Hiking the Alpine Walserweg trail
Most of the stages on the Walserweg can each be fitted into a day, beginning and ending in a village. Mountain huts, however, help to break some of the longer stretches. One such refuge is the Carschinahütte, on the walking route from Partnun in Switzerland to Brand in Austria. The word ‘hut’ is quite misleading for a place that can sleep more than 80 people and serves hot meals to thousands of walkers every year. This is the third summer season that Tom and Heidi Solèr have run and manged the hut. “It’s the best moment when you come up in spring to open the hut for the first time,” says Heidi. Night falls outside, but the tables of increasingly merry walkers lessen the sense of isolation on the shoulder of the mountain. Heidi and Tom bring supplies up from the valley once a week: “Here, you learn not to forget things,” adds Heidi.
Morning reveals the mountain wall behind the hut that marks the border with Austria. Less than two hours’ walk away, there is a chance to make a crossing at the Schweizertor (the ‘gate of Switzerland’) where the sheer rock face is briefly broken. In the last ascent to the pass, iron handholds and steps appear in the steeper parts. At the top, a discreet stone post marks the border. To prove the point, I sit down to eat my sandwich with one foot in each country. The old customs hut on the Austrian side looks long-deserted when I rejoin the path. Two hours after my last glimpse of Switzerland, it’s a relief to see the cold blue waters of the Lünersee, above the village of Brand. For the last stretch, I decide to take the cable car down from the lake. After all, it was also built by the Walser.
The migration of the Walser reached its end in what is now western Austria. From around 1400, the climate turned colder and the high pastures didn’t beckon the way they used to. Lech was one of the last valleys settled by the Walser before this Little Ice Age began. As in most other Walser settlements, the village founders struck a deal with the feudal lords who held title to the land. The barons were eager to see their sparsely settled territories filled with industrious farmers who promised to serve them in times of war. In return, the Walser could now boast that they owned their own land, unlike their lower-lying neighbours. Lech hosted a kind of mini Walser parliament in the old ‘White House’ – several centuries before the one in Washington DC, as locals point out.
The village has grown to become one of the bigger ski resorts in the region, but has been spared the glut of concrete that mars some Alpine villages. The pattern of life in Lech is almost the reverse of what it used to be when the village was a cow and haybased economy: intense activity during the winter, and a more relaxed pace in summer.
Elmar Walch was head of the village ski-school for 20 years, but remembers the time before the village got its first ski lift. Sitting by the tiled stove in his family’s hotel, the Hotel Angela, he is surrounded by hunting trophies. Most are red deer, a staple of local restaurant menus, but there are also chamois and ibex horns. The ibex became extinct in the area in the 18th century, when many people believed its heart was a talisman of health and good fortune. Reintroduced and managed more responsibly, there are now around 400 living in the mountains around Lech.
“There is this connection between the Walser across borders,” says Elmar. “I went with my children to the Valais and we could still speak with the people there in the old dialect, after 700 years.” There are regular get-togethers. Even Italian-speaking Walser in Milan come to these events, swapping Armani for the 18th-century-looking Walser folk costume, worn on special occasions.