Sexten, Italy: meditations on a moment of madness

Richard Hodges has been visiting Sexten, where the alpine scenery still bears the traces of fighting in the First World War.


The heavens are ever blue and the Earth
shall stand sure, and blossom in the spring.
But you O man, what long life have you?
Not a hundred years may you delight
in all the rotten baubles of this earth.

From ‘Das Trinklied vom Jammer der Erde’ (‘The Drinking Song of Earth’s Sorrow’), first song of Gustav Mahler’s Das Lied von der Erde

Mitterberg fortress is set within the alpine splendour of the South Tyrol, with a view over the Tre Cime peaks. The region was once a retreat for the composer Gustav Mahler, but these idyllic valleys saw fierce fighting during the First World War.

The long months of the pandemic have felt very much like the end of an era. What lies before us is still something of a mystery. I only hope the future does not replicate the insane turn of events that heralded the last great epochal transition in world history in the 1910s. This is much in my mind as I return to a cluster of paradisical valleys in the South Tyrol, which in 1909 inspired the composer Gustav Mahler to sketch some of his most eloquent and transcendental music. In his little composing cabin on the lower slopes above Toblach (Dobbiaco), Mahler wrote the scores for Das Lied von der Erde, as well as his 9th Symphony. The alpine panorama evoked a sublime but transient humanism in his last great completed works. In little more than a year, the great artist had passed away, leaving the cabin to posterity – today an improbable appendage to a small zoo. Mahler conjures up a pre-mechanised age, an enchanted world in which man is principally challenged by a magisterial nature. Five years after Mahler’s passing, his world was eviscerated. A quintessential alpine Austrian valley was to become Italian. Total warfare engulfed these mountains leaving a mixture of monuments. The archaeology of this new era is a subliminal footnote to one of the most successful UNESCO World Heritage sites, the Tre Cime, a place where one can both metaphorically hear the echo of Mahler’s grandiloquent voice, and reflect, close to paradise, about the future that awaits us.

Shadows of war

Gustav and Alma Mahler.

For many years, I have been coming back to the Moos valley, not so far from Mahler’s cabin. For a few days I stay in a family hotel in late winter and high summer, opulently refreshing my spirit. The hotel occupies precisely the front-line that separated Italy and Austria in the First World War. Under the mighty gaze of the Tre Cime peaks occurred a military confrontation that summed up the insanity of a conflict that still baffles historians.

Italy, a latecomer to the First World War, was eventually persuaded by the Allies to attack the southern Tyrolian flank of the Austro-Hungarian empire. For two years, the armies faced each other in trenches from just north of Lake Garda to the Isonzo at the foot of the Slovenian Alps, mostly across the craggy, dizzily high peaks of the Dolomites. Soldiers braved sub-zero temperatures on skis and snowshoes, showing unimaginable resilience to defend granite outcrops that had long been the haunt of climbers and skiers. Alpine conditions prevailed as both sides resisted attacks and incursions, until the Italians withdrew to the south following the infamous Caporetto retreat in October 1917. The eventual armistice gifted Italy the southern valleys of the Tyrol, including Moos, Sexten, and the hills where Mahler composed. Today, this is technically an autonomous region (since 1971) within Italy. German is taught in the schools and signs explain to Italian visitors from the south how to park prettily. It remains a glorious cuckoo statelet where the Austrian resistance to the Italians in 1915-1917 is treated with appropriate respect.

Mahler’s composing cabin on the slopes above Toblach.

Sexten, the main village in this Tyrolian valley, is dominated by a baroque church with a high, helm-like tower. This tower was an enticing target for Italian gunners positioned on the Prati di Croda Rossa – at a height of nearly 2,000m – in the lea of the spiralling grey peaks. It was wantonly reduced to ruins. Shells also destroyed much of this alpine village, forcing its community to seek refuge back from the front-line. The archaeology of this conflict takes several forms, all invitingly reached by well-signposted trails radiating from the village. Each is blessed with views that would have excited Mahler.

Far above, 50 minutes’ climb from the village, is the well-preserved fort of Mitterberg. It remains a strange, well-proportioned relic among the scattered farms and skiing lodges overlooking the Moos valley. On the opposite hillside, anchoring the Austrian line, 30 minutes’ easy hike from Sexton, is the shattered fort of Haideck. Now no more than an untidy mound of stones in the dense forest, it was once a fort as formidable as Mitterberg. No less affecting is the so-called ‘Meditation Trail’, a three-hour circular route reaching northwards to a high stand of pines where, after the shelling of Sexten church, the community built an evocative timber replacement that survives to this day. Further north, on the slope overlooking the town of Innichen (San Candido), is a bucolic war cemetery for those on the Austrian side who perished in this unreal struggle. Lastly, in Sexten itself, immediately below its restored church, is a civic museum dedicated to the archaeology and combatants of this alpine episode in the Great War.

Sexten, looking towards the Tre Cime peaks and the former site of the Italian lines. Today, the village is dominated by its church tower.


Mitterberg fort occupies a sublime shoulder midway up the slope behind Sexten. In winter or summer, it commands a view of the Tre Cime peaks that is never less than dazzling. On any clear day, this stout affair looked towards the northern bulge of the Italian front-line immediately above Moos and the Italian camp – now an open-air museum – at the Prati di Croda Rossa. The fort dates to the moment when Italy became a country and claimed the Venetian territories that for long had been in Austro-Hungarian hands.

Beginning in 1884, Mitterberg along with Haideck and – in a neighbouring valley – Hohlensteintal were erected. A small pushcart railway was constructed in the valley to transport the materials for the forts to Sexten. A cableway led up the incline from the village to the construction site at Mitterberg. Completion was slowed as the Austrian armaments industry struggled to make the required steel armour-plating and turrets. By 1889, the forts were completed with three 12cm cannons, three 10cm armoured howitzers, and four 11cm machine-guns. In peacetime, Mitterberg was garrisoned by an officer and 24 NCOs and soldiers (in 1915 this would balloon to four officers and 160 NCOs and soldiers).

By 1901, another four forts had been constructed in the Dolomites to the east of Arabba. Together these strong points were intended to resist a hostile advance into Austrian territory. The seven forts represented a new generation of fortifications, specially developed for the alpine region by Colonel Julius Vogl. Each had a compact construction and featured the first placement of artillery behind steel armour. On one hand, the construction and operation of the forts involved investment in a region with weak infrastructure. On the other hand, these forts led to local restrictions for the alpine farmers and seasonal tourists.

Mitterberg lies on a slope behind Sexten village. A gun emplacement is visible on the closest part of the fort.

The forts were already structurally obsolete before 1914, and vulnerable to modern artillery attack. Due to budget restrictions, replacing the Sexten line was impossible, and so field batteries were added to the line to strengthen it. When Italy declared war on 23 May 1915, Austria’s barrier was well prepared. A continuous barbed-wire obstacle and trench system extended across these mountains. Between the forts were electrified wire obstacles. The forts themselves were almost immediately abandoned as such. When the Italians shelled the Mitterberg on 28 July 1915, it soon became clear that it was a sitting duck. The Austrians decided to disarm the building and disperse the guns to more-concealed points.

As of July 1915, the forts were downgraded to normal field positions in the second line of Austrian defence. So, after 30 years of service and only two months of late spring warfare, the Sexten barrier became obsolete. From this moment until the Italian withdrawal in 1917, Mitterberg served as a depot. After the armistice, it continued to be used until 1980 by the valley’s new occupiers, the Italian army, only then becoming a monument maintained in the past five years by the Bellum Aquilarum Foundation, which capably oversees all these Tyrolian monuments from the First World War.

Watching a farmhand deftly scythe his field next to the fort, it is hard to grasp this history. This is a world of enchanted pastures with their small barns, outhouses, and high ladder-like stands for drying hay and cereals, brilliantly green in summer and crystalline white in winter. All trace of the trenches and barbed wire is long gone, leaving Mitterberg as an incomprehensible memento to madness.

Fort Haideck

Cross the rushing river Fischlein (Fiscalina) below Sexten, and head northwards to the Moos village bridge, before turning up the incline into the thick pine forest to find the remains of Fort Haideck on a promontory at 1,400m. Its history exactly mirrors that of Mitterberg, and like the latter it cost more than 400,000 crowns to construct between 1884 and 1889. It had fewer guns than Mitterberg, but its peace and wartime garrisons were similar in number. Even before the outbreak of war in 1915, its guns had been removed. Italian shelling on the 28 July 1915 struck an empty building lit brightly to deceive the aggressors on the high mountains immediately to the south. Fort Haideck was partially demolished in 1918 and some of its stone used to reconstruct Sexten village. The granite covering of the façade of the fort was used to repair the staircase leading up to the refurbished Sexten church.

Today, the remains of Haideck fort can be found on a promontory in an area of pine forest.

The Meditation Path

The Waldkapelle, an emergency chapel built after the shelling of Sexten began, remains a monument to the spirituality of the farmers here. It had a second, covert life in the Second World War when German masses were banned by Italian fascists. The Meditation Path with 14 stations leads from Sexten church up the steep incline, then across the slope, circling back through enchanting pine woods down to the village. The stations are all sculpted from wood in a robust modernist plasticity and accompanied by laconic inscriptions in Gothic German derived from the Old Testament.

The Forest Chapel was built after Sexten church was damaged by shelling during the First World War. It went on to serve its community covertly in the Second World War, when German masses were banned in the region.

The Forest Chapel, as it is known, is an unexpected treasure. The village of Sexten was evacuated on 4 August 1915. Some villagers returned in June 1917, but as the church had been badly damaged by shelling, they erected this Forest Chapel in the Holzer Schluichte – the Woodman’s Ravine. From August 1917 until the spring of 1918, Father Schwaighofer conducted masses in this makeshift shrine every Sunday. The church is still very much in use, with a faux-baroque interior, and photographs of many of the late congregation who prayed here. The spirituality of the place, secreted in the tall pines out of sight of the gunners on the high peaks, is unvarnished but palpable. The sighing trees in the gentle breeze are the only sound in a place that would have surely resonated with the transcendental moods of Mahler.

It is an hour-long hike to Innischen (San Candido) – a deviation from the Meditation Path – but the cemetery that discreetly sits outside the town under a bower of tall pines contains the tombs of the many dead, soldiers and farmers, who fell victim to this crazy war. It is hard to grasp the grief conveyed by these headstones today in a place that brings such luminous pleasure to visitors.

Innischen cemetery, the last resting place for many of the soldiers and farmers who fell near here during the First World War.

Immediately below Sexten church is the museum dedicated to this Tyrolean conflict. A somewhat anonymous building, it holds peerless treasures of a world forgotten. Black-and-white photographs record the inhuman endeavours of both sides in wintry conditions. The pictures of building defences, camping, and fighting in deep snow on eyries designed for risk-taking climbers not infantrymen are simply mesmerising. No less fascinating are the reconstructions of life – of camps, first aid, cooking, and plain living in these harsh conditions. Then there is the material culture: the pots and pans of history, the camping stoves, and, of course, the weapons. Now in Italy, the Sexten museum takes no sides. Instead, it pays homage to the resilience as well as the folly. It captures the dazzling spirit of these extraordinary mountains at a time when age-old tourism was eschewed for militant nationalistic values.

The museum at Sexten contains artefacts and photographs relating to the fighting, as well as reconstructions, such as this mountain camp.

A kilometre from Mitterberg, past an alpaca farm and beyond a stand of pines, lies a wide ski slope high above the village of Moos. Here sits a refuge (Helmhanghütte/Pendio Mont’Elmo), which has an even better viewshed than Mahler’s erstwhile composing cabin. The German-speaking owner has a glint in her eye as she invites you to take a seat at a table. Below, the Fischlein (Fiscalina) valley, reaching to the towering Tre Cime, lies in front like a creased map, radiant. It is simply hypnotic. Even in lambent light, this is a magical place to reflect – to look across to the Prati di Croda Rossa and imagine the bewilderment and awe up there of conscripted Italians from newly framed regions as far away as Sardinia and Sicily. Dug in at over 2,000m, in summer they would have enjoyed the wheeling buzzards, the occasional chamois, and the low-fluttering swarms of moths gliding over lush pastures thick with flowers. But come winter and this was hell. Today, no place could be more inviting than this pleasing watering-hole. It is designed for families who can find their natural roots without the trauma of war. This refuge is the perfect place to cogitate on a world that graced Gustav Mahler’s music and now seems to be heading in a direction that, other than in this awe-inspiring place, is once more unsettling.

All images: courtesy of Richard Hodges.