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Italy: Gaming the Alps

I’ve always been suspicious of treasure hunts. They are — to borrow some science words — a closed system. There’s a predetermined path, the end already decided. There’s no real mystery and scant chance for serendipity. It’s not a good fit for the way I travel.

Italy: Gaming the Alps

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Ingress, though, promises to be a travel treasure hunt with a difference. For starters, it’s not really a treasure hunt, and it was never intended for tourism.

Ingress is an ‘alternate reality’ game, where players tag various locations, known as ‘portals’. The game’s conceit is simple: you represent either the ‘Enlightened’ or the ‘Resistance’, and are trying to defend or attack these portals, claiming them for your side, capture-the-flag style. And the magic travel ingredient? The portals are all real locations, in the real world.

The game lives on a smartphone, as a virtual overlay on top of Google Maps. That’s what caught my attention (and I certainly wasn’t the first to notice Ingress’s tourism potential). Portals are bars and restaurants; landmarks, museums and monuments. Players must visit a portal to ‘hack’ it — plunder it for items needed to progress through the game’s levels. You have to get close, very close, to attack or claim one.

In recent months, I’ve hacked Bernini’s Fountain of the Triton in Rome. In Florence, I captured a painted tabernacle known — I swear — as ‘The Madonna of the Car Park’. But could Ingress survive a real-life travel test? A hard one. Could gameplay help me see new things in a place I already know?

I packed my Ingress equipment — two smartphones (the game is a battery killer) and earbuds — and headed to the Aosta valley in the Italian Alps. It’s a place I know well. I lived there for a while; I’ve written about it several times; I’ve seen it all. Or at least, I thought I had.

Playing here is a challenge. On Ingress, I’m a member of the Resistance — the ‘blue team’. A quick look at the Ingress intel map shows the city covered in a sea of green. Aosta is an Enlightened stronghold. Oh dear.

My first foray starts with a roundabout I’ve crossed a thousand times, now a portal on my Ingress app. At its centre is a giant stone grolla, the wooden communal drinking cup of these high alpine valleys. Somehow I have completely failed to notice this. For over a decade.

I walk the tight-packed streets of Aosta’s pedestrianised centre, capturing portals and turning the map a little blue. I pass the birthplace of St Anselm, an esteemed 11th-century Archbishop of Canterbury. A plaque marks the spot… of yet another Enlightened portal.

But my sortie seems to have stirred the hornets’ nest. Local players undo my minor successes, and within a few hours almost the whole of Aosta returns to the Enlightened.

The following day I switch strategies, marking some key Enlightened portals for destruction — taking out the enemy is another way to gain points and climb the levels. I ‘destroy’ a steel cross standing guard over a vine-clad hillside: 2,500 points in the bag. A painted chapel in a roadside hamlet is next to fall. Boom: 4,800 points for that one.

By the week’s end, Ingress is bringing a Zen calm to my walks. Everything, except this virtual network of interlinked portals, slips into the background. By accident, I discover the subterranean remnants of a 6th-century church dedicated to St Lawrence, linking portals along the way. I’m crossing a Roman stone bridge that spans a patch of grass, its torrent having been diverted in a violent storm almost 1,000 years ago. More portals.

I get a chance to re-visit Aosta’s prettiest spot, a silent cloister whose roof weighs heavy under thick tiles of grey Valpelline slate. Its carved columns are a product of 12th-century craftsmanship. Built to last, evidently.

Unlike my portals. Twenty-four hours later, Aosta is bright green again.

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