Testata: Harpers & Queen
Data: march 2002
ON THE WAR PATH
WHY DID JET-SET BEAUTY ORTENSIA VISCONTI TURN HER BACK ON ROMAN SOCIETY TO TREK THROUGH THE BLIZZARDS AND MOUNTAINS OF BATTLE-TORN AFGHANISTAN, ASKS SIMON TIFFIN
The stairway leading to Ortensia Visconti's apartment near the Piazza di Spagna is the kind of grand entrance you come to expect when visiting members of Rome's mondani. A sweeping marble stairway lined with classical busts - more likely ancestors rather than reproductions - leads you up to a terracotta-tiled terrace that enjoys one of the most stunning views in a city over-endowed with stunning views.
'Over there is the flat where Gregory Peck lived in Roman Holiday', says Ortensia, who greets me looking effortlessly stylish in tartan trousers and a black cashmere sweater (it will always be a mistery to me how the Italians manage to keep their knitwear looking so immaculate). With a fresh, girlishly pretty face that makes her appear younger than her 28 years, a burgeoning career as a writer, and a celebrated heritage - her great-uncle, Luchino Visconti, was the legendary director of The Leopard and Death in Venice, and her father, too, was a famous film-maker - it is very easy to imagine Ortensia being content to live out the 21st-century dolce vita. Also, before meeting Ortensia, the only thing I could find out about her from British press cuttings was that she had once dated Mick Jagger. ('He is a friend. I do not want to talk about him,' she says.) Such a liaison would normally place Ortensia firmly in the Oggi set. But she found a life of Vespas, Valentino and flitting around Europe a tad too dolce for her taste.
So, in November last year, Ortensia left her Roman rooftop retreat and headed for the war in Afghanistan, to try and make it as a photojournalist. 'I have always been an adventurer and, ever since I was young, I have travelled to difficult places, so I felt I had to go,' she says. 'Afghanistan was a truly incredible experience. It was intense, like a fable, and everything was really extreme. In those situations, you get to see who people really are. If someone is good, they become really good; if someone is brave, it shows. I miss that now.'
Ortensia's courage certainly came to the fore. Shortly after arriving in Afghanistan, she joined a group of three foreign journalists, a French aid worker from the Agency for Technical Cooperation and Development and three Afghans, to travel through the Anjuman Pass, north-east of Kabul. Their destination was the Panjshir Valley - the front line, at the time, in the war between the Taliban and the Northern Alliance. The original plan was to make the trip in four-wheel-drive Russian jeeps. but the heavy snow rendered the vehicles useless, so they had to set out on horseback. The rock-strewn mountain pass, with its twisting, narrow paths hemmed in by sheer drops of over 2,000 feet, is treacherous even in summer, but in driving snow anf freezing temperatures it is almost suicidal.
'It was over 10 hours on horseback, at a temperature of almost minus 25 degrees, and I thought I was going to die,' says Ortensia. 'I was hallucinating from the cold; I saw a village and headed towards it but, of course, it wasn't there. And then, after one of the guides said he ahd spotted a wolf, I began to see tigers all around us.' The conditions deteriorated and the party found themselves in a blizzard which made it hard to see where the mountains ended and the sky began. 'As night fell, even our Afghan guides were looking really worried, and for two hours I thought we were lost. The snow was so deep it came up to my horse's saddle and all my clothes were frozen on my body. I thought, "Oh my god, I'm going to die at the top of a mountain in Afghanistan." This was the first time in my life that I really had to test my strenght, and I started running with the horses. It was the most beautiful and intense moment of my life.'
Eventually, the group arrived at its destination - the tiny village of Kurpetab - but Ortensia had another struggle to face after the journey. She had left Italy without a commission, and had to find somewhere to publish her story. 'I borrowed a satellite phone from one of the other journalists and called the editorial directors of all the Italian newspapers,' she says. 'Finally, someone at Il Messaggero [the respected Rome-based paper] asked me to send in a piece, and then commissioned me to write for them.' Ortensia was also successful with her photographs, which appeared in The Washington Post, and a selection of which are currently included in an exhibition at the Palazzo delle Esposizioni in Rome.
After hearing Ortensia's story - which would fit nicely into any epic tale from the 19st-century Central Asian Great Game - it is impossible to imagine her being satisfied with the frivolity of life as paparazzi fodder. 'I'm pretty simple; I don't need comfort,' she says. And despite her recent success, Ortensia will not be happy resting on her laurels in Rome. 'People think I live a life of luxury, but I'm not interested in that. I get bored. I have to live by me heart,' she says.