But that hardly prevented the bunch from repairing to a favorite local trattoria for an elaborate, delicious, and highly sociable mid-day meal.  That's guaranteed. 

Hikers with Umbrellas!
6)  Italians hike to be fashionable.  We offer this hypothesis for free, because we don't really believe it.  But we were surprised (see the story just above) when the rains came and our Roman companions responded not with ponchos, but (photo right) with--umbrellas!

7)  Italians have a long history of living in the hills and mountains; think of all those hilltop towns.  As a result, they have a utilitarian view of the surrounding mountains; they're places to pasture the horses, hillsides that require exhausting terracing, obstacles between towns.  Given that history, when Italians imagine a respite, a change, a "vacation," the preferred site is down not up--the beach they otherwise seldom see.  This is a high-level, 99-cent hypothesis. 

Monte Cassino, May 18, 1944
8)  Since the agony of World War II, when for more than 18 months Italy's mountains were a place of suffering and death for hundreds of thousands of Allied and Axis soldiers and the inhabitants of hundreds of mountain towns and villages, Italians have identified this landscape not with pleasure and release, but with trauma and loss.    


1 comment:

Dianne Bennett and William Graebner said...

Our friend Massimo wrote us about this piece, referring in one email to "your hypothesis of lazy Italians," and in another offering two Italian proverbs that he thought might enlarge our understanding of the Italian way of life. One, "chi bello vuol comparire, qualcosa ha da soffrire," Massimo translated as "if you want to look beautiful in the eyes of others, you must make an effort and endure any pain it takes," suggessting, he wrote, that in Italy the equivalent of "no pain no gain" is all about personal appearance. The second proverb, "chi non risica non rosica," translates as "those who take no risks (rischiare) end up with nothing to eat" (rosicare=rosicchiare: what mice do, nibbling). This comes closer, it seems to us, to the American meaning of "no pain no gain," though the reference to insufficient food strikes us as from an earlier era, like the Great Depression. Neither proverb, we think, is designed to motivate Italians to climb their mountains. Thanks, Massimo!