Soccer is no doubt the most popular sport in Italy. But give the Italians a good bicycle race and you will see what real unlimited Italian sport excitement is. The elegance, the aggressiveness, the power and the great willpower in this sport are all together adored by the Italians for generations. Lots of great sportsmen had already evolved from the long roads of Italy, but the greatest, the one that was crowned to be the best of all, was Gino Bartali. This Great Italian sportsman had become a big and important symbol in Italy''s sport history and in the political history of this country. Winner of the Tour-de-France (twice) and the Giro-d’Italia (three times) is well known as a remarkable person, a great athlete, a humanist and a religious Christian.
Two legends are connected to Bartali. The first is described in the next headline from the Gazzeta-de-lo-Sport, 63 years ago: "Gino Bartali: The man who saved Italy on bicycle." The second is about Bartali''s part in the Italian underground in World War II. But, wait a minute. Let''s keep our secrets for later. Like in a bicycle mountain climbing race in the Giro-d’Italia, let''s keep our strength.
Italy is a very big country. It is mostly long but also very wide in its northern part. In little Europe, where the distances are quite short, it is very easy to forget that this country is a one long boot that goes deep into the heart of the Mediterranean sea and almost touches Africa.
We started our journey to Italy on Saturday morning in cold and very expensive Zurich. Beautiful Switzerland was always an expensive country, but now, avoiding the Euro counties, most of the products here are twice (!) as expensive than in most of other European countries. The weather was getting cold, the atmosphere was cold and so were the people. It started to rain and we started the car to Italy, after only 2 days.
Switzerland and Italy are separated by the tall and fascinating Alps. In the route of our Alps crossing, the mountains reach 4,500 meters on the all-year white top of the Weiss-Horn, the 6th highest top among the Alps. Our road through the Barnina passage, one of the 72 passages in the Alps, reaches 2,300 m. The view has no relevant grade in the scale of 0-10. It is just unbelievable.
As long as we were climbing up, the less trees and bushes we saw. With the extreme coldness and the snow that covers them all year long, those tops look completely naked. Long waterfalls are entering the picture from time to time, thanks to the melting snows in the European heat at the end of August. Every now and then we stop the car and the girls go out for a few minutes of relief and great happiness in the snow''s leftovers that still cover the long green fields that surround us.
Every few minutes we see another small village. Sometimes the road passes through its main road. Mostly it is a narrow street between a small house and a local church. You think you probably lost your way but you haven’t. Once in a while you stay breathless, looking at the up-going narrow road that you are going to go through, where the mountainside is so steep. Only a small symbolic wooden fence stands between the car and the slope. Makes me wonder quite often: "What if another car is coming from the opposite direction now…” but the road still goes on and we pass through another narrow bridge and over another gray river, raging fast and noisy through the grey cliff.
After two hours of climbing up the mountains, the road starts to go down to Italy. When we pass the border – although still high in the mountains – we know we entered a Mediterranean country. It is very simple: there are people everywhere. Even the Italian policemen on the border look livelier than the Swiss ones. The Italian language starts to roll on people''s lips. The Swiss ice starts to melt and the feeling of hot spaghetti with thick hot tomato sauce surrounds us. Soon we will reach the small cabin in the small Italian village and Oksana will fix us a great Italian dinner to warm our hearts.
The second most important bicycle competition in the world is the Giro-d’Italia. It is second only to the French Tour-de-France. Part of it takes place here, where the sportsmen climb those giant mountains. Vincenzo Torriani was the commissioner of the Giro-d’Italia for many years and is responsible for the great success of this competition. In fact, he ran this huge sports event between the years 1946 and 1992. He is one of the best known sports managers in Italy ever and his name is well known to every Italian sports fan even today. We met his son, Marco, in Novatte Milanese, a small town just near Milano, the second biggest city in Italy and the capital of the Lombardy region in northern Italy.
The beautiful wide house with the big old inner yard where Marco and his family live has stood here for more than two hundred years. Marco''s father – Vincenzo – was born in this house and when Marco decided – eventually – to get married, he and his beautiful wife - Beatricce – set their nest here. They continued the heritage and brought four wonderful kids to the world. We were lucky to become friends with this wonderful family.
"Gino Bartali was the champion in bicycle climbing on the mountains," Marco tells me, while he shows me the family photo album, with hundreds of photos that cover the history of bicycle races in Italy. "Gino was a very good friend of my father." Seven times Bartali won the "King of the mountains" title on the Giro-d’Italia. His wonderful ability to climb higher and quicker than the others brought him also two wins in the Tour-de-France competition. This already takes us back to those two stories that we left before.
When the Italians say that Gino Bartali saved Italy, they really mean it. In 1948, when he was already 34 and about to retire from sport, Gino Bartali raced again in the Tour-de-France. It was 10 years after he won the race. In between there was a long war in Europe and on the Giro-d’Italia that year he wasn''t his best and he looked quite tired. No one gave him a chance to get to a good place in the Tour. In 1948 Italy was also looking very bad. On these difficult times after the Fascist regime has fallen and with many problems in the Italian society, the country was on the edge, facing a threat of a civil war.
The first races found Bartali in great shape that nobody knew where did he drew from, two moments before he is about to take his uniform off. He caught up to 2nd place and surprised everyone with a great ability that reminded people of his glory days. On the evening before the start of the climbing race to the Alps he was one minute after the much younger racer who lead the Tour. The 2nd place looked like a big achievement if he could keep it. But on that night Gino received a dramatic phone call from back home. There was a political assassination in Rome. The person on the other side of line was the leader of a political party that Bartali supported and knew personally.
He asked Gino for only a small thing: "Please win the race tomorrow. The people need a distraction. They need something that will keep their minds off the streets. These people need a happy moment that will join them together and that will give them a chance to reunite. The people needs a hero, Gino. You must win."
The day after, Gino Bartali achieved the unbelievable. He won the climbing race on the Alps with a big advantage that brought him to the first place in the Tour. On the following days he won the races and – against all odds – he won the Tour-de-France, ten years after his previous win. It was an unbelievable achievement.
Bartali''s win brought him great admiration and love from all over Italy. He became a national hero overnight. This joy helped the Italians to join together in an effort to unify the country and to take her to a better future for all.
It was only in the 90s that the world got to know that Gino Bartali was already a hero prior to 1948. In the town of "Assizzi" in the area of Florence, where Bartali lived, there was massive underground activity during World War II. This story was discovered only when the movie: "Assizzi underground" was published.
The bishop of Florence ran a whole system of faked paper identities in the village of Assizzi during the war. The papers were made for Jews in order to let them cross the border to neutral Switzerland. Gino Bartali was recruited to the underground. His part was to take the fake papers from the convent where they were faked and put them into the pipes of his bicycles. Then he drove dozens of kilometers to deliver them to contact persons who brought them to the Jews that needed the papers. Whenever the Italian policemen and soldiers saw Bartali, all they would ask was for an autograph or a handshake from the beloved sportsman. They all knew his face from the Sport newspapers and loved him. Gino was never caught and he also didn''t talk about his part in the Assizzi underground until the 90s.
Only few Jews still live in Italy today: Around 8,000 people. It always depends on how you count... (and that''s another story). Sasson, the manager of the Jewish community in Milano adds that: "The Italians think we are millions, but we''re not." We met Sasson at the Jewish Community building in the heart of Milano. The building looks a little bit like a fortress. The entrance to the area is blocked by a military police command car. The gate to the building is locked and there are cameras all around.
Sasson was born in Libya like many people in the Jewish community in Milano. The Jews from Libya and the Jews from Iran comprise the two largest communities in the Milano Jewish community. The community is very busy with the organization of its complicated inside issues. The Jewish community is run like a small inner country: education, economy, welfare, selling kosher-food, religious and many other issues. On the area of the Jewish community center there are Kosher-food businesses. Among them there is an Italian ice-cream shop. Here you can pick your flavors using Italian, English or Hebrew. The Italians eat lots of ice-cream and they sell it on every corner.
Soon we will be leaving for France. Our next meeting with the Alps will be via San-Bernardino passage that saw lots of armies entering Italy in the last few hundred years. Along the route of the passage there are many fortresses that used to guard the way among the big mountain walls. Italy is behind us and France is in front of us. Let''s say "Arrivaderci" to the Giro-d’Italia and "Bienvenue" to the Tour-de-France.