In the summer we moved to Greece some 15 years ago we spent time with a Slovenian friend before setting off on the last stage of our journey south. Of all the resplendent landscapes we discovered with her that month the Julian Alps glittered brightest. Part of the Southern Limestone Alps – spanning Austria, Italy and Switzerland as well as Slovenia – the mountains were the same misty grey as the feathers of a dove, clad in a skirt of dark-green larch trees and studded with sharp and magnificent pinnacles. Snow still gleamed off the highest spires, a beguiling winter light that shone deep into our summer stay. But as striking as the Julian Alps are in their physical appearance, part of their appeal stems from their specific geological heritage.
Limestone is the unrivalled history book of place. If we had some way of decoding all its varied and complex signs, some Rosetta Stone to aid with translation, limestone would be the most telling of geologies. It is a stone that is largely composed of the fragmented remains of marine organisms, the compressed microskeletons and shells of antique sea creatures that sifted downwards through water at their deaths. To walk a limestone ridge, whether in the Julian Alps or the Jura mountains of France and Switzerland, is to make your way crab-like across the bed of an ancient ocean, clambering across countless compacted life forms that have been lifted into the sky by powerful tectonic movements, becoming in their transfigured state the ideal realm for vultures, gods and the human imagination.
However, limestone’s unique appeal does not stem solely from it being a store of ancient aquatic creatures – that “crushed reef of memory”, as Anne Michaels so memorably describes it in her novel Fugitive Pieces – but also because it weathers and ages so easily, reminding us that even stone is in motion in its lifetime. As though in solidarity with its oceanic origins limestone is soluble, slowly but irrevocably dissolving upon contact with water. Each and every rainfall since its creation is recorded in the grooves and runnels of the rock; each season of snowmelt archived in its deepening hollows and dips. Limestone is an almanac of precipitation, inscribed with ever greater lines and creases as it grows older, ageing and weathering like the human face. And just as the experiences of the world score our features, so we leave marks and traces on the surface of the earth.
At 1,611 metres, the Vršič Pass is the highest crossing in the Julian Alps. From it you are nearly encircled by astonishing peaks, brought so near to their jagged grey pedestals that it can feel like you are soaring alongside them. But long after we had scrabbled up a slope of scree to reach the summit of Slemenova Mountain, where the Julian Alps spread in all directions as though we rode the high crests of a roiling grey sea, it turned out to be a human tribute in those mountains that lingered with me most vividly. The exquisite wooden chapel is set amid larches on the north side of the Vršič Pass, and its unlikeliness in the landscape is striking: a bulbed tower on either side of the nave; a set of simple graves; a small stone pyramid inscribed “To the Sons of Russia” in Cyrillic script.
In memory of the men who lost their lives in these mountains, the chapel was built in 1916 while the First World War raged across Europe. As the Vršič Pass took on increasing strategic significance as a way for the Austro-Hungarian Army to supply its soldiers battling Italian forces on the Isonzo Front, the authorities ordered a military road to be built up and over the Alps to reach them. It was Russian prisoners of war who carried out the work.
Officially renamed the Russian Road in 2006, the prisoners’ combined and arduous effort rises through two-dozen hairpin bends on either side of the pass, an astonishing 15 miles laid through the alpine wilds. Begun in the spring of 1915, the road was completed by the end of that year, a remarkable feat of labour and engineering; but to make the supply route traversable in all seasons the PoWs were ordered to keep the road shovelled clear of even the heaviest snows. So it was that in March 1916 an avalanche buried the work camp, killing hundreds of Russian prisoners and dozens of their Austrian guards. To commemorate their comrades the remaining PoWs built the chapel of dark-stained wood that still stands near the pass.
The chapel was locked on the day we were there so I peered through a window, discovering a black-and-white photograph framed on the vestibule wall. The photograph I took of it through the pane of glass now sits on my desk – an image nested within an image, like one of those Russian babushka dolls that contains an even smaller one inside. It shows the chapel backed by a sparser, more ragged winter forest, presumably cut for building materials and the army’s ravenous need for fire and fuel. At its front, where I’d climbed the limestone steps to the door, are gathered hundreds of men. Judging from their uniforms, those who are seated appear to be Austro-Hungarian officers and soldiers while the Russian PoWs stand at the back, several of them wearing the tall fleece hats of the Cossack regiments.
As far as I can tell the photograph was taken in 1916 during the opening ceremony for the chapel. Even with the aid of a magnifying glass the men are too small to divine much beyond their solemn expressions, but long after they walked away from the Russian chapel, returning to their respective wartime duties as guards and prisoners that winter, the story of their time on the mountain will be visible. They scored the limestone with an unforgettable line.