12 September 2011 | NW Italy
The only plan we have for this trip is drive and hike in the mountains for fun. We are still experimenting with a strategy that maximizes the fun and minimizes the crowds. Our stop in Ortesei was on the major Bolzano-Cortina route and rather crowded, so we thought we might try a different strategy, to drive to the end of a valley without an exit but with a ski lift; therefore no through traffic but some resources. By chance we picked the Val Senales with the town of Maso Corto (or Kurzran in German) that I wrote about two days ago. It was really a spectacular stroke of luck. The day we planned to hike was also the day planned to bring the sheep flocks from Austria to Maso Corto over the pass Hochjoch, which is a special local event and festival. So we hiked the 2.5 hours to the Schoene Aussicht hut on that pass well above treeline, had lunch and a beer, during which time the flock arrived and was held below the hut a bit while the drive bosses came into the hut for their lunch and beer. We joined a small crowd of locals that was gathered near the hut waiting for the sheep drive. Many were dressed for the part, pointy felt hats, knickers, hiking boots. Eventually the trail bosses came out and said in their local german dialect something like “bring ‘em up” and the flock of over 1000 sheep climbed the last little hill to where we were all gathered, with lots of bleating and their neck bells clanging. There was a pinch point on the trail, and the flock just kept flowing (not quite a stampede, these are sheep after all) and completely engulfed all the spectators gathered around. I was seated on a rock taking a video, and had lots of eye to eye time with the sheep.
Afterwards we climbed further up, along side a glacier to a small hotel and terminus for a ski lift cable car, which we rode down. Four thousand feet of descent in 4 minutes, no sore knees! We arrived back in town at about the same time as the sheep. The festival was also starting. It was not large, just a few hundred people. Even though this town is in Italy, the culture is thoroughly German, so this festival included a brass band, lederhosen dancing, lots of beer and sausages, bavarian clothing, etc. We are leaving Germany on Friday, the day before the Munich Oktoberfest begins, which is an event I have no interest in going to ever again, though I was hoping to find a more local end-of-summer festival somewhere; this was it. Here was a celebration surrounding an important, annual agricultural event, with lots of local color, and free of international marketing hype. Love it!
Today we drove further west, approaching Switzerland. We crossed Stelvio Pass, perhaps one of the most beautiful in the area, with huge glaciers and towering peaks visible on the east side ascent, and the highest so far at 2850 meters. The road was a construction marvel, laying this serpentine pavement on a steep alpine slope; 40-some hairpins on each side. From a driver’s viewpoint it is not that spectacular, short straightaways followed by supertight, first gear turns and too much traffic.
We are starting to plan our exit. Long abandoned are the thoughts of doing all of the classic passes all the way to southern France, there is just not enough time. Also further west the passes are farther apart and closer to population centers, which leaves me concerned that fun ratio will suffer substantially. So from tomorrow we are backtracking to the areas I know to be the best, and planning to drive less and hike more. We also will try to spend one or two nights at alpine huts. More on that in a couple of days.