Geneva to Milan

On The Road Travel Essays

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Geneva to Milan

(COURIER: Your group may prefer to marvel at the mountain scenery as you proceed from Geneva to the Mont Blanc Tunnel, so gauge your remarks to the prevailing mood, and don't force commentary on an unreceptive group.)

Haute-Savoie  This is the French department of Haute-Savoie, Upper Savoy, the northernmost part of the old Kingdom of Savoy, which once took up the whole area here from Switzerland down to northern Italy. The kings of Savoy had difficulty maintaining their independence against the French, who occupied the area several times: also the Spanish and Austrians intervened in Savoy's affairs. Savoy's Mediterranean seaport was Nice, which didn't become a part of France until later. Finally, in April of 1860, a plebiscite was held, and the Savoyards voted, 130,000 to 250, to join France. Nice at that time also became a permanent part of France. Today, the major "industry" of the area is sports and tourism, in both winter and summer.

Mont Blanc  We can see Mont Blanc ahead of us, and we'll be passing under it by the new Mont Blanc Tunnel. Mont Blanc is Europe's highest mountain: 15,900 feet. the highest peak sits just barely inside France, although the whole Mont Blanc Massif, which includes many lesser peaks, is spread out between France and Italy.

Conquest of Mont Blanc: Conquering the summit of the mountain was the lifelong dream of Prof. Saussure, a famous professor of geology and physics at the University of Geneva (18th century). He tried again and again, without success. In 1760, he offered a reward to anyone who scaled the summit. Two mountaineers, Jacques Balmat and Dr. Paccard, tried on August 8, 1786, but got only to the foothills. Still, this encouraged Saussure, who, the next year, tried it once again with a guide. After 2-1/2 days of climbing, they made it, remaining at the top for 4 hours before descending. As for Balmat, the man who had tried it earlier, he went up Mont Blanc again in 1834, looking for gold, which stories circulating locally had claimed could be found in the mountains around Mt. Blanc. Balmat never came back, but the conviction that gold is to be found in the mountains continues, and many believe it today.

(COURIER: Before passing the town of Bossons, you enter the long Chamonix Valley; you'll turn off for the Mont Blanc Tunnel before actually reaching Chamonix, but it might be interesting to say something about the valley and the town.)

Chamonix Valley: The valley was long inaccessible, with virtually no roads. Thus, throughout the Middle Ages, the town of Chamonix was an independent little country, administered by the monks of the local priory. The princes of Savoy tried to incorporate this valley into their domains, but with great difficulty. Two English explorers, Windham and Pocock, "discovered" the valley and its scenic marvels in 1741. Tourists and mountaineers began to come to Chamonix. In the 19th century, the French Emperor Napoleon III and his wife visited the town, which assured its reputation. In 1924, Chamonix was selected as the site for the first Winter Olympic Games. Back then, there were few ski lifts, and one had to be hardy and devoted to skiing to make the runs. Nowadays, a series of cable cars can take you over the entire Mont Blanc massif to Italy! One ski lift will take you to a spot only 1800 feet below the summit of Mont Blanc, where you can ski down a run 17-1/2 miles long, with a drop of 11,000 feet. Chamonix remains one of the popular ski resorts of the French Alps region. In the town cemetery is buried Edward Whymper (1840-1922), the Englishman who first scaled the Matterhorn.

Bossons: As we pass through the little town of Bossons, look up to your right. That is one of three major glaciers in the area, the Bossons Glacier. Like all glaciers, this one was formed over centuries by snow piling up in a basin between two mountain ranges. Gradually the snow compacts into ice, forming an ice sheet. This ice sheet is crisscrossed by a network of crevices which carry off any melting snow (in summer). At the lower end of the glacier (i.e. the part closest to us) is a "tongue" that protrudes farther down the mountain. This tongue at its tip is covered over by woods and rocks, which were formed of the original debris deposited here when the glacier was created.

Mont Blanc Tunnel  For years, the French and Italians had dreamed of creating either a tunnel or a pass over or around Mont Blanc to connect the two countries. One idea was to make use of a geological fault which had created a passage over the mountains. But the cost of constructing a road was found to be prohibitive. This passage is known as the Col du Geant (Giant Pass), but economic considerations dictated another solution. So it was decided to dig out a tunnel. It would be the longest such tunnel in the world: 12 kilometers, about 7-1/2 miles. France and Italy agreed to share the costs equally, with a French construction team working from the French side, and an Italian team working from the Italian side. On Sept. 5, 1959, work began. A huge machine, supported by a scaffolding, began to dig through the mountain; the machine was called "Jumbo" for its huge size. The machine enabled the crews to dig 8 meters (8 yards) per day. On August 14, 1962, the French and Italian crews met — right in the middle of the mountain, as planned. It was a feat of engineering for them to meet up with each other on the exact, agreed-upon spot underground. Further refining and road paving came next, and on July 16, 1965, the tunnel was officially opened, with much fanfare. Not only was the tunnel the longest, but also the deepest: over the tunnel are 2,480 meters of sheer rock, and on top is the Aiguille du Midi, one of the highest peaks of the Mont Blanc Massif (12,700 feet). Each lane of the tunnel road is 7 meters wide, bordered by a footway. (Though no pedestrians are allowed to walk through the tunnel.) Every 300 meters is a stopping place for vehicles that have broken down. A very powerful ventilating system provides fresh air for 450 vehicles at a time and can put 600 cubic meters of fresh air into the tunnel every second. It takes an average of about 15 minutes to drive through the tunnel. If you travel from the French to the Italian side, you go slightly uphill: the French entrance is 1274 meters in elevation, the Italian entrance is 1370, a difference of 96 meters (yards), or about the length of a football field.

Courmayeur is the "Chamonix of Italy," but with milder climate. It's possible to travel from Courmayeur all the way to Chamonix by a series of cablecars — one of the most extraordinary engineering achievements in the Alpine region. You change from cablecar to cablecar along the way, and have a panoramic view of the major peaks of the Mont Blanc Massif and its glaciers. Incidentally, the French name "Courmayeur" shows how strong French influence in this part of Italy is. For centuries, the exact boundaries between Italy, France, and Switzerland were not sharply determined, and some parts were passed back and forth between the countries as a result of conquest or inheritance. For this reason, French and even Swiss-German dialects can be heard alongside Italian in some of the remote mountain villages around here.

Pre-St-Didier is yet another French-named town. A summer resort with a 13th century church tower. Visitors were originally drawn by its mineral springs, especially for the waters containing salts-of-iron. The town stands at the foot of the Little St. Bernard Pass between Italy and France. (The Great St. Bernard Pass is due north of us — i.e., in the opposite direction, and connects Italy and Switzerland.)

Val d'Aosta, or Aosta Valley, is the tiny province of Italy we've just entered. It's considered one of the most beautiful parts of Italy and is popular for summer tourism and winter sports. Surrounded by the giant Alps (Matterhorn, Mont Blanc, Monte Rose), and with glaciers, forests, and pastureland, the Aosta Valley is a scenic resource that is popular but not yet over-commercialized. Many of its towns are full of Roman remains and medieval castles. The Italian Constitution of 1945 gave the area administrative and cultural autonomy: a Regional Council of 35 members, based in the "capital city" of Aosta, controls its affairs.

Piedmont  The Aosta Valley is a part of a much larger historic region of Italy: Piedmont, which covers the whole northwestern portion of the country. Piedmont was part of the old Kingdom ruled by the House of Savoy. Its capital city was Turin (Torino), one of Italy's major industrial centers about 50 miles south of us. The Kingdom of Piedmont is extremely important in Italian history, because it was the cradle of Italian unity. The movement in favor of Italian unity started here in Piedmont. Italy's first king, Victor Emanuel II, crowned in 1871 when Italy became a unified country, was in fact the King of Piedmont. His minister Cavour was one of the leading spirits of Italian nationhood. However, being situated so close to France, Piedmont retains cultural ties with France — an ironic state of affairs for the "cradle of Italian unity." Even in the days of Cavour, French was the language spoken in the Piedmontses Court and Parliament. Today, the Italian spoken is mixed with a good dose of French: the people of Turin say madamei instead of Signora, and call their city "little Paris" for its handsome boulevards and classical buildings. Turin, by the way, is the headquarters of the giant automaker FIAT, and the autos are manufactured in the city.

Aosta  (Population: 30,000) The "capital city" of the autonomous Val d'Aosta and a very old community. In ancient times, it was the chief town of a tribe of Gauls called Salassi. In 24 B.C., the Roman general Terentius Varro took the town after defeating the Salassi. A triumphal arch was built, which still stands. Many other Roman remains can be seen: the ruins of a Roman Amphitheater, a Roman gate, and Roman walls, which form a perfect square. The most famous native of Aosta is St. Anselm, born here in 1033, who went north to England and became Archbishop of Canterbury and one of the greatest philosophers of the Middle Ages.

(COURIER: Depending on the mood of the group, you can either give your introduction to Italy now, or wait for the straight, scenically dull stretch between Ivrea and Milan. You can also use all-purpose sections like "Italian Highways and Tourism" or "Italians and Hypochondria," either now or later.)

Chatillon, the small town off the highway to the left, is the second city of the Val d'Aosta province. Around the town are quarries of green marble, which were worked in Roman times. Roman and medieval ruins remain in the town; today, it's a center for the manufacture of artificial silk. The original plan was to start the Autostrada (superhighway) here, but the plans were changed to extend it farther west, to the point where we got on.

St-Vincent, also to our left off the highway, is situated amid groves of chestnut trees and has been famous since 1770 as a health resort. Its mineral waters have long been considered by the hypochondriac Italians to be beneficial for the treatment of stomach and bowel disorders.

After St-Vincent  The valley, following the River Dora Baltea, now curves south, and we'll be following it another 15 miles or so. We proceed through the gorge of Montjovet, near the castle of the same name. There are any number of castles along the way, a reminder that this valley was an important trade route through the mountains during the Middle Ages, and the nobles whose livelihood was dependent on this trade built the castles to defend the passes.

Ivrea  An old town, named by the Romans Eporedia. The Romans fortified it to make it a stronghold against the tribe of Salassi Gauls, whose chief city, we saw earlier, was Aosta. Its castle was built by one of the rulers of the House of Savoy: Amadeus VI, known as the "Green Count." Modern industry has sprouted in the town, in particular the large Olivetti typewriter factory, one of the biggest in Europe.

Lombardy  We've entered another region of Italy, Lombardy. It is one of the most diverse regions of all, stretching from the Po River Valley — a vast, flat plain which we're on now — to the lakes and mountains of the North, near the Swiss border. The name goes back to the Longobards, meaning "Long Beards," a tribe of barbarian invaders who settled here after the fall of the Roman Empire. The Romans themselves called the area Cisalpine Gaul (i.e. that part of Gaul on this side of the Alps, the southern side). But the earliest settlers of all were the Etruscans. Once organized as a Roman province, it was given much freedom, and the area contributed some of ancient Rome's writers of genius: Vergil, Catullus, and the historians Pliny the Elder and Pliny the Younger were from this region. After the invading Longobards had settled down, they built towns which became powerful cities. These cities, chiefly Milan (which had already been a great city under the Romans), were jealous of their independence, and organized the Lombard League. But foreign intervention marked the area's history nonetheless: the Spanish and Austrians controlled the area at one time or another. When the movement for Italian independence gained momentum in the 19th century, Lombardy was quick to join the Kingdom of Piedmont in struggling against the control of the Austrians. During World War II, local partisans rose up against the Germans even before Allied forces could reach the area; escaping Allied prisoners (whom the Germans kept in camps in or near Milan) could always count on getting help from the local people, even when fighting was still going on far to the south. Today, the major industries of the region are rice growing (because of the flat land and abundance of water flowing from the Alps), silk manufacture (because of mulberry bushes which thrive in the climate), and, in Milan, banking and heavy industry.

Novara, which we see off the highway to our right, is a major agricultural center and an industrial town. Little of major historical importance attaches itself to the city, except that its streets still follow the original Roman plan. The city still commemorates four battles that were fought here, chief among them a defeat of the Italian nationalists by the Austrians (1849), which temporarily set back the movement for Italian unity. But by the 1860's that movement had gained new strength, and the Austrians were eventually driven out of Italy.

(COURIER: By this time, you should have started your introduction to Milan.)

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