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July 31st 2018

A stage of the Via Alpina, … by bus!

On this last day in the Vinschgau I woke up early. This day as well would be very hot in the valley, so I made a plan to go by bus to the Stilfserjoch Pass: at 2.700 m it should somehow be cooler!


Mals: morning atmosphere with the sunshine already on the Ortler and the moon still high in the sky

After the usual elaborate and delicious breakfast I walked to the Mals bus station from where many bus lines were departing. I had to take the 271 line to Sulden/Solda, with a stopover in Stilfs/Stelvio, where we have to change to Stilfserjoch Pass. In this area about 97% of the population speaks German and 3% Italian. That the bus driver of Line 271 did not belong to that vast majority became clear when a couple of elderly German ladies asked him something and that he answered them rather impolitely and with raising his voice… That we did not strike lucky with this gentleman turned out later on when a frail old lady who got on the bus in Prad bei Stilfserjoch, liked to descend a few stops later. The moment the bus slowed down, the lady got up. The next moment the driver unexpectedly hit the brakes that fiercely that the old lady almost was launched… One of the passengers harshly confronted the driver with his style of driving – in Italian, whereby the words “caduta” and “responsabilità” were repeated several times: what if the frail lady had fallen (caduta) and broke anything, that the driver would carry the responsibility (responsabilità)! The driver replied with harsh words and the conversation took a while. The others in de bus began to shout “bravo!” and to applaud. I was in any case glad to leave the bus in Stilfs…

Stilfs is a village that appears to be “glued” against the mountain slope. There is a saying that “in Stilfs even the hens should wear crampons!” Here Stage 70 of the Red Trail of the Via Alpina to the Stilfersjoch Pass officially starts… This time I take the bus! The bus trip was spectacular: the beautiful panoramic views on the Ortler massif and the winding road toward the Pass with its many sharp hairpin bends. The bus shares the road with car drivers, motor bikers and cyclists – the road was not very wide, so every now and then we had to wait on each other. There are in total 48 turns from the little village of Trafoi…


Stilfserjoch: a marvellous view on the Ortler on the road from Trafoi


Stilfserjoch: again a wonderful view on the Ortler massif

About halfway the Pass level is a large hotel, Berghotel Franzenshöhe, that has a long, eventful history. It has originally been built for the Austro-Hungarian army and got its name when in 1832 Emperor Franz I. stayed there for a while. The bus stops for a moment – on the terrace cyclists were sitting with some water and motorcyclists with a beer. It is a prominent building that is still visible from great altitudes. After that our journey continued.

Enthusiasts consider climbing the Passo di Stelvio on bike is one of the highlights: one has to suffer over a distance of nearly 27 kilometres. In the bus everybody looked in admiration at the many cyclists who were sweating their way up, bend after bend. We all loved the picture we saw when we were nearly at the pass top: we spotted a father with his young daughter – he went in front and literally had her “on tow”. It was clear that she biking as well herself, because the rope wasn’t stretched…!


Stilfserjoch: leading by example – the “lifeline” hasn’t been used (yet)

At noon we got off the bus. We landed in a colourful world of triumphing cyclists, enthusiastic bikers and also of alpine skiers who came out of the cable car to the skiing areas on the glacier. There were stalls with French fries, sausages, sauerkraut sandwiches etc. and with souvenirs. At the Pass a kind of “village” has grown, with hotels and summer ski camps. Many young skiing talents are training here.

It has not been that peaceful all the time however: in the First World War the Stilfserjoch Pass was of major strategic importance. At many places information panels can be found about this period. Among the hustle and bustle a memorial, a large block of white marble, is placed on which in German and in Italian the Italian fallen in “la Guerra bianca” (the “white war”) resp. “der Krieg in Fels und Eis” (“the war in rock and ice“) are commemorated. The front of the Italian Mountain War 1915-1918 ran from the Ortler and the Stilfserjoch Pass to the River Isonzo/Soča near Gorizia and further to Ljubljana in Slovenia. The living and fighting conditions were atrocious…


Stilfserjoch: memorial for the fallen in the “War in Rock and Ice” during the First World War

There also was a modern chapel with view on the Pass road into the direction of Trafoi. A lot of people went in and out. Apparently many of them longed for a moment of silence and reflection.


Stilfserjoch: here also is a chapel – that is well-frequented

Next I reached road signs for the hikers – with the sign of the Via Alpina. The next time I really go on foot…


Stilfserjoch: the destination of Stage R70 of the Via Alpina – with Piz Umbrail in the background

On a mountain top, at about 100 meters above the Pass level, I spotted a building, to which a steep path lead: it was the Rifugio Garibaldi Hut. That was where I headed to, together with any others. The Rifugio is standing just on or nearby Swiss territory; the mountain is called the Piz dallas Trais Linguas, the Dreisprachenspitze or the “Three Languages Top”. Since the 1930s the mountain top is called the Cima Garibaldi. Here is also situated the Boundary Stone nr. 1 on the spot where the then Kingdom of Italy, the Double Monarchy Austria-Hungary and Switzerland shared the border. In the 1960s this Rifugio has been built approximately on the same spot where until during the First World War had been standing the Hotel Dreisprachenspitze, which was destroyed by bombs. On the flat ground behind the Hut information panels show the situation in the years 1915 to 1918. It is also possible to go for walks: the Swiss association “1914-1918 Stelvio-Umbrail-2014-2018” has developed several walks as part of the First World War. There is also referred to a Museum that has opened in 2007 in Sta. Maria in Val Müstair: the Museum 1914-1918. Another important reason to return to this area!

The temperature outside was for this altitude very pleasant and the terrace was evidently crowded. No wonder with such marvellous views! Inside it was cosy and I had a wonderful view through the windows as well. There was plenty of time to enjoy a sandwich and a glass of red wine. I looked quickly on the website and I could imagine meself staying here for a couple of nights… When I wanted to take a cart of the hut, one of the innkeeper’s young sons told me that I could put a stamp on it. The stamp and the ink pad were on the counter.

The bus back to Stilfs and from there to Mals would be leaving at 2 o’clock. Before that I had still time to enjoy the impressive scenery.


Stilfserjoch: view from the Rifugio Garibaldi Hut on the large glacier of the Ortler


Stilfserjoch: panoramic view from the Rifugio Garibaldi Hut on the Ortler-Alps

Also the Pass area with all its ado looked from the Dreisprachenspitze quite pleasant. I liked the quiet and the spacious surroundings up there ‘though.

Another aspect of this area dates back to a much longer past: it concerns rock from periods between 500 million and 220 million years ago. This interesting geological phenomenon is an “overthrust” of older layers of rock over younger layers of rock, caused by the collision of the African and European tectonic plates. The mountain range of Umbrail, with its highest peak, Piz Umbrail, which is situated to the north of the Stilfersjoch Pass in Switzerland, is a good example. An information panel indicates that it is clearly visible that the layer of rock at the bottom of the mountain slope consists of “Ortler-Campo-crystallin”. This is created 500 million years ago. Apparently the vegetation appreciates the acid soil. Over that layer a layer of “Hauptdolomit” (Main Dolomite) has been pushed – a sedimentary rock created by deposits of small crustacea in an age-old tropical sea. At the top of the Umbrail still another layer is visibly pushed over: made of so-called “Ötztaler crystallin”, which has also been formed 500 million years ago, but which differs in its composition from the Campo-crystallin. At the moment I was standing there it had become rather cloudy, so the view on the upper parting line is not very clear. I found it very special that I could discover – in 2018 – such an impressive display of primal force. I felt the same fascination last year in September in Elm (GL) at the “Glarus Overthrust”.


Stilfserjoch: view on the Umbrail mountain range with the overthrust fault of older rock formations over younger rock formations

The bus back to Stilfs left indeed on time; on the way back I spotted other things that I hadn’t notice on the way up, like encouragement slogans written on the concrete side bars on the bends. In one bend I saw “Pantani” written in capitals. Marco Pantani (1970 – 2004) has been a famous race cyclist, who on June 5th 1994 had won the 14th Stage of the Giro d’Italia, from Meran to Aprica over the Passo di Stelvio. He passed away in 2004, but “his” slogan can still clearly be seen…


Stilfserjoch: an encouragement slogan from a long time ago – the racing-cyclist Marco Pantani passed away in 2004…

Arriving in Stilfs I almost missed the bus – and with me many others. In this case as well the bus driver only spoke Italian – and he also wasn’t customer-friendly either… The bus – Line 271 again – arrived, passengers got out, the doors closed, the bus turned around and… just drove off! We had to run behind the bus, shouting out loud and waving our arms. He stopped luckily enough, but the only thing the bus driver grumpily said to me was: “Io fermo uno minuto” –“I stop for one minute”. One would not like to miss the last bus (at 7 o’clock p.m.!) that way… Back in the valley, in the village of Spondinig, I changed to the train that took me to Mals in a 10 minutes trip. In the evening a delicious meal was waiting for me a. o. with “home-made” tortellini with vegetables and a tomato sauce, and of course Parmesan cheese. To which the red Vernatsch wine tasted wonderfully!


Mals: as a starter home-made “tortellini” with vegetables in tomato sauce

The day ended in the same way it had started: with beautiful views on the surroundings. I have not hiked much on the tracks of the Via Alpina, but I have complied with the underlaying philosophy of the Via Alpina: to pay attention to the area around the stages! I will definitely return to this inspiring region, in which I would like to see and experience so much more.


Mals: evening atmosphere with a view on Tartsch and the mountain ridge above Prad bei Stilfserjoch