National Geographic : 1951 Sep
A Stroll to Venice BY ISOBEL WYI.IE IIUTCIIISON "TI HE DOLOMITES," said an Austrian friend in Innsbruck (page 387), "are, I believe, the most beautiful of all places in the world! They are not to de scribe, only to see." And so, on a brilliant May morning, I set out to see them with a knapsack on my back, planning to go through the Brenner Pass and over the Sella and Rolle Passes to Venice (Ve nezia) by way of the Dolomites. Surely no scientist has a grander memorial than the French geologist Count Deodat de Dolomieu, born in 1750. He was the first to describe as magnesium limestone the composition of many peaks which now commemorate his name. "Begin your walk at Igls and go over the hills to Matrei by the old post road," my friend advised. "The Romans used to bring salt that way from the mines at Hall." The old salt road seemed the right path to take for Venice, Queen of the Sea, for, like her mountain background, she has risen above the waters through the ages, the work of man. With bright hopes, destined to be more than fulfilled, I took the mountain railroad for Igls, near Innsbruck (map, page 380). Highway of History It was Whitmonday. Holiday crowds in holiday clothes filled the train. Many still wore the national costume. I planned to reach the village of Matrei, 13 miles from the Italian frontier at Brenner Pass, by eve ning. The Brenner is the lowest of the Al pine passes, though its highest point, 4,511 feet, tops Britain's tallest peak, Ben Nevis. Here, up the long valley of the Isarco, or Eisak, River, a tributary of the Adige, Mediterranean vegetation has penetrated farther into the Alps than elsewhere. The Brenner has thus been a favorite highway between central and southern Europe since earliest times (page 385).* It was through its winding ravine, say many historians, that conquering Roman legions came in 15 B.C. under Drusus, stepson of Em peror Augustus. In the reverse direction streamed hordes of Goths and Ostrogoths, Cimbri and Bavarians, on their equally vic torious way south. In our own day, to their notorious meeting at Brenner station on October 4, 1940, came Hitler and Mussolini, to dilate on their plans for the conquest of Europe. The rushing waters of the gray torrent outside the win dows of their armored train were less fleeting than the plans of the two dictators, for since 1929 these streams have been harnessed and their waterpower used to electrify the railway which crosses the pass. The old road from Igls to Matrei twists along the hillside hundreds of feet above the railway and trunk road in the valley. From its height the hurrying cars and occasional train seemed dwarfed to the size of toys. So perfect was the scene I might have stepped into the wings of a theater. The flowers, the frescoed houses, and gaily clad throng seemed unreal. In the crystal-clear atmosphere the snow-dusted ranges behind the Inn River Valley stood out like cardboard scenery. Scented pinewoods enclosed me as I walked on. I heard the clack of cowbells, and some where a cuckoo called. I stopped to turn the money in my pocket and take my direction, for a long road lies before you when the first cuckoo of the year is heard. Sure enough, I was facing south, and a long road separated me from Venice. At St. Peter I found a little church clinging to the hillside, with gay cherubs holding up its pulpit, a richly painted ceiling, and a blue Madonna enshrined in gold above the altar. A cock topped the stately spire. The few coun try folk I met gave me the lovely Tyrolese greeting, "Griiss Gott." Beyond St. Peter the road descended to the picturesque stream and mill at Miihlthal. The cobbler's frescoed house, with its brilliant window boxes and overhanging eaves, was like a fairy tale. Cheek by jowl with the Old World mill, iron pylons harnessed the power of the little waterfall and stalked away over the hill with their electric treasure. Only a Picture Remains The Sill, a tributary of the Inn, races past the long village of Matrei (pages 379 anl 388) and plunges through a gorge beyond. Above on a high rock, the Castle of Trautson stood until 1945, when it shared the fate of the railway bridge below, which was bombed by the Allies. The old post road wound around this rock and entered Matrei by a wooden bridge watched over by a saint in his niche. As I stood gazing at the ruined castle, an old man hobbled up. "You are looking for the castle?" he asked. "Yes, it is gone. It was very old. But you can see its picture, just as it was, on the side of the third house as you enter the village." And there I found it, complete with Gothic tower. * See "Over the Alps to Brenner Pass." 15 ills., NA TIONAL GEOGRAPHIC MAGAZINE, December, 1943.