On an Unglorified, Little-Trekked Hemingway Trail in Northern Italy

Before going on assignment to a conflict zone, one journalist takes his son to revisit Hemingway's warpath across Italy.

Hemingway Trail
Ernest Hemingway's Italian military uniform and portrait, on display at the Museo Hemingway Bassano del Grappa. Photo courtesy of the author.

We missed the turnoff, above which was a sign of young Ernest Hemingway in an immaculate Italian military uniform. My toddler son and I, having just arrived for an early-morning walk in Fossalta di Piave, a town in northern Italy north of Venice, doubled-back. Down an unpaved road to a stretch of the Piave, a river in which we had both bathed and fished and swam, we found ourselves parking in the shade where Hemingway nearly lost his life.

When Hemingway was wounded in the First World War in June 1918 by Austrian mortar fire, he was operating a mobile canteen. After distributing chocolate and cigarettes to Italian soldiers, he sat down to lunch when “there was a flash, as when a blast-furnace door is swung open, and a roar that started white and went red,” he later wrote in the novel A Farewell to Arms. Running through gunfire, he carried, along with the two hundred twenty-seven shards of metal in his body, an Italian soldier to safety. He was one of the first Americans to receive the Italian Silver Medal of Valor.

“I was blown up while we were eating cheese,” he later wrote, fictionalizing the experience in A Farewell to Arms.

Eventually he was moved to a hospital in Milan where he convalecesed for six months. It was there he met an American Red Cross nurse, ten years his senior, who the young writer immortalized in A Farewell to Arms, which also took sights and sounds from that day along a bank in the Piave, a place to which he often returned. He wondered how one instant could change a person forever and whether he could write his way through it. The episode grew in Hemingway’s imagination and perhaps helped propel his stiff, spartan style of writing free of literary devices.

But Italy and the surrounding regions (Slovenia and Austria included) never rid themselves of Hemingway. Today, there is a little-known plaque and chapel in Fossalta where once was the Italian/Austrian frontline. Many of the areas Hemingway once visited have blossomed into food, wine, and culture centers that he had found as secret redoubts more than a century ago. Some have outgrown the Hemingway impersionario, becoming more refined and delicate, less rough hewn; others have embraced the machismo of the literary giant. Hemingway even recalled in letters and first drafts his fondness for the region and Italian culture, an inveterate travel guide by the writer himself: Fiesole, Taormina, Rapallo, Milan, Brescia, Verona, Vicenza, Mestre, Treviso, “all around the Venetian plain” and “all of the Dolomites.” He “loved northern Italy like a fool, truly,” he wrote in the original manuscript for a Death in the Afternoon, about Spain, diversions of luck which were later removed.

Hemingway Trail
Translation of Italian caption: Written on EH’s nineteenth birthday, this letter alludes to Ted Brumback’s account of EH’s injuries, sent to the family on July 14, 1918. Photo courtesy of the author.

The detail about the cheese haunted me as we reached the house along the Piave which Hemingway described in a Nick Adam’s story. The house resurrected itself in a nightmare as “a low house painted yellow with willows all around it and a low stable and there was a canal.” There it stood before me and my son. I held his hand, so small in my own, walking beneath an overgrown levee. I felt a bit like Hemingway, returning to a place I’d read about for years, one my son and I often shared together. My son knew I was leaving town on assignment for a few weeks, but he didn’t quite understand what a frontline was or that they still exist today. The idea of conflict didn’t conform to his world, not yet.

As I prepared to leave on another assignment covering another armed conflict, despite his age, I wanted my son to feel much of what Hemingway sought to impart with his writing, to combine words explicitly linked to his time in northern Italy, and his decades-long struggle to reconcile strength with absolution, fortitude with comfortable desire. The things anyone living in the past might struggle with. I had hoped our next stops would uncover hidden treasures in our backyard. At the very least, living in Italy, I could be certain of one thing for my son: he would speak better Italian than Hemingway ever would.

My son and I had visited Venice together once before, despite living an hour and a half away. Choosing it as the starting point seemed an obvious choice for a trip along an invisible Hemingway trail, the departure point from which one might head to Valdobbiadene to enjoy its hills of prosecco superiore extra dry, or further northwest, toward one of Hemingway’s favorite skiing towns, Cortina d’Ampezzo. Instead we went west, to Hemingway’s old haunts along the Venetian plain and Po Valley, every backroad and tributary playing host to monuments from the “Great War.”

We drove along the plain, Fossalta at our backs, toward Bassano del Grappa, along the Brenta River, where Hemingway billeted on the east bank. The road and its Cypresses as he wrote about them were there, not imagined. I carried my son on my shoulder as we reached the Hemingway Museum in perhaps the quietest stretch of the city, a few feet away from his namesake bed and breakfast. We both fit well into the contemplative silence.

Hemingway Trail
The Members of Section One also included the indominable and influential American author John Dos Passos, top row, third from the right, who would later spend time with Hemingway in Paris after the war. Photo courtesy of the author.

It was here in the villa that Section 1 of the American Red Cross stayed, and whose inhabitants inspired the short stories The Woppian Way and The Passing of Pickles McCarty. The museum contains several treasures, among them five small but incredible Hemingway memorabilia: his two Italian war medals, a copy of his letter home from the American Red Cross Hospital in Milan, and the two X-rays of his right foot and leg after the attack along the Piave. My son found most exciting the imitation ducks which sat in a lifesize canoe, part of an exhibit on Hemingway’s hunting in Africa. I read of the attack along the Piave and the levity with which he handled correspondence about his own frailty.

Further west we drove, toward Schio, where Hemingway was stationed in a former woolen mill while away from the frontline. He drank the local Valpolicella and would eventually call the region home, himself becoming “an old Veneto boy myself. I love it and know it quite well,” he once wrote. The wine requires no additional praise.

“It was northern Italy which gave him his first taste of freedom, of passion, of companionship under fire,” Richard Owen, a former foreign correspondent with the Times of London, wrote in Hemingway in Italy, “perhaps too of liberty from the Protestant constrictions of the American heartland in which he had grown up.”

The town of Schio, 150 miles northeast of Milan, sits in the foothills of the Little Dolomites and Mount Pasubio and is a short drive to Lake Garda and the famous thermal tourism destination of Sirmione. “Hemingway really was a writer of landscape,” Linda Patterson Miller, a professor of English at Penn State Abington and a Hemingway scholar, told me later. “More than actual places, it’s really the terrain that grabs him and gets into his writing stylistically very powerfully.” Schio, along with the village of Fornaci and the Austrian municipality of Schruns, would not only form the backbone of future novels, but rather consumed the young Hemingway as he unburdened himself and tucked into long stretches of writing and revision.

Our drive skirted the deep crevices and soaring peaks of the Dolomites, heading eventually toward Milan and Stresa and Lake Maggiore outside Milan (where at the Grand Hotel Des Iles Borromees you can rent room 106, the Hemingway Suit). “His work always returned to italy. Hemginway felt that because he bled for the Italian Army he claimed them. He felt that Italy belonged to him,” said Mark Cirino, host of the Hemingway Society’s One True Podcast.

The trip could be completed over a weekend, but we’re taking the slower approach, living it out each day. At home we sometimes adore Hemingway’s “ideal cure,” scampi and Valpolicella, the wine sourced from a vineyard a short drive away. Living in the past isn’t all bad, so long as it’s a hearty contribution to the present, in this case a reconciliation between Italy’s bounty and one man’s defeat forestalled. And when we returned home to our northern Italian redoubt, my ballistic helmet sat next to a notepad on the credenza, my wife having helped retrieve it from storage ahead of my trip. My son tried it on.

It was too big, and drooped over his brow. I was in no rush to make it fit.