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Timmelsjoch transit area

The ancient Ötztal dialect word "Iibergean" means walking over the saddlebacks of the Ötztal and Stubai Alps. Some of the paths on which hunters and gatherers, shepherds and farmers, mules and smugglers have crossed the main Alpine ridge since prehistoric times are also very old. Today, the easiest crossing point is the Timmelsjoch High Alpine Road. Our authors will tell of the old and new life in the exciting border area between Ötztal and South Tirol’s Passeiertal.

The Timmelsjoch Drive

We start in style. Ernst Lorenzi, Sölden's all-rounder of the local event scene, chose his vintage car for the trip over Timmelsjoch Pass, a VW Beetle built in 1973. It's just an estimate, but it's close: hardly any Ötztal local has crossed the "Timmel" more often than Ernst - almost from the beginning he was responsible for the organization of the most challenging road bike race in the Alps, the Ötztaler Cycle Marathon. One thing is for sure: there is no more knowledgeable companion for the road that connects Ötztal to South Tirol’s Passeiertal.

At the beginning of October, under the bright blue sky, even the barren mountain flanks along the roadside blaze in all shades of rusty red, ocher and orange. "Timmelsjoch Drive" is the name of the architectural project with six stations spread along the roadside, which are eye-catchers here in Ötztal and also over there in Passeiertal, vantage spots and information points about the eventful fortunes of the pass region.

Timmelsjoch High Alpine Road

Historic crossings

Although the Timmelsjoch High Alpine Road was not opened to traffic until 1968, the crossing routes on the main Alpine ridge had been heavily frequented for centuries: people on both sides of the mountains were closely connected to each other in many ways. From an ecclesiastical point of view, Vent and Rofen have belonged to the diocese of Chur and to the parish of Tschars in Vinschgau since the High Middle Ages, while the valleys of Gurgl and Ventert (from Winterstall out of the valley) are ecclesiastically based on the parish of St. Leonhard in Passeiertal.

A relict to this day is the sheep drive, which is undertaken over the alpine cols from Schnalstal to Ötztal’s pastures every summer. The close ecclesiastical, structural and economic connections also had an effect on the family life: many of the family names in upper Ötztal originate from the southern Passeier area.
Ötztal sheep drive

South Tyrolean seasonal workers

The seasonal work of South Tyrolean men and women in Ötztal was an important economic link up to the middle of the 20th century: Since the steep mountain slopes around Gurgl and Vent were mowed far up to the ridges, hay mowers were hired to do the work during the summer weeks. The people of Passeiertal were considered highly skilled mountain mowers, basket weavers and manufacturers of scythe handles, back carriers and whips for the shepherds. The women mostly found employment as maids.
Timmelsjoch High Alpine Road

Yesterday wrapped into today

We stop at the "Smuggler" station, where we learn that lard, among other things, was once smuggled from Ötztal into Passeiertal. "When I was young, I occasionally smuggled cigarettes," says Ernst with a smile. Here and now, in the middle of the European Euregio Tirol-Südtirol-Trentino region, people are probably irritated by the word "smuggling". This phenomenon arose when the "Timmel" and other saddlebacks no longer were natural crossing routes for cattle and other trade between North and South, but became a guarded area: after World War I, South Tyrol fell to Italy and the new state border along the main ridge of the Alps also separated Ötztal and Passeiertal.
Timmelsjoch High Alpine Road

Serious caesura

A historically closely linked cultural area was suddenly cut in two. This brought people both advantages and disadvantages. In any case, most of them arranged themselves quickly: many border crossings were unseen. Smuggling livestock was particularly lucrative. But other goods were soon brought across the border in large quantities. In order to curb the "smuggler's business", customs guards were stationed at the border. The customs guardhouses in Obergurgl, Sölden and Vent were all completed until 1939.
Timmelsjoch High Alpine Road

The turmoil of World War II

During the Second World War and especially in the turmoil of the last weeks of the war in 1945, the area was the outer border of the National Socialist German Reich and gained importance: for refugees from the German Reich on the one hand as well as those fleeing the Allies towards the end of the war. Timmelsjoch and also the neighboring alpine passes were a dramatic scene with an apocalyptic atmosphere in the days of the ending war, when many Wehrmacht soldiers tried to get home quickly via the main Alpine ridge.
Timmelsjoch High Alpine Road

Paths of the South Tyrolean "freedom fighters"

In the post-war decades, the border came into focus again because of the South Tyrolean "struggle for freedom ". Leading members of the BAS (Liberation Committee South Tyrol) used the alpine cols of Rotmoosjoch, Ferwalljoch, Königsjoch, Timmelsjoch or Windachscharte as crossing points between South and North Tyrol, also to smuggle explosives. On 29 August 1964, Georg Klotz and Luis Amplatz illegally crossed the border from Ötztal via Rotmoosjoch to South Tyrol, where Luis Amplatz was shot a few days later.
Timmelsjoch High Alpine Road

United in Europe until today

There is a cheerful atmosphere at Timmelsjoch Pass. A German seniors' choir on an excursion is singing devotedly while we stroll to the land art objects that artists have left here, take a look into the Pass Museum and the Transit Museum, followed by a short hike towards the two small and exceptionally beautiful mountain lakes with crystal clear water.

And then we continue driving steeply downhill in switchbacks. Ernst points at rock faces: “I climbed up there! When there were still no cell phones, we had to set up radio connections ourselves for the cycle marathon.” In addition to working together for the sporting event, he also shares a love of socializing with the people from Passeiertal. We stop for refreshments at Ernst's best friends, for a Hubertus Bar aperitif in St. Leonhard, for a late lunch at Gasthof Rabenstein inn in Moos.

Then we return fairly quickly, because Ernst has a surprise up his sleeve in Sölden. He personally introduces the manager of popular Vinothek Plangger. He is of course also a border crosser: Michael Pixner, the brother of the celebrated musician and accordionist Herbert Pixner from Passeier.
Timmelsjoch High Alpine Road
The Top Mountain Motorcycle Museum right at the toll station of the Timmelsjoch High Alpine Road was rebuilt in record time after a devastating fire in 2021, and has been even bigger and more exciting since then.
Everything worth knowing can be found in a separate blog


Edith Hessenberger

Author: Edith Hessenberger

The ethnologist and geographer is the head of the Ötztal museums. She also does research work and publishes - as a freelance cultural scientist - on the history of mountain agriculture, tourism and alpinism. Her work further focuses on narrative research and oral history.

Isolde v. Mersi

Guest author: Isolde v. Mersi

Isolde von Mersi comes from South Tyrol's Pustertal valley and lives in Vienna now. As a popular reporter and book writer for Austrian and German magazines and publishing houses, she explores a huge variety of cultural, culinary and naturalistic treasures of the Alpine countries and its people.

She has been feeling at home in Ötztal for many years already as she contributes to the ÖTZTAL MAGAZINE on a regular basis. And she has found many friends in the valley.

This article was first published in June 2023.