Skip to content
added to favourites
removed from favourites
Oops! Something went wrong. Try again
Your account is being created
Your account has been successfully created and you are now logged in
You are logged out.

Under water

South Tyrol generates twice as much power as it consumes. Water is the primary source of energy. A village was even sacrificed for it!

Graun/Curon was demolished and flooded and its inhabitants moved out. That was 60 years ago now. Since then, people have been living with a lake on their doorstep which they regard as an alien body of water. The portrait of a village which has not yet completely overcome its curious past.

When Theresia Theiner tells the story of Sultan, her eyes glaze over even now, half a century later. Sultan, a St. Bernard dog, was the family dog of the old village. Like many dogs, Sultan also had his favourite spot where he could watch people go about their business from a safe distance. He was a regular fixture under the kitchen table at the Gasthaus Traube Post inn. Theresia Theiner’s parents ran the hotel and it was situated at the heart of the small village of Graun im Vinschgau/Curon Venosta. And just like the other buildings in the village, it too was blown up in 1950. Theresia, her three sisters and her parents were relocated. And Sultan was left not understanding why the kitchen table had suddenly disappeared. “He stood on the ruins of our house and looked for the table,” Theresia Theiner said. “And then, when everything was flooded, he kept swimming back out and we had to take him away by boat”.

The dog did not ever find a spot as good as under the kitchen table in his new home. He even refused to go up the steps to his new house. Nobody in Graun, not the people or animals, ever got to grips with the loss. “Some of the most elderly died of sorrow,” says Theresia Theiner.

Wine barrels in the water

Theresia Theiner was 18 years old when Graun was submersed but aspects of that day have left their mark on her like wartime memories. How the cellar was suddenly immersed in water and she had to put boards down to access the wine barrels. Or how her family had to pack all their valuables onto a truck within the space of a week to save them.  Five years after the end of the Second World War, war-like conditions suddenly broke out in a small village at the heart of Europe. People were stripped of their assets, driven away and their homes destroyed in the area bordering Switzerland, Austria and Italy. All 1,200 residents of Graun in the Obervinschgau valley lost their homes. The Italian government wanted to install a reservoir on the high plateau where the village was located to supply power to northern Italy. The natural lakes of Graun/Curon and Reschen/Resia were dammed to create a large reservoir. Fields, trails, farms – it was all washed away. Only the Romanesque church tower of Altgraun remained. Today it stands tall in the turquoise waters of the Reschensee lake and is perhaps the most ironic structure in South Tyrol, both comical and tragic at the same time.


Houses under water

Most of Graun’s citizens had to depart. A few families were able to create a new life for themselves just a few hundred metres away on a steep slope at the edge of the valley. But the history of Graun is about more than just the drama of a sunken village. The biography of this village represents much more. It also reflects the character of South Tyrol. The entire land is defined by contrasts. Palm trees and glaciers, Italian and German, old and new. But nowhere are these contrasts between modern thinking and the rural idyllic as evident as on the Reschenpass in Graun.

The most ironic structure in South Tyrol

Today, at the age of 78, Theresia Theiner sits in the farmhouse parlour of the Gasthaus Traube Post inn. This is the hotel which her parents built in the new village after the dams were built and where she called the shots herself until recently in her role as manager. Theresa Theiner wears a blue chain and matching earrings with her blue pullover. She knows just how important appearance is in hospitality. Business is going well. Hikers and biking groups come here and soon the Landfrauen ladies from Heidelberg will be staying here as guests. Only the church tower of Altgraun remained. Today it stands tall in the turquoise waters of the Reschensee lake and is perhaps the most ironic structure in South Tyrol, both comical and tragic at the same time.

All that remains is a village in black and white

Theresia Theiner’s great grandfather once owned the inn which her son has now taken over. Her family’s history as hoteliers was not halted by the reservoir. Nevertheless, the flood impacted her view of her nation. “We still felt Austrian, the Italians had chased us out. There was a lot of hate directed at them”. She picks up a beige menu. The dishes, Italian specialities and South Tyrolean wines, are accompanied by a black and white photo of the old hotel - from the pre-1950 era.

60 years after the damming, in October 2010, the people of Graun remembered the demise of their village. A memorial evening was held along with an exhibition at the local history museum. 

The story should be shared

The older generation consider it important to pass the story on to the younger generation. There are only 20 people left who actually remember the dams being built. The resettlement took place a long time ago and the young people do not want to inherit these misfortunes. Youngsters prefer to move away from Graun now. It is a place with a broken past and few prospects.

With the wind…

Life in the Upper Vinschgau valley is rough. Like the wind always blowing over the pass, leaving the trees crooked and twisted. Today Graun has 400 inhabitants. Everyone knows everyone and some say that people can even see through walls here. Most village residents have a farm with cattle and some land - but that is no longer enough to live on. Some also work in Switzerland where the wages are better. Or at the nearby ski lift in winter.

In any case, the people of Graun have started to cautiously market the unique history of their village. The Reschenpass is one of the most important north-south links across the Alps. As they travel past on holiday, tourists press their noses against their car windows in disbelief when they see the church tower in the middle of the lake. In the past, traffic jams have even built up here on the pass road. Four years ago, 75 parking spaces were installed on the banks of the lake. There is also a miniature model depicting Graun prior to 1950. The title on the information board reads: “The tragedy of the Reschensee lake”. 

A few metres further, a couple can be seen swapping digital cameras. Helping each other out. Everyone wants a photo of themselves here. With the out of place tower in the background. A gimmick to start off the holiday.

...and against the water

But few know how it came about. The idea of transforming the natural lakes of the Upper Vinschgau valley into a large reservoir emerged almost one hundred years ago. When industrialisation came to South Tyrol in the 1920s and 1930s, the hunger for energy was also on the increase. The fascist government of Italy, to which South Tyrol was annexed in 1919, made hydroelectric power a particular focal point. National interests came above all else.

A devastating decision

The people of Graun foresaw their demise but imagined that the water level would only rise by five metres. So parts of the village could actually have remained.

In 1940, the Bolzano/Bozen state construction office nailed an information sheet to the municipal noticeboard. It stated a new water level: 22 metres. Nobody raised any objection. But not because they were not interested - rather because it was all written in Italian which nobody in Graun could understand. The construction office took back its slip of paper and a company from Milan, Montecatini AG, gained permission to build from Rome. The preparatory work began.

Until the pastor went to the pope...

Once the farmers realised that they were soon to lose everything, they protested. The beat the cars of the engineers building the dam with brushwood. “We only gave up when the Carabinieri came with their machine guns,” says Alois Prieth who was a 14 year old boy at the time. Village priest Alfred Rieper travelled to Pope Pius in Rome and implored him to stop the damming. Even that did not help. The locks were closed in 1949.

The houses standing closest to the rising water levels were blown up one at a time by the Montecatini company. The village gradually disappeared. The people of Graun watched on from a nearby barracks village where they were being housed. For most families, the settlement payments were not sufficient to rebuild an existence of equivalent value. “We were simply deceived,” says Alois Prieth. Today, every glimpse of the water brings anger and torment. For the people of Neugraun/Nuova Curon, the Reschensee lake has been nothing more than a foreign body on their doorstep for the last 60 years.

People consider it an alien lake on their doorstep

So what happened to Graun next? We pose this question to former mayor, Heinrich Noggler. While walking along the banks of the lake, Noggler gesticulates wildly with one hand in the air while clasping his mobile phone with the other. “The lake is a fact, it won’t be going away any more,” he says. “We have to make the best of it”. Noggler would like to see more tourism by the lake and for the people of Graun to enjoy the water. No easy task.

In winter, the Reschensee lake freezes over. And in summer, it is not exactly a paradise for bathing with its cold 14-degree water temperature. Nevertheless, Europe’s best kite surfers have been coming here for several years now. The wind here is perfect for the sport. There is even a small kite surfing school on the banks. “My dream would be a sailing club,” says Heinrich Noggler. But to date, only one local has a sailing boat on the lake. And he is the architect of the village. Not a true Graun native but rather an incomer.

Graun’s compensation is paid out in energy

Heinrich Noggler (mayor up until 2020) proudly waves his hand horizontally through the air. “This year, over there in the bay, we raised the ground to make the lake smaller,” he says. Noggler wants to gradually claim back the land. This struggle to put things right again seems to be paying off. Ten years ago, the community fought to secure a stake in the annual profits generated by the power plant operator. Mayor Noggler calls this “a kind of damages for suffering”.

Acceptance is difficult

Theresia Theiner, the former hotel manager, is less militant. Over the years, she has been able to accept Reschensee lake. “Today it looks quite pretty spread out there,” she says, rocking her head from side to side. Does she really mean it? Perhaps we could take a photo of her down by the lake? Theresia Theiner thinks about it, then nods. On the way down, she speaks about Sultan the St. Bernard again. There was no happy ending for him. Sultan became ill and eventually she had to shoot him.

Then the photo by the Reschensee lake. On the way back, Theresia Theiner makes a casual remark. In the past 60 years, she has never been as close to the water as this, she says. The banks are just 300 steps from the door to her house.

Text: Lukas Eberle
Photos: Jakob Hoff
Year of publication: 2014

(abridged summary of a report produced for the South Tyrol Media Prize 2010)

Accommodation image
Finish your booking for
Accommodation name
0  room rooms Not selected No board Breakfast Half board Full board All inclusive
Total price: 0 €
(incl. VAT / excl. local tourism tax)