What do you expect to find in Schnalstal, a small valley in South Tyrol, this beautiful alp-region where the borders of Austria and Italy meet on gigantic glaciers and picturesque mountain-idylls? Certainly you expect great food, snow, high mountains, snow, maybe a sambuca and , of course, snow. In the end we found a little bit of Berlin.
But lets start from the beginning.
The food in Merano
Great food in Schnalstal means cheese by sheep that move 44 km every summer. They climb the mountain up to 3200 meters in order to get the extra tasty, nutrition-rich grass on the hillsides of Öztal. That also makes for a delicious steak.
In South Tyrol, the organic origin of the products is not just ensured by the product design but by your taste buds. Industrial farming is not possible in the mountainous terrain of the Alps. Therefore sustainability is not just a catch phrase over there, it’s the foundation of every traditional way of farming. Back in the days the winters were longer and harder; Schnalstal was not easily accessible, so most of the farms were cut from the outer world for months.
The old famers used everything they got. Those traditional ways of doing things are still found in a lot of ways of preparing food and are treated with respect and dedication.
We experienced the culture first hand at the delicious dinner in the Oberraindlhof, our first destination in Schnalstal. We arrived after a 7 hour journey in the cosy rooms of the old Bauernhof that was built 300 years ago. The sun had already disappeared behind the mountain and the valley lay quite. Surrounded by the old oil-paintings and analog pictures, it really felt as if time had decelerated.
Ska from the Alps
At dinner we met Patrick, the youngest son of the family Raffeiner who owns the Hof since 1880 and rents out rooms since 1900.
Between the lamb and Schneezeit, a traditional farmers desert, he dropped a sticker on the table saying “Jokerface. Ska from the Alps”.
It turned out that Patrick had played in punk-bands forever and is now drumming in the Ska-Band „Jokerface“, which is one of a few alternative bands in the region. South Tyrol is mostly known for folk music, Aprés-Ski and the unpleasant success of the rightwing-oriented band Frei-Wild. The latter is a primary reason for why Patrick and his friends are organizing alternative events and promoting anti-racist culture. They even opened a club for that. While touring Germany they played the infamous S036 and the alt Tommy-House in Berlin.
Yup, Berlin. The city’s presence is felt anywhere, no mountain too high for its sweet whispers.
Speaking to Patrick really showed me how much more you connect to a place when you get to know its people. I mean, of course, South Tyrol is beautiful in every corner. The trees have a white powdered head, the mountains shine bright, illuminated by the sun, the food… (yea we already had that), but to really connect to a place on a deeper level you need to hear the stories of its people. So after our conversation I tried to get to know as much as I could about the Schnalstal.
Kurzras and the Übervater of Schnalstal
The next day we drove to Kurzras, the village where the Schnalstaler Ski-area is located. This is where I first heard the story of Leo Gurschler. Leo Gurschler is the Übervater of Schnalstal.
His story goes something like this: He grew up as the son of one of the richest farmers in Schnalstal. As a young man he formed the vision of developing the local glacier into a ski area. With all his resources, financially and personally, he pursued the project against the opposition of skeptics within the valley.
In 1972 he supervised the construction of the Schnalstaler Gletscherbahnen. Within this process he faced many obstacles. At one point, the company which was executing the construction, refused to bring a digger on top of the glacier. It seemed too dangerous to move the vehicle on the bold slopes of the mountain. So Leo took over himself. In a 15-day operation he brought the digger on top of the 3200 meter high glacier. This adventure made him a legend in South Tyrol. A local newspaper called him „King Leo”. The glacier lift was the biggest in all of South Tyrol and soon the Schnalstal was a popular ski-area.
But it didnt carry on like this. Nobody can really say what went wrong but an unlucky mixture of wrong business-decisions, the economical climate and a small portion of megalomania forced him into bankruptcy. He lost everything and his reputation suffered heavily. His inability to pay cost a lot of his fellow Schnalstalers. At the age of 36 he committed suicide.
The story of Leo Gurschler is hanging like a shadow over the valley.
For some, he is the fearless pioneer, one of the bravest men South Tyrol has ever seen, while for others he his a shady character who used his very own helicopter to have a coffee in Venice.
His achievements still characterize the ski area, and so do his failures. It seems like nobody really took the risk to invest into Schnalstal ever since. The beautiful ski area with 35km of ski runs is accompanied by an old mountain station that has a charming 70ies character.
The Bella Vista Alpine Hut
Nearby located in the ski area, near the glacier on 2842 meter, is the old „Bellavista“-cabin. This beautiful Alpine hut was also owned by the Gurschler family. Nowadays Paul Grüner manages the Bella Vista. He is an impressively big Tyroler who is full of ideas and spirit. He developed a concept for a fastfood Knödel chain, which is a great idea, because he has the best Knödel you can imagine, and started a cosmetic line based on the minerals of the glacier.
When we spoke to him he just came back from his latest visit to Hollywood. A few kilometers away from the cabin, Jake Gylenhall was shooting the movie „Everest“ and Paul was providing the catering for the set. But Schnalstalers weren’t too excited about Jake, actually they are already used to film sets. The German director Andreas Prochaska shot his italo-western „Das finstere Tal“ here as well – a dark genre movie about a mysterious rider who comes to a lonesome village in a snowy valley. It premiered at this years Berlinale. Patrick of Oberraindlhof has a small appearance in the movie, but he will more likely lean on his drums in order to come to Berlin again.
Schnalstal is a special place, full of beauty and joy, unperfected and individual. Just what we are looking for while traveling.
PS: Next time I’ll tell you the story how Reinhold Messner saved Ötzi! Thanks MGM for a beautiful trip!