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

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - Front Page -

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

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