all quiet on the Soča front
The First World War put Kobarid on the map, and Ernest Hemingway immortalized it with a throwaway line in A Farewell To Arms. “I remembered it as a little white town with a campanile in a valley. It was a clean little town and there was a fine fountain in the square,” wrote Hemingway, whose experiences driving a Red Cross ambulance at the Soča front helped shape one of the greatest novels of the twentieth century.
Hemingway never actually set foot in Caporetto, as Kobarid was known during WWI when it was still under Italian control. After being turned down by the U.S. army on account of his poor vision, Hemingway volunteered for the Red Cross, arriving in Europe in the final year of the war. He was wounded by shrapnel from a mortar explosion after only a couple of months, and spent half a year recovering in a Red Cross hospital, swapping stories with other wounded men — stories he would later bring to life in the pages of A Farewell To Arms. That he never visited Kobarid has not stopped the town from trumpeting its association with the famous writer in the hopes of boosting its tourist appeal.
Even without Hemingway, however, the town’s name will forever be etched into history books as the place that witnessed the greatest breakthrough and military victory of the First World War. Spurred by news of Russian victories in the East, Italy had broken its alliance with the Central Powers and attacked the Austro-Hungarian Empire in May 2015. The Italians hoped for quick victory, and much like the war’s other participants found their expectations to be utterly unrealistic. Italy ended up launching eleven offensives over the course of two and a half bloody years, which failed to dislodge the Austro-Hungarian troops from their defensive positions in the Julian Alps and along the Soča River. The twelfth offensive belonged to Austria-Hungary. Led by German reinforcements, the Central Powers routed the Italians at Kobarid and sent them into a 100-kilometer retreat, which Hemingway so vividly depicted in his novel.
Staying in Bovec, just 20 kilometers away, we were completely unaware of all this history, and likely would have skipped Kobarid altogether on our way from Bovec to Vipava if D hadn’t stopped to talk to a local guide while packing our car after breakfast. D had asked for hiking recommendations, and she mentioned that not only were there some nice hikes around Kobarid, but also a WWI museum that was worth visiting.
Small and unassuming, the Kobarid museum was proclaimed the best museum in Europe by the Council of Europe in 1993, and the honor is well-deserved. It has an impressive collection of interesting artifacts from the war, arranged in well-curated exhibits with descriptions in four or five languages, but the museum’s real success lies in its ability to present the story of the fighting that ravaged the Soča front without taking sides. Our only regret was that we had to rush through some of the exhibits.
Munchkin had fallen asleep on the drive from Bovec, so we were able to explore the museum’s first floor in relative peace. It was dedicated to the nascent Austro-Hungarian air force, which waged a valiant but losing battle against the numerically superior Italian squadrons. One of the museum’s highlights is a 20-minute documentary composed of remarkable footage of the war and narrated alternately in various languages. The English version went on shortly after we arrived. Unfortunately, the on-screen explosions roused Munchkin from his slumber, which complicated the rest of our visit. He sat still during the film screening, but grew cranky soon afterwards, forcing us to cut our visit short.
Hiking around the Julian Alps, it boggles the mind that a century ago the area was ravaged by vicious warfare — both because the Soča River is so beautiful as to make the very notion of internecine fighting on its banks seem ludicrous and because the Alpine terrain could not be less suited for warfare. The image of WWI that most readily comes to mind is that of rolling fields mutilated by barbed wire and trenches. Along the Soča front, however, the fighting took place in the mountains. The Italian attackers and Austro-Hungarian defenders dug their positions into precipitous hillsides, and remained there through two bitter, frozen winters, neither side budging from its entrenchments. We toured some of the trenches, which remain preserved a century later.
From the museum, we drove up into the nearby hills to see an impressive Italian memorial that was erected after Italy reclaimed Kobarid. We then retraced our steps and hiked to the surprisingly pretty Kozjak waterfall, which plummets into an azure lake through a narrow crack in a canyon wall. By the time we returned to the car, the afternoon was all but over and we still had a two-hour drive to Vipava, the last destination on our Slovenian tour. Much of the road lay alongside the Soča River. As we left the valley, we were treated to more stunning views of its teal waters, none more spectacular than the tiny town of Kanal, which is bisected by the river.