Wandering the backstreet of time
No end, no beginning,
You can hear the echoes
Of the past, the conquerors come and gone,
The plagues, the wars, the famines,
The cries of laughter, the tears of sorrow,
The prayers and confessions,
The good times and the bad.
You can see the people, the generations of them,
Crammed into small apartments
Living their hopes, their dreams, their desperation,
Their resignation, their struggles
As the years, the centuries, pass.
In that narrow street
Where light and shadow pattern the walls
All is silence
Only my footsteps to be heard
Until they too reach the journey’s end.
On our trip from the very north of the Italian mountains south to Bergamo – where we were due to get our flight back to Amsterdam – we took a bus to the city of Poschiavo, a town in the Italian area of the Swiss Alps, where we stopped for a couple of hours before taking the train to Tirano, a city in Italy and roughly half way to Bergamo where we had booked a place to stay the night.
Poschiavo is popular a place for Swiss tour groups. I personally was disappointed with it. The people spoke Italian ….and yet it was not Italy. The old buildings had been ‘Swissified’; restored and yet ….sterile, devoid of the colour and character one experiences in Italy proper.
The Swiss Train to Tirano came with a tourist voice announcing all the attractions along the way and for me, completed the overall picture of the Swiss tourist industry completing the impression of tameness and control.
The highlight of the train trip – lauded by the tourist voice – was where it went around in a complete circle shortly before arriving in Tirano…
The Old Area of Tirano and well, a very different city scape to Poschiavo……
On the tops of high rises in the mountains there are often crucifixes or some other symbol of Christianity. One might assume that these are symbols of a culture and a people for whom religion is important.
Yet all the evidence points in a different direction.
As I read in an English language Italian website: polls show time and again that when asked about their religious belief, the Italians are amongst the least religious people in Europe (the highest being in Eastern Europe}. Striking indeed for the country home to the Vatican.
And yet as one Italian explained to me: ‘the rituals are still important to us, we get married in a church and are babies are baptised there and we die there too.’
Coincidentally that was something we witnessed at Livigno when we left the small hotel where we were staying and descended into the main town to go to the supermarket. We had to pass the church on the way. Every morning its bells ring but on this morning we had noticed that the bells were ringing for an inordinately long time, the echoes filling the valley.
We found out why: there was a funeral. As we passed the church, we saw a procession of priests dressed in white tunics and long flowing purple frocks and behind then a large crowd of locals, dressed in their best clothes. The priest leading the procession held a kind of icon on top of long pole bordered by black cloth.
Later, on our return journey, we passed the open door of the church where an organ was playing and people were singing. It was a strange scene in the midst of endless mass of shops, boutiques, restaurants etc. – a reminder that once Livigno was a village and very poor one at that – but also that rituals were still very much a part of Italian culture.
And something which I as a traveller appreciated.
The driver of the taxi we got from the Bergamo airport into the centre of town was a young guy who spoke passable English.
He was friendly and talkative but that was probably a part of his tourist routine.
Still, he wasn’t worried about putting forth his opinions. I liked that.
After going through the standard patter about Bergamo and its sights, he asked us where we were going after Bergamo.
We told him we had booked four nights in an apartment in the town of Edolo in the mountains of north east Italy and after that, didn’t know where we were going but we had an eye on another town deeper in the alps called Bormio.
Why do you want to go to those places?
We wanted to go walking, we told him.
It’s was as if he didn’t hear us. Possibly he didn’t rate walking in the mountains too highly.
There’s nothing there!
They’re dead those places!
You should go to ….
We didn’t catch the name of the place he thought we should head to besides the fact that it began with a ‘L’.
It was north of Bormio and deeper in the mountains, close to the border of Switzerland, and it was the place to go.
Warming to his subject, he began extolling its attractions: it was a skiing destination in winter and walking in the summer and autumn. There were lots of bars, restaurants, shops….it was really alive!
We didn’t say anything but each of us thought to ourselves: this place sounds like the last place we would want to go to!
But of course he was a young guy and he saw things very differently to us.
From our perspective, we’d come to Italy go walking and our preference was to base ourselves in in historic towns. It was a great combination: walking and history. And as far as history goes, there’s no country in Europe like it.
But of course being a young guy – and Italian – the taxi driver thought walking was boring and as for history – well, he had grown up with it.
It was the modern, the new, which for him was exciting.
We spent two days in Bergamo, four days in Edolo followed by 4 days in Bormio. Each place was an experience in itself: a historical experience. From the feudal era to the baroque in Bergamo, followed by the middle ages in Edolo – a small village nestled on the mountain side – to Bormio, a town with a maze of narrow side streets, open squares, grandiose churches and behind it, the mountains.
Europe’s greatest museum.
At the end of our stay in Bormio we ran into a problem.
We were deep in the mountains but were running out places where we could stay and walk.
Perusing our map, Livigno came up on our radar.
It was an hour on the bus and close to the Swiss border – and we had completely forgotten about the taxi driver in Bergamo.
But sure enough, the ‘L-‘ came to mind after the bus descended into a long deep valley in between soaring mountains. We were a thousand metres above Bormio and the peaks here were heavy with snow.
But it wasn’t the mountains which got our attention.
It was the 8 kilometre long sprawl of chalets, apartments, boutiques, shops, supermarkets, bars, restaurants ….
‘L’ for Livigno.
This was not the place for us. This was anti-history. No character. Sterile.
Getting off the bus and walking around aimlessly with our rucksacks (we couldn’t check into our apartment until 4pm) it was as if we were more lost than we had ever been on our walks in the mountains. And we were experts at that.
I wondered why anyone on a ski vacation in this place would want to buy fashion clothes or watches or perfumes and so on? A ski vacation was not cheap. But I was missing the point. People liked to spend whilst on vacation.
And the taxi driver from Bergamo then? Did he save up all year whilst driving his taxi around the busy roads of Bergamo just to have a week or two in Livigno?
It took another day for us to put matters in perspective.
After that is we bought a map from a book shop and noticed an impressive network of walking trails on both sides of the valley.
Because this was a popular tourist destination, walking trails had been established especially to cater for summer tourists. Without that 8 kilometre long stretch of tourist town those trails wouldn’t be there.
Things came into view alright in more ways than one: this was a beautiful valley. We had fine weather and endless trails to follow. The history was now past tense.
The present was what mattered and yes, L had turned out to be a good recommendation.