9 Nov 2023
As both a college history major and serious genealogist, Brenner Pass is known to me. The pass over the Alps between Italy and Austria was a strategic goal for American soldiers in World War 2. Brenner Pass is a part of my great-uncle Elmer’s biography. He fought in the 363rd Infantry Regiment, 91st Infantry Division.
The military goal in late-1944-spring 1945 was win Rome, march north through the Po Valley and across Brenner Pass into Austria, facing the main German army and ending the war. Elmer did not reach the pass. He was killed in action 16 April 1945 and is buried in the American Cemetery outside of Florence, Italy.
Short History of Brenner Pass
Why Brenner Pass? Probably because it is a principal pass over the Alps and has the lowest altitude among Alpine passes of the area. With an elevation of about 4,495’, the pass would be easier for troops and equipment to transverse while putting U.S. fighting men just 118 miles from Berchtesgarden, Hitler’s “Eagle’s Nest.” They could have marched into Munich within three days.
Brenner Pass has a long history. Its earliest road dates back to prehistoric times. It acted as an ancient path linking the Classical world and northern Europe since the time of Herodotus. Romans used the road in the 2nd century and successfully defended the pass until the end of their empire in the 5th century. Did the pass witness Hannibal’s elephants?
Since the 12th century, the pass was controlled by the Counts of Tyrol as part of the Holy Roman Empire. Emperor Barbarossa frequently traveled the pass on his way from the Kingdom of Germany into Italy. In 1777, Empress Maria Theresa, the Archduchess of Austria, requested the road be developed and modernized.
Brenner Pass has always been acknowledged for its strategic importance. After WWI, control of the pass was shared between Italy and Austria. In 1940, Hitler and Mussolini met atop the pass to celebrate their “Pact of Steel.” Although the Brenner Pass was annexed by Nazi Germany, it was returned to Italy by the U.S. Army in 1945. However, the pass continued to play a role in the “ratlines” used by fleeing Nazis after the German surrender.
Brenner Pass Today
Since 1995, border checks have been eliminated for all Italian and Austrian citizens and goods. Its four-lane motorway is an important, and one of the busiest, south-north route between Bolzano and Innsbruck. However, considering the location, challenging the Brenner Pass during winter is not a drive I would attempt.
There is talk of upgrading the existing Brenner Railway with a series of tunnels in order to ease traffic congestion and its pollution. The project aims to connect Innsbruck and Franzensfeste/Fortezza Italy via a tunnel more than 35 miles long. This new construction includes 15 miles in Italy and 20 miles under Austria, making it the longest railway tunnel in the world. All has stalled. The original completion date is now shifted to a tentative date of “maybe” 2032.
One of Europe’s Most Spectacular Train Journeys?
This is no ordinary journey; it is like a pilgrimage into the heart of the Alps. The Italian Alps, like an ancient monolith, tower above the Tyrol region, their snow-capped peaks piercing the sky. Mist and clouds drift as they will.
Leaving Bolzano, located at a comfortable 860 feet, my train begins its ascent into the mountains. Mother Nature, more beautiful by the mile, is too often interrupted by long, pitch-black tunnels. Dotting the rolling hillsides are lush green pastures for flocks of sheep and herds of cattle. Vineyards and fields cover every inch of flat, tillable land.
The car is relatively empty and quiet. Many riders are using the free WiFi to check their phones. There is a restaurant car and service aboard the train. I forgo both and just enjoy the scenery. Life is good.
Each turn of tracks reveals a new panoramic view, each scene more awe-inspiring than the last. We maneuver through multiple long tunnels and bridges, crossing gorges and chasms. As my train weaves around and between ragged peaks and forests, we follow the route of the motorway and the Isarco River. Through my window, I see villages nestled in the valleys, their inhabitants living their lives amid a beauty perhaps they take for granted. Thirty-five minutes from Bolzano, we briefly stop in the small village of Bressanone/Brixen. Station signs are in both Italian and German.
Within ten minutes after leaving Brixen, we pause at Fortezza/Franzensfeste. I cannot but think, once the construction of the tunnel is finished, all this magnificent scenery will be gone. All future travelers would see is blackness. The sun ascends above the peaks, casting a warm, golden glow on the mountains. We pass between sun and shadow, vistas and valleys. I’m hoping, for others’ sake, the tunnel is a long-time coming.
I think of Ötzi. Did he and his animals ever drift this way to graze?
My train slowly climbs up to the pass; my ears are reacting to the altitude. Heavier snow covers the mountain peaks. Low wisps of clouds drift over the hills. Trees are a colorful mix of yellow, reds and rust surrounded by vibrant evergreens. Grapes have been harvested and vine leaves have yellowed. Cattle spend a last few days grazing the fields, crops are harvested, timber is being logged.
The scenery, as we near the pass, becomes even more dramatic. A layer of hoarfrost covers every immobile object, creating a snowy wonderland. Surrounded by snowy peaks, we plunge into one final dark tunnel before emerging at the top of the pass. Here, snow is on the ground.
Traversing Brenner Pass
After just 45-miles, I have reached the pass. The train briefly stops for about 15 minutes at Stazione di Brennero or Bahnhof Brenner, which is on the Italian/Austrian border. Brenner Station, built by the Austrian Empire at 4498’ above sea level, opened in 1867 as part of the Brenner Railway. Now, train service transfers to Austrian railways. It’s a change of locomotive, engineer, and language. No passport check.
From Brennero, we enter Brenner and toward the village of Gries am Brenner. Our train continues to follow the motorway and the Eisack River. Same water, different country. Occasional signs of that tunnel construction scar the landscape. The train drops over 3000’ from the summit, the snow disappears and green fields return. We manage some serious weaving through valleys and among the spectacular Alps. I imagine cow bells, Heidi, and Sound of Music.
However, I should explain the “spectacular views” I write about. All is not perfect. Most of those breathtaking photos I see of snow-capped peaks and charming villages in the Alps are not taken from a train. Good photos are just good luck. My window is clean and clear and my iPhone manages to capture some nice shots. However, cabin lights, sharp turns, another tunnel and trees can ruin the best of attempts.
Just 45 miles and 35 minutes later, I arrive in Innsbruck Hauptbahnhof. This journey has been too short. Traveling over the Brenner and through the Alps was more than just a train ride. I wouldn’t rank it a “must do” in train journeys, but is a great scenic ride.
Innsbruck to Zurich
After a short layover in Innsbruck, I board my direct train to Zurich. This route passes through the mountain passes of the Austrian Alps. Snow tips the peaks, ski areas are preparing for a new season, and alpine villages dot the landscape. Seven stops and about 3 hours and 30 minutes later, I arrive at Zurich Hauptbahnhof.
It’s cold and raining.
My plan is to stay overnight. I cross the Limmat River and walk the short distance to my Hotel Limmathof. The language, food and currency have all changed. It feels like “the old days” when I crossed a border, before the Schengen Agreement and the formation of the European Union. I need Swiss Francs. I need a beer.
But, as I say, adapt or stay home. I know how easy it is finding an ATM, use a credit card, and purchase a cold beer. I finish my day doing all the above.
What to do with a morning in Zurich
I have a couple hours; my Swiss train departs 12:32. I can “bank on it.” With this time I enjoy a morning coffee and map a path into Old Town.
One of Zurich’s most famous landmarks is the Grossmünster, a Romanesque style church begun in 1100. Its distinctive twin towers can be seen across the city. The interior is rather plain.
However, the real beauty is on the opposite bank of the Limmat River just across the picturesque Münsterbrücke.
Fraumünster is one of Zurich’s oldest churches. It was founded in 853 by King Louis “the German,” a grandson of Charlemagne. The royal abbey was built on a site which had been flooded by Lake Zurich until not long before. According to legend, the king doubted the suitability of the location, whereupon a rope descended from the heavens to mark the construction site, a sign which allayed Louis’ concerns. So much so that the first abbess was his daughter, Hildegard.
The convent played a major role in Zurich’s development from a Celtic, then Roman settlement of regional importance into a prosperous medieval town. From the 8th century onwards, Zurich was a strategic base within the empire of the powerful Carolingian dynasty.
Chagall and Giacometti Windows
The church interior is rich with stained-glass. Most noted are those painted by Marc Chagall. Chagall was already famous for the windows he had designed for a synagogue in Jerusalem. Fraumünster parish priest, Peter Vogelsanger, contacted the elderly artist in 1967. He requested Chagall paint windows for his church. The result is the colorful pictorials of biblical images found in chancel. The windows were inaugurated in the presence of the then 83-year-old Chagall in 1970.
Also to be enjoyed is Chagall’s rose window just above the Founding Legend frescoes. Beneath the frescoes are the remains of princesses Hildegard and her sister Bertha.
“He must have an angel in his head”Pablo Picasso
Opposite the rose window is the beautiful stained-glass window painted by the Swiss artist Augustine Giacometti. While he painted the window in the 1920s, it was not installed until after the end of the war in 1945. Giacometti referred to it as “the heavenly paradise.”
There is a third artist, lesser known. Lement Heaton, a British painter, created the large stained-glass window that is seen behind the organ. Unfortunately, the organ is obstructing the full view.
Fraumünster’s windows are vibrant and special and are well-worth morning meditations in Zurich.