It flows, it foams: The power of water
It’s a shame that we spend so little time contemplating the importance of water for our life. Things are different in the Montafon. Here, in the mountains around the Silvretta, you get a direct sense of its force and beauty.
Sometimes this happens: It is very early in the morning, on a hiking path in the Montafon, the valley already some way behind you, the summit still some distance away, when suddenly you feel a drop on your face, and then another, and because the weather forecast was actually meant to be good and it wasn’t supposed to rain, you look straight up and see – a blue sky.
A couple of light-grey clouds are hanging on in there – maybe they are responsible for the couple of splashes. And over there, on the side of the mountain, there’s something shiny. Morning dew, you think, and are amazed that you can actually see it. A bit further up, the sun lights up rivulets – thin, silver veins on grey rock, and above them a field of snow glitters like a mirror. You’re standing there on the trail and, for a brief moment, there is something in the air that you could call understanding or maybe even realisation, but before things start getting too philosophical you simply continue on your way. You don’t even realise that the roaring in the background doesn’t actually come from the road below. Instead, it comes from the waterfall on the other side of the valley.
Water can shout at you. Yet it can also produce quiet, almost tender tones.
To be honest, we spend far too little time thinking about water. Especially not when on holiday, although there are no more suitable places for doing so than the mountains. And probably no better place than the Montafon. The valley of the Ill is edged by mountain ranges towering into the sky, the Rätikon with its lime pinnacles, on the other valley side the Verwall, all mountains, none of them exactly small and, at the end of the valley, there is the Silvretta with its mountains over 3,000 metres high. You can’t exactly claim that the geology in the Montafon has been restrained in any way – naturally, such a landscape has the best possible conditions for water, if it’s possible to say that. Water has one main property: It always wants to flow downhill! When allowed to do so, it displays all its beauty. And its power. As well as its might.
So let’s start from the top, on the Silvretta, where the water spends many months of the year as snow and ice. The two milky blue reservoirs of Silvretta and Vermunt provide people with electricity produced from hydropower. All the lorries and containers are here because, between the two lakes, deep inside the mountains, a new hydropower station is being built – the monumental Obervermuntwerk II. For his part, Hansjörg Schwarz is walking around here looking at things since he and the team from the Illwerke are responsible for making sure that no trace of the building work will be visible once all the excavators and pipes and construction site paraphernalia have disappeared. Ecological construction supervision, as it is known. All the excavation mounds from inside the mountain, for example, will be planted with shrubs and rough grasslands that hikers will consider to be totally normal hills within three or four years. “This massive project must not be allowed to endanger the scenic beauty of the region,” says Schwarz, “so it would be great if we can correct even the little things in advance.” Anyone who tames the water has a great responsibility. For nature. “And for the people who want to live in the Montafon after us.”
Of course, only part of the water is being tamed up here on the Silvretta, while the rest of it naturally wants to flow down into the valley, impetuous and wild, and over paths it has sought out or created for itself over time. In order to get a feeling of what this is like, you only have to hike to the Silbertal after a rainy day. This takes you past Schruns to the east and is considered to be one of the most original valleys in Vorarlberg. There are three or four alpine pastures and a handful of weekend houses behind Silbertal and then – nothing. No roads, no villages. Just nature. Just steep slopes to the right and left and the vast sky above it all, and the snow-covered spiky peaks of Omesspitze and Lopspitze somewhere on the horizon. The area is full of families when the weather’s good, but on rainy days it is one thing above all – impressive. Everywhere – simply everywhere! – there is water, it flows in strings from the slopes, it splashes downwards in streams, it thunders in waterfalls, it foams and roars and crashes and bangs. On days like this in the Silbertal, there are moments when you have to shout to be heard, the water is that loud. As well as moments when you’d like to whisper so that you don’t disturb the tender passages of the water symphony around you. And if you pay attention, you can feel with every breath how the clear, cool air seems to flow right down to the finest branches of the lungs.
The people here live with the water and know how to tame it
“Try it! You have to try it, too!” So calls out Ewald Netzer, who is holding his cupped hand out underneath one of the many rivulets. “The water tastes different from every source here!” Netzer comes from here and spent his whole life in the region and there might not be anybody who knows more about the local water, the springs and their healing power. The Warzenbächle is one such example: People would go to this stream (“wart stream”) to wash their hands, and two weeks later their warts would be gone, he explains. True! Apparently, this is due to the high silver content in the water. “Or maybe due to the faith they have in it. Whatever the truth, gone is gone.” There was once a health spa in the Silbertal which people used to attend to cure their symptoms as far back as in the 17th century. “And the people from the valley still use the springs today.” The snow that spends the winter at high altitude melts between the spring and the autumn, before the world turns back to white. It is a continuous backwards and forwards, up and down, that has been announcing the coming and going of the seasons and the flow of time for thousands of years. The people in the Montafon live with the water, and they have always known how to tame it. It is by applying the art of engineering and great stamina that they have constructed reservoirs and built hydropower stations: They have used the water to operate their sawmills and to treat their warts. They route it to swimming pools and bathing lakes, and local artists such as composer Herbert Willi use it as a source of inspiration for symphonies.
An ocean once foamed in the Montafon. The coral reef has become fossilised
Culture, history and tourism in the Montafon are closely associated with the changeable water, as is its geography. It has always been there, and it will always be there. Hopefully. All you have to do is take a walk in Bartholomäberg to get an idea of how long the Montafon has been associated with water. Follow the geology trail up as far as the Obere Wiese. Between the grass and the flowers, you will find a fossilised coral reef with fossilised shells, sea lilies and, of course, coral stocks. Once upon a time, an ocean used to froth and foam here. Until the earth decided there was something missing. And it created the Montafon, with its mountains and peaks towering up heavenwards, and the valleys between them.