The Herz Jesu Fires in Tirol have a proud tradition dating back more than 200 years. Each June the region’s mountains come to life as locals celebrate the summer solstice. Hubert Pedevilla from the Stubai Valley has been involved for many decades in this ancient tradition which sees burning hearts and crucifixes light up the mountainsides of Tirol.
For almost 60 years now Hubert Pedevilla has led the annual march from Neustift in the Stubai Valley up to the local mountain, the Elfer, overlooking this pretty settlement in the Stubai Valley. Pedevilla is one of the most famous faces in Neustift and even at the age of almost 70 inspires huge respect amongst the village’s younger inhabitants. “Without him there would be no Herz Jesu Fire,” explains one. “Each year we would be down in the village instead of up here in the mountains.” It was Pedevilla’s father who, after the Second World War, rekindled the tradition of the Herz Jesu Fires in the Stubai Valley. Under the Nazi regime the tradition of lighting fires in the mountains to mark the summer solstice had been outlawed. It was in the early 1950s that Pedevilla joined his father for the first time on what would become an annual pilgrimage up into the high mountains overlooking his home village of Neustift.
Back then Haflinger ponies were used to transport “Hudern”, as the bundles of rags and old clothes are known in Tirol, up 1,500 vertical metres along a narrow trail to the ridge of the Elfer mountain. “There were no forest roads back then,” explains Hubert Pedevilla. “At that time the men would follow the ponies carrying metal canisters filled with petrol. Each jerrycan held 20 litres, so you can imagine how heavy it was carrying them up the mountain.“
These days the preparations for the Herz Jesu Fires are less exhausting. The “Hudern” were replaced decades ago by blazing torches and these days a mixture of sawdust and environmentally sustainable oil is used, transported first via the Elferlift cable car and then via a smaller cable car to the hut near the ridge. “These days everything has to be organic – back then nobody cared about all that,” laughs Pedevilla. From the top of the cable car it is then not far to the craggy ridge of the Elfer mountain and its neighbouring peak, the Zwölfer. The Neustift native sends only the most experienced young men, who must be strong and physically fit, up to the highest sections where the rock falls away steeply on both sides. The younger and less experienced participants stay down on the pastures below and light the fires there. Safety is of the utmost importance. As a qualified mountain guide, Pedevilla knows the dangers of the mountains only too well. The young men who accompany him each year follow his instructions to the letter – after all, the Herz Jesu Fires are a centuries-old tradition where the bigger picture takes precedence over the needs of the individual participants themselves.
In the Stubai Valley each Herz Jesu club has its own spot high in the mountains where they build their spectacular bonfires in the form of burning hearts, crucifixes or the religious initials “INRI” and “IHS”. “We have to share the western ridge of the majestic Serles mountain with the club from the nearby village of Fulpmes,” Pedevilla explains, quickly adding: “But that’s okay – we have more than enough mountains here in the beautiful Stubai Valley.”
The tradition behind lighting the Herz Jesu Fires may have changed over the decades from a religious celebration to an annual custom bringing together groups of friends, but the atmosphere up in the mountains has barely changed since the first such fires were lit many centuries ago. Every single person taking part is proud to be contributing to a Tirolean tradition and preserve it for generations to come. For the inhabitants of Neustift, both young and old alike, lighting the fires is an emotional moment. For some the Herz Jesu Fires are even the highlight of the summer.
As the sun sets behind the mountains, Hubert Pedevilla remembers the words of the Tirolean vow to “light a bonfire every year on every mountain top on the evening before Herz Jesu Sunday.” One of the youngsters who has accompanied him up onto the mountain pulls out an accordion, another a flugelhorn. Together they play the centuries-old Herz Jesu song “Auf zum Schwure”. As the sound floats over the mountain peaks and down into the valley far below, the sawdust catches fire and the flames spread quickly to form a mighty burning crucifix. “And if God so wishes,” says Pedevilla, “then I will be up here on the Elfer mountain for the next 20 years lighting fires.” Just like his father before him.
In 2016 the Herz Jesu Fires will take place on the weekend of 3 to 5 June, when the menfolk from the Stubai Valley once again climb up onto the ridges and summits of the Elfer and Zwölfer mountains in their lederhosen, hiking boots, sunglasses and Tirolean hats. Before leaving the treeline behind they will cut off a few branches of mountain pine to make the fires burn even stronger and higher so that those down in the valley can see the flames blazing from the mountainside high above. We have put together some recommendations of the best places to see the Herz Jesu Fires: www.tyrol.com