Dolomites: The dark history of one of the most beautiful hiking spots in Europe
If trees could talk, what would this one say? That was the thought that crossed my mind as I stopped for a swig of water on my way up towards Paternkofel – the Italian mountain with the Austrian-sounding name. Leaning against its sturdy trunk, I'd suddenly noticed the deep pockmarks that scarred the textured bark. "Bullet holes," said my guide, Iris, reading my mind. "You'll find them on most of the trees here if you look closely."
And sure enough, I did. At first glance, they appeared like chunks carved out of the wood by a rebellious teenager with a penknife; the thought that they were the result of gunfire cast a whole new light on this otherwise peaceful scene. Even more so when I realised they probably weren't aiming for the tree – but another human being.
Less than a century ago, this area belonged to Austria (hence the incongruous place names). Then the Italians attempted to wrest it from their neighbours. The result was that this section of the Dolomites became the setting for some of the most ferocious fighting of the First World War.
The mountainsides around here are still littered with the leftovers of war – in the form of barbed wire and bullet casings, and even the odd bit of period furniture. Every year, walkers stumble across macabre bric-a-brac in the woods, testament to lives tragically lost. Nevertheless, despite its dark history, this area of South Tyrol is probably one of the most beautiful hiking spots in Europe. But the biggest surprise is that hardly any British tourists seem to know about it.
I've been coming to this part of northern Italy for several years now, and am frequently amazed by the absence of spoken English. Every summer, the hiking trails of France and Switzerland are clogged with walkers on a mission to be alone with nature, yet I always feel that I have a whole mountain to myself here.
Located right at the top of the country, close to the Austrian border, the Dolomites are steeper and craggier than the Alps – and arguably more spectacular. The peaks that everyone wants to see are the "Drei Zinnen", the "three towers", which stand ominously apart from their neighbours, jutting into the sky on a plinth of grey scree. At just under 3,000m in height, they're by no means the tallest peaks in the region. However, as they offer the most technically demanding routes to the top, they're the summits that most climbers want to conquer. I'm always happy to admire them from afar.
Further up the trail, the pock-marked trees disappeared to be replaced by shards of limestone that littered the ground. It all looked rather barren – and yet, tucked high up, in the shadow of the surrounding rock faces, I saw the mountain lodge that was to mark my mid-afternoon rest-stop.
At an altitude of 2,405m, Dreizinnenhütte is one of several café-cum-restaurants stashed away on the high mountain path that leads from the town of Sexten up to the foot of the Drei Zinnen themselves.
After meeting at my hotel, Iris and I had dumped the car at the foot of the path and made our way up into the back country with nothing but a bottle of water and a few euros for lunch.
While I'm in favour of doing the outdoors thing properly, it was liberating not having to lug a huge backpack about. The trail we followed – number 102 – was one of many that span the high mountains in the region, all of them marked on tourist board maps that also offer ready-made itineraries. Our route led straight from the car park up into the lower, wooded slopes of the Altensteintal Valley, which is where I got my first glimpse of the ghoulish secrets that are hidden in the trees.
The journey takes between four and five hours, but I couldn't help dawdling. I was fascinated. As sheltered woodland path turned to exposed rocky trail, I began to grasp how tough it must have been for the soldiers all those years ago. For more than three years, hundreds of thousands of Italians and Austrians clung to the rocky peaks surrounding the Drei Zinnen and attempted to blow each other off the mountains in a bid to gain territory. The most that either side moved was a few kilometres backwards or forwards; the cost was 689,000 lives on the Italian side alone.
Both armies hauled huge pieces of artillery equipment up the mountains and built barracks on the summits to house the troops – many of whom died of hypothermia or avalanches before the snipers could get them.
We finally arrived at the Dreizinnenhütte almost two hours after leaving the car park. During the summer, you can stay here overnight, with basic but comfy bunk beds for 140 people and meals available in the restaurant. For Iris and me, however, it was merely a coffee break. After another two hours' strenuous walk past petrol-blue, high-altitude lakes and man-made caves dating back to the Great War, we arrived at our final destination, the Büllelejochhütte.
This tiny lodge is hidden away in a cranny close to the edge of a precipitous valley. Here, the Rogger family cooks up a storm for the battalions of ravenous walkers who rock up each day.
In typical South Tyrolean style, there's no ceremony involved. You simply grab a pew, place your order and a waitress brings over a bowl of piping hot home-cooked stodge.
Before I knew it, there was a glass of grappa on its way, too, courtesy of the owner's wife, Gretti. It was enough to ensure sweet dreams as I bedded down for the night in one of 13 bunks reserved for backpackers. And certainly a far more comfortable existence than that reserved for those scattered armies, nearly a century ago.
Dormitory Beds are available in the Büllelejochhütte (0039 337 451517; rogger.info) for €44 per night, including breakfast and evening meal; €20 room only. For information, walking itineraries and maps on the Alta Pusteria region of South Tyrol, see suedtirol.info
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