If you are nearing retirement or have retired and you are looking for that great adventure which will take your breath away, both literally and figuratively, or just need to clear your mind to start a new life, then the Dream Trail from Munich to Venice is perhaps what you want. The trek, known in German as the Traumpfad München-Venedig, may sound awesome but if we could do it, so can you. All you need is a couple of months, a few thousand dollars in cash and a lot of determination.
It is late June and Sonja, 62, and I, 61, are off to one corner of Munich’s Marienplatz square having our photo taken while tourists crowd in front of the Gothic Revival Town Hall and wait for the colorful Rathaus-Glockenspiel clock to sound its 43 bells with 32 colorful life-sized figurines re-enacting a 16th century fairy-tale in a 15 minute show.
Every summer hundreds of people start off from the Munich Rathaus on a trek of more than 550 kilometers, covering several mountain ranges over which they will walk 22,000 meters up and down. The guidebook says you can do it in about 30 days but we knew it would take us nearly twice that, if we completed it at all.
We set aside two months and ample cash, determined that we were going to do the trail this year, 2015, while it was still not the hiking highway other treks such as the Camino de Santiago had become and while we still had the strength to carry big backpacks.
The beauty of the mountains and the splendid locations of the lodges made every day’s pain feel worthwhile. If your knees are not hurting, a good night’s sleep is all you need to be able to hit the trail with strength the next morning. An important tip to novices: if you want to look, stop walking, otherwise watch where you are putting your feet.
I began Alpine backpacking as a necessity when I was 48 years-old and Sonja said “take a hike or hit the road!” She began her mountain life when she was three and her parents first took her to the summits and like all experienced hikers, they don’t understand the lessons we late starters need to learn. I slipped on ice and broke my ankle on our first real hike in Austria’s Tannheimertal, fell several times, cried, screamed and petered-out, dropped water bottles, tore trousers, tripped and slid but it was not until this summer that I finally internalized the most important lesson of all: whatever happens, you have to just hike on to the end.
We were never going to be able to walk 14 hours in a day but by the end of the hike, we could do a ten hour day which, at our speed, was the equivalent of seven hours for a seasoned trekker. On many days, I had to keep telling myself “just one step after the other.”
We started off in the hottest weather Bavaria had ever recorded since they began keeping track in 1885. It was 40° celsius in the shade and our backpacks were three and four kilos heavier than the 12 maximum recommended. Along with a kilo of maps for the whole journey, two guide books and the medicines Sonja needs for her knees and skin and I for my stomach, I was also carrying her electronic reader and made the idiot decision of taking my iPad with me which added another kilo to the pack: kilos that were going to hurt. My advice: buy maps along the way and forget the Ipad. Many hikers use a GPS on their smartphones but even if you can read German and understand the guidebook, you will get lost along the way.
Don’t hesitate to ask for pointers and directions. Most people speak English and refuges will call ahead to reserve beds for you at your next stop. It is important to call, because in high season, refuges will get full.
The great thing about the trek from Munich to Venice, when you are over 60, not in top shape and even handicapped, as are Sonja and I, is you can cut stages in half, go down to valley hotels for rest and take alternative routes when the recommended trail is too stiff, as long as you don’t run out of money.
From the very beginning, we met people who were on the same trek but walking much faster than we could and whose tales we would hear in the mountain lodges along the way as we trailed further and further behind. At every stage we made new friends who would arrive in Venice well before us.
But even when you are in good form and can walk ten hours a day, leave yourself extra time. The Alpine hiking season is short, from the middle of June till about the end of September and weather can get dicey at higher altitudes.
Our aspirations were modest from the start. The idea was to try to hike two days and rest Sonja’s knees for a day or two but, with the heat and the weight of the packs, we soon discovered our first stages would be cut in half and the rest days quickly began to add up. We only made it to Grünwald the first day, not even half the the 32 kilometers to Wolfratshausen which the guidebook says you should make from Marien Platz in eight hours. Once in the mountains we knew we would have to add at least a third to all times indicated and cut almost every leg in half.
Nobody mocked us for being “the slowest hikers on the trail,” a reputation which preceded us in many of the refuges where we bunked. We received encouragement at every step. Even getting off the boat in Venice after seven weeks of walking, waiters greeted us with cheers, recognizing the fatigue, the backpacks, the red and white German guidebook and the tears of those who made it. Other hikers ran up to us on Saint Mark’s Square to congratulate and hug us as we cried for joy. But there was a lot of pain and doubt before that wonderful day in late August.
My doubts were deep indeed that first evening as I watched on the Isar river below Grünwald, the giant log rafts, full of partying, beer-drinking Germans, floating with the slow current. At this stage, for me, the adventure was more dread than dream.
The ‘Dream Trail’ was first established by German hiker, Ludwig Gassler, in 1977 and has since become a ‘must’ for serious German Alpinists. But the trails and passes we walked over have been used by man since prehistoric times and that adds to the magic, even though, I sometimes asked myself “what is the matter with us?” We do this for pleasure and the challenge. They did it out of necessity.
It took us another two days to reach Bad Tolz, 52 kilometers of flat hiking up the Isar river. It would not be until InntalI, in central Austria, where we could start sending home maps to lighten the load. All those younger hikers, alone, in couples or groups of three and four, heading to Venice were so fast. You recognized them by the red and white ‘Müchen – Vending’ guidebooks they carried, much like the Saint James shell on the Santiago.
Along the Isar canal an elderly man who had done the trek with his wife in only 28 days said: “It doesn’t hurt any more after eight days.” Perhaps, for some.
Finally, we left the Isar valley and hiked over the Latschenkopf (1,712 m) range to Tutzinger Hütte refuge below the cliff of the Benediktenwand (1,801 m), 83 kilometers from Marienplatz; our first mountain stage. It was now clear we would take even longer than we had feared. This meant the trek would be very expensive.
Tutzinger Hütte had that mountain feeling we needed to realize we were really doing this. A German couple who had arrived an hour before us, were drinking beer and listening to an old Bavarian playing the stringed Alpine Zither. “The pain disappears as soon as you wash,” the woman said when she saw us stumble in. Often, a shower and a drink is all it takes to get back your feet.
It you have an Alpine club card, you get beds and meals much cheaper in the club refuges. Sonja and I are members of the German Alpenpenverein. Membership is free. You will need to tolerate bunk beds, snoring, and the stink of sweaty clothes but that is part of the adventure. Hot water is most often a luxury for which you have to pay extra. You should plan on 40 to 70 euros a day, depending on the level of luxury you require.
Sonja’s Teutonic determination had now kicked in. We were at last in mountain country and getting our legs. The guidebook says you can get from Tutzinger Hütte to Vorderriss, Austria, 16 kilometers, in six-and-a-half hours. We made it half way, to Jachenau, a small farming village with a huge stage-coach Hotel Postal, shut down and for sale, the dining room set out for potential buyers giving it that Great Expectations feeling.
Wherever you go, on or off the trail, you will discover sites you will never forget. This makes getting lost, taking alternative routes or stopping short, anything but disappointing.
Just before Vorderiss you come to the 1,223 meter high Riss-satel, a heavily forested mountain where you can look five hundred meters down into the Risstal valley and see the Karwendel mountain range beyond the source of the Isar, the first real range of the several we would cross. The descent was very steep and even though it switchbacked, both our knees were shot by the time we reached the valley and looked with shock and awe at the mountains ahead.
Hinterriss is a lovely old ‘Heidi’ kind of town of 54 souls, with a wonderful mountain mountain museum, separated from the rest of Austria by the Karwendel mountains and probably the point where the trek really begins.
We hiked deeper into Austria through the ancient Eng Alm (1,250m), full of tourists, and a dozen farmers from the Inn valley who tend their livestock and make cheese through the summer before marching the animals back over the mountains in September when the Maple leaves are bright in color. In early July it is Spring in the mountains and they are painted with flowers in colors so pure they hardly seem real. As we head South and mountain Spring gives way to mountain Summer, early flowers are replaced by later bloomers in such a way that no one flower need compete with another of the same color for first place in its spectrum.
The Karwendelhaus refuge (1,765m) is a lovely stone three-story building with a great dining area and a breathtaking view of the mountains. But we hiked instead to the Falkenhütte refuge (1,848m) with its 148 beds below the Lalidererwände mountain (2,665m). We are in Tirol and will be walking though it for the next three weeks, until we clear the Dolomites.
True to our form, we took the less strenuous trail over the Karwendel to the east of the steep Schlauchkarsattel which brought us out in Schwaz on the Inn river after 10 hours of hiking, in grueling heat, rather than in Hall, ten kilometers further west. Busses and trains run all the time so it was easy to pick up the trail again once we had a rest day. There was something magic about the moment we walked across the Inn river which splits Austria in half, a major landmark on the hike to Venice, still so far away.
We would now be in mountains until Belluno, from the luscious Tux Alps, the glacier covered Zillertal Alps, where Sonja played as a child, to the dry Dolomites, and every stage more beautiful than the other. We could only marvel at those who do it in a month. However, some Europeans prefer to do it in portions over a few years.
Sitting at the OlpererHütte, with a picture-window view of the amazing glacier covered Zillertal mountains, I wondered how “you could see such wild beauty without first dying.” That is almost what happened that day as I rubbed my knuckles bare hugging the mountain and the cables coming down the sheer Friesenbergscharte (2,904 meters) where, as the guide books point out, it is not uncommon for people to fall. The two women sitting with me on the terrace, more than ten years our elders, came down that cliff before us and will certainly reach Venice ahead of us. If they can do it, so can we.
That was also the day we walked by an uglier part of Alpine history. The FriesenbergHaus was built by the Berlin Jewish Alpine Club in 1928 but confiscated by the Nazis Wehrmacht in 1938 and was used by SS officers for partying. The Nazis banned Jews access to the Alps, in 1934 in Germany and in 1938 in Austria.
You will hike near World War One battlefields in Italy where more soldiers died in avalanches and from the cold than in combat. Pieces of barbed-wire, caves and bunkers are there to remind us that man can transform nature’s most precious gifts to Hell on earth. The beauty of the mountains demonstrates nature will survive man’s folly.
The day we walked across the Italian border was another major psychological step. I have always had trouble accepting Italian rule over German speaking Sud Tirol which France and Britain gave to Italy for Rome’s betraying their promise of neutrality in World War One and sucker-punching the Austrians on their southern flank. The stickers on the signs read “Freiheit for Süd Tirol!” – “Free South Tirol!”
Be sure to get good footwear and break them in before you start. I wear HanWag leather boots and am going through my second pair. I have never had blisters with these boots and do not want to experiment with GoreTex but all feet are different and choosing the right boots takes time and professional help. You have to carry wet weather and cold weather clothing because, even in August, you can find yourself in snow at some of the altitudes (the highest point near Piz Boè is nearly 3000 meters). We were exceptionally lucky as we hiked in rain only one day and met very little snow. That was the day I came across my first Edelweiss, the rare and protected flower which is the symbol of the high Alps.
There is no escaping weight. The idea is to jettison all the unessentials and invest in quality, light weight equipment. You should start out each day with two liters of water and that’s two kilos right there. On some stages further South you will hike through very dry country.
You need a rain jacket and rain pants, gaiters and I would recommend a pair of hiking sticks. We only wear wool for undergarments: they air-clean, don’t stink, are light and you can add layers as needed. You should have a set of clean clothes for the evenings in the refuges. Once in Italy, be sure to put your Crocs, or whatever refuge-footwear you use, in your backpack when you are not wearing them, because in Italian huts house-shoes are considered collective.
I was surprised to find a youth movement in the Italian Alps called “Waves over the mountains” with wifi access in the refuge. This certainly goes against the grain of the traditional Alpine hiker who believes the idea of going up is to get out. I would have preferred RifugioTissi in the Civetta had invested in an extra toilet and sink: 69 beds, two toilets and four sinks! The awe-inspiring view of the cliffs helped me forget the discomfort.
The following days, until we reached Belluno, were some of the most amazing on the hike. We walked alone for hours in the dry southern Dolomites where every inch became wilder. From Belluno we would follow the Piave until we reached Venice. It had already become clear we were going to complete this trek.
Rifugio Sommariva Al Pramperet, another “Waves over the mountains” refuge, reminded us of youth hostiles in Greece in the 1970s. We were three times older than the other hikers staying there and our six-bed bunk-room was very comfortable and they had a shower with hot water! This was luxury in pure wilderness. Any refuge within an hour of a ski lift or road will be full of what the German hikers call ‘half-shoe tourists’ during the day and will have a few staying the night, only to complain about the rudimentary conditions. But go somewhere like Pramperet and you will only meet those who love the mountains.
In Pramperet I wrote: “View is breath-taking. Where is the world?” and now regret the decision to head down the alternative route through Forno di Zoldo in stead of on to the Rifugio Alpini, but at least we got to eat the best ice cream in Italy. I was hiked out and needed a day in a hotel in the valley just because I am more of a wimp than Sonja.
If you decide to do the trek, I recommend going down to Brixen for a night and stay an extra day in Belluno. There is much to see in both towns and from Brixen you can get the ski lift up to a point where you can hike a few hours to pick up the trail again.
There are no social classes in the mountains, just hikers. People don’t brag, nor even talk, about what they do “in life.” Everybody is on the familiar “du” rather than the formal “Sie”. And everybody is there to encourage you to take that next step when you think you have no force left.
You are never very far from ‘civilization’ on the trail, and it is normal to get tired, angry and fed up at points along the way, so you can always find comfort to recuperate before starting out again. You are not in a competition and nobody is clocking you. You are on a journey to discover, not only the most beautiful mountains in Europe, but in a lot of ways, to discover yourself and your small place in this great world. There is nothing like the mountains to give you a more measured perspective of who you are and of what is really important.
I can think of no better way to prepare your mind for your new, post-professional life.