I am writing about the Dolomites, and specifically a region known as Südtirol or Alto Adige. This is an autonomous province within Italy, and is different in many ways from other parts of Italy. This post is not about Italy as a whole. The history of the Südtirol, like many sections of the Alps, is complex and more than worthy of its own post. If you were wondering about the intricacies of life in Europe’s most famous mountains, this is the place for you.
Welcome to the Alto Adige/Südtirol!
Welcome to the part of Italy where most people actually speak German, and almost all of the road signs are legally required to be written in both Italian and German. For the sake of brevity, I will be referring to the region as Südtirol, but be aware that Alto Adige refers to the same area. There's actually even more than two languages in the Sudtirol - when I crossed from Völs am Schlern to Selva, which took me over several high mountain passes, I passed through a region whose primary dialect is Ladin, which is more similar to Latin than anything else.
The Sudtirol, like the many other places in the Alps, is full of regional dialects, including Ladin, Mòcheno, and Cimbrian, which I doubt anyone reading this blog has heard. It’s a wonderful reminder of just how complex living in mountains can be; relative isolation often results in fascinating local dialects spoken by three or four villages. The Himalayas are very similar in this regard – there’s almost 70 different cultural groups, and as many different languages.
A Long and Storied History
The Südtirol has a long and storied history as part of the Holy Roman Empire beginning in the 8th century and sticking with it for its later incarnations, the Austrian Empire and Austria-Hungary, before becoming part of Italy rather recently in its tenure as a province. People settled here long before the written record, likely due to the Dolomite's abundance of fresh water, fertile soil, and isolation from invasion and warfare. Local dialects like Ladin descended from what is known in linguistics as “dirty Latin,” spoken by common folk outside Rome at the turn of the millennium and not written down until after the Roman Empire’s fall. It’s the closest thing to a direct descendant of Latin that we have today, and a reminder of how long people have lived and thrived in the Dolomites.
Beginning in my train ride from Venice, I knew I was traveling through countryside that was incredibly old. But (bear with me here) it was a different kind of old from my train rides through Norway and Sweden. In Scandinavia, I was made aware of how small I was by the untouched quality of the nature all around me. Humans had lived in these places for centuries, and yet the mountains and forests had refused to bend to their will – it was thrilling and intimidating at the same time. In the Sudtirol, the opposite was true. People have lived in the Dolomites since ancient times - there are records of villages submitting to the Romans when Rome was still a Republic. Some mornings I looked outside my window and saw a fifteenth century church, with a thirteenth-century church off in the distance. Other mornings I watched cows meander through the same streets as Ferraris driven by rich tourists. People have lived in the Sudtirol for long that all the streets are narrow and almost everything is a historical artifact.
The Hut System
The hut tradition, which is a staple of hiking in the Alps, goes back more than 150 years. While the magnitude of trails crisscrossing the Dolomites were once animal herding and trading trails, today an established trail maintenance corps extensively oversees the Südtirol trail system (unlike the very casual Norwegian hiking system). For those unfamiliar with the hut system the Alps has the most advanced system of huts and shelters in the world, where rooms are available for hikers to stay – though typically without a shower and typically rooms are shared between four to sixteen people. Huts dot the mountain passes of the Alps, including the Dolomites. They typically offer basic food and a place to sleep for the hikers who either don’t have camping gear or don’t want to camp (though in some places camping is illegal as well, so be careful).
While huts have a reputation of being rough and rustic, the passes of the Dolomites are so accessible that the huts are typically very well supplied. They’re also a classic part of traveling in the Alps and the Dolomites in particular. If you’re outdoors-oriented, I seriously suggest checking them out. Because they also offer food, it’s a great way to sample very local food and talk to people working there about what life is like for them (just make sure to be polite about it and don’t bug them while they’re on the clock). You can also meet tons of friendly European hikers! The hut system is popular for many reasons, but definitely because it puts like-minded people, who can be from a multitude of countries, in a shared space where they can be enthusiastic with one another.
The Dolomites in World War I
Our history lesson will now take a turn for the sobering. In the US, it seems like we rarely discuss World War I. And when we do, we mostly discuss the US’s role in it – the fourth-quarter savior and preventer of further bloodshed. At least, this is what I was taught in school, even though the reality is far more complex and bloody than that.
When I first arrived in the Südtirol I was concerned because while my German is passable I’ve let my Italian lapse, and I didn’t think many people would actually speak German despite what I’d heard from my hiking buddies. The opposite was true, actually; most people I talked to spoke German as their default until I got to the more Italian area of Cortina. It was a huge benefit for me, but it made me realize how odd it was to be technically in Italy and have it feel much more like Switzerland or Austria. It didn’t take me long to realize that this odd feeling was because the Südtirol was a very recent Italian acquisition, and the residents themselves didn’t feel particularly Italian either.
The Italians acquired the Südtirol in World War I after a series of questionable deals with the Allies, which ultimately led to a long series of bitter battles fought in the very peaks that I was summiting on a daily basis. Italy’s attempt to mount a surprise offensive bogged down quickly and the Dolomites, which today are covered in quiet villages, farms, and ski resorts, became the site of trench and mine warfare at high altitudes and with bitterly cold winters. The Italian front came to known by the Alpini (the Alpine division of the Italian army) as the “war in snow and ice” – huge underground bases were drilled into mountainsides and into glacial ice on mountains like the Marmolada, and thousands of soldiers died in avalanches in the winters. On the memorable “White Friday” of 1916, 10,000 soldiers died in avalanches in the Dolomites.
On my way from Corvara to Cortina I hiked through part of this WWI frontline under the Lagazuoi, where Austrian soldiers, trying to hold the Südtirol, tunneled into the Dolomite to snipe at climbing Italian soldiers. The cliff sides were covered in holes small enough for a soldier's face and a gun - the tunnels are dark, generally damp, and small enough that even I had to stoop through most of it. Everywhere I looked was a hidden Austrian fortification. I don't want to make the theme of my posts "war is hell" but... something about crouching in the dark, rough tunnels and looking at the daylight funneling in through a hole less than 50 cm wide was depressing, and certainly made everything feel pointless.
The Impact on the Dolomites
War in the mountains, complete with modern technology, proved to be something completely different than either side expected (that is basically the moral of WWI). The 600-km frontline ran straight through the Alps, glaciers and all. Giant guns were dragged up the trading trails and newly made roads by troops. Massive industrialization resulted in an effort to make the Dolomites more accessible for soldiers – roads, cable cars, and the infamous Via Ferrata were all built as ways for the Italians to climb the mountains faster in the hopes of catching the Austrians off guard.
The Via Ferrate (Iron Roads) themselves were initially permanent lines (rope and metal hooks) and ladders fixed to rock faces so the troops to move around at high altitude. There are over 200 Via Ferrate in the dolomites, and some can take over eight hours to complete. While some rudimentary ferrate existed before the war, they were reinforced and incorporated into a system spanning large portions of the 600 km front. It took decades after WWI for the Via Ferrate to be discovered, but today they’ve been replaced with wire rather than rope and are famous for climbing.
World War I’s impact on the Dolomites went much farther than the Via Ferrate. Alpine trench warfare means that whoever occupies the higher ground first becomes almost impossible to dislodge. In most cases this meant the Austrians, who drilled into mountains like Lagazuoi and devastated climbing Italian soldiers. By the end of the war, however, both sides took their mountain drilling one step further – drilling tunnels under the mountains, filling them with explosives and then detonating the entire mountain, including whichever soldiers were defending it. Today, the sides of Lagazuoi and the surrounding mountains are covered in rubble, crushed hideouts, and rusted barbed wire.
While most of my writing has been about how geology has shaped people’s livelihoods and how entire cultures operate, it’s also worth noting the points where people tried to push back. Most soldiers on the Italian front in 1915 to 1918 felt that the Dolomites themselves were the only winner of the war, and they’re not wrong. Like I said in my Swedish history post, mountains are a hell of a place to fight a war. Many modern staples came out of the efforts on the Italian front, including the Via Ferrate, cable cars, and the beginnings of main roads through the Dolomites. But such advances came at an unbearable cost – 12,000 of the 40,000 Italian Alpini deployed, and almost as many Austrians.
There’s no moral here, except maybe that in a war between peoples fought in the mountains… the mountains always win.
This is my last post about my summer travels unless I decide to write a summary or retrospective-type post in the coming weeks. But I think we’ve all had quite enough of Europe at this point.
After all this writing, I hope that I was able to communicate at least a little of how wonderful it felt to explore an amazing place like the Dolomites. I heartily recommend the Dolomites as a travel spot because it’s so easy to get from place to place, and the huts make it easy to pack light. The trails are both well-maintained and relatively easy to hike (though this is by my assessment, and some have disagreed). The combination of Italian and Austrian culture is fascinating, and yields some amazingly good food.
Because the Dolomites are so easily accessible, the main trails tend to actually have tourists on them, but hiking on something a little harder than average clears people out quickly. It’s amazing how quickly one can go from being surrounding by people to feeling like the only person in the world – a feeling I had a lot in the Dolomites. They’re beautiful, and that beauty is not diminished by the amount of people who also want to appreciate them.
Thanks for reading this long post! I hope you’ve enjoyed this journey through the Dolomites :)