In his latest work of nonfiction, British author Tim Parks (“Europa,” “Italian Ways”) couches historical inquiry in the form of a nearly 400-mile hike up the spine of Italy. He took this arduous walk with his romantic companion, translator Eleonora Gallitelli, in the pre-COVID-19 summer of 2019. Their route was determined by the snaking monthlong retreat Giuseppe Garibaldi made with 4,000 volunteer fighters and his pregnant young wife in 1849, following the collapse of the brief-lived Roman Republic.
“The Hero’s Way: Walking with Garibaldi from Rome to Ravenna” isn’t primarily the story of how Garibaldi and a few other Italian patriots unified the Italian peninsula into a single country. (That didn’t happen until 1860.) Instead, it’s a chronicle of wiliness in defeat and the unlikely escape of a shrinking ragtag volunteer army from military professionals who vastly outnumbered them.
Parks begins, necessarily, with a bit of background. Spurred by the popular liberal uprisings that swept Europe in 1848, the people of Italy’s Papal States declared themselves a republic in February 1849, sending ruler Pope Pius IX into exile in the nearby Kingdom of Naples.
“The hope was to make Rome the capital of a united Italy, since at the time the country was seriously fragmented and largely governed by foreign or despotic powers,” Parks explains. “In response Pius called on four Catholic powers — Austria, France, Spain and Naples — to recover his realm by force.”
The Austrians had already suppressed bids for independence from other small Italian states, and the odds that Garibaldi and his crew could escape their well-funded forces were close to nonexistent. Yet this chapter didn’t go down as a source of shame. The “garibaldini,” as Garibaldi’s followers were called, might not have prevailed — but they hadn’t lost face either. Garibaldi eluded capture. His followers, fighting for Italian unification, were “forcing people to think, to take sides, unsettling the mental landscape as they marched across the physical.”
Parks and Gallitelli were bent on experiencing the garibaldini’s retreat as they had — on foot, in summer. True, they didn’t have armies pursuing them. But getting up before dawn every day to retrace Garibaldi’s route had dangers of its own, chiefly 21st-century traffic.
“Headlights rush toward you. Trucks rumble. It’s frightening and certainly far more dangerous than marching through the countryside 170 years ago,” Parks writes. “We’re walking on detritus: broken glass, road kill, syringes and plastic.”
With the help of navigational apps, he and Gallitelli found detours that mostly let them avoid busy highways. Trying to picture what the 1849 retreat was like was challenging, but Parks did his research and readers will learn a lot.
One advantage Garibaldi and his followers had was their zigzag route. Their pursuers were continually baffled by where, exactly, Garibaldi and his men were heading. Their intended destination was obvious: Venice, the last city-state clinging to its independence. But the deliberate meanderings of the garibaldini could appear nonsensical.
Parks is frank about his own trek, sharing such details as his gratitude to be wearing “elasticated, anti-rash athlete’s underwear.” In a typical turn, this leads him to ask, “Did Garibaldi’s men even have underwear? I fear not. The more alert I’m becoming to all the places where skin is rubbing, shoes pinching and pains lurking, the more extraordinary their determination seems.”
Parks’ temporary, panic-inducing loss of his cellphone likewise causes him to marvel at how diligently the garibaldini leaders “looked after their diaries on that march, kept them in safe dry places, never abandoned them even in extreme circumstances.”
Plaques and piazze named for Garibaldi and his crew mark the way. Commemorations of the Roman Empire and World War II turn up, too. “Italian street signs,” Parks observes, “will often tell you not only what a street is called now, but what it used to be called twenty, fifty, even a hundred years ago. Whether this is a form of nostalgia for the older names, or is meant to be useful for someone returning home after a long absence, a ghost even, I don’t know.”
Other striking sights include a freshwater spring that the poet Horace wrote about 2,000 years earlier and a flock of sheep followed by a young shepherd “on a quad bike speaking on his smartphone.” More sobering is the population loss in rural Italy, as younger generations leave to seek work and the remaining locals often find that survival means catering to the tourist trade in ways that leave them feeling like strangers in their own homes.
“The Hero’s Way” isn’t all smooth going. Tracking the names of all the military skirmishes and personnel involved can be challenging, as Parks acknowledges. Parks and Garritelli’s daily search for acceptable accommodation and food (they’re vegetarians) can get repetitive, too.
But the central point of how a seeming military debacle gradually became viewed as “a glorious act of resistance” is powerfully made.