Mountain Culture & History: Italy's Alpine Smugglers
Spallone (plural spalloni), literally means big shoulders, (now you see the beauty if the idiomatic expression in the title). The term used to describe the contrabbandieri, the smugglers who worked Italy’s borders with Switzerland and Austria. The Alps form an effective and imposing border, but those with the knowledge and the gumption, could sneak their way across when needed. The spalloni earned their living hauling heavy loads of contraband on their backs. They would seek out virtually impassable, steep and dangerous trails in order to minimize the risk of being caught by customs officials.
Gear and Clothing for the illegal hikes
Up through the 19th century these smugglers earned their big shoulder name by carrying goods strapped to their backs in large woven jute baskets called bricolle. A knife was always kept within easy reach in case the bricolle's straps needed to be cut. The knife allowed the smugglers to dump the packs for a quick get-away, should officials be encountered on the trail. There were no Vibram soles to ensure grippy footing, instead they covered their shoes with hand-stitched canvas coverings called peduli. These covers were used to soften the sounds of their footsteps so that they could sneak across borders undiscovered.
For the spalloni, smuggling was a two way street (or trail). Up through the Second World War, they would carry coffee from Switzerland to Italy and return to Switzerland stocked with Italian butter. Rice and salt were also transported. Post war, the spalloni's hot items were cigarettes. Maximizing their long and arduous journeys, they loaded their packs with 30kg (66 lbs) of illegal goods.
FAIR TRADE BETWEEN THE GOOD GUYS AND BAD GUYS
In some communities, entire mountain villages were involved in this alternative form of trade. Border patrol and spalloni were officially on opposite sides of the law, but they also cooperated. Customs officials often turned a blind eye to the spalloni who may have been their neighbors or friends. The smugglers would do their share to help too; when needed, they could put their valuable knowledge of the mountains to less criminal use. A deadly avalanche in 1941 resulted in the spalloni helpingin the search and recovery of the bodies of three border guards who had been buried by the snow.
Certainly there is a romantic view of the spalloni today, who were often admired for their resourcefulness and courage. For those who want to reenact the journey of the spalloni, the Piemontese town of Crodo, offers the Senitieri degli Spalloni (information in Italian). This weekend on the trails complete with bricolle, 2016 edition took place onJuly 2 and 3.
Most 21st century spalloni tend to be less outdoorsy and no longer deal in coffee and butter. Stuffed backpacks and foot traffic have been replaced by cars carrying cash. Modern day Italian spalloni seek to hide their money from the always extended hand of the Italian government. The journey is still risky, with customs agents periodically catching those attempting to smuggle tens of thousands of euros in cash into Switzerland. Perhaps the old traditions can be profitable again, offering an alternative to those nosy border guards checking cars. In retrospect, it is likely that those who were nabbed trying to smuggle cash to Swiss banks would have been better off getting some retired spalloni to dust of their peduli and load up their bricolle.