I could not have imagined a better way to start this journey than by being welcomed and hosted so warmly by Paolo Rumiz and Irene in their book- and map-filled apartment in the San Vito neighbourhood of Trieste, the capital of the autonomous region Friuli-Venezia Giulia. Trieste, it’s the city marked by European history, by wars and changing borders. A territory that once was the major port of the Austrian riviera, that became Italian after the first world war, was under Yugoslavian occupation, declared Free Territory of Trieste under the protection of the UN, and finally became Italian again as per the 1975 Treaty of Osimo.
When I asked Paolo what makes up the identity of the people of Trieste today, he answered "it’s the landscape more so than the blood". It’s the coastline falling sharply from the kart plateau, the city that opens up to the Gulf, the Bora wind that often brings persistently cold and strong winds from the northeast, this unique melting pot where East and West, North and South seem to come together.
Paolo is an award-winning writer and journalist. He has travelled in all directions, from the North-Cape to Odessa, to the East as far as Afghanistan where he reported from as a war journalist, across the Balkans, along the Alps and the Apennine. He re-discovered forgotten valleys and roman roads (like the ancient Via Appia, once heavily degraded and now restored for 20 million EUR, also thanks to the public awareness that Paolo has raised), descended the river Po in a canoe, and found the actual geographic beginning of the Alps. Indeed, as he told me over dinner and describes in his beautiful book The Legend of the Navigating Mountains, the Alps do not begin in Slovenia as commonly believed, but in Croatia, near the little town of Delnice. With disbelief in his face Paolo recalled that even the Croatians seem to be ignorant of this fact.
Paolo is visibly struck by the ignorance that people seem to have towards the environment. For him, climate change is a double tragedy: the first being climate change itself, the second is that people don’t see it. Rivers get smaller, run dry for months, disappear altogether, but people do not even notice it, as Rumiz has observed. Such is the extent to which we seem to have lost connection to nature. This realisation should become my own mental compass for the next few weeks: finding out more about this tragedy, what it means for people living in the Alps, how nature changes and how people adapt to it.
The next morning, Paolo guided me to the beginning of the bike path that would be the start of my traverse of the Alps. As I was following him on my bike, the warning lights of his Skoda blinking, I could not help but feeling a bit like a cyclist on the prologue of the Giro d’Italia - quite the opposite of how I envisioned the cycling part of the journey! Going up and down on the empty Sunday morning streets of Trieste, we finally reached the little bridge in the San Giacomo District where the Giordano Cottur bike path begins.
The path is built on the old train line and winds up gently to the plateau where the Italian-Slovenian border lies. As soon as I got a bit further onto the plateau, a strong Bora started blowing from the northeast and brought heavy rain showers, forcing me to seek shelter several times. Right from the start, the weather would be dictating my rhythm and testing my determination.