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Ortigara, a story of rocks, life and death.

Ortigara, this name is probably telling nothing to you.
Ortigara is a gloomy, mysterious, far away, silent, ghostly place.

Ortigara is a place that has been consecrated to history, history of lives of thousands persons who had the bad luck of having been here fighting during the First World War.

Ortigara is also a place that at its slopes is surrounded by an amazing nature made of woods and valleys, green grassland and grazing as it is placed on the Asiago Plateau. This plateau is well known for its  cooking traditions, histories and landscapes.

Ortigara is a mountain you can reach after passing the plateau passing through the town of Asiago and than going till the town of Gallio. From here the road climbs the valley getting into the woods.

This road can be covered by car till some mountain huts where you can eat delicious local food and then have a good sleep. All these mountain huts were military barracks. Around the mountain hut named Campomuletto in locality Campomulo, in 2008 it was built the striking “path of silence” that announces what you’ll see at the mountain top and remembers the drama of the battle which passed between the quiet woods. This path is composed of ten modern works of art named, “pace ritrovata” (peace recovered), “pietà” (pity), “speranza” (hope), “lettere” (letters), “testimoni” (witnesses), “eserciti” (armies), “fiore vivo” (alive flower), “labirito nero” (black maze), “gli immortali” (the immortal), “frutti gloriosi” (glorious fruits)- All this touching works of art bring with them a tremendous human load. If you want to have a better idea of it you can have a glance at the official web site of the entire work of art.

From this point the road becomes a dirt road so you can access it only with an off road vehicle if you take the shortest one and anyway only during summer time. During wintertime the landscapes becomes magic with its meters of snow and the dirt roads that are transformed in skiing tracks.

As you go deep into the dirt road on the white crushed stones the landscape become astonishing for its quietness. A mountain green that is far away from the civilization and its phrenitis but if you well observe the landscape around you while you’re crossing the valleys you’ll see reappearing the traces and evidences of a tragic history. Military shacks, barriers, crosses and cippuses here and there remembering you that someone has sacrificed himself during audacious fights.

Before leaving for this trip I took the time to read the book “un anno sull’ Altipiano” (one year on the plateau) written by Emilio Lussu. This book is a literature masterpiece. Lussu was an officer of the Sassari Brigade (a Brigade coming from the Sardinia Island) and he fought one entire year along the Plateau of Asiago. With a dry writing style and without any judgement, the writer tells stories that nowadays are really difficult to believe in and to imagine but that unfortunately our grand-grandfathers lived probably without the possibility to narrate what occurred to them. After reading this book all the places you could visit there will have a different and deeper meaning to you, transforming a visit at a natural place in a real jump into history being able to recognize the places written in the book across its words.

Once you’ve left your off road vehicle at piazzale Lozze (Lozze Square) after kilometres of dirt road you can start walking up to the top of the Ortigara Mountain. While you are hiking you start feeling the hostility of the place. The woods disappear whilst the trenches start to be all around you accompanied by crosses, holes in the rocks where the sub-machine guns were throwing their load of death. Just to tell you about two numbers: the Ortigara Mountain has an height of 2105 meters and the top is eight meters lower than before the beginning of the war due to violent bombing. On this mountain more than ten thousand people passed away and nowadays evidences of those days are visible on the rusted barbed-wire fences and old food cans. If you observe the grey crushed stones beneath your feet you’ll not make a big effort to understand that everywhere is mixed with grenade splinters and Shrapnel. The nearer you are to the top the more the landscape becomes gloomy. Rocks. Crushed stones. Trenches.

Once reached the top and passed, depending on the chosen path, some tunnels, there are two cippuses. The Italian one and the Austrian one: both are there to remember the old battle front. The Italian one is called “Colonna Mozza” (Cut Column) and it symbolizes the broken lives and it has written “per non dimenticare” (not to forget). Each year the Alpini (the Italian mountain troops) are there at the mountain’s top to celebrate the memory together with the Austrian and Slovenian soldiers in a sign of brotherly remembrance.

Once passed the top of the mountain on your path you’ll meet the bell of the fallen. It is custom for the wayfarers to make the bell ring when they pass. So it will occur to you to listen the sad and lonely echo of that bell while you’re walking gray and dry landscape.

The landscape at the top and around it requires attention, it is composed by kilometres of terrain that can trick you because it really looks like the same with only small differences in height. It is also dangerous because there isn’t any source of water.

The evidences of war along your path are just countless. Trenches are omnipresent. Pieces of shoes, pieces of uniforms, glasses and than between the rusty barbed wires and the bomb splinters resurface, silently and white, the human bones. I’ve been mute at the thought of to whom belonged that remains and at the pains of the war.

In the area were deployed around 300’000 Italian soldiers and 150’000 Austrian soldiers and the dead where tens of thousands. There is nothing else to do than to listen to the silent whistling of the wind that incessantly blows on the Ortigara Mountain.

An unbelievable place, as it is impressive to reach the edge of the “Slovenian Dolina” and than walk down it till the old military shacks and find other bones, pieces of shoes and an inscription dedicated at the Triglav (the highest Slovenian Mountain) written by the Slovenian Soldiers “between the rocks at the top of the mountains the Cesarjevic Regiment weaves his glory to Triglav as our home but source of pain he perseveres in his fight for you”.

The Ortigara Mountain is a place to be visited, to be understood, history there is not written on a yellowed page of a history book. History there is written in the terrain with indelible traces that warn the wayfarers on the forgotten war horrors.

All the area is so historically important that it has been included in a Ecomuseum of the Great War.

This mountain has inspired two mountain songs. “Ta-Pum” and “Ortigara”. The first one was born in the trenches and the second one after the war. “Ta-Pum” is the sound that recalls the sound of the sniper’s rifle. Listening these songs and than visiting the places gives you the creeps. Each note has its own match between the rocks, in the grass, in the silence.

Ta – Pum  (Translation)

Twenty days on the Ortigara
without going off duty;
ta-pum ta-pum ta-pum (two times)

And tomorrow we go to assault,
soldier don’t get killed;
ta-pum ta-pum ta-pum (two times)

Than when we descend to the valley
the battalion has no more soldiers;
ta-pum ta-pum ta-pum (two times)

I left my mum,
I left my mum to be a soldier;
ta-pum ta-pum ta-pum (two times)

When they give you the bread
the sniper starts firing;
ta-pum ta-pum ta-pum (two times)

Down in the valley there is cemetery
the cemetery of us soldier;
ta-pum ta-pum ta-pum (two times)

Cemetery of us soldier
perhaps one day I’ll visit you;
ta-pum ta-pum ta-pum (two times)

Knowing the place and its history means jumping into the past, a jump that is useful to live and comprehend the present. Thanking not to have lived those moments and understand the non human, cruel, assassin efforts required to our grand-grandfathers.

This place is a live memory for the Alpini (the Italian mountain Troops) and so, once I got back home, inspired by the notes of those two songs, I wrote my thoughts about the trip to the director of the Alpini Association magazine:

“Since I was a kid I’ve been passionate, thanks to my grandfathers, with the mountain songs and their human load. When I was a bit grown up I began hiking with the Italian Mountain Club (CAI) and than I joined the Alpini (Mountain Troops) as volunteer for one year in 7th Regiment Alpini and than I had the honour to sing in the Mountain Troop Chorus. Now that I’m in partial discharge since some years, each time I can I bring to the attention of my friends on the mountain environment and its big heart. Recently, with the mountains troop hat on my head, I went with some friends of mine  to the Ortigara, idea that came in my mind after having read the book “one year on the plateau” (un anno sull’altipiano written by Emilio Lussu) and after thinking again at the song “TA-PUM”. Step after step straight to the top, the notes of the songs where re-emerging alive into my mind finding a sad confirmation in each rock, each trench, each bomb splinter, each bone out of the main path. As if those notes were crystallized in dramatic images of horror and tragic humanity. Remembering is my main task, astonished by the ignorance of the most of people about those places where our grand-grandfathers have shed their blood and lost their youth. We went back enriched by a great experience. One thing is to read history, another one is to see the concrete match of it in the soil. In the group there were also an Austrian student and a Romanian doctor. We were all silently mute and respectful of a place where each one should pass  in order to understand the true value of peace and the sacrifices that costed so much to our ancestors.”

This letter was published at page five of the  October 2013 edition with the following reply from the director (translation):
“You told us two important things, dear Alessio. The first one is that to listen with the heart is important as well as to see. The second one, not less important, is that each Alpine Song is a summary of life, which strophes have to be combined with the reality of the places”.

Unfortunately the Ortigara is not the only place of memory on the Asiago Plateau. The tragic history of 1st WW involved also Monte Fior, Monte Cengio with its “salto del granatiere” (jump of the grenadier) and many other places. Stories so far ago to seem absurd, impossible to think about even if  yet alive over there: they force you to think while you are immersed into the beauty of those landscapes.

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