J OURNEYS: THE S P I R I T OF DISCOVERY
Ian Robert Smith tracks Ernest Hemingway through the heart of Slovenia’s Julian Alps
HEN my friend Samo starts talking about Ernest Hemingway, I decide he has finally lost it. It’s a clear and bright spring morning and we are standing, shin-deep in snow, on top of Crna Prst, the Black Mountain, a 2000m-plus behemoth that rises sheer behind his village in Slovenia’s Julian Alps.
The air up here is biting but the view, of snowy mountains gleaming in the sun, is breathtaking. To the north Samo points out Mt Triglav, Slovenia’s highest peak at 2864m. Westward, although we can’t see it, lies the Soca Valley. The Soca, Samo elaborates, is called the Izonzo in Italian and was the scene of bitter fighting between Italy and the Austro-Hungarian Empire during World War I.
It was here, in Slovenia, that Hemingway set A Farewell to Arms ,’’ he tells me. It was the novel that established Hemingway as a writer of consequence. Published in 1929 to critical and commercial acclaim (three film versions exist), the love story between a young American ambulance driver and an English nurse contains all the Hemingway ingredients: the cynical but sensitive hero, the doomed heroine, the caustic view of life. When Frederic Henry declares that the world breaks everyone and those who won’t break, it kills, he clearly isn’t fooling around.
I have read the novel but failed to place it here in the Alps, a region of intimidating beauty that attracts skiers, trekkers, paragliders, whitewater rafters and various other extreme sports enthusiasts.
Samo dismisses my ignorance with his characteristically murky logic, proclaiming, Of course there is no story without a but’.’’
We slalom down the mountain over a surface of ice and sodden leaves, passing memorials to mountaineers who slipped and fell to their deaths.
Next morning we drive to Kobarid, which Italians call Caporetto, and Hemingway described as a little white town with a campanile in a valley’’. We follow the Baca River along a precipitous valley that can hardly have changed much since the author’s time.
Slopes cloaked in oak, beech, ash, horse chestnut, larch and maple roll upwards to a teetering snowline. Diagonals of sunlight cut planes of light and shadow and dissolve mist from emerald fields, unveiling farmhouses, hayracks and grazing cattle. Villages line the road, knots of steeply roofed houses cluster around the tall spire of a church; each house has a tidy garden, colourful window boxes and a hewn stone chimney from which billows smoke, spicing the clean, cold air.
At Most na Soci we enter the Soca Valley and advance beyond Tolmein. Here the Soca River, tinted the colour of petrol, unwinds through a vivid patchwork of fields guarded by hilltop churches and flanked by the massifs of the Krn range. The idyllic scenery is hardly consistent with the ugliness of war but, as Samo observes, Italian Friuli lies over the westering mountains. This has often been inconvenient for us Slovenes.’’ In 1915 it was very inconvenient. Part of the Austrian Habsburg Empire