Summary of Charles Simpson
This is the first of two parts of a highly detailed and descriptive account of the escape of Charles Simpson from PG 49 Fontanellato and his subsequent journey south through Italy. The story starts in the North African desert, and recounts his capture and eventual transfer to Italy.
Like many other ex-PoWs he remembers clearly the details provided by the hospitality of the poor Italian contadini, but unlike many other stories, Simpson is able to recall in great detail the exact topography of the countryside through which he and his companion travelled. The reader is astounded by the feats of physical and mental endurance achieved by these escapers.
The full story follows, in two versions. The version in the first window below is the original scanned version of the story. In the second window below is the transcribed version in plain text.
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A TABLE BEFORE ME
Thou prepares a table before me in the Presence of mine enemies
Psalm 23 v 8
To the country folk of Italy
CHE Simpson, 1981
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During the Second World War there must have been many thousands of individuals wandering, footloose, through occupied Europe, intent, for convincing reasons, on avoiding the attention of the authorities. As one of this vagabond army my experiences, unspectacular, but with plenty of incident, must be typical of the kind of life they had to live.
My object in writing an account of it is to place on record my respect for the hardworking Italian country folk who, from their simple charity, gave me and my companions all the help they could manage. To them we were ‘Cristiani’ – fellow humans – in need, and they never, to their honour, failed to share with us the little they had.
We had not been travelling long before I promised myself that I would plot our route on the map if ever I lived to the end of the war. It was not until about 1970 or thereabouts, that I was able to collect sufficiently detailed maps for the purpose. They were made for the Italian military to a scale of 1:100000, which is roughly two miles to the inch. Since my retirement, with the help of an erratic memory, I have been able to piece together our most likely route. Some parts, where memory and map coincide, are quite accurate, but many have been arrived at after much study and with some hesitation. On the whole I am satisfied that both text and route are reasonably accurate.
Most of the place names I mention were found from the map, but a number I remember having seen on road signs.
The prison camp from which my journey started was a newly built orphanage at Fontanellato on the Lombardy plain. For his part in the escape of all the prisoners, the Commandant, a true gentleman, whose tall, upright figure we had frequently seen around the camp, with his wire-haired terrier at his heels, was removed to Germany. I seem to remember hearing, though I cannot be certain, that he met his death there.
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Chapter 1 – In and Out of the Cage
It was strangely unreal to be free. The prison compound, which had been my world until this very afternoon, was empty. Now I was free from its frustrating barbed wire. No longer would I suffer the constraint of the discipline it imposed. I could make my own decisions and pay for my own mistakes, instead of being the victim of the mistakes of others, which, to my mind, had led to my capture.
From the day I was taken prisoner until many months later, I was consumed by a smouldering anger at the incompetence that had led to the collapse of Tobruk. It grew from a disquiet generated some months before, and the inability of our Army command to make a decision without first calling a conference. Almost weekly, the CO was ordered to attend one of these jamborees, and we almost expected to be asked to vote on the decisions arrived at. This leadership by committee was not my idea of a command structure, and I longed to see a man like General Bernard Montgomery in charge.
I had served under him in South East England after Dunkirk, and he had impressed me by his clear grasp of his job and by his energetic imposition of his will on his command. He had no time for fools, and made unpopular decisions, but you do not have to like your General, so long as you can trust him, and he earned my trust by disclosing his mind to us and showing us what he had to do. Above all, he respected his men and made himself known to them. I recall him telling us once, ‘There are no bad soldiers, only bad officers.’ Unfortunately for us, he was not put in charge until much later.
The battle at Gazala went well enough at first and then, unaccountably, we were ordered to make a hasty withdrawal and later found ourselves facing a string of about 20 German tanks, which were lined up on the edge of the escarpment to the south. The last vehicles of the Army were scurrying away eastwards towards Egypt in a cloud of dust. We were left to cover their retreat with the enemy on the flak of any further withdrawal. Not only were we being left behind, but to my impotent fury we were not allowed to fire. There sat a line of prime targets under the muzzles of our 4.5-inch guns and there we sat admiring the view!
The enemy, however, was under no such constraint, and his tank shells were crashing all around us.
Without firing a shot, we limbered up and withdrew to Tobruk, harassed by dive bombers all the way. It was an absurd decision to attempt to hold this port. Isolating 30,000 troops served no discernible purpose. All they could do was deny its meagre resources to the [word missing]. The seasoned fighting units would have been far more useful defending Egypt.
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Though we had a few tanks we needed a strong armoured force if we were to break out and threaten the enemy’s rear, whereas he had only to pierce the scanty defences to have the place at his mercy, for the land fell away to the sea in a series of escarpments, and whoever was at the top was in the driving seat. To make our task harder our 90 days’ supply of rations had to feed a garrison containing a large number of support troops, who were unable to man 30 miles of perimeter defences, which in any case, had been totally neglected for months. The decision had been made, not on military but on political grounds. Yielding up Tobruk after its previous saga of resistance would cause political ripples. We occupied the old positions and awaited the inevitable, the men stoically and I resentfully.
When the attack came were in its direct path. After the dive bombers had swooped on their targets, the enemy maintained a blanket of shell fire over the artillery positions while he attacked the infantry.
The whistle of the first approaching shells were soon lost in the noise of the explosions.
There was an evil, red wink from a tight ball of purple smoke as each shell landed. Clouds of invisible splinters, hot to the touch, scattered like grain and kicked up spurts of dust from the stony ground. Then the purple blob boiled outwards in a dirty cloud, to be replaced by others.
The nearer splinters could be heard screaming and moaning like tortured souls; whistling like the wind in a keyhole, or whirring like the wings of startled partridges. They flung themselves madly at the Army trucks that were spread everywhere, but to no apparent effect.
So far all seemed well. It was business as usual for us. We simply rammed in the shells and sent them where they would do the most good. Sometime later, however, a white-faced Major arrived at the command post.
‘I’ve lost my battery!’ he said. ‘We’ve been overrun. You’d best be pulling out.’
We made rude remarks of complete disbelief, pointing to the road on our right which led straight into the enemy assault area. Surely support would be coming up if there had indeed been a breakthrough? As it was, the road lay empty.
‘All right,’ he replied, ‘listen.’
We listened and looked at each other in surprise. The sound of small arms fire, which had formed an unheeded background to the general uproar, sounded very close indeed.
‘You had better report to Battery HQ over there,’ I said.
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Off he ran and we rang them up to tell them he was on his way and the tidings he was bringing.
‘A breakthrough! It’s the first I’ve heard of it. Take no notice.’ replied the OC heatedly.
We shrugged and got on with the war.
Moments later the field telephone rang.
‘It’s HQ. The man was right. Enemy tanks are on the escarpment ahead. You’ve just time to blow the guns. Get cracking!’
A Gunner with no guns is an anachronism if you like, but there was nothing else for it. We were dug in too deeply to winch ourselves out in time, so we had to destroy the only things that gave meaning to our existence. We decided to put a round in the muzzle, one in the breech and fire each gun, using a telephone wire fastened to the firing lever. There were plenty of people to do that, so I said I would destroy the tractors, and borrowing a box of matches, I set off at a smart pace to the wagon lines, which were only a quarter of a mile to the rear. So intent was I on my task, that I quite ignored the falling shells until I reached the vehicles.
Each was the size of a bus and was diesel driven. I wondered if I would get the fuel to burn. The bodywork was of wood and together with the thick tyres, would make a nice bonfire. Pulling down some scrim from a camouflage net, I made a pile beneath the tank of the first tractor, and putting the muzzle of my revolver against the metal, I squeezed the trigger. Where the bullet went, I never knew, but it certainly didn’t penetrate the tank. A dimple showed where it had struck, and I put the revolver against the same spot and tried again. This time thick, oily fuel ran down onto the hessian strips below. My revolver went off again and a bullet hit the ground between my feet. Realizing how tense I must be, I forced my movements to be deliberate and carefully struck match after match, trying to kindle a flame. After a number of failures, a hesitant flame crept round the edge of a single strip, growing slowly more confident until it became a merry blaze intent on boiling the diesel in the tank.
I backed several tractors into the first, which, with astonishing speed, was soon a sheet of flame, the heat from which struck me harshly as I reversed the last one into the pyre. More alarming than the fierce heat, however, were the splinters of burning shells which suddenly erupted from the heart of the furnace. I had quite overlooked the ammunition which was stored on the floors of the tractors and was now busily blowing them to fragments. I leapt from the driving cab and bolted.
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The enemy shellfire had now stopped and I looked back at the gun position. Enemy tanks were already there and the men were coming out of the gun pits with their hands on their heads. I turned and tramped northwards, leaving the blazing tractors to send coils of black smoke into the immaculate sky.
‘This’ I thought, ‘seems to be the end of my military career.’ The chances of escaping were less than encouraging. It was 400 miles to the next stronghold at Mersah Matruh . If I ever reached it the enemy could well be there first to greet me. My shirt was ripped almost in half, my boots were broken and nails were sticking into the foot which already had a verruca. I could not march, that was certain. To get away in a vehicle I would have to drive straight through the enemy positions. That was a dubious proposition. Perhaps I could somehow get away by sea. It would save my feet at least. I headed for the coast.
On the way I picked up a soldier’s greatcoat. I was sure I would be glad of its comfort later. Further on I picked up a spoon. Its handle ended in a tin opener, which was to prove invaluable. I stuck it in my stocking and pressed on. I was already collecting a survival kit.
I found nothing on the shore that could be used as a raft, so I joined the other officers, whom I found collected in a cave at the water’s edge. Here I settled down for the night with the sound of the waves on the rocks and a bottle of whisky I had salvaged from an abandoned mess as a comfort.
Next morning, we dispersed to give ourselves up and I encountered a couple of hundred soldiers looking for food. A couple of non-descript German soldiers appeared. Each had a pistol slung round his neck on a piece of string. They were indifferent to us and were obviously seeking loot. I asked the one who was a corporal if there was any food about for the soldiers and he led us to one of our own dumps and told us to help ourselves. It was the first time I had used my schoolboy German and it got results! In this way I was able to feed my shepherd-less flock on tins of fruit.
The Germans told us to report to the airstrip when we were ready and went off on their own affairs. I stood on the road while the men fed, some of them using my tin opener. Beyond them I saw the bowed figures of my OC and his second in command, looking as if they had discarded all responsibility with their loss of authority and were concerned solely with their own misfortune.
Then and there I decided that neither I nor the men around me would slink into the collecting centre like beaten dogs. As soon as they had finished their peculiar breakfast, I yelled at them to fall in. I didn’t know their temper, but mine was simmering sufficiently for me to adopt the unusual role of a tyrant and blackguarded them into line. If they were tired of being kicked around and wanted someone to hate, they could choose to hate me, so long as they obeyed orders. They were unwilling at first, but gradually the NCOs among them marshalled them into ranks and I marched them off. I could hear them behind me, cursing and complaining all the way.
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We tramped past groups of German soldiers and received their incurious stares. Eventually the airstrip came in sight, with a mass of seated figures guarded by machine guns.
‘March to attention!’ I yelled. They responded, instinctively, I supposed, for I suspected they didn’t much like my taking charge.
We marched into the centre of acres of watching prisoners.
Crash of feet. Deep silence. Excellent!
‘Left turn! Stand at – ease.’
I took up my position facing the ranks.
‘Well done lads. Now, let’s show the bastards!’
‘Company – shun! Dis-miss!’
They turned as one, feet crashed down in unison, and 200 arms flashed up in a perfect salute. I returned it impeccably. Silently they dispersed.
I was smiling when I joined the Colonel and the rest of the Regiment, who had had a front seat at this display. At least I had managed one small gesture of defiance.
Later that day the Cameronians marched in, led by their piper. It was impressive, and I hoped that when the lads saw this, they would have a feeling of satisfaction at having pre-empted such a smart entry.
Nevertheless, the fact remained that we were all prisoners, a useless mass to be herded in compounds until the war was over. The capture of my entire Regiment for no justifiable reason galled me, and I was in a mutinous state of mind for many months.
I tried my German out on a tired-looking Major and he gave me permission to wander off to find my kit, but one of his soldiers stopped me, so we sat on the ground for the rest of the day, staring with scorn at a rush for water that some other troops made when the water tanks arrived. At about sunset the officers were loaded into lorries and we moved west along the coast, past the old front line and round the bay towards Bomba.
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Here we were dumped in open country, given a small tin of meat and hard tack and left in the care of the sentries. I had my tin opener and was able to broach my rations and I helped as many as possible to do the same, without losing track of the invaluable tool. How others coped I had no means of knowing. As night fell, I snuggled into my greatcoat and made myself as comfortable as possible, rocked to sleep by an RAF raid on a nearby airfield.
Next day we resumed our journey and arrived in Derna, where we were dumped behind the great gates of some barracks and inspected by an unshaven, pot-bellied little runt of an aggressive Italian officer, who was most unpleasant.
The humiliation was hard to swallow, and one chap apparently had had enough and after dark tried to escape, only to be shot.
Next day we were loaded into open trucks with a coloured soldier in a fez sitting, armed, on the roof of each cab. I sat at the tailboard, ready to jump if an escape chance offered.
All day long we travelled through the mountains and plains, passing the farmsteads of the Italian colonists whom Mussolini had settled there. Each seemed identical and each bore standard exhortations to work and fight carefully painted on the blank walls. Whenever we twisted through the mountains, I looked for a chance to bale out, hoping to find some friendly Arabs who would look after me until we came that way in force. The countryside was, however bleak and empty and although there were blind corners and tree cover at some points, there was nothing else to encourage an attempt to escape.
We spent the night in an empty Army camp where we had the blessing of water with which to wash and shave, though without a razor myself, remained scruffy. However, we had beds and lay down with the beams of a full moon streaming through the barrack windows.
On through the mountains we went next day. The country became wilder and frequently along the route were scattered relics of the troops who had passed this way in each direction. There were smashed tanks, bits of vehicles, helmets and scraps of equipment strewn here and there along the roadside.
Eventually we came down to the coast again where supply ships were anchored and various dumps were scattered close to the shore. On into Benghazi and the airport, where, loaded into a three-engine plane, I took my first flight, looking down at the deep blue of the Mediterranean, and crossing the heel of Italy to touch down at Lecce.
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We spent the night in a stone cellar with grated openings at pavement level. It was after sunset before we received any food. This consisted of salted sardines, or similar fish, which arrived in a large can and were distributed as fairly as possible in the gloom. We ate them raw, head, bones and tail. We also received a handful of almonds each. These were fresh from the tree and had first to be skinned before the shell was exposed. We had to split this somehow to get at the kernel. In the dark, crowded room this was something of a feast. Eventually we lay on the stone floor and slept as best we could.
Next day we travelled comfortably by train to Bari. For much of the way the track ran through rocky ground, from the crevices of which sprang fig trees in profusion. Their shining, green leaves were a revelation after the starkness of the desert.
Bari was a collection of huts within a barbed wire fence. We slept on double wooden bunks. Breakfast was a mess tin lit of hot, mock coffee made from roasted wheat. Alas, it was undrinkable until cool, for the Italian Army mess tins were made of aluminium and were too hot for the lips. We usually had a piece of bread and soup at midday. The soup was very thin and contained vegetables of various kinds, including cucumbers and green tomatoes. The last meal was, I think, bread and perhaps olives or almonds.
I had not been there long before my face broke out into a rash, and the Medical Officer diagnosed Impetigo – something I had never even heard of. Apparently, it was highly contagious, so I was packed off to hospital.
That was the last I saw of the Regiment until I attended a reunion in Ipswich in about 1970. They were about to be removed to a permanent camp the next day. One’s life is affected sometimes in unforeseen ways.
At the hospital I was put into pyjamas and a bed in a ward with several wounded British officers. Legs, arms and an eye were missing but they were in high spirits. I felt a fraud in such company. The nursing staff were nuns, or ‘suore’, though there were volunteer nurses in support. All that remained of the war was the armed sentry at the door of the ward.
We bribed him with cigarettes from our Red Cross parcels, which arrived from time to time. In turn he took no action when we held parties after lights out. All prisoners looked forward to these parcels and fretted when their delivery was interrupted, as it frequently was, sometimes for months on end. They took the form of cardboard boxes about a foot long and eight inches square, and contained a supply of basic food from meat and fish to butter and cheese. There was usually a slab of chocolate to be eaten piece by piece over many days. They were a welcome addition to our usual diet.
I was left unattended while my rash erupted and my whole face ran with pus. My eyes were affected, and for four days I lay in darkness, unable to see and so sampled, briefly, the life of the blind. At length I was taken to the doctor, who prescribed an ointment, and from then on, I was left in the care of Angelo, an orderly.
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As he renewed my dressings each day, he entertained me with tales of his life in America, as a hoodlum. That long suffering country had finally felt obliged to return him to his own country and his fondest hope was to be able to return to that land of opportunity.
A doctor arrived unexpectedly one day to see to my verruca. I lay face down on the bed while he produced his scalpel. I expected to experience some pain while he operated, but he did the job painlessly and swiftly.
In the adjoining ward was a poor Greek seaman suffering from head injuries. Day and night he broke into periods of screaming and shouting which were dreadful to hear. As he lay dying the suore clustered round his bed with lanterns, trying to save the poor fellow’s soul. He at last found his peace during the night.
Word came that a troop transport had been sunk and that many casualties were to be admitted, so the hospital had to be cleared of all those able to be moved. Accordingly, we were all taken to the railway station and put into a hospital train. I was given a comfortable upper bunk from which I had a fine view of the countryside as we travelled northwards. Despite feeling a fraud, I bore the luxury with composure.
We travelled in a leisurely fashion, halting at midday for a meal – a tasty risotto from the Officers’ Mess, and in the evening, we pulled into the station at Florence, where I gazed in astonishment at the resplendent figure of an Officer of the Carabiniere, in full dress -cocked hat, cloak, sword and white gloves.
We spent the night peacefully at rest in a siding and continued our journey until I ended up in Bergamo. The details have been forgotten, but it must have been here that I marched through the streets with the lightly wounded with my greatcoat over my arm and my face spectacularly swathed in bandages.
I finished up in another hospital where I was, again, given hospital clothing. Here the nursing nuns were called sorelle and they were very sensible and kind. Off the ward were primitive toilets, which were simply a hole in the floor and a tap in the wall. Here I had my daily shower, merely pouring water over myself using a small bowl. After the waterless desert this was luxury.
My neighbour was a Sikh Officer with 19 years of service. He told me a lot about life and service in India.
In a short time, my bandages were removed and I was allowed out of bed for the day. Eventually I was told I was to move at dawn. My sorella took my clothes, washed and ironed them and presented them to me at breakfast time. Then, with an escort of an Officer and a sergeant major, both armed, I travelled by train to Milan. There we boarded a bus for Piacenza. The passengers, laden with market purchases, paid less attention to me than I did to them. At Piacenza we transferred to a mule cart, and on this vehicle, we climbed the vineyards on the hillsides to the old tower of Pianello, or Campo 41, as the sun set.
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On entering the gateway, I was taken to a side room where I was meticulously searched before being conducted up stone steps to an arched dormitory, where a bed awaited me.
The building proved to be a hexagonal tower with a central cobbled courtyard. The painted ceilings suggested that it had previously been in civilian hands. The ground floor was used for administrative purposes, stores, mess hall, kitchen and ablutions, with a small chamber for recreation which we used mainly as a bar. Those who could stomach it drank execrable vino from mugs made from empty tins. Another room at the end of the block we turned to better use, for we negotiated for the hire of a film projector, and knocking a hole in a wall to make a small projection room, were able to enjoy a variety of films, including news reels.
Yet another small room was turned into a library where books sent to us were shared. We paid for this from the allocation of camp money we were allowed.
In this way I was able to buy myself a new shirt, since my old one, torn at Tobruk, was by now almost in two halves.
All in all, it was quite a comfortable life. There were only about 150 of us and we thus were engaging the attentions of a disproportionate number of guards. Our rations were basically those of sedentary civilians. Each day we collected a loaf of bread the size of a fist and of dubious quality. To make it last the day I sliced it thinly and baked the slices on the stove. There were two of these in each barrack room but only fuel for one, which gave us about one hour’s heat. The stoves comprised three or four earthenware ‘boxes’ stacked round a metal flue, which passed through the vaulted ceiling and so to the roof. When the stove was hot it was possible to bake things on the ‘boxes’ and there was always a strange collection of delicacies upon them while the heat lasted.
Pasta, beans and other vegetables provided the bulk of our diet, and once, I remember, cheese. The cooking was done by South African soldiers, who lived apart somewhere. Indeed, the only time I saw them was when it snowed and they ran into the courtyard to experience this strange phenomenon.
Early in the New Year we were told we were to move. We had already been organising into groups with leaders in the hope of making a mass escape should our troops land in Italy, for
We had daily roll call, but otherwise life was fairly relaxed. Around the tower ran a perimeter wire and during the day we were allowed to wander outside the tower walls and get a little exercise. Now and then we were allowed a route march, suitably guarded. The only unpleasantness that arose was when a guard shot the little Fox Terrier that daily came through the wire to be made much of. The little animal ran off screaming with pain before it died.
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Early in the New Year we were told we were to move. We had already been organising into groups with leaders in the hope of making a mass escape should our troops land in Italy, for by now they were driving on into Tripoli with the 1st Army pressing towards them from the west. The move threatened to abort our arrangements.
Shortly afterwards we moved by train from Pianello across the Lombardy plain until we stopped in the empty countryside and were to detrain. Forming up into a column with guards on either side, we marched northwards for a few miles until we arrived at Campo 49 at Fontanellato. It proved to be a newly completed orphanage several storeys high. As it had been intended for children the beds were uncomfortably short, even for me, who is no giant. It was built in a single block with domestic arrangements in the basement and the other floors devoted to dormitories. I was on the ground floor.
A high, double-wired fence formed a compound around the block. At intervals it was illuminated with lights, and at each comer there was an elevated machine gun post with spotlights. Beyond the wire a deep, wide ditch ran to discourage tunnelling. The compound was covered in fist-sized round stones which rattled as one walked. The only break in the ditch was where wire gates opened into an outer compound several times larger than the first. Round this there was no ditch and no lights shone at night. The guard posts at the far corners were only occupied during the day and we were always called in before the sun set. A trip wire ran a couple of feet from the perimeter and this was the limit of our freedom. After a time, the constraint had a depressing effect which had to be faced. Occasionally an individual broke and tried to climb the wire. The guards, fortunately, kept calm and merely seized the offender and clapped him in the cooler for a short time.
I finished up there myself one day, having somehow missed roll call. While I was there three recaptured escapees joined me, and as I had played a small part in the escapade by helping to distract the attention of the guards at the crucial time, I was interested in their tale.
The attempt itself had its humorous side. Usually, we played football or exercised in some other way in the outer compound during the day, but with the utmost cheek we had persuaded the authorities to lend us tools to form a garden. For some time digging went on until the roving guards, who mixed with us, had become uninterested, then with groups sitting and standing about to shield the operation, a long shallow trench was dug in which three men could lie in. Timing was everything. The thing had to be dug and the escapers covered in cardboard and soil just before we were ordered back for roll call. The guards would then search the compound before shutting the gates and abandoning their posts. Somehow roll call had to be fiddled so that the three were not missed. As soon as it was dark, they emerged into an empty, dark compound with no guards to worry about and could quietly crawl through the wire at the furthest point from our lights.
They had got to the railway station before they were picked up, but managed to bring with them the stationmaster’s rubber stamp, which they thought might come in handy some other time.
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Another incident broke the monotony of the hot, summer days when one of a formation of American Flying Fortresses, returning over the Alps, fell out of formation with smoke trailing from one engine. White buds of parachutes opened and floated gently down to the plain. One sailed down straight towards us and landed a mile away. We welcomed a new guest very shortly afterwards.
Now our forces had invaded Sicily and we began to show an interest in organising a general exodus based on our earlier plan, so we were organised into platoons under senior officers awaiting the day when our forces invaded Italy.
Now the time had come. Italy was now an ally and we were all anxious to carry out our plan at once. The operation was delayed all day, however. Many of the sentries had already fled homewards, and the Senior British Officer and his staff had been negotiating with the Commandante for our release. There seemed to be no earthly reason why we should not all march out there and then, but we were ordered instead to remain indoors. Fretful with impatience, there we lingered while the slow hours dragged past.
We knew a German Jaeger battalion was in the neighbourhood, for it had occasionally marched past the orphanage that was our prison while we yelled at them from the windows. They had sung harmoniously then, but might be on their way now towards us with no song on their lips. Our anxiety was increased when a three-engine Junkers inspected the compound at low level. The delay continued, however, and it was not until late afternoon that we formed up and marched away, heading north west towards distant Mont Blanc, which raised its bulk above the outline of the Alps on the northern horizon.
Having passed through the wire I felt that at last I could breathe freely, for though a soldier may be deemed a mere slave, since he must submit his personal will to the direction of others, nothing can equal the humiliation and degradation of being a prisoner, denied initiative and condemned to an impotent existence.
Of course, it was all illusory. In hard fact I was in North Italy within a few miles of the river Po, and the sun was declining over a land occupied by German troops. It was hostile territory, even though the Italians were now our friends.
It was early September, and the autumn crocuses displayed their blue petals in profusion as we tramped across country with long shadows stretching from trees and hedges. Shunning all roads and habitations, we continued in roughly the same direction until we reached a position about a mile north of Boscodisotto. Here a deep, dry, grass grown moat ran at right angles across our path, and here we were ordered to remain. We scrambled down and lay out of sight with the sun shining pleasantly on us.
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The master plan had been to stay where we were until the situation became clearer. And then to react in the light of circumstances. So far all had gone according to plan, but I had a fixed determination to be my own master and not to fall victim again to the unreliable decisions of others. I lay thinking out my future course of action. Ahead, a couple of days’ march away, lay Switzerland and a comfortable internment until the end of the war. It was an inviting, if inactive, prospect, but I had volunteered to prosecute a war against the German army and this I preferred to do. It meant trying to reach my own forces, or joining a resistance group in the mountains, if one could be found. One thing I was not prepared to do was to obey orders and risk staying in the moat until a German patrol recaptured us all.
I could do nothing until nightfall, so I listened to those around me in the hope of hearing something useful that might start me off on a practical plan. I was lucky, for a short distance away, I came across three officers discussing the same problem. One of them had a letter of introduction, written in Italian, on behalf of himself and his friend. In it they had each been promoted to respectable rank, and with its aid they hoped to get civilian clothing and shelter. He and his friend, he explained to a third, intended to make for the area around Florence and there settle in a villa until the Army landed in the north and enfolded them effortlessly in its embrace. No-one imagined for a moment that our forces would be condemned to advance overland, with mountain ridges, arranged like the teeth of a comb, across their path. We were not to know that the American Admiral King had demanded back the landing craft he had lent for the landing at Salerno, and that therefore no further landing of any size was possible. To us the strategy of our forces was obvious – a landing in the north to force the enemy to retreat to the Alps. The plan, therefore, had merit. What would otherwise be involved in trying to reach our forces, who were about 500 miles away, was not to be contemplated. I asked if I might join their group and make a pair with the third, who was, in any case, to be left on his own after the first few days. They were not the kind I readily warmed to. They had that insufferable air of public-school superiority, which distanced them from ordinary mortals. Not that they were free from the common failings of mankind, for I have seen their like in a prison camp come to blows over the accurate division of a home-baked cake. Nevertheless, they had something useful that might be of benefit to me, and I was pleased enough when they consented to allow me to accompany their companion on the first stages of their journey.
I never knew the names of the first pair, but the third member of the group, Barry Nichols, a lanky, somewhat sullen youth of 19, blue eyed and fair haired, rapidly became a burden I could well have done without. He made an uncongenial companion, but fortune, so they say, makes strange bedfellows, and as it turned out the four of us proved of mutual benefit in the first, tense days of our journey.
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We waited until the daylight faded and then deserted. I left behind my greatcoat, with its pockets full of tinned rations, and reduced my load to a towel, razor, comb and nail file. Some were still in prison uniforms – a battledress with a red square on one leg and on the back of the blouse. Recklessly we marched abreast into the gathering darkness, enjoying the holiday mood of emancipation. It was exhilarating to walk, unrestricted, along a country lane following a tentative plan of our own choosing.
The full moon rose, like a huge orange, ahead of us. Grey stone houses and solid, black cypress trees drifted silently past. Nothing stirred. Doubtless a curfew was still being observed, but the possibility of meeting a patrol did not enter our heads. While our initial excitement lasted, we were very vulnerable, but gradually the caution of the fugitive began to assert itself.
An hour so later we were standing under a signpost in the moonlight trying to decide which of a radiating set of roads we should follow. I can clearly remember two of its directions. One arm pointed to Fontanella and one to San Secondo, neither of which meant anything to us. However, the crowded houses of a village could be seen close ahead. It must have been San Secondo. We had no wish to pass through it, so we took a road that appeared to skirt it and, keeping alert for any strangers, crept quietly past.
Beyond the village the road took a sharp turn, and a little further on bent again. Here a private drive, flanked by two gateposts, led straight on through shadowy cypresses to a large, shuttered house. We considered its possibilities and decided to take a chance and ask for assistance. The gravelled drive crunched noisily underfoot, so we walked silently on the grass verge until we gathered in the darkness of the doorway. The knocker sounded like a hammer in the silence. Lights appeared. The door opened. We prepared to dash off into the night if our reception was hostile or if Germans were billeted there. The letter was produced and read. We were invited in. The occupants spoke excellent English and our explanations appeared to be accepted. Our public-school pair, with their exalted rank, were accommodated in the house. Barry and I were conducted to the bam and blankets were provided. In a short time, he and I were having a good meal in the kitchen, served by a pretty, uniformed maid.
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Although the prison camp was so near, I refused to worry unduly, and adopted a somewhat fatalistic attitude towards the future. There was nothing we could do to avoid recapture at this stage, except to be as circumspect as possible. By staying here, we had a good chance of getting the civilian clothing that was so essential for our journey, and if it entailed a delay and the consequent risk of discovery, we had to accept it. What troubled me most, and was to trouble me on many subsequent occasions, was the risk our protectors took in giving us shelter. An incautious word could give them away, and my experience in Africa was that Italians were a voluble people, for they often betrayed their positions in the darkness by their ceaseless chatter. There was, of course, the risk that our hosts themselves might betray us, for they were obviously of high social standing and had been at least nominal fascists. The risks we ran, therefore, were very real, but we stood to gain so much that they were worth running. Having made the decision to stay, it was pointless to worry, so I rolled myself in my blanket and settled down in the straw for a sound sleep.
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Chapter 2 – Into the Hills
The rising sun greeted us when we rose next morning. We washed and shaved in a water trough and then waited hungrily for what seemed hours before we were called into the kitchen for breakfast Our two superiors did not appear until much later, when they told us we had all been invited to the house for dinner in the evening. This meant the delay of another day and we were reluctant to linger, but without civilian clothes we could not expect to get far. No clothing appeared, so we resigned ourselves to the delay and keeping clear of the road, wandered off to explore the estate.
It was bounded on the east by the river Taro, which at this point ran like a 10-foot wide canal, drifting sluggishly between grassy banks to join the Po a few miles to the north. In the centre of the fields were the farm buildings and brick cottages of the farm workers. Propped against the walls and ripening in the sun were great wheels of Parmesan cheeses. Obviously dairy farming was being carried on and we were not surprised to see fields of green maize and other fodder crops standing next to the stubble of the cornfields. There were no grazing cattle. Only once did I come across cattle in the open, so they must have been kept permanently indoors.
We entered the huge cowshed. It was like an aircraft hangar. Milking was in progress. About 100 Friesians were eating from a manger that ran the length of one wall. They made an impressive crunching sound as they tucked into the green maize that was piled before them. A few open churns stood in the centre of the hall. The milkers were constantly emptying their pails into them and their foreman invited us to have a drink. We were not too anxious to oblige him, for when he dipped a measure into the churns its black lining of flies rose in a buzzing cloud. However, for the sake of politeness, we each swallowed a glassful, hoping that no dreadful plague would result. We kept clear of the cowshed after that and spent most of the day dozing in the shade of the trees in a secluded part of the estate.
In the early evening we spruced ourselves up for dinner and, somewhat embarrassed at having claimed military rank to which we were not entitled, sat down with our hosts to a very good meal.
For the first time I met the padrone and his wife, an elderly couple, with their daughter and son-in-law. They all, as far as I recall, spoke excellent English, embarrassing me further, since I spoke hardly a word of Italian. It transpired that the family had shipping interests and that the younger couple had retreated to the country to escape the bombing of Genoa. We discussed the best route south, having disclosed our intentions. It was pleasant to converse in elegant surroundings. The table lights glittered on the silver and glassware which were reflected from the polished table top. The white table linen made a strong contrast. A bowl of fresh flowers in the centre added to the attraction.
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At the conclusion of the meal, we discussed our immediate needs and were promised civilian clothing and an attaché case each for our meagre possessions. We demurred at this, since we felt these would be too conspicuous and we did not wish them to waste their money. They insisted however, that they would provide them and pressed upon us 200 lire each for emergencies. The younger man then offered me a couple of shirts. One was a black fascist article and the other a white Airtex garment. In addition, he pressed a white, silk scarf upon me, and this was to prove its worth. The others were similarly equipped and more was promised for the following day.
We warmly thanked our hosts and took our leave of them, determined to be on our way at the earliest opportunity.
As it was still daylight and the sun was some distance yet above the horizon, I strolled off on my own to a quiet spot away from the buildings. Here, in a clearing, I found a number of the farm workers, both men and women, relaxing in the cool of the evening. A rough circle of tree trunks lay in the grass and groups of workers were sitting there gossiping. They greeted me with friendly smiles and chatted away, though I could not understand a word they said. Fortunately, the attractive maid, who had come out to enjoy a moment of leisure, came up to me, smiling and putting me at my ease. I asked her desperately in French if she could speak that language and she answered that she could, having been a chambermaid in that country for some years. Here at last was a means of communication. My French was schoolboy stuff and I had to dig deep into my memory to dredge up some vocabulary.
Seeing us in conversation, everyone crowded round, wide-eyed with wonder. When in reply to my question she spoke in Italian, a buzz of excitement went round, and when I repeated her words in that language, they were noisily delighted. So it went on; question in French, answer in Italian, repeat in Italian. ‘Bravo! Bravissimi’ acclaimed the friendly crowd. Smiles and clapping hands all round. We were all thoroughly enjoying ourselves.
The sun set, the shadows gathered, the lesson went on enthusiastically and I gained a useful vocabulary of common phrases. I had never before concentrated on a language lesson so intently, but the need to be understood had never been so important. It was quite dark by the time I had absorbed as much as I felt I could in one session, and bidding my appreciative audience ‘Buona notte’ and receiving their hearty handshakes, I returned to the stable, well satisfied with the unexpected benefit of a workable selection of Italian.
We were up betimes next morning, shaved and washed and ready to go. True to their promise, our hosts had provided us each with a small cardboard attaché case, which arrived later in the morning, containing a packed lunch for the journey. It was not, however, until late in the morning that a crowd of workers arrived at the stable bearing gifts of clothing for exchange. We stripped to our underwear and socks. The only other item of military equipment we retained were our identity disks.
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I was given a blue pullover, greyish trousers, a black jacket and a cap. I was dubious about parting with my boots, but considering we intended to be only about a week on the march, I agreed to exchange them for a pair of pointed brown shoes, a little too tight. It was a stupid decision, but I was too soft-hearted to refuse after my friendly reception of the night before.
Civilians at last, we stood up and shook hands with our friends. ‘Grazie! Grazie!’ we chanted.
‘Auguri!’ they shouted cheerfully, and gave their peculiar beckoning wave as we set off.
We crossed the river by a plank that had been placed there for general convenience, and set off eastwards. Our intention was to travel in this direction until we reckoned we were midway between Parma and Reggio and then to turn south towards the Apennines, which fringed the southern edge of the plain. The country was very flat. Harvest was over. From behind our prison wire, we had watched the rows of reapers bending over the corn, sickle in hand, while they stooped to cut and swayed to pass the sheeves back to be bound by the following women. The plain stubble fields alternated with others in which grew rows of trees planted at about 10-yard intervals and running some 25 yards apart. A strong wire cable was strung from tree to tree along each row and from this hung vines bearing clusters of ripe, purple grapes. I could not believe, however, that this was the sole purpose of the trees. Farmers waste nothing, so that the trees must have served some additional purpose. I wondered if they were mulberry trees and had originally been planted for their leaves to be used to feed silkworms.
Deep ditches and grassy embankments ran along the edges of many fields; defences against the floodwaters of the river. Footpaths ran along the embankments and we followed all those which ran roughly in the direction we wanted. The sun shone from a cloudless sky, a gentle breeze blew, and we were happily on our way at last.
Scattered about the countryside in little clusters were stone-walled houses with red tiled, gently sloping roves, above which the campanile of the village church peeped. In addition to these groups of buildings, farmhouses were dotted about. It was a well populated area, so we avoided all the buildings and kept to the open country.
No larks sang overhead and neither blackbird nor thrush rose, startled, from the undergrowth. Apart from a solitary blackbird, I cannot recall ever having observed any birds other than swallows darting about the houses, and mobs of sparrows quarrelling on rooves.
We crossed the Parma stream and at about midday settled down in a clump of trees to eat our food. In our cases we found bread and cheese, salami and fruit. It was a pleasant interlude that has lingered clearly in my memory. All was peaceful and quiet, except for the slight rustling of the leaves overhead.
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We were satisfied to have put some distance between ourselves and the prison camp, and were reasonably equipped for our journey. We lay in the shade for a considerable time, full not only of food, but also of a sense of wellbeing. By sunset, we estimated, we would have gone far enough to be ready to turn south the next day. Our delay at the big house had not proved disastrous and all we required now was food and lodging for the coming night.
My shoes were beginning to pinch, but not too badly, and my feet were willing enough to resume their journey when at length we decided to rise. We had already agreed that our cases made us conspicuous, so with feelings of guilt towards our well-meaning hosts, we abandoned them in a ditch.
Sometime in the afternoon we crossed a railway running north and south and rightly agreed it to be the line to Parma. Another five miles or so would see us to our turning point.
The sun was declining when we were confronted by our first obstacle. It was a wide and deep canal, its water reflecting the glow of the sky and seeming as solid as glass. It ran like a road as far as the eye could see, without any visible crossing points. We turned south along its banks, hoping to find a bridge and wondering whether such things would be guarded. The village of Frassinara appeared and the shape of a bridge was reflected in the water. Groups of people were standing about, and we wondered what we were in for. Uneasily we drew closer, and then we discovered that there was a metal footbridge spanning the canal some distance short of the main bridge. It was untended, and thankfully we hurried across and headed once more into open country.
The sun was now setting and the short Italian twilight was drawing quickly to its close when we came upon a couple of brick houses standing alone in a clump of trees. It was almost dark by the time we reached them and a few features could be discerned, but they seemed fairly remote from other settlements, and so I was deputed to knock on the door and ask for shelter. I felt it was no use inventing some plausible tale to account for four foreigners arriving at nightfall at a lonely house, so when the door opened hesitatingly, I simply stated our situation and needs. We were admitted without demur, and though our host treated us rather shyly, we were given food and shown into the stables for the night. I never ceased to be grateful for the kindnesses of the Italian country people.
We awakened at first light to the crowing of cocks, and after cleaning ourselves up, were given bread and milk for breakfast. After thanking our host, we were on our way by sunrise. The air was chilly, and there was a slight ground mist, sufficient to dim the rising sun. We took the dirt road south through the empty fields until the village of Sorbolo lay before us. We turned to the east to avoid it and headed to what looked like a tree lined hedge running south, with the idea of using it as cover to pass the village unseen. A dirt road ran in front of it and immediately beyond ran a stream, the Enza. Eddies of mist drifted across its surface. There was a wicket gate leading down to a footbridge, which itself led to what seemed to be a watermill in midstream. It was a large wooden building.
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There was no way across to the further bank, but upstream and adjoining the mill, was an area of about 50 yards square divided off into small pens by heavy wooden planking, which stood a foot or two above the level of the water. Here and there rose the handwheels of sluice gates. I could not understand the purpose of those pens, but have since thought they might have been a fish farm. However, there were catwalks along the top of the pens and by following them we came close enough to the further bank to be able to leap ashore.
We were faced with a steep, tree lined slope, above which the red morning sun was struggling through the mist. At the crest we crossed a dirt road and, quite unexpectedly, stumbled on another railway. This made us pause, wondering whether or not it was the Reggio line. If it were, we would have come too far east, but this did not square with our calculations, and after some discussion, we decided to ignore it and stick to our original course. It proved, in fact, to have been the right decision, for the line we had just crossed ran to Parma.
About 20 miles to the south the foothills of the Apennines made a green backdrop to the plain, over which were scattered innumerable stone houses and barns. We steered a course south-wards between all the villages and hamlets we encountered. In the fields the lines of grape-laden trees ran north and south, affording us welcome shade a cover. As we walked we took the opportunity to help ourselves to the delicious fruit and ate it in bunches.
During our imprisonment we had all suffered from a Vitamin deficiency, for although the food had been adequate, it had lacked balance. Accordingly, we all discovered that wounds or sores would not heal. Many of us suffered also from skin complaints, spots and the like.
I myself had two boils ripening under my right armpit. Fresh fruit was the ideal remedy, so we gorged ourselves on it all day.
Skirting Praticello, we kept to the west of Caprara until we reached the hot, steel rails of the Bologna line. Parallel to it, a few hundred yards beyond was the Via Emilia, which stretched in a straight line from end to end of the plain. It was deserted, except for a solitary large vehicle which came roaring towards us from the west. As it approached, we realised it was a German tank transporter. We stood at the side of the road as it thundered past. The tank it was carrying was shrouded by a tarpaulin, in the folds of which the crew were lolling. They took not the slightest notice of us.
The plain simmered in the heat as we continued towards the foothills that seemed no nearer. Passing between Montecchio and Cavriago, we came upon another railway line, which, judging by the road signs thereabouts, must have been going to Bibbiano. The ground began, imperceptibly, to rise, and we soon found ourselves with the plain stretching away below. The hills seemed at last to have come to meet us.
Their rolling sides were covered with what appeared to be allotments. Some contained rows of staked vines, and others a variety of vegetables.
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I remember seeing some pigs in one enclosure, A few peasants were stooping over their plots. I considered where they lived, for there were no houses to be seen, but suddenly we dropped into a fold in the ground and found a country lane with cottages dotted along it.
As this ran along the hillside, we followed it, hoping to find a track leading us deeper into the hills. This indeed we did and climbed for about a mile further until we found ourselves in the hamlet of Cantone.
At the road junction there was a house with a green door. Two steps led up to it. As it was mid-afternoon, everyone seemed to be out in the fields, for not even a dog stirred, and I banged on the door unavailingly. We explored the rear of the house and here we found a deep pond surrounded by trees and bushes. The other houses were hidden from sight.
Only the hillside, rising abruptly behind, overlooked us. In this secluded spot we plunged into the water and enjoyed an hour of luxury, getting rid of our dust and sweat in its cool depths.
We decided to try the house again, but all remained as deserted as before, so as there was plenty of daylight left, we pushed on to try somewhere else. We wanted to get higher into the hills instead of following them round where it was thickly populated. Roads did indeed branch off at Montecavolo, but the road signs pointed to other villages which we would rather avoid. A village also lay ahead of us, but at some distance and we might find a road into the hills on the way, so we continued along the foothills.
About a mile further on we saw on our left a large, solitary farm at the end of a long dirt road. It squatted solidly on a rise in the middle of an extensive plain. Low hills concealed it from the Po valley beyond.
It seemed a suitable overnight place, and as the afternoon was wearing on, we agreed to pay it a visit.
On arriving at the stone buildings, we found them to be indeed of an impressive size. The house itself looked as strong as a fortress, and the outbuildings and barns round the yard were built on similar substantial lines. Hens clucked and scratched in the dust, but otherwise there were no signs of life. The imposing doorway was at the top of a considerable flight of steps, giving the building the likeness of a medieval manor house. It was some time before anyone answered by battering, but the heavy front door eventually swung open and a brown-faced country girl appeared. I said my usual piece and she called back into the house, summoning the padrone. He was a pleasant looking, middle-aged man in shirt and waistcoat, and was affability itself. Having heard my tale, he gestured us heartily inside and then abruptly disappeared.
We were in a great stone hall, with heavy timbers overhead and stone flags underfoot.
There must have been an arched cellar beneath to support so much weight.
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At the far end of the hall was a cavernous fireplace spanned by a huge blackened beam, and to the left of this was a high doorway. A group of inquisitive farm girls stood there, giggling and smiling. A long table, made apparently from a single immense plank, ran the length of the hall, flanked by long benches. Thick bars of sunlight slanted in from the latticed and mullioned windows. The house had an air of age-long occupation.
Whilst we stood there gazing, the girls came in laden with pots and plates and set to work emptying a great pot of mashed potatoes onto the table and turning them into cakes. As they chattered, they threw us shy glances and blushed when we smiled back. It took them some time to complete their labours, whereupon they carried everything back to the kitchen and left us hoping that supper would soon be ready.
We filed out into the yard, found ourselves a convenient trough of water and spruced ourselves up. Fiercely hungry, we had nevertheless to wait until we were called to eat, and no-one seemed in any hurry to do this. The sun declined and the shadows stretched themselves across the fields. Slowly groups of farm workers appeared and busied themselves in the yard. An ox cart lumbered leisurely down from the road, and as it creaked past, the reflected light of the setting sun flashed from the metal plates on the feet of the oxen. I felt as though I had stepped back into the past and was part of a medieval scene.
Eventually we all sat down at the long table in the hall, a boisterous company of young men and women, about a dozen in number, a few sober elders, and ourselves. The potato cakes, hot from the oven, were served, wine was poured, and amid unflagging conversation the meal progressed.
When we were all replete and our glasses were refilled, we were questioned by the company, and I as official interpreter, had to enlarge on our circumstances and gain their sympathy as best I could. I told them of the North African campaign, and how the Germans had deserted their allies and left them on foot in the wilderness. True though this was, I exaggerated it to encourage them in their dislike of the occupying Tedeschi and so perhaps induce them to keep quiet about us.
We slept, comfortably enough, in the barn and were abroad before the cocks had cleared their throats. We were washed and shaved when the sun rose and had to linger some time before we were served with breakfast, after which we said our farewells and set off once more.
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Chapter 3 – Villabianca
Tracing the next morning’s course has been most difficult, since we tried several routes and turned back. We were trying to move eastwards and at the same time looking for greater security in the hills, but the roads refused to oblige us. The road to Vezzano might have served, but the road sign seemed to indicate that it was a large village and we were trying to be circumspect. We crossed the Crostolo stream at Priaello and at the first turning right tried again for the hills, as the large village of Albinea lay in our way. Somehow, we managed to arrive at Borzano. There were only a few houses to be seen as we approached, but the rest of the village was disclosed on the other side of a slight crest.
The sky had grown overcast and it was much cooler. There was a suggestion of rain about. By the village school a man was standing in his garden. His house was one of a row, all of stone, with drystone walls enclosing small front gardens. I asked if had any maps he could show me. He was very reluctant to help, but my persistence drove him indoors to bring out a school atlas, from which, with a piece of toilet paper and a stub of pencil, I was able to trace the most important features on our route. These were five rivers which ran down to the Po valley, and by counting them as we crossed, we should know when to turn south again.
By now the village was alive with curious inhabitants and we thought we were arousing too much interest, so we moved on. A slight rain began to fall as we left to resume our search for a suitable path through the hills. I have shown on the map the most probable route we followed, though we must have strayed a good deal. I remember we cast about several times for one that met our needs. I know we passed the sign to Iano and that our next stop must have been Antonino, where we came out on the highway again.
Terraced houses lined the street and one door stood open. I looked in and saw a family about to sit down to table, for it was midday. Hoped for was a hunk of bread each, but he gestured us all in and ushered us to the table with the utmost hospitality. I state our case to the padrone, who happened to be at the door and about to turn inside. The most I hoped for was a hunk of bread each, but he gestured us all in and ushered us to the table with the utmost hospitality.
The padrona ladled out a bowl of polenta porridge from a black cauldron. It was thick, and plentifully mixed with beans. With a slab of wholemeal bread, it made an excellent meal.
The company was cordial and kindly and I marvelled that this ordinary family should be prepared to welcome two foreigners to share their food.
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The rain, which had barely materialised, had stopped altogether by the time we set off again, and the sun was struggling through a hazy cloud formation. We retreated from the highway by retracing our steps up the Cadiroffio road. We turned off at the first junction and later found a mule track which led us back again to the highway at Veggia. A hump-backed bridge took us over a railway line lying in a deep cutting and then we suddenly dropped into a town. The buildings were several storeys high and the streets were filled with traffic and pedestrians.
Trying to look inconspicuous, we shuffled along the banks of the Secchia, which barred our way. Upstream, 100 yards or so away, it was crossed by a girder bridge and just beyond, a stone one. We turned a corner and drifted along with the crowds towards them. A woman in apron and shawl was standing by an open door. She plucked my sleeve as I passed and with a smile, pressed two fresh eggs into my hand. She had obviously known me to be a stranger and probably took me for a deserter, for there were plenty of those about on their way home. If she could so easily spot that we were different from the ordinary crowd, how soon would it be before we were stopped and questioned?
We took a look at the road bridge. It seemed to seemed to stretch for ever, and over it passed a constant stream of traffic and pedestrians. The rest of the town lay spread on the opposite bank. There was no alternative. If we were to cross the river, we had to take a chance and use the bridge.
It seemed to take a long time, for we dared not hurry, but we aroused no interest and crossed without mishap. The road led directly into Sassuolo and we cast about for alternative routes, not wishing to push our luck too far in crowded streets. To our right lay an empty expanse of sandy soil, an area that was probably inundated whenever the river ran high. At all event it was uninhabited and there was a road of sorts running south, parallel to the river bank. This was just what we wanted, so off we went as the sun at last broke through, dazzling us with its light reflected from the white sand.
At the first junction we turned left and found various dirt roads and mule tracks which took us south-eastwards into the hills. In due course we found our way into a valley and the village of Torre delle Oche. Here we struck a road leading south, deeper into the hills. Off we went with them closing in on us at every step until we rounded a bend and came upon a road junction with the hills towering steeply above us. A few houses, surrounded by trees, were tucked away at the roadside. One stood on a spur where the roads forked. A river had cut a deep gorge behind it and the whole forbidding area was smothered in trees to the very crests of the hills. The roads plunged into the gorges and each looked equally unpromising. We did not relish being hemmed in on a road with no alternative but to keep along it, for we were certain to run into trouble of some sort sooner or later.
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We decided to enquire at the house in front of us. It seemed to be a villa with high, pastel-coloured walls surrounding it. A drive passed through tall, wrought iron gates. As we hesitated, the padrone, an elderly, white-haired gentleman, came out and spoke to us in-English. We discussed the route with him and at a suitable opportunity, I asked if he would have my eggs cooked, hoping, of course, to be offered some food, for our unaccustomed exertions had made us very hungry.
His daughter took them and a maid returned later with them cooked, together with a tray of food. I explained to the gentleman that my shoes were pinching my feet and that I could do with something better. Adversity was already overcoming my diffidence. He was very concerned and went indoors himself to see what he could find. He returned with a pair of canvas topped tennis shoes and apologised for being unable to find anything better. My feet were by now so cramped that any relief was welcome, though the shoes were too flimsy for the work they would probably have to do, but as they were a good fit, I accepted them gratefully.
We were joined at this point by a number of Italian deserters, all young lads with whom the gentleman conversed. He discussed our plans with them and they offered to take us to their home at Villabianca, which, they said, was on our way. This would settle the problem of an overnight halting place, so I agreed. My two superior persons, however, had other plans. Before I could put this proposition to them, they announced that they were now leaving us and going off on their own, and without a further word, they turned their backs and walked off, leaving Barry and me with the soldiers.
We first turned back up the road we had just travelled, and I hoped there had been no misunderstanding and that we were not returning to the Po valley. To my relief, we turned east into the hills as soon as we met the road to Fogliano, and from then on, we drove ahead in a bee-line across country. I was glad that I was wearing comfortable shoes, for the lads, eager to get home, set off at a cracking pace. They knew this countryside well, for they crossed hill after hill without any deviation. These hills were heaped around like static Atlantic rollers. They were all grass-covered and before long the soles of my shoes had become highly polished and I began to slip at every step. Mile after mile we journeyed without pause and my feet shot from me at every incline, so that I was on my knees going up and on my backside coming down.
After a time, my shoe heels fell off and made things even worse, especially going downhill. I was soon exhausted and had to be dragged up one side and helped down the other. My legs ached and I could hardly draw breath. Sweat streamed from me, but I struggled grimly on without creating too much of a delay.
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Despite our unflagging haste, however, it was dusk before we came to a grey stone house standing alone by a track. We had arrived, for at our approach there was commotion at the house and all the girls ran out and flung themselves in welcome on the soldiers. It was a rapturous reception and we were made just as welcome, though no girl threw her arms round my neck. We were ushered into the house amid a great clatter of tongues. There was a bright fire and an oil lamp to light the crowded room. Supper was about ready and in no time, we were all seated round the table being lavishly fed.
Once more I told my tale of the perfidious Germans and answered as many questions as I could understand, but I was floored by one particular word which was completely new.
The girls, in particular, kept shooting it at me, and struggle though I did to work out its meaning, I failed. I had concluded that French was not unlike an abbreviated form of Italian and that if I took a French word and extended it by a few syllables I could often hit on an approximation of its Italian counterpart. I tried the test in reverse with the new word, but remained unenlightened, and it was not until I was on my way the following morning that I at last translated ‘Paura’ to’Pour’ and set my mind at rest. The girls had been asking if I had been frightened.
I determined then and there to memorise at least two new words a day and as I marched, I rehearsed over and over again the Italian words and phrases I had so far mustered. Necessity was, I found, sharpening my wits, and I was surprised to find how quickly I was acquiring a working knowledge of the language. Barry, who strode away morosely under his trilby hat, never seemed able to learn anything beyond ‘grazie’ and ‘mangiare’.
The hospitable people of Villabianca had offered to provide me with a better pair of shoes, but none could be found to fit me, so I had to continue in the heelless tennis shoes I had arrived in. They did, however, provide us each with a packed lunch, which was a great help.
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Chapter 4 – Into Tuscany
We were now faced by mountains of over 1,000 feet, which looked much less inviting than the hills we had hitherto encountered. They loomed, purple and black against an angry dawn, their feet lost in the morning mist. However, as we journeyed, they seemed to part and the country opened up into a valley. We used Barry’s watch to find our direction from the sun. Italy inclines from north west to south east, so we had to maintain that line if we wished to travel the length of the country. Until we crossed our fifth river, though, we would have to keep more to the east.
Leaving Marano on our left, we passed east of Guigli. Apart from hamlets such as these the country was sparsely populated and we kept across country, using such roads and paths as helped us on our way.
The sky grew overcast, turning the scene grey and shadowless. Passing Monte Orsello and Monte Ombrare, we followed the road and mule track to the bridge at Sassone and found our way past San Prospero until a road crossed our path, probably at point 701. We were now in a valley with a line of green mountains on the further side whose tops were lost in the clouds. The road itself ran in the wrong direction for us, so we crossed the valley towards the mountains and struggled up the steep slope to the top, which seemed relatively flat.
We were now in the clouds on Monte Castelaccio, and visibility was reduced to a few yards. Slowly we felt our way forward, trying to maintain our course. Caravans loomed out of the fog, and a thin radio mast rose from a space in the centre of them, to be lost for most of its height in the enveloping cloud. We were in the centre of a German military radio station and for a moment we froze still and looked about for signs of life. Noone, fortunately, was about, so we silently withdrew and veered to our right to feel out the ridge of the plateau.
In a few steps the ground suddenly vanished from before us and we were looking at a blank expanse of fog. Peering down we could indistinctly see the pinnacles of crags and rocky outcrops rising towards us. A faint breeze swirled the mist slowly around the cliff face, alternately hiding and revealing parts of its jagged surface. There seemed to be plenty of foot and handholds, so we lowered ourselves over the edge and climbed carefully down.
Despite the intimidating conditions, I found I was enjoying the challenge. Clinging to the cliff face, with nothing visible below except the opaque, grey cloud, was stimulating. Close to the damp rock surface the breeze was fresher and tugged at my shirt without dispersing the cloud. It added to the sensation of height and exposure and to the joy of pitting myself against the weathered features of the rock. My only anxiety was whether my shiny soles would slip and I took extreme care to place my feet firmly before I released a handhold.
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It did not seem long before the cloud shredded into wisps and we emerged from it to see below us a panorama of the countryside. The crags ended on a grassy knoll, scattered with fallen rock, and when we reached this, we were able to sit down comfortably and survey the scene below and around us.
The ground fell away steeply to a valley, through which a road and a stream ran side by side across our front. Immediately below us was a large, isolated farm, with barns and outbuildings forming a yard. A cartwheel was leaning against a wall. There was no sign of man or beast. Nothing moved on the road, beyond which the long shoulder of a hillside rose steeply and ran on out of our sight round the cliff face. Above its crest reared a long line of mountains, all about 10,000 feet high. Over the shoulder of the ridge the mountains parted in a gorge, with blunt headed rocks jutting on either side. A beam of sunlight made them leap from a background of purple clouds, mustering in surly masses and threatening a thunderstorm. A scattering of rain fell, and we expected a deluge before long.
It was early afternoon and we still had plenty of walking time left, but with the storm threatening, we debated whether or not to put up at the farm below. At any rate, we hurried down to it and took shelter under the eaves of the outhouses. From here we could see that the farm was not so isolated as we had thought, for nearby was a hamlet that had been hidden from us by the rocky outcrops of the mountain.
As the rain soon stopped, we left our shelter and found a bridge that carried us over the stream and on to the road. We had then to decide whether to climb straight up the hillside and make for the gorge, or to follow the road and hope to find a track that would take us in that direction. Although the roads of Italy proved, for the most part, to be entirely free of traffic, the road ahead ran for miles between the hillsides and the stream. Should anything unfriendly come along we would be unable to avoid it. Nevertheless, with the ridge frowning down at us all the way, we kept to the road and set off at a good pace.
The next hour was a trying time, for no opening appeared and the ridge continued to shut us off from the pass. At any moment we expected something to come along the road, which stretched on ahead of us. We would have been much more apprehensive if we had known that we were hurrying towards the village of Marzabotto. A few weeks earlier this old Etruscan settlement had witnessed the massacre of its inhabitants as a reprisal for the death of some German soldiers thereabouts. Fortunately, nothing came along, and when our patience was about exhausted, the ridge came to an abrupt end and the road joined a motorway leading directly towards the pass, along the old Etruscan trade route. We were now in a narrow valley through which the river Rano had cut its way. The gorge seemed even more menacing titan it had from a distance, for dark clouds seemed piled even higher and denser than before. The road ran along the mountainside above the river, and a railway ran parallel below it. On such a major road we expected to meet more traffic, and looked for a track to escape from it.
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About a mile and half further on we found a suitable track that ran steeply up the mountainside, so we took a chance and left the main road. For a time, we remained in sight of it, but eventually the mountainside hid it from view. To our satisfaction the track trended towards the gorge. There were isolated houses at intervals along it, and sometime later we came upon a substantial villa, where we decided to ask for a hand-out. The back door was open, revealing a spacious and well-equipped modern kitchen. No-one came in answer to our knocking, so we trudged off, still hungry.
Eventually the track split in two directions, leaving us looking into the jaws of the gorge. We dropped down steeply to the road beneath. The river ran noisily between the two rocky buttresses and squeezed the road and the railway against one grey face, which reared up hundreds of feet high and left a narrow stretch of sky between its neighbour. The passage was gloomy and we hurried through it, expecting to be confined to the road for some time before we found an opportunity to cross the river. To our intense satisfaction, however, when the pass opened out into a narrow valley, the railway immediately swerved away from the road, and crossed the river over any iron bridge. We at once abandoned the road, plunged down to the railway and used this providential crossing. We now knew we had only one more river to cross before turning further south.
We were behind the mountain ridge and on lower ground, though the hillsides were still steep and piled confusingly on every side. Stone terraces, like iron-age forts, followed the contours, carrying vineyards to every crest. They must have represented generations of labour, for some of the walls were 15 feet or so high, and all were built of drystone walling.
The country roads snaked between the tumbled hills, leading us frequently off our path and making us retrace our steps. The clouds broke briefly, and then reformed. Thunder grumbled behind us. At any moment we expected a downpour of rain and there was no shelter. We were completely exposed and hemmed in by the grey walls that flanked the road. Raindrops fell intermittently and we became desperate to escape from the labyrinth.
At length, by good fortune, we made a lucky choice, and following the road around a hillside with the clouds still gathering and thunder muttering, we came out upon the sunlit valley of the Setta. The river ran in many branches over its wide bed of bleached stones from the mountains to the brighter valley. Huddled at the foot of a steep hillside were a few stone houses. The door to one was open and the glow of an open fire pierced the gloom of its interior. As we stood at the door, we saw the usual spartan Italian living room. An attractive girl was ironing her clothing in the centre. It was a restful scene, and we were feeling hungry and tired. I thought of asking for shelter, but on looking around we discovered that the road immediately joined the motorway to Bologna that ran along the river bank, with a main line railway beyond it. The house was, therefore, too public for our needs, so we decided that we must cross the river and find somewhere more secluded. We were also worried that the threatening storm might develop and make the river suddenly rise and become impossible to cross, for we saw that we had no option but to wade over.
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Upstream the road ran in a great concrete curve about a quarter of a mile long, over the river and the railway ran alongside into a tunnel. We could not risk the long exposure of following the road, and as the hills opposite were quite low and the river shallow, we took a quick sprint over road and railway, tore off shoes and stockings and plunged barefoot into the rushing water. After the first shock to my hot feet the passage was agreeable enough. The water was never more than knee deep and the only difficulty was to keep one’s balance on the round stones with the current swirling madly round one’s legs. It was slow progress, for the river was wide, but eventually we were sitting down on the opposite bank with our final river behind us.
When our feet were dry, we followed a minor road that ran along the bank, seeking a way out of the valley. A short tramp downstream brought us to a small side valley through which a stream ran to join the river. A track ran near it into the valley, and as it rose to a slight knoll it ran past a small row of houses. One of them was very English in appearance. Jutting from its stucco front were two bow windows and these looked out upon a tiny patch of garden surrounded by iron railings. A series of steps ran up to the front door. I tried the knocker, and after I had spoken to the padrone, we were invited in and treated very hospitably.
The table was laid in the window. Gleaming china stood on a spotless tablecloth, and we were invited to join in the meal. I can recall in particular the young green peppers we ate, first dipping them in oil and then in a bowl of sugar.
After a pleasant meal they detained us in such conversation as I could manage, and then showed us to the stable, where they had spread blankets on the sweet hay for us.
The thunder had died, the sky had cleared, and an amber sun was sliding beneath the purple hilltops, touching the ripples on river and stream with flashed and glints of gold. We stood in the evening silence, listening to the prattle of the moving waters and watching the lengthening shadows of the hills until darkness fell and it was time for us to bed down for the night.
Months later the Setta valley was to be devastated by blockbuster bombs as the Air Forces tried to smash the railway tunnels.
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Chapter 5 – Casa Cerro
Maps 4, 5, 6
The Apennines run down the centre of Italy like a twisted centipede, and we were forced by our choices of remote routes to travel over its eastern set of legs, each of which, in these parts, rose to about 3000 feet.
From Cozzo, our halting place, we set off on a clear, bright morning, up the track and into the hills, with our hosts standing at the door waving and shouting ‘Auguri!’ as we left. We had been given breakfast and each carried a neatly packed package of sandwiches as a parting gift from our generous hosts.
We took bearings from Barry’s watch and steered a course south east between Monzuno and Gubbiano, keeping west of Monghidono. I remember the silence of the woods and the beauty of the tree clad mountains that enclosed us. The path was broad, as usual, about nine or ten feet wide, and we marched along steadily, though we had a good deal of climbing to do. Few birds were either to be seen or heard, no breeze stirred the leaves and the woods were utterly still. There were plenty of butterflies to be seen in the sunny clearings, and bronze winged grasshoppers alighted constantly on the path, only to fly off at our approach. There was a smell of pines, and altogether it was an enjoyable tramp.
In the afternoon we passed a German radio station perched high and remote on one of the peaks – probably Monte Oggioli. Much of the forest was scrub oak, and we came upon traces of charcoal burning. On level stretched of ground we found circular patches of black ash, some 20 feet across. The more recently used of these had the ground cleared for a good distance, and the stumps of the oaks were sprouting new growth. Those long unused were moss grown and surrounded by well-developed trees. We could estimate how long it had been since a site had been used by the comparative growth of fresh timber, and the extent of the weathering of the charcoal ground. I found it all very interesting and it enlivened our journey, which was apt to grow monotonous as the hours crept by without incident.
Eventually we came upon the Firenzuola road, probably at Collina. In a short distance further, the road bent sharply east, and as we wished neither to travel in this direction nor to pass through the village, we looked for a branch road to lead us ore to the south. In due course we found one and this took us, luckily, down to the river Santerno, which it crossed by a stone bridge. Before us the mountain rose in a bulky mass, tree-covered to the limits of our vision. The peaks in the distance rose to 3000 feet or more, and we were beginning to tire. The soles of my tennis shoes were parting company from their uppers and I wondered how long they would last. Fortunately, the edge of the mountains trended in the direction we wanted, so we skirted them until eventually, despite Barry’s reluctance, we were compelled to use stretches of road. We made detours round the villages we met. Elsewhere the countryside appeared to be virtually uninhabited.
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Somewhere along our route we ate our packed lunches, Barry disdaining the salami, which I relished. In the afternoon high, thin cloud veiled the sun and black spots of rain appeared in the dust of the road. Again, we appeared to be in for a soaking, but the rain held off, though the cloud cover increased and hid the peaks of the mountains. It became decidedly cooler, and as the day wore on, we began to think of finding shelter for the night.
We followed the empty road to Barco, where it bent sharply at right angles and went off in the wrong direction for us, running up a treeless valley to a fringe of pine forest. Here it disappeared into the clouds which hung low over the pines. Across the shallow valley a few isolated houses were scattered. Beyond them the ground rose again until the mountainside was lost in cloud. A safe distance from the road, and close to the edge of the forest, stood a house which was suitably sited for an overnight stay, so we left the road and walked directly towards it. According to the map it was called Palazzino, and very agreeable it proved to be.
We were greeted at the door by a young man dressed like a gamekeeper in a corduroy jacket and breeches. He might have been a forester, and these, I later learned, were deemed to be unfriendly to wandering PoWs. His young and attractive wife appeared with him, and at my tale joined him in inviting us to stay the night. It was pleasant indeed to pass from the chill of the mountain air into the warmth of the room, where a glowing fire crackled on the hearth. We sat down with our hosts to a substantial supper, and early in the evening bedded down on the straw in the adjacent bam. As we settled down comfortably in the darkness, the rain that had threatened for hours, fell noisily on the roof. Lightning flashed, thunder rolled among the mountains, and we anticipated a soaking the following day. We were too comfortable and drowsy, however, to worry, and I at least, had adopted the war time Army attitude of living for the day.
We were very pleased when a bright sun awakened us in the morning, and hardly believing our luck, we washed and shaved in the nearby stream. When we called at the house, we found the husband had left, but his wife gave us breakfast and waved us off from the door as we crossed the rain-washed grass towards the forest, which soon swallowed us up in its silent gloom.
No sun reached the forest floor, which was thick with pine needles that deadened our footfalls. The boles of the trees rose everywhere like church pillars. There were no tracks. The silence was palpable. We knew we must follow the rising ground, hoping eventually we would cross the crest and descend into the plain beneath, for we calculated that we must be nearing the end of the mountain barrier in this region. With no glimpse of the sun, we soon lost all sense of direction and began to fear that we might travel in a large circle without ever finding our way out of the brooding pines. The continued silence grew oppressive and when we heard the sound of woodsmen’s’ axes we were relieved. Locating them, however, was like finding a ship in the fog by the sound of its siren, and we at once gave up in case we wandered further out of our way.
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For some time now the ground had been level, so we had lost our only guide, the rising ground. Somewhere above the sun was shining, but we remained in a green and baffling shade.
Quite unexpectedly the ground fell away into a watercourse, and the trees parted to reveal a glimpse of the sky. Greatly relieved, we clambered down the bank of the stream, and in a moment or two dropped thankfully on to a road, which gave us a wonderful view of the plain below. We followed the white road precipitously down to the valley floor, and keeping west of the main road, followed a country lane southwards. Barely had we passed the main road than a German staff car, laden with officers, rushed by in a cloud of dust.
At about midday we were approaching Borgo San Lorenzo. For once Barry agreed to go straight through, and crossing the railway line, we passed into the outskirts. A group of medieval buildings, with towers and battlements, all in an attractive, honey coloured stone, rose high above the houses. Avoiding the centre, we at last arrived on the north bank of the Sieve which presented a considerable obstacle. We were forced to use the bridge, but our boldness was limited to this daring enterprise, for once over, we took the first turning to the right and escaped again into the countryside. Here, at about Latiano, we found a few homesteads in meadow lands, and choosing one that stood a little on its own, asked for food.
True to their now familiar hospitality, the two ladies who lived there invited us in to share their meal. I can remember the cool interior, the white cloth, and the fresh figs we had at lunch. As we left, I noticed a pair of white shoes on the windowsill, drying in the sun. My own shoes were by now in tatters, and I was strongly tempted to help myself, but after such generous hospitality, I could not play so mean a trick.
We walked through the meadows by the bank of a placid stream, and found a track through the woods above the Fistonn valley [unidentified]. This stream ran in a deep cleft through the woods, with a country road following its left bank. We looked down on this from time to time. There was a bridge at II Poggiolo, and a group of young men were crossing it. They were probably Italian deserters and might queer our pitch, so we kept to the track through the woods which followed the line of the stream until it deviated sharply from our chosen route, leaving us to follow a faint trail that soon petered out.
We were enclosed in deep woodland, with the stream our only guide. Fortunately, it had cut a path in the direction we wanted, but the going became increasingly difficult, and when a bridge appeared below us at San Ansano, we scrambled down to it, hoping to find a suitable track on the further bank of the stream. We asked for a drink in the hamlet, and were invited in for a glass of wine. Hardly had we been seated, then visitors arrived, among them a very attractive girl with blue green eyes and Titian hair. She seemed utterly out of place in such rural surroundings, and even more so in the company of a couple of scarecrows like ourselves, so we gave our thanks and left.
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As we had hoped, there was a footpath by the stream and this soon took us back across it and on to a mule track through the woods. It led us exactly in the direction we needed, so we marched freely along it, passing many charcoal burners’ sites, and once one of their smoky looking huts. At length we came across a couple of cottages set back in a clearing, and we examined them as likely homes.
We had now reached the area in which we had planned to stay until an invasion should envelope us and save us the trouble of a further march of several hundred miles. In any case, I could not travel further in such dilapidated footwear. The two cottages, on inspection, seemed extremely poor, and unlikely to be able to support us for any length of time, so we moved on, and very shortly found ourselves clear of the woods and on a grassy mountainside. There ahead, under the crest of Monte Giove, was a lonely farmhouse, Casa Cerro, and here we were to stay for the next month.
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Chapter 6 – The Alessandris
It stood, a two-storeyed building, on a shoulder of the mountain, which ran a protective and concealing arm round it on two sides. Apart from the shallow roof, it could have been a farm on a Yorkshire moor. Its stone walls were dark and weathered. Door posts, lintels and window sills were of rough worked stone, and a drystone wall enclosed a garden in which grew a walnut tree. Fowls clucked and scratched in the dirt outside, and a line of washing, limp but for a desultory flutter, was propped up inside its walls. The mountainside around was closely cropped by sheep, but on its northern side the ground dropped steeply into a hollow densely covered with trees and thickets.
It seemed ideally suited to our plans, and when we had crossed the col that connected it to the woods, we found that the house was even more sheltered from view than appeared at first, and that it was protected on all sides except the north, where the dense woods effectively screened it from sight, if not from the winds, though by the upright growth of the walnut tree, these did not appear to be too persistent or severe.
The padrone and his wife proved as sympathetic as we had come to expect. Signor Alessandri was a stocky, square jawed man of about 40. His wife was pleasant and good-humoured. Throughout our stay they treated us with every consideration, and I think of them still with affection.
There were four children about the place, but they were somehow kept out of our way as we seldom saw them, which was a pity. We came to know grandfather quite well. He was a taciturn, grey-headed old boy of about 60 or so, who never stopped working while the daylight lasted. Even then he looked for something to do indoors.
When he had agreed to let us stay, the padrone guided us to a small stone building with an arched roof that stood in a hollow away from the house. One end of this abutted the hillside and at the other there was a door. A small stream ran out from beneath it. Inside we discovered that a spring of water ran from a pipe in the wall at one end and ran in a channel to the other. There were stone benches on either side and the whole structure was like a small church porch. There was a tiny window in the door and when the door was shut it provided the only light.
The water was delicious to drink, and here we washed and cleaned up before we presented ourselves to our hostess. She was working at the stone sink under the single window of the kitchen. A large copper vessel with a ladle stood there. It contained the domestic water supply, and was replenished from the spring when necessary, the water being carried in a heavy wooden bucket.
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The kitchen was a cramped, stone-flagged room, dominated entirely by an immense fireplace raised from the floor and spanned by a huge baulk of timber. A bright fire burned under a black cauldron, which hung by a chain from an iron gallows in the chimney. There was room enough for two people to sit on either side of the hearth and roast in the heat of the fire.
To the right was a brick platform of waist height. In this a small grate was sunk, holding a charcoal fire. Here the sauces and meats for dressing the pasta were prepared. It was straight from Roman times, as was the little cruse lamp that was our only light at night and hung from a hook in a beam overhead. From tins there also hung some bunches of withered grapes and a few tomatoes. Let into the wall to the right of the brick stove was a Dutch oven. A wooden shutter closed its entrance and kept the brown mongrel dog from sleeping in it, as it constantly tried to do.
Opposite the fireplace was a small kitchen table pushed to the wall. It was just large enough to accommodate the adults when we collected all the family’s rush bottomed chairs around it. A wooden kneading trough, with a rough cover, and a chest of drawers with one foot missing, completed the furnishing, but on the walls, as was common, were stuck photographs of relatives and friends.
We sat down to supper, and the padrona clasped a home-made loaf to her breast. It was about 18 inches long, a foot wide and three inches high. Making the sign of the cross with the knife, she carved off an abundance of thick, brown slices.
We ate well of the homemade fare. The padrone apologised for the lack of wine, saying he grew no vines on the farm, but the water from the spring was every bit as refreshing.
Shortly after darkness had fallen, we were given a couple of shepherds’ cloaks and taken round to the barn, which was simply an extension of the farmhouse over the stables and byre. It was entered by a sliding metal door about three feet above ground level, and when we were inside, the door slid closed and we settled down in the hay to sleep, oblivious to the squeaking rats that ran unconcernedly over us. In the morning we were served breakfast of a bowl of milk and a thick slice of bread, and left the farm to hide in the trees. On our first day we had a look at the farm before leaving, for the padrone was pitching manure on to a heap with a broken fork which had two tines missing. He gave us a cheerful greeting and offered to show us his stock. He had a yoke of oxen, a cow with calf, and a beautiful mare, unaccountably called ‘Giorgio’ and, he told us, 20 or so sheep. We never saw these, as the children seemed to look after them somewhere on the mountainside. He was immensely proud of his horse and patted it affectionately as he spoke to us. We left the farm and made off to the forest.
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Just above the track that ran along its edge was a spur, smothered in hazel bushes. We found a convenient grassy hollow there, and well-hidden ourselves, had a clear view of the approaches to the farm. We spent the daylight hours there, returning to the farm at dusk.
My shoes had by now fallen apart completely, and I was barefooted. There was a rough, rocky outcrop on the col, and when the sun had heated it well, I spent some time every day running up and down it in bare feet, trying to harden them. In a fortnight their soles were as hard and tough as leather. Oddly enough, this shoeless predicament bothered me not at all. So far, all difficulties had been surmounted, and I felt convinced that, somehow or other, all would turn out well.
We used the hazel hollow every day. We had found an old, circular watch tower on the fringe of the forest. Doubtless it would give a fine view of the countryside around, but there was no way to the top and it might have proved a trap if someone had come upon us suddenly. We needed to be able to slip into the woods at the first sign of danger; our hollow met our needs.
The weather remained calm and warm, and it was pleasant to lie in the bushes and bask in the sun all day. The hazel nuts were ripe, and we ate quantities of them. The season reminded us that it was now October, and that time for an Allied landing was running out. We studied the phase of the moon as its pale, wasting face appeared in the daylight sky and tried to calculate the likeliest period for an assault. The Mediterranean was virtually tideless, so that was no problem. Moonlight for a dawn landing was our guess. For the present we decided to remain at the farm, but if no landing seemed likely soon, we would have to consider other plans.
On the few times when it rained, we spent the day in the granary, which was a stone-floored room in the farm piled high in one corner with wheat, and in the other with potatoes. Here I spent hours walking up and down exercising my mind as best I could, and it was here that one day, having borrowed a pair of scissors, I cut Barry’s hair, while he did the same for me. He made a horrible hash of the job, and when I looked in the hand mirror, I saw a golliwog with tufts of hair standing all over like stocks of grain in a cornfield.
I was interested in the lifestyle of our hosts. The padrona, imperturbable and indefatigable, prepared the meals from the farm produce. Pasta was kneaded in the trough in the morning, rolled as thin as paper on the table top, and left to harden for some hours, before being rolled up and cut into strips for the pot. She prepared polenta in an interesting way. The maize flour was boiled in the cauldron until she could stand the wooden spoon upright in it. Then the mess was poured on to the table and allowed to cool. From this stiffened porridge she then cut thick slices with a cheese cutter and cooked them in a frying pan over the charcoal fire. They were appetising and filling, but not sustaining. I enjoyed all the homely food and the garlic flavouring.
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There was neither butter nor sugar to be had, the coffee being made from roasted wheat. Rock salt was ground in a mortar as required, and the meals were largely of cereals and vegetables, with very little meat. Occasionally she killed a chicken and served the meat little by little throughout the week with the pasta. The scraps were turned into soup.
Every week she baked bread for the family -16 large loaves in all. Baking day was an event. The day before, grandfather took the oxen and sledge – a vehicle that was dragged along, but which had two small wheels at the back – and went into the thickets with a billhook. He cut bundles of brushwood, each about six foot long and two feet thick. There was a bundle for each loaf to be baked, so the load was piled high above the wicker sides of the sledge. In the morning a fire was lit in the oven and a bundle of brushwood forced in using a wooden pitchfork. There was a fierce blaze for a time, and when it subsided a fresh bundle took its place until all were consumed. Then the glowing embers were pushed to the walls and the loaves inserted on a long, wooden shovel. It was a laborious and sweaty task. I know, because I once did it.
Making the bread was interesting too, and again involved preparations the previous day. The padrone filled a sack with grain, threw it on the back of Giorgio, and set off down the track to the mill in the valley, returning at the end of the day with a sack of meal, and any small purchases required by his wife. On baking day, she first went to the dresser, and from a drawer took a small piece of hardened dough from the previous week’s baking and crushed it down in some warm water. This provided the leaven, and when it was ready, she added it to the meal in the trough.
By the end of the day there was a delicious smell of baking bread, and a pile of fresh loaves for the following week. On one occasion she made us a special treat, but the baking was not finished until after supper, when we had gone to bed. We were called back into the house though, when everything was ready, but we were appalled to find, on entering the kitchen, that it was filled with visitors. The good Alessandris, like other hosts, seemed unaware of the danger they ran in allowing our presence to become known. They were to suffer for this in the future. With a beaming face the padrona handed us a hot ‘Pizza-pane’ as she called it. We thanked her and hurriedly left.
Back in the bam we tore the hot bread in two and guzzled it. To our surprise we found that fresh grapes had been mixed with the dough and they remained luscious. It was a wonderful feast, and we ate the lot. How we suffered later! Pangs of indigestion pierced us for the rest of the night, and it was daylight before we were ourselves again.
One day the padrone loaded his wooden plough on the sledge and yoked his oxen. Tired of loafing about, and wishing to repay in some measure his sacrifices, we asked if he could use us in the fields. He was pleased with our offer, and in no time at all we were following the plough and breaking up the clods with our ‘Zappari’ or mattocks, just as in ancient times.
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The oxen did not haul as horses did, but simply leaned their weight into the yoke. When this failed to budge the plough, they stopped, so the padrone was constantly urging them on with a switch that he cut from the hedge, and renewed as it wore out. There was quite a slope on the mountainside and it was tiring work as, hour after hour, we trod after the patient oxen, back and forth.
There was evidently a pathway on the ridge above the field, for groups of people, carrying sacks and other bundles, passed along from time to time on their way to the valley. Beyond them, in the blue sky, white clouds peacefully drifted. The new-turned earth smelled fresh and clean. The friendly sound of cicadas in the thickets added to my feeling of wellbeing, but a fierce hunger began to gnaw at me and I was relieved when, at last, the padrona appeared on the skyline bearing a large basket over her arm. It was covered in a clean, white cloth, which when removed, revealed a large dish of mashed potatoes and beans.
The oxen were turned loose to graze on the mountainside, and we squatted in the bushes for our lunch. The potatoes were dressed with oil and mixed with aromatic herbs. There was a large jug of milk to accompany the food, and we lay at our ease in the sun with a light breeze rustling the leaves, and ate our fill.
The monotonous work was resumed after a comfortable interval and continued until evening. Hands were raw and arms were weary long before the padrone at last unyoked the oxen and we plodded tiredly homewards in the gloaming.
Next day we were harrowing and sowing. The oxen towed the wooden-toothed harrow over the furrows and grandfather walked behind broadcasting the seed. It was a mixture of corn and some kind of forage seed. Our job was to bring up the rear and cover up the seed. The field was only about four acres in extent, but it seemed to grow in size as the day slowly ground on. We had completed the work an hour before sunset, and Barry set off with the padrone and the oxen. I was not to be so lucky. Grandfather was there, and plenty of daylight remained. He seized Barry’s Zapparo and set to work digging vigorously the steep slope at the side of the field, urging me to vie with him. We worked on our knees, hacking at the hillside like miners at the coalface. When we had cleared a patch, he would fill a bucket with the seed, broadcast it, and then we would cover it up before starting on another patch. It was while I was working frenziedly in this way that the two boils I had been carrying since leaving the camp finally burst, never to reappear.
It was dark before we had finished, and when at last I lay in the barn and closed my eyes, it was to see black earth and scattered seeds behind my heavy eyelids. I slept the sleep of exhaustion.
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The grandfather’s untiring devotion to work was typical of the family. There were no idle moments. When one task was done, there was always something else awaiting busy hands. Should she find herself with a moment to spare, Signora Alessandri, like the others, was never at rest. Should she find herself with a moment to spare, out would come her distaff and spindle, and her fingers would be busy twisting yam. When the spindle was full, the yard would be transferred to a large ball. The cupboard was filled with completed balls waiting, I imagine, to be collected. It was a cottage industry that must have continued since the great days of the Florentine wood trade. Later I was to meet a chapman, with his pack on his back, roaming the hills delivering orders to lonely farms, and for all I know, collecting the balls of yam. In the hill districts at least, I was to see this spinning taking place at every door at all times of the day. Even young children were kept busy adding to the family’s store of yarn.
About this time an aunt arrived from Florence for a few days. She was a spry, elderly lady, very talkative and jolly. She bore no news of any military activity in that area, and we began to think seriously of moving on. By now we had been accepted almost as part of the family, and the padrone, realising our need for news, led us upstairs one evening to listen to the radio. He pointed to the window and left us.
On the sill was a circular piece of wood of about six inches in diameter. Two sets of terminals were fixed to the edge, and in the centre was a crystal with a cat’s whisker on its swivel. The line of an aerial, which I had not noticed previously, passed down the window frame and was fixed to one set of terminals, and a set of headphones was fixed to the other.
Barry was nonplussed, never having seen such a contraption, but I was old enough to have used a crystal set as a boy. I probed with the cat’ s whisker to find a station. In no time at all we located London, Big Ben and all, and listened to the 9 o’clock news. The whole experience was unreal. Here we were, on a remote farm, a thousand miles from home, listening to a voice that reached us as clearly as though it were in the same room.
A few days later the padrone was very excited, because he had borrowed a seed drill, and he asked us to come and see it. Wheels and all were metal, and the box was a mere five feet wide. But he was delighted with it and very satisfied when we offered to help him. He yoked up his oxen, and we set off down the track into the little wooded valley behind the house. It seemed highly unlikely that there would be a patch large enough to cultivate, so steep were the sides of the hollow, and so covered in thickets and trees, but at the bottom there was a level stretch of alluvial land of about ten acres, and here we started our drilling. We did very little but keep the hopper full while the padrone goaded his team with a wide grin of pleasure on his face.
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Ten days later he brought us back to see the straight lines of green shoots evenly covering the surface of the field. He was almost bursting with satisfaction, and fairly purred as we returned to the farm, and I could not help thinking how easily he was satisfied. I never learned the nature of his tenancy; whether he was a freeholder or a share cropper, but I calculated that all the cultivated land I had seen amounted to no more than 20 acres, so even if he owned the land, he could have made but a poor living. With any form of rent to pay he must have had a very hard time of it. How the children were to fare when they grew up must have caused him some concern, yet he never complained, and was, in my estimation, a natural gentleman.
We had been thinking of moving on for some time now, since there seemed no likelihood of any invasion to the north of us. The problem was my lack of footwear. With winter coming on I would be lucky to get very far barefooted. Besides, I would be extremely conspicuous with nothing on my feet. In trying to find a solution to this I called to mind that I had seen a wooden soled sandal in common use. The uppers of my shoes were still intact, and if I could get some wooden soles, I could move about again.
I mentioned this to the padrone and his face lit up. ‘I have a better idea,’ he said, and led me to a wardrobe in another room. He flung the door open and a medley of old shoes cascaded out. Every shoe that the family had ever worn, from child to adult, seemed to be there. He chose a pair of his own and asked me to try them on. They fitted perfectly, and he exclaimed with delight, T will get them fixed for you.’
I offered to pay, as we still had the money given to us at the start of our journey, but he would not hear of it, and grinning like a schoolboy, put the shoes aside until his next ride down to the valley.
He was gone when we awoke one morning, and by dusk he was back, and grinning hugely, presented me with a remarkable pair of shoes. The cracked and broken uppers had been repaired, using leather scraps from a selection of other shoes, and these had also been cannibalised to build up solid soles and heels, which were covered in hobnails. It was truly a craftsman’s job, and I was most grateful, and again offered him the money we had. He was so pleased with the results of his idea, however, that he again refused. He glowed with the simple pleasure of having done me a good turn.
The following morning, with the sun shining from a cloudless sky, we said our farewells. Our pockets bulged with sandwiches, and in addition, I carried an entire sheep’s cheese, which formed an awkward load. The family gathered to see us off.
I looked back, with great affection, towards these simple and generous people, hoping that, should all turn out well, I might be able, somehow, to do them some service.
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Chapter 7 – Towards Eighth Army
Maps 6, 7, 8 & 9
We walked down the farm track to the fields where we had laboured and soon the little farm was hidden by a fold in the ground. A last look at the ridge, which had formed the boundary of our little world, and we turned and dropped down the steep slope on to a mule track running in the required direction. We made easy progress downhill towards the valley. I wrapped my cheese in my silk scarf and tied it to the end of a stick that I pulled from a bush, and set off like a pantomime Dick Whittington.
The track was very rough, being bedrock in places, and it zigzagged down a spur until it met a country road and dropped abruptly to the valley, which came into view quite suddenly. Beneath us lay Rufina, with the river Sieve flowing deeply between. The land beyond the river rose gradually to the skyline, spreading before us a beautiful picture of vineyards and white stone houses. Distant mountains, with the thin, white lines of roads etched into their blue sides, formed a noble backdrop.
We looked down, almost vertically, on the rooftops of Montebonello. The tree-lined river showed no crossing place, but as we descended, we saw a wide bellied ferry boat moored to the bank, with a strong wire cable stretched across the river near it. We disliked the idea of having either to use this or to swim across, but as we drew towards the village, we were relieved to find a stone bridge spanning the river, so after all, we crossed easily to Rufina opposite.
From here we took the mule track up a steep hillside until we met a road. There were houses strung along it at intervals as it skirted the hillside, with its outer edge buttressed by drystone walling.
The sun began to exert its strength, and we soon felt very thirsty. Every time we stopped at a cottage to ask for a drink of water, however, the inhabitants gazed at us in astonishment and proffered instead, a glass of wine. After several such calls we were invited into one house, and the padrone expatiated on the virtues of the local wine. Holding a glass of his own vintage to the light, he pointed out that, to be good, it had to be truly black, and claimed, with every justification, that his own was a good example. We sat down to put it to the test, and he detained us in his cool guest room for some time. He talked, as well as I could understand through an alcoholic haze, about Pomino, where they bottled the Chianti of the neighbourhood. As far as I recall, he mentioned an English lady, who was the wife of the proprietor, and was known to harbour her countrymen. I also heard of the free state of San Marino, where a runaway might be safe. By this time, we out again under the blazing sun, and I began to feel I did not care where we went, but that, if our thirst and the hospitality of the peasants both persisted, we would be unable to walk very far at all.
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As it was, we found ourselves, quite by chance, at the Pomino wine centre, and out of curiosity, I took a look around. Two workmen were very affable and chatted to me in a very friendly fashion, pressing on me as I left, a flask of Chianti, which I hung by its straw loop on the stick with the cheese.
In a pleasant daze, we passed through a rolling countryside of vineyards, scattered cottages, and hilltops studded with the mushroom-topped pines seen in so many Classical paintings. It was easy walking, and my shoes were most comfortable, and reassuringly robust. According to a road sign, we were near Stia, and as the day wore on, we approached Poppi. We knew this to have held a PoW camp for senior officers, and that General O’Connor had been one of its inmates, but had escaped. We were more careful than usual, therefore, to avoid the town, so we took a detour in the hills and never even saw it.
The green and wide Arno valley turned more southerly, and the next place in our path was Bibbiana, which we skirted closely, crossing a straight, tree lined road without incident, and coming our upon a road running parallel to the railway. We followed this on to the flat alluvial plain by the river, and here we came across a canning factory standing in an extensive area of field tomatoes. We were able to follow a track wide of the factory and pass through the fields, heavy with their ripe crops. These seemed to be mainly of the plum shaped type, which were canned whole. There were also areas of ugly, misshapen tomatoes which were, I imagine, used for the manufacture of the puree that was so popular in Italian cooking.
A wide drainage ditch lay across our path, spanned by a metal bridge where the railway crossed. We could not be bothered to walk the short distance up the ditch to the bridge, but took a running jump and landed, sprawling on the other side. Road and rail now converged as the hillside squeezed them almost to the river bank, so we left the plain and climbed back on to the road.
It was now late afternoon, time to look for a resting place. A farm track ran through pleasantly undulating and wooded country. At the end of it, well off the road, lay a neat, long farmhouse glowing in the mellow sun, and casting its long shadow along the bank behind it. The padrone was, as usual, affable and hospitable. He invited us inside and introduced us to his wife, as neat and pleasant a person as her house. The living room was spacious and well furnished – in sharp contrast to the austerity of the little farm we had left that morning. The wooden floor was polished, and a few rugs lay scattered by the wide hearth. The farm was, quite obviously, prosperous, but even here, the war had reached out a dreary finger, for by the hearth was a bowl, in which our hostess had been making soap from a mixture of fat and wood ash. We used some of it when sprucing up outside, and found it to be a poor substitute, but better than nothing.
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We slept in the barn and after the usual breakfast of milk and bread, gave our thanks and set off with farmhouses nestling in the hollows, and mist clinging to the grass, seemed very familiar. Cocks from every farm challenged the rising sun, which peered over the trees and drank up the ground mist. We could have imagined ourselves to be back home, except that no larks sang.
As near as I can judge, we were at Montecchio, and we took the mule track leading south easterly along the hillside above the road. Before us rose the ridges of wooded mountains. The Arno valley, easiest of routes, trended to the south, and I urged Barry to follow it for part of the way, but he was sullenly stubborn, and refused to enter a populated territory, preferring to stay on the hilltops away from crowds. I could understand his anxiety, for he was a most unlikely looking Italian, with his lanky frame, round, pink face, blue eyes and fair hair. He had still not mastered even a smattering of the language, and seemed completely helpless. He was only 19, whilst I was 10 years older. I hadn’t the heart to abandon him and go my own way, though more than once I was sadly tempted. That he had fewer scruples I was to learn much later. So we turned our faces to the mountain ridges, which massed their serried ranks to oppose us.
We climbed up the wooded slopes, using any track that helped us to steer south east; first over one ridge, down into the valley and then up and over the next, rising higher and higher until we reached the topmost ridge, and could see the land falling away beyond. We were in the Alpe di Calenaia at over 3,000 feet. All morning we had travelled under a silent canopy of leaves. Many of the trees were chestnuts, and their glossy leaves glistened in such sunlight as filtered through. From this height we could see across the green Tiber valley to the white houses of Sansepoloro, nestling at the foot of the next range of mountains. The valley ran in exactly the direction we needed, and did not appear to be densely populated. Having climbed all morning I was all for taking the easy route, but Barry was adamant that we must avoid all habitations, and make a wide detour to the north of the town, keeping to the safety of the mountains.
We came out on the Sansepoloro road at Caprese Michelangelo, and held on eastwards at about 1500 feet through the mountains. The sky was now overcast, and we were growing hungry, for it was about midday, but there were no houses to be seen in the woodlands, and we expected to have to go without a dinner.
It was at about one o’clock when the track, which was running along a spur, suddenly came into a clearing, and there, in a hollow below us, snugly sheltered from the northerly winds, stood a farm.
It was of a fair size and had a large, wooden barn by its side. There was an area of beaten earth all around it, and there were no walls or fences. It did not look too promising, the hour was late for the midday meal, but we scampered down to it, and I knocked on the door. Inquisitive hens jerked their necks all round me as I stood on the doorstep, wandering what my reception would be.
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I told my tale to the young country lass who answered the door. She turned and shouted indoors. There was a loud exchange of voices, and the door was opened wide and I was invited to enter.
I glanced at the table, and it was plain that the family had already eaten. Perhaps I should get some bread. Anything would do.
There was a lively interest in the arrival of two strangers – foreigners at that. I did my best to answer their questions.
‘Sit down! Sit down, sit at table!”
The two young men sitting by the bright fire flashed white teeth in smiles, and gestured for us to make ourselves comfortable.
We were glad of the rest, if nothing else, but the young woman, who had disappeared into the kitchen, had better ideas of hospitality, and in a moment or two, brought us hot plates covered in enormous omelettes.
‘Buon appetito!’ they chorused as we ceased talking and started eating.
The young woman was not finished into the fire. When the dough was ready the stone was pulled forward. The cook tested its heat by sprinkling a pinch of salt on it. The salt glowed blue, and she was satisfied. The flat cake of dough was spread on the stone and ashes from the fire were heaped over it. We finished our omelettes, and sat back contentedly until the ashes were swept away, the bread was dusted down, tom in half and placed before us. It smelled and tasted excellent, and accompanied by a glass of wine, was most appetising.
We were told further stories of English ladies who were prepared to look after us, but my Italian was not good enough yet to get an exact account, so the information I was able to glean was of no practical use.
It was early afternoon before, replete and content, we parted from our kindly hosts, and took once more to the trail, which fell steadily towards the upper valley of the Tiber. The woods were now behind us, and the open country, under the grey sky, looked bleak. Gradually our spirits sank as we marched into the unpromising landscape.
We crossed the headwaters of the river at Formoli, and held on eastwards, climbing once more into the hills until we reached Castelnovo at about 2,000 feet. Then we followed the road south down the Tignana valley until it branches eastwards at Aboca, and we started once more to climb into the inhospitable mountains.
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We judged we must be passing well north of Sansepolcro by now, and about another hour’s march later, we came upon a road and soon after this, a junction. A road sign pointed to Sansepolcro.
‘We can’t get away from the place,’ grumbled Barry.
The road northwards was well made of stone cetts, and ran towards a pass in the mountains. A gaunt cross stood out against the grey sky, and we could see the top of some high, grey walls beyond.
‘I bet that’s a monastery,’ I said. ‘You can imagine pilgrims following this road to a holy place. It’s the only place around. We’d better try our luck there.’
Barry agreed, ‘The light is getting bad. It’s time we looked for lodgings.’
We gazed around. On none of the bare slopes was there another building to be seen. In the opposite direction to the cross lay Sansepolcro, which we had spent the day trying to avoid. We did not want to end up there after all, so the unknown ‘monastery’ was our only apparent hope.
We passed the cross, which stood about 15 feet high, and the land then fell away suddenly to disclose a line of noble beech trees shrouding a noisy stream, which ran unseen in a deep cleft. To the left was the tall ‘monastery’ that was, in fact, a church. There were rooftops below, and under the beeches, by the side of a country road, was a short street of tall stone buildings, with smoke coming from the chimneys. As if to emphasise our good fortune, the sun suddenly blazed forth and poured its golden light on the bright green leaves, which threw patches of purple shadow on the walls.
Ignoring the church that had drawn us to this spot, we descended to the stone bridge, crossed the stream, and knocked on a likely door. A middle-aged woman, in a black dress and white apron, appeared and listened impassively to my request for shelter. Her broad, brown and wrinkled face showed little emotion, and I felt I was to be out of luck, but she stood aside and gestured for us to enter.
The living room was high-ceilinged and spacious. A fire gleamed under the black cauldron that hung on its chain in the ample hearth, and in the centre of the stone-flagged floor, a large table was already laid for supper. Various dressers and chairs merged into the shadows by the walls, and a green light, filtering through the beech leaves outside, streamed through the small windows and made bold patches on the floor.
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The sun had set by the time her three sons appeared and tethered their asses outside. The. beasts were burdened with large trusses of leafy beech twigs, which the lads bore indoors and piled in a comer. They then sat down, stripped the leaves from the twigs and collected them in a wicker basket. When all was done, and the basket was full, they carried it out to the stable ad emptied it into the manger before unfastening the asses and leading them to their supper.
Now we all gathered round the table, the padrona introduced us as two ‘cristiani’, to the supreme indifference of the young men, who said not a word, but after the grace, devoured their food in an unnatural silence.
When the table had been cleared, our padrona took several rosaries from a drawer and handed them round. They all then knelt on the stone floor to begin their orisons. Seeing us unprovided, the good lady brought us each a rosary, so we joined the company, which under her leadership, repeated the responses in unison. Though I had no idea what they were saying, my private prayers were fervent enough and my pious friends figured prominently in them.
It now being dark, with only the fire to light the room, we were glad when they indicated that it was time for bed, and were happy to be shown the stable. After such a long day’s march we fell asleep in an instant, well pleased to have had such a satisfactory end to what seemed likely to have been a miserable night in the open on the mountainside.
We were given breakfast and, impassive to the last, our hostess accepted our thanks and turned to her household activities as we walked down the little street by the side of the tree-lined stream and set out over the hills once more.
A mule track led round the shoulder of the mountain by Pischinno, and here we left the bare, grassy slopes and passed into woodlands, from which occasional smudges of smoke rose from the fires of the charcoal burners. After an hour the track veered from our course, so we left it, and with the sun as a guide, crossed the next ridge and found a small road leading to the hamlet of Abactiaccia, which Barry insisted on avoiding, though it was merely a couple of houses.
Heading on a bearing, we crossed a couple of ridges and followed the second one parallel to a road that ran along its side beneath us. A few scattered houses lay in the otherwise empty valley. Nothing moved in the hot sunshine, but off to our left, incongruous in so unpopulated a region, the white box of an ice cream vendor sat on the seat of his tricycle apparently with plenty of time on his hands. He seemed unlikely to attract any customers to his perch above the valley, and I felt an urge to break the monotony of his vigil and offer to buy an ice, but I restrained myself. He could turn out to be too inquisitive and might report us on his return.
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We chose one standing completely alone. There was a figure busy in the walled garden, and when we drew closer, we saw it was a comely young woman with a child by her side. She was cleaning grain, throwing it repeatedly upwards in a straw meshed sieve. She seemed so vulnerable in that lonely spot, and we looked such a pair of ruffians in our shabby clothes, that I felt she might take fright, call for assistance, and create an unfortunate misunderstanding, I decided to pass on and hope we could find another possible halting place.
We were on a road that we had not noticed from the higher ground, and other houses lay along it. As we approached them, we saw a few groups of curious idlers lounging in the shade, which deterred us, so we followed a road that brought us once more to the high road, from which a mule track led over the ridge in the direction we needed.
The mountains fell to the Tiber valley in a succession of spurs, which lay athwart our path and forced us to cross them one after another. It was when we were descending the counter slope of one of these that we ran into a chapman striding down the grassy slope with his pack on his back. He had a variety of goods tied to it, including a can of paraffin. All were to be delivered to the isolated farmsteads, and I wondered whether he collected the hoards of yarn the womenfolk were so assiduously accumulating. He was a thin, jolly man with Punch like features. We accompanied him for some way until our paths diverged. I looked back to see his diminishing figure striding across the slopes. He turned and waved, and then disappeared downhill.
The loneliness of the countryside seemed intensified by his departure. There were few signs of life. An occasional olive grove or vineyard appeared in the few cultivated patches, but woodland and meadow alternated and both were deserted. Neither cattle nor sheep appeared on any of the pasture.
Now the track dropped to the Lama valley, but all roads followed the rivers and ran across our course, making us tack constantly in the search for a southerly route. So we passed Renzetti and arrived at Valturbana in the bright sunshine, and came upon a pleasant scene of activity, for the people had spread white sheets on the cobbles of the square and had piled heaps of golden maise to ripen in the sun. Every doorpost had its quota of fungi threaded on a string and hanging out to dry, together with red peppers and tomatoes. Mattresses and sheets hung from balconies. The surrounding trees splashed welcome pools of shade over roofs and walls. Swallow and house martins darted round the eaves and added their shrill cries to those of the children playing in the square.
Down we went through wooded country to the Vaschi valley, and travelled down as far as the bridge at Cavaienti, where we took tire empty road to Ronchi. We were hungry, and the Italian dinner hour was almost past, so we seemed doomed to miss our customary midday meal. None of the scattered houses we examined seemed to be inhabited, so we pushed on, more in hope than expectation.
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The track continued, irritatingly, to straggle in unwanted directions, and we had to take fresh casts continually in order to maintain our course. The lane we were following was flanked on one side by a hedge, along which blackberries were hanging in profusion. The people did not seem to eat these, for they were so accessible to the passer-by that otherwise they would long since have been gathered. We ate our way gratefully along the hedge, and shortly afterwards, came across a splendid patch of blackberries glistening in the sun. They were huge and luscious. We pressed in among the briers. There was a cleft in the hillside here, giving us a narrow view across the valley, where we had a glimpse of the rare passage of a truck. It was a German 30 hundredweight with a grey tilt, a reminder that though the roads were usually deserted, traffic could appear at any time. We gazed at it thoughtfully before gorging ourselves on the ripe berries. By now we had given up hope of a proper meal.
We chose a track that climbed steeply into the mountains, and for the rest of the afternoon, passed through the worst bit of country we had so far encountered. The mountains seemed to be composed of a friable shale, and looked like so many unlovely pit heaps. The valley to the right of the track was pinched between the next ridge, and was a confused mass of huge boulders and horns, quite impassable and useless for any purpose. It was a true wilderness and grew no more attractive as we climbed higher, and came out upon a jumble of rounded mountain shoulders covered in the crumbling shale and rising sullenly from countless screes that chokes the valley floors.
From Palazzo del Riccio we looked down into one such valley and saw a tiny, white walled house amid its desolation. It seemed a symbol of human tenacity, and the golden heads of maize hanging by its door proved that something could be wrested from so unpromising a soil. It was a repellent landscape, and one we were in haste to escape.
The track, merely a second trail in the grey shale, diverged here and became a complicated network over the rounded crest. One led into the grim valley below, and another continued a wavering course along the ridge, past Casa Monescorso. Luckily, we chose a track that led us to a lonely farm at Casale. Beyond lay some fields, and then the ridge plunged into the hidden valley of the Carpina. A country road ran past the farm on its way to the valley, and was bordered by a hedge that marked off the fields. Cattle were grazing behind it.
Southwards, crest after crest rose to bar our way. As far as the eye could see, the peaks of the mountains, like rows of sharks’ teeth, threatened us with some hard walking and slow progress.
The isolated farm looked a likely enough halting place, and we decided to try it, even though it was still early in the day. The valley that lay next might be well populated and repugnant to Barry. Or just as likely, it would be as desolate as all the others we had crossed, so that it would be best, on both counts, to start looking for shelter as early as possible.
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The farmer, a morose individual, with an aggrieved, lined face, happened to appear from the stable just then, so I asked him if we could have shelter for the night. I did not, from his appearance, expect a favourable reply, but he shrugged and agreed with as little emotion as our hostess the previous night. Then he stumped off into his fields, and we saw no more of him until sunset.
We spent the intervening hours in stripping off and washing as many garments as we could in the trough, spreading them on the hedge to dry, and lying comfortably in the shade while they did so.
I was later collecting my clothes from the hedge-top when my shirt was suddenly snatched away by a cow that reared its head from the other side. I managed to grab the garment before it was out of reach, and gave a strong pull. The cow must have been short of forage, for it decided to make a meal of it, and the more I pulled, the more it resisted and chewed away. How the farmer would react when he heard that his cow had swallowed my shirt, I dared not contemplate, so I was desperate to prevent such a disaster, and wrestled despairingly with the stubborn animal. Finally, I wrenched the shirt from his slobbering jaws. For as long as I subsequently wore it, the shirt bore the teeth marks of that creature, together with a green stain from its tongue that nothing could remove.
As the farmer returned from his labour, I happened to remark on the impressive view from his farm. He merely gave it an uncomprehending glance and an inarticulate grunt, and marched indoors, leaving me to contemplate the magnificent array of purple mountains, their feet swallowed in mist above which a sunset that would have captivated Turner, glared on the dark, barred clouds.