12 April 2012

Me and My Delta....

Me and My Delta…..

Nicola is expecting us; the paperwork is soon complete, and three hours after checking in at Gatwick on a grey Monday morning in April we are on our way out of Verona’s Valerio Catullo airport.

I am no motoring geek, and claim no Clarkson gene, but something about the new Lancia Delta 1.6 litre diesel multijet affects me like the full moon, transforming a rather pedestrian sixty-year-old Englishman, into something else – not the Italian Stallion that symbolises the Ferrari perhaps, but at least a pit pony on holiday in fresh green pasture.  I want to kick my heels, tap my toes on the pedals, and frisk through the (six) gears as I lean into the corners and fly down the straights.  In fact, I feel kin to every one of the 120 brake horses under the bonnet, and just to celebrate our arrival I jump out of the stalls from 0 – 100 kph in 10.7 seconds…… 

The Lancia brand was famous for its World Rally Challenge career in the late 1980s and early 1990s, when it dominated rallying. Because of regulations the car had also to be produced commercially, and so the Lancia Delta HF4WD and Integrale - 5000 were produced. Now we are into the third generation and this model, designed by the Lancia Style Centre, was unveiled at the 2008 Geneva motor show and is aimed at the luxury end of the small family car market.  I guess my wife and I constitute a small family (the rest of the tribe missed out on this trip!) and for us this is certainly luxury (at a price of about £20,000 possession would be way beyond our means).

I settle back in the moulded seat, appreciating the clarity of the Bose cd player, barely disturbed by engine or tyre noise, and enjoying the scenery unfolding around us as we glide down towards Bardolino and the blue expanse of Lake Garda.  The narrow road twists along the lake shore, slowing through villages which squeeze between the water and the steeply rising hills, and the car seems to enjoy itself, relishing the bright world around it and positively welcoming the vistas exposed at every turn.

First stop is Malcesine, infamous for having imprisoned Goethe in 1786, in the Scaligero castle, on suspicion of being a spy (something that also happened to me in the town of Norma, south of Rome, some years ago – a self-important and officious Comandante of the Carabinieri failing to understand why a foreigner with a camera should be interested in the 2,500 year old cyclopean walls of nearby Norba).  Subsequently Gustav Klimt stayed and painted (but avoided imprisonment!).  The town, which clings to its castle, still bears the imprint of its medieval past. The historic centre is a labyrinth of cobbled alleys and little piazze, spilling down to the harbour from where various boat trips are possible.  Nowadays Germans inundate the town on sunny days (with internet weather forecasts they don’t bother to leave their homeland unless the prospects are clement) as the Brenner pass is only a short distance away. 

I last stayed here (in Tonino’s campsite, which still flourishes) at the time Elvis died, and remember vividly how the gods lamented, waves of tears drenching the landscape from sad grey thunderclouds.  We are fortunate this time, however, and though visibility is not crystal clear, the top of Monte Baldo (1783 metres nearer the sky than the lake) is unshrouded and the cable car ride enables us to enjoy the views without the strain of obsessive hiking.  Vestiges of the winter snows decorate the northern and Eastern slopes, but tiny white and purple crocuses poke through the dry grasses and herald the spring.

At lake level, gardens are elaborate with non-native trees and shrubs as well as oleanders and vines, but up the slopes cherries and olives abound, and then oaks and chestnuts, then ashes and pines, then beech and finally birch.  Amongst these there are orchids and above all you will hear skylarks and, possibly, see golden eagles.

In the evening I quietly sit in a bar and watch the lights of the town of Limone, on the western shore, sparkle through my glass, the lights emphasising the black depths of the fiord-like lake.

The next morning we head north, the car eager to move, champing at the bit.  From Garda we nose through Arco and Dro, then under the teeth and eyebrow Castello at Sarche, shielding us from the Brenta massif, then we pause by the pre-Raphaelite beauty of the medieval towers and crenellated walls of Castel Toblino, mirrored in the waters of its homonymous lake, which itself is adorned by an islet of cormorants, splashing themselves in their reflections.

Thence to Trento, modest regional capital, host to the Council of Trent (incidentally this raises approximately 2.5 million results on Google) which was first convoked by Pope Paul III in 1545 (it actually went on for 18 years in three locations, under three different popes) to clarify the doctrines of the Catholic Church in the face of the very awkward and irritating interventions of Martin Luther and his followers, who were involved in a movement known as “Protestantism.”  This Counter-Reformation was the last great council before Pope John XXIII confirmed the precepts of Trent at Vatican II, a position subsequently endorsed by Pope Paul VI.

Trento today rises above the river Adige at a key point on the Autostrada A22 (a little south of Bolzano and the Brenner pass) and the main rail link between north eastern Italy and Austria and Germany. It’s an attractive town, though did not get a mention in the recent “Times” top ten cool Italian locations.  We leave the Delta safely in an underground car park to explore, but find the Duomo occupied by a forty hour non-stop prayer session (with fierce notices denying access to tour groups - which seem to have little effect on those who have itineraries to follow); we cheat by joining the similarly grey-haired faithful praying along with the elderly priesthood…..

The main attraction of the town, however, is the Castello del Buonconsiglio, which saw service as the residence of the Prince Bishops.  This is a curious mixture of flamboyance, architectural poise and historical emotion.  There is a touch of Windsor Castle about the walled and bastioned exterior, but then inside it’s more Hatfield House with Tower of London additions, though with a strong Italo-German accent. Part of it is medieval castle, and part renaissance palace.  There are frescoed walls – most notably in the Eagle Tower, where an unknown fifteenth century painter depicted the months of the year in delightful detail.  There are gloomy rooms, and splendid gardens, and a wonderful loggia with views over the town roofs to the mountains beyond, but most affectingly there are some small impregnable cells, constructed by walling in a series of arches, where the patriots Damiano Chiesa, Cesare Battisti and Fabio Filzi and others were held by the Austrians in 1916, tied to iron loops set in the walls.  Their trials were held in the old refectory, and their executions carried out in the Fossa degli Martiri below the castle walls. 

A journalist and politician with irredentist opinions, Cesare Battisti became a soldier in the Alpini Corps, fighting for Italian repatriation of his home town against the Austro-Hungarian Empire. He was captured at the battle of Asiago, on July 10th, 1916, and his last words, recorded by the chaplain, were:  “In my forty-two years I have achieved what many men fail to achieve in a long life.”  Then, having been dressed in shabby civilian clothes rather than the military uniform he was entitled to, he was garrotted and hanged. The thought of his untimely death in the grim ditch outside the castle, with the subsequent photos of smiling Austrian soldiers proudly displaying their victim, chills me.  Nearly one hundred years have passed, but the pain and injustice can still be felt.

We return to the Lancia, which is keen to escape from its dungeon.  I imagine that Cesare Battisti would have appreciated this car, and see him slipping into the back seat as we negotiate the busy streets of the town and surge away from the heavy walls of the fortress, a rope trailing from the battlements.  Ultimately his aim of unification of his native town with Italy was achieved and his spirit lives on.

The road rises rapidly up away from the Adige, and then we loop up into the Valley of the Pinè, the car purring as it climbs.  The village of Baselga di Pinè is a resort of villeggiatura, or non-specific vacation – i.e. no ski slopes nor rock climbs, just peaceful walks and fresh air away from the heat of summer cities.  It is just below 1000 metres and has an attractive lake (Lago di Serraia) complete with a fully working model beach.  Franca Merz is expecting us at the Due Camini, though she is also very busy celebrating her mother, Lucia Balbo’s, 90th birthday with a large group of similarly aged guests.  Her hotel and restaurant was built for her mother in 1974 in an alpine chalet style.  It is comfortable and peaceful and the food, based on local resourced products, is renowned, with dishes such as home made ravioloni stuffed with pumpkin, venison with polenta, and a chocolate bonet for dessert. But Franca, who speaks English, French, and German as well as her native Italian (and who is a speed-skating referee in her spare time) wants to sell, and the business has been on the market for some time.  The trade is too intermittent (again people choose or cancel according to the weather reports) and it is hard to get staff when and if guests decide to turn up.

Before we dine, we go to pay our respects to the sanctuary of the Madonna at Montagnana, where in 1729 Mary appeared five times to the shepherdess Domenica Talga.  The first shrine was erected here in 1740, but since then a complex of hotels has gathered around the site, and now a neo-baroque Sanctuary, incorporating a Scala Santa, which was dedicated in 1906, stands with magnificent views of the mountains amongst an eerily quiet pine wood.  As we return to the car park, I glimpse a woman’s form peering through the windscreen of the Lancia, seemingly dusting the glass.  She has gone, however, before we arrive.

After breakfast, the high-spot of which is a mostarda di cotògna (quince preserve), we hit the road again, heading north into the Dolomites.  Initially we spiral down the Valfloriana, through dense forest, with the steep valley on our left.  Then we pick up the N50 at Cavalese and then the N48 up the Val di Fiemme to Moena.  The road is well made and I can open up the Lancia’s 16 valves and leave the local traffic standing. 

We then start to climb properly up to the San Pellegrino pass, where skiers are making the most of the last snows of winter above 2000 metres.  I am followed up the hairpins by a powerful Mercedes, which gains on me on every straight, but which cannot handle the curves like the Lancia.  For a moment I become 007, or the Transporter, with the baddies on my tail, and the gear stick warms to the multiple changes as the road twists and turns through the double chevrons on the map.  Reaching the pass I spin the car to a halt with a handbrake turn and dive for my beretta, but I have beaten the Merc and it explodes in a ball of flame as it plummets into a ravine, destroying a ski lift and hotel complex with it……  I step away from the Delta, light a Balkan Sobrani and admire the silence of the snowy peaks.

It’s then all downhill, literally, with the gears holding me back and the electronic damping control on the SDC suspension keeping us comfortable as we slice down 700 metres in seven kilometres, then another 500 metres in 10 kilometres to reach the gorge of the Cordevole torrent that takes us to Agordo.  This road, Number 203, is exciting and the car responds superbly, its electronic stability control being used to the full.  We are bounded by precipices and a scurrying river, and the tarmac slips through tunnels and round blind bends with unflappable aplomb.  And everyone goes at their own pace – trucks rumbling on their business at 50kph, grizzled contadini in their Api struggling to hit 40 kph, and flash saloons with some kind of urgency.  I have to get past them all, as my business is of the utmost importance.  The Delta stalks the opposition until it sees its chance and it pounces forward, devouring the prey and careering away before it can be caught.  Even in fifth gear there is plenty of power to surge past some dawdler at 110kph and then I ease into sixth and carry on as if nothing had happened, touching 130 on the straights (top speed is in the region of 190kph, but I am keeping that for another day!)

We stop in Belluno for lunch, appropriating the only remaining parking space, and profiting from the local custom of not charging between 12.00 and 2.30pm (while the Vigili have a break!).  The town is quiet as the market is just packing up.  The Venetian style predominates in the centro storico, with a graceful Palazzo dei Rettori in the Piazza del Duomo, looking almost as if it has washed up here after some Adriatic tsunami.  The town sits atop a rocky terrace at the confluence of the Piave and the Ardo rivers, and is surrounded by mountains, with the Dolomites to the north and the Prealpi bellunesi to the south. A busy little trattoria provides me with a piadina and a small plate of local cheeses, seasoned with a delicious sweet pear jam, and accompanied by a glass of dry white wine from the region.

We then head west on minor roads to view the Certosa di Vedana, splendidly isolated beneath the peak of Monte Alto (2069m) whose slopes are a designated nature reserve.  This Charterhouse, or Carthusian Monastery, was founded, by Act of Pope Hadrian IV, as a Lay Confraternity in 1155, becoming a centre for the Certosini in the mid fifteenth century, with the church being finished in 1471. 

In 1769, following a decree of suppression, the Carthusians were expelled and the buildings became a privately owned farm. It was not until 1882 that the monastery, without lands or benefits, was returned to the Order, under the patronage of the Charterhouse of Pavia.  During the First World War it narrowly escaped destruction in conflict, and indeed, a fortnight before the end of the war it was occupied by the Austrians, who installed electricity and mounted cannons on the walls, but fortunately no harm came of this.

The Second World War also passed very close by, with suspicions and inspections by the occupying German forces, but again without conspicuous damage.  Throughout most of the twentieth century in fact the monastery played an important part in local life, providing food for the hungry, and as a centre of religious sanctity for those in need.

Then, in 1977 the Order decided to consolidate its monasteries, and the sixteen religious brothers and fathers were transferred to other sites, although the traditions were then taken over by a community of Carthusian nuns, and while there was a complete change of guard in 1998, it is still essentially a community of nuns (twelve of them, with a Carthusian father and three brothers) who live there, dedicated to prayer, work and silence.

It is indeed a silent place, though the sounds of the river, the wind in the trees and the songs of birds can be heard over the ticking of the Delta’s engine.  I shush the car, out of respect, and for a moment the ticking dies, the bird song deafens…….

In the evening we eat at the Osteria tradizionale “Alla Certosa” where Casimiro welcomes us as old friends.  The place is a gem; tastefully simple and warmly comfortable on this wet, dark night.  We are not the first there and soon it is almost full, despite its fairly remote location.  Our dinner is a dream; light, fresh, and original, using locally sourced ingredients (such as speck, and asparagi) and accompanied by a superb white wine.  If it wasn’t for the car outside in the rain we would take another bottle…..

In the night it rains and rains.  The Delta finds its way without fault to our hotel, no slips or skids, and then waits calmly ‘til the morning, when it is up betimes, with no complaints, dry and warm inside and with no worries about the change of weather.  We motor on to the little town of Feltre, the only blemish being the squawk of the wipers – must get that fixed!

Feltre is another Venetian outpost, with the old town an extended citadel upon a hill.  The Delta has to wait while we explore on foot, almost alone, through the stepped streets and arcades up to the castle.  The Piazza Maggiore, deserted due to the rain, is an extraordinary space, flanked by palazzi and the church of San Rocco and dominated by the castle.  There’s a Venetian gothic flavour, but the drifting clouds and surrounding hills add a less maritime feel.  We climb to the castle, adorned by curious ironwork designs, but no one is home.

On toward Vicenza, for our last night.  I feel at one with the Lancia, and almost prefer driving it to wandering empty streets.  I have learnt its individual traits, and it just needs to be stroked like a cat to purr and play.  I am not going to want to give it back, and would like to carry on driving, to Florence or Rome, or even over the Alps and home.  Could I get away with it?  Would they follow me?  Damn credit cards!  How much would it cost me?

But one more stop on the way, to see the Palladian Ponte Vecchio and the Museo degli Alpini at Bassano del Grappa.  The wooden bridge over the river Brenta, originally designed by Andrea Palladio in 1569, has been destroyed, by war or flood, and rebuilt at least eight times, the last being in 1948.  The town is busy, as a great market has filled the central piazza, and we are back on the tourist trail, with Germans and Brits making us feel like foreigners again.  We park on the Viale degli Martiri, where 31 neatly trimmed trees each bear a memorial to the partisans hanged there by the Germans in the Second World War.  We then walk down to the bridge, and to the Taverna del Ponte, for refreshment overlooking the river, and to view the two storeys below the bar that house the museum of the Alpini.  The various rooms are crammed with memorabilia: photos, helmets, uniforms, guns, bayonets, shells, a mock-up of a gun emplacement complete with a porcupine made of barbed wire, a bicycle with rifle attached.  The emphasis is on the First World War, but the regiment is the oldest active Mountain Infantry in the world, having been founded in 1872, and having seen distinguished service in the Alps for three years in WWI. 
The Alpini are also famous, and much loved, in Italy for their singing, and various Choirs specialise in their extensive repertoire of unaccompanied part songs – many of them popular traditional folk songs.  One is, “Addio, mia bella, addio,” which starts as a farewell to a soldier’s love when he has to depart because the army is on the march and it would be cowardice not to go along.  Verse two goes: “The back pack is ready/ I have my rifle with me/ and at sunrise/ I will take my leave from you.”  And the third and final verse goes: “Ma non ti lascio sola/ io ti lascio un figlio ancor,/ sarà quel che ti consola:/ il figlio dell’amor.” Which roughly translated means, “But I won’t leave you alone; I leave you a son who will console you: the child of love.” 

The Lancia has a feather in its cap as we speed down to Vicenza, and I hear the engine sighing, “Addio, mia bella, addio.”

And so to Vicenza, city of Palladio, città d’arte.  In the Osteria Vicolo Santa Barbara, sustained by an €0.80 glass of wine from a tap, I read, in Il Giornale di Vicenza, that according to the London “Times” Vicenza is one of the ten “piú cool” places in Italy.  And certainly there are plenty of visitors here to back that up.  And it is all down to Andrea Palladio, though he has had some help from various marketing devices.  When I first visited the extraordinary Teatro Olimpico here I had a personal guide who told me the history, and allowed me to explore the rake of the stage and behind the scenes so I could appreciate the way the illusion of perspective was created. 

This time, in the company of a polyglot assembly of tourists, we are made to sit on the wooden tiers and are treated to a son et lumière with coloured lighting set to the music of Pink Floyd!  It is very impressive, but why Pink Floyd?  Why not Monteverdi, or Corelli?  What does this tell us about renaissance art and architecture?  Might just as well put a Lancia Delta on the stage!

Anyway, after yet another fine evening meal (care of the Antica Osteria al Bersagliere), we redress the balance on our final morning by visiting the Villa Valmarana and La Rotonda just outside the city.  These two villas, set beside the Vallata del Silenzio, have no echoes of Pink Floyd, nor unnatural lighting.  The former, with its separate guest rooms, was decorated in the mid eighteenth century by Giovanni Battista Tiepolo and his son, and they covered the walls with flowing brushstrokes of light and air, perfectly picking up the blue sky and cherry blossom of the gardens outside. The subjects range from peasant picnics, to classical mythology, but all seem just right for their spaces and elevations.

A short walk down a rustic lane takes us to La Rotonda, masterpiece of Palladio, who managed in this building to demonstrate how cubes and circles can intersect in perfect harmony.  Joseph Losey recognised this when he filmed “Don Giovanni” here in 1979, but visitors for nearly five hundred years have taken ideas away and half the country houses in Great Britain owe something to this particular house on a hill.

We turn the Lancia toward Verona on the last stage of the trip.  The centuries of design and decoration, of pleasure and practicality, whirl in my mind as I pilot the machine through the traffic, round roundabouts, past lorries and over bridges.  A brief stop in Verona for a climb to the top of the Torre dei Lamberti (368 steps if you are strong enough!) and gnocchi and asparagi for lunch in the Trattoria Portichetti, near San Zeno, and I put my foot down to catch the flight from Valerio Catullo.  The Delta knows its way, and doesn’t resist the temptation to break a few speed limits.  It doesn’t seem fair not to; it’s so easy!  With no time for niceties, and less still for customs, we hit the runway at 170kph and go for max power; I instruct my wife to put the doors to manual and cross check, and before I know it the nose is up and we are airborne, retracting the undercarriage and turning steeply towards Lake Garda and the Alps, and Heaven….. 

I radio the control tower to say, “Thank you Italy.  Thank you Lancia!” thinking to myself that we will be back soon.  The car hums,  Addio, mia bella, addio” and I look back at the airport.  I can just see Nicola waving; waving a piece of paper…..

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