The route we took to get to South Tirol was from Villach to the border along route 111. We detoured outside Villach (Untere) along a small rural road to visit Terra Mystica/Montana. The detour took us up into some mountains through miners villages. Here the wood and stone chalets have been replaced by tenement blocks. We passed a lot of skiing facilities.
Route 111 is the smaller alternative route to South Tirol. The larger highway passes through Lienz further north and keeps to the wide open valleys.
On re-connecting with route 111 we drove for 60km along the large flood plain of a U shaped valley. This runs the border between Italy and Austria, separated by the Oberes Gaital range south of the road and the Gaitaler Alps north. The low cloud and rain prohibited our view of either mountain range which was a shame because the valley itself did not have much to boast of, being primarily agriculture.
On reaching Kostach the route 111 becomes tiny, at times a single lane, as it winds up the mountains. The air is noticeably cooler. Our road map ‘Freytag&Berndt’ states that caravans are prohibited from using this route. I would disagree so long as the driver is capable of reversing a caravan. There was no sign post at the start of the road reaffirming what the map said and we passed several timber lorries with 20tonne trailers. We drove along the sides of gorges, with wild rivers racing far below, impressive rock faces, thick coniferous woods clinging to the steep mountain sides.
We stopped for a late breakfast at an old watermill. The low pressure meant the rains continued in waves whilst low clouds rolled over the mountain tops and tumbled down into the valleys. We were now in the Karnishe Dolomitens. After about 20km of winding, we gained sufficient altitude to break through the forest onto wide valleys that sat between even higher mountains than we had previously seen. Little farmers villages dotted the valley, each having a good number of guest houses. I imagine the villages are the start of hikers trails up into the mountains that reach about 2600 meters in height. There is a strong religious sentiment here with each village’s church dominating the area around. Maria Luggau and Liesing had the 12 stations of Christ marked along the roadside. We only drove through the villages but we felt that Birnbaum (pear tree) and St. Lorenzen were the most attractive. They were clearly very old, with gorgeously fashioned wooden lintels and window shutters, heavy oak doors leading through stone walls, little courtyards decorated with plants … and gnomes.
After another 30km we arrived, in the dark, at the border town of Sillian. Anika was by now exhausted from the drive and the damp weather. She was demanding ice cream. Anika has picked up some tantrum throwing techniques from Milo that we try our best to ignore. We did what everyone does at the border and fill up with fuel. Austrian diesel is 1.43 euros a litre and in Italy it is 1.80 euros.
We passed through the border checkpoint, long deserted, and into Italy – as I explained to Anika, the country of Pasta and icecream! I think she is going to enjoy it!
We are off at last! Our getting back on the road has been long overdue and we are all excited about the trip. Anika is expressing her desire to ride a camel. She does not appreciate the distance that lies between us and Morocco. I am just glad to be moving. Mara is coming down with a cold which is unfortunate timing. Next stop South Tirol.
We have left on a sad note. Things have not gone well at the smallholding. Firstly Olaf the landlord demanded that Marcus leave the farm come winter – imagine trying to relocate livestock in minus temperatures! Olaf is truly clueless. Then the local agricultural authority came and inspected the barn declaring it unsafe and sealing it off. Marcus had to pile up all his farm equipment, wood and tools outside in the grass. Worst is that the animals are not allowed to shelter in the barn. Then the Moosburg bushenshanker (farm and restaurant) brought a dead sheep to Marcus to be examined as it had mysteriously died and they feared poison. After the examination Marcus fed the carcass to the dogs (Miki enjoyed that!). Unfortunately this was reported to the authorities (it is illegal to not report a dead animal, examine a dead animal without a license and to feed a dead animal to ones dogs). Two squads of police, lawyers and agricultural inspectors swooped on the smallholding and searched the farm discovering a few bushes of marijuana growing wild. Now Marcus faces fines for having marijuana on the farm, for the sheep incident and faces further inspections by regulation loving inspectors. The bushenshanker (which is a lovely place) faces heavy fines and closure. Thus a dark cloud settled on life in the Moosburg smallholding. This grieves us because Marcus has such a big heart and loves his animals dearly. Now he is being forced to sell all the pigs and goats that he knows by name and who come running to the sound of his voice.
It is this over regulating of small farms that is killing them off. The regulations are effective in monitoring animal welfare where farms are industrial in size, animals are routinely reared for slaughter and the scale of the business prevents farm workers from knowing the condition of individual animals. In smallholdings animals are virtually household pets, looked after and loved. The rules make little sense against the individual needs of ones animals.
This is a stunning country. The scenery is spectacular. I love the diversity of lakes, meadows, mountains and its proximity to the Adriatic. I am impressed by the cleanliness of the land, the care taken to minimise pollution, to keep water drinkable, to always pick up ones litter. I love the Teutonic windows, slavic steeples, thick stone walls. There is a closeness to nature here, expressed through the long trails up the mountains, the swimming in icy lakes, the respect for farmers and farming traditions no matter how ridiculous they may appear to an outsider.
I felt uncomfortable with the conservative sentiment that runs so strong here. It feels as if Austria, which is a very young country (a child of the Great War), has reached a developmental point where the majority of the population have decided to freeze the nation, preventing further change. It is as if everything must now remain as it is. It is clean, has a generous welfare system and low unemployment so the consensus is keep it like that. Hence the heavy regulation that permeates all aspects of life. The regulations are not just a heavy State intervention into society. Austrians themselves are complicit in guaranteeing that everyone tows the line. Hence I was frequently called to account for letting Miki walk off the lead. When Marcus pig escaped and got into a neighbours garden the neighbour called the police and made a complaint rather than call Marcus and let him know where his pig was. When Jean Luc organized a successful festival a local shop owner photographed every craft stall and sent their details to the tax office.
I was also uncomfortable walking in the mountians under the gaze of numerous jaeger (hunter) towers erected just about everywhere. The hunting sport is closely tied to the conservative front. Hence they are a powerful political voice and can act with impunity in their policing of the forests, including both threatening to shoot and shooting of dogs. Again, whilst there is a State system for policing the forest, the Austrian conservative front has taken it upon themselves to do the work.
I would not mind this so much if the conservatives were a vocal minority. They are however the very large majority and include a disturbing number of fascist sympathisers. Hence there is little to gain from trying to instigate change against the will of the majority. This unwillingness to accept change leads to antagonism within society as the pressure to change builds up. Changes are natural, like the tide, and can not be held back indefinitely.
I would conclude on two points. One is that Vienna is exceptionally different to the rest of Austria. It has historically had a ‘red’ party in local government (though this is now changing). Two is that I met some extraordinary and wonderful people who make up the inner fabric of society, hidden away up valleys or urban tower blocks. They form a matrix that crosses the country, working towards a progressive future for Austria.