Lake Garda is only 50 km from Trento.
I don’t really want to go where all the other tourists go. But at Lake Garda, there are not only hordes of tourists, there is also Salò, the small state governed by Mussolini after he lost power and until he lost his life, and the Vittoriale, which I have already written about. Perfect for a little birthday trip.
But then, just as I am about to leave, I read in the newspaper that two Germans killed an Italian couple at Lake Garda and dumped them in the lake.
Not such a good time to go to Lake Garda as a German, I am thinking.
Fortunately, there are other lakes near Trento. Small, unknown and therefore much more interesting lakes. Waters where hopefully no Germans have murdered Italians, at least not since World War II.
Lago Caldonazzo is the second largest lake in Trentino and thus perfect for me. To avoid the tourist crowds, I always prefer second-tier destinations when traveling: Kotor instead of Dubrovnik, Sukhumi instead of Batumi, Canmore instead of Banff.
For just 2 euros, the Italian railroad gives you a 45-minute panoramic ride through the mountains around Trento and through the Brenta Valley. Over so many ravines and through so many tunnels runs the route, it could almost rival the railroad through Montenegro or the Semmering Railway in terms of scenery.
At Pergine, a castle high above the town beckons. But disciplined as I am only on my birthday, I stick to the plan of hiking around the lake and remain on the train.
When you get off the train in San Cristoforo, you find yourself right on the hiking and biking trail around Lake Caldonazzo. I’m the only walker, though, among dozens of cyclists, all of whom are speeding past me as fast and streamlined and colorfully dressed as if they were trying to catch up with the Tour de France, taking place at the same time. (Don’t bother! This year, the Slovenians have the best doping.)
I don’t understand this speed mania, this dromocracy. People want to cycle faster and faster, but they fail to spot the squirrels, the flowers, all the views along the way. Customers would rather have dinner delivered within 10 minutes instead of it being prepared with love. They take the plane instead of the train or the steamship “to save time”, instead of reading a book on the train or on deck. Hardly anyone travels like Goethe, Seume or Leigh Fermor anymore, slowly, on foot, with breaks. And no one notices that the dogma of speed only serves capitalism, which wants us to work faster, study faster, consume faster, clear the restaurant table faster for the next customer.
In protest, I have my first break in Valcanover. The lake must be higher than Trento, because it is pleasantly fresh, although it was already quite hot when I left in the morning.
At an intersection in Calceranica, a white GLS van and a yellow DHL van almost collide. Tension lies in the rising midday sun, windows are rolled down, insults ready to be hurled.
At the last moment, the two courier drivers realize that, in the big picture, they are sitting in the same delivery van and both are busting their backs for the capitalists. There’s no point in arguing between them. Instead, the exploited laborers fraternize on the spot, get out of their vehicles, roll cigarettes and save their energy for the class struggle.
The plan to circumnavigate Lake Caldonazzo doesn’t quite work out, because on its eastern side there is no hiking or biking trail, only a road.
It’s already noon, the sun is blazing, the plan is ruined.
What do smart hikers do in such a situation?
I don’t know. I am not one of them.
I see a chain of hills in front of me, and spontaneously choose their summit as my next destination. Via Claudia Augusta leads up there, a Roman road that connected northern Italy with southern Germany and has thus facilitated tourism for almost exactly 2000 years.
It’s amazing how narrow these historic highways were. Entire legions needed less space than today’s camper vans. But the urge to make everything bigger, fatter and larger is just as widespread as the urge to hurry. Yet every hiker knows: the smaller the backpack, the faster you are. If you like, you can read this as a metaphor.
Beneath the rampant ivy, the remains of a wall stand out, probably not from the Romans, but from their Austrian successors. As we know, Austria used to be larger, more important and, as you can see here, more warmongering than it is today. The fortress that guards the ridge near the village of Tenna was one of thousands, no, tens of thousands of fortresses with which Austria had been preparing for World War I since the 19th century.
When one thinks of that First World War, muddy battles in the trenches of Flanders or Verdun come to mind. But Austria – on Luis Trenker’s insistence – wanted to take the war to the mountains. So fortresses were built from Montenegro to Merano, from Trieste to Trento, from Slovenia to South Tyrol. Whole mountains were blown up because they were in the way. Tunnels were dug to blow up even more mountains. All in all, such a war in the Alps is quite a tedious affair, with no quick territorial changes. It was not until the final Battle of Saint-German that Italy conquered South Tyrol, Trentino and Istria. (However, without Fiume/Rijeka, which led to a particularly funny story.)
By the way, there is someone else who believes that Trentino still belongs to the Habsburg Empire: Google Maps.
It persistently displays the place names in German: Reiff instead of Riva, Löweneck instead of Levico, Atzenach instead of Tenna. This is not only 102 years behind political developments, but also highly annoying and impractical, because neither the street signs nor the train stations show the German names. And why should they? This has been Italy for 102 years!
I can imagine very well how this happened: In California, there is an overpaid 22-year-old, for whom the one weekend in Las Vegas was the farthest trip of his life, and who, because no one wants to give him any real tasks, is analyzing the illegally collected cell phone data of German and Austrian tourists in Italy. To his monolingual and monodimensional surprise, he realizes that they are more often looking for Venedig instead of Venice, for Rom instead of Rome.
He goes to his even more overpaid 22-and-a-half-year-old boss, who has been to a wedding in Hawaii once and therefore thinks he knows the world, even though he threw up three times during the flight.
“Awesome, let’s localize that!” they cheer, slapping themselves on the back and feeling mighty smart, which is always a sure sign that you’re not.
And now innocent tourists get lost because no one can guess that Mezzocorona and Kronmetz are the same village. The fact that 180,000 people died on the mountain front doesn’t matter at all to the two guys from Silicon Valley, as long as those shot in the World War didn’t have Facebook accounts where they could be pestered with ads for warming wool socks. But of course these computer jerks know nothing of the Dolomite War, of the Bloody Sunday of Bolzano, and of the fact that terrorism in Tyrol could flare up again at any time as a result of such a stupid name dispute. At some point, an irredentist Austrian will come and argue with an Italian about a place name on the map. Bang, bang, the dead will be lying in the streets again. And everything because some pimply Brian or some bespectacled Ralph interfered in something they don’t have a fucking clue about.
And then there are people who believe in “artificial intelligence” and delegate their own to a device assembled by Chinese children’s hands that sucks all the data, freedom and quality of life out of them. They put more trust in a computer program slapped together by guys in ugly polo shirts than in the signs on the side of the road or the free map available at the tourist office.
Oh, I desperately need a calming cigar right now. Because once I start to get really upset, I might not live to see my next birthday.
Fortunately, a little further on the ridge, there are a chapel and a hermit’s house. The hermit is not at home, so I can sit down and hermit and emit happy, hermity, herbal smoke in his place.
And there I spot what I would never have spotted without climbing the embattled hills of Tenna: another lake. With more trees and shade, smaller and thus more circumnavigable than Lake Caldonazzo. Let’s go!
First, however, I come to Levico Terme, and at a rather inconvenient time, it seems. At 2 p.m. everything here is asleep. Even the stores selling lunch are closed. Everything else anyway.
The only thing open is the park, and its 12 hectares are not the worst place to hide from the midday heat. Anyone who sees me sitting in Habsburg Park reading a book about the Hohenzollerns might get the idea that I’m a monarchist. Nothing could be further from the truth, and my article on the outrageous claims by the Hohenzollerns, as well as my guest appearance on the Déjà Vu History Podcast (both to be published in October), will hopefully guillotine, execute and exile any such suspicions.
Levico Terme was one of the many spa towns founded by the Austrian kings and emperors in their great realm to escape to when they found Vienna too hot (July and August), too cold (December and January), too foggy and wet (November) or too ridden by civil war (1934). Levico Terme is a rather small example. More splendid examples can be found in Marienbad or in Merano, about which I will tell you soon.
Incidentally, the Habsburgs invented tourism that way. Or rather reinvented it, because the Roman tourist routes had in the meantime fallen victim to vandalism. The expansion of European tourism did not come to an end until the summer of 1914, when the Austrian Minister of Tourism, Franz Ferdinand, was shot by a Serb who protested that his country had been passed over in the division of the Adriatic coastline. (World War I managed to interrupt tourism only briefly, but that’s another topic.)
These days, there is not much going on in Levico Terme. Only a few guests in white bathrobes wander around like ghosts from a bygone era. As a visitor here, you are eyed somewhat pityingly, as if you were traveling with a guidebook from 1905.
But the good thing is: if this was once a spa for kings and emperors, then there must be a train station with a train going to Vienna, via Trento. So I don’t have to hike all the way back.
If the station is not one of the many buildings that have long since fallen into disrepair, that is.
But first I walk around Lake Levico. The path lies in the shade of trees. The forest-covered slopes on both sides form a fjord-like landscape. There are canoes and paddleboats in the water. The further I get away from the town, the fewer hikers and cyclists I meet, but here and there I see someone fishing for dinner.
It is perfect. Quiet, shady and beautiful. Just the place to understand why mankind, having migrated from Africa to Europe via Asia Minor, settled here. At the end of the lake, like an inexperienced migrating people, I lose my way in the bushes and end up in someone’s garden. A man with a dog shows me the way back to the path around the lake. The man rather grumpy, the dog delighted about the little excursion.
On the other side of Lake Levico, there would be Colle delle Benne fortress, where an exhibition of fortress photography by Andrea Contrini will be shown until 30 October 2021.
That would be interesting, but unfortunately this fortress is also on top of a hill. Maybe I shouldn’t have smoked so many of the good Italian Toscano cigars on the way, but I don’t think I can storm another hill today. Besides, with today’s birthday I’ve passed the zenith of life. From now on, it’s going downhill, not uphill.
Just before the sun sets, I get back to Levico – exhausted – and catch the regional train to Trento. Going to bed early and sleeping in after a long and fulfilling day, that’s the plan.
But the whole country has conspired to spoil the quiet conclusion of my birthday.
Young men armed with royal blue T-shirts, horns and megaphones board the train at every station. Tonight Italy will play Spain in the semifinals, and because I am staying across the street from a soccer bar in Trento, I am in for another sleepless night. Why don’t the city folks go to the villages on such occasions? The beer is much cheaper there.
I would love to get off the train right away and spend the night at the lake. But the cats in Trento are already waiting for dinner. Too bad I didn’t catch a fish.