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August 7th 2019

Orchards and blocks of white marble

Yesterday, Tuesday August 6th, I have made a short walk through Mals to Laatsch in the west and further on to Glurns. That was despite of the rain quite interesting – I will come back to it later.

Today the day started promising with the morning sun shining on the Ortler. That wouldn’t stay for long, unfortunately…


Mals: the morning sun is lighting up the Ortler

I had got the idea of going to Laas today, a place to the east of Mals and downstream o the Adige, because in the early afternoon there would be a guided tour through the village of Laas and the company that mines the marble from the quarries in the mountains to the south of Laas, Lasa Marmo: especially the white marble from Laas has been famous for centuries!

To arrive in Laas I had to take the bus replacing the train (“Schienenersatzbus“) from Mals towards Merano and got off the bus after four stops (the actual railway stations where the train would normally stop) . In the bus we were standing quite crammed, so upon arrival in Laas it was very nice to get some (really!) fresh air. The bus stopped near the St. John the Baptist church, near the railway station. There the white marble was dazzling! The complete church square was laid with square pieces of white marble. On the nearby graveyard all tombstones were made of white marble – the memorials to commemorate the fallen from the First and Second World Wars were also made of white marble… Opposite of the church a bust of Emperor Franz Josef I. made of white marble was standing on a hard stone plinth. An information panel mentioned that this bust had been meant as a gift for the Emperor the 60th anniversary of his emperorship in 1908 – Franz Josef Josef I. (1830–1916) has been from 1848 until his death in 1916 Emperor of Austria and King of Hungary. From this bust that has been bought by the Municipality of Laas in 1986, can be seen to what high standard the marble processing in Laas was done around 1910, led by the “marble pioneer” Josef Lechner sr. (1851–1925).

During my tour through the village I also came at the village square with its nicely inlaid pavement of white pieces of marble and a marble sitting bench around the “Kaiserlinde” (Emperor’s Lime tree), planted in 19808, also to commemorate the 60th anniversary of the Franz Josef’s emperorship.

The St. John the Baptist church (St. Johannes der Täuferkirche) is large: it consists of a very old part, the so-called “Marmorkirche” (Marble church) from the 13th century with foundations that are possibly even from an earlier period (the 9th century). Over the centuries the church has been modified. Its present form dates from 1852: then the extension had started. In 1973 the apsis has been brought back in its original form and also many marble elements have been placed back. The lighting is because of this very beautiful. Later at the tour I heard that on the outside of the oldest part around the stained glass windows an at the corners nice reliefs have been placed, a. o. a lion devouring a ram: the good defeating the bad, a style element typical for the Lombardy.

Only one street away is another church, the St. Marc church or St. Marx church (St. Marx Kirche), from the same period, but not altered like the St. John the Baptist church. That two churches have been built so close to one another is caused by the rivalry of tow important families in this area… Here in Laas however is the only church dedicated to St. Marc. Towards the end of the 18th century the church has been deconsecrated and used for other purposes, like storage and ossuary. In the early 20th century the building has been rearranged as a workshop for the sculptor school for marble: a first floor has been added. Therefore windows have been added to the outside walls. During extensive restoration works in 2000 to 2007 these windows have been closed with plastic panels. In the same time not only the foundations from the 7th century have been discovered but also fragments of gothic frescos from 1400, a. o. of the Mother of God with two music-making angels against the background of a stylised building. There also was a beautiful fresco of a flower wreath. Nowadays the church is used as an exhibition hall. I spotted a funny detail: someone had sawn out a head of a chamois from the wooden wall of a barn, belonging from ancient times to the St. Marx church!

From the St. Marx church I walked on to the river Adige, where I had a good overview about the size of the marble company Lasa Marmo. Even the buildings of the company were made of marble! Also here preventive measures have been taken against flooding of the Adige. Laas is situated in an area with a high risk of flooding: especially through a mountain stream from the mountains to the south of Laas, the Eckbach a lot of water can be transported. Therefore extensive measures for the regulation of the water levels a. o. with retention basins and the creation of riparian landscape, like I had seen in last June bij bij Dalvazza, Küblis. Here the project has been financially supported by the European Fund for Regional Development. The protective wall in Laas is made of natural stones from the neighbourhood with marble accents. This is deliberately done because of the historical character of Laas. The marble rocks somehow brightened up this rather gloomy day!


Laas: details of the wall (also with marble!) that should protect the village against high water

Besides the marble fruit growing also is of enormous economic importance: here extended orchards have been planted. It was quite funny to see that somewhere in a field amid of the small apple trees, planted in straight rows and bending under the load of beautiful apples a large, degraded standard apple tree was growing with many branches that were growing into all directions, and with tiny apples that won’t make it to the cold store and our fruit baskets! .

Meanwhile it was around noon and when I walked towards the restaurant Badlerhof of the camping grounds with the same name, the church bell of the St. John the Baptist church just stroke noon. Here as well marble was applied everywhere – in the tiling of the terrace and as a chunk o marble at the entrance! I had a bun with cheese and South-Tyrolean bacon, the “Südtiroler Speck” – the bread is called “Vinschger Paarl“, a typical type of bread form South Tyrol. Paarl literally means two breads: a “pair”! It is a sour dough bread made of rye and wheat flower, water, yeast and a mixture of herbs, like caraway, anise, fennel and also blue fenugreek Trigonella caerulea). The form of the bun is flat and the crust is crunchy. It is related to the so-called “Schüttelbrot“, which is even flatter and drier – and therefore has an even longer shelf-life. This shelf-life has always been of great importance in these Alpine areas: during the long winters and during the busy periods of harvesting and haying no time was lost on household tasks like baking. I especially like the Vinschger Paarl bread, not only the traditional version which I have eaten here, with bacon and cheese, but also that brad with the freshly made apricot jam I’m having for breakfast in Hotel Margun!

Before the guided tour would start at 13.45 hrs from the railway station, I wanted to have a look at another very old small church: the St. Sisinus church higher on the northern mountain slope above Laas. The fourth old church is the St. Martinuskapelle (St. Martin’s chapel) on the mountain slope to the south of Laas, which I only saw from the distance. Clouds were hanging higher on the slope, but I could see more towards the valley another white flat area, diagonally running downwards – that is a vein of marble!


Laas: view on the St. Martin Chapel on the southside of the valley

Via the Village Square with the “Kaiserlinde” I climbed through steep alleys further uphill and went over a narrow and rather overgrown path to the small St. Sisinius church, built with grey stones. It dates from the 13th century and is dedicated to the martyr Sisinius from the region Trentino to the south from here. The gates in the high wall around the church were barred with red-and-white chequered ribbon. At the western side of the church near the entrance a deep hole had been dug, of which the bumpy ground had been covered with black agricultural plastic. Probably archaeological research was being done again: in the past centuries repeatedly new discoveries have been done, like foundations going back to the 7th century, or even burial finds from the Stone Age! The small church has a peculiar feature: the choir and the bell tower are built in one piece. Normally such “choir towers” can be found in large churches, where such towers are standing on both sides of the choir, like the St. Servaas church in Maastricht, the Netherlands, but also here at this small church in the Vinschgau! The church was closed. On two days a year it is accessible: before Eastern and on May 29th, the name day of St. Sisinus.

At 13.30 hrs a large group of interested people gathered near the railway station for the guided tour. The weather was still dry. Today’s guide was a dynamic young lady, Tamara Verdross, who is a volunteer with a group of enthusiastic people from Laas and surroundings who wanted to support the village and its marble, the “Genossenschaft zur Steigerung der Wertschöpfung aus dem Laaser Marmor” (the association to improve the value added from the Laas marble), the Marmor+. After a short introduction we would go to the workshop of the Stonemason Josef Maier, and thereafter to the large marble processing company Lasa Marmo. She emphasised that she nor the Association had any ties whatsoever to the companies we were about to visit… We started with the film that was shown on the first floor of the authentic building of the railway station from 1905.


Laas: the railway station of the Vischgaubahn – the platform is also paved with marble!

The introduction film consisted of two parts. The first film was the promotion film of the Lasa Marmo company to get the assignment for the contribution to the new Underground Transportation Hub in New York which would be built on the spot of Ground Zero and that would be cladded with white marble. The company hoped that the choice would be made for the marble from the Laas quarries – which eventually was the case indeed. The images of the enormous space of white and sky blue in the World Trade Center Transportation Hub, which on the outside had got the shape of a peace dove, were absolutely stunning!

Laso Marmo csm_world_trade_center_transportation_hub.01_61d4bd7d69

New York: impression of the Underground station World Trade Centre cladded with white marble from Laas

The second film dealt with the Laas marble quarries in the Jennwand”, the mountain slope on the south side of the valley, and the mining and the transportation of the marble into the valley, in former times and nowadays. Tamara told us many interesting aspects in between the film images. We saw how nowadays the blocks of marble are being sawn by means of gigantic diamond slitting saws, how those blocks then fall to the ground from a certain height and sometimes do break. We all thought that the breaking was a pity, but it turned out to be a kind of test. The parts of the block that didn’t break off were of good quality! The way of transportation is one of the peculiarities of the marble mining here in Laas. The Weisswasserbruch quarry is on the right mountain slope of the side valley, the Laasertal valley. A cable car has been built to bring the blocks of marble from one side of the Laasertal to the other. Then the block is loaded on a railway wagon. There is the start of the narrow-gauge railway, consisting of three parts. The first part is rather flat and runs from the point where the block of marble arrives from the other side of the side valley to the point where the narrow-gauge railway runs vertically into the valley (that is the “Schrägbahn“, the peculiar part), and then the part from the valley station to the company’s site for further processing. Transportation on the first and third part is done with a locomotive in front of the wagon, but transportation on the second part is done so-to-say by itself under the influence of gravity. Therefore the narrow-gauge railway track has been equipped with a double-track part in the middle section where the two wagons can pass each other. This construction has been developed in 1929 and is functioning up until today without mayor problems, albeit that the equipment also dates from 1929. This Laaser Marmorbahn has been declared cultural heritage and is unique in its kind. It has been fascinating to see how the system works: I have been watching it when I was on my way back from the St. Sisinius church. Hereunder an impression in pictures:

On the right bank of the river Adige, near the railway tracks a memorial has been revealed in honour of the Laaser Marmorbahn – an information panel has been placed next to it. From the bridge on the left bank one gets a good impression of the trajectory of the Laaser Marmorbahn in the valley.

The Laas marble is of exceptionally good quality; over the centuries it has been very much in demand all over Europe for a. o. statues. It has a somewhat coarser structure that i.e. Carrera marble – therefore it is whiter, more shiny and more translucent. The purely white marble is most in demand, but that type only is 4 to 9 % of the (enormous) amount of marble in the mountain. There are several variations according to the colours of the veins: golden, green, grey, but the white always is dominant.

The next stage in our tour was a visit to the workshop of steenhouwer Josef Mayr, where we due to the large number of participants were split up between the shop and the workshop. I was in the group that was let loose in the shop. Everything looked very nice, especially the lanterns of marble, but actually also very, very heavy! Marble has a higher specific weight than concrete, so even the smallest item has quite a large weight. Therefore I had just a look around…


Laas: in the shop of the stonemason’s firm Josef Mayr lanterns of marble are also for sale

In the workshop there was a lot to see as well. Many models of gypsum were hanging, standing or lying around, but also statues under construction. The emphasis is on funeral memorials, but also religious subjects, like a large Pieta statue. It was obvious that many hours were spent on that statue! Tamara sowed us how the stonemason’s work could be made easier with a kind of “copying machine”: this is a construction equipped with three pins that are adjustable in height, which could be transferred from the gypsum model to the marble plate to be sculptured. Of course this technique could only be applied to the rougher parts of the project, the final touches and the details had to be done by the sculptor himself. It was remarkable that there wasn’t much marble dust whirling around and that there wasn’t any sound of an extractor system. It is said that marble dust isn’t noxious to the health because of its chemical composition (pure calcium carbonate).

Back at the railway station again the next part of the tour started: we walked through the “sculpture garden” of Lasa Marmo, close to the large storage area. From afar we could see the large overhead transportation crane, moving forth and back, carrying large blocks of marble on cables. Among them were specially formed blocks.

At the covered entrance to the sculpture garden two wooden charts were standing that have been used to transport the blocks of marble. The walls and the ceiling were really quite white to be of concrete – it turned out to be so-called “marble concrete”! Since a few years Lasa Marmo supplies marble dust to mix into concrete – this dust is created by sawing of the marle blocks: the saws are cooled with water, in which the dust is taken along, then dried and ground again. The concrete looked really fine! The walls around the sculpture garden were of course also made of marble! It was a wonderful sight to see how from cracks in the joints dark green ferns were growing and hence put even more emphasis on the white colour. The original company’s overhead crane was also standing in the visitors’ area, grey like the clouds from which meanwhile the rain was pouring down …

Every year a cultural festival is held in Laas: the “Marmor und Marillen” (Marble and Apricots). That had taken place last weekend – I had seen it while passing by bus through Laas on my way to Mals! Apart from the South-Tyrolean apricots (here called “Marillen“) there is a marble sculpturing festival, from which the ten best pieces of art are put on display in the sculpture garden Lasa Marmo afterwards. The sculpture “Bin ich die Freiheit?” (Am I Freedom?) by Achim Rippegger had been the 2017 winner; his sculpture is standing at the side of the Etsch-Radweg (Adige cycle road) on the right bank of the river. The Dutch sculptor Leo Horbach has created the sculpture “They shoot horses, don’t they?” – that year the theme had been 70 years of peace. I was very much impressed by that statue. Speaking about war and peace: the white crosses in the American military cemeteries are made of Laas marble, and that really is the white variety… In 1946 the American authorities have commissioned from (the predecessor) of Lasa Marmo nearly 90.000 crosses, not only made of white marble, but also cut out from one piece. Two of these crosses were leaning against a large block of marble. Tamara told us that a lot of marble was left after the cutting and that is the reason why marble has been used in so many doorsteps, streets, houses. In those days marble was cheaper that (paving) bricks! Polished marble actually gets very slippery in rain and snow – the city council had already in an early stage decided that all stones in the pavement should be turned over, so the coarse side would be on top! The finest particle of marble is the size of a grain of sand. At first the sandboxes in the children’s playgrounds were also filled with marble sand – much to the destress of the parents, because the children returned home like little white ghosts… Now normal sand has been used again! The youngest participant in the group was quite keen to test the white “play sand”.

Next we were allowed to take a look in the large production hall of the factory. First we walked through the official factory gate into a kind of “showroom” where the various applications and varieties of marble were on display, i.e. for washing basins. There also was a showcase standing against the wall and another laying on the ground with examples of size and coarseness of the marble. An example of a panel as used in the New York underground station was on display too. Outside again we passed a large piece of marble with inseparably connected with it another vein of rock – a intriguing sight. On the square also a classically sculptured statue of white marble of the holy St. Barbara, the patron saint of miners. In the actual factory we were allowed to watch from an entresol the stonemasons do their jobs: endless working tables where they worked on large slides of marble that were polished for flooring tiles – or again white crosses for the American cemeteries to replace damaged crosses… A marble tile standing in the window sill showed the translucency of marble, even with this rainy weather! A cutterhead was lying there as well, which has especially developed for processing the marble for the underground station in New York. That too I found a very special idea: I realised that with such a small piece of equipment a contribution has been made to such a grand and symbolic feature like that underground station on the former Ground Zero!

Around half past three the guided tour was over – the visit to the St. Marxkirche was short, because it had continued to rain cats and dogs… The visit to the St. John the Baptist church was even shorter: attention was only paid to the outside of the oldest part, but also I have learnt a lot from it!

After we all warmly thanked Tamara for her tour, everybody went off to look for shelter. In my case that was the bus back to Mals with the light of marble still in my head. Again it has been a special experience.