This morning, I finished walking the Via Alpina Yellow Trail in Muggia, just south of Trieste. This trail has left me with many mixed feelings. In some ways, it was everything a backpacker could wish for–stunning peaks, charming villages, and an incredible historical and cultural heritage. On the other hand, it was also one of the most poorly routed, badly signed, non-sensical trails whose negatives were made worse by a week of very bad weather.
Leaving Oberstdorf, Via Alpina follows the much more popular E5 trail down to Meran. Thanks to the popularity of the E5 trail, this made the route very easy to follow as I crossed mountain passes down through South Tyrol. In fact, I really have no complaints about this section other than a bizarre routing to Zwieselstein, a village that has absolutely nothing to offer and mindlessly forces hikers to leave the trail for a miserable roadwalk only to turn around and go back to the EXACT same spot they left! This aside, I crossed the Otztal Alps, where the famous Otzi the Iceman was found. From here, I walked to Meran, a famous resort and, in many ways, my romanticized ideal of a European city. Beautiful architecture, ancient history, wonderful cuisine all came together in Meran. From here, I took a few rough walks following roads and cable cars before reaching Tires, my doorway to the Italian Dolomites.
The Dolomites, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, were every bit as impressive as I expected them to be. My first day in, I was high up on a ridge and that night, heavy hail pounded my little tarp tent, leaving me wet all through the following day. The hail created an icy scree-like coating over the passes, which were already full of scree, and this combination made for poor footing. Nevertheless, I slowly worked my way through this spectacular area.
One day, in need of resupply, I came to Arabba, a town which seemed to be in need of a grocery store. I took the bus back to another center to resupply, but the stores there were closed for the afternoon, so I had lunch while I waited, then picked up my groceries. Afterwards, I went to take the bus back only to discover that it had stopped running. Furthermore, the following day was a special event in which all of the roads were closed so bikers could enjoy the roads without traffic, so there would be no public transport. My only option, then, was to take a taxi which I did. That was when I discovered that the store in Arabba was actually open, just not when I was there, so I ended up paying nearly 30 Euros for absolutely no good reason. Add to all of this the fact that there was an inevitable rain cloud coming that afternoon and you have one very unhappy backpacker. That evening, as I pushed on wet and cold, the rain let up although the clouds remained. At the top of a mountain pass, I suddenly found athletes running a long-distance race. I found I could keep up with them, and the comraderie in which I suddenly found myself helped me keep up my sagging spirits.
Eventually, I came to a point in the trail where I and the runners went our separate ways. I was very concerned, as I new there would be rain and the mountains were very exposed with no trees and nowhere to camp. Late at night, however, I found a temporarily abandoned cow camp with several large wooden beams inside on which I made my bed. Not a moment too soon, for several minutes later, rain came pouring down and I watched nature’s fireworks from my refuge while eating dinner. The next morning, the rain was still pouring, and though I tried to wait it out, I had no choice but to grit my teeth and walk through it. Eventually, it did dry out, but I was soaked to the bone. I would continue to struggle with rain for the next week.
As I came to the end of the Dolomites, I passed one interesting bivouac which was made more interesting by the character who was cleaning it, Louis. Louis was the first Via Alpina hiker I met on the trail. I stopped to have lunch with him, then carried on. From here, I started to leave the heavily visited areas behind and came into areas with a much more local flavor. Here, much to the delight of my traveler’s heart, Americans were rare, and therefore, people to visit with. I began to meet and befriend many locals, whose warmth and hospitality was both sincere and genuine. New friends I met at restaurants would buy me a meal and visit. Giuseppe, a young man I met in a small town, treated me to a full three-course meal, Emanuele took me out of the rain and brought me into his apartment one evening, and Marco treated me to a steak dinner. It was as I conversed with these people that my understanding of the region began to grow. Fortunately, my Spanish proved to be more useful than I first though. I discovered that if I confidently start speaking to someone in Spanish, they confidently speak to me in Italian, and between us, we can get across our basic meanings. I had to discover this because if I asked, “Do you speak Spanish?” the answer was always no. I am also learning to listen to the Italian accent which can confuse me sometimes and makes reading Italian easier for me than listening to it.
As I moved into the final third of the trail, I thought that I would be able to make stronger distances as the higher mountains faded away behind me. I was wrong. It was as though the routers, unimpeded by obstacles such as sheer cliffs, glaciers, and rock faces, gave themselves free reign to put the trail up whatever mountain pass, peak, and valley they felt like, even if there weren’t any views to be had. All of this was done over some very rough, very muddy, very steep trail. To give you some idea of what the trail was like, I have included some illustrations:
These are NOT exaggerations, they actually happen on the trail, and they are one of the reasons why I have found this trail to be so frustrating. That and the fact that I always lose about a quarter of an hour trying to find the trail every time I walk through a village. Sometimes, I would climb through thich forest, stinging nettle, and mud slides for hours to get to a point which afforded no views whatsoever. Some of the routing choices cost hikers literally dozens of kilometers that give no additional views whatsoever. However, as a purist, I refused to shortcut, bus, or even take a cable car. Another annoyance on this trail is that in the southern part there is a danger of Lyme’s Disease, and I have been pulling ticks off of myself for the last few days.
In spite of these setbacks, the people have made up for much of the frustrations. On one particularly rainy and obnoxious day of walking, I stopped at a cottage to ask for directions. A vaguely gaelic music was coming from inside. There, I found an old Resian man having lunch, which he immediately shared with me together with a beer. He was listening to Resian folk music, and was about as old and hard-core a mountain man as I imagine can be found in Italy, speaking the local dialect, living in a cottage his family had lived in for years untold.
Constantly, I have been reminded that this is the land of knights and castles, of fairy tales and of the Crusades. The witches of Fassa lived here, the dragon appeared there, this church is a thousand years old, at that castle king so-and-so once lived. Then there is the constant regional shifts as German becomes Italian which becomes Slovenian and blends in various combinations with many regional differences. Finally, on the way down to Trieste, I passed through world-class vineyards, taking time to indulge in several regional specialty wines. Now, I am in Trieste where I had originally intended to relax. As the hotels are all booked and I have been unable to accomplish most of my to-do list, relaxation has not happened, but I do need to rest before starting out on the Red Trail, the backbone of the Via Alpina.
Thanks for reading!
Daniel “Cloudwalker” Liu