Kitzbuhel, Austria: Designed for the Hiker, the Biker & the Skier
By Max Hartshorne, GoNOMAD Editor
Kitzbuhel has been a famous name ever since skiing was invented. It is here that the most famous names in skiing plunge out of the gate at the top of Hahnankamm into the Mouse Hole, that slender space where they descend a nearly vertical slope hoping to beat out the times of the greats who have come before them.
The little town of Kitzbuhel, with about 8000 residents in Northern Austria has more than skiing to make it worth seeing. There are myriad hiking trails all over the alps that climb each side of the village and an elaborate network of mountain biking and walking trails that pass through bucolic fields filled with brown cows, dark pine forests, and gorgeous meadows.
Kitzbuhel, like other parts of Austria, is designed for the hiker, the biker and the skier. You’ll find trash cans and comfortable benches every quarter mile or so, and well marked trails with easy to understand directions.
Oh, and of course, at the top of each slope, no matter how high, up there is usually a restaurant serving local specialties like kaiserschmarn (the crepes and jelly) holunder (the drink with elderberry) and traditional fare such as cheese bread, weinerschnitzel and suppe. (soup).
Hiking with Englebert
I joined Englebert for a hike one day in October. He takes tourists on hikes for no fee each day leaving the tourist office in the heart of downtown at 9 am. It doesn’t matter if it’s raining or snowing, Englebert just goes.
He is a graduate of the rigorous Alpine School in Innsbruck who organize hiking trips around the world, but they got their start here in the Alps. That means he knows CPR, mountain weather patterns, and has memorized the local trails so you’ll never get lost if he’s guiding you.
Our hiking group was a mix—a pair of 60-something Brits, a 40-ish German couple who live in Switzerland.
“We come all the way here to hike," they told me, "even though we have the same Alps in Switzerland. We like the guides and the terrain here more.”
Our group was rounded out by Heinz, a German who is a devoted Kitzbuhel hiker—you could tell by his ‘hiker’s passport,’ a little red book that the tourism board hands out, in which each hike is documented with a stamp from the hut you had lunch in as well as photos and comments by the guide—his was well worn.
We set off by bus to nearby Jochberg, where there is another ski area that recently built a lift so that skiers from Hahnenkamm can ski over to this neighboring village and then take the lift back to where they started. It is one of the six trams and lifts that take skiers and during the off season, hikers, up to the top of Kitzbuhel’s legendary mountain.
Jochberg is a good place to begin a hike, and as we began in the foothills, we passed by many agricultural relics that tell the story of the small farms that are still a big part of the country’s economy. The hay barns which dot every field here, are used because it is simply easier to put all of the hay in these barns than to transport it up the mountains to the main barn. So you’ll see these dark wooden structures everywhere. They make good places for campers to bed down in with their comfy hay as a giant pillow.
Taking the Cows down the Mountain
On our way up the mountain we came across a small herd of cattle that was being taken down from the mountain. Each brown cow wore a tinkling bell.
These beasts would be turned into steaks but for now they were making their annual trek down the same thin trail that we were walking up.
It’s a tradition to have a big festival celebrating this event it’s called Agrun in Tirol, and takes place the day the last herd is brought to lower ground.
We hiked up and up, each time we passed a gate we carefully made sure to close it back up, and finally after a few hours we came to the Wildalm hut. In the back of this rudimentary little building, there were stalls for cows and a milking machine.
In the front a deck with picnic tables and inside, small living quarters, a kitchen and an old stove with a big kettle. These mountain folk live here all through the season, from May until October. You can tell if they are open by the flag flapping in the Alpine breeze. It was time for coffee and honnnessggam.
This drink of elderberry syrup and mountain water is especially refreshing as is the Radler beer, a mix of 60% beer and 40% lemonade. We had some drinks and then it was time to go check out the waterfall. A high falls poured down from the rocks about 300 feet high, a bridge that had been there just a few months ago had fallen victim to a big storm. That happens quite often up here, Engelbert told us.
It was time for lunch. The highlight was the local favorite, Krizssstmahsassel, which is a torn up crepe dusted with powdered sugar and served with jam. Just about the most satisfying thing you can eat up here, I thought. After some coffee, we were off again, hiking up and around and then down again, the loop took us no further than four and a half miles but with the elevation it felt like much more.
Downtown Kitzbuhel at night.
My fellow hikers all used the hiking sticks that are common here. Made of lightweight metal or carbon fiber, theirs had shock absorbers that were especially handy when doing downhill. Using the sticks makes pacing your walk a little easier, and that’s why you see these collapsible sticks everywhere here in the Alps.
Kitzbuhel has been inhabited since the twelfth century, and got its start as a copper mining village used by the Romans. There are only two main streets here, but the population swells to about 20,000 during the peak ski season in January through April. It explodes during the famous Kitzbuhel Super G and slalom race on Hahnunkamm. More than 70,000 spectators jam the bottom and lower slopes to watch the finish during the big weekend in late January each year.
While the town is famous as a ski resort, up in the hills there are still many working dairy and beef cattle farms and much of the produce found in the markets grows locally.
This emphasis on buying locally is a major trend in Austria. There is a movement to support the small farms, and government subsidies help out too. I stayed in a little bed and breakfast called the Lindenhoff, high up on a hill, which milks thirteen cows and raises chickens and grows vegetables.
Mountain Biking in the Alps
The other warm weather activity which is big here is mountain biking. With a setting like this it is only natural that a biking/adventure sport culture would spring up, and one of the local experts and guides is Kurt Exenbergg, of the Bike Academy. He’s been a guide and mountain biking instructor for the past seven years, and knows his way down a mountain on two wheels.
We took a leisurely ride on a grey day that began on the banks of the Schwartzee, a picturesque lake a just out of the city. We rode trails which were alternately paved, then fine gravel, through farm fields past cows and sheep, through meadows and in dense pine forests.
It was invigorating and the perfect way to see the scenery and work off some of the pounds put on after all of the wienerschnitzel and beer we’d consumed.
Fortunately, there are some really fine places to eat here, and there is much more than the traditional fare mentioned above. Kurt recommended his own favorite place, called Lois*Stern Essen and Trinkin located on the way out of town on Josef Pirchl street. This little bistro serves Asian inspired shellfish and fish, plus a selection of fine wines. I sat at the bar and enjoyed watching Lois the chef work his magic in their tiny kitchen.
He whipped up a curry with scallop, shrimp and lemongrass, and carefully shucked plump juicy oysters he served on the half shell. Each dish was done with deliberation and care…. It was an inspiration to watch as he carefully did each dish justice with just the right touch of spices, sauces and care.
Meeting a Mountaintop Woman
Up on the top of Hahnankamm, I hiked in a sporadic snowfall, and worked up an appetite that was sated when I reached a little restaurant owned by Lisi Schiflinger and her family. She's worked up here for 28 years, and said she loves making people who are down feel good. She prods and jokes and carries on, and simply makes them play along until they too, have a smile on their face.
She told me that Germans and Swiss often don't know how to react to her; they are used to their waitresses being silently servile. She told me that in a recent meeting of ski lift operators, hotel owners and restauranteurs from the region, the conclusion was that they had to prepare for more over-fifty guests, and more families.
"We have to have more events, do more for people." She said visitors from Scandinavia aren't as frequent as they were in the '90s--and that's too bad because they drink a lot.
When I first came in and Lisi saw me scribbling in my notebook, she came up and grabbed me, and another patron said "George Bush." He meant that he thought I was a spy for the president. I assured them that no, he wasn't my man, but that I did like our Governor Arnold, who grew up near Graz.
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