Theme (Park) for Today

I sometimes think that theme parks are the preserve of places that have, in a sense, lost their original “theme”. One may clearly visit Florida to see its major theme park attraction, Disneyland, but does one really visit Italy to see Gardaland?

True, theme parks exist in Italy. Some of them, like Gardaland, are worth a visit if you have children – others, like Pinocchio’s giardino at nearby Collodi, may not turn out quite in the way one imagined a theme park.

There are natural and man-made theme parks in this country that have existed ages before Walt decided to “invent” them. I’m thinking of the towns and cities with their “centri storici” and often spectacular locations, from Venice to Palermo, and certain Italian roads, like the Amalfitana hugging the Tyrrhenian coast or the Gardesana along that lake.

In earlier centuries eccentric princes and counts built their own theme parks, such as the extraordinary monster one at Bomarzo or the more recent Tarocchi park in the south of Tuscany.

Who needs more theme parks in a country which has, sometimes disparagingly, been described as a single giant theme park? Bored kids (or adults) perhaps.

In our current peregrinations in Northern Italy we constantly come across sites extraordinary for their beauty, their audacity or their weirdness. They are our own – free entry – theme parks.

Here are three we encountered yesterday:

The cloisters of a remote abbey.

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I had visited this abbey by bicycle many years previously and was very glad to see it again. Its cloisters are so peaceful they make one almost think one has chosen the wrong career in life. I was pleased that they were still well looked after but it was not always the case as old photos from the 19th century show. The cloisters would then have not been the idyllic place they are now since they’d been messed about to provide housing for local peasant families.

Nearby were some houses which were still somewhat messed about but which, if placed in another location, would have been turned into luxury housing.

The engineering skills of a previous generation.

Before us we saw an almost sheer rock face. We couldn’t understand how our road would surmount it since no straight long gallery was marked on the map. At last we got the solution when five short tunnels stepped up steeply before us, one perilously above the other. Each tunnel turned out to be a hair-pin bend carved into the rock leading us, corkscrew-like, ever up and over.

It was a driving experience to last a lifetime and a tribute to surveyors who could have so accurately judged the gradient and the angle of the switchbacks, and to the wretched navies who built this amazing road (as witnessed the old photographs we saw).

Most astonishingly, this is called the pass of a hundred days – with minimally sophisticated technology they managed to do all this in exactly that time span. War has a way of concentrating the mind and the hands, especially when it is a war against Italy’s traditional foe – the Austrians.

The funicular to an impregnable stronghold.

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This castle has hosted the likes of Longobard kings, Hapsburg emperors and even Dante himself. We didn’t fancy a long walk up in the searing afternoon heat. No problem. A funicular took us aloft with the ease of a lift to the sixtieth floor in an office skyscraper. And what awaited us at the castle was even more spectacular.

That was yesterday. What other free entry theme parks anticipate us today, I speculate?

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