Once a Week (magazine)/Series 1/Volume 2/A walk up-stairs


alt = Fenestrelle Fortress

An ingenious French writer filled a decent-sized volume with, “Un voyage autour de ma chambre.” The reader will be here invited to walk up-stairs with us only through a very short paper. Yet it is a long walk up-stairs—possibly the longest in Europe, or perhaps in the world. Fancy starting to go up-stairs, and at the end of an hour and a-half of steady mounting, finding that the top flight is not even then attained. Such stairs would soon cure (or kill) short memories; for it would never do to forget gloves, keys, or handkerchief, and have just to run up-stairs again for them. You observe that no house can possibly contain such a staircase. Certainly not. Not the eight-storied houses of Paris, or of old Edinburgh, or the ten-storied dwellings of Genoa, with seats on the landings like mountain-hospices, can supply such stairs. No: nor yet Albert House, with its crowning tricolor, planted probably by some venturous and successful member of the Alpine Club.

“Well, then, it is after all perhaps only a flight of imagination.”

By no means; but rather forty-nine bonâ fide flights of some eighty odd steps each.

“Good gracious! why that makes four thousand steps.”

Precisely, and that is the little walk up-stairs to which we desire to invite you.

“Oh, you mean the treadmill.”

Well, if this dilatoriness in coming to the point exposes a poor traveller to such unflattering surmises, he must at once clear himself from the imputation of having taken inglorious exercise in this obligato manner, and explain that it was, on the contrary, perfectly ad libitum, and at the Piedmontese mountain fort of Fenestrelle.

Most of the mountain passes leading from France into Italy, which are provided with roads practicable for horses or artillery, have similar forts erected on some commanding position. That of Bard in the valley of Aosta, is well known from the manner in which Napoleon (not much to the credit of the Austrian commander) slipped past before the campaign of Marengo, and after crossing the great St. Bernard, not as is generally pictured to youthful minds, on a rearing white charger, but on the far more convenient, though certainly less romantic conveyance—a mulet.

Mont Cenis also has its frowning defences; but in the way of stairs we believe Fenestrelle beats them all.

The spot which has been selected for its construction is where a spur of the mountain descends into the valley at a sharp turn in the course of the latter, and from the narrow ridge of which spur, the road up and down the valley is completely commanded for a considerable distance. Starting from a fort at the bottom, through the defences of which the road passes, the successive fortifications ascend in alternate loop-holed walls, batteries and forts, up to St. Elmo, which covers the loftiest rock at an immense height, and reposes in cold strength amid snow for nearly half the year, and clouds and mist for a good part of the remainder.

It is difficult at the present day to say what is, or is not, impregnable in the matter of fortifications; certain it is that a very good French general, Catinat, climbed his guns and army to a plateau high up on the mountain, in order to attack the works from thence, as being a position offering the best chances of success, but failed to take them; thus paying a great but no doubt very reluctant, compliment to the still more celebrated Vauban, whose engineering talents, earlier in Louis the Fourteenth’s reign, had planned these very defences, then situated on French ground. What rifled guns or steel-pointed shot may do, has yet to be proved; but while the locale is in the hands of 500 good artillerymen, it is very evident that any army hampered with all the impediments of war, must pass a “mauvais quart d’heure” in this valley of Pragelas.

“Revenons a nos escaliers.” It will readily be imagined that the privilege of ascending 4000 steps for about two hours is a rare treat, not to be obtained without asking. “Donnez vous la peine de monter,” is the polite mode in which a Frenchman will ask you up-stairs; but “Permettez nous la peine de monter,” is what we have to say to the general commanding, and he in our case gave a ready permission. Fortified with this paper, we (four in number) proceeded under the escort of a non-commissioned officer to a strong-looking door, covered with iron bars and nails, which appeared to be set in a stone wall. Unbarring, unbolting, and unlocking this door, he let us into a stone gallery, and intimated that we must ring a bell which we should find near the top flight. The sergeant, however, did not accompany us, but merely remarking: “Montez, montez toujours, Messieurs, et bon voyage!” he relocked, rebarred, and rebolted the door behind us.

It was not a case of “voi che entrate qui lasciate ogni speranza;” our hopes of egress were, it is true, 4000 steps off, but, these surmounted the bell would bring to our aid another serjeant, exalted at nearly the height of Skiddaw from the plain, above his comrade who had just barred us out from the rest of the world. Looking around, we found ourselves in a stone gallery—stone above and below and on each side—ending in a flight of stone steps of portentous length. Up these we proceeded briskly enough at first, but soon slackened our pace, as lungs and the new muscles thus unfairly brought into play began equally to object to so unusual a trial. “Chi va piano, va lontano,” said the most experienced of our party; and, taking his advice, we continued slower but steadily to mount, flight after flight, interrupted here and there by short landings, and inclining occasionally slightly to the right or left, but always following the upward course of the mountain ridge up which we were thus climbing, without, however, seeing much in our stone prison. Loopholes there were in the walls, now on one side now on the other, according as the galleries were constructed to command westward up the valley or eastward down it; but the view from most of these narrow openings was not extensive. Occasionally, too, we passed side-galleries, leading to the several batteries or block-houses; but generally it was one uniform succession of long flights of steps and short galleries. “One thousand,” said at last one of our party. “What! only one thousand!” broke from the lips of others: we thought we had achieved at least half. However, at length two thousand were really turned, and onwards we went, for now

we are up steps
Mounted so far, that should we climb no more,
Returning were as tedious as go o’er.

In fact, however, we found the second thousand decidedly easier than the first, and the third and fourth thousand less and less irksome. We were evidently becoming used to it. However, hot and winded by such continued mounting, we felt it would be too imprudent to call a halt with the wind blowing coldly through the narrow loopholes up these long stone galleries, so that we went steadily on, and never stopped from the moment of commencing until we had achieved our self-imposed task.

In some parts we received a variation of our labour, as in place of steps we came upon inclined planes, nearly, if not quite, as steep as the steps themselves, and polished by wear so smooth, that, had there not been ridges of stone-work at intervals of about two feet, foothold would have failed us, and we must have had recourse to all fours. Here a painful doubt crossed my mind: “Do these inclines reckon towards the four thousand?” said I. “All right,” responded one of our party, who had been here before, “everything reckons;” and with easier minds onwards we went. Towards the top we crossed several little wooden draw-bridges, occupying the whole breadth of the galleries. On looking through an opening in their flooring, we could see that we were crossing ravines in the rock, perhaps two hundred or more feet deep, studded at the bottom with the needlessly additional malevolence of pointed stakes.

At last, after about one hour and a-half, or perhaps a little more, of incessant getting-upstairs, reaching the looked-for bell-rope, we gave a hearty pull, and in due course the upper serjeant unbarred, unbolted, and unlocked a door bearing a strong family likeness to the one far, far below; and receiving the general’s permit, he allowed us to emerge once more into the open air and sunlight—but into air and sunlight of a far colder climate than that we had left in the hot valley below.

On a bright day in September the contrast, though considerable, is of course not so great as under other conditions; but from the change we ourselves experienced, we could readily understand that 4000 steps (giving an altitude of at least 2500 feet) must in early spring, when sunshine and mild breezes have almost restored summer to the valley, still leave the crowning height embosomed in snow, and beaten by the icy blasts of winter, and thus there may be literally under the same roof (for the vaulted roof of the galleries is uninterrupted) the temperatures of summer and winter at times united. Indeed, as it was, some of last winter’s snow lay still unmelted on the opposite side of the valley, at a height very little exceeding that of the ground on which we stood.

From the citadel of St. Elmo the panorama is striking. We are presented with a bird’s-eye view of the forts leading down the ridge of the mountain, and of the town of Fenestrelle lying far down at our feet; while an extensive range of the road, both up and down the valley, is descried for a considerable distance; and far away beyond the lesser intervening mountains are seen the plains of Italy. Was it, whilst passing over this very route from Gaul, that Hannibal caught his first glimpse of these hardly sought plains? This or a neighbouring pass he probably took; but without either paths or bridges, what difficulties he must have met with! and what wonderful pluck and determination he must have shown, in bringing an army at last successfully into Italy in spite of them! That elephants could, however, have passed these roads before they were made[1] is almost as difficult of belief as the well-known legend of blasting the heated rocks with vinegar. Certain it is, that over these giant mountains, at this or one of the neighbouring passes, Hannibal did lead the army which brought Rome to the verge of ruin.

A glance in the other direction carries the eye towards the mountains behind, under which lies the Pré Catinat, whence that general directed his unsuccessful attack against the fort; at a little distance is seen a small village lying on a steep slope of cultivated land, stretching from the bare cliffs to a precipice overhanging the town of Fenestrelle. This little village, some years back, was swept away by an avalanche, but it is now protected by an angular stone-work of massive proportions, which affords it a more secure position than formerly, though terribly cramped for space.

We now prepared to descend, but not by the steps. To do so was pronounced quite out of the question, short of absolute necessity. Although from some mountain experience well aware of the difference between ascending and descending for any length of time, I was still much inclined to try the descent of so large a number of steps, as I might never again have the opportunity of trying such an experiment; but I was assured that if I did, I should not have a leg to stand upon at the end of my experiment; and (which was clearly conclusive) that the donkey which hebdomadally walks up-stairs with supplies, never comes down the same way. Resigning myself, therefore, to do at Fenestrelle as the donkey does, we trudged down by the thirty odd zig-zags of road which lead outside the defences back to the town, arriving just one hour after the time fixed for dinner; but our landlady, who knew better than we did how long our task would require, had by no means spoilt a very fair, and certainly very seasonable, dinner.

A nine-miles walk from Pomaret to Fenestrelle in the morning, a climb up 4000 steps, and down again by a circuitous road, nine miles home again, besides a little walking about, constituted a good day’s work for a middle-aged paterfamilias of sedentary habits. But in case this paper should come before either of the valued friends with whom I made the excursion (two of the excellent pasteurs of the Vaudois, Protestant valleys of Piedmont) let me add, that I never remember to have passed a happier day than when viewing these novel and striking combinations of art and nature in their pleasant and very instructive company.

H. F. Amedroz.

  1. See the memorable lines on the Scotch military roads:

    Had you seen these roads before they were made,
    You’d hold up your hands, and bless Marshal Wade.