South Tyrol's bunker landscape
Lush, bright green meadows, dense forests and breathtaking mountain peaks. An idyllic natural landscape that you only recognise from picture books. Who would have guessed that South Tyrol's landscape hides well-camouflaged buildings with cold rooms and secret entrances that only the trained eye can see.
Today, the South Tyrolean architect and founder of the Institute for Applied Bunkerology Heimo Prünster accompanies us on an exciting journey through northern Italy's defence system: the "Vallo Alpino del Littorio". The colossal bunkers of the "Vallo Alpino" stretch along the Alpine border and have been familiar to him since his youth. Narrow, cold and without windows, buildings from which one would like to flee immediately. Nevertheless, for him and almost all young South Tyroleans in the 1990s, they were places of freedom, where you could escape adult control, take tests of courage or party – actually a contradiction in terms. For a long time after the war, nobody knew anything about South Tyrol's bunker landscape and its extent. The lack of interest in these buildings was closely linked to the traumatic events of the Second World War. According to Heimo, this is a sensitive topic that reminds the older generation in particular of the war period, Mussolini's dictatorship and fascism.
Remains of a subterranean world
As part of his degree dissertation, he first had a close look at the Vallo Alpino. He had hardly found any documentation or files on the subject. But that is precisely why he was so fascinated by the bunker landscape of South Tyrol at the time: He wanted to get to the bottom of the unexplored. "Nowadays, it hardly ever happens that a 100-year-old building stands in South Tyrol and nobody knows anything more about it," says Heimo. The first clues were provided by Alessandro Bernasconi and Gianni Muran, two Italians with an extraordinary passion for bunkers who carried out real pioneering work. The plans and files on the construction of the bunkers were scattered all over the world and were kept secret for a long time. It was only in the 1990s that they were made publicly accessible. "The documents found are mainly from the post-war period. Often incomplete and only second-class material, so-called "materiale scartato". There is very little material from the original construction period."
The Vallo Alpino – a total failure
The construction of the first defences began in the early 1930s on the borders with France and Yugoslavia. It did not seem necessary to secure the borders with Austria and Switzerland in those years. However, this changed in 1938 after the annexation of Austria to the German Reich. Even though Hitler and Mussolini sealed their friendship in the Steel Pact of 1939, Mussolini's mistrust of Hitler was aroused. He secretly had a colossal defence system built along the Alpine border: The "Vallo Alpino del Littorio" popularly known as the "linea non mi fido". Within a few months, from the end of 1939 to the autumn of 1940, the rampart was erected at breakneck speed.
Around 3,000 plots of land were expropriated from the South Tyroleans for its construction. It was the time of the option and many decided to emigrate. The South Tyrolean population felt unfairly treated, betrayed and abandoned. And even though no forced labourers were involved in the construction, only Italian construction companies were commissioned. For the local population, the bunkers were foreign bodies.
Over 1,000 bunkers were planned, 306 were completed by many thousands of regularly paid workers and a further 135 remained unfinished construction sites. A project of unimaginable dimensions and enormous scale. Heimo compares the major Vallo Alpino project with the construction of the Brenner highway. "Within one year, more than 1.68 million cubic metres of concrete were used in the South Tyrolean section of the Alpine Wall. The same amount of concrete as for the construction of the Brenner highway to Salurn." A huge mass, comparable to a cube, with a base area of 100 × 100 metres and a height of 150 metres. The construction of this facility was an extreme challenge and ultimately a pure waste of resources. The Vallo Alpino was already outdated during construction and was not designed to combat heavily armoured vehicles.
However, the Alpine Wall was no longer a secret. German spy photos documented Italy's absurd plans. Many of the photographs were taken in haste and in danger of being discovered, and are therefore often blurred or difficult to see.
Invisible concrete giants
Nowadays, the topic of bunkers is no longer taboo in South Tyrol. In recent years, Heimo has done a lot of educational and public relations work. From 2019 to 2022, he led the first research project on the Alpine Wall on behalf of the South Tyrolean Provincial Museum Fortress Franzensfeste. Which has been presented in autumn 2023. Heimo's eyes light up. He is very excited because something is finally happening. "Visitors will be presented with a precise online map showing the various locations of the bunkers, as well as information about planned and completed bunkers. This map will be a further breakthrough to these last fortresses of modern times." South Tyrol's bunkers are perfectly integrated into the landscape. Each bunker is unique and has its own characteristics. They are camouflaged differently depending on the location and local conditions: often as imitation rocks or mounds of earth, some even as detailed replicas of a local farmhouse, with hearts painted on shutters. The surroundings became a "fighting machine", as the enemy was to be surprised during the attack.
Bunker barriers were erected both on the valley floor and on alpine ridges. The attacker usually had to break through at least 3 fortified barriers. These barriers were located at strategic points such as forks in the valley, narrow passages or ledges. For the most part, they ran from one side of the valley to the other and consisted of a functional unit: several bunkers, anti-tank obstacles and minefields. The artillery bunkers were located on the sides of the barriers, while the normal combat bunkers and/or anti-tank guns were located on the valley floor. From the command bunker, often equipped with observation towers, it was possible to spy out the area, send signals via infrared light and transmit instructions via radio or telephone. This required perfect interaction between the systems. This was because the bunkers only had a limited field of fire and were aligned in such a way that they provided cover for each other. The distance between the bunkers was determined by the range of the weapons. Italy's bunker landscape therefore appears to have been thought through down to the smallest detail.
As luck would have it, the bunkers were not armed until the very end. The Alpine Wall would therefore not have worked anyway. Even before the Alpine Wall was completed, the monstrous construction became superfluous. When the German troops marched in, there was no resistance and not a single order was given for defence. Heimo speaks of "luck and blessing" that the bunkers were never used. "It would have been a massacre and South Tyrol would have been a single battlefield." Only a few bunkers were used during the Cold War as part of the NATO defence concept. They were then transferred from the military to the province of South Tyrol and auctioned off. Today, most of the bunkers are privately owned. "Only 20 bunkers were placed under monument protection by the state," Heimo reports critically. "The decision was made by an endeavoured commission, but the knowledge base for sustainable decisions was lacking. So these bunkers are scattered around the country. It would have made more sense if important parts of a barrier (a so-called functional unit) had been placed under a preservation order. This would have made it possible to bring this valuable cultural heritage to public attention, recognise the multi-layered interconnectedness of the buildings in the landscape context, and show the different areas of responsibility in a meaningful way."
A second life
Today, the difficult question arises whether and how these colossal concrete giants can be used for other purposes, which is particularly difficult due to the thick walls and their unique shape. Nevertheless, some of these fascinating structures have been brought back to life and given a second chance. One of the largest bunkers in South Tyrol is the Gampen Bunker, just behind the summit of the Gampen Pass on the Deutschnonsberg. It would be an understatement to say that this is a masterpiece of engineering – it's like a skyscraper hidden in the mountain. Heimo shows me the reconstruction of the bunker. He had already been able to demonstrate his expertise here, too. "There are several underground bunkers that are connected by long corridors and staircases over four levels inside the mountain. A base, also known as "Camposaldo". The entire complex is 145 metres high and almost 500 metres long." Words fail me. It is an underground labyrinth of corridors, niches and recesses. A dangerous giant monster! Other contemporary witnesses to the events are the so-called Bunker Mooseum in Moos in Passiria, the Bunker Museum in Dobbiaco, Bunker No. 3, which is part of the Franzensfeste fortress and, more recently, the permanent exhibition "Bunkered in. Bunkers in South Tyrol" inside the Fortress Franzensfeste provincial museum.
If you are looking for a special place of art and culture, you should have a look at Bunker Susa No. 23 in Tartsch in the Vinschgau Valley. This bunker has undergone a true transformation by the designer and artist Benny von Spinn. A war machine became a peace memorial. During the artist's lifetime, there were organised parties, events and exhibitions. A symbol of creativity, freedom and encounters. There is another bunker in Mühlbach with a completely different purpose. Here, the South Tyrolean star chef and cheese maker Hansi Baumgartner has found an ideal place for maturing and refining cheese specialities. Over 200 varieties are stored in the cool rooms with a maximum temperature of 10 degrees and a humidity of 85%. Mouldy, dark and cold – the right conditions for spores, fungi and microorganisms to develop. The cheese is refined with liquorice, shake bread and beer, coated with cocoa beans and refined with seaweed. The round delicacies can be purchased in a small shop in Vahrn near Brixen. "Stockener's Genussbunker", a natural stone bunker near Bruneck, is also used as a maturing cave and storage room for South Tyrolean and international cheese specialities such as the famous blue cheese.
But there are many other ways to use these humid, dark caves: for example as a specialized wine cellar, a distillery for whiskies or wines, to grow mushrooms or as a training centre for the fire brigade. Even the March hut at an altitude of almost 2,500 metres under the Marchkinkele was once one of the 50 bar-shaped bunkers built on the border between Austria and Italy. The concept for the "Schusterbauer Bunker" in Schabs, which Heimo Prünster designed for the municipality in 2014, involves a completely different type of use. The aim was to emphasise the human experience of the bunker and offer the opportunity to experience the bunker in its original space: Complete isolation from the outside world, dead silence, confinement and darkness are the most striking features of this building. The idea was not only to open up the interior to the public, but also the exterior by creating a playground above the bunker. Individual parts of the bunker were to be recreated 1:1 there: A bisected embrasure was to reveal the thick walls, and a climbing frame was to depict the crew compartment. There is also a playground on an old bunker of the Vallo Alpino near the Bunker Spinges recreation area. Today, the focus here is on fun, games and recreation in nature.
Traces of contemporary history
Even if a new purpose has been found for many bunkers, most of them remain well camouflaged and hidden under a dense layer of vegetation. Integrated and assimilated into the landscape, they remain witnesses to a bygone era. Currently, bunkers are arousing increasing interest throughout Europe, and more and more admirers are seeking them out on hikes. So if you feel inspired, you should visit these impressive relics of a bygone era:
- As if carved out of the rock, the bunkers are located high up on the steep rock faces on the west side of the Kreuzberg Pass. Small, cold structures, grey in grey.
- No, they are not screes or harmless hills, but freestanding bunkers. This type of construction is quite different again: it can be found in the Höhlenstein Valley, near Spinges or the Helm in the Sexten Dolomites.
- Large bunkers can be found at Ochsenbühel, between Franzensfeste and Schabs, at Tartscher Bühel near Mals and at the Gampen Pass. Here you face an enormous labyrinth of tunnels in a completely hollowed-out rock formation. Only the observation tower usually sticks out. However, many parts of these tunnels are in danger of collapsing!
- The old military road on the Brenner border ridge offers a breathtaking tour. Here you can not only admire the fantastic views over the Eisack Valley and into the Dolomites, but also all the bunkers and border barracks.
- The 9-kilometre circular hike in the Vinschgau Valley, right on the border between Austria and Italy, is also highly recommended. Here you can admire the Plamort armoured barrier, the so-called dragon's teeth, and enter the various bunkers around it.
Exploring the world of these subterranean giants has become a life's work for Heimo alongside his profession as an architect and visualiser. Time and again, historical gaps are filled and new insights into these almost mystical structures emerge. Concrete labyrinths that are definitely worth a visit.