It was not quite what I expected on a first day’s walk in the Dolomite mountains. We had come through pine forests with an undergrowth of alpenrose and blueberries; mountain fritillaries and delicate small blue butterflies played across the path. Around us were some of the most impressive geological formations in Europe – lumps of rock that looked like they belonged in Monument Valley. And then in a small clearing at 5,000ft, we came across a gun emplacement: a row of square-cut apertures carved out of the rock, each with a slit for a machine gun.
Until coming here I knew nothing about the battle line that consolidated across the Dolomites during the first world war. Initially neutral, the Italians tried to steal a march on Austria by suddenly declaring war in 1915, sending troops through these mountains towards the border with Austrian South Tyrol, with a view to a lightning strike. Militiamen, loyal to the Habsburg empire, stopped them in their tracks and one of the world’s most bizarre trench lines developed, running from mountaintop to mountaintop.
A century on, nationality and identity remain complex notions here – something that added a fascinating anthropological patina to our week’s walking holiday through the region. When the first world war was over, the South Tyrol passed from Austria to Italy but there are many in this German-speaking part of Italy who still regret this. After plying us with goulash and fresh trout from the local river, our hostess at the first farmhouse where we stayed after driving up from Venice and crossing the old border, told me they “had lost everything – everything – in 1918”. Her English was considerably better than her reluctant Italian.
Our party of four were travelling from hut to hut with an enthusiastic young guide, Alberto de Giuli. We started close to the Tre Cime, perhaps the most celebrated of the Dolomitic peaks and finished at Cortina, the area’s most famous resort. Bags were transferred ahead of us by four-wheel drive or cable-lift, so all we carried was a day pack and some money for the excellent lunches in farmhouse rifugi along the way.
Unlike Italian and German walkers we met, who thought nothing of putting away a couple of carafes before heading back on the trail, we stuck to a more abstemious diet. But there was plenty of time in the evenings for an Aperol spritz or a wheat beer, depending on how Italian or Austrian we were feeling. A typical meal might include staples of cucina rustica such as polenta with stew or ravioli stuffed with beetroot.
The friendliest farmhouse we stayed at was in the small Ladin hamlet of Fodara Vedla, largely made up of hay barns. Ladin is the local language and ethnic group – despite the various pulls of Italian and Austrian history and culture, many people in these valleys identify themselves most strongly as Ladin.
Alpine hay has become a premium product, not just for its traditional customers, the cows, but for spas where a Kraxen stove “meadow treatment” is thought to be efficacious for relieving muscle pain, thanks to the arnica and wild clover in the grass.
Our host in the farmhouse, Arthur Mutschlechner, was proud of his Ladin heritage, and conscious of the need to preserve the regional culture. In the first world war, he told us, local Ladin militiamen stopped the Italians in their tracks.
Mutschlechner drew me an outline map of Italy on the back of an old bill, and pointing to the toe of the familiar boot, asked what he or any Ladin could possibly have in common with a Sicilian. The Ladins here speak their own language, more directly descended from Latin than Italian; the very word “Ladin” is a corruption of Latin. There are strong dialectical variations from valley to valley, given the long isolation of each community. However, Mutschlechner jovially asserted, give any Ladin, whether from Friuli or even Switzerland, a couple of drinks and they will understand each other fine.
As we spoke, the cows around the village were sending up a cacophony of bell-ringing, trapped by the sheltered valley. Even some of the horses had bells on in case the clouds came down suddenly.
Only 20,000 or so of the inhabitants of South Tyrol declare themselves to speak Ladin as a first language – some 5 per cent of the population – but they are fiercely independent. The Ladins have their own primary schools, their own TV programmes and weekly newspaper, and a government-financed cultural institute given the task of preserving the language and culture. Yet they remain virtually unknown among the enclave nations of Europe. “Maybe it’s because we never let any bombs off,” said one of the Ladin farmworkers at Mutschlechner’s bar, nursing what was not his first glass of wheat beer.
That night there was a sprinkling of snow, unexpected in summer even at 7,000ft, and the sun came up on a village that looked like a nativity scene. “Sonne und schnee [sun and snow],” said Mutschlechner, as we left, “ein geschenk [a present].”
The Ladins have had their own present in recent years: the Dolomites were admitted to Unesco’s world heritage list in 2009. This wasn’t just a cultural kitemark. Funds have flooded into the high valleys as a result. Everywhere we went, there was the smell of fresh pine from the newly built restaurants and rifugi, particularly once we joined the A1 trail, a long-distance route threading through the Dolomites towards Cortina.
Foreign trekkers have come in droves, particularly from the US and Germany, drawn not just by the drama of the peaks and the charm of the unique culture, but by cheaper food, far better coffee and, some would argue, a friendlier welcome than in other alpine countries.
Between the fascinating rifugio stops, we walked for up to seven hours a day, usually covering six to 10 miles. The climax came on day five: the ascent from the beautiful lakes of the Fanes valley to the vertiginous Rifugio Lagazuoi, at 2,778m one of the highest inns in the Dolomites. This was one of the locations for Cliffhanger (1993), the hair-raising Sylvester Stallone movie, and one can see why: the rifugio projects out from a cliff like a CGI effect towards a ring of imposing peaks.
Along this section, we had fallen in with other trekkers who were staging their journey at the same rifugi, and by now a few evenings of grappa and conversation had consolidated friendships. Two young German students were following the fine romantic traditions of the Wanderweg and had brought a guitar with them, although rather than playing German Lieder we ended up doing karaoke versions of songs we were all more likely to know, including a few raucous Queen renditions.
Outside, the Dolomites were putting on a spectacular show at sunset, the fast-moving weather alternately lighting up peaks and then covering them with a mist of fine snow, so that each massif had its moment in the spotlight: Sella, Pelmo, Civetta and then the most prominent of all, Marmolada, with its large glacier. It was hard to imagine that during the first world war, Ladin and Austrian troops carved trenches through the base of that same glacier; or that just beneath our feet, Italian forces had dug a tunnel up behind the cliff-face to dynamite the enemy. When we traced some of those tunnels on our descent to the valley and our final destination, Cortina, we found edelweiss growing at the exit to one of them: the alpine equivalent of poppies in Flanders Fields.
Hugh Thomson is the author of several books exploring mountains and their communities, including ‘The White Rock’ (Orion) about the Incas in Peru and ‘Nanda Devi’ (Orion)
Hugh Thomson was a guest of Mountain Kingdoms (mountainkingdoms.com) and the Hotel Bauer Palazzo in Venice (ilpalazzovenezia.com). Mountain Kingdoms offers an eight-day guided trip, starting on June 22 or September 7, from £1,895