Sunday, July 10, 2011

The end of the world

 It was vintage car day, up in the mountains. Bit worrying, the thought of all those elderly brake disks wobbling up and down the hairpin bends. Hopefully they update the safety features as often as they update their bumper stickers: I'm pretty sure 'Io non sono su Feisbuk' was not on the  back window when these vehicles rolled off the production line. Zuckerberg probably wan't even born. This is the valley called Chisone, and  the castle is Fenestrelle, no, nothing to do with windows, it's Finis Terra - the end of the world, or at least the ancient mountain kingdom of the Cozii, loyal allies of the Roman Empire.
There are always two sides to every edge, of course.
 Living on the edge, of the mountain, and of both French and Italian bureaucracy, is the natural condition of the people of the tiny village of the same name, in the valley on the 'French' side of the castle, a tight, inhospitable no-man's-land between Savoia and Savoie.
There is a sign in the main square / communal parking lot (only residents can get beyond the traffic barrier that closes the village off to mere motorized visitors) it's one of those finger posts, pointing to Antarctica and LA; it also reminds you that here we're only a few hundred km from Paris and Rome.
Even on this warm and busy weekend, with brightly coloured Tour-de-France types, and mad motorbikes, and no end of car-bound daytrippers like us, it feels like a world of its own, a place where you walk and stoop and climb, even before you start up to the fort, clinging to the hillside above. Like landlubbers on a sliding sea, we don't belong.
It's a place of watchful eyes and whispering. Small balconies and glazed doors doubling as living room windows stand cheek to jowl like kissing cousins.  You can just imagine small barrels and bales of dutiable goods being slyly passed from hand to silent hand, down these alleyways.
How much do you think that the physical shape of a place influences the mentality of its inhabitants, and how much does the mentality shape the building of the place?  How much does time operate on our minds? The tension was palpable as the vigile urbano went about giving tickets to every vehicle out of place in this tiny, one-street village. Even to this 2CV, parked here to publicize the vintage car event.
*ut oh, somebody didn't get a permit*

The fortress of Fenestrelle is both daunting and picturesque.
Here's a model, located in what were the Officer's Quarters, then a prison...
The model and the fanciest, aerial photos show Fenestrelle as a white streak against a hard, grey background, as if it's separate from the mountain. Crazy, that. It's a part of the mountain, it's the mountain manipulated, pushed into shape.
I think it was always a prison, in one sense or another, to every man of imagination who came here. In the final days of its military occupation, they let first the officers, and then the ordinary soldiers bring their wives into the fort, and raise families here, and that must have softened even these walls a bit.  But for the most part it was not that way.
Bourbons, communists, crooks, and priests alike came here to wither and die, and if you didn't actually croak from the cold and the rheumatism,  the time spent here must have felt like stolen years, for the most part. It took like 70 years to build; a lifetime, a living death.
It's the Great Wall of the Alps; severe, organized, regimented. Not visible from space, not even visible from the end of the valley.
It's really three castles; this one, at the bottom, spanned the main road. The partisans it blew up to prevent the Germans using the valley to ship guns and goodies out of Italy. It's in the process of being rebuilt, but, what with modern traffic and so forth, will never be the low arched affair it was before. The middle castle is the main visitor center, and a third crowns the mountain. They are joined by an amazing covered staircase, covered to keep out the snow and marauders.
Weird, how something can be so big, so enduring and important, and here, we've driven past it, lived within a few dozen miles of it, and wandered of times in the mountains on either side of this valley, without it ever so much as registering on our radar.
Bit like taking a ferry, and sailing in utter ignorance, right over the  head of a Blue Whale, or something.
This place is no fun any time when the sky is not clear, I'm guessing.
All those drawbridges... cozy? or claustrophic?
The garrison was here to keep an eye on the French, and on the inhabitants up-stream, who used to be French, and then were Italian, and probably never felt much like either. The geraniums are a 21st century thing; the cast'es slowly being restored thanks to a volunteer group and grants from worthy bodies.

 There are 3-4000 steps to climb; the guided tour takes a full day, to go up and see the whole fort. The view from the top was not going to be clear, and the grim, empty garrison rooms was haunting enough, just looking at them from the outside.
 We preferred to sit in the sun with our eyes shut and our faces turned up to the sky, and think about the passing of years, and the stones, and the people who lived in them both.

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