The Road to Bivio

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This time we got an early start Friday morning, borne along by our proprietress’s lovely breakfast, warm wishes, and grandmotherly advice on crossing the mountains. But almost immediately we were waylaid, though in a wonderful way, by discovering a church dating back to the year 800 just a short way beyond and below the hotel. Nearby was a little wooden chalet, housing the caretaker and his family, enveloped in gardens of flowers and vegetables, guarded by ducks and geese. The church itself was a big square inside, about 8 rough-hewn wooden pews, a stone floor, and very old mural paintings in the three apses up front. The apse with the altar had the most paintings, and it looked strikingly Eastern—a big Christ Pantokrator in the middle flanked on either side by the saints, in a bold and straightforward style. The wooden ceiling was decorated with designs in black paint. We were enchanted in an evangelical way and said our morning prayers there.

The contrast then was both amusing and striking: as we proceeded down then up the mountainside we walked past an enormous pulley system dredging gravel out of the river bottom and dumping it into a tower-shaped container; then a hydro power plant; then the strangely aesthetic sculptures of the insulators inside the electrical substation.

It was a steep haul up the mountainside—not much forward progress in kilometers, but about 400 m up along a very old road, now a hiking path, but probably once the main road leading up to the pass (i.e., greatly increasing the probability that Luther walked along it too). It took us to Mon, about as enchanting a Swiss village as you could hope for. All the signs were in Romanisch, cows wandered down the streets, flowers sprawled out of pots on the doorsteps of houses dating back to the 17th century. Bees were hard at work everywhere, especially on the many varieties of thistles. On the way to neighboring Salouf we saw lenticular clouds—clouds in the shape of a lens (sensibly enough) that form over very tall mountain peaks—and the outer rim of one flying saucer-shaped cloud was edged in the whole rainbow spectrum of colors. Creation is some amazing stuff.

Along the way we also got to meet some locals out enjoying the lovely day. One woman living high up in a mountainside village was collecting tiny wild red berries that we didn’t recognize; she mixes them in with fruit compote for their healthful properties. She confirmed that we were on one of the oldest roads leading up to the pass, and pilgrims still regularly pass by along here, even though it’s not noted as being a pilgrim route as such. Another couple of daytrippers did us the great honor of addressing in Swiss German first before we had to explain that we could only speak “Schriftdeutsch” (written German, as they call standard textbook German here), and warned us that the weather was going to turn soon. And it was true that as we came around one mountain’s shelter to the other side, the wind picked up fearsomely and we could see clouds start piling up at the peak.

I mentioned yesterday that Luther didn’t have to deal with car traffic; he also didn’t have to deal with modern time schedules. His job was to get to Rome and back, however long it took. We, however, have exactly 70 days and no wiggle room for error. And yet, error arises. The error of the day wasn’t as dramatic as that of the day before (fortunately): but the fact remained, as we grew to realize, we’d need two days to make the hike we’d planned to make in only one. It’s a good 34 km from Alvaschein to Bivio, and more importantly up 700 m, as the crow flies, but trails do not go as the crow flies, and the actual climbing distance would’ve been around 1500 m. Not to mention that said walking trail goes up over the top of a mountain on the way to Bivio—right into the heart of the wind and clouds fast advancing on the peaks. And we had already learned the lesson that walking along the virtually shoulderless and snaking mountain roads is not wise. If we had no end of time, we could have waited it out for better weather. But we don’t.

So—all of this is preamble to say—we went as far as we reasonably could in a day, to Savognin, and then… took a bus. Up up up we climbed to Bivio. Along the way we witnessed an accident—the driver appeared to have fallen asleep at the wheel and collided with a road barrier; his airbags popped out and gave him a bloody nose but no worse, praise God—reinforcing the conviction that roadside walking is to be avoided at all costs.

Our first stop in Bivio was the information office to find out the next day’s weather report: not good, high of 2 degrees Celcius in Bivio at 1700 m (Septimer Pass is 2300 m) and chance of rain and snow. We decided to wait till the next morning before making a final decision.

A concluding note for the culinarily curious: our hotel is regionally known for its specialty “ragout di marmotta” (marmot stew), since marmots are favorite old-time mountain food, hibernating as they do so you can harvest them like turnips. We asked the waitress what she thought and, as this is now as much Italian-speaking as German-speaking Italy, she replied, “molto di grasso” (“pretty fatty”). So we passed it up and settled for a less exotic dinner.

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