Hiking Vorarlberg and Tirol
By William C. Triplett
Whenever I think of Austria, the first thing that comes to mind is an alpine country full of passionate, world-class skiers. I’ve long believed skiing is simply part of national DNA, and that each Austrian is required to be born in a downhill starting gate.
It wasn’t until last autumn when I went to hike in the Vorarlberg and Tyrol regions that I realized I was slightly off the mark. More than skiing itself – and more to the point – it’s mountains that make many Austrians what they are. Or rather, their singular love of their breathtaking alps is what makes them so good at doing just about anything you can do on mountains – in any season. It’s what happens when the alps are part of your neighborhood.
During the hikes, I saw or passed by so many families and friends headed up or down trails, and everyone looked so casual about any incline or rocky ground. Just another day on the mountain!
In Vorarlberg, the group I was with took on the third stage of the Green Ring, which, in its entirety, is a three-day hike. The third stage had only recently opened, and from our start in the town of Zug on the valley floor to the top of the trail, the vertical rise towered some 2,200 feet – or, as one of our guides put it, about 183 staircases. But no staircase offered the kind of gorgeous views of trees, streams, trails, and mountains that we encountered.
It was a superb September morning, about 62 degrees under a deep blue sky, with cool breezes blowing. We went at a slow but steady pace, since we’d been told that taking periodic breaks while ascending was actually harder on the heart once you started moving again. Better to keep going at a clip that doesn’t require a rest.
We had begun on narrow foot trails, crossing under a chairlift – ski country, remember? – and often stepping aside to let locals who’d already gone up come down. One family had their dog leading the way. The incline was moderate, and the higher we went, the deeper into the tree line we got. Moss-covered stones began to appear.
I could really start to appreciate the millennia that had passed since massive glaciers here had gradually melted, creating ravines and plateaus. As anyone who’s survived a hurricane or tornado can attest, Mother Nature can be mercilessly destructive; she can also be spectacularly creative, evoking a sense of the sublime, but it takes time.
The Vorarlberg area is full of folklore, and for centuries it’s been said that all sorts of mythological creatures and beings live among the hills. Don’t think gnomes or trolls; think more like wizards and wood nymphs, carvings of which have been made by artists working on old tree trunks. The first we saw was a nymph rising out of the ground like a forest mermaid with flowing hair – all sculpted from a tree trunk.
About a third of the way up we moved into a clearing. I turned and was almost knocked out by the postcard view of the green-carpeted valley below and the snow-capped alps in the distance. The air was crisp and clear. I could have stayed there drinking it all in for a long time, but we kept moving until we came upon Libellensee Lake, a blue table of a lagoon placidly stretching about fifty yards across a plateau.
Soon after we passed it, we started walking on a dusting of snow that had fallen on the trail and the surrounding ground full of yellow wild flowers. And on the final incline, we ran into more art – conceptual, this time. You might even say quirky: a random white door in a frame. Symbolic of… what? The freedom of the outdoors? Opportunity awaits? Who knows, but all of us took turns opening the door and walking through the frame.
Once at the top of the trail, we rested and gazed around us. Some clouds had rolled in, but even in the shadows, the panorama of mountains, traces of snow, plus the village and undulating green fields below was stunning.
Our minibus ride the next day to Tyrol was delayed about 20 minutes by a cowherd crossing the road, but we arrived in plenty of time to hike Eagle Walk, which, end to end, runs more than 250 miles. We did a lot less than that – just the second stage of a total 33 stages – but it was enough.
Light rain slowed us a bit, but didn’t dampen our enthusiasm in the least. It helped that we all had rain gear – including identical red umbrellas provided by the Sporthotel Ellmau, where we were bunking. For a bit we looked, I thought, like a group of English hikers with our matching brollies all deployed as we started out.
Trails were narrower than on the Green Ring, and we were more often within forests – a lot of dwarf pine and beech everywhere. Rocks and streams seemed to proliferate around us, and as we got higher up, we sometimes saw a wispy streak of fog moving below us. The wet weather made all the greens and browns and reds and grays around us more vibrant. (One reason why many photographers like to shoot just after a rain.)
We also heard the clang of cow bells, since mountain farming is prevalent throughout the Tyrol. In almost every mountain meadow we passed through, cows were grazing and, at times, mooing. These ladies are also the source of the wonderful cheeses of the region, I learned.
We stopped for lunch at Grutten Hut, which is part of a network of some 3,000 huts throughout the Austrian alps. More than a hostel but not quite a full hotel, huts serve as both overnight accommodation as well as shelter from the occasional storm. They’re very simple but awfully cozy, and they serve a lot of what I came to call Austrian comfort food – just the kind you need either before or after a good day’s trek in the region. Some people spend days if not weeks just hiking from hut to hut along the Eagle Walk.
As much as the sheer beauty of the landscapes we walked, the often fine dining available everywhere we went made the experience even more special. In Vorarlberg, we ate in the restaurant of our hotel, the Gasthof Krone, where I enjoyed a light, flavorful risotto followed by schnapps made in the area. Earlier we had walked over to a neighboring inn, the Romantikhotel, for coffee and pastries, and the plum tart was out of this world.
In Tyrol, we ate one evening at the Waldhof Alm in Scheffau, headed by a 28-year-old chef who had recently won an international competition of chefs under 30. I had the char fillets, perfectly grilled, for the main course, and a lemon tart with meringue chip for dessert. Like we did almost everywhere else, we slaked our thirst with a fair amount of Grüner Veltliner, a tasty dry white that I think should be the national drink of Austria.
All the hotels shared some common architecture – traditional chalet on the outside, sleek contemporary decor on the inside. Many used reclaimed wood. Locals and visitors like this mix, I was told, because both tradition and modernity are highly prized in these alps. Both the Gastof Krone and the Sporthotel Ellmau couldn’t have been more cozy or welcoming.
The mountains are a way of life in Austria. A life I think most of us could get used to.
William Triplett is the former DC bureau chief for Variety. Triplett has written about various destinations, from Scotland’s Inverness and Paris’s Pere Lachaise Cemetery to Shakespeare’s Stratford-upon-Avon and the Beatles’ old haunts in Hamburg. His work has appeared in The Washington Post, The Daily Beast, The Baltimore Sun,and Capital Style