Our local Puricelli trail (Camino Puricelli) is named for Piero Puricelli (1883-1951) who was an Italian engineer famed for building the world’s first motorway. Puricelli, a man of his times, was imbued with the futurist thirst for speed. He had already built the Monza race-track in 1922 when Mussolini’s fascisti came to power. It seems to have been a happy coincidence of up-and-coming talents. Though Puricelli had already been scheming and dreaming for several years with regard to his autostrada concept, few shared his vision in a country where automobiles were still relatively scarce in the early twenties – 80,000 in Italy compared to 600,000 in Britain – and the project was moving slowly. Fortunately il Duce took a shine to it, turned up to provide the inaugural pick-stroke himself, and generally facilitated the construction of the Autostrada dei Laghi, a dual carriageway exclusively for cars that connected Milan to the Lakes of Varese and Como. The world had not seen its like. The Milano-Varese stretch was inaugurated in September 1924, and the branch to Como in 1925. Others were to follow. Not only at national level, in the late twenties Puricelli participated in the planning of Germany’s first Autobahn, the HaFraBa project which aimed to connect Hamburg-Frankfurt-Basel.
In the early 1930s this road-building fever reached Spain – with its brand new Republic – where the Ministry of Public Works came up with several ambitious, not to say outlandish, projects to provide citizens from the Madrid area with better access to the newly discovered Sierra de Guadarrama. One such project was a road to connect Cercedilla to Valsaín, crossing the mountains via Puerto de Fuenfría. Piero Puricelli was hired to build it. The plans were drawn up, the company Puricelli Española was set up to build it, and work commenced. The project was well advanced by mid-1936 when the Civil War broke out. It is easy to conclude that few good things came of the brutal Spanish conflict, but there was at least one positive note. Puricelli’s road was never completed. What in the later twentieth century we might in all probability consider to be an environmental atrocity instead became the most elaborately realized forest track on the Peninsula, if not on the planet.
The first section, which retains Puricelli’s name, runs from the edge of Cercedilla up the Fuenfría Valley for about three kilometers almost reaching the Hospital (Puricelli trail to Hospital de Fuenfría). The engineered road dies suddenly a few hundred meters short of the Hospital giving way to a rougher, steeper section of trail. From here, past the sanatorium and on up the valley, there are another three kilometers where it is not clear if Puricelli’s road was to coincide with the existing asphalted road or otherwise. Close to the top of the valley in the spot known as Pradera de los Corralillos the road designed by Puricelli sets off anew swinging obliquely out to one side of the valley so as to overcome the remaining three hundred meters of vertical gain in a gradual way, thereby reaching the mountain pass of Puerto de Fuenfría over a stretch of almost seven kilometers known as la Carretera de la República (the Road of the Republic). Again this section is very obviously a product of road engineering with major earthworks, banking and considerable extensions hewn from rock – most notably the stretch known as el Mirador de la Calva o de la Reina.
Walking or biking along Puricelli’s unfinished road today, it is hard to envisage the potential nightmare of hundreds – maybe thousands – of noisy, exhaust-spewing automobiles blasting past, not to mention the huge car-park of Puerto de Fuenfría and the inevitable bars, hotels and other services that come with auto sprawl. Would it be far-fetched to imagine poor Piero Puricelli as some sort of personification of the ‘curse of the twentieth century’ that the horse-loving Winston Churchill alledgedly saw in the car? Of course it might be unfair to lambast the vision of Puricelli – and others – with regard to the development of the private automobile..in the early century it was hardly foreseeable that there would be such an explosion in car ownership, that vehicles would come to clog every city large or little and even the smallest towns, that mass use of the internal combustion engine could have such nefarious effects on both the health of people and that of the planet. But then what are visionaries supposed to see?
Like the automobile, Piero Puricelli’s early and protracted success came to blight his life. Il Re delle autostrade (the King of the Highways) became more and more involved in the fascist administration, his companies built engineering projects across the ‘Italian empire’ from Albania to East Africa, as a result of all the money rolling in he became very wealthy, he was appointed to various positions of national responsibility including that of Senator-for-Life. So, inevitably, when the edifice of fascism came tumbling down, the engineer fell with it. While he escaped serious retribution after the Second World War, Piero Puricelli was a forgotten man in the new Italian Republic. His death in 1951 was barely noticed.