The icy upper end of Lago di Barcis
I’ve lately been running on the edge of exhaustion. It’s not surprising, given that I had an 18-hour flight only two days ago, and that I’ve not been sleeping well due to my body attempting to adjust to a new time zone, as well as a new place.
Flying is stressful enough when it’s just cross-country. Add in an entire ocean and it becomes exponentially more tiring. It will likely be a week or more before I’m even starting to recover my energy, but I’ve been going out and doing things anyway. Life doesn’t wait, no matter how much you ache or how tired you are.
Dawn in Madrid was glorious. We landed as the sky was lighting, orange and magenta and violet and blue, and the sun as it came up over the horizon was an immense orange ball of fire in the freezing cold of a winter morning. I had requested assistance from the airlines so that I would be certain to make my transfers, and that I’d have some help with my carry-on bags, which were heavier than I usually take, because I was moving. Disability services hauled me around the airport in a couple of vans and rolled me about in wheelchairs; the airport in Madrid is quite large, and there are tunnels beneath it for the support vehicles. I got a tour of a fair bit more of the place than I had anticipated, and made it to my Madrid to Venice flight just as the plane was loading.
Venice was fogged in and we had to make an instrument landing. I hadn’t at any point been in a window seat – aisles are easier on me these days, when mobility can be a bit difficult sometimes. Still, I’d try to look out the windows to see what was going on from time to time.
Italy, as we flew in from Spain, was a sea of low-lying clouds and, when we landed, there was a thump and suddenly ground. Quite a smooth landing, considering the conditions. I couldn’t have asked for better.
My brother waited just outside the airport and met me after I’d picked up my checked bag. We hauled my stuff out to his car and off we went through the fog toward Aviano. Eventually it cleared as we got into early afternoon and rose a little as we drove toward the Dolomites. I was pleased to have finally arrived, and we stopped in town for some lunch after quickly dropping off my bags and letting me grab a shower and change clothes. I felt much improved after a short application of hot water!
I remembered some of the places from my visit here last summer. I was in Italy for less than a week, but had very much enjoyed the stay. As we drove and ate and ran errands, I kept having to remind myself that this is my life now; this is where I will be. All the differences are seeping in around the edges, and I am floating in a sea of language that I don’t really understand yet.
I get small bits of conversations, and sometimes the gist of what is being said, though my brother translates for me most of the time at the moment. I’m saying hellos and goodbyes and please and thank you. I’m reading signs and trying to sort out what things mean. It’s not achingly difficult, but it feels very alien still. Italian is a lot easier for me than Irish was, at least. After having spent time trying to study Italian online and working from books, I have at least a vague familiarity with some of the basics. The little bit of Spanish I studied in school many years ago helps a bit, as do the fragments of Latin I’ve had. I know I’ll make stupid mistakes, but that’s life. I’ll no doubt have some very amusing stories before I’m through.
So far, I’ve got myself a couple of new pillows and an internet key so that I can do all my online stuff. I talked to my mom on Skype last night, and cancelled my phone account back in the US. That, I must say, was a bit of a nightmare; they had a very hard time understanding the concept of an international move as opposed to spending time traveling with a finite return date. I had a couple of months left on the contract, but the early cancellation fee was still less than making the payments for January and February. We’re going to try to get the thing unlocked here, rather than waiting until February 9th, which is apparently the first day AT&T is willing to unlock the phone. My brother advises a month-to-month rather than a contract for my phone here, which will probably be the easiest thing to do and will avoid issues like this at some later date if I need to change carriers.
Last night, my brother took me out to Casabianca for dinner with a couple of his friends; we’d gone last year and the gentleman who owns the place welcomed me back. I got a chance to order my dinner in Italian and tried to follow some of the conversations my brother and his friend had with the waitress. I mangled things, but was successful in getting the food I wanted, at least. Victory!
Today we had been considering going to Poffabro, the town where the header photo on this blog was taken last summer. It was the first day of their nativity display, but my brother figured that because it was the first day, and a weekend, it was likely to be very crowded, so we drove up along Lago di Barcis and out to the former town of Vajont instead.
The drive was gorgeous, with glorious vistas all around. There was heavy fog in a few places, and in some areas everything was coated in hoarfrost, a ghostly landscape of phantom trees. At first I thought the ground was coated with a thin layer of snow, but when we got out at the tip of Lago di Barcis for our first viewpoint of the day and some photos, I saw that what we were seeing was actually frost flowers coating everything.
Lago di Barcis in the mist
The mirror of Barcis reflected the mountains clearly, below the receding layer of fog that covered the town and hid it from view. The road through the mountain was winding and narrow, and there were many tunnels to make the way shorter and more direct. Passing through the first tunnel from Montereale Valcellina up toward Barcis offered an impressive opening into sharp alpine slopes and steep valleys, with narrow rivers running through wide, stony channels.
Lago di Barcis in the town of Barcis
There are similar rivers in the Cascades and Olympics back in Washington, though those rivers are generally grey or nearly cream-colored, thick with glacial silt; these rivers are clear shades of green and aquamarine and citrine, depending on their depth and the way the light reflects on them as they flow within their banks. The mountains we passed through were not high enough for glaciation, and the waters emerge from mountain river sources, or are fed by snow runoff.
We didn’t stop in Barcis on the way up, but they were setting up some tables for a Christmas market as we passed by. The road wound on and on, up into the mountains and over the pass of St Osvaldo, through the town of Erto, which clung to the side of the mountain, and out to what was once Vajont.
Because my brother had missed the turnoff to the parking lot on the way up to Vajont, we ended up going past, through the tunnels until we cleared them, then turned around and came back. The tunnels are so narrow that only one direction of traffic is allowed through at a time, with lights to hold the cars for seven minutes at a time to allow each direction to pass. It must have been unnerving back in the day, when traffic ran both ways through the tunnels. In the first tunnel as you leave the Vajont parking area, there are flower-adorned plaques in one of the alcoves, honoring some of the people.
The town of Vajont had the misfortune to be situated above a dam that had created another mountain lake for hydroelectric power. Everyone had been greatly concerned and objected to the building of the dam, but construction went ahead anyway. The ground was unstable there and eventually the government had the lake drained because of it, but by then it was too late. The earth was saturated and, on October 9th, 1963, its heaviness pulled the mountainside down, taking almost the entire town with it. The landslide collapsed into the lake, filling the area behind the dam and sending water cascading up and down stream, killing many more people below. The dam itself held, and now there is a memorial there.
On the edge of the scar on the mountainside, a few remaining buildings overlook the destruction. I don’t know if anyone still lives in the buildings. I imagine that’s all that is left of Vajont.
At the memorial, there’s a shrine, and a trail that leads down into the area filled by the slide, along with a catwalk and trail out onto the dam. We tried to walk to the dam, but the narrow catwalk was occupied by a small tour group, the guide talking with them about what had happened. No one bothered trying to move aside for us to pass, so we turned back, not wanting to disturb anyone.
At the parking lot, along the wooden fence that lines the edge of the mountain, are small colored squares of cloth with the names and ages of each of the children who died in the disaster, fluttering like Tibetan prayer flags in the wind. In the remains of the valley below, more flags strung along the edges of the clearing where young trees are growing, sparse and scattered, as the land reclaims the scene of the destruction.
The names of the dead children of Vajont
Prayer flags of Vajont
It was a sobering sight, and a reminder of what can happen when we change the environment without regard to the consequences.
After our visit to Vajont, we headed back toward Barcis, stopping in the pass of St Osvaldo at a little agrituristica restaurant there. Snow lay on the ground, and the walkway up was slippery with snow and the granular remains of frost flowers, but inside the restaurant was warm, and we had a seat at a table by the fire.
The food there was excellent; I had pasta with pesto, with sliced cabbage for a salad, and some sausage made on the premises, and some lovely, creamy white polenta. It was all excellent food, and I managed to ask the woman serving us if the sausage was made with pork or beef. A combination of both, she told us. We arrived just before the lunch rush; at the next table, three older men spoke together in Friulian.
In the pass of St Osvaldo
Agriturismos/agrituristicas are restaurants and sometimes bed and breakfasts that are required to serve mostly food grown, raised, and prepared on the grounds. The salad vegetable choices today were cabbage or radicchio, because that’s what they have at this time of year. I went for the cabbage, thinking it would be less bitter and go better with the pesto, and it was quite tasty seasoned with a little clear vinegar and olive oil. Last summer my brother took me to another agriturismo that had some quite spectacular food, but this was simple, filling, delicious winter food that was very pleasing as well.
On the way back down the mountain we stopped to walk through the town of Barcis. We walked first along the boardwalk beside the lake. The water was very low, but the view was gorgeous, with deep green waters and quiet parklands. Below us, geese and swans napped in the sun. Parts of the boardwalk were glistening with black ice, and I slipped, but I have been walking with hiking poles since the dizziness hit, so I didn’t actually fall.
The town of Barcis
We took the roads back up to where we parked the car, past some of the booths for the tiny Christmas market. In the window of one shop were bottles of locally made flavored grappa. I looked at the labeled bottles and managed to identify most of what they were flavored with – juniper, cumin, raspberries, chestnut, mixed berries. There was another that my brother wasn’t sure of and I couldn’t read. I had a dictionary in my pocket but didn’t think to pull it out and have a look.
By then I was fairly tired, not used to the high mountain air, and still worn out from my flights here, so we headed back down to Montereale and home.
Tomorrow, we go into Pordenone and to the offices of the Questura to apply for my Permesso.