The night before I talked at length about the history of sword dancing around Europe with Kent, Michelle’s husband. He works in the B+B, runs a mountain biking business, and leads tours of the Fort of Fenestrelle. It was this last one that was particularly interesting to me and he ended up inviting me to meet him the next day at ten in the morning for when he was showing some other English speakers around. This sounded like a great plan, as he is one of the only people certified to lead tours who speaks English. I’m all for trying to brave the italian tours in museums and the like, but when wandering around an old fort with no information on anything, it seemed like it would be nice to have some real guidance!
I woke the next morning, showered and washed some of my clothes in the sink, and started up to meet him. I had forgotten how far up the bottom of the fort is! I had gone on bike the previously in order to meet another member of the Folkloric group, but on foot I arrived just in time. For being what should be one of the larger attractions in Europe, the fort is terribly signed and not particularly well marketed. From the direction I was going there was just one little sign pointing up a mountain road towards the bottom. I got up to the fort, crossed the drawbridge and through the bottom gate into the enclosure. In a few minutes I met Kent in the cafe bar and started to wait for the Americans. I hadn’t had a chance to eat breakfast, so got a piece of pie and coffee and together we bemoaned the lack of “real” breakfast in Italy. I love the food they have, but sometimes you really want eggs and toast in the morning! It was apparently going to be a half an hour till they showed up so Kent started to give me some of the history of the fort.
The fort, as I mentioned before, is enormous: the largest covered staircase in the world after the great wall and around 7km long (I will attempt to get all my numbers and dates correct, but I am writing without internet access, so no guarantees). The first parts of the fort were built in the late 17th century by the French, who controlled the region at the time. The pass has been an important strategic military area for centuries, Julius Cesar wrote of it, and it has had various defenses that predate the fort itself. It built in more or less its present form by the Piedmont government (Remember, Piedmont was at the time a country not a province, Italy only was unified in the 1860’s!). As one of the shortest ways in between France and Italy at the time, it was built to prevent the French from invading by way of that pass. It was pretty effective. Actually it was so effective that it never killed a single frenchman, In order to avoid the fort they would do things like hike over 2500m mountains to go around, only to be turned back but the italian alpini, who actually knew the land. It was the first line of defense for Torino and was actually designed to be able to hold the army back for at least 90 days. This would allow Torino time to prepare and strengthen defenses. More importantly, the pass was close to impassable for all but three months a year. If the French couldn’t take the pass in 90 days, they would be forced to retreat and try again the next year.
It served as a prison for much of its history, holding the “Man in the Iron Mask” as well as other political and common prisoners. Tales of this part of its history are unclear, with the number of prisons ranging hugely along with discrepancy in the accounts of how they were treated. It is certain that some of them died, other accounts claim that they were all killed. It finally saw combat in WWII when partisans had taken over the fort and the Nazis sent 4000 SS troops in to storm it, including 1000 italians. The partisans ended up sabotaging all the guns and a small number of them were killed after they blowing a large section of the fort to destroy all supplies and let the others escape the postern gates. This was around the same time as D-Day and many historians point to this event as one of the reasons why the Germany didn’t have enough troops to defend the beach heads. Afterwards, the fort was left abandoned for many years until a private group of citizens decided they wanted to help preserve it and put together the current organization.
All of these deaths and abandoned places and long windy walkways meant lots of ghosts. Or at least our American guests hoped so. They were producers for the show Ghosthunters International and were checking out filming locations for an hour long special they will be doing on the fort in September. They arrived and introduced themselves and we started walking up the fort to begin the tour. The brilliance of the design was the covered staircase. In effect it joined three separate forts with a protective way that allowed them to both protect each other and abandon one of them without exposing men. In the typical setup mountain forts would protect each other, but once one of them fell, the men, supplies and other equipment was lost. Invading armies would take the top fort and then turn the guns and attack the one lower down the mountain.
In Fenestrelle, if the top fort fell there were set bridges, gates and other equipment that was designed to be sabotaged, and they could retreat to the next fort with all men and valuable supplies, leaving behind a useless ruin. The ghost hunters had a fairly one track mind: “Was there any ghost sightings here?” Kent did a great job telling them the history of the fort while also pointing out any potentially haunted places. In particularly dramatic spots a follow up question developed, “do you think we could find anyone that could say they saw/heard a ghost here?” Oh man.
The fort has 4000 steps (exactly) not counting various ramps with step-like things on them. I’m not sure who counted them, but they have started having crazy events on them. They just had their first uphill race in which the winner made it to the top in about 19 minutes. After going up the first 400, I can say with authority that that is absurd. Even more absurd: Mountain bike races down them. They have a large mountain bike race in the mountains around the area. During one section of the race the competitors race in the fort and have the option of carrying or riding their bike along the long winding switchbacks that go next to it or riding straight down a long section of stairs. The slope is so dramatic that once you choose to go down the stairs on the bike it is physically impossible to stop. Only three crazies do this, but they tend to win every year (or crack their skulls!) Oy!
Also accompanying us was Kent’s dog, Brownie. Brownie liked rocks more than anything and would spend large amounts of time fetching rocks and dropping them at your feet to throw. Sticks were boring and toys didn’t seem to hold any appeal; rocks are the new hot thing in dog world. She also would make me nervous by jumping up onto the edge of 100m drops and prancing around. I guess she knows the fort pretty well and everyone knew her and said hi. She pretended to be a ghost several times and demonstrated some interesting echo effects.
We saw gun emplacements and powder stores, including the lightning rod groundings for these rooms. (It’s considered poor form to blow up the fort every time there is a storm!) These were large chimney-like structures filled with sand and a large metal ball, they used to have metal towers, but the fort was heavily looted after it shut down.
Our first stop was the “Devil’s Garret,” a small stone watchtower on the top of the first fort. It has a view down both sides of the valley for miles and miles (and kilometers) and was supposedly cursed. The story is as follows: When the Piedmontese came to the valley and defeated the french (in a embarrassingly short siege of only three weeks) they took over the fort and started building their own. They noticed that there was this perfect spot with the best strategic view on which the french had built above and below but not on. Perched on top of a craggy rock face, it looks intimidating, but they resolved to build a watchtower anyway. The fort was privately constructed by bidding process and for this particular building a local company won the contract by billing in days of work as opposed to a set bill. The government, knowing that it was a very small project that should only take two or three days, was pleased and hired the men. They set to work and laid the foundation in a single day before tramping down the mountain and going to sleep. The next day they returned to find the building destroyed, rubble scattered everywhere. This scared everyone, but they rebuilt their previous days work and went down again. They found the same thing the next day. Rumors started to spread, “The devil rides forth from this mountain top to do his work, you cannot build on the land!” After three days of rubble, the Devil’s Garret was the talk of the fort. The commander decided to post a guard that night to find out what was going on. Imagine the terror in this man, sitting on a rock face at several thousand meters while the wind howls past at 100km/h. He is armed with a single shot rifle and a lantern and faces the full power of hell itself.
The night, of course, passed without incident, and the building stood intact. Perhaps the man scared off the devil, but I’m going with the guess that he scared off the men who were undoing their work in order to extend their days of work! Although when the wind blows just right, the whole room hums and whistles…ooooooOOOOOOoooooooo!!!
We walked back down and had some lunch at the restaurant. They discussed their plans, which included an ariel shot of the castle. “We could get some stock footage if there is any…or a helicopter!” Kent knew a man who had a auto-gyro, so he came by and talked for a while about how that worked and possibilities for a shot. We had a speciality of the town which was a paste of meat and ground up breadsticks formed into little balls with sauce.
After we were done we drove up to the top of the highest fort. Usually Kent walks tours up there, but he wanted to get the TV people there fast to save time. We walked over a great bridge spanning a huge gulf in the rock with huge cannonballs mounted on top of giant pillars. According to Kent this was a warning to invaders that “you have to have balls this big if you want to fight us!” To fire out of cannons that is, what were you thinking?
We saw an old church that had been used as a powder store as well. God protects the gunpowder! It was also used by a radical right wing Nazi group while the fort was abandoned as a training ground. The church is still covered with occult right wing symbols. The man leading the group was one of the Italians who fought with the SS groups who took the fort in WWII and plotted a coup against the government that failed.
The Italian government is also apparently really cracking down on free speech. As in it isn’t really allowed. You aren’t allowed to criticize the government, and if your criticisms can be connected to any crimes committed by others you are held responsible. Crazy. Who knew that was still happening in a first world country like Italy (aside from the squat toilets!)
That night I went and ate Gofri, a waffle like specialty that was being cooked by members of the team for a town event. I had one with turkey and gorgonzola, and another with delicious Nutella. As Michelle pointed out to me, “there is nowhere but italy that sells Nutella in 5kg containers!”