Lech, Austria: A Walk in the Alps
Hiking from the Steirlochjoch to the Spullersee.
Story and photos by Ed Wetschler
This town in Austria's Arlberg region feels like a Sound of Music set, and that isn't just my opinion. Hiking through alpine meadows with wildflowers and tame cows, I heard two other hikers — hip young women, one of whom sported an armful of tattoos–suddenly burst out singing, "My heart skips a beat."
Lech can do that to you.
Surrounded by alpine peaks, Lech, a valley town with 2,000 residents, has scores of hotels, yet it doesn't feel crowded: There are no high-rises, geraniums spill out of windowboxes in traditional buildings, and in ski season, Lech limits the number of lift tickets for day-trippers. No wonder so many Euro-royals go skiing here. (They stay at the Hotel Gasthof Post Lech, a paragon of gemutlichkeit.)
Lech and the Ski Industry
The first settlers arrived here in the 1400s and subsisted — barely — by raising cows. Vacationers started showing up for summer months in the late 1800s, and by the early 1900s Lech began attracting winter visitors; this was one of the birthplaces of modern downhill skiing. Today, in high season, a cablecar zips skiers up to the White Ring, a sprawling network of trails and lifts linking villages of the Arlberg.
The village of Lech.
Hotel rates are lower in summer, when visitors come for the fishing, hunting, birdwatching, cycling, dining, even paragliding. One day, when I stopped on the street to watch a paraglider a few thousand feet above us, a local pointed and said, "That one — that's my son. [pause] I wish he wouldn't do that."
Of course, the most popular activity in summer is hiking. Europeans love a good walk in the mountains, and the Arlberg has numerous trails and hikers huts for meals and overnighting. Most hikers, however, stay in the villages, where they can get detailed trail maps, keep one foot in civilization, and sign up for guided walks.
A pause for a bovine on the way to the Spullersee.
Hiking from Lech to the Spullersee
The group hike I took to an alpine lake, the Spullersee, reminded me of a few things:
– because a walk like this involves a 2,000-foot vertical climb, preparing for all contingencies (I'd packed a poncho, extra socks, band-aids, electrolytes, extra fleece .) should also mean having space in the knapsack so you can shed clothes. I didn't.
– it's hard to keep your hands off your camera in the Arlberg: We passed a pretty village (Zurs), marmots poking out of grassy hillsides, septuagenarian couples in knickers, 9,000-foot crags, a large hawk in the sky (correction: the hawk passed us), yellow and purple wildflowers, and electric-orange berries from which the locals make schnapps.
– the hills are alive with … cows. These sweet bovines wear cowbells that create a gamelan soundtrack for the Alps.
Hikers Hut on the Saddle
From the Stierlochjoch, a 6,600-foot-high saddle, we looked back toward Lech and forward to the Spullersee, an iridescent splash of turquoise framed by mountains. But first, lunch at the Ravensburger Hutte (1912), where we sat outside in the sunshine and tucked into classics like the Hauswurst plate (about $9), which was so big, it could have fed two.
The hikers at the next table had a terrier, and another couple had a black lab. Austrians do not exclude dogs from their activites. At one table, four middle-aged men from the Netherlands took a break from a week-long, hut-to-hut hike. "First time here?" I asked. "Oh no," said one of them. "We come every year to hike in the Alps."
The Descent to the Spullersee
We walked downhill amid more Peaceable Kingdom cows, flowers, sturdy senior hikers, and then the green-blue lake, where fishermen cast for trout. Then, after crossing the dam and turning right, we met up with the bus that goes back to Lech every half hour. Anyone who thinks a car is necessary here has been getting very bad advice.
The elderly couple who squeezed closer together in their seat on the bus so I could sit down were the only people I met on this trip who couldn't speak English. "Where are you from?" I stammered in schoolboy German.
"Deutschland. Der Schwarzwald," said the man.
I managed to say that the Black Forest also has nice mountains for walking.
"Ja, ja," he smiled, "aber nicht so hoch und schoen!"
"Ja," said I, having exhausted my vocabulary, and we spent the rest of the ride down the mountain gazing out at giant fir forests, meadows, dairy farmers' huts, and cows.
The Best Deal in the Alps
Just staying in one of Lech's hotels, pensions or vacation apartments gets you an Active Inclusive Card at no charge. This card covers lifts, inter-village buses (of which there are many), museum passes, in-town recreational facilities, guided hikes, even child care. Visit Lech/Zurs
I stayed at the Hotel Arlberg, a 50-year-old five-star with a superb spa and pools. If you're looking for something more moderately priced, you'll find plenty of choices on the above-mentioned Lech-Zurs site and you'll still get the Active Inclusive Card.
You could reach Lech from Vienna, but Salzburg is closer; Munich, closer yet; and Zurich, best of all. I took a 2 1/3-hour train ride from Zurich's airport to Langen, Austria (there's nothing like this in the States), followed by a short bus ride to Lech.
For more info, visit Austria or call 212-944-6880.