Around six kilometres north-east of the Italian border, on the steeply pitched flanks of Mt Krn in Slovenia, a trail crawls up the stony hillside, the way ahead lost in mist. All is eerily silent save for the crunch, crunch of my boots, the sound of my breath, and the faint clatter of hiking poles. I pick a route between clusters of primroses, carefully avoiding the salamanders which shuffle across the wet path — slow moving in their distinctive, swaggering gait, their fragile black-and-yellow bodies glistening in the pale light.
I’ve spent the previous night in Drežnica, a tiny village known for its Shrovetide carnival traditions which sits above one side of Slovenia’s Soča Valley, roughly a day’s march from Bovec or Tolmin. Now I’m heading up towards the small military chapel at Planica, built by Italian troops during the First World War, and beautifully restored in recent years.
The chapel, when I reach it, emerges quite suddenly from the mist, the simple curve of its barrel-vaulted white roof outlined starkly against the slopes beyond, like an inverted ship’s hull. Its facade is decorated with relief panels of crossed rifles and ice axes, and framed by short corner towers with columns in the shape of shell cases. Built by Italian troops in 1916 in memory of the fallen, this is just one of many monuments and memorials dotted across these borderlands of Slovenia and Italy, all dating from the First World War and linked by the Walk of Peace.
Along the Isonzo Front
The Walk of Peace (Pot Miru in Slovenian) is a long-distance hiking trail in Slovenia and partly in Italy, running some 230 kilometres along the former military line of confrontation known as the Isonzo Front. Named after the River Soča (Isonzo in Italian), the course of which it roughly follows, the Isonzo Front was the front line between Italy and Austria-Hungary during the First World War — when Slovenia formed part of the vast Habsburg domains, and the Kingdom of Italy abandoned its neutrality and entered the war against Austria-Hungary and Germany, with the aim of gaining territory in the north-east.
The Isonzo Front bore witness to a gruelling series of protracted battles, stalemates and freezing temperatures which together claimed a staggering one million lives. Two armies fought over a blood-soaked stretch of landscape which was of no real tactical significance. The Walk of Peace takes in relics from this conflict — chapels, churches, bunkers, ossuaries, trench systems, caves, cemeteries, monuments and museums — running in a scattered line between Log pod Mangartom and Trieste. It is best explored as a multi-day trek through the hauntingly poignant and still profoundly moving footnotes of European history.
A Farewell to Arms
The exact line of the Isonzo Front was a shifting one, which altered with the changing fortunes of the two sides over the course of twelve battles, spread across roughly two-and-a-half years from May 1915. While the Italians were numerically superior, they were poorly armed and equipped, and were attacking well-defended Austrian positions on the mountains and ridges above the valley (and by default in most cases, advancing uphill), putting them at a disadvantage despite their early successes and the patriotic fervour of their political leaders.