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)

Saturday, November 9, 2013

Valle Pesio

Certosa di Pesio, Italy (November 6, 2007)

You can reach the Pesio Valley driving straight south from Torino. It is a rather short valley, cut through the first segment of the Alps, in between Piedmont and the Mediterranean sea. It is part of Occitania, a vast area in southern Europe were the native language is derived from provençal. The reason why I am mentioning it here is that this is the place where my family live, and as such is the first place I go when I visit Italy.

San Bartolomeo, Italy
My sister live in the village of San Bartolomeo (bell tower is shown in the photo on the left) with my nieces and brother in law, while my parents live in Rondetto, an even smaller village a few miles along the single road that crosses the valley. With a population if less than 4,000, the valley main activity is tourism, together with the typical high mountain agriculture and animal husbandry. During the middle age, however, the valley was an important center of culture and power. Its location in the southernmost branch of the Alps made it an attractive waypoint for the "salt trade" from the Mediterranean sea to the Po valley. Sustained by the trading opportunities, monks of the Carthusians order in 1173 founded a monastery at the head of the valley. The presence of the monastery was initially welcomed by local population, as it provided defence and refuge against the incursions of the saracen pirates regularly attacking the italian inland valleys from the sea.

Old crypt at the Certosa
 As the reach and power of the Certosa grew, however, conflict with the villagers was bound to happen. Looting and destruction of the monastery happened several times during its millenarian history: the structure was abandoned for half a century in 1350, then again in 1509 (when it was burned to the ground) and finally in 1655. Every time it was rebuilt by monks of the same order, until the invasion of Italy by Napoleon, resulting in the abolition of all monastic orders, and the conversion of the structure into a spa. The monastery was finally returned to the church in 1934, when the Missionaries of the Consolata took possession and restored the old buildings. You can visit the structure at any time, as the access is freely permitted without any entrance ticket to pay. The missionaries manage a small store and museum at the entrance of the Certosa, where you can buy trinkets from the Consolata missions, and see crafts from all over the world (and taxidermy, if you really are into that).

Valle Pesio, Italy (November 4, 2007)

Thursday, November 7, 2013

Mount Viso and the Italian Alpine Club

Mount Viso, Italy (October 21, 2007)

I was born in Torino, which is a large (about 2 million people in the metropolitan area) industrial city in northern Italy. It is like Detroit, dominated by its automobile industry. As everything in Italy, though, it is profoundly infused of history. Founded by the romans in the first century BC on the site of a pre-existing celtic village, it survived through the middle ages to finally become the capital of the small Duchy of Savoy in 1563. This was to be a crucial step for the history of the city, because the Duchy would manage to conquer the rest of Italy in 1861, briefly elevating Torino as the first capital of the country, until it was moved to Florence, and then Rome. Torino is crossed by several rivers, the largest of which is the river Po (Eridanus for the Romans). With over 600 km of length, the Po is the longest italian river. It collects the waters of the Italian Alps and brings them to Adriatic sea. On its basin live over 16 million people, nearly 1/3 of the total population of Italy.

The source of the river Po is on the flanks of the mountain shown above, the Mount Viso. With "only" 3,842 m, it is not the highest peak of the Alps, but it has the distinction of being the only high peak in its area, half a kilometer taller than all the other neighboring mountains. If you look at the arc of the Alps from Torino, you will immediately recognize its pyramid of rocks standing out on the south-west. This makes Mount Viso special, and in fact it played a central role in the creation of the Italian Alpine Club shortly after Italy become a nation-state. While this mountain was first climbed in 1861 by an english-french expedition, it was the first italian expedition that in 1863 stirred the imagination of the newly created italian state. It was organized by Quintino Sella, an italian statesman at the head of the ministry of finance in the first italian governments. Passionate about mountains, he put together a team that included representatives coming from the North as well as the South of Italy. The "heterogeneous" composition of his team was a publicity coup and won the admiration of the whole country, still infused by the patriotic spirit following the recently gained political unity. The success of this expedition directly led to the foundation of the Alpine Club, which is still the largest organization of italian mountain aficionados (and of which I am a member myself).

The river Po basin, crowned by the Alps (October 21, 2007)

Sunday, November 3, 2013


Valle Pesio, Italy (July 1, 2004)

By birth and trade, I have a connection to mountains.

The name of region where I was born, Piedmont, literally means "at the feet of the mountains". Torino is surrounded by three sides by the Alps, and by hills on the remaining side. It takes less than one hour to get to the mountains, no matter which side you drive. I spent all the summers of my childhood in small villages in the Alps, which is where my parents have moved to follow my sister that married in one of those villages. I went to graduate school in Trieste, which is a short drive from the Dolomites.

All ground-based astronomical observatories are on mountains. To see the stars you need thin and dry air, otherwise is like trying to see the boat from the bottom of the ocean. The less the air, the sharper the images; the less the humidity, the wider the color spectrum one can access. In addition, mountains are often above the clouds and in remote dark areas far from the city lights.

This affinity led me to visit mountains in all continents (if you count Canary Islands as part of Africa, and ignoring Antarctica for the time being). It time to tell some of the stories of my mountains, and show some of their photos, I have collected all these years. The first installment of this series will start with the next post: follow the new/old post links at the bottom to navigate this series.

Norte Chico, Chile (January 6, 2006)

Friday, November 1, 2013

River Valley Park

South Skunk River, Ames, Iowa (October 26, 2013)

As I have mentioned before, I live close to Squaw creek, which is a third order tributary of the Mississippi. As rivers go, Squaw creek is quite short (42 mi), so short in fact to be fully contained in just three counties. The Squaw creek never gets out of Ames, as it flows into the South Skunk river just a few miles south-east of my house. The South Skunk river is the subject of the photo above.

The Squaw creek and the South Skunk river are the reasons that Ames is criss-crossed with so many green areas. Despite their diminutive sizes, the two rivers are prone to flooding. As a result large areas within the borders of the town cannot be developed, and are reserved for public parks. The River Valley park, in particular, follows a good tract of the South Skunk river as it crosses Ames. With 4 miles of trails, it is one of my favorite places to walk with Kero. The paths follow the river for the whole length of the park, inside a thick canopy of a deciduous forest that looks stunning this time of the year. On the way back the trail border open fields, typically used for either soy or corn (hey, we are in Iowa, the alternative would be pig farms).

In winter the trails are groomed for cross country skiing, which precludes our access to the park during the skiing season. The problem with groomed trails is that Kero doesn't use skis, so if we were to go there we would be stomping on the trails ruining them for the other skiers. For this reason we go to different trails closer to my house, which nobody grooms but that I can still navigate with my larger-than-average cross country skis (pulled by my personal four-legged ski-lift). But there are hopefully several more weeks before we will get to snow time. In the meantime it is good to enjoy the colors and the haze of autumn.

River Valley Park, Ames, Iowa (October 26, 2013)