The Travel Episodes

Trentino - South Tyrol

Dear Dolomites, I'm Back

Me and the moun­ta­ins. It’s never been simple. On the one hand, I had in my head a Heidi-style idyll, on the other an inci­dent from my child­hood – one that wasn’t funny at all.
Gitti Müller returns to South Tyrol.

Heidi is the tale of a little orphan girl who seems perpe­tually on the verge of burst­ing with happi­ness – so long as she’s allo­wed to stay with her crot­chety grand­fa­ther in the Alps. She leaps over streams, tends sheep and goats, and skips merrily through lush moun­tain fields, picking flowers and laug­hing. The story takes place in the Switz­er­land, but no matter. The important thing is that there are moun­ta­ins – kits­chy, roman­tic ones.

Then there’s my own story. I wasn’t exactly an orphan girl, but some­thing like it. My first train ride without my parents was to the moun­ta­ins, to South Tyrol. I was exactly the same age as Heidi: five years old.

I was going not to a moun­tain pasture but to a conva­le­scent home for child­ren. And I didn’t under­stand what was happe­ning.

I watched my parents waving from the plat­form in Colo­gne as the train set off, much to my horror. It drove on and on and I cried and cried. My eight-year-old sister tried to comfort me, though she was as helpless and sad as I was. Around us were other much-too-small child­ren with much-too-big suit­ca­ses. Never has a train jour­ney passed more slowly, and never have I felt so profoundly aban­do­ned and despe­rate. Then, at long last, just as I had run out of tears and was down to the last few suppres­sed, shaky sobs, the train ground to a halt.

The night was dark, and we were at the Bren­ner Pass.

Suddenly we heard shots and explo­si­ons.

The train didn’t move.

We were upset and afraid, trem­bling and clinging to each other as we waited all night long.

The next day the follo­wing head­line was splas­hed across the news­pa­pers: Bombs Deto­na­ted in South Tyrol. Activists were using bombings to try and wrest auto­nomy from Italy. That night in 1961 was the ‘Night of Fire’, the last armed struggle over the province. 

After this expe­ri­ence, I wanted nothing more to do with the moun­ta­ins. I didn’t like them; they seemed eerie and strange. Only when I went skiing, once the snow had cove­red the harsh rocks and steep slopes in a sugary white powder, did I begin to warm to them.

But now, many years later, I want to know: can I feel at peace in the moun­ta­ins, even in summer? Can I let go of the shadows of the past? I love the dry moun­tain air, the broad expan­ses and the down-to-earth people in the Andes. So why not in the Dolo­mi­tes? Off we go, then. I can always turn back.

Chapter Two

Looking for Peace

Trying to shut down the system comple­tely, rech­arge it and press start.

Everything’s fine on the high-speed train as far as Bolzano. Much quicker than usual. After that the trains get increa­singly smal­ler and slower. Coni­fe­rous forests go by outside the window before the first masses of rock come into view, reawa­ke­n­ing my child­hood fear. It must have been awful for my parents during the war: as child­ren they were constantly being sent away to unknown places. And what must it be like today for the child­ren of refu­gees from Syria, Eritrea or Soma­lia? How much pain can young souls tole­rate? How much injus­tice can people bear? All the chaos in the world, its crises and misery, the appar­ently endless stream of bad news that washes over me every day via the inter­net and the media – that too is driving me into the moun­ta­ins. I’m looking for peace. I’m looking to shut down the system comple­tely, rech­arge it and press start.

They say there’s an energy in the moun­ta­ins. Please, dear moun­ta­ins, share some with me, and bring me back to earth. 

Instead of being brought back to earth, I start by walking over a rickety trans­por­ter bridge. Instead of silence, there’s the furious rushing of the water­fall.
I’m in the Foresta dei violini (the Violin Forest) in the Fiemme Valley. It smells of spruce. The air, gentle and scen­ted, streams into my lungs. This 20,000-hectare area is half cove­red in forest, and the moun­ta­ins, meadows and woods are under collec­tive ownership and manage­ment. The forest became famous because its spruce trees produce wood of extra­or­di­nary quality: used to make violins, it commands top prices. The great maes­tro Stra­di­vari is said to have gone there perso­nally to find wood for his violins. 

The most important person in such a precious wood is the fores­ter, and I’m about to meet him.

Guiliano laughs. When his mouth isn’t laug­hing, his eyes are. This man loves his job, and when he’s not tending to the forest he’s guiding people through the moun­ta­ins. I’m gobs­ma­cked when he tells me where he’s alre­ady been: the Peruvian and Ecua­do­rian Andes, Argen­tina, Nepal, Tanza­nia, Turkey and Morocco. And nothing on earth causes him the least concern. Ever. Unlike me. But he’s always happy to be back home in the Dolo­mi­tes, because they’re the most beau­ti­ful of all. Says Guiliano.

Guiliano takes me with him. ‘Up there,’ he says with a grin. ‘Where the trees don’t grow anymore, to the rock massifs of the Rolle Pass.’ Wow – yeah, those are the Dolo­mi­tes! Like jagged teeth, like foun­ta­ins of stone they jut abruptly out of the rich, green meadows. Across the whole of South Tyrol and Tren­tino, clus­ters of Dolo­mi­tes with their crests and peaks emerge like islands of rock. They have sono­rous names like Lang­kofel, Platt­kofel, Late­mar, Sella, Marmolada and Civetta. At the moment we’re stan­ding in front of the Pala Group, the main peaks of which are Pala, Vezzana and Bure­loni. Their colours change accord­ing to the light, weather and time of day.

Since 2009 the Dolo­mi­tes have been a UNESCO World Heri­tage Site, and they number among the fifty most beau­ti­ful land­s­capes in Europe. ‘Where does the name come from?’ I ask Guiliano. ‘From the kind of rock?’ Guiliano laughs. ‘No. The name actually comes from France – or rather, from a French­man.’ It’s probably a good thing that they don’t bear his full name, because it goes like this: Déodat Guy Silvain Tancrède Gratet de Dolo­mieu. The little man with a big name lived from 1750 to 1801. A geolo­gist, he disco­ve­red in Tren­tino a ‘strange type of rock that looks like limestone but isn’t.’ With that, dolo­mite was born, and this region of the Alps has been called the Dolo­mi­tes ever since.

‘They can be white as snow, yellow as the sun, grey as the clouds, pink as a rose, red as blood. What is the colour of the Dolo­mi­tes?’

Dino Buzzati

The higher I get, the more my thoughts seem to wander. I’m now 3,000 metres above sea level, and the air is clear as glass. I sit and stare in wonder. It’s unbe­liev­a­ble that all this was once a sea and the tips of the Dolo­mi­tes were reefs in the water! It took 280 million years for this rock to emerge from the ocean floor. Coral, photo­au­to­tro­phic algae and shells all played their part. 80 million years ago, the Afri­can tecto­nic plate butted up against the Eura­sian one and the earth folded in on itself. Coral reefs and the ocean floor appeared: the Dolo­mi­tes. Somehow it’s calming to know how much time and what natu­ral forces have shaped these stones. This persis­tence, an expres­sion of soli­dity and strength, is some­thing I find lacking in our fast-paced lives, where ever­y­thing chan­ges the moment you get used to it.


* * *

Chapter Three

The Concert

A concert on the moun­tain­top at sunrise? I’m there!

I was imme­dia­tely keen when I heard about the concert. ‘Sounds of the Dolo­mi­tes’ is an insti­tu­tion in Tren­tino. The festi­val takes place during the summer months, and always in very unusual loca­ti­ons. When my alarm clock goes off at 3.30am, my enthu­si­asm has dwind­led some­what, but my hostess surpri­ses me with coffee and crois­sants (at this hour!) and my mood impro­ves drama­ti­cally. It’s still dark and chilly. The cable car is packed, just as it would be in the middle of winter. All these people have willin­gly got out of bed in the dead of night, I think. Later I realise that there are around 3,000 of us clim­bing the moun­tain this morning to hear the concert at sunrise. Mario Brunetti and Dave Douglas are carry­ing their heavy double basses on their backs. Their wives lug their slee­ping child­ren upwards. As the cable car reaches the top, the view of the scenery takes my breath away: dawn is alre­ady brea­king, and the moun­tain range on the hori­zon is shaded in various tones of blue and grey.
Like a cara­van, musi­ci­ans and audi­ence members climb the appro­xi­mately two-kilometre path upwards to where the stage is set up. Among the rocks there are alre­ady hund­reds of people, some of them in slee­ping bags, swadd­led in blan­kets and drin­king tea or coffee from ther­mo­ses. The air is cold, as are the rocks. My neigh­bour passes me a blan­ket to sit on. To this day I’m still grate­ful to her: although during the day it can get hot in the moun­ta­ins, at night it can cool to ten degrees below zero. I sit and watch. Slowly the sky turns red. The musi­ci­ans tune their instru­ments. Between the expec­tant audi­ence, the still­ness of the morning and the reddish tinge of the sky, a very special atmo­s­phere hangs in the air. And then the music begins: Anto­nio Vivaldi’s Concerto in E minor. Pure goose pimp­les, though I’m not sure whether that’s down to the music, the setting or the sunrise. I’m more than moved to tears. I cry.

When the concert finis­hed to raptur­ous applause and I’ve finis­hed my inter­views, it’s ten o’clock. The sun is shining and the air is gradually warming up, despite the alti­tude. In the valley, the tempe­ra­ture during this period reaches above thirty degrees, in Bolzano up to thirty-eight. Very unusual. It’s an ideal moment to escape into the cooler moun­ta­ins. Perhaps that’s why so many people have come.

I make the descent by foot. No, really! After a while I leave the broad, well-worn trail and take the so-called ‘Shepherd’s Way‘. On this narrow path, I walk down the moun­tain then up a little, through sweet-smelling meadows and past cows and goats. 


Then the path begins to lead consistently down­hill. I’m tired, my out-of-practice legs are aching and my shoes pinch. ‘Mummy, are we there yet?’ asks my inner child. My two-litre bottle of water is soon empty and I haven’t really eaten break­fast yet. I try to keep cheer­ful and not think about hunger, thirst or pain, and end up thin­king about hunger, thirst and pain. Then I remem­ber a yoga exer­cise, a breat­h­ing medi­ta­tion called ‘so ham’ (meaning ‘I am’). I think ‘so’ on the in-breath and ‘ham‘ on the out-breath. Gradually I reach a genui­nely medi­ta­tive pace, putting one foot in front of the other, breat­h­ing in, breat­h­ing out, and it’s as if my aches and pains have been whis­ked away. I reach the valley around one, and from there head strai­ght back to the cabin in a cable car. I’m not taking anot­her step today. I swear! A proper meal with plenty of calo­ries – I’ve earned it.

* * *

Chapter Four

Aching Muscles and Another Climb

What I learn from the Ladins and why it’s so beau­ti­ful in the Alps

Next morning: an unplea­sant awake­n­ing. I can only manage the stairs down to the break­fast room back­wards. My muscles ache so badly I could scream with every step. But am I about to give up? Hell no! By now I’ve made friends with the moun­ta­ins, and tonight I want to sleep up there. A storm is in the offing, but hope­fully we’ll make it up to the cabin before the thun­der and lighting set in. From Campi­tello it’s flat (woohoo!) all the way to Cana­zei, then we’ll take the cable car for a bit (chea­ting) and go from there to the Rifu­gio Sasso Piatto. I’m a newbie at hiking and I have a sense of direc­tion like a demen­ted compass needle, so I’m extre­mely glad that Alice from Cana­zei is coming with me.

Alice was born and brought up here. She speaks Ladin, and is there­fore essen­ti­ally one of the region’s indi­ge­nous people. The Val di Fassa, thanks to its high peaks and the nearly impas­sa­ble land­s­cape through which we’re curr­ently walking, was protec­ted from the outside world, preser­ving its language – Ladin – for more than two thousand years. This is how it sounds:

Maybe I can learn a bit of Ladin on the go, I think. But Alice soon disabu­ses me of this notion. ‘Which Ladin do you want to learn?’ she asks. ‘The one from the upper, middle or lower Fassa Valley?’ 30,000 inha­bi­tants can’t agree on a language? Amazing. And being the tradition-conscious people that they are, the Ladins have nume­rous festi­vals and ritu­als to soothe evil spirits and keep the nice ones in a good mood. No wonder: in an envi­ron­ment where hail can abruptly ruin the harvest, where lands­li­des can bury entire villa­ges and storms make the earth trem­ble, a belief in witches and spirits isn’t unli­kely. So even today, the Ladins still tell fairy tales and sagas from the Val di Fassa.

We stop to meet anot­her Ladi­ner, the sculp­tor Rinaldo Cigolla. He’s over eighty years old, and still works in his atelier. ‘The view of the moun­ta­ins from the window,’ he says, ‘gives me so much strength. Whate­ver happens in the world, it doesn’t worry me. I’m comple­tely care­free.’ Wow. I’d love to be able to say that of myself. ‘And what if some­body promi­sed you a big villa and lots of money some­where else in the world that was also beau­ti­ful? Would you accept?’ I ask.

I think to myself: these people have roots that go deep into the earth. They stand like spruces, sway­ing in the wind and storms, survi­ving heavy snows in winter and gazing constantly at the moun­ta­ins. They’re tough. I’m a bit envious, actually. We conti­nue our hike. Step by step we climb higher and higher. And the higher I get, the ligh­ter feels the weight of the world. My shoul­ders relax, my upper body light and my lower half heavy. My feet are like lead, but my body is free. Above me, the sky darkens. Is the thun­der­storm going to catch us? But then it clears up again, and I’m pretty relie­ved: getting struck by light­ning is not a chal­lenge I’d like to undergo. From the safety of the cabin, howe­ver, with a roof over my head, I’ve got no objec­tion to witnessing that kind of natu­ral specta­cle. I imagine it would be wonder­fully scary. But there’s probably not much chance of that.

By now we’ve reached the Sasso Piatto moun­tain. We sit, untie our shoes, stretch our legs and look around. Glorious. We’re star­ving. Ham and cheese, bread and fresh butter – deli­cious. All home­made, from happy cows and goats. A small bell rings. A marmot whist­les. Other­wise all is silent. A spar­k­ling wine sprit­zer. Life can be so easy.

For the last ten years, Roberto has spent three months every summer working on the moun­tain. He has 400 sheep, twenty cattle, seventy goats, five pigs, ten horses and ten milking cows. Gosh! That sounds like a lot of work. It is indeed. This is what his mornings look like – and they’re not for the faint-hearted:

4.30am: Fetch and milk the animals
5.30am: Check on the sheep
6am: Light the oven and knead the dough
7am: Eat break­fast, bake the bread
etc. etc. etc.
9pm: Go to bed
Then do the whole thing seven days a week for three months.

Now I’m not envious any more.

None­theless, Roberto wouldn’t trade his situa­tion for anything. The moun­tain is addic­tive, he says:

It’s beau­ti­ful here. But three months on a moun­ta­in­side! Would I want that? I don’t think so. It looks like pretty hard graft, even though I can imagine that one’s soul and perpe­tually fran­tic mind could find peace here. No ques­tion.

My time in the moun­ta­ins has done me good.

Although I nearly gave up on the climb down: I walked down the final bit of sloping path back­wards, because my knees were crun­ching and shrie­king with every step. Now I’m sitting on the Piazza in Trento with a glass of wine, thin­king about my visit to the Dolo­mi­tes. It was certainly beau­ti­ful – very beau­ti­ful, even. I’ve made my peace with the moun­ta­ins and left the shadows of the past behind me. Walking makes your muscles sore, but it frees your body; it’s as if your inner hori­zons widen. I feel ligh­ter than when I arri­ved, and more groun­ded. There’s no less chaos in the world, no less suffe­ring.

But does carry­ing all that chaos around with me help the world? No.

So next time I get the chance, I’ll be back – to bring myself back to earth and rech­arge my batte­ries.

* * *

Trans­la­tion by Caro­line Waight

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An Episode by

Comeback mit Backpack

Gitti Müller

My first attack of wander­lust, in 1980, took me on a year-long back­packing trip to South America. Back then ruck­sacks like that weig­hed a lot, and the jour­ney was exhaus­ting. Since then I just can’t stop – today I always have my laptop and DSLR in my bag. As a tele­vi­sion jour­na­list and anthro­po­lo­gist, I get around quite a bit, but I always feel at home in Latin America.

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  • Maria M. Koch on 27. September 2015

    Einfach fantas­tisch. Ganz großes Kompli­ment für diesen Blick auf die Dolo­mi­ten.

    • gitti on 27. September 2015

      Danke! Die Menschen dort haben es mir leicht gemacht.

  • Jutta voigt on 28. September 2015

    Die Bilder der Dolo­mi­ten sind einfach gran­dios. Und was die Erfah­run­gen mit den dort leben­den und das eigene empfin­den dort in gewal­ti­gen Natur angeht kann ich nur zustim­men. Mir öffnet sich dort das Herz und der Geist in einer nicht nach­voll­zieh­ba­ren Art und weise. Es klärt sich der Blick für das wesent­li­che. Aber es birgt viel Frie­den Insich­ge­hen.

    • gitti on 13. Oktober 2015

      Natur ist in vieler Hinsicht die beste Medi­zin. Und das spüren wir bewußt oder unbe­wußt. Danke für Dein Feed­back!

  • Roberta on 5. Oktober 2015

    This travel across the Dolo­mi­tes was enchan­ting! thanks Gitti, you’re an amazing woman xxx

    • gitti on 13. Oktober 2015

      Thank you, Roberta. Hope you will enjoy the Dolo­mi­tes some day trave­ling in real­time (-:

  • Joachim on 20. Oktober 2015

    Eine schöne Repor­tage!
    Das Sein in den Bergen, aber auch die Form hier im Inter­net: Mit Texten, Bildern, Filmen und Tondo­ku­men­ten — und alles schön groß und ruhig!


    • gitti on 24. Oktober 2015

      Danke Joachim. Ich mag dieses Format auch sehr. Es ist das Baby von Johan­nes Klaus. Eine sehr schöne Idee!

  • Roland Rast on 21. Oktober 2015

    Gratu­liere zu dieser gelun­ge­nen Repor­tage liebe Gitti!
    Habe ich mit großem Inter­esse Gele­sen
    Herz­li­che Grüße

    • gitti on 24. Oktober 2015

      Danke für die Blumen lieber Roland!

  • ola on 5. November 2015

    Der Orts­un­kun­dige könnte sich durch diesen Arti­kel den Eindruck verschaf­fen, die Dolo­mi­ten befin­den sich ausschließ­lich im Tren­tino und in Südti­rol — Der Voll­stän­dig­keit halber sei mir nur eine kleine Ergän­zung erlaubt: Das Dolo­mi­ten­ge­biet umfasst auch das Cado­re­tal, wo auch Ladi­nisch gespro­chen wird, vgl. dazu https://de.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dolomiten.

    • gitti on 3. April 2016

      Danke für die Ergän­zung! Die Dolo­mi­ten sind groß, ja. Und Ladi­nisch wird zudem noch in der Provinz Belluno gespro­chen, in Buchen­stein und Cortina d’Ampezzo.

  • Roberta Piazza on 5. November 2015

    I really enjoyed this trave­log. It commu­ni­ca­tes a great sense of peace and energy, so typi­cal of Gitti. Well done!

    • gitti on 3. April 2016

      Thank you so much Roberta

  • Peter Lanzet on 12. Februar 2016

    Oh wie wunder­bar, Impres­sio­nen vermit­telt als ob man selbst dabei ist. Eigent­lich wollte ich immer in den Bergen leben, da ist etwas aleman­ni­sches, etwas von meiner Mutter. Vielen Dank, ganz Klasse

    • gitti on 3. April 2016

      Danke Peter, freut mich wenn du „dabei“ warst. Genau das ist das Ziel. Viel­leicht klappt es ja eines Tages mit in den Bergen leben. Die Alm, die ich besucht habe, nimmt auch Sommer­gäste, die gegen Kost und Logis mit anpa­cken.