By Laura Spinney
13 January 2014
(Daily Telegraph) – At first glance Peio is a small alpine ski resort like many others in northern Italy. In winter it is popular with middle-class Italians as well as, increasingly, Russian tourists. In summer there’s good hiking in the Stelvio National Park. It has a spa, shops that sell a dozen different kinds of grappa, and, perhaps, aspirations to be the next Cortina. A cable car was inaugurated three years ago, and a multi-storey car park is under construction.
But in Peio, reminders of the region’s past are never far away. Stroll up through the village and, passing the tiny First World War museum on your left, you come to the 15th-century San Rocco church with its Austro-Hungarian cemetery and sign requesting massimo rispetto. Here, one sunny day last September, 500 people attended the funeral of two soldiers who fell in battle in May 1918. […]
In the decades that followed the armistice, the world warmed up and the glaciers began to retreat, revealing the debris of the White War. The material that, beginning in the 1990s, began to flood out of the mountains was remarkably well preserved. It included a love letter, addressed to Maria and never sent, and an ode to a louse, ‘friend of my long days’, scribbled on a page of an Austrian soldier’s diary.
The bodies, when they came, were often mummified. The two soldiers interred last September were blond, blue-eyed Austrians aged 17 and 18 years old, who died on the Presena glacier and were buried by their comrades, top-to-toe, in a crevasse. Both had bullet holes in their skulls. One still had a spoon tucked into his puttees — common practice among soldiers who travelled from trench to trench and ate out of communal pots. When Franco Nicolis of the Archaeological Heritage Office in the provincial capital, Trento, saw them, he says, his first thought was for their mothers. ‘They feel contemporary. They come out of the ice just as they went in,’ he says. In all likelihood the soldiers’ mothers never discovered their sons’ fate. […]
Maurizio Vicenzi, a local mountain guide and the director of Peio’s war museum, whose own family fought for the Austrians, stumbled on the mummified remains of three Hapsburg soldiers hanging upside down out of an ice wall near San Matteo — at 12,000 feet, scene of some of the highest battles in history. The three were unarmed and had bandages in their pockets, suggesting they may have been stretcher-bearers who died in the last battle for the mountain, on 3 September 1918. When a pathologist was granted permission to study one of the bodies, to try to understand the mummification process, there was an outcry among local people who felt that the dead were being profaned. [more]