The storyteller of the Via Spluga Hiking on daring mule paths with Erwin Dirnberger.
Erwin Dirnberger is a local celebrity who knows the Via Spluga and its 2,000-year history better than anyone. Used by the Romans to cross the Alps, it has had a lasting impact on life in the enchanted local valleys and is a lifeline of the regional economy.
This classic long-distance hike begins in Thusis and extends to Chiavenna in Italy via Zillis, Andeer, Splügen and the Splügen Pass (2,113 metres). It is usually covered in four one-day stages.
Erwin’s fascination with the Via Spluga inspired him to come up with a series of open-air performances along the transit route, in which he recounts the stories of mule drivers, tradespeople, soldiers and grocers. The props are taken from his very own museum, Casa Storica in Andeer, where he has compiled the history of the Via Spluga piece by piece.
The Viamala A frightening experience for generations of mule drivers and travellers
Even Nietzsche was amazed...
“I shall write nothing about the terrible magnificence of the Viamala. It makes me feel as if I had never really known Switzerland before.”
Friedrich Nietzsche, philosopher
A gorge in a constant state of flux
The Viamala is the archaic heart of the first stage. After an ancient nearby glacier melted, the Hinter Rhine created a unique, bizarre rock landscape out of the slate over more than 10,000 years. Literally meaning the “bad route”, it was once a major obstacle for mule drivers and travellers along the Lower Road from Chur to the Splügen and San Bernardino Alpine passes. Philosophers and writers such as Nietzsche and Fontane visited the gorge at the end of the 19th century and were fascinated by the natural spectacle. Legends surround the unpredictable, torrential river that flows between the rock faces on either side, which can reach as high as 300 metres.
In 1823, a commercial road was blasted into the rock to open the Splügen and San Bernardino passes to coaches. Following the rise of tourism, access to the gorge was provided via a visitor centre and stairway in 1903. A few years later, a bold tunnel blasted into the rock face was built, which is still accessible today and leads to the visitor platform.
Splügen A piece of living history
The village of Splügen is an important crossroads of ancient transit routes, where hikers interested in history and culture will be in their element. Splügen was even awarded the Wakker Prize by the Swiss Heritage Society for its well-preserved village centre and carefully renovated 18th century buildings.
History, pleasure and hospitality characterise Splügen
Most hikers spend their third night in Splügen, where a number of authentic restaurants invite you to indulge in culinary delights. The prominent Hotel Bodenhaus, built in 1722, continues to look after travellers along the Via Spluga to this day.
The highlight of the Via Spluga is the 2,113-metre-high Splügen Pass, which connects the northern and southern sides of the Alps. The hiking trail extends to the national border and features several spectacular hairpin bends. Shortly before the pass, a stone path from Roman times revives the millennia-old history of the cross-border route.
Erwin has brought his “Krämerkasten” from Casa Storica with him – a wooden rucksack formerly used by grocers to carry their wares from valley to valley and peddle them to farmers and local villagers.
After leaving the pass, hikers are treated to an impressive view into the Val San Giacomo, a pinch of “Italianità” in the village of Montespluga and a historical path heading almost all downhill.
Strolling through centuries of history
The steep Cardinello Gorge is still one of the most thrilling sections of the Via Spluga. In 1643, mule drivers first laid a road into the hitherto unnavigable gorge. After 1716 it was extended with retaining walls, staircases and galleries, and was extensively restored in the 1980s for the safety of hikers. Here you can hike through the centuries once again.
With Cardinello Gorge behind you, you can already smell the strong espresso, the fragrant grappa and the typical pizzoccheri in Isola and Chiavenna, where the Via Spluga ends.
From Thusis to Chiavenna (l)
Length | Stages
68km | 4
Ascent | Descent
3,300m | 3,600m
Technical requirements | Fitness level
Medium (mountain hike) | Difficult