The Third Tower Travels – Two: The Third Tower

This summer I took my family to Italy, to a seaside resort on the outskirts of Ravenna. It was within an easy driving distance from San Marino where the Torre di Montale, the Third Tower is.

Hungarian writer Antal Szerb wrote a book called The Third Tower, about his Italian travels in 1936. It was this Third Tower, the peak of Szerb’s journey.

A lone tower is a very powerful symbol of independence and individual freedom. “The tower stands apart, at the far corner of the mountain top, on an inaccessible cliff, very steep on both sides”, writes Antal Szerb in his book. This is a hint that it’s quite a walk to reach that cliff. Here’s how Szerb saw it:

“Thus we arrived to a little gate bearing the notice: Road to the Third Tower. Having carried them this far, the day-trippers’ enthusiasm instantly deserted them. Puffing and panting, they turned back and made for the viewpoints and the moscato. I continued on – suddenly, happily, at ease and alone. The third tower was all mine.”

(Translated by Len Rix [1])

Reading Szerb’s description filled me with romantic expectations, but, given the sixty-nine years that passed since he’d been there, I also anticipated disappointment. And I wasn’t disappointed in that.

Arriving in San Marino, our first thought was to take the cable car from Borgo Maggiore. But the parking lot was full, so we drove on. Arriving at the top, the road signs offered us a choice from eight parking lots. At random, we chose parking lot 3. We parked the car in front of an enormous Interpol building, stretched a bit, and, disoriented by all those bends in the road, we checked our maps. We were surprised to see that we were quite close to the Third Tower, and we would need to walk from there to the first tower. We had to start our journey where Antal Szerb finished.

And it was close indeed. In no more than five minutes, we were standing at the foot of the Torre di Montale. We could still see and hear the cars in the parking lot, and there were people around. The Third Tower was everything but ours. (In turn, we met nice people with nice dogs.)

The Third Tower today (All photos by the author)

It was somewhat unsettling to see how the expansion of a modern city overpowered an ancient fortress, with the palpable smugness of wealth and safety, all taken for granted.

Anticipated disillusionment, check. Yet it felt good to touch the tower and pay homage to the fierce independence and freedom it once radiated. But I also knew: if I was looking for the feeling of  the touch of freedom, I would have to look somewhere else.

Still, it was a very pleasant day trip – San Marino is a very exquisite spot. And, from the distance of the second fortress, the Third Tower was still showing some remnants of its former glory.

The Third Tower from the Second Tower

The Third Tower from the Second Tower

At the end of the day, we drove back to (almost) Ravenna. Unlike San Marino, Ravenna reminds me of how safety and wealth can never be taken for granted. Although it was an ancient Etruscan city, it emerged to greater importance on the ruins of the Roman empire – it was the capital of the Western Roman Empire from 402 AD. When the Western empire collapsed in 476 AD, Ravenna became capital of the Kingdom of Italy, ruled by the general Odoacer of German descent. After thirteen years, he was displaced by the Ostrogoth king Theodoric, who – ironically – had occupied the Italian peninsula in alliance with Zeno, then emperor of the Eastern Roman Empire, better known as the Byzantine Empire.

This alliance didn’t last long: the Byzantine emperor Justinian didn’t approve Ostrogoth rule in Italy. Nor did he approve the Arian branch of the Christian faith, practiced by the Ostrogoths. So, in 540 AD (just over fifty years after Theodoric took the reins), he sent his general Belisarius to take over the city again. The last of the great Roman generals, Belisarius amost never failed: shortly after his campaign, Ravenna became the seat of Byzantine rule in Italy, and remained so for more than a century.

In Ravenna, we are reminded of Byzantine times by some magnificent buildings such as the Basilica di San Vitale. (San Vitale has the best-known mosaics of the emperor Justinian and the empress Theodora.)

Mosaic in the Basilica di San Vitale

Ravenna gained significance as Rome declined and finally fell – and Rome fell because she was overpowered by wave after wave of the largest influx of migrants into Europe known in history. It didn’t happen overnight, such things never do, and the Empire’s leaders were trying to defend her borders and culture as best as they could. Still, we can’t blame Rome’s decline all on immigration: in this overblown empire, corruption and instability in the highest ranks also contributed to the fall.

As much as the Romans struggled to maintain their way of life, as much as Byzantium fashioned herself as the last outpost of antique culture for several more centuries, they didn’t have a lot of control over the events in the end. It seems as though man-made wealth and safety couldn’t last forever, and I’m afraid we must embrace the thought that we won’t be able to keep our rich, peaceful, and safe Europe for all eternity.

Maybe I’m not completely free if I can’t keep my sanity and integrity when part or all of my wealth or safety is lost.

So – what do I make of a journey where I’m disappointed in my hope to experience the breath of freedom, and at the same time I’m overwhelmed by the magnificent helplessness of man as he tries, and fails, to control his fate?

Return home in good spirits, and seek out somewhere else, that’s what I do.

Finally, I had my touch of freedom by accident. Three weeks later we spent a few days at the Tirolean foot of the mountain Zugspitze. Towering at 2960 meters (little over 9700 feet), the Zugspitze is the highest summit of Germany, but by sheer luck only: the peak is almost on the Austrian-German border.

The Zugspitze is not the spot for solitary freedom, though. Hundreds of people are taken up there every hour by the three cable cars. It was Friday: the Muslim population of Bavaria was well represented in the crowd. This was a strangely ambivalent cultural experience, seeing as all these people were making an effort to integrate, to do something very German – on the holiday they brought with them from their birthplace.

The next day I broke free. From our hotel window, we could see formidable Tirolean ridges to the south, with peaks rising over 2500 meters (8200 feet). In front of them, there was a smaller mountain top with a cross at 1640 meters (ca. 5400 feet), called the Schachtkopf. The name means ‘headroom’ – it’s a mining and construction term: in the past, the main trade in the area was the mining of lead, zinc, and silver – well, before the mines were exhausted and international tourism kicked in.

From the moment we arrived, I had been yearning to climb up there, all on my own. On that day, I took my shoes and walked off while my family was enjoying the summer toboggan in Biberwier (great fun, actually).

It’s a moderately difficult climb, useful when you are working up your strength to try the higher summits (I didn’t do that on this trip). Along the way, various boards explained the history of mining there. The resting spots gave wonderful views of the valley and the mountains, with the Zugspitze itself among them.

I had that path to myself that morning. Yet, in a way, I encountered other wanderers. At places, I could see small heaps of stones. It took a few minutes before I realized they were man-made, and were left there in memory of someone’s journey up or down. So I made one myself every now and then.

Traces of wanderers in Tirol

Traces of wanderers in Tirol

When I finally reached the cross – it was a two-hour non-stop climb from the hotel –, I was greeted with the feeling I was looking for.

I realized it was the effort I needed. Winded, exhausted as I stood there, I was rewarded with the warmth of accomplishment. I had the mountain top and that view to myself.

Freedom doesn’t come for free: there’s always a mountain to climb.

That view, with the cable car to the Zugspitze at the far end of the mountain range

That view, with the cable car to the Zugspitze at the far end of the mountain range

[1] Quotes from the Third Tower are taken from this edition:
Antal Szerb: The Third Tower. Journeys in Italy. Pushkin Press, 2014. Translated by Len Rix.

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