To History and Back A pilgrimage to Northern Italy
The climb up the steep winding dirt road to the village was a bit strenuous for our rented mini-Fiat. We stopped on a spiny ridge to cool the engine and admire the scenery before continuing to our remote northern Italian destination.It was October 1967 and somehow these mountains seemed familiar. Then I realized that this hazy, dreamlike landscape reminded me of the backgrounds in several paintings by Italian masters. The veil-like blue haze was caused by random piles of burning brush and vineyard cuttings set afire by peasants clearing their sloping pastures. Occasionally the woodsy smoke scent rose up to envelop us as we stood in awe of the remarkable sight of our goal, the mountaintop hamlet of Monte Figitasi. To me, it looked like a glowing Camelot, a romantic yet attainable vision awaiting our arrival.
On either side of the ridge, we could peer down into deep, stream-cut valleys and across to terraced hillsides. A few rough stone buildings were scattered among vineyards punctuated by the ubiquitous pointy cedars that enhance almost all Italian vistas.Climbing back into the car, we chugged on and upward. Just before we approached the village, we noticed a partially obscured sign that warned of land mines that might still be present in the area. Immediately we were reminded of the reason for this trip.Twenty-two years before, only weeks before the end of World War II, my husband, Harry Poschman, had fought in this same rugged and challenging area with the 85th Division of the 10th Mountain troops. These soldiers suffered severe losses, but soon the war ended and peace was declared. During the few weeks before being shipped home to the United States, Harry and some Army friends explored this northern Italian mountain region where they had defeated the Germans.Monte Figitasi was one among many poor, barely surviving places that they found. Its citadel-like setting and ancient beauty impressed him and he resolved that someday he would return to Italy and revisit it. This trip, a sort of pilgrimage for him, was a reminder of his first peaceful, pleasant experience once the fighting was over in 1945.
The road ended abruptly in a small cobblestone square. The first thing that we noticed was an outdoor café where a few old men sat drinking red wine and loudly discussing something that demanded frequent gesticulations and table poundings – a typical and predictable scene found almost anywhere in Italy. A crumbling statue of Dante stood guard over their tables and numerous sparrows busily pecked around their feet. Centered in the square was a fountain, green with moss. It was the community laundry. A cluster of women, some balancing bundles of wash on their heads, stood chatting and laughing by the fountain’s basin. Chunks of soap, washboards and piles of wet wash lay on the edge. The whole scene seemed out of a Fellini movie.”See what I mean?” Harry was elated to be back in this enchanting place. Suddenly, the bustle and chatter stopped and we felt all eyes appraising, even dissecting us, as we eagerly stepped out of the car. We nodded toward them but there was no acknowledgment. Not a word was spoken. Feeling quite self-conscious, I hung my new Canon camera around my neck and we silently headed toward the footpath leading to the top of the village and the small church that crowned Monte Figitasi.We passed ancient, tightly squeezed dwellings, each with adjoining plaster-covered stone walls, lining the upward path. Intermittent shafts of sunlight contrasted with deep shadows of cornices and rough edges of the deteriorating but picturesque buildings. I had never seen such an ancient, poverty-stricken, yet beautiful and lived-in community before. I paused to take a picture of a small shrine set in an alcove next to a window that boasted a single red geranium blossom. The cobbled path was swept clean and we saw no trash or garish plastic containers.”Now you know why I fell in love with this place.” Harry was all smiles and I was almost convinced that we’d stepped into the heart of the Middle Ages.
As I focused my camera on a sunlit curve along the path, a diminutive old lady approached us, smiling a sweet toothless welcome. She looked up at us.”Americanos, no?”We nodded.
“Buon giorno!” she said. Eager and so relieved to be acknowledged, we replied with a scrambled mixture of “Hi, bonjour and giorno.” At last, a friendly face!She was dressed in the typical widow’s black with a voluminous faded gray apron that hung down to her thick woolen stockings and worn felt slippers. A black cloth was wrapped around her head and not a wisp of hair showed. We three smiled and shook hands. In my halting Italian, I asked if I could take her picture.Proudly and with almost regal bearing, she folded her gnarled hands and looked squarely into my camera. I felt honored to be taking her photograph, which turned out to be my favorite portrait of our entire trip.We became aware that a group of curious villagers were watching us and our friendly meeting with the obviously respected old lady. That broke the ice, and almost immediately more people gathered around us. In a high-pitched cracking voice she apparently urged them to welcome the visiting Americanos.
All of a sudden, we were being escorted on a tour by six or eight eager locals. Thinking it over later, we attributed the earlier cool, silent reception to the natural hesitance of people who had endured and barely survived a horrible war experience. They simply distrusted all strangers.A stocky man with a flourishing mustache seemed to be the leader. He stared at Harry, then clasped his hand and in stumbling English, accompanied by many gestures, claimed to have been the barber during the war. What’s more, he was sure that he remembered Harry! It was an event of great importance to all who listened to this astonishing story, and warm smiles and much handshaking ensued. Harry was flattered and delighted.With enthusiasm and a growing entourage, the barber guided us through Monte Figitasi. We stopped to admire the old church. We were invited to peek into a wine cellar, musty, cool and redolent with the smell of fermenting grapes. In a simple, spotless private home we were offered a glass of wine and some sweet table grapes. We were made to feel as welcome as visiting dignitaries … we were “Americanos.”Harry gave a newly minted Kennedy half-dollar to the barber, and in return received an ancient Roman coin. The onlookers passed the Kennedy coin around and smilingly approved the exchange. The Roman coin was at least 2,000 years old. We were overwhelmed.
The increasingly noisy tour eventually led back to our car. Late afternoon sun illuminated Dante’s head and more old men sat in the café. The laundresses were gone from the continuously flowing fountain, and reluctantly we accepted that it was time to drive down into the valley, now blanketed with soft purple shadows.Harry started the car as members of our tour group hovered around us, reaching out their hands in farewells and crying “arrivederci” and “ciao.” Slowly, we backed out of the square and headed downvalley toward the bustle of modern city life and our hotel. We felt as if we were wrenching ourselves away from dear friends who lived in an indelible page of history, so memorable, so removed from our tomorrows.Jony Larrowe has lived in the Roaring Fork Valley since 1950, and has traveled widely over the years. In recent years she has devoted much of her time to writing and artwork.
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