The Wild Emperor Mountains (Wilder Kaiser, in German) – Located just a short drive from Munich, Salzburg and Innsbruck, these are not the highest mountains in Austria but they still offer breathtaking scenery thanks to a chain of deep valleys that encircle them. There are, in fact, two main mountain ridges, split by the eastward Kaiserbach Valley: the southern ridge is called Wilder Kaiser (Wild Emperor), the northern is Zahmer Kaiser (Tame Emperor).
The Wilder Kaiser, in its highest areas, is rocky, with jagged peaks rising abruptly out of a landscape of wonderful Alpine meadows and gentle hills to an elevation of almost 2,400 metres / 7,874 feet. The Wild Emperor mountain range is one of the places where Austrian Alpine mountaineering started in the 19th century, when climbers first braved peaks with such chilling names as Totenkirchl (Death’s Church), Totensessel (Death’s Armchair) and Predigtstuhl (The Pulpit).
Aurach Wildlife Park – Take a leisurely stroll through Tyrol’s largest wildlife park. Aurach Wildlife Park is set at an elevation of 1,100 metres (3,608 feet) above sea level, which means that not only can you admire animals in their natural habitat, but you can also enjoy wonderful panoramic views over a pristine Alpine landscape at the same time. The wildlife park primarily features animals native to the Alps.
Kufstein – Explore the romantic town of Kufstein. First mentioned in 788, Kufstein is an ancient Tyrolese border town in the lower Inn valley. Lovingly dubbed “the pearl of Tyrol”, possession of Kufstein was much disputed during the Middle Ages, and, as a result, an imposing fortress, Feste Kufstein, was built here. The majestic fortress is the centre of many activities, and the old town centre represents an attractive counterpart with galleries, museums, shops, hospitality – and simply lots of flair. To enjoy the best of Kufstein, simply take a gentle stroll, exploring he medieval alleys – or for some spectacular views across the Tyrolean and Bavarian Alps, hike straight up to Kufstein fortress.
The Schwaz Silver Mines – The picturesque town of Schwaz enjoys a quite magnificent setting in the heart of the North-Tyrolean Alps. It is home to some silver mines (“Silberbergwerk”), now open to tourists, which make it a popular place to visit. The ancient town centre (“Altstadt” in German) lies on the banks of the river Inn. Schwaz has a long history, with the earliest settlers traced back to Neolithic times. The best way to explore Schwaz is on foot, simply by wandering around the old town. The mines are only a short stroll (1km/0.6mi) from the town centre; you enter the mines by train via the 800m/0.5mi long ‘Sigmundsstollen’ tunnel, which dates back to 1491. The tour includes an exhibition which tells you all about ancient mining techniques.
Lake Achensee – While there are over 300 beautiful lakes in Austria, there are actually surprisingly few in Tyrol – but Lake Achensee is the biggest and most impressive; beautifully sited among forested mountain peaks. At 133m/436ft deep, its waters are amazingly pure and clear. Being a true Alpine lake, Achensee’s temperature rarely rises above 18 degrees Celsius. Its valley location also creates thermal motion, giving rise to a perpetual breeze. This makes the lake a real draw for windsurfers.
Kitzbühel – A fabulous ski resort and one of the most prosperous towns in the Alps, Kitzbühel is hugely popular with winter sports enthusiasts in the colder months but becomes far more serene from spring until autumn, when walking takes centre stage. Kitzbühel’s proximity to the mountains and its extensive network of well-maintained walking trails (over 1,000km worth) make this the perfect base for a walking holiday in Tyrol. Free guided walks are also available from Kitzbühel Tourist office.
Alpbach, Tyrol’s most beautiful village – It’s easy to see why Alpbach has repeatedly been awarded the accolade of Tyrol’s prettiest village, as this is as postcard-perfect as it gets, offering an allluring combination of breathtaking scenery, lush meadows and the freshest mountain air. And the awards don’t stop there. In 1983, Alpbach was also voted “Austria´s most beautiful village”. At the Entente Florale competition, Alpbach was named “Europe´s most beautiful flower village”. The village has a population of approximately 2,600 and lies perched on a sunny plateau at some 1,000m/3,281ft above sea level. It has always been a place of harmony and beauty, boasting its own cultural identity. All of the village’s architecture is built in the traditional, distinctive ‘Alpbachtal’ style.
The ‘Gauderfest’ – Taking place on the first Sunday of May in Zell am Ziller (Zillertal Valley), this is Tyrol’s largest annual fair. Highlights include “Rangeln” (a traditional form of wrestling – people from across the Alps flock here to take part) a colourful procession featuring traditional costumes, and lots of live music and dancing. Gauderbier, which is an exceptionally potent beer (more than 10% proof), is brewed especially for the fete. www.gauderfest.at
The Eagle’s Walk
The Eagle’s walk is beautiful long-distance, high altitude hiking trail which passes through the entire Tyrol region, offering real insights into the history of Austria and its people.
This exceptional network of routes takes its name from the bird of prey himself, the mighty eagle, which soars silently and majestically above the valleys and mountains. Walkers in the Tyrolean mountains should experience the same privileged, birds-eye view as they hike along the scenic long-distance trail.
The 280-kilometre (174-miles) long main route runs of the full length of Tyrol; from St. Johann in the Unterland region right through to St Anton am Arlberg, taking in the likes of majestic Wilder Kaiser mountain range, the Brandenberger Alps, the Rofan and Karwendel mountains along the way.
Walking is undoubtedly the best way to immerse yourself in a country and its people; to uncover its true character and take delight in its charms. Those who complete the Eagle’s Walk can certainly say that they have experienced the best of Tyrol’s beauty.
There is a secondary, regional route, which takes you to some of the region’s finest beauty spots, traversing the valleys of Inntal, Paznauntal, Kaunertal, Pitztal, Ötztal, Stubaital and Zillertal and onwards through Tannheimer Tal, Kaiserwinkl and the Kitzbühel Alps.
The entire Eagle’s Walk covers a distance of 1,480 kilometres (920 miles), with a total ascent of 87,000 metres (285,433 feet). What’s really great about this route is that you are in control of your difficulty level, as it’s possible to take easy paths or more challenging ones. People of all ages and abilities can enjoy the Eagle’s Walk. All of the paths are well-maintained and clearly marked. You may also wish to consider hiring a local mountain guide who will not only ensure your safety and take care of navigation; they will also help you to learn plenty about Austria and the Tyrol region; the people, places and nature.
A Brief History of the Tyrol
Fought over for many centuries, the once strategic location of Tyrol, is now a faded memory. What hasn’t changed though is the valley’s natural beauty and that of the fierce mountain ranges that guard it. And the people’s culture of self-reliance, pride and conservatism.
Humans have lived in the Leukental valley since as early as 40,000BC, according to archaeological evidence. The well-known Urnfield Culture (a Bronze Age society distinguished by its practice of a funereal custom of burying the dead’s ashes in urns) flourished in the area around the 14th century BC.
The Roman Empire and Afterwards
The Emperor Claudius incorporated the Tyrolean region into the Roman Empire, and called it Rhaetia. The area was fortified with typical Roman forts to better guard the important trading routes from the east. However, by 550AD the empire had crumbled and the local Frankish tribes took control of the area. During the following centuries, subsequent immigration saw arrival of the Bavarii and Langobards who came and settled in the Tyrolean area.
Charlemagne’s Holy Roman Empire brought peace to Tyrol for a brief period in the 8th century, but afterwards the region split again into three autonomous regions: Bavarian, Italian and Slavonic.
It was not until the 13th century that the area was again re-united. Count Meinhardt II ruled the region from the Castle Tirol and by 1295 had consolidated the region and given it the name, “Tyrol”.
From the 12 to the 15th century the rival powerbrokers of the Bavarian and Habsburgs clans fought attempted to gain control over the resources of Tyrol. The Habsburg Dukes eventually established their elaborate houses in Innsbruck and used it as a power base.
Meanwhile the region benefited from exploitation of its mining resources. In particular, the silver mines and the salt pits of the region created an increasingly prosperous community. This in turn resulted in social upheaval as various groups demanded greater freedoms and fairer taxes, all of which cumulated in the famous peasant’s revolt in 1526. Led by ex-toll collector Michael Gaissmair this ultimate failed with the leaders, including Gaissmair executed and many others exiled south to the Venetian area.
By 1660 the local economy had gone into a deep recession with the mines becoming increasingly uneconomic in the face of increased completion from Spain’s new silver producing colonies in South America. This led to a wave of emigration from the region as miners looked abroad for work including Italy, Bohemia, and even Venezuela.
Tyrol’s independence came to an abrupt end in 1665, when, the death of the Archduke Franz, without an heir, resulted in the Habsburg king, Leopold I, gaining control of Tyrol. Tyrol’s local militia were still a strong force, who successfully repulsed the Bavarian Elector Prince Max Manuel. The beautiful victory column, dedicated to St. Anne on whose name day the victory occurred in July 1703, can still be admired in Innsbruck.
Tyroleans continued to follow a rigid, and intolerant version of Catholicism, and where hostile when, in 1781, the reforming Emperor Joseph II allowed the practice of other forms of religion. The reformist Joseph was followed by more reactionary kings, who happily agreed to local demands for the reversal of said reforms. To this day the area remains strongly Roman Catholic, and more religious than most other areas of Austria.
The 19th Century
The Napoleonic Wars saw Tyrol traded as a pawn to Bavaria. Tyrolean patriots rose up, under the leadership of Andreas Hofer, Tyrol’s national hero. Hofer won two major battles against the Bavarians backed by French troops, but was ultimately unsuccessful and was executed in 1810. Tyrol was split and ruled in part by Italy and partly by Bavaria. The region wasn’t reunited until 1815 when it returned to Austria.
1867 saw the rise of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, with Tyrol a corner of its heartland. In the late 19th century, the Italian speaking southern Tyroleans started to push for recognition of their language and more representation. Austrian nationalists met their modest demands with fierce opposition.
The 20th Century
The proud Tyroleans didn’t hesitate to fight during World War II. A front line high in the Alps showed that the true enemy was in fact the weather, which probably killed more Tyrolean troops than the Allies. Many men died in avalanches and from weather-related disease during the harsh winter of 1915 – 1916 when 12m (40ft) of snow is said to have fallen. Towards the end of the war the Italians, who though neutral at the start of the war, later fought with the Allies, bombed Tyrolean towns including Innsbruck. The peace treaty saw the ceding of South Tyrol – now called Alto Adige to Italy.
For all of Germany’s allies the 1920’s were a time of hyperinflation and mass unemployment. As Hitler rose to power in neighbouring Germany, Tyroleans saw the economic improvements the Nazi’s were making to their economy. The Nazi party was particularly popular in Tyrol winning some 40% of the vote in local elections. In 1938, the Germans were welcomed as friends and brothers as they marched across the border.
The World War II battle lines were far from Tyrol, and region became a backwater away from the destruction of the war, and the subsequent reconstruction.
To this day Tyrol remains a deeply politically and socially conservative, Catholic region. The main industry is tourism, with the Alps providing a backdrop to both summer hiking adventures and winter snow sports and après-ski.
Geography, Flora & Fauna
The animals and plants that you might encounter in Tyrol’s highly Alpine ecosystem are exceptionally diverse and there are (pre-historic) reasons why Austria is a hot spot for birdwatchers, plant enthusiasts and other worshippers of biodiversity. In the early tertiary (approximately 70 million years ago), Austria’s vegetation was similar to that of today’s mountainous rain forests of Southeast Asia. However, in the late tertiary (approximately 25 million years ago), all the heat-loving plants gradually disappeared.
By the time the Ice Age reached the Alps, most of the local vegetation consisted of fir trees and various species of broad-leaved trees. Then, during this period, plant species from northern Europe migrated to those areas north of the Alps that were free of glaciers. Certain mountains peaked out through the glaciers like islands and, as a result, gained a flora and fauna distinct for this period.
Arctic species of plants often found new ground in the Alps and visa versa – the Ice Age was a period of exchange between alpine and arctic ecosystems. This included both plants and animals: fauna you would consider to be typically Alpine today consists of animals that have migrated from the Caucasian Mountains, the Baltic region and arctic Europe.
The countryside is rich in birds of prey; in particular harrows and falcons, and the European golden eagle population has increased in recent years. Mountain jackdaws are also well represented.
Well represented reptiles are the eye-catching green lizard (Lacerta viridis) as well as the European grass snake (Natrix natrix). Mammals you may spot include deer and foxes, marmots, badgers, chamois and ibex. There are very few brown bears left in Austria (recent immigrants from Slovenia), so you are unlikely to see any of them.
Wildflowers of the Tyrolean mountains include the pink and bright red Alpine rose (Rose alpine) and the Alpine carnation (Dianthus alpinus). The heavily protected – and very rare – Edelweiß is one of the most famous European Alpine flowers. Its name derives from the German words edel (meaning noble) and weiß (meaning white). A further well-known Alpine gem that thrives in this perfect environment is the stunningly blue Alpine gentian (Gentiana verna).