Innsbruck – The historic capital of the Tyrol since 1420, Innsbruck with its medieval centre, cobbled streets and baroque ambiance is a lovely place to explore. The town lies nestled in the valley of the River Inn, surrounded by the glorious mountain scenery of the Karwendel range to the north and the domed Mt. Patscherkofel (2,246m/7369ft) to the south. If you approach Innsbruck from the local airport or via the Autobahn (motorway), do not feel disheartened by the seemingly endless parades of high rise buildings. As you enter the city’s old centre, you will be instantly captivated by its traditional charm and understated splendour.

During the 15th century, the Habsburg emperor Maximilian I declared Innsbruck his capital and proceeded to build a compact city. This history is still felt keenly today, and one of the most remarkable features of the city is an ornate “Golden Roof” which marks the entrance of the royal court (in spite of its name, it is in fact made of copper). Other important, historic buildings include the Hofkirche, home to Maximilian’s ornate marble tomb, which is surrounded by life-sized statues of his ancestors (real and imaginary); the restored baroque cathedral of St Jakob; and the Imperial grandeur of the Hofburg, with its opulent rooms and apartments.

Innsbruck is also a simply wonderful place to wander around with its myriad of Gothic and Baroque architecture, dotted along the cobbled lanes and narrow alleys, all of which is framed by the mountain scenery surrounding the area.

The Stubaital Valley – The Stubaital Valley, less than an hour South of Innsbruck, makes a great introduction to the alpine delights of the Tyrolregion. For a taste of genuine Austrian tradition, head to the charming village of Neustift, where time seemingly stands still. There are some welcoming cafes and interesting shops to explore. There is also a lovely walk here from one end of the valley to the other, either by following the river’s path or taking the higher route to neighbouring Fulpmes and Telfes, passing by some characteristic haystacks as you go (or “little haymen”, as they are known to the locals). A scattering of mountain huts lie perched on the slopes, all of which can be reached on foot, without the need for a lift. Slightly further on in the valley, rural Milders, with its breathtaking scenery and excellent walking opportunities is the hopping off point for the beautiful ‘Oberbergtal’ valley and there is a cable car up to a glacier, where you can enjoy some amazing views.

Hut to Hut in the Stubai Alps – The classic Stubaier Höhenweg (Stubai high route), which takes you on a circuit of the Stubaital Valley, is arguably one of the greatest long-distance hikes the Alps can offer, and is a perfect introduction to the Austrian hut system. With several mountain passes to cross, the route is scenically varied and reasonably straightforward to follow, being clearly waymarked – although there are some more challenging sections. Wire ropes are provided to help walkers tackle the slightly trickier steps. Each of the huts on the route is staffed and meals are available, which means you can travel relatively light.

The most experienced mountain hikers can feasibly complete the circuit within 5 to 6 days, but to experience the true splendour of your surroundings, you are recommended to allow a minimum of 8 days to complete the journey.

Day 1 > The walk begins at Neustift, south of Innsbruck, where you will head off clockwise, starting with a trek through the green and pastoral Pinnistal Valley. The trail then proceeds to Karalm, before climbing over the 2,380 m/7,808ft Pinnisjoch to reach the Innsbrucker Hütte, set just below the pass. Just to the west of the hut is the imposing Mt. Habicht, which at 3,277m/10,751ft, provides an optional challenge for the most experienced hikers.

Day 2 > A series of ridge spurs will now take you through dramatic scenery to the Bremer Hütte, one of the most rustic and atmospheric of all the huts on this route.

Day 3 > The route continues west, crossing the Simmingjöchl, passing below the Feuerstein peaks with stunning views to Mt. Wilder Freiger (3,418m/11,214ft) and its glaciers.

Day 4 > You proceed to the Sulzenau Hütte, through a varied terrain of tarns, moraine ribs and alpine flowers.

Day 5 > You have a choice of two routes onward to the Dresdner Hütte. The obvious option is to cross the Peiljoch (2,672m/8,766ft), or more experienced climbers may wish to traverse Mt. Grosser Trögler (2,902m/9,521ft), and enjoy some incredible views of the region’s highest peak, Mt. Zuckerhütl (3,507m/11,506ft).

Day 6 > Today you will tackle the highest crossing on the circuit – Mt. Grawagrubennieder (2,881m/9,452ft), descending via a loose stony gully to reach the Neue Regensburger Hütte, sited adjacent to a marshy glen. It takes around 8 hours to complete this stage.

Day 7 > It is a short walk which takes you to the popular Franz Senn Hütte, but with its spectacular scenery and a glen to explore, many choose to fill a full day on this section.

Day 8 > This final section is one of the most scenic. You traverse the hillside for eleven kilometres (6.8 miles) then hike across scree at the foot of the dolomitic Mt. Kalkkogel massif before arriving at the Starkenburger Hütte.

Day 9 > Your hike is completed with a return to Neustift via a swift, steep descent.

Recommended maps covering Stubaier Höhenweg:

No. 83 (Kompass), Stubaier Alpen; 1:50, 000.

No. 31/1 (Austrian Alpine Club), Stubaier Alpen Hochstubai; 1:25,000.

Recommended book providing more detail on this classic hut-to-hut hike:

Trekking in the Stubai Alps: Walking the Stubai Rucksack Route and the Stubai Glacier Tour (Cicerone Guides; Author Allan Hartley).

A Brief History of the Tyrol

Tyrol has a long and fascinating history.

Prehistory

In the Leukental, the valley between the Kaisergebirge and the Kitzbüheler Alps, the first evidence of humans was found in a cave: spearheads made of bones, dating back to 40,000-20,000 BC.

Much later, in the 14th century BC, the Urnfield (a central European Bronze Age culture) appeared in the area which is known today as North Tyrol. The name ‘Urnfield’ comes from the custom of burying urns in fields – urns which contained the ashes of the dead.

Around 500 BC, the culture of the Rhaetics, a province of the Roman Empire and named after the goddess Rhaetia, succeeded the Urnfield culture.

The birth of a federal state (Bundesland)

From the 6th to the 9th century, the Bavarii and the Langobards settled in the region. As part of the Holy Roman Empire, the Tyrol was strategically important as a gateway to Italy; its alpine passes providing thoroughfares for the transporting of Greek and Etruscan goods. The Romans took control of these strategically important routes, and by A.D. 50 Emperor Claudius declared Tyrol a part of the province of Rhaetia. In the 4th century A.D. a major Roman military base was constructed at Wilten (Veldidena), which to this day remains a suburb of Innsbruck. The Roman defenses crumbled, and in 550, the Franks took over.

Over the next three centuries, the region was a battleground, with the Lombards, Slavs and Bavarians all vying for ownership. Charlemagne eventually incorporated the Tyrol into his empire in 788. Under his ancestors, the region was once again split: into a Bavarian north, Italian south and Carinthian-Slavonic east.

Much later on, in the 13th Century, the territory stretching between the Zillertal Valley in the north to the River Avisio in the south to the Lechtal Valley in the west and River Rienza in the east was consolidated once again under the rule of Count Meinhardt II, and first given the name of ‘Tyrol’, named after a castle near Merano.

Wars and Battles

During the first half of the 14th Century, the Tyrol region was subject to a series of power struggles between the Habsburg and the Bavarian Wittelsbach dynasties.

By 1342, the Wittelsbach were in power while some Bavarians remained in key administrative positions. Then, between 1420 and 1519, various Habsburg Dukes and Archdukes established their residence at Innsbruck in a bid to seize power. The land became increasingly prosperous thanks to the mining of silver and salt, and people began pushing for more progressive labour laws and social welfare.

During the 1520s, the Tyroleans became restless in their quest for greater autonomy. The miners of Schwaz and Hall demanded revolutionary reforms. In southern Tyrol, a toll-collector named Michael Gaissmair led the peasants’ revolt in Tyrol. However, most of the peasants marching in protest from Salzburg to the Pustertal in 1526 were driven out of Tyrol and onto Venetian territory. From this point on, the people of Tyrol followed the orthodox Catholic faith – and any deviation from this was not tolerated.

Tyrol managed to keep its distance from the bloody Thirty Years’ War, but its economy suffered nonetheless. The costs of draining off underground water in mining were rocketing and the region faced increasingly tough competition from Spain’s new colonies in South America. By 1660, local investment was pulled and the Tyrolean miners travelled to the likes of Bohemia, Hungary, Italy, Spain, England and Russia – even to Venezuela – to seek work.

In 1665, Archduke Sigmund Franz died without an heir, leaving Tyrol in the hands of a Vienna-based Habsburg, Leopold I. This effectively spelled the end of Tyrol’s autonomy. However, the War of Spanish Succession at the turn of the 18th century showed just how strong local feeling was. The Bavarian Elector Prince Max Emanuel occupied Innsbruck in 1703, but Tyrol’s own militia managed to drive the Bavarians out. This victory took place on July 26th, St. Anne’s Day, and is commemorated by the Annasäule in Innsbruck.

The idealistic reforms of Emperor Joseph II in the 18th century were met with hostility by the people of Tyrol – and it was particularly his charter of 1781 (Toleranzpatent), which caused issue. This allowed religions other than Roman Catholic to be formally practised. After Joseph died in 1790, Tyrol’s civic leaders called for the Emperor’s progressive notions to be overthrown. His somewhat reactionary successors, first Leopold II and then Franz II, were more than happy to give in to the demands of the people. Franz II went on to impose strict censorship and police controls, which most Tyroleans fully supported.

During the Napoleonic Wars, Austria ceded Tyrol to the Kingdom of Bavaria. The Tyroleans, as eternally patriotic and proud people, challenged the Bavarian authority and began an uprising. Under the leadership of Tyrol’s charismatic national hero, Andreas Hofer, they successfully defeated Bavarian and French troops – twice. However, in the end, Austria lost the war and the Tyrol remained dually ruled under Bavaria and Italy for a further four years. Meanwhile, against the odds, Andreas Hofer was once more urged by radical nationalists to continue resistance. In spite of a promising start, eventually his forces were crushed in eastern Tyrol. Hofer was captured and executed in January 1810.

In 1815, Tyrol was reunified and returned to Austria by the Congress of Vienna.

From 1867 onwards, it was a Kronland (Crown Land) of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Socialism, perhaps unsurprisingly, was not making any real headway. A Social Democratic Party was founded in Tyrol in 1890, but it suffered a lack of support from an industrial proletariat.

As the 19th century drew to a close, the Italian-speaking people of Tyrol were pushing for equality. They wanted Italian to be declared an official language by the government, but above all they wanted a greater parliamentary representation. Nationalist Giuseppe Mazzini explicitly demanded that Italy’s northern frontier be drawn at Tyrol’s alpine passes (Reschen, Timmelsjoch, Brenner and Pustertal). Vienna made a small gesture of opening an Italian law faculty at the University of Innsbruck in 1904; however Austrian nationalists rioted – which led to its closure.

World War I

During World War I, Tyroleans responded with typical patriotism. The frontline mostly followed the historical border of Tyrol, which ran right through the highest mountains of the Alps. The ensuing battles became known as “the war in ice and snow”, as troops occupied the highest mountains and glaciers all year long. Twelve metres (40 feet) of snow was a usual occurrence during the winter and in 1915-1916 tens of thousands of soldiers disappeared in avalanches – and these losses took their toll on Tyroleans, who gradually withdrew their fighting spirit.

In 1918 Tyrol was directly hit for the first time when Italian aircraft bombed Bolzano and Innsbruck. Italy, which had initially remained neutral, was in 1915 promised territorial gains, via a secret treaty, if it sided with Britain and France. The promise was kept when the Treaty of Saint-Germain-en Laye. South Tyrol – or Alto Adige, as it was to be known – was handed over to Italy.

Disillusioned after the disaster of World War I, the debacles continued in the 1930s when 98.5% of the people voted for unification with Germany instead of an independent state of Tyrol.  Three months after Hitler was in power, in April 1933, the Tyrolean branch of the Nazi Party won 41.2% of the vote in local elections. The Austrian government outlawed the Nazis in June, but many members regrouped as the Austrian Legion on the Bavarian Tyrolean frontier. The Tyroleans proceeded to enviously observe the economic successes which the Nazis enjoyed over the next five years, particularly with respect to conquering unemployment issues.

On to 1938, and Tyrol welcomed the unified armed forces of Germany (“Wehrmacht”) with open arms, as they crossed the Tyrolean border in 1938. They were greeted with exuberant crowds, bellowing out “Sieg Heil!” and waving swastikas. The Catholic bishops called on their people for “Anschluss” (to join) and Tyroleans replied with a resounding 98.9% “Yes”. Immediate improvements were made, both in terms of tourism and the economy. However, due to being geographically isolated, Tyrol had little involvement in World War II.

In latter years, Tyrol has gone its own quiet way, with the conservative Volkspartei dominating regional politics. The province now prospers as centre for tourism, offering excellent winter sports and a wealth of opportunities for walkers.

Geography, Flora & Fauna of Tyrol

Tyrol has been a waypoint for travellers since the time of the Romans and even earlier. Today though, more and more travellers are discovering that the Tyrol is a great place to stop and stay a while. Whatever the season, visitors enjoy the alpine scenery, the pretty villages, and the warm and genuine welcome from the locals.

The Tyrolean Alps have been hosting visitors since the days of the great religious pilgrimages of the Middle Ages. The region saw two-way traffic as devout Catholics walked south to Rome to seek redemption while Italian merchants ventured north to the markets of Germany and beyond. The locals setup many inns to cater for these visitors.

Tyrol represents a formidable natural barrier between Italy to the south and Germany to the north. The area includes two mountain ranges: the northern Lechtaler Alps and the southern Ötztaler Alps. These major boundaries have historically marked the border with Bavaria in the north (along with the Karwendel and Kaisergebirge ranges), and the Italian border in the south (which includes the Zillertaler and Deferegger Alps). Between the two main mountain ranges the river Inn has carved out a fertile river valley, which for early travellers was another substantial barrier to cross.

The long geologic history of Tyrol is the reason for the exceptionally diverse and interesting plant and animal life that the Tyrol is known for. This unique Alpine ecosystem has been drawing outdoor lovers and eco-enthusiasts for many years. Whether you enjoy bird watching or plant spotting – Tyrol has something to offer.

If however you’d visited the region some 70 million years ago – you wouldn’t have been seeing Alpine plants. Rather you’d have been surrounded by tropical rainforests, of a type familiar to visitors to South-East Asia. In the late Tertiary Period Tyrol was a lot warmer than it is today! As the ancient landmasses moved, the area started a long slow cooling. Initially the vegetation changed to a forest environment dominated by firs and other evergreens. Eventually, the ice sheets dominated the land and isolated plants and animals in small outposts. The Tyrol region was one such outpost.

A unique Tyrolean vegetation and fauna developed as the Ice Sheets allowed the transfer of species from the Arctic regions, far to the north, and the Alpine regions. As the ice sheets finally retreated some 12,000 years ago, today’s bio diverse region of the Tyrol was revealed. Species, which originated from as far away as the Baltic and the Caucases, as well as the Artic, are now found in the Tyrolean region.

Tyrol is famous for its birds of prey. Common species include an increasing number of the Golden Eagle, harriers and falcons, as well as the more common mountain jackdaw.

Mammals you may come across include chamois and ibex as well as the more common badgers, deer and foxes. However, it’s not likely that you will see any of the few brown bears left in Austria, recent immigrants from Slovenia.

Reptiles include the European grass snake (Natrix natrix) and the green lizard (Lacerta viridis).

The famous and very much protected Edelweiss is one of the lesser common Alpine flowers. The name ‘Edelweiss’ comes from the German words edel (meaning noble) and weiß (meaning white). A further Alpine gem that thrives in the entire Alps is the strikingly blue gentian (Gentiana verna). Amongst the more general wildflowers are members of the Alpine carnation (Dianthus alpinus) and the bright red and/or pink Alpine rose (Rose alpina).