Upon experiencing Italy's Dolomites, you quickly realize that you are not only beholding fabulous nature, glorious and challenging peaks and rich woods. You are also treading on the remains of a battlefield.
Much of WWI was fought in trenches along the stretch of mountains that divide today's Italy and Austria. Those two nations had thousands of soldiers living inside the mountain for years, defending their territory. They built networks of tunnels and trenches through the rock. To see part of the Italian side, take the Sentiero degli Alpini on the peak, Lagazuoi, which opens onto the Cengia Martini, a continuation of the national frontline. For an Austrain view, there is Sentiero dei Kaiserjaeger in the same area. This trail offers unusual panoramic views of the landscape and a piece where hikers traverse a suspended bridge to finish along the Vonbank trenches. Both hikes can be reached starting from the Passo Falzarego road leading to Cortina.
Today, along the open trails, you can still find barbed wire laying in heaps from a century ago. Some hikes now take you through the old tunnels where soldiers had to live, eat and sleep in a desperately cold climate. Imagine, the Italian government did not have enough money to buy socks for its soldiers so most of them stuffed their boots with grass or hay to keep their feet buffered and warm.
Passo del Valparola, an open air museum of restored trenches and buildings brings visitors back to a time of war. Now everything looks pristine. You have to remember that hundreds of men were sharing this confined space with their shared dirt, sweat, grime, terror and hunger.
The Austrains camouflaged their buildings by keeping them low to the ground, almost completely submerged, and covering the roofs with gravel so the enemy could not easily distinguish the man-made areas from the natural ones.
Also in this part of the Dolomites, Col di Lana was blown apart with massive amounts of explosives in an Italian offensive to finally disrupted the Austrian stonghold in the area. The mountain stands as an open wound, still today.
Further away, the Adamello glacier in Trentino periodically turns up entire dead bodies from WWI as the ice shifts, delivering pieces of history to the surface. Can you picture being the hiker who happens to find a dead soldier's refrigerated body along his path on a beautiful July day?
It's so hard for Americans to understand the depths of war fought on our own soil within living memory. We had Pearl Harbor and more recently September 11th, 2001 and its attack of the Twin Towers but in the end, only a few thousand people died from those militant actions. We have no real idea what it is like to lose everything: buildings, land, entire male populations of certain villages. The Dolomites are a reminder of a darker part of history even when they are at their most glorious.
A museum area which is also worth a visit to see life-size models of soldiers in context:
Il Museo all'aperto della Grande Guerra sul Piccolo Lagazuoi
Open Air Museum of the Great War on the Small Lagazuoi
A "living room" for soldiers carved inside the mountain
Image from Associazione Nazionale Alpini (National Alpini Association)