|Cinque Torri from Falzarego|
A little-known part of the history of WW1 is the battles that were fought in the mountains of northern Italy. The Italians were defending their border with the Austro-Hungarian empire and the ridges and summits of the Dolomites became the equivalent of the trenches in northern France. It seems unbelievable that anyone could fight a war in an environment so treacherous that one insecure footing can kill a modern hiker, but they did, and more soldiers died in avalanches here than were killed by poison gas in the Somme. This was not really a front that advanced, but more a line of defence, and the only territory that was won in the long-term was when Sud Tirol was handed over to Italy and became what is now called Alto Adige. Cortina is in the largely Italian speaking part of the region but in the towns and villages to the north, people speak German and have a stronger regional than national identity.
|Remains of a WW1 Hospital at Falzarego|
One of the consequences of the war that remains to this day is the network of vie ferrate , or "iron ways" that crisscross the Dolomites. These were originally built to allow the soldiers to traverse the mountains and are essentially assisted rock-climbing routes made up of metal cables that you clip on to, and sometimes steps and ladders attached to the rocks. The easier parts are just exposed hiking trails but the harder ones require real rock-climbing skills.
You can hire the climbing kit at the outdoor shops in Cortina for around 12 euros per day. As I had done one fairly scary via ferrata once before, as well as a (very small) amount of rock climbing, we decided on the first day to tackle a grade 3 route (out of 5), the Ferrata dei Alpini at Falzarego.
I was somewhat daunted by the vertical-ness of the cliff that confronted me at the beginning, but, knowing that rock-climbing is often easier than it looks, I clipped in and got started. Unfortunately, about 3 stages in, there was a point where I needed to step across ... or up ... or even just round a big lump of jutting out rock. And I tried, in every possible direction, with every possible body part, but I didn't yet have the balance in my legs or the strength in my arms and I just couldn't do it.