We started our three-week visit to Italy in 2009 with a four-day stay in Milan and after seeing just about everything we wanted to see in two days we then on day three took the train to Stresa, a resort town on the shores of Lake Maggiori about 50 miles north of Milan. Readers of Ernest Hemingway’s World War I novel A Farewell to Arms may recall that some of the major events in the novel took place in Stresa. They say that Stresa is a beautiful place when it isn’t raining. Unfortunately for us, it rained most of the day.
Click any photo to see a larger version of that photo.
It took us an hour and a half to reach Stresa.
Our walk from the train station to the lake brought us to Piazza Cadorna, named after Generale Luigi Cadorna, chief of staff of the Italian army during most of World War I. Cadorna was relieved of his command after suffering a major defeat at the Battle of Caporetto. He spent the rest of the war representing Italy at the Allied Supreme War Council in Versailles. In 1924 Mussolini appointed him Marshall of Italy. Cadorna died in 1928.
In May 1915 Cadorna launched an offensive against the Austro-Hungarian Empire along the Isonzo River in northeast Italy. Two years and five months and eleven battles later the two armies were still pretty much in the same place and the Italian army began to settle down and wait out the winter. But Karl I, the emperor of Austria had other ideas. He wrote to his German allies for help and they responded on October 26, 1917 with a poison gas attack and an infiltration of crack German stormtroopers. It was the 12th Battle of the Isonzo, also known as the Battle of Caporetto, and a disaster for Cadorna and Italy. 40,000 Italian soldiers died, 280,000 laid down their arms and surrendered, and 350,000 deserted. Cadorna issued orders for summary executions of officers. He is even accused of bringing back the old Roman tradition of decimation — executing every tenth soldier — whenever a legion was humiliated in battle.
Hemingway begins A Farewell to Arms with his protagonist Frederic Henry, an American serving as an officer in the Italian Army in charge of a fleet of ambulances in Gorizia, a town on the border with present-day Slovenia about 50 km northwest of Trieste. Frederic is severely wounded in a mortar attack and is sent to the American Hospital in Milan for surgery and recuperation. Book Two in Hemingway’s tale is a love story between Frederic and his British nurse Catherine Barclay. In Book Three a recuperated Henry returns to the Front and is sent to Caporetto about 55 km north of Gorizia just in time for the German offensive. The Italian army is routed and soon in full retreat and the carabinieri are called upon to execute officers they find among the retreating soldiers. Frederic escapes execution and becomes a deserter. He stows away on a train to Milan and on his arrival discovers that Catherine has been transferred to a hospital in Stresa. At the end of Book Three he grabs another train to Stresa.
We walked on from the piazza and soon came across this little church about a block from Corso Italia along the lake.
A few more blocks took us to the shores of Lago Maggiori.
In Book Four of A Farewell to Arms Frederic finds his way to the Grand Hotel des Iles Borromees where he and Catherine reunite. He befriends Emilio, one of the hotel’s bartenders, who informs him one evening that the police plan to come in the morning to arrest him. Emilio lends him his boat and stocks the boat with food and drink from the hotel. Frederic and Catherine row all night the 35 miles up Lake Maggiori to the Swiss border. Hemingway concludes his story in Book Five with an account of Frederic and Catherine’s life together in Switzerland during the winter of 1917-18.
In A Farewell to Arms nothing good happens when it rains. And the rain got to us that day in Stresa. We turned around here and walked back to the train station. I was soaked and spent most of the next day in bed.
After Milan we visited Venice for four days. In my next post we will look at some photos from that trip. And maybe we’ll discuss another Hemingway novel.