What is it like to stay in a mountain refuge?

A lot of Cicerone authors like to recommend staying in refuges whilst walking or trekking in the Alps, the Himalaya, or other long-distance walks. But what are they like? Do you need to take your own food/toilet paper/towels? Cicerone Press author Gillian Price describes the rules and regulations of the average stay in a mountain refuge whilst walking through Switzerland and Italy on the Tour of the Bernina.

The refuge routine

So what is it like to stay at a mountain refuge? When you arrive at a hut, the first thing to do is announce yourself to a staff member, who will check your reservation and tell you which bed and room to occupy. This is a good opportunity to ask what time dinner’s served.

A refuge on the Tour of the Bernina

A refuge on the Tour of the Bernina

Walking boots are never worn into the bedrooms, but are left on shelves or racks in the hut entrance. Here you change into your own sandals or use hut slippers if available. Sleeping quarters range from 2–4 beds or bunkrooms up to cavernous dormitories (dormitorio/Lager) with mattresses lined up along the walls. Duvets or blankets and a pillow are always provided, to be used in combination with your personal sheet sleeping bag, and a lightweight pillowcase. Space restrictions mean there is not usually much privacy.

You will probably feel like a wash and change at this point – using your own towel and possibly soap too. Bathrooms are mostly simple affairs with a couple of hand basins, mirrors and toilet cubicles (toilet paper is always provided). There is always a hot shower (doccia calda/warme Dusche) unless specified otherwise. Some huts charge for the privilege, in which case you’ll be given a token to insert in the shower box: don’t forget that the hot water is time-limited. Afterwards you may consider washing out your day’s clothes; these can be hung outside on the clothesline unless there happens to be a drying room. Don’t leave your washing hanging outside overnight, as the dew will soak everything.

The refuge café/bar is always open if at any time you feel like a soft drink, cup of tea, slice of cake, glass of beer or whatever. Tap water is drinkable unless specified non potabile/kein Trinkwasser. Dinner is generally a set meal, the same for everyone who has opted for half board. A three-course affair, it begins with soup or pasta, proceeds with a meat dish and vegetables, and concludes with some sort of dessert or fresh fruit.

Inside Chamanna Coaz, on the extension to TB Stage 1

Inside Chamanna Coaz, on the extension to TB Stage 1

Breakfast (colazione) tends to be a light affair in Italy, with a choice between caffé latte (coffee with milk) and tè (tea) served with bread, butter and jam (pane, burro, marmellata). The superior quality Swiss version (Frühstuck) usually means cereals, yogurt, cheese and cold meat as well.

Meals are covered by half board – mezza pensione/Halbpension – with drinks such as beer, wine, and hot beverages billed extra. At the time of writing, charges were around €50/SF60 for members in Alpine Club huts in Switzerland and €58/SF70 for non-members. On the other side of the border, charges in Italy are a third lower – around €43 for members and €56 for non-members. For non-alpine club refuges expect anything between €35 and €60.

Hut lights-out and silence is usually from 10.00pm to 6.00am. The generator may be switched off, so keep your torch or headlamp handy in case you need it during the night.

During the refuges’ closed period, unmanned premises are accessible at most alpine club huts for emergency use. The Winterraum in German and bivacco/locale/ricovero invernale in Italian usually contains bunk beds, sometimes blankets, a stove, basic food and a note about where to find water. Self-sufficient walkers passing through when the refuges are not operating will greatly appreciate these facilities.

One well-equipped unmanned bivouac hut is encountered (on Stage 7 of the Tour of the Bernina), but unless you split the stage in two you should not need to use it. If you do, take your own provisions.

Reservations

Advance booking is a good idea for both hotels and refuges in midsummer. Some of the places listed accept reservations by email, but by no means all, so book by phone to be sure.

Many of the refuges have stunning locations

Many of the refuges have stunning locations

At the huts, members of affiliated overseas alpine clubs are eligible for reduced rates; UK residents may wish to join a British branch of the Austrian Alpine Club (http://aacuk.org.uk), if not the Italian (www.cai.it) or Swiss (www.sac-cas.ch) counterparts.

Reservation is not compulsory at the huts, but it is a good idea for all concerned: for the staff as it helps them calculate the food that needs preparing (and whether to cater for vegetarians or guests with special allergy issues), and for intending guests as it guarantees a bed for the night – you may be turned away if a hut is full, if not bedded down in the attic. A reservation also acts as a safety mechanism for walkers: if you don’t show up, search procedures may be set in action. So be warned, should you change your mind and route, do phone to cancel or you may be billed for unnecessary and costly rescue operations.
For payment, while credit cards are usually taken at most hotels, it’s always a good idea to check beforehand. It’s best to assume that huts do not accept credit cards (unless specified otherwise), so carry a reserve of cash for paying your bill. All main towns and important villages have ATMs.

Remember that while euros are the currency of Italy, Switzerland uses the Swiss franc: as a rough guide, calculate CHF10 = €8.10. Just to confuse things, payment is often accepted in euros as cash in Swiss establishments (including all Swiss Alpine Club huts) – and change given in Swiss francs.

Full contact details of places to stay are given at the appropriate spot in the Tour of the Bernina and Alta Via Valmalenco route descriptions, as well as in Appendix B of the guidebook.

Price

Gillian Price

Gillian Price has trekked throughout Asia and the Himalayas, but now lives in Venice and is exploring the mountains and flatter bits of Italy. Starting in the Italian Dolomites, Gillian has written outstanding Cicerone guides to walking all over Italy as well as Corsica and Corfu. An adamant promoter of public transport to minimise environmental impact, Gillian belongs to Mountain Wilderness and is an active member of the Venice branch of CAI, the Italian Alpine Club.

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