Italy’s far north

Italy’s eastern border with modern-day Slovenia is not its only frontier to have shifted with time. The country, with its ancient and not-so-ancient empires, always seemed ageless to me, as fixed in boundaries as the island of Great Britain. This is not the case. The modern united Italian state, with a single government based in Rome that is sovereign over the entire peninsula (barring San Marino and the Vatican), only dates back to 1861. Even then, the country’s land borders continued to wobble back and forth for decades more.

Arriving into my next destination by a hard-seated borrowed bicycle it struck me that the small town of Pontebba was rather Austrian in appearance. Window-boxes dripped with colourful geranium flowers. Many of the rooftops were draped in the narrow diamond-shaped fish scale tiles of the Alps, while many of the town’s external walls bore the painted decoration of Austria and Switzerland.

Austrian-feeling Santa Maria Maggiore, Pontebba

Austrian-feeling Santa Maria Maggiore, Pontebba

I soon discovered I shouldn’t be all that surprised by the town’s appearance. The frontier between the Kingdom of Italy and the Austro-Hungarian Empire (as they were then) ran across a short bridge over the milky waters of the River Fella. When the border shifted 30km north, in a reversal of the story of Gorizia and Nova Gorica, two towns separated by the border came together into one. The marker stone, a stumpy white-grey column, remains. The older tourist information boards are in Italian, local dialect, and German. Only the most recent include any English.

Old border marker stone, Pontebba

Old border marker stone, Pontebba

Borders are less permanent, and less final than they can first appear for someone born on an island. They are, in fact, constantly being altered and refined, whether at city, county or national level. Cultural influences drift across even closed borders. It’s worth remembering that borders are manmade constructs. They don’t appear in nature, which is for me, something of a comfort.

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