The two Darja’s, myself and little Alex left Kobarid in search of a battlefield and walked into a scenic wonderland that looked more like a National Park than a former war zone. The Soca River Valley was stunning. It was early spring before the trees had time to blossom. Foliage was sparse, the undergrowth manageable to the eyes. It was thin enough that I could see through much of it, tracing the outlines of ridges and gullies that would have otherwise been hidden in the summer. Mountains began to close in on the river. Crisp, cool air enveloped the valley. The river could be heard and sometimes seen, its presence guiding our path as much as the trail we walked along. Slowly, perceptibly, the terrain became more rugged. The Kobarid Historical Walk was by this point more about nature than war. Relics of the conflagration still straddled the hillsides, but they became increasingly difficult to discern. Nature was eroding them, one day far in the future it would totally defeat them. The fortifications were now totally useless, only of interest to history buffs, thank goodness for that.
On Military Time – Lines of Defense
On the walk we came across many ruins that indicated the wartime work of soldiers had not yet quite succumbed to nature. There were trenches, tunnels and stone walls. Their longevity had much to do with the craftsmanship and materials from which they were made. It would have taken an incredible amount of manpower just to construct them. In one respect, it was not surprising these remnants had stood the test of time. Time was the key word when it came to them. That was not surprising since the soldiers who constructed and manned what was known as the Italian Line of Defense had a massive amount of time on their hands. We had come here wanting to see where battles had been fought, but the reality of this war, like almost every other, was that the soldiers spent more time idle than they did in battle. This was true on the Soca, despite the prolonged battles to which its name had been given.
We had almost perfect weather while making our way along the trail, the soldiers did not have the luxury of choosing what day to visit this area. The cloudless sky with a bright mid-day sun warmed the air. I doubted the weather could have been much better for this time of year, it was optimal for walking. Would any of us have felt the same if it was rain or snowing? Likely not. Italian soldiers spent days that turned into weeks, weeks that stretched into months, manning these defenses in all seasons and types of weather. This was no day trip or week-long vacation for them, it was a matter of life and death. Most often, that struggle meant staving off boredom while sitting around in the woods as nothing particularly interesting happened. Military duty along this stretch of the Soca could best be described as months and months of boredom, punctuated by a few hours of panic.
The Thunderous Call – A Slap To The Senses
I left the two Darja’s and toddler Alex behind at one point to go inspect a section of defensive works. They were dank and damp even though the weather was dry. It was fascinating to stand in the exact same trenches where Italian soldiers had a century before. There were no historic displays to provide context or explain what went on in the Italian Line of Defense. It was left to the imagination. The odd thing was that I could really get a true feel for what it must have been like. Nothing especially interesting, just staring out into the woods. This occupied my attention for a couple of minutes at most. Having to sit or stand in these woods for a couple of months or years as the soldiers did would have made for an entirely different experience. One that hardly anyone would care to repeat. Reliving history can be a fascinating thought experiment, but the reality is that very few would care to go back and experience the actual event.
Thankfully, the nature offered more satisfying pleasures than the fortifications. The true highlights of the walk were incredible views of the Soca River and its breathtaking gorge. The river waters were astoundingly transparent. Soon the river banks grew closer to one another as we neared the gorge. At one point the river was spanned by what is known as the Napoleon Bridge, constructed in 1750. It seemed that no matter where you went in or near Kobarid there was no escaping military history. In 1797 French troops had crossed a stone bridge here in this same place on their way to the Predil Pass in the Slovenian Alps. Another crossing could be done by a more recently constructed suspension bridge. From there it was on to Slap Kozjak. Slap is a wonderfully unforgettable term in Slovene that means waterfall. After taking a twisting, serpentine footpath across the bright, white limestone valley floor we suddenly came into a gorge that felt more like a natural humidifier. A faintly visible mist cooled the air amid the thunderous call of the falling water.
Happy Ending – A Land Beyond War
It was hard to square the beauty and peace of the Soca River Valley with the mind-boggling violence which had scarred it during the first half of the 20th century. And not all of it had occurred in the First World War either. The Yugoslav Partisans had set up camp right beside the Napoleon Bridge. Kobarid had been ethnically cleansed more than once. There was nowhere in Europe, east or west, north or south, that was not touched by the two World Wars. Beautiful and remote places, ones now frequented by tourists, had seen acts of violence which would chill the blood of even the hardest men. All that was in the past now, as would be our trip to Kobarid very soon. My Slovene friends had gone out of their way to make my experience memorable. It was, but for reasons I would not have guessed when the day had begun. They seemed just as curious as I was about the places, people and events we discovered together. I saw the Soca River valley through their eyes as well as the Italian soldier’s eyes. It was a battlefield and at the same time, much more than that. A place where people went hiking, enjoyed nature and reflected on history. This land that I had only previously known because of war, was really a place of peace and beauty. History does not have many happy endings, but Kobarid and the Soca River Valley was surely one of them.