Friday, May 21, 2010

Italy: the lakes

As we flew south from Dusseldorf to Milan, the thick clouds broke over the Alps, just as we must have passed over the high point of the range, maybe over Piz Bernina. It was stunning to see these peaks, below us but not very far below. The ground, so far away when we were up in the lowlands of the Rhine and Dussel valleys, was suddenly rising to meet us.

The plane followed a valley south from the high peaks, narrow and twisting and with what probably was a torrential stream in the center of it, then gradually widening and including some farmland. We were probably in Italy by then; in a moment we started seeing on both sides of the plane the Italian lakes -- Lago Maggiore and Lago di Como. (I'm writing this on the roof garden of our hotel on Lago di Como, looking north at sunset to the still-glowing Alps.)

Then, as we approached Milan's northern airport, the land flattened dramatically. It was that rich farmland of Lombardy, fields squared off with lines of those dark Lombardy poplars, rich old tile-roofed barns. The fields were flooded: we guessed that it might be the rice fields where that wonderful smooth arborio rice grows that we use for risotto.

Now, spending two days in the lakes, I've been thinking about the relationship of the mountains, the lakes, and the plains. Here is a mountain range that is practically impenetrable, until modern days: where the trucks now cross the St. Bernard pass on an autostrada, until very few years ago there were only winding roads. When Wordsworth walked across the Alps in 1792, there was only a track (and he got lost).

The Alps are the great defense of Italy -- along with the sea that surrounds the rest of the peninsula. They are the divide of the continent, Italy becoming the "Cisalpine" -- below the Alps -- region of Europe.

Then there are the lakes, long north-south lakes carved by the glaciers. They remind me of the other north-south lakes I've been around -- the Finger Lakes of New York, our Lake Dunmore in Vermont, Windermere and Wast Water in the Lake District of England. Going about here in the past two days, I've realized how wonderful they are as highways. Driving around them here is terrible -- narrow roads, suddenly made one-lane by jutting-out corners of houses, twisting and dangerous. But on the lake, in a ferry, you're on the level and in the wide-open spaces.

It's in The Last of the Mohicans that the north south lake of Oswego figures so strongly -- the canoes sweeping down from the north onto the barely-tenable fort at the south end (if I remember it rightly). My image may be wrong, but every time I look up a lake like this of Como to the north, I imagine boats paddled by folks who would rather that they lived in the place that I currently inhabit.

Lake Como is y-shaped like Lake Keuka in New York. At the crucial juncture is the town of Varenna, across from Bellagio where we are staying. Above Varenna, a pretty fierce half-hour climb for us (the guidebook called it "a brisk 20 minutes"!) is the Castello di Vezio: a fortress to defend this lake-highway against marauders. Sometimes thought to be Roman, sometimes Longobardian (that is the name of the post-Roman migrants who settled this area, now called Lombardy after them); certainly it's medieval in the form we saw it, with crennelated battlements, a high watchtower-keep, and curtain walls.

So the Alps, I was thinking, are a great wall to the north. But the lakes are highways that -- if you could breach that wall -- take you right down to the goodies to the south: fields, factories, river power, ports. No wonder you work hard to build a fort like that: you need to keep the access control.

And I was thinking, too, about directionality around here. Does the threat come from the north, usually? I was thinking about Napoleon coming down from Paris to "liberate" Italy from the Austrians (they welcomed that, for a little while). I was thinking about the Emperor Charles V, I think (I don't have internet access, so I can't fact-check very well), rampaging down to sack Rome in the 16th century. And the Germans in the mid 20th century, moving south when their incompetent partner Italy folded, to fortify the Appenines against the Allied advance up the peninsula from Sicily. Maybe even Hannibal, who brought his elephants around from Carthage (through France?) and crossed the Alps south to attack Rome.

Where the threat comes from probably depends on where you are at the moment. If you were a Gaul in 40 BC, you probably saw the threat coming north from Rome in the form of Caesar's army.

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