Magic in the heart of the Austrian Alps

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Text and photos by Marybeth Bond.

From ski slopes with stunning vistas to fine food at the top of the world, the Austrian Alps roll out the welcome mat.

In Austria the mountains cover 80% of the country and entice hikers with 31,000 miles of alpine trails. In winter the combined ski areas in the Arlberg and Tyrol regions boast hundreds of miles of connected ski trails.  

Not far from the violin harmonies of Mozart in the gilded halls of Salzburg, I discovered a quieter perfection – the sound of a gurgling mountain stream and cowbells while hiking through mountain meadows. My love affair with the Alps is eternal, whether I ski in Lech in the winter or hike in Tyrol the rest of the year, simply knowing I’m close to a mountain hut with warm apple strudel can do wonders for the soul.

Photo taken from the train. Austria’s excellent rail network makes train travel a simple way to sample the country’s best destinations. An hour and a half train ride from the Zurich Airport, I arrived in the Bregenzerwald region in the mountainous state of Voralberg in western Austria, bordered by Switzerland, Germany and Liechtenstein.

For intrepid travelers, what could be better than exploring a town, a region and a state whose names you can barely pronounce?   After a few days, and lots of practice, the German names rolled off my tongue: Hittisau, Bregenzerwald and Voralberg.

In the picture postcard Alpine village of Hittisau, I settled into the Hotel Gasthof Krone, a family-owned guesthouse adorned with flowerboxes of red geraniums.  Tiny hiking boots stood at attention outside a room on the first floor and I heard children laughing behind the doors where the Natter family lived. Mrs. Natter cooked dinner and breakfast for guests and Mr. Natter served or checked-in guests. The Natter family has owned and operated the hotel for three generations.

For two days I rode cable cars above pastures and forests, ate locally produced cheeses and meandered through villages with architectural surprises.  Five hundred year old wooden farmhouses with intricately shingled roofs and walls share the neighborhood with eclectic home of wood and glass. Well-marked “design trails” helped me notice and appreciate the unique craftsmanship and modern architecture that successfully mix technology with nature.

 

In the town of Andelsbuch I wandered through the Werkaumhaus, an airy wood and glass structure, and admired the innovative handmade furniture and textiles created by local craftspeople. 

In 2016 UNESCO added the Werkaumhaus to their Register of “Best Safeguarding Practices” for the preservation of the area’s cultural heritage.  

In one of the artistic bus tops in Krumbach, I climbed stairs to nowhere, between thin steel rods reaching to the blue skies above, at my favorite bus stop designed by Japanese architect Sou Fujimoto.

Much of the fun of this area is in the unexpected. Krumbach, with a population of 1,000, surprised me with seven unusual bus stops. The town officials invited international architects, from China to Chile and Norway to Japan, to design public bus shelters. In exchange they received a holiday, offered by local guesthouses and merchants.  

In Hittisau I spent an hour in the women’s museum where exhibits focus on the “culture of caring”, then headed to the family-owned Metzler Dairy to sample over 15 cheeses made on the farm.

What I love about the Austrian Alps is figuring out the best hikes and bike rides.

It’s not hard to find bike trails in Vorarlberg where cyclists can choose from around 280 miles of signed trails. Three hotels in the picturesque village of Au specialize in biking tours, offering rentals, maps and electronic bikes.  Every tourist office offers maps, details about the difficulty about the areas hiking trails.

Lech, the Alpine Village favored by royalty.

Unlike the posh visitors arriving in their Ferraris and Rolls Royce’s who motor into the fairytale valley of Lech Zürs, I hiked 3 hours from one Alpine Valley to the next, with a stop for cold beer at a high mountain hut, before descending into the town of Lech.

In the winter the Dutch royalty, international celebrities and the well heeled come to ski in Lech. Summer is a quieter time when hikers savor its sublime vistas and green pastures dotted with cows.

Along the trail I was surprised to see a red door perched on the edge of a cliff with a small, locked mailbox, completely out of context. Nine artists from five different countries designed a number of doors and placed them at different points along hiking trails to inspire us to think about what doors represent in our lives.

One morning Juliane, a banker four days a week and hiking guide on Fridays, whisked me off for our six-hour hike on the “Green Ring Circular Trail”. We trekked up and down ski slopes that in the summer are lush with wildflowers.

 

 

After the rigorous hike I indulged myself with a swim and a badly needed sports massage at the spa at the historic Hotel Goldener Berg. Dinner of traditional Austrian goulash and light white wine topped off the day.

From the valley of Lech Zürs I headed east to trek in Tyrol along the  “Eagle Walk” in the Tyrolean Mountains between Innsbruck and Salzburg. Attracting serious hikers all summer, this long distance hiking route stretches 267-miles in the Wilder Kaiser range of mountains. Generally during a five-day trek, hikers stay in mountain huts equipped with food and beds.  I opted for a comfy Sport hotel in Ellmau as my base camp.   

After several day so hiking, I admit, I needed to take a day off. Mountain biking, with an electronic bike, was a perfect activity to let my feet recover.  We loaded our E-bikes into the gondola and rode to the top of the mountain where we cruised for miles and miles along the crest of the mountains from one ski resort to another. Midafternoon we settled into a cozy Alpine hut along the slopes for warm apple strudel and cold beer.

David, the founder of Koasa Bikes, met me with a smile, a helmet and lots of mountain stories. 

The next morning, rested and ready to hit the trails again, I met my guides Daniela and Martin in the hotel lobby. They looked me over (I am sure they were wondering if I was fit enough for the 11-mile hike) and scrutinized my boots, backpack and gear. A thunderstorm was predicted for late afternoon and there would be no water or food for long stretches of the trail.

After leaving the car in a green meadow, we hiked straight uphill, huffing and puffing until we reached a narrow chimney-like rock section. I didn’t look down the steep wall, or look up to what was above.  I just followed Martin carefully placing my feet on a ladder and clinging to fixed rock rungs. With adrenaline raging through our veins we hiked for five hours along rocky paths talking nonstop.

“The clanging cow bells are the Austrian anthem”, Daniela said.  

 

As we emerged from a dark forest into a lush meadow of wildflowers, I had a sight for sore eyes and muscles: grazing cows and weathered, wooden huts. One was decorated with pots of red geraniums and white edelweiss.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

A toast of schnapps and a concert.

We were lucky because the farmer Peter and his wife Maridi were home and served cold beer, buttermilk and soft drinks to hikers. two folksongs he yodeled and called for his wife to join him for a duet.IMG_3504  Click to listen to Peter and Maridi.   

 

Magic in the Alps

Sometimes when you’ve traveling, a truly authentic encounter will take you by surprise. Maybe it was the cold beer combined with the endorphins of a hiker’s rush.  Who knows why this was one of those “ah-ha” moments for me. It reminded me of why I travel, to see raw, natural beauty, meet new people and be inspired by the kindness of strangers. In the Austrian Alps it’s easy to fall in love with life again.

Insider Tips     Most fun in the summer

In addition to hiking, in the Wilder Kaiser area of Tirol, rent an electronic mountain bike from KoasaBike to cruise along four mountain tops. Cyclists in Vorarlberg can choose from around 280 miles of signed trails. Three hotels in the picturesque village of Au specialize in biking tours, offering rentals, maps and electronic bikes.  Every tourist office offers maps of the areas hiking and biking tails with details about the difficulty.

Favorite activities for non-hikers

Hop a train to Salzburg for a few days of culture at the Music Festival or explore Green Salzburg on foot or on a bike. Splurge on a room with a view of the fortress and castle, from a suite at the Sacher Hotel. Lick your plate clean, at the best breakfast in town, where they serve the famous chocolate Sachertorte.

Indulge in the decadent chocolate cake, sachertorte, at the Hotel Sacher in Salzburg.

The view from the terrace and many rooms at the deluxe Hotel Sacher take in the Salzach River, and one of the best preserved Old Towns in the German Speaking world. It was listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1997.

Favorite Austrian food experience

Located close to Mozart’s birthplace in Salzburg, the hip café and restaurant Carpe Diem serves the finest finger food for a discerning palate. Innovative small dishes, such as beef tartar with caviar in a thin cone, have earned it high praise from European food critics.

Best advice for hiking or skiing comfort

For summer hiking, bring boots that are well broken-in. In the winter, get your ski boots fitted by a specialist at a ski store before you hit the slopes.

 

 

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Category: AUSTRIA, Travel

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