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These Lonely Mountains Saw the Rise of Napoleon and the Fall of the Axis Powers

National Geographic grantee Riley Arthur is documenting the Erased of Slovenia- 200,000 non-ethnic Slovenian residents who were not automatically granted citizenship after the country split from Yugoslavia in 1991.  A decade later, the community is still fighting for documentation. These stories are about the Erased and the places they live. 

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Triglav National Park, deep in the Julian Alps, boasts beautiful landscapes and a rich military history. Near the Italian and Austrian borders, mountain climbers can still find WWI relics, but the rocky region has seen battles for thousands of years. In Ancient Roman times this was Roman territory, and as recent as WWII some of the territory of this region that borders between Slovenia and Italy has changed.

One of the most prominent rivers in this region is the Soča River or “emerald beauty,” as it’s marketed, with its striking bright turquoise and emerald shades, popular with daring white water rafters.

White Water Kayaker braves the freezing waters of the Soča River. Kayaking and rafting this river is quite dangerous leaving yearly fatalities. Photo: Riley A Arthur
White Water Kayaker braves the freezing waters of the Soča River. Kayaking and rafting this river is quite dangerous leaving yearly fatalities. Photo: Riley A Arthur

Above the Soča the strategically placed Napoleon Bridge has seen centuries of battles. It began as a wooden bridge but was first demolished by Venetians in 1616; it was rebuilt as a stone structure in 1750 and shortly after Napoleon’s troops marched across the river, hence its namesake.

In WWI Austrians blew the bridge up, and the Italians rebuilt the bridge as a wooden and iron structure. In WWII the Partisan Army defended the bridge. The Napoleon Bridge has since been restored to its stone design; there are other bridges in the region also named after the emperor.

Napoleon Bridge over the Soča River with the Julian Alps peeking out behind the foggy cloud coverage. Photo: Riley A Arthur
Napoleon Bridge over the Soča River with the Julian Alps peeking out behind the foggy cloud coverage.  Photo: Riley A Arthur

The Napoleonic history of the region includes urban legends of Napoleon’s troops on horseback falling to their death after an old wooden bridge collapse. I haven’t been able to verify this story, but peering over the steep cliffs of the supposed location with the freezing rapids hundreds of feet below sent chills down my spine.

Standing beside this local legend of a bridge is the Kluže Fortress. First built in the 15th Century, its first territorial defense was against the Turks. In 1797 the fort was burnt to the ground by Napoleon’s troops, but was rebuilt 1882. Fortress Kluže regularly holds WWI re-enactments, but regrettably the two times I visited this site, the military museum within the fort was closed.

Rusting ladder leading to Fort Hermann. Photo: Riley A Arthur
Rusting ladder leading to Fort Hermann. Photo: Riley A Arthur

On the top of the cliffs beside Kluže Fortress, lies the ruins of Fort Hermann. Built for WWI in 1909, it was destroyed during the war in 1915. The short hike to Fort Hermann begins in a dark tunnel carved through the mountain. The hike is steep with loose rocks, and despite it being muddy the day we hiked it was not a difficult hike.

Before reaching the summit at the fort on the left is a cement pillbox that overlooks the foggy mountains with Kluže Fortress below. The ruins of the fort left to decay in the elements are not maintained, but the site evokes emotion as one imagines what it must have been like stationed at this outpost.

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Tunnel Opening on the hike to Fort Hermann. Photo: Riley A Arthur

We stayed at a friend’s house in nearby Bovec. He told us stories of how his grandfather independently supported his family as a teen, hiking into these mountains collecting scrap metal from WWI and WWII. How his grandfather narrowly escaped sure death during WWII by fleeing into the mountains he knew so well, as Italians killed the family who was harboring him in their barn. My friend’s house, built by this grandfather, displays rusting WWI bullets and buckles on the mantel that family members have found in the region.

During WWI over twelve battles were fought in the Julian Alps region, now part of Triglav National Park, where an estimated 300,000 troops died. I wasn’t able to find statistics on the Napoleonic battles, neither of the region nor of WWII fatalities. Though today the mountains seem so majestic and beautiful, it is hard to believe they were ever anything but peaceful.

No picture that I’ve seen or taken really do the region justice. This area is a must for history buffs, hikers, climbers, white water rafters, kayakers; or for someone like me with curiosity to learn more about a country with so much beauty and history that has until now been slightly over looked by its better known neighbors.

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