Monte Lussari

After yesterday’s exciting outing to Graz we were planning an even bigger outing today: an excursion to the so-called “Drei-Länderecke”, an area where Austria, Italy and Slovenia come together. So we left early in the morning to drive from my home province of Styria along the A2 Highway to the Austrian province of Carinthia. The drive across the mountains of Western Styria is extremely scenic and the pleasant panoramas continued into the picturesque province of Carinthia (“Kärnten” in German).

The province of Carinthia is the southernmost Austrian province; it is close to 280 km long, but in some areas only 45 to 50 km wide. The western part of the province is characterized by the Austrian High Alps while the eastern part features wider valleys and medium-altitude mountains. Carinthia is an extremely popular tourist destination, in particular the scenic lakes (e.g. Wörthersee, Ossiacher See, Millstätter See, Weißensee and many others) are a huge tourist draw in the summer, and in winter this province features several excellent ski areas for Alpine skiing enthusiasts.

Our destination for today was a mountain called “Mangart” which is located in Slovenia and at 2679 m the fourth-highest peak of the Julian Alps. This part of the Alps extends from north-eastern Italy into Slovenia and was named after Julius Cesar. The predominant mineral in this area is limestone which features many prominent and jagged mountain peaks.

The Mangart mountain is most easily reached from the Italian side, so we crossed the Austrian-Italian border at Thörl-Maglern. Because Austria and Italy are both EU member countries, we did not even have to show our passports any more and continued into the border town of Tarvisio and turned left into a mountain river valley that would take us to our destination. Our drive took us through quaint mountain villages that seemed rather remote and secluded, and less than half an hour from Tarvis we reached the beautiful “Predil Lake”, a gorgeous lake with green and turquoise waters that is surrounded by an imposing mountain panorama. We stopped for a brief picture break and continued our ascent up the Julian Alps past various switchbacks and leftover fortifications dating back to World War I. Many mountains in this area were actually scenes of the mountain warfare that characterized the First World War. Major military operations took place in this area right in the high mountains between the middle of 1915 and late 1917 and more than 300,000 Austro-Hungarian and Italian soldiers perished in these battles.

Finally we reached the Italian-Slovenian border and we still had to present our passports. We continued further up on the flanks of the Mangart Mountain, but our vehicle started to overheat. My brother stopped and opened the hood, and we started to conclude that the engine cooling fan was not working. As a result, we would be unable to continue climbing up the steep roads and had to turn around and head back into the valley.

All of us were a little disappointed since we were not able to reach our mountain destination, but we were quick on our feet and decided to think of an alternate location to visit. My brother suggested to head back to the Tarvisio area in Italy and to take the cable car up Monte San Lussari. Since the road was either downhill or even, our vehicle was able to cool down and we were able to continue our trip on fairly flat terrain.

South of Tarvisio we drove through the village of Camporosso whose name is said to go back to red toads that were said to populate the area. We stopped at the base station of the Monte Lussari cable car and then the three of us took a ride up in one of the 91 cabins. We were able to take my brother’s dog with us and enjoyed the eleven minute long ride up the mountain. As we ascended the mountain vistas got more impressive.

We exited at the top and I was surprised to see a tiny mountain village on top of the mountain which actually has been a popular pilgrimage destination for more than 600 years. Legends say that in 1360 a shepherd was looking for stray sheep and found them, kneeling next to a shrub and when he came closer, he saw that there was a wooden image of Mother Mary with Baby Jesus. He picked up the wooden image and took it down to the village to give it to the parish priest. But the next day the image was on the mountain again, surrounded by kneeling sheep. This miraculous event repeated itself for the third time and then a senior church official issued the instruction to build a chapel at the location where the image was found.

Several buildings surround this chapel, and almost all of them house either restaurants or retail stores where you can pick up souvenirs and religious trinkets. Several restaurants feature outdoor patios or balconies that provide an unforgettable view. We walked through the small market area and hiked up just a few meters to the summit area of Monte Lussari from where we had a beautiful 360 degree of the surrounding mountains.

Lunch time had arrived and we decided to sit down on one of the balconies looking southwards into the Italian Alps. On this gorgeous clear day the view was astounding, and our appetite was stimulated by the crisp Alpine air. We each ordered a dish called “Tris” which consisted of three types of pasta and also featured porcini mushrooms and a local sheep cheese. The imposing mountain in our view was the Cima di Cacciatore (Hunter’s Mountain). Neither one of us could finish this hearty lunch and we decided to walk it off a bit with another walk in the summit area before we took the cable car down into the valley.

We drove back to Tarvisio where we stopped for about an hour and checked out the local market. Tarvisio is the main town in the Val Canale area of Italy, a very unique region since it is the only area where Europe’s major language families, the Germanic, Slavic and Romance-language speakers, meet, a unique constellation. Tarvisio itself used to be part of Austria-Hungary until 1918 and the town used to be mostly German-speaking. For many years it was an important market town and benefited from the border traffic with Austria and the former Yugoslavia, and respectively today’s Slovenia. Even today there is still a significant amount of shopping activity going on on weekends.

As the afternoon was rapidly coming to a close we decided to start our drive back to the eastern part of Austria which would take about three hours. Near the Carinthian city of Klagenfurt we happened upon a traffic jam on the highway and the constant stop and go action brought our car close to overheating again. As we started to ascend the mountain chain between Carinthia and Styria, we drove onto a parking lot where we let the vehicle cool down again to make sure we’d be able to get across the mountains. Finally in the late afternoon we had reached our home town of Weiz and my brother and sister-in-law were looking forward to resting and relaxing after a somewhat stressful drive.

Well, I had had a bit of a snooze in the car, so I was ready to keep exploring. I hopped into my rental car and decided to continue with some local explorations. I drove through the picturesque Weiz Gorge along the Weiz River into the mountain highlands that frame my hometown. I drove up into the region of Sommeralm which is a landscape characterized by high-altitude alpine meadows, located at about 1200 m. Most of the area is above the tree-line and cows graze freely on wide open spaces. I watched a local farmer feed the cows and continued driving along the narrow road that connects the Sommeralm with the adjacent region of Teichalm (the word “Alm” refers to “Alpine meadow or pasture”.)

Some years ago seven small local municipalities came together to form a region called “Almenland”, a designated natural park region that offers opportunities for hiking, biking, skiing as well as wonderful mountain vistas. Several restaurants and bed and breakfasts provide opportunities for hearty Austrian dining and accommodation, and a small local lake features pedal boats. I parked my car at the “Teichwirt”, a large local restaurant, and started my walk around the lake.

At the southern end of the lake is an over-sized statue of an Alpine ox, a symbol of the successful local free-grazing cattle operations that sell their products to numerous restaurants in the region. Every summer more than 4000 Alpine oxen graze in this area and apparently the meat that they produce is the most popular brand in all of Austria.

I walked past the very rustic restaurant and local entertainment centre called the “Latschenhütte”, a place that features Alpine disco parties every Tuesday and “Over-30” parties every Friday. Typical Styrian live music is also offered regularly and this complex of wooden structures is a popular entertainment destination for people from the surrounding region. Just next to it I stopped to watch a group of grazing cows and was entertained by a duo of bovine creatures that were “horsing around” (or should it be “cowing around”?) with one another. They were snuggling up to one another, occasionally one tried to jump the other and all around they seemed to have a good time.

The sun was now setting and the air was getting cool, so I started my drive home past the mountain villages of Fladnitz and Passail, two major villages in the Passail Basin, a high-altitude plateau that is framed on all sides by mountaineous terrain. I definitely had had a full day today and was looking forward to new adventures tomorrow.