You may not find this terribly rewarding unless you're included here, so this is a good time for casual and random browsers to turn back before they get too caught up in the sweep and majesty of the proceedings and can't let go.
We were visiting the Veneto region north of Venice earlier this spring, and now we're back to see some more of what we missed farther south.
This past February we were visiting Bassano del Grappa and learnt about the role of the 1,775m peak of Monte Grappa itself in the horrors of the two World Wars. The ossuary and sanctuary for the dead young soldiers was convincingly recommended as a site worth exploring, but at that time of year the road to the summit was not safe. That's Monte Grappa as we're approaching Bassano from the west, 15 May 2017.
The road to the summit begins in the suburb of Romano d'Ezzolino and switchbacks 27km up through the 'Venetian Prealps' of the southern Dolomites.
Only one more kilometre of switchbacks to go
The Italian supreme commander in World War One, Luigi Cadorna (who generally comes off very badly in Mark Thompson's magisterial history The white war, 2008), did have the foresight to order the construction of extensive fortifications across, and within, this mountain massif, which overlooks Venice itself only 60km to the south.
The Sacrario is visible up on the summit hillside, but first we're going to do a little exploring in one of the main works of the fortifications, the Gallery Vittorio Emanuele III, a spidery web of tunnels leading to artillery and machine-gun posts in the mountain side as well as infirmaries, dormitories, and what not.
If all goes well inside the mountain, we're meant to be able to emerge near the temple at the top.
Technically, there were three battles on Monte Grappa between the Italians on the one side and the invading Austro-Hungarians, with German army support, on the other. In the first, following the catastrophic rout of the Italian army from the Isonzo front in the theatre-wide Battle of Caporetto in October-November 1917, the invaders planned to flank the Italian front line collapsing westward towards the Piave river by coming directly over the mountains.
The horrific first battle along the Monte Grappa massif, from mid-November to nearly Christmas 1917, resulted in the Austrians' failing to reach the summits and spending the winter staring at Venice in the distance, whilst the Italian lines were able to stabilize along the Piave.
A doorway with a pleasant view
A machine-gun position pointing towards the Valle delle Mure, northeast of the summit
The Rifugio Bassano from the side
The view to the north
Back into the rabbit warren
The second battle on the massif, in the summer of 1918, changed little in the relative positions, but on 24 October 1918, in the so-called third Battle of Monte Grappa, the Italians counterattacked in force as part of their wider counteroffensive -- the Austrians began a significant reinforcement but, as their Empire commenced to fall apart, they retreated beginning on 28 October, leaving behind enormous numbers of dead, wounded, and captured.
We're mountain-climbing from the inside.
Detailed interpretive signs, though only in Italian
Our own retreat from another dead end
Mind your head.
Bound for daylight
We're back out, near the Rifugio Bassano again.
"Don't! Just Don't!"
The river Piave below to the southeast
The Rifugio Bassano below the sanctuary, with the Piave beyond
We've emerged onto the sanctuary in the Austrian section, the 'Cimitero Austro Ungarico'
The view to the north
On the summit, the 'Cima Grappa'
The Austrian flag over one section of the mausoleum
A map of the battle. The village of Borso del Grappa lies out of sight on the plain just below the summit (we stayed there for a few nights in February).
The summit of Monte Grappa, with a cistern for capturing rainwater
The Italian colors on the summit
The 'Heroic Way' from the summit
Bassano del Grappa and the river Brenta to the southwest, which runs to the Venetian Lagoon and the Adriatic
Individual niches for the identifiable fallen soldiers . . .
. . . and bins for each hundred of the Unknown Soldiers
The Sacrario Militare del Monte Grappa
Down to the small museum
The monumental sanctuary was designed in 1932, to replace temporary graves scattered all over the mountaintop, and inaugurated in 1935.
The ossuary holds more than 12,600 Italian soldiers, of whom more than 10,000 were unidentified, and 10,300 Austrian-Hungarian men, of whom another 10,000 were unknown.
A machine-gun on a backpack. Monte Grappa saw unfortunate action in the Second World War as well, as partisans operating in the area sought refuge in the rough terrain of the massif. Germans and local fascists came after them in force, however, and killed a huge number of them on the heights, captured many more, and hanged those in downtown Bassano del Grappa in public demonstrations of the futility of resistance.
Soldiers arriving at the Milan barracks
A British artillery unit
Apparently that's the king and Mussolini opening the mausoleum in a parade of short guys.
Leftover odds and ends
The Rifugio Bassano / Cima Grappa
Get your chips and Gummy Bears
Leaving the Sacrario del Monte Grappa
Next: The wall walk in Cittadella