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Slovenia’s Julian Alps, the Soča Front, and World War I

Julian Alps, Slovenia

In Slovenia’s Alps, the serene Soča river valley attracts nature lovers today, but it was the site of fierce fighting in World War I between Italy and the Austro-Hungarian Empire, resulting in over a million casualties. The Italians lost the battle, though the Empire lost the war.

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This northwestern corner of Slovenia — within yodeling distance of both Austria and Italy — is crowned by the Julian Alps.

Exploring the Slovenian countryside, you get the feeling things work. Valleys that just a generation ago were industrial wastelands are green and getting greener. Villages gather around Baroque bell towers amid rich farmland. The unique roofed hayrack is recognized as part of the national heritage. In this unpredictable climate, hay is hung on the rack to dry.

These Alps, with their craggy limestone ridges, bring to mind Italy's Dolomites just over the border. Like the more famous Alps of Austria and Switzerland, the Julian Alps are busy with nature-lovers both winter and summer. In the center of this region stands Mount Triglav, Slovenia's symbol and tallest mountain. Locals claim that you're not a true Slovene until you've climbed Triglav.

Vršič Pass, which comes with 50 hairpin turns, was originally a military road. It was built during World War I by 10,000 Russian prisoners of war. In 1916, an avalanche thundered down the mountainside, killing hundreds of these workers.

This little Russian chapel, built where the final victim was found, offers today's visitors a chance to pay their respects to those who made this scenic drive possible.

At the crest of the 5,000-foot-high pass, there's snow even in late May.

The road switchbacks down into the valley of the Soča River. Springy suspension bridges offer a memorable roadside stop. The Soča continues to cut its way deeper and deeper into this gorge. Tiny bits of limestone — the geological equivalent of sawdust around here — reflecting under the brilliant blue skies gives the river its rich turquoise color.

While the valley is a favorite for nature-lovers today, it has its dark side. This was the scene of some of the fiercest fighting of World War I. With over a million casualties, it was nicknamed the "Valley of the Cemeteries."

This peaceful river valley was known as the Soča Front, or the Isonzo Front in Italian.

Before independence, before Yugoslavia, Slovenia was part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. In 1915, neighboring Italy declared war on the empire. They quickly took this valley, driving the Austro-Hungarian high into these mountains — from where the Austro-Hungarians fended off ten bloody uphill Italian offensives.

The Kluže Fort keeps vigil over the narrowest part of the valley, which leads from Italy, through Slovenia, toward Austria. The Austro-Hungarians knew if their enemies could break through this front, it was a straight shot to their capital, Vienna.

But the Soča Front was 60 miles wide, and many of the defenses were more crude and remote. Every ridge was strategic. And much of the fighting was actually done high, way up on the frigid mountain cliffs.

The defenses included a web of tunnels that went all the way to the tops of the mountains.

A museum in the town of Kobarid tells the story of the Soča Front and humanizes the suffering of this horrific but almost forgotten corner of World War I. This was unimaginably difficult warfare — waged in the harshest of conditions. Trenches were carved into ice and rock instead of mud, and many ill-equipped conscripts froze to death. During one winter alone, some 60,000 soldiers were killed by avalanches.

Just above town, a somber memorial to the Italian attackers was built in the stern Fascist style under Mussolini. It memorializes 7,000 Italian soldiers — victims of just one battle. The poignant reality: costly battles eventually fade into the history books… like the Soča Front.