Pete and trials rider Ali Clarkson take the ‘easy’ option round the historic fortresses of Italy.
Words & Photography PETE SCULLION
With the early morning mist lifting slowly off the Dolomites, high in the Trentino valley, we try to shrug off the hectic last few days, knowing the next 62 miles will be the longest of our trip out to this northern corner of Italy, but also more than likely our last. Three vertical kilometres of climbing lie ahead, and I honestly hadn’t turned this many pedals since a stage race in the Holy Land some three years ago.
Over a century prior to our arrival and as electricity as a concept was gaining momentum around the world, the Kingdom of Italy was but a baby at the turn of the 20th century. Austria-Hungary was one of Europe’s dominant powers, and this part of Italy marked the south-westerly extreme of that empire’s border. As the major powers fortified their borders, both Austria-Hungary and the newly formed Kingdom of Italy would follow suit, giving us the landmarks which we would be visiting on this ride.
Power struggles and arms races pushed Europe to war in the second decade of the 20th century, and this part of the Dolomites would see a brief surge in hostilities before the front shifted and the guns fell silent. Many of the forts would be stripped of their steel in the ’30s until the Italian king intervened to preserve the memory of the Great War in the area. Much of the limestone and concrete casemates of the six forts built by the Austro-Hungarians between 1905 and 1914 remain, with Fort Belvedere the only complete example, sporting a museum owned by the municipality. The ‘100km Dei Forti’ trail – literally ‘100km of fortifications’ – is now a well-established route with a race option for those who like that sort of thing.
Our forward momentum this late in September will be courtesy of the e-bike. With the lifts closed and Ali and I perhaps not well tuned for this kind of mission, let alone a race, they’re certainly going to be a welcome addition. While our bikes would be churned forward with the assistance of a motor, I would be fuelled entirely by Italian espresso and pastries. As the sun breaks over the eastern Dolomites, we meet up with Eugenio, our guide for the day, and maybe the only person who has out-bearded me in some time. We set off into the rising sun unaware of what lies ahead.
What soon becomes apparent is that Eugenio is far fitter than us both, and spends much of the time on his bike’s ‘Eco’ mode, while Ali and I struggle to keep up, even with the motor at full chat. Even without the motor running, Eugenio is not easy to reel in and we settle on just keeping tabs on him as we wind our way through the mountain villages.
After a long easy spin up an old trading road over the Passo Sommo, we dash through the forest on the far side, the noise of beech nuts and leaves under our tyres drowning out the streams crashing down the mountain and the buzz of freehubs. We stop to regroup and Eugenio points out Forte Sommo Alto, indicating we’ll be there in about 55 miles’ time. Oh, how the heart did sink.
In any case, with batteries and fresh legs, we cracked on, glad that we weren’t racing this route as hundreds do every summer. It’s our first foray on e-bikes so even ‘Eco’ mode is quite a treat, and we save the extra juice for what will no doubt be a very long afternoon.
We’re soon passing the bike park we rattled round the previous day. With the lifts closed and the summer season over, the small towns and villages we pass through seem empty. Almost ghost towns. The summer holiday rentals are all shut up, with only the odd elderly couple shuffling their way down the hill. As we enter the woods, though, it’s clear that with autumn rapidly approaching, it’s time to collect mushrooms and firewood, and the whirr of our electric motors is drowned by locals noisily crashing about in the undergrowth.
Up until now, evidence of the area’s military past has been conspicuous in its absence. Bar the distant sighting of Forte Sommo Alto, we haven’t even had a peep. Deep in a seemingly never-ending beech forest though, our eyes are drawn to the base of a large limekiln that leads to an enormous cut in the rock, housing a system of tunnels sliced into the bright white limestone. Command posts were linked to the six forts through a series of tunnels, phone and telegraph wires buried within the rock, and this was one of the smaller ones.
After a couple of brief forays into the cool, damp darkness of the tunnels, we’re spooked enough to return to the fiery heat of a late Italian morning. The mist has all but gone with the sun’s attentions and even under the thick canopy, the heat is starting to make itself felt. We take the time to refuel and take on some water before cracking on once more. We’re making good progress, but there’s still 80 kilometres to go and this day isn’t going to get any easier.
Out in the open, the shell craters and deep trench that flank the road here are the only real evidence that we are approaching our first fortress and of the brief shelling by the Italians over one hundred years ago. Sat atop a small bluff between two peaks, the Forte Busa Verle stands mostly derelict, thanks to the removal of its steel reinforcing, and is surrounded on all but one side by tall spruce trees. The remaining casemates and first two floors have all the hallmarks of a battle between the Italians and the Austro-Hungarians. Marks of various calibres crater the perimeter and the facade of the building from the short skirmish between the two sides. We’re prevented from taking a closer look by some protective fencing as the concrete has suffered a century of neglect.
Soon we’re off, hammering some unfamiliar pasture. Woodland has been king since we started, changing hands between tall, bright broadleaf forests to the cool darkness of pines. Cows laze about this summer pasture, making the most of the tall grass as we plunge back into the forest once more. Singletrack replaces fire road as we fly across this gravel-covered field at warp speed. It’s nice to leave the legs be and just concentrate on hooking turns and keeping the drift in check.
As the first battery starts to wane, all eyes are on the fire road ahead which soon gives way to a ten by ten metre ditch cut into solid rock. The second of two forts appears abruptly out of the pine forest. Forte Campo Luserna sports a large metal roof to protect the preserved open interior and is a far better spectacle than the previous offering. Metal silhouettes give the impression that we’re not alone as we take on more fuel and gaze nervously at our battery levels. It’s hard to imagine the place without the trees that would have no doubt been cleared to give free rein to the Skoda artillery that would have roared from this fortress way back in 1915.
Running on fumes.
It’s now several hours since we left Folgaria and a long, steady fire road climb away from Campo Luserna kills both our batteries. It’s been a long time coming as we’ve nursed the battery through Eco mode when possible, having no idea how long they’d last. Both seem to give up the ghost at the same time – Ali’s maybe shortly before, seeing that he’s got a good 25 kilos on me.
All this coincides with the ultimate turn of the knife. After climbing half the three vertical kilometres of the day, burning off only what we’d managed to stuff down ourselves at breakfast, a good Italian feast is something we’re sorely looking forward to. The first refuge is boarded up for the winter. We’re one day late. Marching on we’ve no idea where the next food stop will be, so calls are made ahead. We come to a bar with cows roaming freely to find that sandwiches are the only option. Again, we keep going. Eugenio makes yet more calls. I’m running on fumes but trying not to show it.
Finally we stumble into a small village, similarly deserted like before, but with a very welcoming host who shows us straight to the plugs to charge our batteries and straight to the table to recharge us. It’s here where the past of the area comes to the fore, but in another way. We’re in an area called Alpe Cimbra. The Cimbra people speak an old form of German, so rather than me muddling my way through my best pigeon Italian, or the landlady stumbling through English, I conjure up all the GCSE German I can recall and get a history lesson in the process.
We’re asked if the dishes of the day are agreeable to us and we all respond that if they’re put in front of us, they’ll get eaten. Thirty miles in and running on nothing but breakfast has us hankering for some home-cooked Italian goods and it certainly doesn’t disappoint. Spinach dumplings and a pork suet pudding would be a fine main course, but this is one of three. You don’t go hungry in the mountains in Italy.
Pudding comes and goes, all washed down with Coke and water, but after all that intake, there’s a sleepy lull that descends over our triumvirate. Lethargy is passed off as more time for the batteries to charge, as we stumble to check the power levels and nip to the little boys’ room. With the batteries now marching on towards full, Eugenio checks his watch and indicates we’d better get a move on. Our extended refuel and recharge has left less of the day than we might have hoped.
Getting back into the saddle takes more effort than I’d imagined. We’re several hours of spinning in, with some hefty elevation to boot, and having been static for an hour or two means the legs have started to seize up. Once back into the warm autumnal sunshine, with the prospect of bearing down on Forte Belvedere, we find a new urgency as we weave through fields, villages small and even smaller, before darting back into the still coolness of the forest once more.
In a commanding position above the valley, Forte Belvedere seems like the most sensibly positioned of the forts we’ve already passed, sitting right on the front edge of a prominent hill jutting out into the valley below. That we can see the fort from miles away means anyone inside would be able to see us, and train their cannons on us. Being the most well preserved, saved first by a royal decree and then by local investors before being bought out by the local municipality, it appears much as it would have done over a century ago.
Approaching the fort from the north, the beech forest is littered with small pillboxes, slit trenches and all the hallmarks of an early 20th century fort. It’s eerily quiet too. All WWI sites seem to carry with them a stillness, a calmness that is in drastic contrast to the conflict itself. This, combined with the tourists being long gone, there’s a spookiness about this fort, something mildly Marie Celeste.
My history degree geekery will have to wait as the museum is closed and we’re pressed for time. I’m taking any opportunity to check my phone for more facts on these places as we go. My mind boils over the minor details as we move from fort to fort. I could spend days at each one sifting through the minutia, but we don’t have the time.
Eugenio’s pace never seems to wane and we’ve given up trying to keep with him. The final climb is torturous. A seemingly never-ending set of fire road switchbacks that see us climb hundreds of metres towards Forte Sommo Alto, in another commanding position over the valley.
This is the penultimate fort and allows us some creepy wanders down darkened corridors. Phone torches don’t get Ali all that far, and I don’t blame him. Darkness seems to take over everything the deeper we go, and the cool limestone gives everything a spooky edge. This is the fort we can see from our hotel and one that’s been pointed out from the moment we arrived.
The final push, or last gasp?
By now, Ali and I are wondering what lies ahead. We’ve spent almost ten hours following a very fast gentleman about the Cimbran Alps, with our hotel never too far away from us, so it’s been hard to gauge where we’re at. Yet more fire road slowly reclaimed by the elements and nature comes and goes, mostly in ‘boost’ as legs start to scream. We’ve just one more fort to go, and it’s the biggest.
We pass empty pistes and deserted chairlifts while trying to keep our cadence up and the demand on the motor low, but it’s a losing battle. Boost is the only way now as we approach the pockmarked landscape of our final fort of the day, approaching the 90-kilometre mark. This has by far the most spectacular setting, the worst shell damage and has borne the brunt of many an alpine winter. The biggest Austro-Hungarian fort in the area, it has seen better days – mostly due to its isolated position.
What follows next is a half-dark blast down terrain much more like what Ali and I are used to. Flat out mega-technical singletrack down through a steep wood, dancing across rock and root into the setting sun. Ali complains he can’t hold on for arm pump, but he’s not going slow as I pick my way through the mess of features on a bike that up until now has been passable in its averageness. Here, trying to navigate familiar territory seems alien after the previous eleven hours of riding and it takes time to get back into the swing of things.
Yet more excellent singletrack follows. Eugenio smirks, knowing he’s taken us off the official route – but we’re not complaining. You wouldn’t want to race this stuff at the end of a 100km day. Or would you? We’re not that fussed. Up until this point Ali had never ridden anything like this distance, and I’d maybe done half that in the same time in Scotland.
Needless to say, food didn’t get chewed that night. We both slunk off to bed feeling awfully sorry for ourselves. Snuggling down for the night, I kept my eyes open just long enough to turn to the internet and sink myself further into the area’s military history.
Pete and Ali’s travel and accomodation were provided by Trentino Tourist Board
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