Distant and strange, cold and brilliant

by Esther Kinsky

Above (Issue I/2019)


For most travellers the Friuli region in north-eastern Italy is simply somewhere they pass through, on their way elsewhere. The karst Alps to the north and east open up into a lighter moraine landscape that reluctantly announces “Italy” before disappearing into the mists, down towards the Adriatic sea. The road divides into two, one heading toward Venice and the other to Trieste. This seemingly disparate stretch of countryside is marked and bound by its rivers – the Piave, Tagliamento and Isonzo, which gather countless streams and mountain springs as they meander toward the sea – as well as its mountains, which embrace the hill country softly in a giant arch, stretching from the borders of Venice up to Trieste’s karst topography.

Down in the moraine hills, which foretell of the Tagliamento’s giant stony river bed, the locals live with a panoramic view of the mountains, a whole other world of weather and light. In the sudden flush of a violet November evening, after a day of listening to the comforting sounds of rain outside, there’s the shock of a sudden squall from the south-east, then you catch a glimpse of fresh snow on the rocky crags beyond Monte Musi. The wintry ridges and summits and crevices appear more malleable and vivid, yet simultaneously also more foreign and further away than ever, as they glow, icy and brilliant, beyond the gloomy autumnal hill country, all fields of stubble, naked trees and empty pastures.

At various viewing points in the mountain towns you will find signs identifying the mountains that loom in front of you.  As far away as they seem, the mountains provide striking reference points on the shimmering southern horizon, a horizon that vibrates with a rosy hue in the summer, making it resemble the ocean (even though the ocean could not possibly be there). In winter, the horizon is a dove-grey eternity. 

Anybody who lives in the hills has climbed at least one of these mountains and has their own preferences, routes and stories. Almost everyone, whose memories go back to May 1976 has an alpine memory that relates to the earthquake of that year, to the avalanches they saw suddenly set off, the ominous rumble and boom between the cliffs. They recall all too well how the landscape was altered and the villages were laid waste.

To this day, locals still debate the exact location of the epicentre of that quake: Which mountain contained that nightmare in its bowels? What was the origin of the terror that impacted this part of the country more than even the “Grande Guerra” – the First World War – and turned it into “the cemetery of our youth”, as one of the songs of the Alpini, the special mountain infantry, puts it? The same song also waxes lyrical about a particular mountain, whose slightly lopsided peak looks like a hat sneaking out from behind the clouds, past the Musi in the north east. This is Monte Canin, presiding over Val Resia, a wooded valley to the left of the Tagliamento river, right next to the Slovenian border.

For a long time I thought the peak was named Dog Mountain and I wondered exactly which direction you had to view it from, to mistake it for the nose of a hound. It turns out that the locals reject any associations between their mountain and a dog. They were actually referring to a “dente canino”, the canine tooth many mammals have.

The mountain forms a sort of guardian angel for all those who left the valley to find work, near or far. It also stands as a natural – and supernatural – guardian of their valley, with its sacrosanct name, registered in secret, sacred places, belonging unmistakably to this mountain and no other. “Su a Resia,” as the locals like to say: “Up in Resia” the future and past are both written in the hills and can be read there, like an oracle. The mountain hides, reveals itself, shape-shifts as it emerges, dazzling, from the clouds: How is the light shining upon it? What shade does it throw? What colour are the shadows that lie between the double peak of the smaller Babe mountain and the gentler Monte Sart to the west? Intimate memories languish in the light and the dark beneath the mountain, are introduced, explained, and then resolved with a description as to whether this, or that, actually happened.

The valley takes its name from the 15-kilometre-long river, which runs from under the village of Coritis until it reaches the estuary between Monte Chichi and the Fontanis ridge, from where it flows into the Fella. A few kilometres further downstream, the Fella finishes up too, behind its confluence with the Tagliamento.  

In actuality, it is not a river or a stream but a “torrente” as the Italians describe it. The Italian word possesses some of the wildness that the Resia and other comparable waterways here have, after they’re filled by snow melt or heavy rain. The riverbed is rough with white stones, the steep banks lined with meagre grass and tiny flowers, the sparse, melancholy vegetation the result of the karstic landscape. At places where the water flows more slowly and becomes reflective, Monte Canin is mirrored, complete with all the mountain’s atmospheres and moods. The mountains and the rivers all merge into one here, but anybody who says “Resia” or “su a Resia” has only one mountain in mind: Monte Canin.

A day just before winter in Val Resia and the wind is savage but the sunshine gentle. On the sunless side of the valley, which doesn’t get as much as a beam of sunlight between October and February, the fallen beech leaves are covered in grey-white hoarfrost. On the other side of the valley, tiny braids of seeds swing from the hazel bushes, mistakenly there thanks to the long, warm autumn. My friend wants to show me Coritis, the last village up in the valley. He grew up in a nearby village but has spent years travelling for work between Saudi Arabia, Turkmenistan and northern Norway. Now he has returned to Friuli, or more precisely, he has returned to the easily accessible hill country from where he can get a good view of Monte Canin.

Coritis is practically deserted, some of the houses there have not been touched since the earthquake. They were turned inside out and then just left, broken staircases, smoothed by the weather, protruding through cracks in the exterior walls. There is nothing left to see of the small shops, the village pub, or the humble agricultural life of the village that was here during the 1960s and ‘70s.

Two men cutting wood pause to eye us up, mutter to one another and then greet us in Italian. My friend returns their greeting in Resiano, the local dialect that is similar to Slovene and that has survived in this valley, an indicator of the locals’ unique, non-Italian roots. The two men fall silent. In the golden afternoon light, Monte Canin’s tooth is enveloped in unmoving, white clouds. Shadows are already growing in the mountain’s crevices.

“Su a Resia.” This is how my friend begins almost every second sentence, here in the hill country. Here, where you can begin your ascent of Monte Canin, your perspective changes. The countryside of my companion’s past lies below us, the sun shines on the roofs of Ladina and on the steep, forested hillsides where wood will be felled.

If you look more closely you can see the tense cables that are used for bringing the cut wood further down the valley, where it will be gathered up and loaded onto transports, a procedure that did not always proceed without some grisly accidents, another memory from many local childhoods. There is also the remembrance of the constant up and down, in the woods, in the pastures, past the chalk fissures, those “evil gorges” that get larger every year by the width of a hand thanks to erosion, forming the unsteady bottom of all those crags.

We didn’t get far that cold afternoon. The place names, stories and personalities all became entangled, the shadows lengthened and the colours changed around us. Further above, the grass starts to look violet under the mountain, those shaggy mountain grasses that farmers used to scythe just a few decades ago and lug down to the villages, as feed for goats and skinny cows during the long winter.

Now there are hardly any cows here, though once in a while you will spot a  goat. These days noone climbs the hillsides to gather hay. The area remained poor and the population has shrunk to a fraction of its former size but there is still a consciousness that always refers back to “su a Resia” and the mountains, no matter where the locals end up.

People here really like to talk about the mountains. It’s their favourite subject, right after the chatter about those who left, those who returned, those who haven’t been seen for a long time and any strangers in town. Some folks here talk about climbing – Monte Sart, Monte Canon, Babe. They know off by heart where climbers will need which piece of gear and where the dangers lurk. For them, it’s all about getting to the top.

Others talk about long, flat paths with a view of rolling, open landscapes to the south and Monte Canin soaring on the other side. A path on the ridge between two possibilities. Whole lives shaped by the mountain paths, the views, the hills. Sometimes they’ll quote a line from a well-known song by the Alpini: “Se tu hai fame, guardi lontano”. If you feel hungry, just look into the distance. 



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