Italy has seen a lot of wars.
Illyrian wars. Eritrean War. World War I. War of Independence. Samnite Wars. World War II. Italian-Turkish War. First Battle of the Isonzo. Alexandrian War. Second Battle of the Isonzo. Italian-Libyan War. Third Battle of the Isonzo. Cimbrian War. Fourth Battle of the Isonzo. Italian-Greek War. Augustan Alpine campaigns. Fifth Battle of the Isonzo. African campaign. Sixth Battle of the Isonzo. Sardinian War. Seventh Battle of the Isonzo. Gothic War. Eighth Battle of the Isonzo. Jugurthine War. Ninth Battle of the Isonzo. Italo-Ethiopian War. Tenth Battle of the Isonzo. Marcomannic Wars. Eleventh Battle of the Isonzo. Pyrrhic War. Pyrrhic Battle of the Isonzo.
And that’s why Italy is dotted with fortifications, trenches and bunkers.
If this has escaped your notice thus far, it’s only because there is lots of other interesting stuff in Italy to catch your attention. Or because you are only heading to the beach, which is really a waste of Italy, in which case you should give up that seat on the coach for travelers more interested in history. Or because you have never been to Italy, which is a deficit that should be remedied anyway.
Most of these bunkers are just sitting around, waiting for their next deployment. But in the Vinschgau Valley, I have met a few bunkers which have been recycled for civilian use. Like this one, now integrated into an apple orchard. But then, these are special apples here in Mals, they are always in court, arguing about pesticides and stuff. Maybe that’s why they have to be protected against the aerial forces of the district court.
Walking from Mals to Schluderns, I had somehow gotten lost between the forests, fields and apple plantations. But I didn’t mind, because first of all, I am a staunch advocate of getting lost. If you never get lost, you have a dull life. Secondly, I was in Vinschgau for the first time, so anything would be new and interesting to me, regardless of where I would end up.
And suddenly, above the village of Tartsch, I found myself in front of a bunker, you ain’t never seen nothing like that!
“An artist,” I am guessing like a hot-shot-Sherlock detective, not only because of the caravan and the creative roof terrace with its palisade fence and playground, but also because no one answers the door bell. Those artists often sleep until noon. (With the exception of travel bloggers, of course, who are up early every morning, hiking through the countryside and collecting stories.)
On the other side of the valley, above Tartsch, I spot a little church, equally Romanesque and romantic, which I choose as my next hiking destination and which, for once, I do not fail to reach.
And there happens one of those chance encounters which enrich travel so much: I am sitting in front of the closed and locked churchyard, smoking an Italian Toscano cigar which I had discovered that morning in the newspaper shop in Mals, when a gentleman walks by, holding not only the key to the church, but also an encyclopedic knowledge and great patience with an uneducated audience like me. I leave the cigar outside, and he shows me the frescoes in the church and tells me about the history of St. Vitus, about Tartscher Bichl, as the hill is called, about Romanesque and Gothic artwork, and about the Swabian War that once swept into the valley.
However, I’ll skip that for the moment and save it for the comprehensive Vinschgau article that, God willing, I will get to write in the coming months. Because the clergyman also knows about the bunkers on the opposite side of the valley.
“Those are from World War II,” he corrects my assumption that they must be remnants of the Alpine front from World War I.
“But there was no fighting on this front in World War II, was there?”
“Mussolini had them built because he didn’t fully trust the alliance with Hitler. That’s why this Alpine Line is also called the ‘linea no mi fido‘, the ‘I-don’t-trust-you line’.“ If I knew where to look, I could discover many more bunkers and anti-tank barriers up here in the mountains. Each of them more megalomaniac than the other, as we know from fascist construction projects.
During World War II, however, the bunkers were not as easily recognizable as they are now, but were – fitting for the rural area – disguised as farms or barns.
The artistically designed bunker did indeed belong to an artist, but he died three years ago while handling old ammunition. Since then, the giant studio has stood empty. Perhaps it could be turned into a refuge for vagabond writers, if I am permitted a hint as broad as a bunker.
In Mals, I am also staying in a bunker, in a way. The former barracks of the financial police have just opened as a hostel. The financial police in Italy are a combination of customs, anti drug-trafficking police, coast guard and the police combatting economic and financial crimes. They are organized and equipped militarily, with frigates, submarines, planes, helicopters, paratroopers, mountain rangers, scuba divers, snipers and even lawyers.
Well, and that’s why the financial police have barracks for their financial police officers, for their weapons depots and to store confiscated illegal wealth (and what wealth is not illegal?). The walls of the building are so massive that they can withstand rocket-propelled grenades, explains Sascha, the hostel director, and because he explains all sorts of other things and invites me to dinner, I will stay for a few days, feeling right at home. Sascha tells me so much, it must be reserved for the definitive Vinschgau article, because today I want to focus merely on the civilian follow-up use of military buildings.
FinKa, as the former financial barracks is now called in what constitutes a pun between German and Spanish, manages three things at the same time: not denying its former purpose, being very cozy and avoiding the standard global hostel flair. The old wooden folding chairs still stand in the entrance area, and the barred doors still squeak in the hallways. The police dining room is now a guest dining room, the officers’ lounge is now the guest lounge, and so on. Really, tourists don’t need anything else than policemen, although I hardly dare to write this in the times of austerity, as it might lead the government to disband one of those groups upon hearing that some money could be saved.
Well, that’s what happened. The financial police barracks in Mals were indeed closed in 2005. Because of the Schengen Agreement, border controls were no longer necessary in the mountains. And thus, even rookies like me can smuggle cigars into Austria. The financial police now mainly cruise around the Adriatic Sea to catch bigger fish.
I have actually taken the drug-smuggling route from Albania to Apulia myself, albeit with perfectly innocent intentions and dozing harmlessly on the deck of the steamer.