World War I Walks in the Dolomites

28 July 2016

There are many hidden gems in amongst the valleys, peaks and higher passes of the Dolomites. At the Valparola Pass long hairpin bends knit together winding roads that climb high above the towns and villages with ever improving views and once at the top the horizon spills out towards the Marmolada, the Dolomites’ highest peak. It is the destination of choice for many cyclists looking to test their legs, flower enthusiasts in search of picturesque rock gardens and historians with in interest in the Dolomites’ WW1 involvement. Many visitors to the area don’t realise the part the Dolomites played in the First World War but there are clues of mountain warfare all around when you start to look.

Italy joined the war in 1915 when the South Tyrol was promised to them by the allies. The Italians were hoping to regain territories that had once been theirs in times of the Roman Empire and the South Tyrol (which had since become part of Austria-Hungary) was sitting right on their border making it an obvious target. The allies recognised that an attack from the Italians in the South would help to stretch Austrian forces that were already fighting on other borders. It was very much a tactical decision on the behalf of the Allies.

What would have been a relatively straight forward success if the Italians had moved in straight away became a long war of attrition as they were slow to attack and the Austrians had time to dig themselves into trenches and tunnels. Lasting around two years little land was gained or lost and many lives were taken in the cold of winter. Collapsing ice and avalanche were just as much a problem as the enemy side. Tunnels were dug deep into the heart of the Dolomites rocks and glaciers and via ferrata routes were constructed to help transport ammunition and supplies up the unforgiving mountain faces. Bombing reshaped the peaks and hillsides and those scars are still visible now.

Valparola is a great start point if you are in search of battlements and fortifications as it is home to a museum housed in an authentic fort, views of Lagazuoi cable car which summits what was the head of the Austrian front and neighbours the Falzarego pass –one of the sites of the fiercest fighting. There is convenient (and free) parking next to the museum, overlooking Valparola Lake. The museum itself is worth a visit with a wealth of artefacts on show and an accompanying open air exhibit on the slopes below where there are preserved fortifications. It’s also worth keeping an eye on the surrounding rock faces where little windows in the walls give a clue to the tunnels within –these are also well worth an explore although head torches and helmets are recommended.

If it’s the tunnels that you’re most interested in then Lagazoui is the place to visit. Just a further five minute drive from the top of Valparola is the Lagazoui carpark where the impressive cable car sweeps high off the ground up to the top of the mountains sheer face. The lift runs regularly and is the quick and easy way to reach expansive views, a great refugio and the Hidden Valley (also a popular ski route in winter). The mountain can be climbed another way however, inside a network of tunnels dug out by the Italians and Austrians. Long, steep passages intertwine inside Lagazoui, every so often breaking through the walls letting in the light and increasingly beautiful views. Caverns are littered with debris and wooden frames, machine gun posts and patches of snow in the early season. They are cold inside even in midsummer which can only hint at how cold it must’ve been for the men in midwinter. The tunnels can be walked in either direction, up and/or down. Personally I preferred walking up and enjoying the lift down –less chance of bumping heads on the low ceilings.

Many of the organised walks we run here meander in amongst evidence of the mountain warfare and later in summer WW1 tours are run especially to explore the history of the area. The Lagazoui is one of these routes, as is a tour of the Italian front around Cinque Torri and Nuvalou. The Col di Lana and Setsass round walks are also popular and begin at the same point above Valparola lake descending past the abandoned fortifications to join a long undulating path below the face of Setsass. With steep cliffs above on your right and views of Col di Lana to your left this is a great place to spot marmots and you’ll almost certainly hear their high-pitched squeaks nearby. The path leads to the far end of the cliffs and splits. The left hand path branches towards the spine of Col di Lana and sinks into shoulder-height trenches that climb to a series of summits joined together by more tunnels and a ridge bearing the scars of an enormous explosion that removed part of the mountain during WW1.

The right-hand path continues to skirt around Setsass and eventually reveals views of the Alta Badia with the Sella Massif and Puez Odle peaks striking out a recognisable skyline. The slopes and cliffs of Setsass are home to many rock garden flowers, more marmots and chamois. Watch out for rock fall from above as the Chamois are known to scale the near vertical face and can dislodge stones. As the cliffs shrink down the back of the mountain comes into view and is in contrast a sweeping slope plated with limestone pavement. It is crowned by seven peaks, which is how it finds its name and a further 45 minute walk will take you to the top of the highest, middle peak. Once reached it is necessary to retrace your steps, off of the ridge so that the circular route can be re-joined. Here the path makes its way through forest, miniature limestone canyons and more fortifications before meeting the lake once again.

It is an area rich in wildlife as well as history and serves as an example of how nature can reclaim a scarred landscape. That said the signs of mountain fighting are still clear to see and serve as a plain reminder of a world at war. A visit to the Valparola and Falzarego passes come highly recommended on a visit with us in summer or winter.

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