By Cindy Bigras
The train lurching to a halt woke me in the early morning hours. I pulled aside the window shade to reveal my first magnificent view of the Alps. These were not like the Green Mountains of Vermont where I had grown up….these were majestic, snow covered peaks and steep vertical drops all within reach, five feet outside the train window.
I watched, speechless and groggy, for a long time as the train resumed its passage south to Italy where I was headed for a study abroad experience. The next morning it all felt like a dream.
It was many years before I saw the Alps again. Twenty five years later, in September 2004, I boarded an Austrian Airways plane for a hiking vacation in Innsbruck and Salzburg, with the view of those Alps etched in my memory. The Austrian Alps were now the destination, the focus, and the place where I would hike and bike and experience the outdoors at high altitudes and breathtaking vistas.
Our goal for Day 1 was to hike the Zirbenweg, a sweeping path at 2000 metres in the Austrian Alps overlooking Innsbruck.
It was the perfect hike for a beginning to intermediate hiker like myself. Manfred and Axel, the hiking guides from A.S.I. (Alpine School of Innsbruck) accompanied us to the cable car that carried us to the beginning of our hike.
Axel brought along his well mannered black Lab, Flight, who joined us on the hike. ASI’s guides have extensive experience hiking not just in Austria, but around the world. They offer hiking programs in many countries. You can hire a guide and rent equipment, if necessary.
Throughout the day we met hikers of all ages, many carrying sturdy ski poles. Grandparents wearing feathered hats with young grandchildren dressed in lederhosen, groups of teens, entire families….all were out to spend a day in the Tirolean mountains.
Looking down from the cable car, we saw dozens of small children ambling the long winding road to the top, that stretched for what looked like miles. It isn’t difficult to understand why Innsbruck hosted the Winter Olympics in 1964 and 1976. Ski trails, ski jumps, hockey pavilions, ice rinks and bobsled courses were constructed and are still in use today.
Cows are brought from the low lands to graze in the mountains all summer long and we saw many of these mountain farms manned by just one or two people during the summer months. Once the Fall comes, they return to the fields of Innsbruck for the more severe winter months.
Each Autumn the cows return to the valleys of Innsbruck on occasion of the Mutters Almabtrieb. Each cow is adorned with an elaborate headdress and paraded through the villages. Awards are given and I am sure much beer is consumed as the new season arrives.
Lunching in the Alps
Where does one have lunch in the mountains? At one of the many mountain huts, of course! Entire vacations can be planned around hutting. Not only will you be served a hearty meal of wienerschnitzel or knodel, (dumplings in broth), but you can arrange overnight lodging if you plan far enough in advance. Hundreds of shelter huts are located in the mountains.
If you want something a little more daring, Nordkette, on the other side of Innsbruck, is the mountain for you. The base cable car brings you to the halfway point. Feel free to venture off from here, have a beer or a bite in the restaurant, but for for a truly spectacular experience take the second cable car to the windy, cloudy summit.
Once there, a breathtaking panorama awaits. The path running along the ridge of the mountain was designed and constructed by the founder of the ASI. You’ll see climbers rapelling the cliffs and truly in shape locals biking up and down – yes, that’s biking, up some of the steepest terrain I’ve even walked.
Most of our time was spent in the mountains but I wasn’t about to leave without a glimpse of life in Innsbruck and Salzburg, the two towns we visited. In Innsbruck, the best way for an introduction is the red Sightseer Buses you see around town. They were easy to use, arrived right on time, and offered us the opportunity to hear a very brief audio tape as we approached each attraction.
You can get it on the Maria Theresien Strasse, the busy central shopping street in Innsbruck Center. I headed off to Schloss Ambras for a remarkable look at what life was like in the days of Archduke Ferdinand II and his commoner wife Philippine Welser. The medieval armours are especially interesting.
Alpine Singing and Yodeling
The Tiroler Alpenbuhne program tiroleralpenbuehne.com is performed each evening and is a charming, entertaining presentation of traditional alpine songs, yodeling, and dancing performed by members of three generations of a local family. The show attracts bus tours from several hotels resulting in an audience of many nationalities and is performed in an unprententious auditorium away from the central tourist area. It is corny but charming, and surprisingly poignant when the troupe concludes the evening by performing songs from every nation represented by the audience.
The Glockenmuseum is another family run enterprise – a 400 year old bell foundry and on site museum. It is also on the route of the SightSeer bus. This museum tells the long and storied history of bells, huge iron and bronze devices that are manufactured here by expert craftsmen, with painstaking care to make just the right sound.
Sound of Music
Few Austrians have seen The Sound of Music but everyone knows the story of the von Trapps and a trip to Salzburg salzburg.info will inevitably have you humming “do re mi” and other familiar tunes made famous by the movie. In fact, you can still see the monastery where Maria lived. It’s one of ten in and around Salszburg, amazing for a city of 146,000.
Salzburg Card Savings
The Salzburg Card is the best way to economize and see as much as possible. It can be purchased for 24, 48 or 72 hours and is used for transit on city buses and entry to over 200 sites and attractions including Mozart’s birthplace and residence mozarteum.at.
A visit to Salzburg would not be complete without exposure to Mozart and music. His birthplace is now a museum containing his violins, pianos, music, and letters. The Salzburger Schlosskonzerte offers a concert most evenings at the Mirabel Palace. It is an opportunity to hear chamber music performed by accomplished young musicians from around the world. The setting is a small, ornate 18th century concert hall within the Mirabel Palace where Mozart himself performed for the Archbishop. salzburger.schlosskonzerte.at
Ready to hike Untersberg, we headed to the village of Grödig, 20 minutes south of Salzburg. The cable car, directly behind the Tourist Office, is supported by just two cables and rocks to and fro within a few feet of the mountain’s rock face.
We disembarked at 1800 meters and hiked along the Geiereck to the Mountain Climbers Memorial. The panorama of Salzburg and Bavaria is, once again, breathtaking. The myth of Untersberg is that
Charlemagne is sleeping in the mountain and will awaken when the ravens stop circling, indicating that the empire needs him again.
The custodian of the café in the cable car station not only served us delicious Austrian coffee but regaled us with stories of year round life on these mountains.
Rent a bike!
For a closer look at Grödig’s environs, rent a bike at the tourist office. A vast network of bike paths is illustrated on the local maps. Entire vacations are planned around these paths and we were tempted to take off for Budapest on a long distance biking experience, but instead we limited ourselves to the river and forests of Grödig and St Leonhard.
After an hour or so we arrived at Hellbrunn, hellbrunn.at, a 400-year old summer palace built by Markkus Sittkus the then Prince and Archbishop of Salzburg. It is more than a palace as you will see when you walk the grounds. The Seventeenth century engineers must have had quite a time creating the Trick Fountains but I won’t say more and ruin your surprise. Be prepared to get wet! (Hellbrunn is also part of the Salzburg Card program.)
Grödig Tourism Office
While in the area be sure to visit the Grödig Tourist Office whose Director, Maria Reitinger will have unlimited ideas, enthusiasm, and contacts to help you plan your visit. She can often be found wearing a dirndl, the traditional dress worn throughout the Alps. Ask her about a visit to Grödig’s Radio Museum, the Untersberg Museum, a Nordic walk along the base of the mountain, or a visit to the local marble ball factory!
Lodgings and dining in INNSBRUCK :
Hotel Europa Tyrol and Restaurant Europastüberl
ear train station, a five star hotel with all the amenities. The restaurant inside features many authentic Austrian dishes and a long wine list.
Another Restaurant in Innsbruck, undiscovered: Café Toscana located in the Adolf Pichler Platz just a block away from Maria Theresen Strasse. Wonderful art work and movie posters on walls, clever menu, nobody speaks English, café tables out front, crowded and nice “scene”, lots of smoke….tasty salads.
A-6020 Innsbruck, Herzog Friedrich Str. 1
At end of Maria Theresen Strasse in one of the most historic buildings in Innsbruck. Don’t be fooled by central location….this is not a tourist trap. Excellent wiener schnitzel; schlutzkrapfen (Austrian, spinach filled ravioli), potato soup, carved wood booths.
Grauer Bar Hotel\ Grauer Bar, 4 Stars Universitats Strasse 5–7, 6020, Innsbruck, AUSTRIA
Salzburg & Grodig
Gasthof Schorn, located in the center of St. Leonhard, part of Grodig.
gasthofschorn.at Bustling restaurant for traditional fare with large garden.
Traditional fare, large garden dining area, right at base of mountain.
Restaurant at the Gasthof Racklwirt in Grodig- located on a farm – they also have lodging. Large dining rooms and ceramic stoves
Salzburg: In the Hotel Sacher Österreichischer Hof has an excellent cafe. The atmosphere is elegant and prestigious and weather permitting, you can sit outside and enjoy the views of the Old Town and its fortress. The cafe and the Salzachgrill which is situated in the same hotel, both offer hot meals on a daily basis. If you are here for tea, then try the house special, which is the famous ‘Sacher Torte’ (a chocolate cake).
We had a fabulous dinner here before the concert. One of two restaurants located in most elegant hotel in Salzburg.
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