Simanaitis Says

On cars, old, new and future; science & technology; vintage airplanes, computer flight simulation of them; Sherlockiana; our English language; travel; and other stuff


A LOVE of old travel books is based on my oft-repeated belief that anything that was worthy of a visit at the time of publication, even if 100 years ago, is still worth seeing today. Provided, of course, it still exists.


L’ITALIE PITTORESQUE, by Jules Gourdault, Hachette, 1905. In French.  

Italy, of course, still exists. And it’s still picturesque. Here are several tidbits from Jules Gourdault’s L’Italie Pittoresque, 1905, along with some rather more recent meanders of my own.

Gourdault devotes a chapter to Les Passages des Monts et la Région des Lacs Subalpins. I suspect any of this French is less disconcerting than their practice of putting Tables of Contents at the back of books.

Praising one of my favorite subalpine lakes and islands, Gourdault says of Lago Maggiore’s Isola dei Pescatori, “Voilà l’idylle, dans toute sa simplicité.” I agree complètement.


Modane tunnel entrance. This and other images from L’Italie Pittoresque.

The Modane rail tunnel is still in existence, known as the Fréjus or Mont Cenis Tunnel. It links Modane, France, with Bardonecchia in the western-most portion of Italy. The tunnel was quite a feat of construction, starting in 1857 and opening in 1871. Crews working from either side used newly introduced pneumatic drilling and dynamite. They met halfway through the eight miles with an alignment difference of only 16 in. horizontally and 24 in. vertically.


The French/Italian border in the Alps contains many passes and tunnels. Image from Google Maps.

I’ve never traveled the Modane Tunnel, rail or road. However, I had an adventure involving another alpine tunnel pair. I was in Monaco and needed to drive to Turin, Italy. The shortest route was due north, through a tunnel at the Col de Tende getting me into Italy.

Alas, when I got there, the road tunnel was boarded up, closed for repairs. My despair was only temporary, though, because at a railway station in the French town immediately south of the Col was a train of flat-cars taking motorists and their vehicles through the parallel railway tunnel. I got to Turin on time and in fine style, with a party atmosphere prevailing on the train.


The Grand Canal, Venice. The building at the left is the Hotel Danielli. Below, as it looked when I visited in 1993.


L’Italie Pittoresque devotes a chapter to Venise et ses Lagunes. Gourdault recommends a lot of sightseeing that’s still relevant today, the Bridge of Sighs, the Bridge of Rialto, the Piazza San Marco and the city’s canals.

One of the book’s lovely illustrations shows the Grand Canal, with the Hotel Danielli as its focal point. In 1993, I had the pleasure of staying at the Danielli, just a short walk from St. Mark’s.


Above, Pisa has its Leaning Tower, seen on the right. Below, perhaps less familiar, are Bologna’s Tours Penchées.


I recognize the Leaning Tower of Pisa, said to be where Galileo Galilei demonstrated that the descent of falling objects is independent of their mass. However, I learned of the Leaning Towers of Bologna from Gourdault’s book. The taller one is Torre Asinelli; the more dramatically askew one is Torre Garisenda. Dante mentioned the latter in his Divine Comedy.


Sicily’s Mt. Etna, as seen from Catania.

Sicily is included in the book’s concluding chapter. Gourdault cites the rich history of this island off the toe of Italy, with its cultural associations (and invasions) from Greece, Rome, medieval Vandals, Muslims, Normans, French and Spanish. On another note entirely, in 1905 Gourdault wrote [in translation] that everyone had heard of la Maffia… this secret association which flourished mostly in Palermo.

Ninety years later, I experienced “My Targa Florio” and added a tidbit of this particular Italian organization in another context. Two of its hit-men were among the guests at our press trip banquet, or so it was said. ds

© Dennis Simanaitis,, 2015

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