“Le grand chemin d’Italie” – this is the way nineteenth-century European travellers often called the road from Coira to Chiavenna through the Splugen – was for a long time the most travelled route for going from Germany to Italy, thanks to its particularly privileged geographical position. The Splugen Pass (2115m), located in one of the narrowest points of the Alpine chain, marks the passage through the Lepontine and Rhaetian Alps. Equidistant from Milan and Zurich, as the crow flies, it is the communication gate of the two basins of Lake Constance and Lake Como as well as the large valleys of the Rhine and Po. And it is in fact thanks to its privileged position that from time immemorial the Splugen road has been one of the most frequently used connections between the north and the south, the frontier between the Germanic and the Latin world.
The huge massifs, the variety of landscape, the love of nature, the search for strong aesthetic emotions and intellectual stimuli are the reasons that urged many European tourists to set out on the Splugen itinerary in the first decade of the nineteenth century, along which they could appreciate the outstanding beauty of nature. The stories of the difficulties encountered and the wonderful, touching moments experienced, echoed so widely through the nineteenth-century European drawing rooms that they caused a real rush towards that road, along which you could enjoy the view of details of a landscape not to be found anywhere else. It can certainly be stated that the Splugen road and the adjoining Mala Way were really “in fashion” for some decades. They were among the tracks most beaten by European tourists.
Today, after two centuries, it can be seen that interest in that road is coming back to life and this does not depend on trade and economic reasons; more on a mix of motivations including ecology and a reminiscent tourism: the wish to disappear into an intact and well-preserved natural space combines with the desire to recover the ancient way of travelling, to discover new places and to feel the same sensations as those of the ancient travellers.
The wish to restore such an ancient path as that of the Splugen Way has arisen for this reason, out of the desire to rediscover an itinerary rich in memories, to relive in a few short hours the emotions that man, solitary explorer or pilgrim, soldier, tradesman or tourist has experienced throughout the centuries. The wish to give back life and prestige to a road once walked by people of every nation was felt as a result of the cooperation between those populations always separated by the high peaks but united, throughout the centuries, by common economical, political, strategic and today tourist interests. The tourist of the year two thousand is however not left to his own resources and courage but well guided along established routes leaving little space to danger and unforeseen events. He is however given the possibility of savouring the pure and intact beauty of the mountains that now as in the past return unforgettable sensations in exchange for the curious and searching look of the passers-by.
Today, the “Splugen Way” is an cultural/excursion path that travels back along two thousand years’ history of travel among Reto-Romansh, Walser and Lombard cultures; those events were as important an influence on the landscape as it appears to us today as on the social and economical relationships and growth of the peoples.
The “Splugen Way” is the Italian part of this route from the Italian-Swiss border to Chiavenna. The itinerary, full of historical, ethnographic and naturalist features, unwinds along ancient routes and it is set up with stopping places containing logistic and informational aids.
The path covers a total of 65 km, starting from Thusis in the heart of the Grison Canton (720m), continuing along the gorges of the Mala Way, through the towns of Schams, Rheinwald and on to Splügen (1457m), an important transit crossroads. The Splugen Way then turns southwards, reaching an altitude of 2115 m at the Splugen Pass, to then descend through the spectacular and charming gorge of the Cardinello as far as Isola, where it continues along the whole of the San Giacomo valley, crossing the villages of Campodolcino, Lirone and reaching the picturesque village of Chiavenna (333m).
On the Italian side the path covers the whole of the Splugen Valley from the Pass up to Chiavenna over a total of 26km with a difference in height of 1723m. The excursion, always far from traffic, passes through a succession of wild environments, woods and forests hemmed in crags, landscapes of a sweeter and more relaxing nature and typical alpine environments with wide-angle views after the giddy gorges of Isola and the Cardinello.
To travel along the Splugen Way also means to have the chance to visit some very beautiful city centres such as that of Chiavenna.
“Clavenna”, the key of the Alps, an important transit point since Roman times, is still today a flourishing tourist and cultural town with a well-preserved city centre, where you can visit interesting museums, among which the Treasure Museum and the Mill Museum and Palazzo Vertemate Franchi at Piuro.
From Chiavenna it is then possible to go on southwards for 17km along the Francisca Way as far as the small Romanesque temple of San Fedelino situated on a tiny plot of land between Novate Mezzola Lake and the mountain. The itinerary is mostly flat and it unwinds along small roads and mule tracks through an environment typical of the bottom of a valley.
On the Swiss side of the Splugen Way there is no lack of charming and unique landscapes: the village of Splügen still today preserves its ancient image and original splendour as an important crossroads for trade; the path leading to the gorge and falls of Rofla is also a special attraction of this area. The extraordinary mule track, hand-cut out of the rock, unwinds along the side of the valley between impassable rock walls, galleries and tunnels. After the adventurous ascent through the Rofla, the Splugen Way leads to the most ancient village of the valley, Sufers, and then it reaches Zillis, where the Romanesque church of San Martino with its world-famous ceiling can be found. Taking the Splugen Way involves walking along the Mala Way, one of the most impressive gorges in Switzerland, once the bugbear of travellers and journeying tradesmen but also a place of which many pictures have been taken. Rocky walls to a height of 300m mark the limits of this gorge, the Rhine flows at its feet and, in some points, its width is as little as a few metres.
Text by Carlotta Pighetto