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Hikers traverse the Via Ferrata Tridentina in the Italian Dolomites. (Photograph by PatitucciPhoto)

Hiking and History in Italy’s Dolomites

When World War I broke out, Italy’s Dolomites became a treacherous front line for Austrian and Italian soldiers.

Here among the jagged peaks and sheer pastel walls of this ancient range of the Alps, where many cultures had coexisted for centuries, soldiers on both sides built networks of bolted-down steel cables, called via ferrata (iron path), to move supplies quickly—and for other missions, too. “Soldiers came down the mountains at night to exchange family news with their relatives,” says hiking guide Karin Pizzinini.

As the world marks the war’s centennial, travelers can explore the same transport system. Anchored cables bolster the original ladders, and local outfitters provide necessary gear and pair experienced guides with many skill levels.

Near the ski village of Cortina d’Ampezzo (about a 3.5-hour trip by bus and train from Venice), the beginner-friendly Via Ferrata Averau awards vistas of the massive towers of the Cinque Torri. At the base, an outdoor museum preserving the World War I headquarters of an artillery unit details the human side of war, from personal diaries to tales of winter survival.

All together, several museums and a 50-mile ski tour commemorate the Dolomites’ role in the Great War. Here, says Pizzinini, “you can not only climb the via ferrata but truly know why they’re here.”

This piece, written by Jennifer Wilson, appeared in the June/July issue of National Geographic Traveler magazine.

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