Forte Tre Sassi (Museo della Grande Guerra), Dolomites, Italy. Photo: Alamy
  • Share
  • Post on facebook wall
  • Share on twitter
  • Share via Email
  • Pin to Pinterest
  • Share on Google Plus

In a glass case in a dinky museum, way up in a mountain pass through the absurdly pulchritudinous Italian Dolomites region is a yeti. Well, it looks like a yeti at first glance but it's actually a mannequin wearing what seems to be a large white goat. This, the accompanying description explains, is what passed for a camouflage uniform when the Italians and the Austrians were killing each other in the snow here from 1915 to 1918.

Somewhat overshadowed by the wholesale slaughter going on at the time in the trenches of the Western Front, this little-known World War I battleground was known as the Fronte Alpino in Italian and the Gebirgskrieg (mountain war) in German.

Whatever language you use to describe it, men died on these mountains in their thousands as they fought not just each other but the unforgiving terrain, avalanches and the biting cold.

First World War Museum in the former Tre Sassi Fort, Valparola Pass.
First World War Museum in the former Tre Sassi Fort, Valparola Pass. Photo: Alamy

At the end of hostilities in 1918 the Austria-Hungary Empire had disintegrated, and the Italians had captured the strategically important seaport of Trieste, Trento, Bolzano and all the bits in between.

Hence today we have the South Tyrol, the northern Italian region that's a little like the yeti-mannequin in that it's essentially Austria wearing an Ermenegildo Zegna suit.

In the days before our arrival in the Dolomites on this Country Roads of Northern Italy escorted coach journey we had visited Trento and Bolzano (where the frozen remains of Otzi, the Neolithic caveman found in 1991 are kept) and marvelled at how Germanic the area felt with its A-frame architecture, wooden chalets and onion-domed churches.

The Great War Museum occupies what was once the Fort Tre Sassi, a fortification first built in 1897 by the Austria-Hungary Army to protect against invasion from Italy. It took a bit of a pasting from the Italians during the war but enough survived for it to be rebuilt and turned into a museum in 2003.

Today, it's a low-key two-storey stone building full of fascinating flotsam and jetsam gathered by local man Loris Lancedelli who, way back in 1965, came up with the idea of creating a museum dedicated to the conflict here. Together with his father, mother and brother he began recovering relics from the area and acquiring items with historical ties to the fighting.

Of course, if history, old machine-guns, rifles, metal helmets, flags, shells, bizarrely medieval armour, ammunition, hand-grenades, uniforms and cabinets full of the bric-a-brac of battle aren't your thing you can always just step outside into what our guide, Frank Looze, calls "one of the most beautiful parts of Italy".

Advertisement

To the north is the Valparola Pass, to the south the Falzarego Pass (where we later take a cable car up the mountain) and in between is the sort of craggy, rocky, snow-dusted, crumpled, vertiginous landscape that almost defies description since America hijacked "awesome" to describe the delivery of a takeaway coffee and a bun.

Part of the day's trip also includes strudel and coffee in a nearby hotel. The strudel is nice. The views out the window are awesome. Not the other way round.

TRIP NOTES

Keith Austin travelled courtesy of Insight Vacations.

MORE

traveller.com.au/Italy

italia.it

FLY

All major airlines operate frequent flights from Sydney and Melbourne to Milan's Malpensa airport.

TOUR

The 10-day Country Roads of Northern Italy tour costs from $3595 a person twin share. The Grand Tour of the Dolomites is one of the tour's Optional Experiences and costs €63 a person (includes cable car, museum entrance and coffee and strudel). See insightvacations.com

MUSEUM

The Great War Museum is open every day from June 30 to September 30. See cortinamuseoguerra.it

from traveller.com.au