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August 10th 2019

Walking in the rain and in the sunshine…

Yesterday, August 9th, I woke up with only minor muscle pain after my wild hiking adventure on Stage 69 of the Red Trail of the Via Alpina the day before: from Taufers i.M. over the Rifair Scharte and the Glurnser Köpfl back to Glurns and Mals. That morning I have just taken a picture of the Glurnser Köpfl in the morning sun…!

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Mals: view on the sunlit summit of the Glurnser Köpfl

In order to keep on moving (!) I went for a short walk through Mals. The weather was nice and warm. Quite a difference to last Tuesday, August 6th, when I walked from Mals to the neighbouring village Laatsch. Then around noon an enormous thunderstorm came up, whereas I was lucky to have a cup of coffee in Laatsch just at that time. The trip was worthwhile ‘though. The village of Laatsch is a friendly, quiet place with a kind of “tranquil” life of its own. There are a few beautiful old buildings, but there also are many dilapidating barns and sheds… A special item is an old water mill, the Sandbichler Mühle, from the 13th century, that has stayed fully functional until 1985. Recently it has been restored, but a lot of weeds were growing in the flume (the course leading the water towards the wheel), so the question is whether the mill has lately been used? In former times the mill was useful for bakers, workmen and small farmers who didn’t have the right to an own mill.

Somewhat more to the west there is an old church from the 16th century, the St. Leonhardkirche, that has been built in gothic style, that has as particularity that the road passes underneath the church! At the outside colourful frescos have been made, which have passed the test of times rather well. The church was then closed, but on a leaflet was mentioned that it could be visited on request.

It was around noon and I sat down on the terrace of the eatery Me Vivo! in the same long street as where the St. Leonhardkirche was standing. I hadn’t touched my coffee yet, when out of the blue that thunderstorm rolled in: first I moved form the terrace to the awning at the entrance, but not long afterwards we all sought shelter inside… It looked almost like evening!

After less than half an hour I set off again into the direction of Glurns, because the pouring rain has changed into a kind of drizzle. The disappearing thunderstorm with its curtains of rain caused a beautiful, almost fairy-like atmosphere. Bunker Nr. 13, with its superstructure between Mals, Laatsch and Glurns, was clearly visible. When I had almost reached Glurns another, luckily less abundant rainstorm floated in from the Val Müstair. The large willow alongside the cycling road between Laatsch to Glurns offered reasonable shelter. Holidaymakers, wearing rain protection, passed by on their bikes and didn’t look very amused… While I was waiting for the rain to go by, I spotted between the green bushes another grey bunker along the Adige.

After a few moments of sheltering for the rain I continued my walk to Glurns, where on two spots I found white marble. Just outside the city walls of Glurns a modern stele of marble from Laas was standing, made by the German sculptor David Horstmann. The major cycling trail through the Vinschgau also runs through Laatsch adn Glurns and follows here the originally Roman paved trade route, the Via Claudia Augusta. This cycling trail runs from Donauwörth in Bavaria to Venice, and also over the Reschen Pass and through the Vinschgau. Besides to the Roman history also attention is payed to mining (iron and lead, but also marble!) in the area between Tarrenz in Austria and Laas, a few villages downstream in the valley of the Adige, over a distance of approximately 140 km. With these “Meilensteine“, milestones the municipalities in this region would like to recover the knowledge about mining and entice visitors to pay a visit to museums etc. on the trail about these subjects. On the town square of Glurns an older stele of marble is standing, form 1873, with a clearly warning message by the “Stadtmagistrat“, the city’s magistrate: “Jede Verunreinigung des Brunnens wird mit 1 – 5 Gulden bestraft” (any pollution of the fountain will be punished with the payment of 1 to 5 Gulden). This amount seems – converted to todays’ value – a rather substantial amount for that offence…! One could spend that money better on something tasty at the restaurant of the “Historischer Gasthof zum Grünen Baum” which is also situated at the square and has already existed since 1732. I chose a dish from the region: polenta with chanterelle sauce and a piece of good alpine cheese. I had a view on two large chestnut trees, of which one was a healthy green (going with the name of the Gasthof). The other was obviously ill, because the few leaves left were very brown…

When in the course of the afternoon I had returned in Mals, heavy rain showers passed by again, which hid the opposite side of the valley from view. By then I was cosily sitting in my hotel room ‘though!

Yesterday I have made a stroll through Mals, as I have already mentioned. The Municipality of Mals has committed itself to sustainability and consciousness of the environment. This has resulted in a somewhat untidy upkeep of the public space, but it looks quite cheerful. Last Tuesday I saw in Laatsch a clear message put on a barn: “Gemeinde Mals Frei von Pestiziden“, Municipality of Mals free of pesticides. This anti-poison policy causes an overgrowth of “weed” in bloom, that seemed to be moving of the many insects. Exactly what the municipality states to pursue! Everywhere on the pavement yellow symbols with “JA” (yes) in a circle of petals or beams of the sun and of butterflies have been put: it is obvious that the municipal policy is widely supported! It has also been a protest against the predominant monoculture of the large orchards and the intensive use of pesticides. In 2017 a book about this issue has been published and in 2018 as a sequel an equally critical film has been made: “Das Wunder von Mals“, The miracle of Mals. The entire issue has provoked quite a lot of emotions and resistance, but the tone has been set…

Furthermore on the cultural level also a lot of activities have been organised: like in the recent years this year again a “Malser Sommer” is being held. Moreover the pedestrian zone of Mals has been brightened up with wheel barrows filled with red geraniums, bookcases and lounge chairs. Everything looked very inviting!

Mals too has got many old buildings and (of course!) churches. The St. Benedikt church is one of the oldest churches in South Tyrol: the building itself dates from the 8th century AD and the church tower from the 12th century. There are frescos from the 8th century, which are unique and of great cultural importance. The original parish church Assumption of Mary has been built in the 13th century, but from these times no traces an be seen anymore: the present church has got its gothic appearance in the 16th century. The church shows in its interior characteristics of many style periods, like the 20th century paintings (Jugendstil) in the choir. The organ has been made in 1864 by the 19th century organ builder Franz Reinisch (II) and is the largest still existing organ made bij him in South Tyrol. In former times Mals was also called the “Siebentürmige“, named after the seven towers dominating the town. Thereof five are still there: four church towers and, the most striking, the Fröhlichsturm: this donjon from the 12th – 13th century is over 30 metres high and was part of the Fröhlichburg borough.

On my tour through the busy and pleasant town some plaques caught my eye. One of them was a marble plaque for the Mals-born painter and frescoist Karl Plattner (1919–1986), with a portrait of him wearing a flamboyant hat. He has specialised in fresco-painting. During the Second World War he started his studies in Berlin, after which he was enlisted in the German Wehrmacht. In Italy he has een taken prisoner of war by the Americans; in 1946 he was able to continue his study, first in Florence and Milan, later in Paris. In 1954 he went to Brazil, where he was assigned by the authorities many orders for frescoes and paintings. He was much in demand, not only there, but also in Austria (the Grosse Festspielhaus in Salzburg and later also the Europakapelle near the motorway bridge at the Brenner Pass. Not far from his plaque, there was another plaque, of copper this time, for Gabriel Grüner, a journalist born in Mals in 1963 who had been war correspondent during the Balkan Wars. On June 13th 1999, three days after the hostilities in Kosovo ended, he, his driver and a colleague have been shot at when they were on their way from Prizren to Skopje: in first instance he was the only one to have survived this shooting, but he did die shortly after. When I read this, suddenly war came really close…. On the plaque one of his quotes have been written: “Ob wir wirklich etwas ausrichten können gegen Hass und Gewalt? Ich weiß keine Antwort darauf, aber ich weiß dass wir nicht aufgeben dürfen zu hoffen“, Whether we really can achieve something against hatred and violence? I do not know the answer, but I know that we should never stop hoping. The third plaque dates from a battle which has taken place a bit longer ago: for Josef Stecher (1775–1862). This inn-keeper, freedom fighter and politician from Mals has earned his stripes during the Tyrolean Rebellion of 1809, the rebellion of the Tyrolean rural population against the dominance of especially Bavaria, that fought against Napoleon. He has also been several times mayor of Mals. In 1902, 100 years after that rebellion, the plaque has been placed on the wall of Hotel “Zum Hirschen“, nowadays run by already the fifth generation of the Stecher family.

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Mals: plaque in honour of Josef Stecher, politician and inn-keeper (1775-1861), “Year 9″ (1808-1908) on the hotel “Zum Hirschen”, once owned by him

On Tuesday and yesterday too I passed by the railway station of Mals, that was deserted because of the engineering works to the Vinschgaubahn. In Mals the train ends. Plans had been made in the early 20th century to build the trajectory further to the Reschen Pass, but that has been stopped by the First World War. Near the railway station the old water tower is standing, that nowadays serves as the Tourist Information Centre. Also nearby is a curiosum of railway technique: a shunting yard in the shape of a so-called “reversing pentagon”, in German called a “Gleisfünfeck” or also a “Wendestern“: a possibility to make trains turn around in a relatively small space. Normally such an item consists of three “legs” and is then called a “ wye junction. In South Tyrol, which in 1919 at the Peace Treaty of Versailles had been allotted to Italy, at three places in the same time shunting yards have been constructed during the Interbellum: at the Brenner Pass, but also in Mals. When the railway station had to be enlarged, the reversing pentagon was built. In 2005 the renovated Vinschgaubahn had been opened again and the Wendestern cleaned up. Nowadays it looks rather neglected and overgrown with weeds… Perhaps that it will be renovated again with this adaptation of the railway tracks?

Today was the last day of my stay in Mals and I had decided to go to the Tartscher Bichl, or as this rock is sometimes called the Tartscher Bühel: the strangely rounded huge rock at the north side of the Vinschgau, just to the east of Mals. The light of the morning sun nicely fell on the village of Tartsch and the rock.

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Mals: view on Tartsch and the Tarscher Bichl Rock in the early morning light

This Tartscher Bichl is surrounded by myths and legends, or as the Germans say it so gracefully: “sagenumwoben“. The legend tells about a partying city where people were dancing a lot, but were praying very little. On one cold and wet night an old, worn-out pilgrim arrived and knocked on doors for some food and drinks, for a place to stay during the night, but nobody cared about his problems – in the contrary: he was sent away, into the cold and wet night. The old pilgrim took a stone and threw it with all force towards the town, which he called “so kalt wie Stein” (as cold as stone). The moment the stone hit the entrance gate, the earth split open and the town with all houses and inhabitants disappeared into the debris. The last verse of this poem is as follows:

Kein Denkmal gibt den Platz dir kund,
wo Haus um Haus einst fröhlich stund.
Der Tartscherbühel steht allein
und mahnt: Dein Herz sei niemals Stein!

(In free translation: No memorial will show the place, where one house was merrily standing next to the other. The Tartscherbühel stands alone and urges you: let your heart never be a stone!)

In reality the mountain has been rounded by the glaciers during the last Ice Age and consists of schist, a type of rock that has been pressed together under high pressure and temperatures in deeper layers of the earth. The climate in Vinschgau is here sub Mediterranean with very little rain and often a drying wind. This influences the vegetation, especially on the barren parts of the Tartscher Bichl without any humus: in summer the sun can heat up the rocks up to 60 degrees C.! Here the real dry grasslands can be found, the”dry grasslands“, or in German called the Trockenrasen. Tough and almost withered grass, but mainly mug wort (Artemisia) with its grey-greenish small leaves and bushy appearance. A lot of bright pink Common mallow (Malva sylvestris) stood there too. It was obvious that here no lush alpine meadows would be found…!

After a few minutes walking on the “mountain” I saw an archaeological excavation with a sign that has become practically illegible by graffiti. So much was clear that here a so-called “Rätisches Haus“, a Rhaetian house, had been standing. In the fourth or third century BC a large building had been here, apparently one of approximately 80(!) buildings. Since the 19th century archaeological research has been done with as the most important find a 12 cm long and only on one side polished pointer of a deer antler with an inscription in runes (Rätisch). In the years 1999–2000 extensive archaeological excavations and research have been done during which finds from the Early-La-Tène period (the second half of the 5th century to the first half of the 3rd century BC) appeared. Her must have been an extensive settlement: a proof of the “city” in the legend! It was quite special to open a wooden gate in the fence and enter the “house” – a typical feature of the construction style in those days is the corridor that after passing through the entrance makes an angle of 90° into the first room. There was a fire place (authentic?) and a marvellous view over the surroundings. It was obvious that this settlement was in a strategic position with views over a major part of the Ober-Vinschgau and the Val Müstair.

When I went on the rocks were more and more barren and rough. All of a sudden an orange-black bird was flying past out of the valley and sat down on the rock – it was camouflaged that well that I could hardly spot it! It was a young hoopoe (Upupa epops), that stayed still for minutes. I recognised it by the black and white stripes on its wings. I couldn’t see that characteristic “crest” of orange feathers with black and white tips, that it can rise like a mohawk when it is excited. My attempt to approach it caused it to fly away… Therefore I wasn’t able to smell its stench: a nickname for this bird in Dutch is “drekhaan”: literally mucky rooster! This smell is that nasty because the nest is never cleaned and the female bird sprays the nest with a reeking fluid from a special gland under its tail as defence against enemies… This kind of rocky area is an excellent habitat of this bird: it can find enough to feed on, a. o. lizards. In the Netherlands the hoopoe can be seen in summer.

Near the “Rätische Haus” there was still grass growing, but further on at the south side of the Tartscher Bichl the vegetation became very sparse: a lot of lichen on the rocks, looking quite “dead” and many succulents, like the Houseleek (Sempervivum), that can store water in their rosettes. The dry surroundings didn’t keep them from flowering abudantly!

To the east side of the Tartscher Bichl a forest of black pines came in sight, in which clearly has been done some sawing. Young deciduous trees had been planted: on an information panel was indicated that the aim is to change from monoculture of the black pine toa more diverse forest with the kind of deciduous tree that are suitable for the Vinschgau, like the elm, the lime tree, the maple and the sweet chestnut. In a part of the forest already older deciduous trees were growing, a. o. beech. It was wonderfully cool there. It was nice to walk through te forest and to see and hear a group of squirrels play!

At the north side of the Tartscher Bichl a steep path brought me back to the arid side of the rock. There a small church showed itself, built of greyish stone and surrounded by a high wall of the same type of stone: the St. Veith am Bichl church. This Roman church from the 11 th century has been built on a spot where before that time already a pre-Christian sacrificial site had been. Here again the flora of the steppe was growing: tough grass and small plants, like that mug wort, houseleek etc. This part of the Tartscher Bichl is a tranquil place… Several other people were walking around, but they faded into the background. Here the history of the area can really be “felt”!

After I had seen the St. Veith church and its surroundings from all angles, I went back to the main road with the vague plan to visit the village of Schluderns to the east of Tartsch. At one point I saw a side road going towards the valley, of which I thought that it would ring me in a somewhat more pleasant way to that village. It didn’t turned out to be the case: I got stranded on the south side of the Tartscher Bichl, somewhere in again another orchard… The apples were beautiful with views on the Tartscher Bichl. There was a big contrast between the neat small trees with the red apples and the wild blackthorns with the purple “plums” just outside of the orchard… From there however I could clearly see the steppe-like vegetation of the Bichl. On the way back I couldn’t resist the abundant harvest of blackberries, growing on the side of the road…!

Once back again in the village of Tartsch I sat down for a while at a wooden picknick table in the shadow of a big walnut tree and had a sandwich. There was a lot of traffic on the main road: many tourists were returning home… Thereafter I walked on, downhill to Mals over narrow paths with old trees at both sides. At the railway station I looked back to Tartsch and the Tartscher Bichl once more and thought smiling about that special atmosphere in that peculiar micro-climate!

Tonight was the last time that I had dinner in Hotel Margun and everything was excellent again: as a starter a spinach dumpling (Spinatknödel) in tomato sauce, with which I had a Chardonnay of the vineyard Laimburg from Auer, a village to the south of Bolzano. On the label and the neck of the bottle was an illustration of a Tatzelwurm, a dragon-like mystical beast from the alpine countries: the head shows a resemblance with a cat (an otter would be a possibility!), the front legs are equipped with sharp claws and the body looks like that of a snake. The beast which over the years has been sighted by several people is supposedly very unfriendly and dangerous. Especially in South Tyrol the legends around the Tatzelwurm are very popular. The wine was powerful and rich in flavor, so it went well with the dessert: a “Scheiterhaufen” with vanilla sauce. We would call the dish a bread-and-butter pudding.
I have had a wonderful time here in Hotel Margun – I would like to return a next time, if only because – for the record! – to finish the last part of that Stage 69 of the Via Alpina to Stilfs!