While the Dolomites aren’t Italy’s highest mountains, they definitely take the prize for the most stunning. Glass lakes mirror the skies and seemingly flat-topped massifs rise like giant, tiered wedding cakes from flawlessly manicured green slopes.
With a deep romanticism that floods the pinnacles and peaks with glowing pink at sunset, it’s hard to imagine a time when harsh war and scraping survival settled into this impressive mountain range. But war scars are evident everywhere, if only you take the time to look.
The area around Corvara is littered with bomb shells and bullets, yawning trenches and crumbled artillery bases. Although the Great War didn’t last for a long time in this part of Europe, it’s effects are deep on both the landscape and culture.
Lagazuoi, a towering rock of a mountain at the top of Passo Falzerago, was hollowed out to house the Italian artillery during the First World War. This two and a half hour hike through the heart of a mountain is a chilling insight into life during those years. Even in the middle of summer, a strong head torch and thick winter layers are needed to keep the damp and cold at bay.
The 3km of tunnels have been restored to immaculate condition and they are both high and wide enough for a man well over 6ft to stand up straight, arms out stretched without touching a single wall. The dark labyrinth was made quickly and efficiently, and not only housed snipers and artillery, but men too. On the many ledges that lead you to peer out and over the edge, it’s so blindingly obvious what an advantage the Italians had here, it’ll bring an eerie silence to your group.
Reaching the top of the Lagazuoi Tunnels is a relief from the dripping claustrophobia and rewards you with one of the cosiest refugios in the area. Here, you can enjoy some local, hearty grub and look at to Col di Lana and the glowing white glacier of the Marmolada behind.
Heading to the start of a hike up the Col di Lana, a mountain that defends Lagazuoi from the ice-cold winds of the region’s only glacier, it’s obvious that this was once a scene of persistent heavy fighting. Walking up the exposed western ridge takes you through head-height trenches and by blocked off, pitch black tunnels that were dug into the mountain almost 100 years ago.
These tunnels on Col di Lana were constructed in early 1916 by the Italians to place a mine under the Austrian positions. On April 17th of the same year, this mine exploded, knocking the top off Col di Lana and killing 120 Austrians and even more Italians. Consequently, the losses on this mountain were so heavy that the troops renamed it the Col di Sangue; the Mountain of blood.
Standing on the lonely summit of Col di Lana after the long and difficult hike to the top, you can see for miles in every direction without even glancing a thought at the First World War. And it’s easy to see why, there’s a cozy hut up there where walkers can settle in for the night if they reach the summit and a chapel that shelters ramblers from the wind whilst having their lunch.
The glacier of the Marmolada’s north face is a view that dominates this hike up the Col di Lana and at 3342m AMSL, it’s the Dolomite’s highest mountain. It has all the characteristics of a high mountain – from blizzards, high winds and dense fog to deep crevasses, avalanches and scree. It was also home to a 12km network of underground tunnels which connected five clusters of buildings, all with their own electricity generators, kitchens and barracks.
John Scanlon, a WWI enthusiast who hosts guided history walks in the Dolomites during the summer said, “unfortunately, the City of Ice did not provide protection from avalanche and ice slip. In Dec 1916 one base avalanche buried over 300 men in one of the barrack complexes. In the days following this event, it is estimated that over 10, 000 men lost their lives in a series of avalanches.”
In the summer, glacier walks, via ferrata and even summer skiing can be organised on the Marmolada. However, it’s not rare for a body to appear from the frozen mountain from time to time.
Heading back down into the villages, snug between the peaks, the culture and lifestyle of the South Tyrol is starkly different to the rest of Italy. This area of the country found itself pushed and shoved between countries and treaties like a game of tug of war. From 1915, South Tyrol split – it was given to Italy and then a few years later had it’s native German language banned and German families transferred to German-ruled territories such as Austria. In 1943, it was then occupied by Germany again before going back to Italian ownership at the end of the Nazi regime.
This has resulted in a separate culture from anywhere else and an area that mostly governs itself. You’ll find three local languages here: German, Ladin and Italian. The food is loaded with carbs and thick, heart warming meats – the perfect meal to end any day hiking through history.