You have to do a bit of climbing to get to these trenches. They happen to be Italian trenches in the photo on the left, but on the other side of the Piave Valley there are similar Austrian ditches, scraped out of the rock and peat on the hillsides of these Dolomite peaks. This is the setting of Hemingway's "A Farewell to Arms."
Take your worst mental image of trench warfare – with its mud, cold, vermin, and high explosives – and then transpose it to the top of a 6,000 foot mountain during several winters. That’s the World War I recollection of people in this Italo-Germanic corner of the Alps. Check out the official site of what has to be one of the most spectacular open-air museums dedicated to the First World War, that of Lagazuoi and the 5 Torri.
Our hiking group - formed ad-hoc by Charlie Tessari (photo below right, looking at the formerly Austrian-held positions), wintertime ski instructor, spring and summer hill walking guide, and author of a book with some of the most beautiful photos of this region - is mostly Italian, and of all ages. We and a family of Slovaks form the Anglophone contingent, and we get abridged versions of Charlie's explanations of the flora, fauna, and geology of this unique mountain region. The Slovaks know of the Piave Valley; their grandfathers fought here when Slovakia was a province of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. They grew up hearing songs of the Piave, and of their grandfathers' long-defunct multinational country.
Nowadays they can drive a few hundred kilometers across Austria and visit the battlefields as tourists. Slovakia, which has gone through several national mutations in the 90 years since the Austro-Hungarian Hapsburgs waved goodbye to the world scene, is now a part of NATO, of the European Union, and will soon spend Euros just like their former Italian enemies.
Paul Hoffman, former New York Times correspondent and author of “The Sunny Side of the Alps” (a gift from an old friend who knew exactly what we’d appreciate on this trip), writes about this former Austrian region from personal experience. He married a local girl from the Sud Tyrol (the Italian Alto Adige) in the inter war years, and witnessed first hand the excesses of Fascist nationalism, where the Germanic names on gravestones were Italianized – even the dead weren’t allowed to keep their identity.
World War II and the fall of Fascism led to a mellowing of the nationalism up here, and now signs are bilingual, and there’s a relaxed approach to language. This year, the 90th anniversary of the end of the First World War is being marked along the old mountain battlefields by a series of concerts, multinational hikes and climbs, and various other events. Europe might be confused over which direction it should take after recent reverses, but there is one avenue that is no longer an option: war. Make tourism, not artillery duels. That booming across the valleys these days is summertime thunder, not high explosive.
There's probably no better place in Europe than the peacefully spectacular Dolomites to contemplate the ultimate stupidity of war.