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August 12th 2019

“King Ortler”, the village and the impressive nature

Yesterday I had my last breakfast at Hotel Margun in Mals; I have said a well-meant goodbye to Family Waldner and promised to come back a next time. Mrs. Waldner pointed out to me again, half jokingly: “Schön auf dem Weg bleiben, gell…!!” (Will you please stay on the indicated tracks!), referring to my trip across the Glurnser Köpfl. So I reassured her! I was heading to my next destination: Sulden am Ortler, situated in one of the large side valleys to the Vinschgau valley facing south. The journey to this village at the foot of the Ortler massive takes about one-and-a-half hour. The direct bus from Mals to Sulden was cancelled due to engineering works to the railway tracks: so I got on the bus, with many, many others, in the bus taking us to the railway station of Spondinig. From there another bus left for Sulden, via Prad am Stilfserjoch, where the valley from Sulden and Stilfserjoch ends at the Vinschgau. Until Stilfs the road climbs only slowly. Last year I had to change there to the bus to the Stilfserjoch Pass, a beautiful trip I then made on July 30th 2018. From Stilfs the bus returned to the main road and took the winding road near the hamlet of Gomagoi into the valley to Sulden, still 11 kilometres to go. I was on my way to the village at the foot of the Ortler, the mountain at which I had been looking during the past week: from my balcony in Mals, but also from all high spots on my last hike over the Via Alpina, Stage 69. At some bends the bus driver was even struggling to make the turn in one go! At first the valley is narrow with many forests and sometimes also beautiful panoramas on Stilfs. Further towards Sulden impressive scree-covered slopes are visible – the scree has drawn grey tracks in the green vegetation. The Suldenbach flows through a wide, stony bed. The views on the wild surroundings with the white clouds around the mountain top were just wonderful.

And after passing by several other hamlets and bends the village of Sulden suddenly appeared. I also spotted the hotel where I had to be, Hotel Nives. In a hurry I grabbed my rucksacks and got off the bus. It was quite crowded in the village, but nevertheless it made a quiet impression. I was rather pleased with that, because I had been slightly worrying that here it would be just as buzzling as on the Stilfserjoch Pass – I had experienced that and I hadn’t liked it very much: cyclists, bikers, a lot of noise and ado… Once checked in and unpacked in Hotel Nives I could have a glance at the mountain Ortler from my room – its top was hiding behind white clouds. Here the mountain is positioned to the west of the village. Seen from Mals it seems as if it is situated in the south, but that is because the Sulden Valley clearly runs to the southeast. Quite a tranquillity in my room. From the balcony I only heard the boisterous sound of the Suldenbach stream. I decided that before starting a sightseeing tour through the village and the surroundings to have a cup of coffee on the terrace with the marvellous views on the Königspitze and the other mountain tops that form the boundaries of the valley to the south. A piece of cake (like a Swiss roll with a poppyseed and nut filling…) also went well with it!

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Sulden am Ortler: view from the terrace of Hotel Nives on the Königspitze with the glaciers in the south

Dear friends had advised me more than once to visit Sulden am Ortler because in summer it is a true hikers’ paradise – meanwhile they had spent here so many nice skiing holidays themselves. I had got many tips from them, where I really should go and have something to eat or where I should go for an easy walk. I gratefully made good use of their suggestions!

At first I just went through the village and the surrounding area – it surprised me that in the beginning I seemed to have some trouble with the altitude (Sulden is at 1.861 metres), although I had already been in the mountains for a week: I even felt slightly short of breath…! The village itself is neat and not very big – there are many hotels and restaurants ‘though. The Suldenbach stream flows through the village; to the south of the St. Gertraud Parish church which has been built between 1896 and 1902, is a tranquil little lake, the Suldensee, where many fish were swimming in the clear water. This church replaced the old parish church from the 14th to the 16th century: this one is situated some more uphill.

When I reached the eastern side of the valley, an impressive panorama showed itself on the western side of the valley. On the Ortler, of which the top was still hidden behind the clouds, the wooded slopes of the lower mountain in front, the Langenstein and the village of Sulden. The large, round bales of hay looked very tiny in comparison to the huge mountain massive of the Ortler, with its 3.905 metres is the highest mountain top of South Tyrol.

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Sulden am Ortler: panoramic view on the Kaserbach stream, the Langenstein, the village and the Ortler massif

Another good tip my friends had given me, had been to drink a glass of white wine on the terrace of Hotel Marlet, the hotel where they used to stay. I did so: the white wine, a Weissburgunder, and some savoury bites were a treat indeed! The hotel is situated higher on the eastern slopes of Sulden and therefore has a great view on the mountains which close the Sulden Valley in the south, like the Suldenspitze (3.376m) and the Königspitze (3.851m). The large glaciers, like the Suldenferner and the Königswandferner, were clearly visible too. The hamlet of Innnersulden is in the beginning of the valley – there is the valley station of the gondola that runs in two stages to 2.500 metres. From there many hikes are possible, a. o. to the lowest point of the Suldenferner where one of the mountain stream start which eventually form the Suldenbach stream. That hike also is on my to-do-list!

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Sulden am Ortler: view on the Königspitze (3.851m) from the terrace of Hotel Marlet

Here it is rural in a nice way and on the sides of the roads and in other rugged areas many flowers grow, special ones too, like the Marsh gentian (Gentiana pneumonanthe), that prefers wet meadows. Several bunches of this gentian variety were in bloom in the high grass near the sports centre, close to the Suldenbach. On the road to Innersulden a small wood processing workshop was selling all kinds of items made of wood, like a nice round bug hotel. In this way a good circle of flowers, insects, pollination is being closed…

A second tip my friends gave me: go to the Parkhotel, of which the restaurant is called Hartmann’s Weinstube and have their fish soup. They would prepare this soup on Friday and if I was lucky, there would be some soup left on Sunday! When I arrived at the restaurant around five o‘clock, I wasn’t so lucky…Besides a mixed salad from the buffet, I chose a dish, that is authentical from South Tyrol, Schlutzkrapfen or mezzelune: halfmoon shaped pasta made of rye and wheat flour, eggs and oil, stuffed with spinach and quark, boiled in salted water and topped with melted brown butter. It is a rich dish in itself and the serving was a really generous one, but I liked it very much and I ate it all!

After this copious meal I returned to Hotel Nives, where I again saw how clouds were tenaciously hanging around the Ortler. Early this morning the top was lit by the sun, a wonderful play of light and shadows.

The friends’ tip nr. 3 was a walk from Sulden to Gasthof Waldruhe, a trip of about 1½ hrs over an easy, rather level road. This is not only a pleasant walk in winter when one doesn’t want to or due to the weather can’t go skiing, but certainly also in summer with the beautiful flowers and the panoramic views on the Ortler. Everywhere I spotted wonderful white flowers with fine greenish lines on the tepals: that was Grass-of-Parnassus (Parnassia palustris). They were fully in bloom. I found a bunch in which all stadiums of flowers were visible: from button to nearly dead. They brought a little rightness to the further sombre surroundings. The sun that had shone on the top of the Ortler didn’t show itself during the remaining morning anymore. It was dry and not cold. The views on “King Ortler” weren’t unfortunately optimal, but the scree on the slopes and the greyish clouds were a nice colour match. The difference between the rocks and the Julius Payerhut on over 3.000m was only visible with binoculars!

The kitchen of the Gasthof opened at half past 12 and I would like to have something to eat – despite of the rich breakfast buffet in Hotel Nives (with an elaborate assortment of healthy and tasty treats to put into the yoghurt!), but not to drink coffee. It still was too early for wine, so I chose … a glass of beer! Beer of Forst it was: it is brewed in the village with the same name near Merano in the southern part of the Vinschgau. In Mals I had regularly passed one of their restaurants, Gasthof Forsterbräu. It tasted quite good, with a hint of green apple and a nice touch of hops. My eye was caught by another speciality of South Tyrol: “Topfenknödel“, quark dumplings filled with apricots. It was beautifully served on a rectangular piece of slate and it tasted fabulous! It had been made with fresh apricots.

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Sulden am Ortler: at Restaurant Waldruhe a “Topfenknödel” (a quark dumpling) with a filling of apricots and… a glass of Forst beer

Strengthened with food and drink I returned to Sulden to start with the Kultur- und Geschichtenweg, the cultural and historical trail, a 8 kilometres long circular tour through and around Sulden with on the way 12 panels with information about interesting buildings and personalities who have been important for Sulden. At all 12 points metal signs with information and a overview of the route have been placed.

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Sulden am Ortler: overview of the “Kultur und Geschichten weg“ (cultural and historical trail) in Sulden with points of interest

I started this trail I had already spotted yesterday at the Messner Mountain Museum Ortles, one of the loccations where the famous Südtiroler mountaineer and extreme sportsman Reinhold Messner (*1944) shows the world of glaciers and eternal ice, the North Pole, the South Pole and the “East Pole”, the Himalayas. I have postponed a visit to this museum, which is not really visible from the outside (for its mayor part it has been built in the mountain) to later. A tiny chalet in the village that in former times had served as an overnight accommodation for mountaineers, has been rearranged by Messner as the Alpine curiosa: he has put on display a personal choice of subjects of alpinism, a. o. about the German polar explorer and cartographer Julius Payer (1841–1915), after whom the mountain hut near the Ortler has been named. From that point I passed Hotel Marlet again and continued on a wide path along the slope into the valley. Yesterday I had already spotted a large sign with explanations about the construction works. The bed of the stream is going to be stabilised and canalised with concrete “overflow basins” to prevent the stream to overflow in case of a large supply of water from the mountains. On the panel a picture was shown on which the area against the mountain slope was shaded that could be flooded without the intervention and also a picture with the actually very narrow band on both banks of the Zaytalbach that would be covered with water (and silt) in case of a flooding: a world of difference! Here also the interventions have been funded by the European Fund for Regional Development, but also from the Autonomous Province of Bolzano.

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Sulden am Ortler: overview of the works on the Zaytalbach stream

Further on the Kultur- und Geschichtenweg I passed by a nice small chapel: it is a protestant chapel in this furthermore very catholic country. It has been built in 1904 after a design of the Viennese architect Otto Schmidt (1857–1921), on request of his wife who was a protestant. It is a well-kept building: new copper gutters and replaced wooden “Schindel“. The outer walls have been made of natural stone with wide, brightly coloured mortar joints – this little chapel emanates a silent force. The interior is simple, but very bright, even on a somewhat overcast day like this. Through the many windows the light falls on the walls of white stucco. The ceiling is made of beautiful wood.

A next point on the trail is a large boulder of rock with a wonderful rusty brown vein running through it. On the rock a plaque of white marble is placed with a word of thank to “Staatsrat Karl Baeckmann aus St. Petersburg“, a 19th diplomate and a “langjährigen treuen Freund des Suldentales u. der Suldner Führerschaft” (a long-term faithful friend of the Sulden Valley and of the association of mountain guides in Sulden) – at the bottom of the plaque the names of 14 mountain guides are mentioned. When at the end of the 19th century the ascent of the Ortler became increasingly more popular, Baeckmann decided to finance the construction of a mountain hut. This hut was built on a point from where a mayor trail to the top of the Ortler begins. In 1892 the hut was opened and already enlarged in 1895. Baeckman then decided to donate the hut to the Suldner mountain guides. They thanked him with the plaque, which is still there. In the First World War the hut had been hit by Italian grenades during the mountain war. The hut has been rebuilt from 1920 to 1922 and is now called the Hintergrathütte.

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Sulden am Ortler: plaque to commemorate the politician Karl Baeckman from St. Petersburg

On my trip I saw all kinds of traces of human activity – from very new to very old. On a terrace near a chalet built against the steep mountain slope, a well-organised vegetable garden had been created: neat rectangular planters were placed on supports. The easy way of gardening! Further on apparently new fences had to be put in place: the part of the poles that disappears into the ground had been “burned” in order to protect it against decay. And talking about fire: here in Innersulden was a kiln too. In 2004 this kiln has been “rediscovered”: by then it wasn’t much other than a deep hole in the ground. Meanwhile it has been dug out further and has been restored as far as possible. This kiln is one of the many kilns that have been built in the Vinschgau from the 18th into the 20th century.

The Kultur- und Geschichtenweg went on at the eastern side of Trail Nr. 6. Near the gondola at the beginning of the valley I got a little lost. But therefore I would discover the kiln… Back again on the western side of the valley I continued the route over Trail nr. 7. Here at the gondola it is quite visible that important and vast skiing areas are situated around and especially above Sulden. In this part of the valley it is very wide – that made me feel comfortable. I can just imagine how wonderful it will be here when everything is covered under a thick layer of snow. However I find the shades of many colours green to grey, black and white in summer also very impressive.

When I got on the right track again, I passed by another large, this time dark rock with a in brighter stone sculpted portrait “en profil” of Theodor Christomannos (1854–1911), an Austrian politian, lawyer and above all enthusiast mountaineer with Greek ancestors. Theodor Christomannos has been very important for the development of tourism in Sulden; he has also promoted the construction of large hotels and of the paved road to Sulden. The development of the Vinschgaubahn railway is one of his achievements too. Together with the priest Karl Eller he has founded the “Bergrettung” (mountain rescue organisation) in Sulden.

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Sulden am Ortler: plaque with the portrait “en profil” of Theodor Christomannos (1954‒1911, a tourism pioneer

Following the route further into the direction of Sulden I crossed the Kaserbach stream, which flowed gently murmuring over a wide bed downhill to the Suldenbach. The banks were completely overgrown with the yellow-flowering Yellow mountain saxifrage (Saxifraga aizoides), which has clearly a preference for pebble beddings and moist spots. Further I saw not only that the Rosebay willowherb (Epilobium angustifolium) that is also known in our regions, was abundantly flowering, but also another variety which only occurs in the Alps: the Alpine willowherb (Epilobium fleischeri). The differences are the height of the plants and the inflorescence. The Alpine willowherb is smaller and doesn’t bloom in large spikes, but rather on its own stem and with flatter flowers, which have a brighter colour with lines of darker purple – very endearing!

In the meantime I had almost reached the village again. For a visit to the Lourdes Grotto I had to climb a steep footpath. This cave has been carved out of the rock wall and consecrated in 1893 by Bishop Aichner. This is mentioned on a marble plaque above the grotto.

From this point there is a nice view over the village with the two parish churches: the new St. Gertraud from 1902 and the small old parish church from the 14th century. Closer to this church I noticed that it has been built partly around a large rock! When in the years 1989–1990 the church was being restored on the inside, beautiful frescos were discovered on the walls! They date from the 16th century and represent a. o. Jesus’ crucifixion and His burial. There are many special and colourful details in this small church, like a beautiful cabinet and a nicely painted pulpit.

Over a wide track higher on the mountain slope the Kultur- und Geschichtenweg took me further out of the village to the next plaque: for Julius Payer (1841–1915), the Austrian-Hungarian polar explorer and cartographer. He also was a gifted painter of polar sceneries. He has not only climbed many mountain tops in this part of the Alps, but he has also been the first to survey the area around the Ortler: in the Alpine Curiosa chalet this map is on display. What a wonderful colouring – the passion for the profession and the mountains oozes from it so to speak! By the way the chalet accommodates even more peculiarities, like mountain crampons and other pieces of equipment from the first hour.

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Sulden am Ortler: in the “Alpine Curiosa” also the first map of the Ortler region drawn up by Julius Payer is shown

The last plaque is dedicated to Johann Stüdl (1839–1925), a business man from Prague, promotor of the alpinism in Austria an president of the Prague branch of the German-Ausrian Alpinists’ Association. Also this plaque has been offered by the Suldner mountain guides to commemorate a “verdienstvollen Alpenfreund” (meritorious friend of the Alps). Besides his busy work Stüdl committed himself to the construction of many mountain huts, which he had often funded as well, and the development of climbing routes in the Eastern Alps. In Sulden he has initiated the construction of the Julius Payer Hut (1875). From the rock wall with its marble plaque I also had a nice view on that hut, standing far, far away on the mountain ridge, at 3.000 metres! His plaque – like those for Karl Baeckmann and Julius Payer – was elaborately decorated with alpine flowers, sculptured in the marble. It was touching to see that next to the marble flowers also real flowers were in bloom on the rock wall and also a fern with its finely feathered leaves was growing!

I could have finished the tour by continuing to Messner’s Museum, but by then I thought that I had done enough. Back in the Hotel I noticed that I could see from my balcony the marble plaque of the Lourdes Grotto and even the light that was burning there.

It has been a precious and interesting tour and also an homage to the many persons who, although even not originating from this area, have committed themselves with dedication to the progress and the development of a region to which they have lost their hearts. We can still benefit from their efforts until today!

My first acquaintance with Sulden am Ortler has been amazing. In the coming two days I will enjoy myself even more – that is for sure…