Small but perfectly formed Vorarlberg, bordering on Germany, Switzerland and Liechtenstein, is the most westerly province of Austria, spanning a surface area of 2,600 sq km (1,004 sq mi). Equal in size to Luxembourg, it is around four times larger than Vienna. Two thirds of this mountainous land lies at over 1,000m (3,281ft) above sea level and measures 100km (62mi) from north to south. It takes around 90 minutes to drive between the shores of Lake Constance (Bodensee) at 400m (1,312ft) and the glacier-dotted peaks of the Silvretta Mountains at over 3,000m (9,843ft) altitude.
|Vorarlberg’s Themed Trails
Vorarlberg offers some excellent themed trails which provide a fascinating insight into local history, culture and nature. Here are just a few popular examples:The Rotenberg Forest Trail – Head to Lingenau in the Bregenzerwald to experience a range of rock formations, forests and moors and learn more about the area’s geology and geography. There are two walks on this trail: the shorter one takes around 2 hours; allow 3.5 hours for the longer option. http://gesundes-lingenau.at/
The Alpgang Trail – This route in Au-Schoppernau provides an overview of 3-stage alpine farming in the Bregenzerwald, something which has been practiced for hundreds of years. In early summer, farmers and their cattle leave the valley for the Vorsäss area, and then ascend to the high Alps area during summer, before returning to the Vorsäss and back to the valley in autumn. The shorter route takes around 2 hours, the longer option requires 6 hours. http://www.au-schoppernau.at/
The Energy Trail – Learn all about how Langenegg im Bregenzerwald has fully embraced sustainability through an interactive trail which includes the ‘9 Bäume’, a fascinating series of artistic sculptures which sit alongside the Bregenzerache River.http://www.langenegg.at/wandertipp.html
Fallbach River Trail – Located in the Klostertal Valley, this steep yet safe panoramic trail takes in the natural wonders of the Fallbach waterfalls, where water cascades dramatically from an altitude of 1,430m (4,692ft) down the imposing Fallbachwand rock face to 820m (2,690ft). This is a walk that can normally be enjoyed year-round. http://www.alpenregion.at/
The Green Ring around Lech-Zürs – In winter, skiers enjoy tackling the White Ring, but in summer, it transforms into the Green Ring, taking hikers to the most spectacular viewpoints and finest natural attractions in and around Lech-Zürs. The route takes you through many interesting check-points, including a library in a shelter, a fairytale forest, the gypsum hole nature reserve, Lake Libellensee, and even a bivouac box which provides optional overnight shelter. http://www.lech-zuers.at/
Walser Omgan in the Kleinwalsertal Valley – ‘Walser Omgang’ comprises eight newly developed hiking trails. They are closely linked to the ‘Lebensfeuer network’, which was the first of its kind in the Kleinwalsertal region. The eight trails are designed to awaken the senses to the natural environment, through touching and smelling the rich diversity on these routes. http://www.walser-omgang.com/
Guided Walks in the Montafon – During summer, the local tourist offices in the Montafon work together with Montafon mountain guides to offer a range of guided walks. These vary in length and difficulty, from easy half-day rambles to more challenging multi-day hikes. Pretty much every walk on offer is based upon a specific theme; some of the popular ones include dairy farming, water, flowers and herbs, myths and legends, smuggling and the history of forest-dwellers. http://www.montafon.at/
The Lechweg – This easy long-distance hiking trail takes you through one of Europe’s last remaining wild river landscapes. It starts at the source of the River Lech and passes through the stunning Alpine scenery of the Lechtal Valley and Reutte nature park in Tyrol, before heading across to the Lechfall waterfall in Füssen, in the German Allgäu. Totalling a distance of 120km (75mi), the walk is broken up into sections with check points where hikers can opt to engage in a variety of sensory experiences – or simply take time out to relax. http://www.lechweg.com/
Mt. Piz Buin (3,312m/10,866ft) – Located in the Silvretta mountain range on the Swiss border, Mt Piz Buin is Vorarlberg’s highest peak. To begin the ascent, you need to head to the Wiesbadener Hut, cross the Vermunt Glacier, scale the heights of the Wiesbadener ridge and pass over the Ochsentaler Glacier to the Buin gap. From the gap, there is criss-cross route to the top. After a short steep climb of just 20m (65ft), you will reach the plateau of the summit, which has an old wooden cross at the top. The Swiss-Austrian border crosses the summit from East to West.
Lake Constance (Bodensee) and Bregenz – Nestled in the far north-western corner of Austria, the iconic Lake Constance is one of the main attractions for visitors to Vorarlberg. Shared with neighbouring Germany and Switzerland, Austria’s lakeside town of Bregenz is both the cultural centre and a tourist hub.
The area is a curious blend of old and new. The region’s towns of Bregenz, Dornbirn, Hohenems and Feldkirch manage to combine a peaceful rural character with urban modernity. They also retain a very unique identity – somewhat different to anywhere else either within Vorarlberg or the rest of Austria.
Historic Dornbirn, which was founded in 6AD, is Vorarlberg’s largest town. At its centre is the old town square (Marktplatz), which features a number of fine buildings including the imposing neo-classical parish church of St. Martin (1839-40); the Rotes Haus (the red house), dating from 1634 and so called because it was originally painted with ox blood, and the Luger Haus, which was restored in the last century in ‘altdeutsch’ (old German) style.
Bregenz, the region’s capital, is a cultural hotspot. Each summer, the Bregenz Festival (Bregenzer Festspiele in German) is an almighty spectacle, featuring the Vienna Symphony Orchestra and various artists from the worlds of music, dance and theatre. Its centerpiece is a hi-tech floating stage on Lake Constance, which provides a gorgeous backdrop for each and every show, while the audiences watch in awe from seats on the lake’s shores.
The Bregenzer Wald – Straddling Bregenz and the Arlberg range, the Bregenzerwald, is a scenic area with surprisingly varied landscapes of forested hills, sheer granite crags and lofty peaks. Upon closer inspection, you’ll also note a real sense of tradition here – as if time has almost stood still. It is also a prime destination for walkers, with more than 1920km (1,193mi) of signposted trails, most of which are fairly gentle, making it a good choice for families. However, if it’s something more challenging you seek, you will equally not be disappointed as there are plenty of walks which are better suited to experienced ramblers with a sure foot.
Lech-Zürs – The popular villages of Lech and Zürs are situated just 4km (2.5mi) apart in a high valley which is characterised by rich pastures, wildflower-covered meadows and swathes of dense forest which give way to towering grey peaks containing secret lakes in their basins. All of this is surrounded by mountains, many of which tower to over 2500m (8,200ft). During the walking season, the area offers many wonderful hiking opportunities. Zürs is a contemporary resort located on the Flexen Pass which is almost entirely devoted to tourism, while quieter Lech retains more of a mountain village feel, with its traditions still steeped in the history of the 14th Century, when the valley was settled by Valaisan mountain peasants. While Lech may be best known as a top ski resort, in summer it makes for an equally fine walking destination.
Kleinwalsertal Valley – Over in the east of Vorarlberg lies the Kleinwalsertal Valley. From the Austrian side, this very pretty valley can only be entered by foot. Motorists can only enter via Germany. Hikers can enjoy a large number of walks over the mountains of the Bregenzerwald.
Vorarlberg’s Culinary Delights – Perhaps surprisingly, given its diminutive size, Vorarlberg is home to many award-winning restaurants and ‘foodie’ inns. Gourmands will delight in discovering a number of creative dishes on offer, all using the finest, locally-sourced ingredients. There has for many years been a close partnership between Vorarlberg’s chefs and local farmers. This is further evidenced in a number of local food-related events, many of which take place in the Grosses Walsertal biosphere park.
Vorarlberg is particularly renowned for its cheese, most notably the hard and spicy mountain cheese. It is produced by small dairy farms in the high Alps. Other delicacies include the rather mild alp cheese, Emmentaler and soft cheeses made of cow’s, sheep’s or goat’s milk, including creamy camembert. Another popular local cheese is Sura Kees, a fragrant, low-fat variety which hails from the Montafon area.
History & Culture
It may have fallen under the Habsburg rule in the 13th century, but Vorarlberg historically retained something of a distance from the rest of Austria. This is largely down to geography: being surrounded by the Arlberg mountain range to the east and the Rätikon massif to the south, communication with the rest of the country was never easy. It was only with the creation of the Arlbergstrasse highway by Emperor Josef II in the late eighteenth century that the region began the process of integrating with its neighbours.
Over the years, Vorarlberg has largely been influenced by Switzerland and Southern Germany, due to their proximity. It is fair to say that the closer cities of Munich and Zurich have been more instrumental in shaping the culture of the region than Austria’s capital, Vienna (which lies over 600km away).
Vorarlberg is also the only Austrian state whose population descended from the Aleman tribes (the rest of Austria is of Baiuvarii origin) and the characteristics of this group live on today. The people of Vorarlberg today are particularly diligent, frugal and family-orientated.
These Alemanni origins have also influenced the local dialects, which are more akin to Swiss German.
Geography, Flora & Fauna
Vorarlberg is home to some of Austria’s highest mountains, and so you can expect to find pretty much all of the typical Alpine wildlife here, including Alpine marmots, Chamois, Ibex and Golden Eagles. Many of these species are naturally shy and will retreat from humans, but if you venture off into lesser-trodden paths, you may well catch sightings of some of these creatures during your walks. However, sadly, the Alpine ecosystem is under serious threat from man, with many species disappearing, such as the bear and the wolf. While there are some captive breeding programmes in place which may help prevent extinction, there is still nothing quite as special as seeing these wonderful creatures in their natural environment.
The flora of the Vorarlberg Mountains is typically alpine. Alpine plants have a remarkable ability to adapt: they can withstand harsh weather conditions, poor and rocky soil, high UV exposure and a short vegetation period. However, many mountain species are at risk, largely due to climate change which is forcing the plants to move ever-upwards in a bid to find colder temperatures. Some of the best-known flowers here are the Edelweiss, Alpenrose and Gentian but there are in fact no less than 4,500 plant species found in the Alps – that’s 39% of all European plant species. Of these 4,500, 350 are classified as native to the Alps, including the Zois’ bellflower (Campanula zoysii), round-leaved St. John’s wort and the Carniolan lily.
A great place for nature lovers to visit is the Rhine Delta Nature Conservation Zone, the largest wetland area on Lake Constance which provides a variety of sheltered habitats for many birds and butterflies and calm waters where fish can breed. The high fish population generates a rich food source for flocks of aquatic birds, many of which are migratory; breeding in far north Europe and flying to the warmer south in the autumn months. The birds are drawn to the tranquil waters where they can rest and enjoy plentiful food supplies. Some species will continue their flight southwards, while others will spend the whole winter here, as Lake Constance rarely freezes. The banks of the lake also provide ideal breeding environments for rare species of birds and the water meadows a habitat for rare wildflowers and orchids and a number of small animals.