The Ötztal Valley – Steep, narrow gorges, dense, green forests and cascades of water characterise this long valley: a striking contrast to the more pastoral scenery which can be found in the likes of the Zillertal Valley in North-Eastern Tyrol. The Ötztal Valley is the perfect place to “get away from it all”. There are endless walking trails at various levels and as the climate here is mild; the walking season is long, lasting from early spring through to late autumn. Down in the valley, the pretty village of Ötz provides a pleasant stopping off point, with some excellent street cafes serving welcoming coffee and cake. The more adventurous will want to take the Acherkogelbahn mountain lift up to Hochoetz, a wonderful area for hiking which is well serviced by mountain huts and inns. And at the southern end of the Ötztal Valley you can find the highest church in Austria in the popular village of Obergurgl (at 1,922m/6,320ft).
Stuibenfall Waterfall — Tyrol’s highest waterfall is approached by a road leading out of the village of Umhausen in the Ötztal Valley. The falls are characterised by clouds of water particles that can be viewed from afar. These particles are said to have restorative health properties. Other highlights here include the “Horlachbach” brook, which tumbles into the valley from a height of 159 meters, the beautiful carpet of Alpine flowers, and rainbows, which are commonly spotted encircling the falls. There is also a scenic walking route which starts out just to the right of the waterfall. After traversing trough woodlands and steps carved into the rock, you reach the top of the trail and a series of five viewpoints from which to admire the full force of these spectacular falls. As you approach the highest viewpoint, you can enjoy panoramic views of the gorge as you cross the water via a secured suspension bridge. You need to allow around 90 minutes to complete the walk, including a visit to the viewpoints. The route is safe and suitable for everyone, including children and parents with baby carriers.
Via Ferrata Umhausen-Niederthai — Located just to the left of Stuibenfall Waterfall is a popular via ferrata. It requires reasonable physical strength and a good head for heights to complete it. After crossing some rocks at Niederthai, you reach a small resting point. You then continue ascending, parallel to the cascading falls. More adventurous climbers can choose to cross the “Stuiben” on steel ropes close to the stone bridge and enjoy a different perspective. There is however an easier route to the left, where you can begin the descent.
This via ferrata is rated as difficulty level B/C (there are two challenging sections with overhangs) and it is suitable for both novices and more experienced mountaineers. It climbs to a level of around 300m/984ft in altitude. The climb takes around 3 hours, but the descent can be done in around 30 minutes to one hour, so allow up to 4 hours to complete the course. Novice climbers are advised to join one of the guided tours with a qualified instructor. You can hire via ferrata equipment in the nearby mountain guide office.
Ausserfern (beyond the Fernpass) — The Ausserfern region is a quiet, secluded and charming region, which is blessed with both a rich history and an abundance of natural beauty. Reutte is the main town in Ausserfern; a quaint market town in the Lechtal Valley. The architecture here is Baroque; colourful facades are decorated with carved wooden beams and balconies and wrought iron window grilles. The Zeiller family were responsible for painting many of the buildings in the 18th century and there is an interesting collection of Zeiller paintings in the local Heimatmuseum. This is a place to enjoy spending some time, but Reutte is, first and foremost, the starting point for many alluring walks into the surrounding lakes, mountains and forests. There are two pretty lakes just south east of the town – Heiterwanger See and Plansee. There is also a 2-hour walk to the gorgeous Alpine Flower Garden (Alpenblumengarten), where you can wander among colourful flora including cyclamen, snowdrops, cowslips and lady’s slipper. Or, if you don’t fancy the walk, you can take a 10-minute ride on the mountain railway (Reuttener Bergbahn).
Family Walking in Serfaus — The walking area Serfaus-Fiss-Ladis is perfect for families. Serfaus, Tyrol’s sunniest place, is a lovely, traffic-free resort village surrounded by Alpine flowers. The area has a long history – it was first settled in pre-Roman times and the Via Claudia Augusta – an important Roman road – ran just below were Serfaus village stands today. Today, the villages of Serfaus, Fiss and Ladis are best known for their family-friendliness, and children of all ages are well catered for. Older children will love the climbing wall, skate park and outdoor heated pool. There is also a large play area and a programme of events to keep the younger ones entertained, including adventure trails, night hikes and climbing. Serfaus and its neighbouring villages have access to summits with peaks of over 3,000m (9,800ft) and there are numerous paths of varying difficulty which will take you to spectacular viewpoints from where you can admire the magical scenery of the Eastern Alps. It is therefore not surprising that Serfaus, Fiss and Ladis are best known for their sublime walking opportunities.
One of the main attractions here are the ‘Smuggler’s Trails’, which have an interesting history. The trails were used regularly after the two world wars, when local families smuggled in coveted goods from across the mountains in Switzerland, in a bid to boost their poor wages. Mainly used at night, locals would smuggle loads of 30kg (66lb) or more on their backs, and friendly shepherds and farmers would keep a watchful eye out, informing them if custom officers or police were in the area. Many of these old smugglers’ trails are still in tact today and waiting to be discovered – but thankfully a heavy backpack is not required! You can take guided tours of these paths between June and October, book-able at the tourist office. Guides are also on hand to take you to some of the area’s most impressive and rewarding places. If you wish to go it alone, the tourist office also provides a booklet (in English) of self-guided walks, complete with maps and full descriptions.
Mt. Zugspitze — The Zugspitze, at 2,962 metres (9,718 feet) above sea level, lies south of the Bavarian town of Garmisch-Partenkirchen and is actually half in Austria, half in Germany, as the border runs across its western summit. It is not only the highest peak in the Wetterstein Mountain range, it is also the highest in Germany. ‘Zugspitzplatt’, located to the south of the mountain, is a high plateau with a number of caves. There are also three glaciers flanking the Zugspitze, including Germany’s two largest: the ‘Northern Schneeferner’ with a surface area of 30.7 hectares and the ‘Höllentalferner’ at 24.7 hectares. The third is the ‘Southern Schneeferner’, which covers 8.4 hectares.
On the Austrian side of the border, there is a walking area below Mt. Zugspitze known as the Mt. Zugspitze Region Tyrol (Tiroler Zugspitz Arena in German). This is the ideal place to sample some of Austria’s finest walks. The area known as ‘Tiroler Zugspitz Arena’ comprises seven villages which offer direct access to over 60 miles (96km) of hiking trails. The neighbouring Wetterstein Mountains, Ammer Mountains, Lechtaler Alps and the Mieminger Plateau also offer a wide range of mountainous trails. If you’re looking for a more genteel pace of walk, there are well-maintained paths which wind across mountain plateaus and through smaller, gentler valleys. There is also a good network of cable cars, so you can enjoy the views without having to tackle steep ascents. One of the most popular is the Tyrolean Zugspitze Cable Car (Tiroler Zugspitzbahn in German), which links the Austrian village of Ehrwald with the top station at 2,950m/9,678ft altitude, close to the summit of Mt. Zugspitze.
Tannheimer Valley — This is one of the region’s best-kept secrets, hidden away in the north-western corner of Tyrol, close to the German border. The Tannheimertal, which is referred to locally as the most beautiful high valley in Europe (‘Das Schönste Hochtal Europas), at 1,000-1,100 metres high (3,280ft-3,608 feet) offers superlative walking opportunities with wide green valley floors which open onto Alpine meadows, high pastures and partially forested mountain peaks, framed by the summits of the Allgäuer Alps. There is an impressive network of footpaths and tracks throughout the area, including a number of easy and moderate walks as well as a handful of more challenging hikes. You are never too far from refreshment, either, as Alpine huts, cafes, restaurants and bars are dotted around the many villages and hamlets. The local communities still embrace tradition – farming still takes place on the high pastures, award-winning cheeses are produced in the mountains, and it is not uncommon to see locals wearing traditional dress.
This area is probably one of the least visited in Austria, as far as British tourists are concerned – yet those who venture out here are delighted with their discovery. There are six picturesque villages in the valley, the largest of which is Tannheim. One of the major draw cards for the valley is the number of walking opportunities for all abilities. The mountains range from 1800 –2200 metres (5,906ft-7,218 feet) in altitude, with the valley itself at around 1,100 metres (3,608 feet). Walking is therefore easily accessible. Additionally, there are four lifts which provide direct and easy access to the surrounding mountains.
The valley is deep and open, intersected by paths and minor roads that are seldom used by road traffic (aside from cyclists, as there are a number of designated cycle routes in the area). There is a lovely circuit walk which takes in the whole valley, known as the Tannheimer Rundwanderweg. It meanders up and down the sides of the valley, through woodland and villages and traverses the shoreline of Lake Haldensee.
At a higher level there are walks long and short, to suit all fitness levels. Paths are clear and well-signposted, with time, rather than distance, indicated along the way.
There are a number of attractions close to the Tannheimer Valley, including Lake Vilsalpsee and its waterfall, which is about an hour’s drive from the village of Tannheim. Just above this lake is Lake Traualpsee, a small artificial lake and another popular hiking spot. The local history museum (“Heimatmuseum Tannheim”) in Tannheim itself is also well worth a visit, as it provides a valuable insight into life as it was hundreds of years ago in this area. The Tannheimer valley is also a very “healthy” destination, being renowned for its excellent air and drinking water quality.
A Brief History of the Tyrol
Tyrol is now a quiet backwater, where a distinct culture still flourishes amongst a dramatic and beautiful landscape. It wasn’t always so though, as the Leukental Valley has long been an important trading route between Germany, Italy and points east.
A Long History
There is evidence of human settlement in Tyrol’s valleys from as early as 40,000BC. Much later during the Bronze Age the Urnfield culture flourished in the valley which is cut-off by the Kitzbüheler and Kaisergebirge Alps.
By 500BC the expanding Roman Empire had absorbed the area as the Rhaetia province, Emperor Claudius understood that Rhaetia was critically important for controlling the Etruscan and Greek trade routes across the Alps. To keep control the Romans constructed a major military complex at Wilten (Veldidena), a modern-day suburb of Innsbruck.
After The Romans
As the Pax Romana collapsed, Rhaetia fell to the Franks at the end of 550AD. The area became one of ongoing conflict as Bavarians, Lombards, and Slavs all tried to control the important mountain passes. Some stability was finally restorted when Charlemagne took control of Tyrol as part of his Holy Roman Empire.
Peace wasn’t long lasting and the area was soon split up into a Bavarian region to the north, the Slavonic east, and an Italian south.
Tyrol is Born – Power Struggles Continue
In the 13th century the name “Tyrol” was first applied to the region by Count Meinhardt II – named after a castle near the town of Merano. Tyrol at this time extended from Zillertal Valley in the north,Alvisio river in the south, the Rienza river to the east, and the Lechtal Valley in the west.
From the early 14th century, the Habsburgs and the Bavarian dynasties vied for control of the Tyrolean region. Tyrol was an increasingly attractive prize as the rich silver and salt mines made the area increasingly prosperous.
With prosperity came social unrest, as people demanded improved working conditions. The most famous revolutionary leader was a toll-collector from southern Tyrol, Michael Gaissmair, who led a short-lived peasant’s revolt, which cumulated in a march in 1526, from Salzburg to the Pustertal Valley. The revolt was crushed and many of those who took part were exiled to Venice.
During the 16th century Tyrol’s mining industry slowly collapsed. The mines became more and more expensive to operate, as the easy to extract minerals ran out and drainage costs escalated. Competition was also increasing as Spain’s new South American colonies flooded Europe with cheap silver and other metals. Although Tyrol was not directly involved in the long-running 30 Years War it also had a chilling effect on European commerce which did not help Tyrol’s struggling miners. By the 1660’s Tyroleans were emigrating to find work, not just to Europe including Russia and England, but even as far as the silver mines of South America which had been part of the reason of their mine’s closures.
Tyrol under the Habsburgs
The death, in 1665, of Archduke Sigmund Franz, without issue, saw the end of Tyrol’s independence. Tyrol became part of the Vienna-based Habsburg Empire under Leopold I. The area remained strongly patriotic and when the Bavarian Elector Prince Max Emanuel tried to occupy Innsbruck, in 1703, the local militia sent him packing. This victory on St Anne’s Day (26th July) is marked by a spectacular victory column Innsbruck.
The deeply conservative Roman Catholic Tyroleans resisted any attempts at religious reform. Emperor Joseph II’s charter of 1781, the Toleranzpatent, which allowed for religions other than Catholicism to be practiced, was vehemently opposed. The subsequently more reactionary Habsburg Emperors including Leopold II and Franz II, were more than happy to go along with local sentiment, reverse Joseph’s reforms
Napoleon to the Austro-Hungarian Empire
Austria ceded Tyrol to the Bavarians during the Napoleonic Wars. The Tyroleans challenged the Bavarian authority, most notably under the leadership of Tyrol’s national hero – Andreas Hofer. Hofer successfully defeated Bavaria, and their French troops, not once, but twice. Unfortunately Austria still lost the war and Tyrol suffered under a Bavarian administration for another four years. Hofer kept an underground resistance of ultra-nationalists going in eastern Tyrol, until his eventual capture and execution in 1810.
The 1815 Congress of Vienna saw the end of the Napoleonic Wars and the return of Tyrol to Austria. The year 1867 saw the founding of the Austro-Hungarian Empire that incorporated Tyrol.
Tyrol continued to demonstrate their unique culture by resisting attempts to introduce socialism, which perhaps surprisingly, wasn’t popular with the industrial worker of Tyrol.
Towards the end of the century the Italian-speaking minority of southern Tyrol were pushing for recognition of their language and better representation. The nationalist Giuseppe Mazzini demanded that Italy’s northern border be moved to pass alone the high mountain passes of Tyrol taking in the Pustertal, Brenner, Reschen, and Timmelsjoch. Although there was a short-lived Italian Law Faculty established at the University of Innsbruck in 1904, nothing much came of the Italian minorities requests’, in the face of fierce Austrian nationalist opposition.
The Great War – World War I
The front line during WW1 ran right through the highest points of the Tyrolean Alps. During the winter of 1915/16 the Tyrolean troops contended with 12 metres (40 feet) of snow in the high passes. Many tens of thousands of troops were lost in avalanches, and the atrocious conditions took their toll on what had originally been a fervent fighting spirit among the Tyroleans.
Initially neutral, Italy entered the war in 1915, on the side of the allies, with secret promises of territory. Italian planes undertook bombing raids against both Bolzano and Innsbruck. In 1918, the Treaty of Saint-Germain-en Laye saw southern Tyrol, renamed Alto Adige and ceded to the Italians.
World War II
Disillusionment ran deep after the Great War, and continued through the difficult economic times to the 1920’s as the region suffered under the war reparations requirements of the victorious Allies. In the 1930’s over 98% of the population voted for unification with Germany, and the local branch of the Nazi Party won over 40% of the vote in local elections, in April 1933, after Hitler had come to power. Tyroleans looked on in envy as Germany rebuilt her economy and reduced unemployment over the next five years.
In 1938 Tyrol welcomed the German Army as they crossed the border. Catholic Bishops led the political movement of Anschluss (to join). In return for their support Tyrol did see a short-lived improvement in their economy, before war again raged across Europe. This time Tyrol was a backwater, and escaped major damage.
Today Tyrol is politically and culturally conservative backwater whose economy largely depends on its tourism industry that is built around winter snow sports and summer hiking.
Geography, Flora & Fauna of Tyrol
In the past, Tyrol tended to be little more than a stopping off point for travellers as they made their way on to another place. Now it has become a classy tourist destination in its own right, offering excellent skiing in winter and wonderful opportunities for walkers in summer, when the snow gives way to green alpine meadows, craggy mountains and warm hospitality in pretty valley villages.
The Tyrolean Alps are situated between Northern Europe and Italy. Historically, the region needed to be set up for ‘tourism’, to cater for the Catholic pilgrims en route to Rome or for Italian merchants seeking to sell their wares in the lucrative markets of Germany and The Netherlands or for travelling armies – and so many inns and lodgings were established over the years.
Tyrol’s countryside is dominated by two spectacular tiers of mountains. Along the Bavarian border in the north, you have the Lechtaler Alps, Karwendel and Kaisergebirge ranges and lining the Italian border in the south are the Ötztaler, Zillertaler and Deferegger Alps. The two tiers are separated by the valley of the fast-flowing river Inn, which is where all of Tyrol’s many rushing rivers feed in to (with the exception of the Lech, which flows into the Danube).
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 rainforests of Southeast Asia. However, in the late tertiary (approximately 25 million years ago), all the heat-loving plants gradually disappeared.
Before the Ice Age the Alps were covered in broad-leaved trees and firs. The colder temperatures saw the northern European vegetation migrate to the ice-free regions of the Alps which remained above the advancing glaciers. These ice-free “islands” are the reason for the Alps unique flora and fauna during the glaciation.
The Ice Age also created a mechanism for connection between the normally isolated Arctic and Alpine ecosystems. Migrations of both plants and animals occurred between the usually separate Caucasians, Baltic region and northern, 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.
The most notable reptiles are the beautiful green lizard (Lacerta viridis) and the European grass snake (Natrix natrix). Mammals to look out for include marmots, badgers, chamois, ibex, deer and foxes. You are unlikely to see any of the very few brown bears of Austria, recent immigrants from Slovenia.
Amongst the more common mountain plants are members of the Alpine carnation (Dianthus alpinus) and the bright red and pink Alpine rose (Rose alpina). The rare and heavily protected Edelweiss is one of the best-known European Alpine flowers. Its name derives from German edel(meaning noble) and weiß (meaning white). A further Alpine gem that thrives in this perfect setting is the stunningly blue gentian (Gentiana verna).