Travel: Walking the mountains on the front line - a virtuous legacy

MPMC - travel feature
MPMC - travel feature

“With the men conscripted to fight on the Russian front, the women and children were moved to refugee camps when our villages came under attack,” explained Signora Marie Canepple through our Ramblers Holiday leader and interpreter Karen Groenewald as we sat drinking coffee in the old lady’s cafe, writes Alan Wooding.

“When they returned after the fighting ended, most found their houses in ruins. They identified where they’d lived and were given a grant by the new Italian government to rebuild their homes and their lives,” she added.

MPMC Travel feature

MPMC Travel feature

Marie lives in Cappella, one of the pretty mountain villages we passed through on our way to visit Forte Belvedere, one of seven Austro-Hungarian fortifications in the Lavarone region of Altopiano Trentino.

There has been a big increase in 2014 of organised holidays linking special events or historical occasions and I recently had the chance to explore the former border between Austria and Italy which, back in 1915, finally brought the Italians into the First World War.

In Britain and across most of northern Europe, 2014 has marked the War to end all Wars centenary, yet for many villages high up on the Altopiano Trentino plateau, they are preparing to commemorate their centenary in 12 months time.

Welwyn-based Ramblers Worldwide Holidays has already introduced a moving and memorable adventure along what was once the brutal war’s front line, with walkers paying visits to various forts and sites of historical interest in a region where families came into conflict with one another if they lived on either side of the border.

MPMC Travel feature

MPMC Travel feature

With the towering Alpine peaks to the north and the Po River valley to the south, the Altopiano Trentino region sits between them and it is relatively unknown outside Italy as a summer holiday destination as it traditionally welcomes skiers and snow-borders during the winter months.

Back in 1914, the town of Trento was part of the old Austro-Hungarian Empire but there had been a considerable strength of feeling in the Italian-speaking community that the territory should be part of Italy.

An agreement had been reached between the Kingdom of Italy and Austria as part of a Triple Alliance, Italy stating that it would only enter the war for defensive reasons. However with the conflict raging across parts Europe, Italy was finally drawn in as an ally of the British in 1915 – it became known the ‘Triple Entente’ – and it officially declared war on Austria, its neighbour and former ally.

That action also posed a huge dilemma to the whole Trentino population as it forced its citizens to choose sides, either being loyal to the Austro-Hungarian Emperor or to the Italian nation … and that dilemma caused long reaching deep divides.

During August 1914, around 60,000 men from the Austrian-ruled Altopiano Trentino area had been conscripted and sent to fight on the Russian front as they were still officially Austro-Hungarian citizens. However by May 1915 when Italy entered the conflict, it left cousins fighting cousins and it marked a tumultuous time in the region’s history.

The First World War certainly left its mark on both the land and its people with almost one in six soldiers dying in battle. Meanwhile some 100,000 women and children became displaced and fled from their war-torn homeland to destinations as far afield as Moravia and Bohemia, many more crossing into Austria where they were often forced to work.

Trenches were excavated while tunnels also had to be carved or blasted through the rugged mountain ranges to enable supplies to reach the front lines, the freezing winter weather making conditions unbelievably harsh as soldiers from both sides battled against nature as well as the enemy.

In a single day more than 10,000 soldiers from the two sides died as an avalanche sent them crashing from their mountain top lairs to their deaths thousands of feet below. The Italians still refer to it as ‘La Guerra Bianca’ – The White War.

For three years the conflict raged on among the glaciers and snowfields in some of the most inhospitable conditions imaginable, almost as many men perishing from the freezing temperatures as from the opposition’s constant bombardment.

Now almost a century on, the whole Trentino area is to become a huge Remembrance Park with countless testimonies to the conflict; its forts, trenches and military cemeteries already being open and waiting to welcome visitors.

This summer Ramblers Worldwide Holidays has been arranging ‘Trentino Highlands’ walking breaks based around the pretty town of Chiesa in the Lavarone region of Altopiano Trentino.

I flew to Italy with British Airways from London Gatwick into Verona’s Valerio Catullo Airport – it’s also known as Verona Villafranca – which takes a little over 90 minutes, about the same time as the coach transfer to Chiesa.

However as there was a big triathlon event taking place in the area as we neared our destination, we found several roads closed off so our coach driver had to make a small detour.

En route we had passed through the town of Rovereto where what is said to be the world’s largest bell rings out 100 times every day of the year at 9pm. It’s in memory of the 20,000 men buried on nearby Miravalle Hill. It’s called the ‘Peace Bell’ as it was cast from melted munitions found lying around the area.

Boasting more UNESCO World Heritage Sites than any other country, Italy is also the world’s biggest producer of wine. And that was no real surprise as we passed mile upon mile of grapevines and almost as many apple orchards growing on terraces rising up from the banks of the glacier-fed Adige River.

Meanwhile on top of the steep mountains that line the Adige Valley, there are said to be more than 200 forts and castles, many of which have now fallen into disrepair.

Accompanied by my wife, I spent seven nights at the impressive four-star Grand Hotel Astoria in Chiesa. At around 4,000 feet above sea level, it’s an imposing 63-bedroomed hotel fronted by a pretty town square and church while the classy establishment’s rear facing bedrooms and balconies have panoramic views over Lago di Lavarone, a large fish-filled lake located hundreds of feet below in a deep green valley.

Under the guidance of jovial manager Flavio, the hotel offers guests plenty of activities or they can simply relax in a superb free wellness centre which features a sauna, solarium, whirlpool, a vapour room plus a lovely indoor swimming pool and well equipped gymnasium.

There’s also a billiards and games room and a special meeting room while the hotel’s restaurant offers guests a selection of excellent Trentino specialities. Besides that, there’s always a huge selection of local and international cuisine featuring a grand buffet of starters and vegetables with which to accompany the main course.

At one end of the long comfortable lounge area, there is a highly-decorated grand piano which former Beatle John Lennon is said to have played when he visited the Astoria back in the 1970s.

The guest bedrooms are in harmony with the hotel’s surroundings, each offering modern amenities, telephone, bathrooms with shower/bathtub and hairdryer, a safe plus a satellite plasma TV… but remember to take your own tea, coffee and a travel kettle as they’re not provided.

Under the leadership of Ramblers Worldwide Holidays’ experienced guides Fred Groenewald and his wife Karen, we began our week of walking with a gentle stroll around Lake Lavarone, taking coffee and cakes at the nearby Hotel du Lac where many years ago Czech-born doctor and psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud used to holiday.

However the following day was a real tester after we took the local Trentino bus up to the nearby village of San Sebastiano. Having been given special Trentino ‘Guest Cards’ by the hotel – they usually cost €€40 each – it meant that travelling anywhere by bus or being admitted to places of interest in the region were covered.

With a total of 30 Ramblers guests split into two groups to take part in the holiday’s D/D+ and C grade walking categories, we made our ascent to Forte Cherle and its three Howitzer gun emplacements, the fort being one of the seven fortifications built by the Austro-Hungarians several years before the conflict.

Passing through large pine forests and lush meadows, we picnicked at the fort on a steep escarpment with views across the whole Trentino region, before making our descent to the village of Carbonare and then walking back to our hotel in Chiesa for a total of 9.23 miles.

“We do that walk first just to see how well you can cope,” said Karen, whose South African husband Fred took his more experienced walking party on a far steeper and more energetic route… and they seemed to cover an extra three miles or so in exactly the same time!

The following day’s walk to Forte Belvedere was more relaxed as we stopped off at the tourist office in Gionghi, the biggest town in the Lavarone region. It was then on to Cappella where we learned more about the First World War from cafe owner Signore Canepple who recalled stories that her own parents had passed down to her.

She said the captured Austrian soldiers has been well treated by the Russians although she then became a little confused, for as a young girl she can still remember the Second World War.

Through Karen’s interpretation she said that many of area’s refugees, who suddenly found themselves on the front line, were taken to the Austria town of Braunau am Inn – ironically the birthplace of Adolf Hitler! – where they learned new skills, among them sewing and basket making, which enabled them to earn some money before they returned to their villages several years later.

Marie also spoke of a new town, Villanova, which was constructed nearby immediately after the 1918 ceasefire. A local builder had taken charge as he knew exactly how much material it would take to build a new house… so that’s why many almost looked the same!

Forte Belvedere, or ‘Werk Gschwent’ to give it its Cymbrian name, was built between 1908 and 1912 and is the only one of the seven Austro-Hungarian forts which is still complete today. Saved from destruction thanks to a royal decree from King Vittorio Emanuele III, it is now a fascinating modern museum with descriptions, audio and video clips narrated in Italian, German and English.

From its roof – which was reinforced with almost three metres of solid concrete and steel beams to withstand the harshest bombardment from the Italian military – there are magnificent views across the steep Velo d’Astico valley all the way across to Forte Cherle while we also got a sighting of the rugged Brenta Dolomite mountains in the far distance.

The Forte Belvedere Museum is open year round and offers guided tours of its many rooms and passageways while with a glint in her eye, Marie began laughing as she told us: “Belvedere isn’t quite complete as a steel lintel from the fort is holding up the dividing wall in my cafe!”

Walking back through flower-rich meadows and the villages of Oseli, Piccoli and Ricchetti, we popped into Museo Del Miele (the Honey Museum) where we learned about the area’s many beehives and its honey production.

We also passed between rows of upturned stones known as Cymbrian markers. The stones denote the edges of ancient footpaths and are obviously handy when the area is covered in snow. Incidentally, the day’s total distance was a more leisurely 8.91 miles!

The Cymbra (or Cimbra) language has its roots in German and is still in use today in the small mountainous region of Luserna which is occupied by around 300 inhabitants. Once commonly spoken, Cymbrian is now really only used in that particular region of Italy.

Anyone familiar with the musical film ‘The Sound of Music’ will know the family name Von Trapp and, following a short bus ride to the town of Folgaria, we made a steep 2,500 foot descent and a slight incline to Castel Beseno, once owned by the musical family’s ancestors.

The largest fortified castle in the whole Trentino region, Beseno was owned by the Von Trapps as far back as 1470 while a big fire in 1515 meant that only part of it remained habitable.

However the family decided to leave in 1794 supposedly for Salzburg, after which the castle fell into ruin only to be reclaimed by the local Trento government in 1932. They rebuilt much of the castle and finally opened it to the public in 1988, its impressive ramparts giving visitors magnificent views right across the Adige Valley some 1,000 feet below while you can almost see as far as Trento and to far off Bolzano, the destination we chose for our ‘day off’.

Many readers may still remember the discovery of ‘Ötzi the Iceman’ back in September 1991 by two hikers. They had managed to get themselves lost in the Ötztal Alps on the Austrian/Italian border when they found what they thought was a dead skier at the edge of a melting glacier.

But what they found turned out to be the oldest well-preserved European dating back to the Stone Age. He was nicknamed Ötzi and became the focus overnight of the world’s media.

For more than 5,300 years, Ötzi had remained undiscovered under the ice and today he is kept in a special refrigerated room and can be viewed through a small window at his final resting place in Bolzano’s South Tyrol Museum. The museum also has on display Ötzi’s clothing and weapons.

In fact Ötzi’s discovery and the aftermath of the find threw historians into a frenzy as they soon discovered that their Bronze Age estimates were out by well over 1,000 years!

We reached the museum from Chiesa by local bus which left from outside our hotel at 6.30 in the morning and arrived in Trento from where we caught one of the frequent trains to Bolzano.

The South Tyrol Museum entry fee is €9 and with so much on display, it was well worth getting up early to see Ötzi and to enjoy a day in what is a fabulous vibrant and cosmopolitan German speaking city.

An excellent evening talk back at the Grand Hotel Astoria about the First World War forts by Fernando Larcher from the area’s tourist board was well received. He spoke of the 4,600 inhabitants of the high plateau communities of Folgaria, Lavarone and Luserna while we also learned more of the Cymbrian language and its heritage.

Fernando also explained why six of the seven Austro-Hungarian forts had been stripped of metal (only Belvedere was saved), while he estimated the casualties figures in the region following two World Wars had numbered almost 80,000.

The highlight of our walking holiday came on the Friday as we headed for what is called The Museum Route – the ‘Strada Delle 52 Gallerie’. It’s a showpiece seven mile climb along a rocky path passing through a series of 52 military tunnels cut or blasted through the limestone mountain range know as Monte Pasubio.

And it certainly isn’t a walk for the faint-hearted for we had to negotiate steep narrow paths up slippery slopes with drops of several thousand feet just inches away from our feet.

The tunnels themselves are of varying length, the longest at more than 300 metres while we often walked in almost total darkness. It meant head torches and walking poles were the order of the day!

To say it was spectacular is an understatement, but the atrocities of war and the terrible suffering the men had to endure beggars belief. Many died while blasting the tunnels and creating the mountain pathways – but just how they managed to haul so much heavy equipment up there in the harsh winter conditions remains a feat of extreme ingenuity.

There are many stories about the 52 tunnels, all of which have names and numbers. Many celebrate the Italian commanders and generals who helped oversee their construction but one in particular stands out and that’s the heart-breaking story of Cesare Battisti who was to become an Italian national hero. His name is of found above the 31-metre long number four tunnel.

Born in Trento, which was then part of Austria, Cesare ended up fighting for the Italians as he believed his birthright was really to be part of Italy... and like the rest of the region, he spoke Italian.

However having been captured by the Austrians and held as a prisoner-of-war, unlike the other Italian prisoners, Cesare was cruelly executed, not by the traditional firing squad or by hanging, but instead he was literally throttled by strangulation, possibly garrotte-style.

To this day many think that Cesare was actually handed over to the Austrians by the Italians as he had strong Communist beliefs which were frowned upon by many of the royalist generals who supported the king.

Moving on, tunnel 19 is named after Italian King Vittorio Emanuele III. It spirals upwards a total of 318 metres while back in 1918 the Italian monarch was said to have walked the length of ‘his’ tunnel.

The final two tunnels both take you on a downward spiral, but they are both extremely slippery. However once you reach the end of the trail through a metal gateway, you immediately come across a row of picnic tables with a hotel and restaurant close by. It’s really quite a challenge, even for the serious walkers while for us, we were just glad to reach the end still in one piece.

Even then our final day saw us undertake another nine mile walk, this time to the summit of Cima Manderido at 6,725 feet, the highest peak in the area, as we passed from Altopiano Trentino into the Italian Veneto (Venetian) region.

We actually climbed two big peaks, saw several front line trenches, visited two Italian forts – Forte Cima Vezzena and Forte Busa Vertle – while negotiating some very slippery downward slopes through a pine forest as we headed back through rich pastureland, the home to dozens of furry marmots.

Unfortunately the black bears that roam the fields and woodlands of the high Italian pasture stayed well hidden while sadly low cloud blocked our view of Marmolada, at 10,965 feet Italy’s highest mountain.

Meanwhile our visit in early September meant that many of the area’s most beautiful meadow plants had already disappeared. The fauna and flora of the region is best enjoyed during June and July while it is said that it’s easy to find more than 25 species of orchid alongside simply dozens of other specimens.

However we did see the rare Devil’s Claw clinging to a rock face while our plant expert pointed out a selection of colourful thistles and half hidden colourful meadow plants together with numerous types of fungi.

Had we had time, then perhaps a day spent in Verona or Lake Garda would have been an option – anyone staying for two weeks could easily do it – but as we had arranged to walk around what is still a relatively undiscovered region of Italy, our time in Altopiano Trentino simply ran out.

All in all it was a very memorable week, the saddest part being that even today several families who lived on either side of pre-First World War border are still divided in their loyalties. Hopefully the planned commemorations in 2015 will finally reunite them.

FACT FILE – ALTOPIANO TRENTINO

Many thanks to Tony Maniscalco and all at Ramblers Worldwide Holidays – www.ramblersholidays.co.uk – of Lemsford Mill, Lemsford Village, Welwyn Garden City, AL8 7TR and especially to walking leaders Fred and Karen Groenewald.

We flew from London Gatwick into Verona’s Valerio Catullo Airport with British Airways and stayed at the Grand Hotel Astoria, Piazza Italia, 1 Località, Chiesa 38030 Lavarone, Trento, Italy – www.chincherini.com.

>> For 2015, Ramblers Worldwide Holidays has provisionally arranged a series of both seven- and 14-day holidays to the Trentino Highlands region between 28 June and 13 September. And through its own charitable trust, unlike most tour operators, all profits get channelled back into a variety of outdoor, walking-related or environmental conservation projects in the UK, the trustees keen to help people gain a greater knowledge, love and care of the countryside.