Sunday, December 29, 2013

Crossing the Main Divide at Arthur's Pass

Arthur's Pass, New Zealand (May 31, 2008)

The Main Divide parts the Pacific coast of New Island from the western coast facing the Tasman Sea. It is mostly impassable, due to the high mountains and glaciated valleys of the Southern Alps. Unless you can hitch a ride on Gwaihir, or take a detour through Khazad-dum, there are only three passes available. One of them is Arthur's pass.

A forest at Arthur's Pass
Arthur's pass takes its name from Sir Arthur Dudley Dobson, who led the first european party across it in 1864. To be fair, he really didn't discovered it, as it was sporadically used by Maori hunting parties led by the local chief Tarapuhi, who gave him the lead on where to look for the pass. Nevertheless, the "discovery" by Sir Arthur came just at the right time as it provided easy access through the mountains shortly before gold was discovered in the west coast (all major european settlements were at the time on the east coast). We crossed Arthur's pass in our 2008 trip, as we moved to the Tasman coast from the Canterbury region. As you can see from the photos, it was a wet late-fall day, which certainly helped to set the mood. We stopped at the pub in the tiny hamlet with the same name, where we got some food and warm beverages. The area of the pass is in fact at the center of a beautiful protected natural area, encompassing tall mountains and very lush forests (it seems to rain and snow a lot, over there). Even a short walk from the pub offers an incredible view of the trees (see e.g. small photo on the left). What we didn't see was the kea, which is the funnies (and more delinquent) bird in the world. Keas are mountain parrots (world's only alpine parrot) that only live in New Zealand. They are very smart and inquisitive, and regularly harass tourists and their cars (they like to strip all lose rubber parts, like swipers). They even know how to open the zip of backpacks to steal the content. They know how to solve logic puzzles (things like figuring out the correct sequence in which levers must be pushed to access food in a container) and group of them can work together to crack more difficult problems. Although we may have seen some Kea feeding on roadkill along the road (not sure, though), we didn't meet any while we had our walk: it was raining and keas are definitely too smart to go for a stroll in foul cold weather, as opposed to a certain clueless human writing this blog.

Arthur's Pass, New Zealand (May 31, 2008)

Thursday, December 26, 2013

The Mountains of Canterbury

Rakaia River, New Zealand (May 29, 2008)

Along NZ Alpine Pacific Triangle
The Canterbury region is the largest subdivision of New Zealand's south island. It is also the most populous, with its capital Christchurch being the largest city in the island. Canterbury is the epicenter of the wool industry with millions of sheep grazing on its grassy plains in front of the Pacific. In my 2008 trip I spent three days driving up and down along Canterbury's roads, especially the Alpine Pacific Triangle running on the side of the white capped mountains at the center of the island. The road passes several one-lane bridges crossing the glacial rivers descending from the mountains, like the Rakaia river in the large photo above. During one of my escapades I took a side road along the river, ending up on a dirt path which probably voided the insurance of my rental car, but afforded me an amazing view of the river gorge below, and the snow-capped mountains above. Plus a close encounter with some cows that decided I was interesting enough to examine at close distance.

The capital of the region, Christchurch, is very beautiful historical city. An important commercial outpost, it spearheaded the european settlements in the south island. Differently from the north, the south was only sparsely inhabited by the Maori, due repeated incursions by bands of Maori from the north (armed with british-made muskets) that destroyed the settlements in the region exterminating their population. When I visited in 2008 I had the opportunity to truly enjoy Christchurch and its gothic revival architecture: soon after however three disastrous earthquakes (between 2010 and 2012) destroyed a significant portion of the city, causing 185 deaths. The destruction was so severe that its historical center is still not fully rebuilt.

Route 70, New Zealand (May 29, 2008)

Sunday, December 22, 2013

The Southern Alps

New Zealand (May 26, 2008)

You are all probably familiar with Hithaeglir (Misty Mountains), the majestic chain of tall mountains crossing Middle Earth from Mount Gundabad in the far north to Methedras in the south. You also probably know that the cinematic representation of this mountains in the Lord of The Rings and Hobbit movies is based on real mountains in New Zealand South Island: the Southern Alps. This is where we are going next.

Southern Alps
The Southern Alps are the "spine" of New Zealand South Island: 450 km longs they divide the narrow coast land on the West from the broad and green plains of the East. These are majestic mountains, covered by glaciers and crossed by long glacial valleys. We visited New Zealand in 2008, after a meeting Mayli had in Christchurch, and spent a couple of weeks driving around in the South Island. The photos in this page were all taken as I was approaching Christchurch from Sydney. Since Christchurch is on the eastern coast, flying from Australia means crossing the island above the mountains and its glaciers. The Southern Alps have 3,155 glaciers with an area larger than one hectare, the longer of which (the Tasman glacier) is 29 km in length. The mountains themselves are nothing to joke about: the tallest peak, Mount Cook (Aoraki), is 3,754 m high, one of sixteen peaks higher than 3,000 meters on the sea level. In the next few posts I will dwell on the mountain photos that I took during that trip.

New Zealand (May 26, 2008)

Saturday, December 14, 2013

A Volcano in Japan

Mount Hakone, Japan (May 30, 2012)

Let's keep going west, across the Pacific to the shore of Asia. But just before hitting the continent, let's stop for one post and briefly explore one volcano in Japan. And no, it is not the one you are thinking.

A garden or a forest?
I tried, I really tried. Hard. I really wanted to get at least one photo of the most photogenic volcano in the world: mount Fuji. But he was playing coy... hiding behind a curtain of mist that never left the sky for the whole time I was in Japan. I tried looking west from the observatory of the Tokyo tower, but I could only see an interminable and impressive forest of high rise buildings fading in the mist. I tried looking for him from the shores of lake Ashi, but I only found a placid lake framed by green mountains, themselves frames by heavy rainy clouds. He was still in hiding. Oh well, I guess this calls for another trip, in a different season, when the sky is more transparent and the majestic mountain is less shy. In the meantime you can look at the incredible Fuji-san photos captured by +Yuga Kurita  (they are quite exceptional indeed).

What I will offer you today, is another japanese volcano. It is not as famous as the white snow-capped Fuji-san, but it powers the hot waters of some of the most famous onsen of Japan. It is a very green volcano, covered by a lush green forests that resembles the best kept gardens. You can read the full story in my Japan travel diary, and specifically here. The short version is the following. We were staying a few days in an onsen in Hakone. We decided to take the famous Hakone ropeway all the way to lake Ashi, with the intention of crossing the lake by boat, walk a little along the Old Tokaido road and then take the bus back to the onsen. We did all this, except that we decided to stop for a short walk at the Owakudani ropeway station. We saw across the valley an overlook with an interesting view on the volcanic fumaroles. We should have been deterred by the mysterious signs "Can Not Go Buying Black Eggs Shop" at the beginning of the trail, but we didn't, and only after a couple of hours hiking on a very steep path we realized that we were going to the summit of the volcano, where clearly the world famous Owakudani black eggs were not available for sale. We did find, however, the even more famous Hime Iwakagami, a small pink flower that only grows in this area, for a brief spring season. And maybe next time we will see Fuji-san...

Lake Ashi, Japan (May 30, 2012)

Thursday, December 12, 2013

The domain of Kamapua'a

Big Island, Hawaii (November 7, 2005)

As dry is the southern part of Hawaii Big Island, wet and lush is its northern end. Sitting on the most ancient of the island's volcanoes, the domain of Kamapua'a is battered by the trade winds, harbingers of rain. It is a stark contrast with the desert black rock wasteland of the Volcanoes Park. 

Pololu Valley
One of the most picturesque spots of the green north is the Pololu valley. To reach it you have to drive around the north tip of the island, either along the trafficked coastal road (Maukona-Niulii Rd), or along the Kohala Mountain Rd. We chose the latter: the road starts from Waimea (allowing a brief visit to the Keck Observatory Headquarters) and climbs on the flanks of the Kohala mountain. Estimated to be 1,000,000 years old, it is now extinct, having last erupted more than 160,000 years ago. It is highly eroded, covered by green pastures on the western side and deep valleys on the eastern side. Driving along the mountain road one can be excused to think, for a moment, that this is not Hawaii but Ireland (see panoramic photo below). The landscape is dotted by cows and horses: cattle raising is the main industry of this area, spawning the tradition of the Hawaiian cowboy equivalents.

The road ends in Hawi, a small town of less than 1,000 people, significant because its territory includes the birthplace of Kamehameha I the great. From Hawi you should follow route 270, literally to the end of the road. You park the car, walk to the side of the road and, lo and behold, you see the view in the large photo above (well, I cannot guarantee that you will still see the same horses next time you go there). The huge cliffs are the result of hundreds of millennia of erosions by the ocean and the rain on the tired igneous rocks of Kohala. Hidden between the cliffs is the long narrow Pololu valley, which you can see in the small photo on the left. From the parking lot at the Pololu lookout you can walk down (on a 400 ft steep sandy trail) to the bottom of the valley. The valley is all private land, so there is not much you can do there unless you ask permission to walk the swampy trails that cross it through its length. The beach at the end of the valley, however, is quite a spectacle, thanks to its black sand and high surf typical of Hawaii eastern coast. It is a popular destinations, provided of course that you are willing to climb up all 400 ft of trail to get back to the car, on your way back home.

Big Island, Hawaii (November 7, 2005)

Monday, December 9, 2013

The volcano that never stops

Double rainbow on Kilauea, Hawaii (November 3, 2005)

Kilauea, Hawaii
The Hawaiian islands were born by the union of the Sky Father Wakea with the Earth Mother Papa. As such they are the abode of the gods of hawaiian mythology. Two of these gods, however, never got along very well. Pele, the goddess of fire, and Kamapua'a, the god of rain, kept fighting memorable battles all the time. The theatre of the most epic of these battle is the crater of Halema'uma'u, where Pele found refuge when the rain god tried to extinguish the lava that she made sprout from the ground. To force her to out, Kamapua'a covered the crater with fern fronds, trapping of the smoke and choking Pele in her hiding place. Mad for the affront, Pele threatened to destroy the whole island. At that point the other gods were forced to intervene, dividing the island among the quarreling deities. Kamapua'a got the northern side of the island, rich in moisture carried by the trade winds. Pele was confined to the south-eastern side, the dry domain of the volcanoes.

The domain of Pele is dominated by one of the most active volcanoes on Earth: the Kilaueua. This volcano has been continuously activity for most of the islands recorded history. Even before, Hawaiian oral histories testify about Kilauea random acts of violence, like the eruption of 1790, when the present-day caldera was formed, as the ground collapsed under the feet of Keouha Kuahu'ula warriors, the last to resist the unifying forces of Kamehameha I, the great. Since then Kilauea has had at least 61 recorded eruptions.

Kilauea, Hawaii
The volcano is part of the Hawaii Volcanoes National Park, and is one of the most monitored volcanoes on Earth. In fact, it was the first volcano to be monitored, by initiative of Thomas Jaggar. The MIT geologist, after witnessing the destruction caused by the earthquake in Messina (near Mount Etna) decided that a network of observatories monitoring the activity of volcanoes was absolutely required. He chose Kilauea because of its high activity and the relative benign nature of its eruptions. The fact that the eruptions are benign does not mean that they are not impressive, though. In 1819 a huge lava flow filled the caldera in the photo above, creating an enormous lava lake. In other occasions the activity was so strong that reportedly allowed the inhabitants of Hilo (20 miles away) to read at night without the need of other lights!

The Volcanoes Park and Kilauea today are a big touristic attraction. If you go there at sunset you can see the lava flow dropping in the sea (panoramic below). From the parking lot it is a short hike on a pitch-black moonscape terrain until the rope that delimit the "safe" area from the places where the fresh lava is still warm. The park ranger discourage you from hiking beyond the ropes, but people still do... which leads to the inevitable casualties, mainly tourists that walk too close to the volcanic vents, their lungs swelled by the deadly inhalation of hydrochloric acid. That said, if you are careful, Kilauea is one of the most spectacular places in the world to visit!

Kilauea, Hawaii (November 3, 2005)

Saturday, December 7, 2013

The tallest mountains in the world

Mauna Loa, Hawaii (November 3, 2005)

Mount Everest is not the tallest mountain in the world. Not by far. It sits on the Himalayan plateau, which is pretty high itself. With 8,848 meters above sea level, mount Everest is the highest mountain in the world, but not the tallest if you start counting from its base. That record is held by the Hawaii volcanoes, Mauna Kea rising 10,203 meters from the seafloor, followed closely my Mauna Loa, a few meters lower but the largest mountain in area and volume of rock.

Mauna Loa, Hawaii
And in Hawaii we should go, because I cannot make a series on mountains and forget the mountains of paradise. Hawaii has special significance for an astronomer, because it is the site of the largest telescopes in the norther hemisphere. For obvious reasons: why would you go anywhere else if you can get a free trip to Hawaii? Just kidding. The real reason for placing gigantic mirrors on the top of the Hawaii volcanoes is precisely their height: the highest the mountain, the less air is overhead, ruining your observations. Why not going to the Himalayas, then? Because of humidity. It turns out that the Himalayan chain is still subjected to heavy precipitations from the monsoons raising from the Indian Ocean (these are snow-capped mountains), while the volcanoes of Hawaii are above the local inversion layer. Even though in Hawaii it rains every day, the humidity stays at lower elevation, and the summit of the volcanoes is bone dry. No humidity means no rain days and, most importantly, a very transparent and stable atmosphere. The only other comparable sites on Earth for elevation and dryness are the high plateau of northern Chile (we will go there, photographically, a little later) and Antarctica, which is covered by 3,000 meters of ice (and has very low humidity, as all water vapor is frozen).

I have been several time at the Mauna Kea observatory: I did a large part of the astronomical observations for my Ph.D. thesis up there. At that time, however, I didn't have any digital camera (hey, that was still in the last millennium), so the photos in this post are more recent, taken when I was visiting Hawaii for a conference. All images show Mauna Loa, the volcano whose eruptions created most of the land in the Big Island of Hawaii. It is a shield volcano, and as such it has the gentle sloping flanks that can be seen in the large image on top. Gentle volcano is not, however. Since the first recorded eruption in 1843, the volcano has erupted 32 times. The 1935 eruption, in particular, caused grave concern as the lava flow started to move towards Hilo, the main city on the island, George S. Patton (of WWII fame) was tasked to save the city by trying to divert the lava flow by throwing bombs at it: he did so on December 27 of that year, and by January 2 the lava flow was stopped. While the operation was declared a resounding success, it is unclear if the bombing had any effect, and geologists think that the lava stopped only because the volcano decided so.

The last eruption happened in 1950, with a single day event in 1984, when a narrow lava flow descended again towards Hilo, illuminating the city at night but stopping before causing any damage. Since then the volcano has been inactive, the longest period of quiescence in its recorded history.

Mauna Loa, Hawaii (November 7, 2005)

Friday, December 6, 2013

Mount St. Helens

Mount St. Helens, USA (January 11, 2007)

There was a mountain in North America that was as beautiful as Fuji-san in Japan. It was a perfect cone with a snow-white tip, raising to the sky amid lush forests and crowned by silvery rivers. That mountain was sacred to the people living in its vicinity.

Washington State, USA
Wikipedia tells us that Tyhee Saghalie, the chief of all the gods of the Klickitat people, traveled down the Columbia river from the ancestral lands in the north. He was with his two sons, Pahto and Wy'east, searching for a new land to settle. After much wandering they found a land so beautiful that both brothers wanted it for themselves. To resolve the dispute, their father used his magic bow to shoot two arrows in opposite directions. Patho followed the arrow that went north; Wy'east went instead south. Their father then built the Bridge of the Gods to connect the two lands, so that they could periodically have their family reunions.

For some time everything was well and dandy, until a fateful day the two brothers met a beautiful maiden whose name was Loowit. They both fell in love and started quarreling again, while Loowit could not choose between the two of them. In their fight, they buried villages and razed forests, shaking the earth so violently that the bridge of the God fell into the river (creating the Columbia River Gorge). Saghalie was very upset by all this devastation, and decided to punish the quarreling lovers. He struck down his two sons and transformed them into mountains: Patho became what is known now as Mount Adams while Wy'east became Mount Hood. And Loowit? She became the fairest mountain of all, Louwala-Clough (fire mountain) which we now call Mount St. Helens.

I have seen Mount St. Helens once, even though I didn't know it at the time. I only recognized the mountain of fire much later, when I finally started to work on the photos I took from a plane that was bringing me home from Seattle. It is the photo above, where you can see the huge crater of the volcano, and the plume of steam still rising from it. What you cannot see is the picture-perfect cone that, like Fuji-san, stands high above the forests and the river covered in snow.

The reason why the beautiful cone is missing is that Mount St. Helens top, at the 8:32AM PDT of May 18, 1980, blew up, in the course of the most destructive volcanic event recorded in the United States. The eruption cut 400 meters from the height of the mountain, killing 57 people, flattening 250 homes, felling 47 bridges, and destroying 15 miles of railways and 185 miles of highways. It became one of the most famous volcanic eruptions in the history of North America. You can still see, even in my foto, the huge scar left behind by the explosion. The north side of the mountain is missing, crushed by the explosion into an enormous avalanche of almost 3 km cube of debris. When President Jimmy Carter visited the devastation shortly after the eruption, he commented that "Someone said this area looked like a moonscape. But the moon looks more like a golf course compared to what's up there."

The area around the mountain was designated in 1982 by President Reagan and the US Congress (when it was still doing something) as a national Monument. As such it is granted protection that has allowed scientists to study how the environment can naturally recover from the disturbance caused by such cataclysmic events.

Taking off from Seattle Tacoma, USA (January 11, 2007)

Monday, December 2, 2013

Flying over the Alps

Somewhere over the Alps (February 4, 2005)

Almost 6% of the surface of Earth is mountains. This corresponds to 20% of all available land (once you take out the oceans). As much as I like Italian mountains, it is time to move on. Let's take a plane and fly over the Alps. This route I have taken many many times, from west to east when visiting my family in Italy, and from East to West when getting back to the US. Hop on a plane and fly. Piece of cake, right?

Well, maybe not so easy, after all. In fact, in my brief jet-flying career (700,000 miles so far) I have already suffered two emergency landings as I was crossing the Alps.

Somewhere over the Alps
The first time was almost uneventful, thanks for my cluelessness. This was one of those planes with the little screen attached to the seat in front, showing the live map with the plane route. Well, at some point I noticed that the plane was making an unexpected U-turn, as to get back to Paris. People on the plane were kind of agitated but I could not understand what was going on. Then the pilot announced that we were getting back because, "as you may have noticed" there was a strong smell in the main cabin, which he was positive it wasn't gourmet cheese, and we were getting back to investigate. So we landed on a separate runway with the fire trucks ready to intervene... and intervene they did, as the reason of the smell was that one of our engines has gotten on fire mid-flight, and the smoke was already entering the cabin (so much for being pressurized). Of course, due to my anosmia, I didn't notice anything, but it must have been terrifying for the passengers that could see the right wing of the plane with its trail of smoke.

The second time was in fact more directly connected to the mountain crossing (which appropriate given that I am running this series about mountains). The flight was between Torino and Paris. As soon as we got over the Alps we started to feel very strong vibrations at the back of the plane. Horrible noise and shaking, like the worst turbulence I have even gone through. We did an emergency landing at Lion, nearest airport at that point, just on the other side of the mountains. No fire trucks, that time, but as soon as we landed one of these service trucks with the elevator cart approached our plane. We could not get out, but from the window we saw that the service crew was looking very carefully at the tail section of our plane. Nothing... we were stuck on the plane and these people were just looking and looking. As the passengers and the flight crew were getting just a little too nervous, one of the workers outside grabbed the tail of the plane, hanging to it, as to see if he could pull it out! As that happened the pilot, that by then was in the main cabin looking outside as everybody else, became red, said something like "that's it" and declared that he would not have flown that plane ever again. That was it indeed. We disembarked, managed to get to Paris with another plane before nightfall, and then took yet a different plane the next day, to get back to the US. All this happened a few months before a plane of the same model crashed in Queens (New York) because, you guess it, the tail section snapped due to excessive turbulence.

Despite all this, I still like the experience of flying (and I would not mind flying to space, if it was economically feasible). And that's nothing compared with what happened to a friend of mine that crashed twice with a helicopter, the same day, in the middle of the Amazon jungle. But that's a story for another day.

Somewhere over the Alps (February 4, 2005)

Saturday, November 30, 2013

The Etruscan Kings of Rome

Umbria, Italy (September 18, 2009)

I have a few more photos of the hills and mountains of central Italy that I want to show. That's a perfect excuse to elaborate a little more about the etruscans and their relationship with ancient Rome. As I mentioned in the last post, the etruscans were a large and rich civilization when Rome was still a newly founded hamlet. Rome was protected from their mighty neighbors by the forests growing on the mountains and hills surrounding the city and isolating it from Etruria (these forests are still existing, see the photo above taken in southern Umbria). As Rome grew in size, power and economic importance, the partnership and alliances with the etruscan cities became more essential, until the two civilizations merged. This is symbolized in Rome's foundation myths by having an etruscan dynasty for the last three roman kings. This story is actually worth of a Shakespeare play.

A Tower on the hill
The story began with Lucius Tarquinio Priscus. Born in Tarquinii (in Etruria) by a greek father and etruscan mother, he became disgruntled with etruscan politics and traveled to Rome with his wife Tanaquil. It is said than when he entered the city by chariot, he had his cap stolen and then returned by an eagle, which Tanaquil interpreted as an omen of future greatness. Once in the city he was noticed by the king (Ancus Marcius) who made him tutor of his two sons.

One peculiarity of the roman monarchy was that it wasn't an hereditary institution: kings were acclaimed by the people and ratified by the senate. So, when Ancus Marcius died, Lucius Tarquinius Priscus was preferred to the previous king's sons, and became the new monarch. I won't go in the details of his reign. He fought his quote of wars (including one in which he subjugated several etruscan cities), build the Circus Maximus (the famous stadium for chariot racing) and the Cloaca Maxima (the great roman sewer). All in all he is said to have reigned for 38 years, when he was finally murdered by the sons of his predecessor, that organized a riot in the city, and used the confusion to mortally wound the king.

That was however not the end of the etruscan dynasty. The king's widow Tanaquil took the situation in her hands, hid the death of the king from the roman people, and convinced the senate to appoint one of her servants, Servius Tullius, as regent. Servius, who was born to a "virgin" slave (allegedly impregnated by the god Vulcan), was Tanaquil's protege and had was married with one of Tarquinius Priscus and Tanaquil's daughters. Tanaquil put him forward for the throne, before her two sons Lucius Tarquinius (the older, named after his father) and Arruns Tarquinius (the younger). Once the death of king became apparent, Servius was acclaimed as the new ruler. His reign is remembered as the golden age of the roman monarchic period. He expanded the city, was successful in wars and, most importantly, enfranchised the populace (the plebs) giving them the right to vote and to bear arms, in exchange of taxation and service in the military. In doing so he dramatically reduced the power of the oligarchy that previously dominated the political life in the city, and laid the foundation for many of the institutions that would later evolve into the Roman Republic.

Not everybody, however, was happy. The two sons of Tarquinius Priscus and Tanaquil, in particular, resented being passed over by their mother for the throne. To appease them, Servius gave them his two daughters in marriage. That didn't work, in fact made matters even worse. Lucius Tarquinius (the son) conspired with the wife of his brother (Tullia the younger) to get rid of their siblings and spouses (Arruns Tarquinius and Tullia the older). Then they married, and conspired to overthrow Servius (the king and Tullia's father). After some suitable bribing, Tarquinius walked armed into the Senate, and denounced the king for his policies in favor of the populace: when Servius attempted to intervene to defend his position, Tarquinius pushed him down the steps of the Senate, where he was killed by Tarquinius men, and run over on purpose by the chariot driven by his daughter Tullia. Tarquinius became king and refused to give proper burial services for his father-in-law, and became known for that as Tarquinius the Superbus (the "arrogant"). The street where this tragedy happened is still called "Vicus Sceleratus" ("street of infamy").

Tarquinius the Superb was not a particularly bad king for the standard of the time (made his conquests, built the obligatory temples), but was certainly not a loved one. In part because of the way he acceded to the throne, but most importantly because he tried to restore the power of the oligarchy at a time in which the roman society had already moved on towards more democratic principles. In the end his reign ended when one of his sons raped a respected noblewoman, leading to a revolt of the outraged population and to the founding of the Roman Republic, based on the institutions started by Servius Tullius, the last roman benevolent king.

The rest is history.

Umbria, Italy (September 18, 2009)

Friday, November 29, 2013

The Long Spine of Italy

Umbria, Italy (October 28, 2007)

When thinking about mountains in Italy, Alps come first to mind. That's only half of the story, though. Just a few valleys down from Valle Pesio, the Alps end, and a long chain of gentler mountains starts: the Apennines. While the Alps divide Italy from central Europe, the Apennines are like the spine of the peninsula, and divide the coast of the Adriatic sea on the east from the Tirrenian coast to the west. They go on for 1,500 km, as far south as the tip of the italian "boot", actually crossing the Scylla and Charybdis straits into Sicily.

Between the Alps and the Apennines, it should be clear by now that Italy is mostly a mountainous country. You cannot really go from one coast to the other, or enter the river Po valley from south, without crossing some mountain. Fortunately the Apennines are not as high and fierce as the Alps, and numerous roads have been made to cross them since the times of the romans. The romans were also the first to dig tunnels through the Apennines, like the gallery of the Furlo pass (next to an even more ancient tunnel dug by the Etruscans), which is still in use today. Today these mountains are criss-crossed by the italian excellent highway and railroad system, consisting of a long sequence of very impressive tunnels and viaducts, where italians drive at impossible speeds in narrow lanes without even the concept of safety distance.

The photos in this post were all shot in Umbria. This is one of the few landlocked italian regions, completely cut off from the sea by the Apennines. We have been in Umbria several times, as one of my collaborators works there, providing me an excellent excuse for repeated visits. Mayli also had one meeting in the area. In those occasions we usually fly to Torino, get my parent's car, and drive south, trying to stay away from the highway as much as possible, to maximize the chance of scenic roads driving, up and down the gentle mountain passes, from secret valley to hidden lake, along the ancient roman's roads.

The first great civilization to arise on the Apennines, having the epicenter in Umbria and Tuscany, was the one of the Etruscans. They were a mysterious population, unrelated to Upper Paleolithic hunter-gatherer european populations. Recent mitochondrial DNA analysis suggests that their origins may be found in the middle-east, corroborating the theories of Herodotus, about the etruscans being refugees from Lydia (in Anatolia) seeking new fertile lands after a devastating drought. Their language is still undeciphered, so we know very little about their history, except that at some point they were controlling the northern part of the mediterranean sea. That came to the end with the expansion of Rome, that like the borgs gradually assimilated all etruscan cities, giving rise to a single state under the roman republic. It is not by chance that the last three of the seven mythological kings of Rome had etruscan origins: the legend symbolizes the birth of this merged civilization destined to dominate all the lands around the Mediterranean sea in the millennium to come.

Umbria, Italy (October 28, 2007)

Monday, November 25, 2013

Les Château de la Vallée d'Aoste

Fort Bard, Italy (March 14, 2009)

The Aosta valley is the smallest italian region. In the north-west corner of Italy, bordering with France and Switzerland, it is a long valley meandering through the highest mountains in the Alps, including the Mont Blanc, the Monte Rosa and the Matterhorn. It has a special autonomous status within the italian republic, not least because the main language spoken in the valley is a form of Franco-Provençal patois (dialect). Due to its geographical position, the Aosta valley had a special strategic place in history, as keeper of the high mountain passes allowing access to Italy from France. Hence, the castles.

Fort Bard
There are 72 castles just in the main valley, originally built as military fortifications, later on as residences to show the power and wealth of the local nobility. The two castles shown in the photos of this post are among the most famous of the lot. 

The Fort Bard you see in the photo, is a XIX century reconstruction of the original fortification, located in the narrowest point in the valley, already existing in roman time. In 1034 the fort was known as the "inexpugnabile oppidum", the one that cannot be conquered for its perfect strategic position. After being occupied by a litany of feudal families (including the powerful Bard), it came to the possession of the House of Savoy in 1661 (this is the same dynasty that in 1860 managed to unify the whole of Italy, and that was unceremoniously booted at the end of WWII -- thankfully), and heavily fortified. The rise to fame of the fort came in the year 1800, when the 400 austrian soldiers garrisoned at Bard managed to stop the advance of Napoleon's 40,000-strong army for more than two weeks. Napoleon was so upset by this delay, caused by what he called "the vilain castel" which ruined the surprise attack he had envisioned, that once the fort surrendered he razed it to the ground. Rebuilt 30 years later, it is now open to the public, and hosts a museum.

The square castle in the panoramic below is the Verres castle. Built in the mid-XIII century, it is one of the first examples of medieval castles built as a single massive building (rather than multiple smaller buildings enclosed by a fortified wall). The castle has a rich history, concerning mainly the wars of successions within the family (the Challant) that owned the area. In 1442 Frederico Challant died without male heir, and the castle was inherited by his daughter Caterina. The testament was however challenged by her cousin Giacomo di Challant Aymaville, invoking the Salic law preventing inheritance by a female member of the family. War ensued, and Caterina was finally defeated when her husband was killed by Giacomo in an ambush. After surrendering all her possession to her cousin, she was accused of witchcraft, but then pardoned. She never managed to recover her land, but remained very popular among the people of the valley: an episode on May 31 1450, during the war with Giacomo, in which she left the fortress with her husband to dance with the populace is still remembered fondly by the villagers, and re-enacted every year during the carnival in Verres. The castle is one of the most visited in Valle d'Aosta.

I took these photos while we were driving to La Thuile, at the end of the Aosta Valley, where Mayli was attending a physics conference (and skiing if I remember correctly). There are many other castles in the valley, and from time to time I had the chance to visit some of them. One of them, in fact, was the stage for a wedding I attended when I was a small kid, the one where I gave the bride a bunch of bugs as wedding present. But that's an old story you can read in full here.

Verres Castle, Italy (March 14, 2009)

Saturday, November 23, 2013

Skiing in Valle Pesio

Parco Alta Valle Pesio, Italy (March 21, 2009)

Valle Pesio is where I learned to ski. Cross country skiing, that is, since the valley doesn't have any real downhill skiing slope, which is good because downhill slopes cuts through the forest and you don't want that in a natural park. Cross country skiing instead gets you everywhere. If there is snow you can ski on it as if you were hiking, skiing on the mountain trails all the way to the end, up to the last gias on the crest of the mountain, in view of the Marguareis veiled by the morning mist.

Pian delle Gorre
The photo on the panoramic below is taken on the road to the gias Mascarone. In summer it is a nice walk through sparse birch trees chattering in the wind with their persistent murmurs. In winter it is an easy ski route, with a gentle slope that goes from the end of the road to the summit of the homonymous mountain. At the end of the fall, when the first cold air announces the coming of the snow, it is like walking in Lothlorien, as the larch trees all turn to a golden shade (larix decidua is one of the few pine-like tree that loses its leaves in winter, and you can see some in one of the small photos here, on the road to the gias  Mascarone). 

My favorite winter trail, however, goes from the Certosa to the Pian delle Gorre. The skiing trail, which is in part groomed as shown above, follows the road that leads to the end of the valley, where most of the park trails start, including the trail to the rifugio Garelli. It goes back and forth on the two sides of the river Pesio, to avoid the steeper spots of the road, and the place where avalanches are more common, a turn in the road aptly named "malavalanca". By the time you reach the pian delle Gorre you are skiing in a forest, right in the heart of the park. It is not uncommon to be the only skier along the trail, with only the crackling noise of the crunching snow interrupting the continuous music of the wind. That's when you can meet the inhabitant of the forest, like the shy roe deer or the massive wild boar (yes, I met both while on the ski, the sight of one more welcomed than the other).

Even now that I live so far from these mountains, I eagerly wait the first few inches of snow, to put on my ski and Kero's skijoring harness, and walk out on the snow on a skiing exploring adventure.

Gias Mascarone, Italy (November 4, 2007)

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Bastianin and the rifugio Garelli

Pian del Lupo, Alta Valle Pesio, Italy (October 3, 2008)

When I was in high school we were living in the "big city" of Torino 5 days a week, but we were spending most of our weekends in Valle Pesio. This was our routine: at noon each Saturday, when both me and my sister finished school, we packed out Fiat (later on it was an Alfa Romeo) with all five of us (that included our cat) and drove to the mountains of Valle Pesio. We did this even in winter when we probably were the only tourists (not residents) in the Valley. In those dark and cold winter evenings, if I didn't have to do my homeworks, I spent an awful amount of time visiting Bastianin, the old mule conductor of the valley, and the caretaker of the rifugio Garelli.

The Garelli is the CAI (Italian Alpine Club) mountain hut in the valley. It is the Valle Pesio stop along the Grande Traversata delle Alpi, the long distance hiking trail that goes from one end to the other of the alpine chain. It is located at the Pian del Lupo (Plateau of the Wolf) at the feet of the Marguareis massif, about 2 hours hike along a scenic mountain trail. It is named after Piero Garelli, president of the CAI of Modovi (a nearby town), who died as prisoner in the Mauthausen concentration camp during WWII.

The original rifugio Garelli was built in 1949, just after the war. Shaped as an half-barrel, like an hobbit-house, it could only host about 20 people. This is the Garelli I associate with Bastianin, who was its custodian for many many years. Every spring, as soon as the snow started to melt in the high valley, Bastianin and his mule left their home in San Bartolomeo, to open the rifugio and make it ready for the mountaineers aiming to climb the Marguareis, for the skiers competing in the annual "three refuges mountain-ski race", or for the tourists seeking just a few days off from the city. Bastianin was the human counterpart of the Garelli for a lifetime. Even in his retirement, when I was visiting him in those long winter evening, while he was making straw brooms in his stable, heated by a cast iron stowe and the breath of his last mule, he was the off-season keeper of the Garelli's keys.

Bastianin's rifugio burned out, in mysterious circumstances, in 1987. The people in San Bartolomeo only heard loud bangs when the gas bottles in the hut finally exploded due to the intense heat, after the structure burned for several days. I visited the site a few weeks after that happened, and all you could see were the corrugated tin foil of the roof, and the glass sculptures made by the windows as they melt (I still keep some of those in my parent's house). Being the rifugio one of the symbols of the valley (and one of its main attractions) it was decided to rebuild it on the same site. To save money, everybody was asked to contribute in kind for the construction work: a pile of sand and concrete bags was left at the beginning of the trail for the hikers to put in their backpacks, and transport up to the construction site. I did my part, and even had my very brief career as construction worker. One day while I was there unloading my sack of concrete, a crazy irresponsible guy decided to hand me a huge pneumatic hammer so that I could do my part in demolishing the burned out foundation of the rifugio. As soon as the diabolic power-tool was turned on, I was shot through the air while the pneumatic hammer jumped around destroying everything in its path. The crazy guy finally decided that I didn't have the physique du role to be a construction worker, and from then on I stuck to carry concrete bags and, a few years later, to physics.

The large photo above shows the new Garelli, a large structure that can host as many as 90 people. The panoramics below shows the Garelli in his setting against the magnificent rock wall of the Marguareis. The small picture on the left shows the view from the Garelli, looking down the valley. The stone construction is the Gias Suvran d'Sestrera, one of the temporary housing for the seasonal herders that live with their cows, goats and sheeps in the high valley during the summer. If you look carefully, you can actually see, beyond the opening of the Valle Pesio, the mists of the Po valley and, even farther away under the clouds, the mountains on the opposite sides of the Alps, all the way to the Matterhorn.

Pian del Lupo, Alta Valle Pesio, Italy (October 3, 2008)

Wednesday, November 13, 2013


Marguareis, Valle Pesio, Italy (July 1, 2004)

The centerpiece of the Marguareis Park is the homonym massif. With an elevation of 2,651 meters is the highest peak on the Ligurian Alps. Seen from the Pesio Valley, it shows an impressive rocky wall broken by deep ravines filled with snow until late in summer. From the south side, however, climbing the mountain is just the matter of a long walk on a gentle grassy slope that goes all the way up to the summit. 

Canalone dei Genovesi
As mentioned before, the massif and the plateau behind it (the "Carsene") are made of a porous sedimentary rock similar to the carbonate mineral found on the opposite end of the Alps in the Dolomites. This rock is very easy to weathering, and gives rise to the karstic phenomena that characterize the area, including cave system feeding the Pis du Pes by collecting the water of the Carsene plateau. While accessing the summit from south is technically easy, it is also a very long trek, as one has to first reach the elevation of the Carsene from the base of the valley, cross the whole plateau, and finally walk up to the summit. And then walk all the way back, requiring quite a long hike at a brisk pace, starting at dawn to get back just before dark. The alternative is of course to climb one of the steep gullies that lead directly to the summit cutting through the rocky north face of the mountain. This last option is the route I chose the only time I climbed the Marguareis.

The summer after I finished high school, while I was waiting to go to Pisa for the first year of college, I spent some time in Valle Pesio hiking with one of my classmates and a few local friends. For our Marguareis expedition we chose the route passing through the "Canalone of the Torinesi", which is the normal route passing through the ravine first climbed by a group of alpinists from Torino. The route is quite steep: one has first to reach the entrance of the ravine by climbing the talus cone at its base (similar to the one in the small photo at the left), then go up the gully on a slope as steep as 40 degrees, where the main hazard are the loose rocks ready to fall on the head of your companions if you are not very careful. For this reason the preferred time for the climb is in early spring, when the gully is still filled with hard snow keeping all the rocks in place. Our climb was in summer, though, and the snow had all melt, and we had to negotiate our climb with the unstable rocks in the ravine. We did make it to the summit by late afternoon (much later than everybody advised), electing to descend from the back of the mountain, through the Carsene plateau, preferring the long leisurely walk to the fast hazardous descent. We finally arrived in San Bartolomeo just after sunset (causing a certain amount of apprehension to my parents waiting for us in front of a very cold dinner).

That day was also the last time I saw my schoolmate. Stefano (that was his name) shortly after our hike had an accident while training in a climbing area near Torino: the rope he was hanging on wasn't properly secured, and he fell all the way to the base, hitting his head and entering into a coma. He passed away after a few weeks, never waking up.

Marguareis, Valle Pesio, Italy (October 3, 2008)

Sunday, November 10, 2013

Parco Alta Valle Pesio

Gias Funtena, Valle Pesio, Italia (July 1, 2004)

San Bartolomeo is the entrance point of the Park of the Marguareis, a regional park developed around the Marguareis massif, the highest peak of the Ligurian Alps. The park straddles the mountain, extending in the two valleys on either side of the massif: the Pesio and Tanaro valleys. Its location at the southern tip of the Alps and the influence from the sea gives it a unique micro-climate, sustaining a very rich ecosystem: within the confines of the park there are as much as 1/4 of all the vegetal species of Italy. The park supports a very rich and varied fauna, that includes a large presence of ungulates (chamois, deer, roe deer, wild boars). A pack of wolves has also settled in the park in recent years.

San Bartolomeo
The two sides of the park are very different. The Pesio valley is lush and green, covered by a dense forest that goes all the way up to the feet of the Marguareis (you can see the characteristic vertical "wall" of the mountain in the photo at the bottom). The large photo above shows instead the "Pis du Pes" (literally, the "piss of the Pesio"), which is the spring of the river that gives the name to the valley. For most of the year the waters of the pesio seep through the gravel at the base of the rocky wall shown above. With the spring snowmelt, however, a vast system of underground lakes fills up, until the water level reaches a series of holes in the middle of the wall, from which it escapes in a magnificent waterfall: the "Pis". The phenomenon happens every year, but doesn't last very long. I have seen it a few times but I don't have any photo to show for it. The Tanaro valley side of the park, on the other hand, is very dry. The Marguareis is made of the same kind of calcium magnesium carbonate as the Dolomites, which is very porous and easily infiltrated by water. The massif hides a vast system of caves, which collect all the water in the high valley feeding the underground lakes from which the Pesio is born. This is one of the largest and deepest system of caves in Europe, with over 43 km of extension and 1,000 meters of depth for just one of the many cave complexes in the area, the Piaggia Bella system. These caves are not accessible to the public (you need serious training and climbing equipment to access), but when I was in graduate school I was part of a speleological team and I had the privilege of spending a few hours in the belly of the mountain visiting the caves (didn't find any ring or dragon, though).

The road to Mascarone
Despite being a protected area, the park pastures are still used by the villagers to raise their cattle and sheep from spring to fall. The network of hiking trails criss-crossing the valley is used to connect a system of "gias" (like the two in the large photo above). Made of stone, they are used as temporary housing for the herders and to keep the cheese as it ages, until it is ready at the end of the summer. The gias are only accessible via the hiking trails: there are no roads entering the park. This means that twice a year, in the early hours of a day of spring and in the wee hours of an evening in the fall, a noisy procession of cows pass through San Bartolomeo on their way to, or coming from, the high pastures in the park. Until I came to the US I spent most of my summers in valle Pesio. While there, I was spending most of my time hiking the trails in the park, mostly alone, sometimes going out for a whole day-long walk several times in a row. I think I have been to all gias and reached the end of most trails in the park, on foot in summer and on sky in winter, and I came to know the area quite well. When I say that I miss mountains, these are the mountains I miss.

Marguareis from the Gias Sutan d'Sestrera (October 3, 2008)


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