Napoleon Stopped Here

The first time I visited Claudio at his home in Varinella, he was tearing down the roof of his great-grandmother’s medieval townhouse, which he’d inherited. It looked like a bomb site. The roof was gone, reduced to piles of terracotta tiles. Chestnut rafters were exposed, the side of the house torn off, and you climbed to the second floor on a ladder, like a tree house. I loved it. Especially the ceilingless top floor, which was so airy and bright and offered a view of the swaying trees and Scrivia river and, um, the autostrada.

Next to soccer, restoring homes is the most popular sport here. Claudio has restored five. If you’re not working on your own home, you’re working on your friend’s, or his brother’s, or your aunt’s. It’s a team sport, where guy pals get to do physical labor and creative work—and discuss women and soccer— all at the same time.

When you tear down walls in these old houses, you never know what you’ll find. An impenetrable rock. An adobe wall of mud and straw. Maybe even a hidden treasure—like ours.

Hacking away at a kitchen wall above the hearth, Claudio hit something hard. He dug in and pulled out a large silver coin. It’s a beauty: from 1796, with the heraldic emblem of Genoa on one side, and John the Baptist on the other. In those days, before Italy was a unified country, Varinella was part of the Republic of Genoa. This silver coin, worth $150 on the antique market today, was probably priceless to the peasant who occupied this house. That’s why he buried it in the wall, most likely when Napoleon’s troops invaded.

Napoleon did some serious damage in these parts. Arquata Scrivia, the main town across the Scrivia river, once had a feudal castle. Napoleon blew that up, and all that remains is its tall stone tower. While it’s nice to have a 500-year-old tower distinguishing your skyline—it gives Arquata a bit of medieval cache—I would have preferred an imposing fortress, like the one in Gavi, just up the road.

Napoleon also loosed his cannons on a fortress near Vobbia, one of my favorite spots on this earth. It’s on my bike route, which follows the Scrivia river, then turns up a side road and climbs and climbs—past rocky river gorges, herds of sheep, and thick pine woods. The landscape feels like West Virginia…until you round a corner, and there, perched before you on a sheer stone cliff, is a thousand-year-old fortress, literally carved out of the rock. You don’t find those in West Virginia.

This fort once protected the salt roads that transported salt and goods inland from Genoa to Milan and Turin. It’s hard to believe this isolated, pristine valley could have been so central to commerce in the 1100s, and have remained so strategically important that Napoleon would bother schlepping his cannons and artillery up that long hill. But he did.

Fortunately, it seems many of his cannonballs missed their mark, because a good bit of the fortress is still intact. It’s maimed, but resolute. I salute every time I bike past.

But I wonder about that peasant-owner of our house. Was he killed by Napoleon’s army and that’s why the coin remained buried for 200 years? No peasant in his right mind would simply forget a silver coin.

When Claudio restores the guest bedroom, I’m tempted to bury something of our own. (Yes, it’s been 13 years, and he’s still restoring the house.) A silver dollar? A BluRay disc? A letter and photos? I’m open to suggestions.