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July 29th 2018

Fruit, old houses and a war memorial

This morning I started off without a fixed plan once again, but I had a destination however: a building of which I supposed that it was a war memorial, because an Italian flag was flying. It is situated alongside the main road from the Reschen Pass to Mals. I passed this building already many times, when I took the bus to Switzerland. It has a somewhat grim appearance. Meanwhile I know that it is called the Ossuary of Burgeis…

But first I climbed the steep slope in the village Tartsch, near my hotel, towards one of the many “Waale”, the age-old irrigation canals which are dug in the mountain slopes of the extraordinarily dry Vinschgau and in this way enabling agriculture and horticulture. I followed the signs pointing to small tracks along endless orchards where the apples were already growing big. In these orchards the principle of “integrierter Obstanbau” (“integrated fruit farming”) is applied, so with a strong emphasis on a sustainable approach and a choice of varieties matching the climate and the type of soil. There also is an umbrella organisation, called Südtiroler Apfel (South Tyrolean Apple); the apples from South Tyrol have the European seal of “Protected Geographical Indication”. They do not only grow well, but also in a sustainable way!

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Mals: apples in an orchard with integrated cultivation

Moreover I had seen from my hotel also some bunkers higher uphill – I would like to have a closer look at them. The question was ‘though how close I could get to them. That proved quite easy: they weren’t used by the military anymore. The closer I got, the more the largest bunker looked like a modern piece of art: with a “roof terrace” with a barred fence and several multicoloured flags. A large trailer was parked back to front in one of the larger openings… The old fence with the prohibition sign in Italian and in German: “Militärzone – Unpassierbare Grenze” (Military zone – unpassable boundary) laid flat at the roadside. The view on the Orlter mountain ridge was impressive – and the ripe apricots looked very appealing… Because I slightly felt that I had crossed a private boundary, I walked back again.

From a little lower on the mountain slope I had a view towards the southeast, over the village of Tartsch and over the strangely barren rock, the Tartscher Bichl, rounded by the glaciers of earlier times. To the southwest I saw the Val Müstair Valley and the village of Taufers, where Stage 69 of the Red Trail of the Via Alpina to Stilfs/Stelvio starts. But that could perhaps be tomorrow’s plan…

At a next bunker I could not continue: fence with a padlock, prohibition signs I could not ignore… Only after a few detours I noticed at the side of Mals a sign indicating that the footpath along the Mitterwaal was closed until further notice. I see…!

The detour wasn’t not that unpleasant after all: across meadows (where I was quite aware of sprinkler irrigation systems that could suddenly go off!) and on roads with high hedges on both sides with every now and then vistas to the farmlands and meadows behind them. A solitary sunflower was standing there, visited by a busy humblebee. I also passed vast strawberry fields.

On the next accessible path to the Mitterwaal I had a nice view on Mals with its many church towers. I heard the sound of the river Adige / Etsch that flows below.

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Mals: view of the town from the north east

Where the Mitterwaal should live up to its name as an irrigation canal, it proved to be a dry didge overgrown with grass… It was a nice footpath ‘though to walk on with a lot of green that provided some shelter against the meanwhile rather warm sunlight. One could see that it is an ancient path because of the large trees and the stone walls.

After a while I saw in the distance the beautiful white building of the Marienberg Abbey above Burgeis, rising up halfway the mountain slope. Also in my field of vision was a bunker, which as many bunkers here in this period of prolonged drought, suddenly had become very visible! The grass growing on top has withered, as opposed to the grass in the surroundings, which of course is irrigated.

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Mals: view on the Marienberg Monastry and a overgrown bunker (in front)

At some point the dry ditch alongside the path ended and the path lead to a paved road. After walking on the public road for a while I was able to take a narrow path meandering through the green, wide plain between the high mountain slopes. This plain is called the “Mals Heath”: it is created by a land- or mountain slide from long ago, or even by a collapse of a mountain. It runs from around the Reschen Pass to Mals and beyond. It is a fertile area with a height difference of over 800 metres. Apparently it is one of the remaining areas in South Tyrol where the skylark has its habitat. On an information panel is stated that because of the change from “Berieselung” (drip irrigation) to “Beregnung” (sprinkler irrigation), the skylark population had severely diminished.

After crossing this green oasis two old buildings came in sight: the Marienberg Abbey and the Fürstenberg Castle. The Abbey dates back to 1196 and the Castle to 1272.

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Burgeis: view on the Fürstenberg Castle (front) and the Marienberg Monastery (back)

On entering the village of Burgeis I passed by an old small church: the St. Michael Church, which is also indicated as a Pest Chapel. It has been inaugurated in 1663 – however already in 1630 the idea had occurred to the inhabitants to build a church in honour of the Saint Archangel Michael if the Pest would pass them by. Further into the village there is a plaque on the wall of the Sennerei Burgeis, the central diary of Burgeis, on which is stated that Johannes Evangelist Holzer, the famous fresco painter from the 18th century, was born in this house as son to the Castle’s miller. Although little of his works has been preserved, the frescos are considered of an extraordinary quality. The people of Burgeis think highly of their famous fellow townsman J.E. Holzer from over 200 years ago as the school centre is named after him.

An important landmark is the Fürstenberg Castle, which is visible from all directions. It now hosts the “Fachschule für Land- und Forstwirtschaft”, the Technical College for Agriculture and Forestry, of the Autonomous Province of Bolzano.

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Burgeis: partition between the rock and the wall of the Fürstenberg Castle

I strolled through Burgeis, which was mentioned for the first time in a charter dating back to 1160. There are many authentic and picturesque houses, some of them are decorated with sgraffiti and other wall paintings. The houses are numbered, there are only a few street names. Here is an impression:

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Burgeis: “House nr. 66”

Somewhere I spotted a sign pointing to the “Bergsee”, the Mountain Lake, on a walking distance of 15 minutes. So I climbed the hillside in search for some coolness. Just outside the village I spotted a few bushes of red currants – so ripe they almost burst out of their skin: that was red – white – blue in combination with a little cloud and the blue sky! But they grew behind a sturdy chain link fence…

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Burgeis: red currrants, white cloud and blue sky

The mountain lake was fairly large but also rather crowded. Therefor I walked on and saw in the distance again the Mals Heath with a nice small church and the Ossuary from the First World War, the destination of today. From this altitude the vastness of this plain was clearly visible.

The views over Burgeis into the direction of Mals and the mountain chain in the distance were also impressive! The yellow patches are not withered meadows, but grain fields, especially rye. The shining silvery patches are covered fruit orchards!

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Burgeis: view on Burgeis and Mals in the distance

After a long and warm descent through light larch woods I reached the village again at the point where I started the trip to the mountain lake. From there it took only a few minutes to go to the small St. Nicolas Church. Above the entrance gate was the effigy of what I image to be Sinterklaas, the Dutch version of Santa Claus: with mitre and episcopal staff… The small church dates back to 1199 and according to the information panel there are some interesting frescos inside. The front of the church is hidden behind an enormous, sweet smelling lime tree.

From the St. Nicolas Church it is only a short distance to the Ossuary, but it also is a dangerous trip: one has to cross the main road zig-zagging through the Mals Heath. At first I followed a farmers’ trail leading me through a small tunnel, but the next time I had to wait for quite some time before I was able to cross the busy road! Once at the “War Memorial at the Reschen Pass” the place made me feel rather depressed… There are information panels made of Corten steel in Italian, German and English. Here is written in short about the history of this Ossuary. In 1939 this building was put here by the Italian Fascist Regime to rebury the remains of Italian soldiers, fallen in the First World War and dug up from other, no longer existing war cemeteries. Not only soldiers with the Italian nationality are resting there, but also soldiers from the Austrian-Hungarian Army. For this purpose places on the borders of Italy with the “enemy” were chosen: not only the Ossuary here in Burgeis, but there exist many others, i.e. in Trieste. The information panel from 2011 also states that the fascist regime has systematically “used” the fallen in the First World War to create a continuity between the heroic war history and a kind of “education to war” of the then generation. There is also stated that although this Ossuary is a memorial site, it also contains a warning that the then fascist regime has tried to use the catastrophic First World War to its own advantage.

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Burgeis: the Ossuary from 1939 for the fallen in the First World War

It is an impressive building in its own right, but there is not a “sacred” atmosphere of commemoration, like it is the case i.e. at the war cemeteries from the First World War in Flanders, Belgium, of the Airborne Cemetery in Oosterbeek, the Netherlands, for the Battle of Arnhem at the end of the Second World War… Anyhow I am glad that I was able to have had a closer look at it.

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Burgeis: the northern semicircular wall in the Ossuary

Anyway in this region there is a lot of resistance noticeable towards the past. Although South Tyrol as part of the autonomous Province Bolzano-South Tyrol is quite independent in regard of “Rome”, many resentments about the fascist past still linger on. So I read on a general map indicating sportive and other activities in and around Burgeis a text in a separate frame, in which the policy of “Italianisation” of German names for villages, rivers, valleys and mountains by dictator Mussolini is disapproved of and the indignation is expressed about the fact that until now none of the Italian governments have taken any action to apologise for the “cultural crime” or even to reverse it. It is signed with “Süd-Tirol im 21. Jahrhundert”, South Tyrol in the 21st century.

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Burgeis: on a map displaying the surroundings the “Italianisation” of German names of towns

After a hot way back a tasteful meal was waiting for me later in the evening, with this time as recommended wine a “Vernatsch”, a red wine made of the local “Schiava Grossa” grape, also sometimes called “Trollinger” which is a corruption of “Tyrolinger”. This was a nice end to this interesting day.

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Mals: “Galea”, a red wine made of the Vernatsch/Schiava Grossa (Trollinger) grape from the Alte Adige