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Associazione Vie D’Acqua – Floating Chat With Marco Bonfante

The Po is swimmable. So begins my river chat with Marco Bonfante, co-founder of the Associazione Vie d’Acqua, born three years ago thanks to a lucky meeting of intentions, personal and professional, with his partner and friend, Marco Borrelli.

“I presented my project to the Metropolitan City of Turin for a speech to support the finalization of the project proposal, funded by the European environmental climate fund, LIFE. There, I met an official, who told me that a boy had written a thesis on river weirs. That boy was Marco Borrelli, my partner. This professional love sparked and a year later we decided to start our association.”

The sinuous carpet of algae that wraps the waters of the Po River certainly doesn’t look appealing to an untrained eye like mine. Well, all those green aquatic creatures – the object of whimsical profanity from rowers – actually indicate that the river is in excellent health. Therefore, you can dive into the Po without fear of coming out with two heads. This is also confirmed by the Regional Agency for Environmental Protection of Piedmont (ARPA), a parastatal scientific body that deals with water sampling and weather warnings. In its latest revelations, it has found that the river is chemically swimmable, when not destabilized by dry periods or harmful exogenous events, such as the spillage of toxic substances that occurred during the first lockdown at Saluzzo… A tragic episode that has mowed down the fish fauna in full reproduction phase.

“If there were no plants, there would be no fish either. And if there were no fish…there would be no life! The algae you see are native, but with the DIY solution that the current junta decided to implement three years ago, the spores have proliferated. These have, then, another noble function: they block the plastics that sail undisturbed on the surface of the river, however, forming plastic islands. You know, a sprinting kayaker, darting past them and not even seeing them… To me, when I’m in a kayak, it makes my heart cry. When I was a kid, the river wasn’t like this-it smelled bad. I used to go to the Murazzi with my grandparents, and to get there we would walk under the arcades (at the time it was nice, the arcades were empty, because without stores people don’t move). I remember there were bubbles on the surface, floating fish… embarrassing stuff. There are some stretches of the Po river near Cremona, at the confluence of the Ticino river and the Pavia river, where the municipality had removed the bathing prohibition orders. Then, little by little…”

With creativity and enthusiasm, the Association carries out numerous initiatives and events, aimed at shaking the conscience of those who admire the river from afar, as an evocative and photogenic backstage of a purely earthly everyday life. When, however, party politics creeps into the plans with hostility, like an angry grebe, problems also appear.

“Two years ago, a bad news story had happened; a girl had been raped at Valentino. The district 8, decided to organize, as a symbol of protest against the degradation, the desertification of activity in the park, a white night. So, we proposed a beautiful torchlight procession on the river, to send a message from the waters: the banks are lit, but also the river is illuminated. The initiative wanted, in fact, also to send a clear message against the policies of non-renewal and closure of the tenders of the current junta … The prefect, then, decided to block it for “general reasons of public order”. At that point, we asked ourselves: the occupation of public land only applies to the mainland, right? Perfect, unhook a floating piarda. DJ set, speakers… and I played in the middle of the river.”

On the occasion of World Clean Up Day, September 12, 2021, the Vie d’Acqua association organized a clean-up event focused on the riparian banks of Turin’s Po River, where neglect by individual citizens and the absence of structural interventions add up to a heap of moral and environmental degradation. Except for unfavorable weather conditions, access is extremely easy for anyone who wants to give their contribution. All useful information is available on the Facebook page of the association. Even in moments of solidarity and sociability such as this, the most human aspect remains entangled in a suffocating network made of party ideologies and programmatic bases of intentions, leading to an inevitable devaluation of volunteer work.

“I often find myself organizing clean-up days, without the need for Facebook events…Italian environmentalism, from this point of view, makes a big mistake; that is, turning these spaces into cathedrals in the desert inaccessible to anthropogenic activities. Everything becomes partisan: you have to remain bound to your party mantra. I find this inconceivable. If I go to clean up the river, I’m doing a political act as a single citizen, but I don’t see why I have to be affiliated to some organization, some association!”

The wooden boat glides lightly on the river and someone from the mainland photographs us. I admit to having experienced a few seconds of glory… A hybrid between a seductive Silvana Mangano aboard the Riva and a freak to be immortalized in a snapshot.

“People aren’t used to seeing scenes like that anymore. If you think about how they used to experience it until the 1960s, the river… On Sundays what do we do? We rent a boat. This tradition doesn’t exist anymore. This one, then, was a cargo and passenger boat, comfortable, spacious. They have a very shallow draft, made especially for the lagoon, so even in case of shallow waters you can continue to sail. It’s got a bit of a hole underneath… I know that saying that can cause panic, but as Loretta Berti says: as long as the boat is going, let it go!”

The river breeze is so pleasant that I almost forget the effort to which I subjected Marco mercilessly: telling life, death and miracles of the river and, in the meantime, paddling under the July sun for two hours. But when it comes to the Po, he seems to be an inexhaustible resource of information, anecdotes, personal experiences… As he talks to me, the bitter awareness of the difficulties to be faced is alleviated by moments of exhilarating spontaneity.

“The river is not only the superhighway of competition but also a potential tourist, employment and economic driver. Now they would like to restore navigation for river tourism and at the same time we have passed a motion to make these six moorings a landing point for private individuals. Not everyone has the possibility to pay an annual fee to a rowing company and there is no regional regulation that prohibits rowing on the Turin stretch. A diver can come to San Salvario with his bag, inflate it at the edge of the river and go out… it’s his right! In 2016, the docks were decommissioned because the flood took away the two steamboats that plied the river. When we were competing and heard them pass by, we would stand on the locker room terrace and show our butts to the tourists – a respectable welcome!”

Living only on the solid ground does not provide an opportunity to engage with the river’s extremely interesting wildlife. In addition to the buttocks of the rowers, the Po is inhabited by wonderful animal species to be admired and protected. The coot, herbivorous and quiet; the grebe, a bit stinky and pissed off; the mandarin duck, which was introduced from China to Northern Europe and, once set free, arrived here; the cormorant, “the dickiest bird on the river, much better at diving into the water than flying”… Then, there is Albina, the only albino mallard on the river.

“I don’t get my bearings from the ground. Instead, on the river I have plants, nests…which are my conspicuous navigation points. If we’re lucky, we get to see a kingfisher dart out in front of us, what D’Annunzio would have called an alcyon. Small, with a cobalt blue chest, garish. Torpedoes, stubby as hell. I don’t even know how they can fly… They’re beautiful when they swoop down from the trees to catch little fish. Here there are one and a half meter long torpedo fish, very voracious, originally from the Danube, where they were becoming extinct… that’s why they brought them here. They hold up very well in environments with warm and somewhat dirty waters, compared to natives like sturgeon swimming upstream, eels, eels, eels…”

From the river, you get a totally different perception of the city. Motionless and silent. In two hours, I discovered places I had never noticed in two years of walking along the banks. The Balbis bridge from the 1920s; the CUS Torino Acquatica, where the cream of the crop of athletes train; a ramaglie cave built by a seventy-year-old fisherman with materials salvaged from the river… “Other than those eco-building masters… You have things at the river that people on land can’t even imagine!”

Among these places hidden from the eyes of those who only experience the city from the mainland is the Associazione Marinai d’Italia with its 1914 submarine. Intrigued by this special type of ship, a few days after the river chat with Marco, I headed at a brisk pace towards Viale Marinai d’Italia, 1. There I had the good fortune to meet Toni Pusateri, councilor and member, who with great enthusiasm told me more about the history of the Andrea Provana submarine.

“The submarine Andrea Provana, of the Barbarigo class, was built in the Monfalcone shipyards in 1914 and entered service at the end of 1918, one month after the end of World War I. Andrea Provana was the Count of Lenì, the first victorious commander in the battle of Lepanto. Therefore, the submarine was named after him. During navigation – the submarine was used by the Naval Academy of Livorno for the cadets of the submariners, at Largo di Portoferraio -, the port engine, a Fiat San Giorgio – these are engines built here in Turin – caught fire and was towed to La Spezia to be decommissioned. In 1922, King Vittorio Emanuele wanted to hold a science and technology fair at Valentino and wanted to bring a ship to Turin. The problem was how to bring, in 1922, a ship to Turin. They decide to cut off the stern part of the submarine and bring in the middle part. By cutting off the turret, it was brought on a train, which arrived at Porta Nuova: there, as with the children’s trains, they put the tracks and the train goes forward, then they detach the tracks from behind and put them forward, until the ship arrives in Turin. This association is the first National Association of Sailors of Italy, from 1896, and they ask permission from the municipality of Turin to leave the submarine here. So, since then, this has been here and we’ve been taking care of it.”


We were still navigating, when a huge disused factory strikes my attention: it is the old Sisport Fiat. Abandoned for 7 years now and destined to irreversible deterioration, no one takes it over but they continue to build new facilities, investing money and occupying space in a way that is not very ingenious or respectful.

“On a social level, in terms of sports clubs, Fiat was very active. Then, crisis, closed factories, wallet squeeze… and all these realities came to an end. Apart from the fact that here, the buildings are at risk of geological instability, so it is forbidden to build fortunately… some homes have been dismantled. The problem of disposal is a disaster… by doing some maintenance work you could maintain realities that already exist without having to build new ones.”

A little further on, the wild part begins, little contaminated by human intervention. We stop there to find some refreshment from the warm but insistent sun of Turin.

“When I have time, I come here, bring my bathing suit, dock my boat and go for a swim.”

I didn’t go for a swim, but soaking my legs in that cool water was an emotional salve. I was fully present to myself and distant from the rest… The same feeling I had as a child, when equipped with mask and fins, I spent hours exploring the marine world.

Offering the opportunity to get in touch with the nature that surrounds us, many initiatives of the Association Vie d’Acqua have at their base the objective of accompanying even – and especially – the youngest, in a process of awareness, so that they can learn to respect and take care of the environment.

“We associate the activity of collecting and recovering waste with the concept of learning a playful-sporting discipline… When I collaborated with Armida in the context of the Estate Ragazzi, I would come during the lunch break and take some kids out on the boat… they had a lot of fun! Kids are much more creative than adults, they definitely come up with a few things. One time a mom came pissed at me because I was letting the kids swim here on shore…in fact it wasn’t because of the danger, it was because of the grossness. That’s the whole concept: fighting preconceptions and prejudices about the Po a little bit.”

And as we talk about cleaning up the river, a green plastic canister appears on the horizon.

Boarding the canister, we head back toward the Armida circle from which we started. With my skin flushed and my heart full of beautiful things, I go down to the mainland and observe the expert and gentle gestures with which Marco takes care of his boat before storing it under the awning, waiting for the next escape from the mainland.

“We sailors treat boats well, very well.”

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