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The mountain farmer

Courage is their common credo. Together, they overcome resistance. Reinhold Messner runs the six mountain-themed museums in South Tyrol along with his daughter Magdalena.

But who is the real Reinhold Messner?

I meet Reinhold Messner at his base camp, which is no longer in the Himalayas or Patagonia. Since 2006, his base camp is instead the Schloss Sigmundskron castle near Bolzano/Bozen, also called Firmian. According to Messner, this is where all threads come together, where the "creative engine" and the administration of his six museums lie. When I meet him, he wears a black shirt, as he often does. And his beaded necklace, of course. Reinhold Messner acquired the bead, a genuine Dzi bead, in Tibet in 1980. "You wear the bead for a lifetime. If it breaks, you die."

I reach out to squeeze his right hand, which has climbed every eight-thousand-metre peak in the world. Think of the rock faces he’s climbed, the deserts, and lonely landscapes he’s traversed. But I am not here to discuss his tours and many peaks ascended. Today, I get the opportunity to know the great mountaineer, born in 1944, from a different side. Perhaps it is his most authentic side. 

For me, living in a self-determined manner is very important.

He is lean, but not tall. When he speaks, however, it is with presence. Immediately. In a way that I can feel.

Mr. Messner, you purchased Schloss Juval castle in 1983, more than 30 years ago What was your  goal?
To be self-sufficient? To be independent?

For me, independence has always been essential. To live the way I want to l want to live. The vision for Juval was one that has been employed elsewhere. I wanted to turn the Schloss Juval castle into a model for self sustainability because I come from that world and because it excites me.

These days, it is possible to have farm holidays at Oberortl. But in case of a big crisis, there is room on the farm for the tenant and my entire extended family including my brothers, their wives and children, that's a good 50 people. The way it used to be. Many generations used to live under one roof on each of the larger farms and produce what was needed to live: grain, fruit, vegetables, milk, meat and wood. Of course, I am well aware that the idea of a self-sufficient farm is an idealistic one, perhaps even a romantic one. But a farm puts food on the table for a family. It has a provisioning role that is passed on from generation to generation.

A symbiosis with South Tyrolean mountain farmers

You have made your dream come true. Schloss Juval castle, the summer residence of your family, is also a museum and there is a farmhouse and a farm shop. Do the tenants on the farms at Juval pay you rent?

Reinhold Messner. No. They pay me in kind. And that's a good thing. I don't need income from the farms, I just want them to work the land. We get our wine from the Unterortl winery at Juval. It’s a super wine, which regularly wins awards and is listed in the Gambero Rosso It is essential for me that the farmers themselves think about what they want to produce, what they want to refine. These are decisions they have to make for themselves. All I want from the farmers is that they keeps a certain number of animals, that they mow and maintain the landscape, and that they care. I want South Tyrol’s mountain farming culture to live on (for more information, see Reinhold Messner’s book "Selbstversorger & Bergbauer" (Self-sufficient & mountain farmers). 

Homemade food on the table

So there's always something from Juval on your family’s table? 

(laughs). That's right. For example, yak meat or speck. I should also give my wife credit, as she is very diligent in terms of being self-sufficient. She gets what she needs from the gardens around Juval and makes jams and preserves vegetables. Which means that when we are in Meran/Merano, because we only stay at Juval during the summer months of July and August, we always have something good to eat on our table. The products that are refined and produced in Juval are of course also served at the Juval Buschenschank farmhouse inn.

Farmers are essential to the region

We sit in the shade, the stone walls of Sigmundskron castle surround us, and calm and tranquillity settle in. Hidden in the stones, but sometimes openly exposed, I spy sacred figures and read passages of quotations. Although the motorway runs right past South Tyrol's oldest castle, all I can hear here is birdsong, the voices of museum visitors and helicopters landing at the nearby Bolzano hospital. Blue eyes flash beneath his thick grey and white hair. When Reinhold Messner tells a story, he takes his time. After all, there is much to say and many experiences to share. Politically, he does not hold back. He is provocative, calls it like he sees it, and wants us to stop and think. He also enjoys a good discussion and is very knowledgeable. But his favourite thing is action.

Mountain farmer is his job title and it has been written on his identity card for 30 years. In a small, remote valley in South Tyrol, in the Villnösstal valley, Reinhold Messner grew up the son of the village teacher. He found it fascinating that farmers had so much autonomy. "Every farm," as Messner points out in his book "Selbstversorger & Bergbauer," "was a state within a state; the farmer was in charge." I wonder if that's why he purchased Schloss Juval castle; so that he could finally be the farmer he always wished to be?

On my way to Firmian, I thought to myself, ‘First a mountaineer and now a mountain farmer.’ Mr. Messner, have you always felt at home in nature and the mountains?

These days, I define myself more as a mountain farmer than as a mountaineer even though I do not perform the manual tasks of a farmer. I don't chop wood anymore, I don't have the time, and I'm getting older. But I still define myself as a mountain farmer. I am and always have been connected to the world of farming and I am very concerned about the state of mountain farmers in South Tyrol. I pay close attention to the price of milk. If the milk price drops below 40 cents per litre, farmers in South Tyrol will no longer be able to stay on their farms.

Over and over, you keep repeating that farmers are essential to the region, to any region.

Absolutely. Our well-tended, cultivated landscape is essential to the future of South Tyrol. It is crucial to the South Tyrolean flair. The settlement of the mountains in South Tyrol is a great treasure and this treasure must be preserved, no matter what. Farmers must be able to work, and they must be supported in doing so. It makes no difference whether a ski slope is carved into the Kronplatz or whether a farmer cuts his timber in order to sell it, as has been the case for the last 100 years, it is making use of the cultivated area. To speak about the destruction of the wilderness here is simply wrong.

Juval is a magical place. I explored the castle a few years ago with my kids. The masks, the frescoes, the old walls - with pure nature all around - it is a perfect mix. I have always wanted to meet the person behind it all. I just met his daughter, Magdalena, who left her office briefly for a photo shoot. Now I'm sitting at the table with Reinhold Messner. What interests me: Did he come to Juval, or did Juval come to him? How did the two meet?

Love at first sight

How did you come to Juval, Mr. Messner?

I first started looking in 1978. I actually wanted to buy a farm in Villnöss/Funes, but I wasn’t successful. I then looked at many properties, the names of which I don’t want to mention. I had just given up on a castle in the Vinschgau valley, which was financially beyond my means, and on the way back I saw Schloss Juval castle from the car. I had someone from the Vinschgau region with me in the car and I asked him about the property. “No good,” he told me dismissively at the time.

Is that what motivated you to have a look?

Probably. We ended up having a look after all, although the road to Juval was only partially passable and we then continued on foot. I got into the castle through a hole in the wall, as the windows were all boarded up. The grounds were overgrown with scrub. As I looked into the courtyard, I saw Himalayan cedar trees, and from that moment I was sold.

It was supposed to be something like his retirement plan.

I find the story touching, as if the castle was awoken by a kiss. Reinhold Messner was eventually approved to purchase Juval from an older gentleman, who later also sold the mountaineer the farmland surrounding Schloss Juval castle as well. It was the express wish of the former owner that Juval remain in South Tyrolean hands. At the time, Messner was not yet 40 years old. Over time, the number of expeditions decreased and his thoughts about safety increased. Juval was also to become something like his retirement plan. Messner is smart, resourceful and persistent, qualities I really appreciate.

Juval is perfection

Juval became the first mountain museum in 1995?

The first place was actually the “Flohhäuschen,” which was a mini-museum in Sulden am Ortler/Solda all’Ortles with a few curious collections. Juval came after that and I just have to say it again and again: There is no more beautiful spot in South Tyrol than Juval. Juval is perfection. Best of all, because the restoration of the castle there was so successful, politicians trusted me to do something with Sigmundskron castle as well. Something no one else had managed. Juval had also given me the courage to continue building upon the topic of mountains. While putting together a collection for Schloss Juval castle, I also realised that I could manage Juval, also financially. I had the ability to renovate a castle, together, of course, with capable architects and the office of monuments. Of course, it is worth pointing out that there were always risks involved.

The most ardent desire

Have you ever been deterred by resistance? There have been quite a few challenges over the course of the last 25 years when you built the museums.

Personally, I have nothing against resistance. The mountains are places of resistance. For Hannibal, the Alps were a source of resistance. I must also say: I owe the greatness of all the museums to resistance. To quote Goethe, "Great things can be built from stones placed in one's path." When I bought Juval, ten tourists a year happened to pass by. Today, there are as many as 50,000 annually.

Messner has accomplished a lot. That is an understatement. He has accomplished incredible things. That which he takes on, succeeds. Juval is a prime example. The farm shop, in which 80 Vinschgau farmers are united in a cooperative, works. The Oberortl and Unterortl farms are successful, his residential castle has been perfectly renovated, and so too have the Sigmundskron and Bruneck castles. He is a border crosser, a soloist, a pioneer. He is also a preserver, and an agent of change at the same time. He loves to tell stories, and he writes books "only once a year." He has toned down his frenetic pace a bit of late. He wants to give people personal responsibility, show them that they can do it. He is always different, and yet the same. He adapts and yet always goes his own self-determined way. This is what mountaineers do, and what mountain farmers must also achieve. For an entire lifetime. Does a person such as Messner still have desires? I ask him:

What do you wish for, Mr. Messner?

His voice softens and his societal concern to pass on culture merges with a personal one. "With all my heart, I wish my daughter Magdalena success in managing the museums, because I know how hard it is to keep museums alive.”

Text: Ursula Lüfter
Photos: Alex Filz
Video: Alexander Schiebel
Year of publication: 2016 - Stories from South Tyrol