The mountain farmer

Reinhold Messner runs six museums in South Tyrol along with his daughter Magdalena.

  • October 2016

  • Reading time: 12'

    Reading time (Short): 12'

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The mountain farmer

Reinhold Messner runs six museums in South Tyrol along with his daughter Magdalena.

Reinhold Messner and I meet up at his base camp. Since 2006, ‘base camp’ no longer refers to the Himalayas or to Patagonia, but to the Sigmundskron Castle, aka ‘Firmian,’ which is located just outside of Bolzano/Bozen. According to Messner, this is where everything comes together. It’s the “creative engine” and the administration centre for his six museums. Today he is wearing his trademark black shirt and his necklace, a genuine Dzi stone that Messner acquired in Tibet in 1980. “You wear the stone for life,” says Messner. “When it breaks, you die.”

Reinhold Messner is now 71 years old. He greets me, and I shake the right hand that has pulled him up every 8000-metre peak on earth. I think of the many rocks that he has climbed, of the deserts, and lonely landscapes that he has travelled. But I’m not here to discuss his tours and summits with him today. Instead, I’m looking to capture the great mountaineer from a different angle, from his more authentic side perhaps?

Who is Messner really?

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Mr Messner, you bought Juval Castle in 1983, which is over thirty years ago now. Was it your goal to become self-sufficient and independent?
Reinhold Messner: It was always a fundamental matter for me to live in a self-determined way. I have made a model of Juval, but not one that I invented. I wanted to make Juval a self-sufficient farm because I come from that world and because it inspires me.
Today, for example, it is now possible to enjoy farmhouse holidays at the Oberortl farm. But should a major crisis arise, there is space for the tenants and my entire extended family including my brothers, their wives and their children. All in all, that’s space for some 50 people. It’s like in former times, when several generations lived under one roof on each larger farm. Families produced what they needed to live: Grain, fruit, vegetables, milk, meat and wood. Of course I know that the idea of a self-sufficient farm is idealistic, perhaps even romantic. But the farm provides the family with food and with the supplies they need. This will be passed on from generation to generation.

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You have fulfilled your dream: Juval Castle, the summer residence of your family, is also a museum with farms and a farmers’ market. Do the tenant farmers at Juval pay you any rent?
Reinhold Messner: No. They pay me in kind, which is better. I do not need any income from the farms, I just want them to function. We get wine from the Unterortl winegrowing estate at Juval, a really good wine that regularly receives awards from the Gambero Rosso wine guide. I believe that it’s vital for the farmers to decide what they want to grow and develop. They have to do this for themselves: I simply want the farmers to keep a certain number of animals, to mow and tend the landscape. I want the South Tyrolean mountain-farming culture to live on in this way.

Is there always something from the Juval farms on your family’s dinner table?
(RM laughs). That’s right. Yak meat or smoked ham, for example. I also have to say that my wife is very conscientious when it comes to self-sufficiency. She gets what she needs from the gardens around Juval to make jams and to preserve vegetables. And when we are in Merano/Meran, because we only live up at Juval in July and August, there is always something good on the table. Produce from Juval is of course also served up in the farmhouse inn at the Juval estate.

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We sit in the shade of stone walls of the Sigmundskron Castle, absorbing the peace and silence. Sometimes hidden in the stone, sometimes clearly visible, I see sacred figures and read quotations. Although the motorway runs right past South Tyrol’s oldest castle, I can only hear the tweeting of birds here, the voices of museum visitors, and the helicopters landing at the nearby Bolzano hospital. Blue eyes flash under his thick greyish-white hair. When Reinhold Messner tells a story, he speaks at length. He has a lot to say and numerous experiences to share. He always expresses his political views, as he wants to be involved, to provoke. He wants us to stop and to think. He’s happy to discuss matters, he knows a great deal, but for him, action speaks louder than words.

Reinhold Messner, mountaineer, politician, mountain farmer

Reinhold Messner was born in 1944 in South Tyrol’s Villnösstal valley. He climbed his first 3000-metre peak as a five-year-old with his father, the village schoolteacher. He grew up climbing, walking, pioneering routes that he would carefully plan even as a boy. During his lifetime, he completed over a hundred journeys to the major mountain ranges and deserts of the world. In particular, he climbed all fourteen of the world’s 8000-metre peaks and achieved a longitudinal crossing of Greenland.

From 1994 to 2004, Reinhold Messner was a member of the European Parliament for the Green party. Today, along with his daughter Magdalena, the father-of-four primarily dedicates his time to his mountain museums, as well as to maintaining the culture of mountain farming. His Messner Mountain Foundation supports mountain peoples worldwide, while as a speaker and TV commentator, he is in great demand with mountain climbers, tourism professionals and business leaders.

He describes himself as a mountain farmer and, for thirty years now, this is how he has been described on his identity card. Reinhold Messner grew up as a son of the village schoolteacher in Villnösstal, a small, remote valley in South Tyrol. The fact that the farmers there called the shots fascinated him. In his book Selbstversorger & Bergbauer [The Self-reliant Mountain Farmer], Messner states: “Each farm was a state within a state where the farmer held sway.” This makes me wonder if this is the reason he acquired Juval Castle? Was it to finally and completely devote himself to being a farmer?

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During the trip to Firmian I was thinking: “First a mountain climber, now a mountain farmer.” Mr Messner, has your home always been in nature and the mountains?
I now define myself more as a mountain farmer than a mountain climber. I admit I do not live the farmer’s life with all its everyday tasks, so I do not chop wood any more as I do not have the time and I am getting older. But my life is that of a farmer. I am and have always been connected to the farming world and I think a lot about the mountain farmers of South Tyrol. I am very concerned about the question of the price of milk. If the price drops below 40 cents a litre, South Tyrolean farmers will no longer be able to survive on their farms.

You say it again and again: Farmers are essential for the land, for every land.
Absolutely. A well-maintained and cultivated landscape is vital for South Tyrol. It’s crucial for the region’s whole ambience. The settling of the mountains in South Tyrol has bestowed great benefits, and these benefits must be preserved at all costs. The farmers must be able to work and so they must be supported. It makes no difference whether a new slope is carved out of the Kronplatz ski area or if the farmer cuts down the wood there and sells it as he has for the last 100 years. He is still making use of a cultivated area. Speaking of the destruction of wilderness here is simply wrong.


Juval is magical. I explored the castle grounds some years ago with my children. The masks, the frescoes, the old walls completely surrounded by nature, form the perfect mix. I had always wanted to get to meet the man who was behind it all. I just met his daughter Magdalena after she left her office briefly for the photoshoot and now I’m sitting at the table with Reinhold Messner. What interests me is whether he came to Juval or if Juval came to him? I want to know how the relationship began.

Mr Messner, how did you come across Juval castle?
I began looking in 1978. I actually wanted to buy a farm in the Villnösstal valley but it didn’t work out. I then looked at numerous properties, but I don’t want to name names here. I had already crossed off a castle in the Vinschgau valley that was financially out of my range, when on the way home I saw Juval from the highway. There was a man from the Vinschgau valley with me at the time and I asked him: “What’s that?” He dismissed my question and said: “Nothing of any interest.”

And that prompted you to drive up there?
Probably. So up we went, although we could only get halfway to Juval by road. The rest of the way we walked. I got into the castle through a hole in the wall; the windows were all covered with boards. The ground was totally overgrown. I looked in and saw Himalayan cedars in the inner courtyard. And that decided it for me.

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The story moves me: A castle kissed awake from its slumbers. Reinhold Messner won the bidding for Juval, which was sold by an old gentleman who later also offered him the surrounding farms. It was the former owner’s express desire that Juval should remain in South Tyrolean hands. Messner was not even forty years old at the time. He began reducing the number of his expeditions as his awareness of safety issues increased. Juval was intended as something of a pension plan. Messner is smart, resourceful and stubborn – I like that about him.

Messner’s museums

Six million people visit South Tyrol each year. According to Messner, all of them love the mountains. His museums all function according to the same principle: The museum world explains the theme outside. “I steal the landscape,” he smiles. The theme of “MMM Corones” on the Kronplatz ski mountain is the inhabited mountain landscape that is visible in every direction. At “MMM Juval” the Holy Mountains are the theme, while at “MMM Firmian” it is the “emergence, climbing and erosion” of the mountains. The central question in all six museums is: “What do mountains mean to people?” Messner’s museums are interdisciplinary in their design and are always distinguished by their special architecture. They are shining examples of how castle ruins can be carefully and consciously restored.

So your first museum arose in 1995 from Juval?
First there was the collection of curiosities at the “flea hut,” a mini-museum in Solda/Sulden below the Ortler massif. Juval came afterwards and I must say, again and again, that there is no more beautiful place in South Tyrol than Juval. It is perfect and, because the restoration of the castle went so well, the local politicians let me try to make something of Sigmundskron, something that nobody had managed so far. What’s more, Juval had given me the courage to further develop the mountain theme. I had, in the meantime, amassed a collection of items at the castle and I realised that I could take on the burden, including the financial side. So I could also renovate a castle working together with skilled architects and the Office for Historic Monuments. I have to say that there was nevertheless a certain risk involved.

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Have you never been deterred by obstacles? You must have encountered some in the course of the last 25 years while you were creating your museums.
I do not have anything against obstacles. The mountains are obstacles. For Hannibal the Alps were an obstacle. I also have to say that I owe the admirable qualities of the museums as a whole to the obstacles in their way. To quote Goethe: “Great things can be built from the stones placed in one’s path.” When I bought Juval, ten tourists a year might have come by. Today the annual figure is 50,000.

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He has achieved a great deal. The phrase does not do him justice: What he has achieved is unbelievable. Everything he tackles, he succeeds in, Juval included. The farmers’ market, where 80 farmers from the Val Venosta/Vinschgau region are united in a co-operative, works. The Oberortl and Unterortl farms work, his castle is beautifully restored, as are the castles at Sigmundskron and Brunico/Bruneck.

He is a pioneer, a maverick who sets his own rules. He preserves and alters things at the same time. He loves telling stories, while he only writes books “once a year now.” He has, to a certain extent, slowed down his frenetic rhythm. He wants to give people personal responsibility, to show them they can do it. He is always different, yet always the same. He adapts and nevertheless always goes his own way. That is something that mountain climbers and mountain farmers alike must be able to do throughout their lives. Does someone like him still want for anything? So I ask him:

What do you wish for, Mr Messner?
His voice softens and his social ideals, to pass on a culture to the next generation, merges with a personal wish: “I truly hope my daughter Magdalena will succeed in keeping the museums going. I know myself how difficult it is to keep museums alive.”

Text: Ursula Lüfter
Translation: Gareth Norbury
Photos: Alex Filz

The “closed farm” – a South Tyrolean peculiarity

The Empress Maria Theresia established the model of the “closed farm” for Tyrol in 1770. Reinhold Messner sees this as an ingenious solution: “It belongs to our Austro-Hungarian culture.” A farm should, according to Maria Theresia, be large enough to support a family and may not be reduced in size nor divided up. In principle, a closed farm may only be transferred through inheritance.

After the First World War, Tyrol was divided and South Tyrol became a part of Italy. The Tyrolean farm law was abolished in 1929. The feared division of the farms did not come to pass. The legal notion, which was passed down through the generations, turned out to be stronger. Thus in 1954, when the first South Tyrolean autonomy statute was decreed, the first South Tyrolean farm law was adopted. It based upon the principles of the Tyrolean farm inheritance law, a civil law provision peculiar to South Tyrol in the Italian legal system.