Monte Grappa and the Great War Memorial
The drive through the Veneto, even though it is on the autostrada, takes us past the vineyards known for Prosecco wine. At the speed you are driving the rows and rows of grapevines form a kind of geometric blur of parallel lines heading all the way up to the green rolling hills. And as always, there is this blend of rural landscape and urban landscape, vineyards with the industrial of factories and the commercial of shopping centres.
We exit and head along the “statale” driving past what at one time would have been the summer villas for the families of Venice – Palladian villas. Many no longer are villas but have been put to other uses and most have only postage stamp size versions of the gardens and vineyards that used to surround them. We stop in the small town of Asolo and peek through the gates at some of the villas where the feeling of the grandness still remains.
We are headed to Monte Grappa where in the early thirties the fascists government built one of many monuments to the fallen of WWI – La Grande Guerra. These memorials were part remembrance, but largely also part of the strategy to stir up nationalistic feelings. In this north eastern part of Italy that had been up to WWI, Austrian, you can clearly understand the conflicting loyalties that defined those times.
In World War I the Italians were engaged in a deadly struggle against the Austrians, who had routed them at Caporetto and were poised to invade the Veneto plains. If they succeeded, Italy would be lost. The Italian army regrouped and prepared for its last stand along the Piave River and the adjacent mountain massif–Monte Grappa–which they had transformed into a fortress, with tunnels, bunkers, trenches, and gun emplacements blasted from solid rock.
The troops fought first a defensive battle and then on the offense they held back the Austrians. The monument and ossuary on Cima Grappa are a testament of the tragic cost: there lie the bones of 12,615 Italians and 10,295 Austro-Hungarians who never came down from the mountain.
The mountain road taking us up to the monument has a series of switchbacks as you climb to the summit. Interestingly the first part is quite urban – homes, hosterias, agroturisms, rifugi and then the road goes through a coniferous forest that feels quite dark. We emerge to see alpine pastures and cows grazing. As we approach the summit there are no more trees, just rolling, rock strewn pastures. And as we approach the summit, there are grey clouds swirling around us and obscuring the view of the summit. It is quite cool and breezy as we get out of the car in this huge parking lot.
There is a museum housing many artifacts from post cards sent by soldiers, to medals of valor, to artillery and maps. The feeling is quite solemn and rightfully so. We climb this long staircase of white stone to reach a level where the Austrian ossuary is located and you see numbers carved into the stone that represent the number of soldiers that are laid to rest there and the numbers are quite staggering. You walk over to another area with the same series of levels where the remains of the Italian soldiers are located. Here the story is more complete and the names of about 2,000 soldiers have been carved into the stone walls. They are arranged in an alphabetical order. You walk by the A’s, the B’s, the C’s which as you move along leaves a real sense of the enormity of the loss of life that occurred all around where you are walking. The clouds and mist keep rolling in and out which added to the solemnity of the monument. It felt to me, like a very fitting tribute and a peaceful resting spot for all those lost lives.