A Walk in Austria with The Wayfarers
By Richard West
After 27 years as a traveling writer I have concluded that the best way to experience a country–its landscapes, history, cuisine, quirks, people, glimpses of daily life– is via foot, drumming the place into the brain pan on a walking holiday. No one plans and executes it better than The Wayfarers, the English company that’s been guiding week-long walks around the world since 1984. After being Wayfared across England on their famed Coast-to-Coast walk and around Ireland’s Ring of Kerry, my wife and I recently joined their Austrian Tyrolean Alps walk. The route: starting in the village of Igls (pronounced “Eagles”), three kilometers above Innsbruck, we walk east to Kitzbuhel and continue southeast to Zel am See. Average day’s distance, 7-10 miles. A few highlights:
Sunday: An afternoon walkabout in Innsbruck, then a get-acquainted dinner with three other couples, our walking companions for five days who have arrived from New Hampshire, Rhode Island, and Virginia. And our two guides, Ernst Wieshofer, a retired Austrian teacher of sport and geography, in charge of luggage transfers and driver of the “sag wagon,” a van for the foot-sore; and Jane Eberhardt, our daily walking guide, who after explaining general procedures, asks us to be in the lobby next morning at 8:50, “booted and spurred”—in other words, in proper hiking schlepperosities, eager and full of tally-ho.
Monday: Off we go under sunny blue skies, crisp air, no wind, perfect weather that will favor us all week and brings to mind “dayclean,” the lovely Guyanese word for dawn. Out of Igls, west on a country road bordered by corn fields, harvested hay, apple/pear/plum orchards, geranium-boxed farm houses, into the sun-dappled forest to the village of Patsch where Jane explains Tyrolean transhumance methods (moving livestock from one grazing area to another) and the village’s Christmas holiday traditions. Up we climb to the gasthof in St. Peter for refreshing glasses of apelsaft, apple cider, before a terraced lunch and a return down through forests to our hotel in Igls for a pre-dinner lecture on modern Austrian history by historian Franz Lang. Final course, the spectacular Kaiserschmarrn pancake topped by plum sauce and spices.
Tuesday: Carpe Viam! Seize the way and we do tramping east above the huge Inn Valley through a mossy-leafy-boggy forest toward the appropriately-named village of Rinn (“running water”), past splashy icy waterfalls that prove the proverb “Even water has teeth”. This is the day that recalls the pleasures of walking, steady pace, proper rhythm, no hurrying, “finding oneself the recipient of a spectacle, grasping the blessing of the moment” as Frederic Gros writes in “A Philosophy of Walking.” After arrival in the ski resort of Kitzbuhel, a pre-prandial Wayfarer treat: Evelyn Wieser, the yodeling Queen of Austria, and her daughter, Christe, sing Tyrolean folk songs including the unsurprising “We Love To Yodel.” One is not surprised it’s done well but that it’s done at all.
Wednesday: A spectacular day that begins with a brief tour of Kitzbuhel, Austria’s most expensive real estate (5,000-30,000 euros per square foot); then we climb a third up Mt. Hahnenkamm, down and along Black Lake, up again past hay pastures for a pond-side alpine picnic lunch prepared by Ernst’s wife, Heidrun, —wiener schnitzels, fritters, chicken legs, veggies, potato salad, finished with the obligatory Prost! and a shot of schnapps before heading back down to Kitzbuhel and dinner. As a member of the Ancient Order of Men Who Like To Stroke Cats, I happily meet two on this day’s walk.
Thursday: After breakfast Ernst takes us to a viewing platform in Kitzbuhel to explain the legendary Streif, the world’s fastest and most dangerous downhill ski run, before us on Mt. Hahnenkamm. Course length, 2.06 miles; longest jump, 80 meters; record holder, Austrian Fritz Strobl, 1.51.58, 1997. Jane then leads us up through countryside, stopping before a handsome Heritage Farm House bearing an Erbhof Crest signifying the house has been in the family at least 200 years, to explain Tyrolean agriculture. Lunch near the roof of the Tyrol at Gasthof Hirschberg : VOOM—Vision of Outstanding Moment—of the day. After St. Johaan sausages, a short walk down to the village of the same name to catch a 40-minute train ride to Zell am See and the Hotel Erlhof, the former home of “The Sound of Music” Van Trapp family, on Lake Zell.
Friday: Ernst’s day to guide as we start at the impossibly-pronounceable village of Pfaffenschwendk; coffee (and linz torte) at his sister-in-law’s house overlooking Fieberbrunn, the home village of Jane and Ernst where in late afternoon we’ll have ice cream at Laurens and Lena, Jane’s daughter’s brasserie. But first, a first: a cable ride up Mt. Buchensteinwand to climb into the just-opened 98-foot-high Jacob’s Cross: four viewing platforms, 159 steps to the highest panoramic one at 91 feet; all rooms inside heated, rentable for events, exhibits, seminars, etc. Post-modern religious tourism. Another Wayfarer pre-dinner surprise: our expert guide, Jane, revealed to be an accomplished harpist, playing four lovely Tyrolean tunes with her co-harpist. After dinner, toasts, e-mail exchanges, Wayfarer group photos distributed, auf wiedersehen to new friends.