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Stairways to heaven - Middle ages in the heart of the alps

Defiant fortresses and impressive castles, colourfully decorated churches and quiet, secluded chapels, picturesque villages and towns in quite different cultural landscapes; all these elements make up the charm of the “Stairways to Heaven”.

When travellers go in search of the sites in Südtirol and Graubünden shown on this map, they have various means of transport to choose from. Long distances can be negotiated relatively speedily along the Alpine route: attractive forms of public transport, such as the Vinschger Bahn, the Engadine-Meran Route Express and Rhaetian Railways; famous Albula line invite visitors to participate in a relaxed journey. It would be in keeping with the Middle Ages to visit the various sites on foot and walking trails have actually been restored between individual sites on historical footpaths along which pilgrims, merchants and knights used to roam the valleys and traverse the passes in days gone by. At least the last part of the approach to a site must be accomplished on foot anyway.

And as you ascend the last few steps to a high-lying chapel or mount the stone steps to a castle on your own two feet, in the midst of the historic cultural landscape, enveloped in the natural sounds of the Alps and with the scent of the woods, meadows and Alpine pastures in your nostrils, you will feel as if you had almost reached the Middle Ages. But on entering a church or a fortress, you leave the present clearly behind. A strange and mysterious world opens up before you.

In Südtirol and Graubünden the Middle Ages are as varied as the landscape and culture. Magnificent knights’ halls stand next to dark dungeons, pious saints next to representations of Hell and evil.

Each site visited brings you that much closer to the Middle Ages, presenting another new aspect of an enigmatic epoch. Explore a fortress, look for traces of how princes, counts, knights and peasants used to live. Immerse yourself in the portrayal of the Life of Jesus and plunge into a world where everything is subordinated to the salvation of the soul. And when you go outside again, your gaze will fall on mountains peaks perpetually covered with snow.

On the “Stairways to Heaven” you are crossing a region in which the legendary Alpine folk of the Rhaetians settled in the distant past. In the centre of this region Charlemagne founded the Convent of St John in Müstair in order to secure the route to Lombardy. Later the bishops of Trento and Chur fought with the secular lords for dominion in the valleys and over the passes until, with the release of Graubünden from the German Empire and the related ravages of war, their mutual political interests found a provisional (?) end.

When you cross the Alps in your search for the “Stairways to Heaven”, explore the sunny south, the rough Alpine valleys and the rugged beauty of the north, you will become familiar with the contrasts and similarities between Graubünden and Südtirol and, as a result, be enriched by a wealth of impressions.

Marc Antoni Nay
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