Hiking in the Lüsenstal

The Lüsenstal, a valley in Tirol, Austria, is one of the most majestic places I have ever beheld. For comparison, it is as elegant as two locations in America’s National Parks: the inspiring Yosemite Valley and the grand Kings Canyon.

The ride into the valley treated everyone in the car to vistas of mountains wrapped in green forests, streams that danced downhill and the occasional cow that munched on the abundant green grass.

The Lüsenstal is a great depression in the earth; like a child at the beach who scoops out a long channel of sand with her hand the Lüsenstal has a similar pattern, but on an immense scale like a great hand has dug into the Alps and pulled back the terrain creating a u-shaped channel that rises nearly a thousand meters on either side.

One feels small in this place, yet part of something more.

We arrived at a farm and guest house located on the valley floor and parked the car. We looked around a few minutes and were awed by the scale of the valley.

Several kilometers away, at the ‘back’ of the valley, the flat land ends and becomes almost perpendicular, climbing hundreds of meters high. At the lip of this wall, the rock appears to be slick with water. Looking through binoculars you can see channels of water emerging from the bright white surface at the very edge of the mountain. This is a glacier. The local Tirolean on our hike remarked that when she was a girl the glacier ice was visible a quarter of the way down the mountain. Several interpretive displays (written in German and English) along with a section of the trailing document the retreat of the glacier over the past century.

Our hike was steep but relaxing. We crossed streams, past open fields and woodlands. Wild blueberries grew along the trail and we ate our fill.

At the top of a distant mountain, I saw microscopic dots of snow that appeared to be moving! I looked closer, the dots jumped and moved in all directions along the edge. These tiny dots were actually sheep.

The trail meandered into the Lüsenstal and gently curved up a side valley allowing us glorious views of the valley below and we could see a little more of the glacier in the distance. More dots moved slowly on the valley floor, the more colorful dots were people and the slighter larger brown dots were grazing cows.

The view into the side valley was a jumble of boulders and stones. No trees grew in this place. The trail snaked jaggedly among the boulders and along the hillside to a building in the distance. This was another all, it did not look far, but it was still an hour or more away.

Instead, we meandered along the trail to a stream and crossed several footbridges.

Just beyond was a seasonal cabin. A gang of yearling cows stood nearby and deemed it important to search any and all hikers who passed. One cow was especially gentle and let us scratch behind her ears and pet her soft fur. This cow liked to lick people, hands, and backpacks.

The cow followed us to the cabin. Outside the cabin was a family of German hikers eating lunch. The cow took an immediate interest. A woman in the group thought the cow joining their picnic was great fun until the yearling, with bullet-like speed, stepped into the middle of their food and licked her sandwich. The woman squawked at the intrusion. The cow licked again. This time a man in the group clapped his hands and pushed the cow back a short way. The cow’s tongue, like an uncoiling rope, now reached for the morsel, but it was not able to reach the sandwich a third time. By now two others had joined the man and the invading cow was pushed out of the picnic.

It was great entertainment to see.

We walked down the rough mountainside and into the trees again. The sun now illuminated the opposite of the valley and I was astounded to see a great waterfall tumbling forth. It was hidden from view in the shade. It was still several kilometers away.

Stepping off the steep mountain and onto the green flat land of the valley I could appreciate just how deep the valley was and how high the glacier was above me. If I was the size of an ant looking up at a house, the edge of the glacier would be at the roof line.

We found a good spot to rest in an open field, next to a stream and enjoyed our sandwiches. We even soaked our feet in the stream, but only for a minute for the water was not just mountain water, it was glacial meltwater – and frigid!

Afterwards, we walked quietly back to the car and enjoyed the complex simplicity of the valley. We even spied another tall waterfall in the distance.

The valley was intensely beautiful and worthy of our last day – on this trip – to Tirol. But, this a great place to explore, I will be back.

Hiking to the Adolf-Pichler-Hütte

After a beautiful 45 minutes drive from Innsbruck our car turned off the highway and down a paved road marked with potholes and washboarded asphalt. This was a very unusual sight, for the public roads in Austria are superb, but then I learned this was a private drive and shared by several farms. A short distance later we approached a sign with instructions for visitors to pay a €3 Euro toll. We stuffed some money in the box and continued on. Slowly the rough asphalt ended and became packed dirt interspaced with gravel.

Hiking to the Adolf-Pichler-HütteI would have enjoyed walking in this area for the mountain stream waltzed with the country road, allowing us to witness a dazzling display of brisk cascades, glassy waterfalls and blue pools all framed against a thickly wooded forest.

Hiking to the Adolf-Pichler-HütteOur car stopped at a farm, we parked and gathered our backpacks. The trail was a continuation of the road, but here it was just hardened tire tracks that created a line that curved across the pasture and up the valley.

At one point a number of honey bees buzzed past and smoke could be smelled in the air. Ahead of us, at the side of the road, were scores of bees hives. Some people were tending to the hives using smoke to calm the bees.

Hiking to the Adolf-Pichler-HütteThe trail ascended up the valley for the next hour and then became very steep. For some reason several cows had started to follow us up the hill. After a few heart pumping minutes of walking a steep section we arrived at the Adolf-Pichler-Hütte. The Hütte is named in honor of Adolf Pichler, an Austrian writer and scientist who lived in the 1800’s.

The cows were not far behind us as we arrived at the solidly constructed Hütte.

Those who traveled to this location had the most bejeweled natural spectacle to enjoy; in this Alpine valley the mountains, named Kalkkögel, soared perpendicular into the sky like enormous, jagged, stone knife blades rising several thousand feet higher over us.

Hiking to the Adolf-Pichler-HütteHiking to the Adolf-Pichler-HütteAs afternoon approached – the clouds momentarily broke – allowing the sun’s light to gallop down the sheer rock face and instantly conquered the majority of the shadows on the mountain, only in the farthest of recesses did the darkness prevail. The interplay of light on the mountain face was magical, momentary and fleeting – the spectacle made one’s heart race – it was a moment of being alive.

Hiking to the Adolf-Pichler-HütteEveryone played in a small stream and explored some side trails. Several cows moo’d in the distance then others, not far way, started to run, they disappeared over a hill. …Several minutes later we heard a clamor, the same cows crested the hill close to us and ran down in our direction, we gave them plenty of room, they ran passed and onto some unseen green pasture.

Hiking to the Adolf-Pichler-HütteIt was late in the afternoon and we passed by the hut on our return visit. Other hikers had gathered to enjoy the some late lunch. A table opened up on the small open courtyard and we enjoyed some drinks and soup. All the time enjoying the vistas that the valley offered.

A black faced cat, his grimaced expression formed from having a slightly recessed nose, indignantly walked around the tables and on the countertop before being shooed away.

In a side barn was an oven, loaves of fresh baked bread sat on the top of the stove, ready to be devoured. We had some with our lunch, it was good bread.

Hiking to the Adolf-Pichler-HütteAs we left I saw, in a garden pot, a the most curious looking white flower – it was Edelweiss. The flower was soft and gentle on the fingers. When you travel to Tirol you will see a multi-pointed flower drawn sometimes on signage, restaurant menus and embroidered onto clothes. This is that flower.

Hiking to the Adolf-Pichler-HütteReturning to the car I saw a classic looking motorbike parked nearby. The bike, the farm setting, the mountains in the distance, the jacket laid casually across the seat…it was just cool. I had to snap a photo.

A Visit to Kalvarienberg

Sometimes when you travel a place just catches your eye – you want to see more of it. A small church named Kalvarienberg that overlooks Arzl and the city of Innsbruck, Austria, caught my eye fifteen years ago. It was a tiny, white building perched atop a small hill. For some reason this hill just beckoned to me – I had to visit. During that first trip I never got to see it up close, even after visiting Innsbruck multiple times the opportunity slipped away….until recently.

A Visit to KalvarienbergThe church is about a forty-five minutes walk from the Youth Hostel in Innsbruck. Wear some comfortable walking shoes as the ascent is greater than it first appears. Part of the enjoyment of the walk is you get to explore the small town of Arzl, which is quiet and relaxing.

Arriving at the base of the hill where the church stands you will pass several shrines along the worn footpath. The area is covered with green grass and sheep are grazing in a fenced area on one side of the hill. Reaching the top allows for fantastic views of the city and mountains beyond. The church is old, has a white exterior and is smaller than I expected, but uniquely designed for the small hill; it does not detract from the natural beauty of the area, rather the hill is beautified by this structure.

A Visit to KalvarienbergArtifacts from Roman times and even stone age peoples have been found on this hill. It was easy to see why, this is a great location to defend and to see who might be coming down or up the river. But, today this hill offered peaceful personal reflection and a platform for drinking in intoxicating views of the majestic Inn Valley. Bring a snack and some water for the hike, or even a small picnic to enjoy at the top.

I returned from the hill and back to my starting point, I looked back. The church quietly stood on the hill as it had before my visit.

Innsbruck’s Bergisel

Any visitor to Innsbruck, Austria, will notice the Bergisel, a high and rounded hill at the southern end of the city.

On the hill are several great places to visit. Two are listed here, the first is “Das Tirol Panorama.” This is a new and architecturally beautiful museum that highlights an important battle that occurred on the hill and defined Tirol. In 1809 Bavarian troops, allies of Napoleon, marched into the Inn Valley to Das Tirol Panoramaassert control over the land. The Tiroleans, led by a local folk hero, Andreas Hofer, rallied to protect their homes and their independence. The most famous battle was the Third Battle of the Bergisel in which the Tiroleans fought off the invaders. The battle was memorialized in a giant panoramic painting that is 1,000 square meters (10,764 square feet) in area. Today, this huge and historic 360-degree painting is accentuated with bullet shredded trees, cannons, and war-torn land, giving the viewer the perspective of being in the battle.

Outside the museum is a life-sized statute of Andreas Hofer along with several monuments of Emperors of Austria.

Bergisel StadiumUp the hill is the entrance to the Bergisel Ski Jump and Stadium.

The ski jump rises 250m (820 ft) over Innsbruck. It is a sleek and modern structure with a steep track that pours down from the tower and launches over an extremely large open space – a deep depression – carved into the hillside for viewers. This bowl-shaped viewing area can accommodate 28,000 standing visitors! At the opposite end of the jump are the cauldrons of the Olympic flame that were used in 1964 and 1976.

View from the TopAs I entered the Stadium a swoosh was heard. A man had just launched from the edge of the jump and ‘flew’ with grace for several seconds until his skis made contact with the steep artificial ground, in several additional seconds he had stopped and left the field. Everyone watched the jumpers for some time with their practice runs. It was very impressive to see.

I climbed a good number of steps to the base of the tower (yes, there is a lift that will take you from the base of the stadium to the tower). An elevator inside took myself and several visitors 50 meters to the top to a restaurant and a viewing platform.

Visitors can get to the Tirol Panorama and the Bergisel Stadium by bus or on foot. Regardless of how you arrive, wear comfortable shoes.

Hiking the Zirbenweg Trail

A lifelong resident of Innsbruck, Austria, recommended the Zirbenweg Trail for a pleasant and active day hike.

The morning started in Innsbruck. My wife and I caught a bus that quickly shuttled us to the nearby town of Igls, where we walked a few minutes up a hill to the Patscherkofel Talstation (valley station) and purchased the aerial cable car tickets, which included our tickets on a lift down the mountain and a bus ride back to Innsbruck.

Fifteen people boarded a colorfully painted and well used looking cable car. The attendant asked us to stand back as he closed the door. The door failed to latch so he returned with a large wrench and gave the latch a solid whap, the door locked. He looked at us with a sly smile. The tram started to rise and glide over the treetops and up the mountain. We were treated to a birds-eye view of trails, fields, woods and of the serpentine curves of Innsbruck’s Olympic Bobsled run. Twenty minutes later, and one kilometer higher in elevation, we arrived at the Bergstation (mountain station) and enjoyed a gorgeous view of the valley below. The temperature was a chilly 6 degrees C (43F).

The Zirbenweg Trail was well marked with signs. The hike would take just about 3 hours and follow an elevation of approximately 2000m (6000 feet). This popular trail offered a visual bounty; our eyes were always being fed with intoxicating Alpine scenery or pleasant vistas of the Inn Valley below.

After about an hour of hiking, we saw several red and white banners appearing over a small hill. These marked the quaint Boscheben Alm. The wind was beginning to blow strongly and the sky was darkening with clouds. We questioned the intent of the weather and thought it best to observe it for a little while longer. The Alm provided shelter, and after looking at the menu, we thought it prudent to supply our bellies with a warm meal. Inside the Alm were walls and tables made of heavy wood. Decorating the walls were pelts of animals that had supposedly been collected from the mountain: there were foxes, marmots, birds and a giant wild swine that in U.S. we would call a Razorback.

The soup of the day was a Knödelsuppe. We ordered one bowl between us; ten minutes later a bowl was delivered with a large knödel – a baseball-sized orb made with dried bread, milk, eggs, speck (smoked meat), onions, parsley, flour and salt that had been boiled in beef broth – that sat like an island in a sea of it’s own broth. It was delicious.

Afterwards, we looked outside, the weather was less intimidating so we continued on the hike. The trail was densely forested in this area but was quickly replaced with giant boulders and jagged rocks. As the trail curved we were greeted face-to-face with three Brown Swiss cows. They had kind faces and did not seem to mind our company. Their fur was some of the softest I had ever touched and we took several photos with them. One cow appeared to have stepped in a hole and had a skinned knee. The injury did not appear to be life-threatening but it must have hurt. As we left, a family rounded the corner on the trail, and the cows enjoyed a repeat of human affection.

The trail crossed several streams and passed a number of interpretive signs that further introduced the hiker to the natural features along the trail. The most curious, or pleasant, items were some ‘reflection’ benches that had been placed on the trail for the enjoyment of hikers. Each reflection bench was placed along the trail at a most enjoyable vista.

Now, we could see several buildings in the distance, they appeared like dots. A stream briefly blocked our path but a well placed wooden plank allowed us safe passage. The clouds overhead had been disappearing and the sunny, blue sky was now unimpeded, making for an absolutely gorgeous day.

One of the reflection benches sat in front of a great boulder. As I sat down I noticed that embedded in the stone was a marker dedicated to the man who helped create this trail.

A newly built and modern building was close by, this was a small chapel. Several hikers, older men with gray beards, were sitting near the front door and enjoying the vista of the green cultivated valley far below. They were sitting in a human-made chapel within a larger natural chapel of mountains and valleys. We nodded at each other from a distance as we passed.

The next building, the Tulfeinalm, was still a good twenty minutes walk away. We crossed another stream that poured and danced down the steep mountain that blocked our path. Several cows watched us pass the area. The Tulfeinalm provided another opportunity to replenish our stomachs. The waiter plunked down a tall half liter of golden wheat beer and a desert in front of us; he informed us that if we did not clean our plates it would be such a disappointment to the cook that she would be emotionally devastated and not want to cook again. We did not disappoint the cook and finished our meals.

Our return trip down the hill was via a ski lift, though when I saw this bouncy single-chair lift, I questioned the logic of this route.

An attendant directed me to place my shoes on some painted feet outlines that were on the pavement. I moved my backpack to my front and turned my head – a levitating chair moving rapidly in my direction. The chair quickly arrived – and I sat – making firm contact on the seat but the floating chair was not stable, it bounced and rocked as I wrestled with an arm handle – to turn, rotate and turn back the contraption which then allowed a footrest to appear by my feet. I rested my feet and the chair steadied. For the next 20 minutes, I was floating thirty feet above the ground enjoying million dollar views.

Near the end of the ride, the cable stopped moving. Silence. My chair was suspended in mid-air. The sounds of the mountain started to be heard: a cowbell in the trees below, a bird chirping, with the wind gently whooshing through the branches of the trees. The view of the valley below – one immense and a grand display of nature of mountains, sunlight, snow, forests, streams, and rivers. Those four minutes were some of the most pleasant moments of my day.

The lift station arrived, or rather I arrived at the lift station and jumped off my chair. I watched it for a minute make the return journey up the hill, I really wanted to return with it.

A second lift, this time a two-seater was close by and would take us down the remaining half of the mountain. My wife and I took this lift and in 15 or so minutes arrived in the village of Tulfes. We had only a minute to make the bus stop or have to wait an hour – which would have been pleasant for we were in a lovely village, but we had promised to return by an early time. We ran like youthful deer to make our bus connection and did – just barely.

The thirty-minute ride back to Innsbruck was pleasant. We passed through several villages, past farms, and fields of corn and wheat.

Our hike had taken about 7 hours with the tram rides, eating, enjoying the views and petting cows. What a fantastic day.

Hiking the Rosengartenschlucht (Rose Garden Gorge)

Imst is a beautiful town in Western Tirol. Here visitors will find a wonderful gorge that gushes with cascades and roars with waterfalls. The hike begins in the middle of town near a centuries-old church, within minutes a visitor is traversing a series of catwalks and footbridges while exploring this rugged landscape. Steps along the trail are often carved from the rock itself, and if wet, can be slippery so wear decent hiking shoes. In fact, my local guide would not go on the trail for several days after a rain as she believed the steps to be too slippery.

The actual hike is not difficult, but there are several areas where the trail is very steep while other sections have low overhangs. Expect a 250 m (820 ft) elevation gain while exploring the 1.5 km (.9 mile) long gorge.

This is a beautiful place but be prepared for a good number of people in the summertime. Consider going on the early side to lessen the number of people on the trail with you. Be prepared for an unexpected rain shower; during my visit, a sudden and very unexpected rain shower poured from the sky on us for about ten minutes, then as quickly as it started, the rain ceased and the sky was clear again.

The sound of water is always around you in the gorge.

Near the top of the falls is a recreation area with opportunities for playing and dining. Plan for several hours to fully explore the gorge at a leisurely pace.

A Day Hike to the Snow in Kühtai, Tirol, Austria

The scenery on the drive to the mountain village of Kühtai, located in the Tirolean Alps, was splendidly delicious. The town was located less than an hour’s drive from Innsbruck but passed all manner of natural delights: mountains helmeted with snow, cascading streams of water, thick carpets of forests and open expanses of glacial carved valleys. Tan colored cows were commonly seen walking on the roads and signs warning drivers of their presence were common.

two good looking blondes approached our group, horses of course, a mare and a yearling greeted usOur goal that warm summer day was to locate and touch snow.

The village was basically closed when we arrived. It was a winter ski town and sat snuggly within a mountain pass, far above the trees.

The empty town had a number of buildings but it was not uninhabited; two good-looking blondes approached our group, horses, of course, a mare and a yearling greeted us. They were soft to the touch and were curious about our backpacks. At that moment a tourist bus drove past. Everyone inside looked longingly as we pet the horses and they nuzzled our hands in return, but the bus did not stop, it just continued down the road.

We started the hikeWe started the hike. The unseen trail was at a 45-degree angle and hard to navigate. Fortunately, we located the real trail and the ascent was lessened but we still gained elevation. For some time we walked on this thin ribbon of trail that spiraled around the side of the mountain. The terrain was barren, only small plants and grasses grew at this elevation above the tree line. The metallic clank of bells informed us that cows A friendly cowwere just ahead – one was very friendly. As we walked out of an indented section of the trail we came to an open area where we could see a great distance, a number of cows and horses were grazing. A guard horse stood at attention and watched us closely, the wind blowing wild streams of blond and tan colored hair across his face. In this open area, when the wind was just right, we could hear bells from several kilometers away being worn by cows on the opposite side of the great valley.

Mountain cows and horsesGentle trickles of water rippled down the mountainside offering opportunities to hop and skip over streams, rocks and sometimes slip to find a quagmire of mud. The wind was cool on the mountain, we placed warm knitted hats over our ears to protect us from the nippy chill.

A lake appeared before us. It was difficult to see from afar as its mirrored surface reflected all that shown upon it – it was a perfect camouflage, that is until the stillness was disturbed by a thrown stone. Then, as the rolling ripples raced away from the disturbance, in perfect circles, the colors and tones of blues and greens revealed themselves. The lake revealed that it hid some deep water. A lake appeared before us

The trail grew steep again. Several cows watched us from nearby. One even let us pet it – it was surprisingly soft. Ahead of us was lettering etched on the side of the mountain, they were large capitals, possibly as large as a man is tall, the letters spelled M-E-I-N. In English, this translates to ‘mine.’ Such a statement gave a person pause to contemplate the meaning.

Our small troop was still well below the snow line and there was concern that maybe our hopes to touch snow would be dashed. We crested a rise in the trail. A stream with a respectable flow of water was disgorging itself from the ground. Beyond lay a marshy area, more appropriately the ‘ground’ was mossy, spongy and acted like a trampoline as we walked, astronaut-like, across this green moonscape.

A hole, about the size of a large grapefruit, was in the ground near some rocks – there were tracks around it. This was a Marmot’s home. A Marmot is a furry creature that looks like a giant Guinea Pig – but tougher, more independent…rugged. Just beyond lay another hole, possibly several Marmots lived here, but more likely this was just a back entrance.

The spongy area now turned to grass, but it was littered with the candy-sized droppings from mountain sheep. We skipped on rocks to avoid the abundant sweetness on the ground. With our eyes patrolling where we stepped none noticed the rubble field that lay before us.

The snow was just up aheadWe stood at the base of a great alluvial fan of shattered, shocked and shards of granite that had fallen from the face of the mountain. The source of this stone projected itself skyward into the blue many hundred of meters. Part way across this expanse of gray rubble and dark boulders were two tiny dots of white snow. We carefully hop-scotched and danced across stones; some as voluminous as autos, others the size of a phone book. After fifteen minutes of trudging the white dots were now the size of a small room. We had found the snow! Those who arrived at the snow ahead of us slower, more careful and diligent hikers, took inventory of their resources and seeing an abundant supply of not just snow, but icy-cold-slushy snow, decided to pelt their comrades.

The snow was just up ahead, sortaThe Snowballs rained down! The icy artillery slammed into the rocks with a ‘splud’ releasing spray and ice. Most of the snowballs were tossed in amusement and humor, but on occasion, I felt the sting of a good joke as the spray from a snowball made contact – or worse found an opening in my jacket and felt like frigid fingernails down the back of my shirt!

Finally, everyone arrived at the island of snow in this ocean of stone. We built a small “Schneemann” (snowman). We devoured our small lunches and contemplated the beauty around us, though my thoughts kept returning to my lunch, rather the lack of it, and that We finally made it to the snownext time I would pack edible provisions with significantly greater mass.

An arctic type chill descended on the valley. The vagrant white clouds that had lazily wafted overhead all day had quickly gathered into a sizable gray mob on the horizon. The Grandpa in the group informed us to pack up, it was time to leave the mountain.

We departed the snow patch, over the jagged stones and through the spongy marsh area, and over the mountainside but on a downward path. We passed another lake. It was beautiful but oddly warm to the touch – it lacked the expected chill. A large boulder in the lake appeared to rise from the temperate still waters.

It started to rain. We donned our rain gear and continued down the mountain. After twenty minutes the rain let up and the sun briefly illuminated the valley. After a few additional minutes the warm sun was replaced with overcast clouds.

Ahead of us was a herd of horses that was very pleasing to the sight. They were tan, muscular, healthy and dined on an abundance of the green mountain grass.

One of 'The Nibblers'We called them ‘the nibblers’ at first, as their nibbling was cute. A mother horse nibbled on a jacket, a shirt then a backpack. Something about the backpack was intriguing so she informed her yearling, who bounded over to engage in a taste test. Then other horses arrived. These majestic creatures must have thought of us as walking food bins as they too nibbled on us and everything on us: our shoes, pants, backpacks, jackets, rain jackets, shirts, hands, arms – even my daughter’s head! This behavior had quickly passed from cute to annoying and was starting to border on fear. In the midst of this nibbling chaos, a horse appeared to slowly glance this way, then that as though he was looking to make sure no one else was around before we, the humans, would be devoured. That same horse then looked squarely at me – and it is not a stretch of the truth to say this – the horse licked its lips as though anticipating wolfing down a decadent meal! Now I was genuinely concerned for my safety. These were not gentle Alpine horses, but mountain piranhas! We took our leave of them and scurried down the hill and to the village. As we moved away one horse stepped from the hungry pack to look longingly our direction, possibly out of curiosity, but more likely with a pang of hunger! Other hikers were in the distance and would soon pass the horses; sensing a second chance the horses re-staged themselves for their next performance and returned to their melancholy grazing. They would be having visitors for lunch…

The buildings of the village now appeared before us, but in miniature, like toys in a child’s room. In our bid to escape the horse-piranhas we had lost the trail, and instead invented our own, which was now 45 degrees in decent. We moved down a small crease in the side of the mountain, occasionally scaring up a frog. Some of the frogs were of good proportion and we joked that we were always seeing the same frog who was trying to escape us. My daughter collected wildflowers on the way and made a beautiful bouquet.a beautiful bouquet

Back in the village, it was quiet. We looked for a place to grab a coffee and relax, but none was to be found in this Alpine ghost town of modern buildings. A chilled wind blew around us so we gave up on coffee and headed back to the car. At the vehicle, everyone gladly unleashed their barking feet from the restraints of the hiking boots. We then slid our feet into squishy, roomy and comfortable sandals.

Our feet were sore, our knees ached, our faces were slightly windburned, we had too much sun, we were thirsty, hungry and tired. But, it was a good tired!

Everyone had a fun, eventful and meaningful day being outside, with good company in these beautiful Alpine mountains.

I breathed in a deep breath of cool mountain air and held it in my lungs, savoring the ‘deliciousness’ and not wanting to breath out.

Another tour bus blared past. Eager faces were pressed near the tinted glass, they appeared to be anxious and wanting of an active experience.

Breakfast on the Farm

When traveling in Europe ask the locals about farms that serve meals. It is a great way to eat fresh food, discover someplace new and experience the countryside.

During a trip to Tirol, Austria, we found a farm that served breakfast. There are many such farms in the Alps but this particular one was in the village of Mühlau, a district of Innsbruck, Austria. Breakfast is offered to the public on select Saturday mornings, and the locals suggested we arrive – earlier the better – as it was a very popular location.

We managed to catch a ride that morning. As the car drove quickly through the narrow streets of Mühlau not many people were out. Many of the houses had yards and bright and bountiful looking gardens. Several farms were in the area, but they integrated well with the houses and with other buildings in the town. A large green space weaved its way into the town and it was hard to tell where the town ended and the farms and green space began.

We arrived outside a small green yard with a sturdy looking house and several large wooden barns. Attached to the house was a newer section made of wood and glass. We entered through a heavy wooden door that swung inward, the inside building was made of a light colored wood with windows near the ceiling which allowed in an abundance of natural light. The room was clean and basic in design. A crucifix hung on one wall. Inside the room were nine or ten long tables, each with accompanying wooden benches at the sides. At these tables were maybe 80 people eating with a plate of food. The breakfast assortment included traditional items: homemade fresh bread, freshly made jam, slices of thin meat, speck, yogurt, cheese, fresh milk, some fruit, hard boiled eggs and cups of coffee.

A small line of folks were standing in front of a serving table that included baskets and serving plates. The line was held up because a basket of some critical food item was out. At that moment a woman, emerged from a recessed back room, scurried over and refilled the basket of bread. Then another person, this time a child, ran over with clean mugs to refill the inventory, then another child walked over with a plate of cheeses. Then an older woman came out, this was the Mom; she straightened a few things, looked around and instructed the kids to work on some other items.

The atmosphere in the dinning hall was relaxed and the people eating were content. Almost everyone there were locals.

A small sign with the letters ‘wc’ (water closet) hung on a large, carved wooden door. Opening the door you walked through a storage area that included a variety of farm implements and boxes of dried food, here was an inside door that opened into the family’s house! There was a hand scrawled sign on the wall, that looked like a child hurriedly wrote it, with the letters ‘wc’ and an arrow. The arrow pointed to a small guest bathroom. I could hear a TV in one room and people talking from another room. It was an odd feeling just walking into to someone’s house.

I was surprised that so many guests visited this house, yet the facilities remained very clean; it was also surprising that the family allowed strangers into where they lived.

Everyone visiting the small, local farm was courteous and treated the place and each other with respect. It was a refreshing experience.

When we finished our breakfast we found the farm Mom and paid for our meals. The cost was €7.50 (about $10) person. She invited us to look around outside.

The big barn was inhabited by 4 large brown cows and nearby we heard chickens, but they were cooped up because of all the visitors. We looked for horses, but a sign said they were up on the mountain. The kids who were visiting the farm enjoyed petting some bunnies and guinea pigs.

It was great being in the city and enjoying some good fresh and locally produced food.

Exploring the Achensee of Tirol by Train, Trail, and Ship

The Achensee (ah-khen-say) is a beautiful natural lake nestled in the mountains of Tirol, Austria. The lake is sizable being 1 km wide and 9.5 km in length. It was to this lake that we traveled for a day trip.

The Austrian countryside sped past our window as the modern, aerodynamic train shot down rails of seamless steel. After a quiet, thirty minutes ride from Innsbruck, we departed at the Jenbach Bahnhof (Jenbach Train station) and proceeded only a few steps to the waiting Achenseebahn (Achensee train).

AchenseebahnHere stood a mechanized anachronism; an old-time, coal-burning, steam engine. It traveled on a narrow gauge rail, yet the engine was surprisingly large. The engine was oily, smelled of grease and belched and hissed steam. Inside the engineer’s cockpit, a messy pile of coal was sprawled across the metal floor. Along the sides of the machine were giant metallic wheels which supported the steam engine’s carriage. Underneath and between the wheels was a giant gear – a third rail – this was used by the train for traversing steep gradients.

We boarded one of two open-sided passenger cars. An antiquated latch locked a mini-door and kept several of us pinned in our row. A plaque on the wall stated the car was built in 1889 for Kaiser und König (Emperor and King).

The steam engine’s whistle was activated and a long high-pitched wail announced the start of the journey, with a small chug the behemoth came to life. The chugs grew with intensity and the entire train lurched forward as the engine pushed the cars uphill. Just one minute into the trip the tracks became steep and the third rail was activated, a clank-clank-clank of the greased metal gear could be heard.

AchenseebahnGeysers of dark smoke belched from the engine’s stack, the plumes repeated faster and faster as the machine’s power came to full strength. An engineer or an assistant shoveled coal into the engine’s furnace to feed the fiery beast. The burning coal boiled water and produced steam, this in-turn powered gears that moved the locomotive ever further up the hill.

The cars were pushed by the engine about as fast as a person could jog; through forests, past houses, small villages, and fields. Cars would stop at crossing signals and patiently wait for the train to pass, the people inside the autos were smiling just from seeing this historic train. On occasion tourists would run to a fence and start snapping photos, people in the train would wave back. The engineer would blast the whistle to add some zest to the excitement.

Sitting in the passenger car with my arm on the railing, I noticed my outside arm was suddenly covered in ash! The great billow of dark smoke had risen over the cars and the heavier ash particles were softly raining down.

AchenseeAfter the train crossed the highest point the engine was detached from the cars, it then traveled on a parallel track to the front of the train and was re-attached. Now the engine pulled the train. We resumed our trip. After a few minutes the track curved and in the distance was a sheet of blue hidden among the trees – this was the Achensee, a great inland lake, the largest in Austria. The lake rested in a deeply carved valley surrounded by high Alpine mountains.

A jet of steam was released from the side of the engine as the train stopped just meters away from the lake, we had arrived at the Achensee. The engineer jumped out and pulled a large faucet arm over to the engine and released a great flow of water. The steam engine greedily guzzled water to replenish itself for the return trip – a trip this steam engine had made thousands of times over the past hundred years.

The lake was beautiful, and because it was easy accessibility by automobiles and buses, the lake was a tourist haven, especially along the southern and western shore of the lake where we had arrived.

We walked on a lakeside trail for about 5 kilometers before we finally passed the last of the restaurants, tour buses and a multitude of visitors. It seemed odd that so many folks who visited these areas of comfort and relaxation looked unhappy and solemn from behind their sunglasses and wide-brimmed sun hats.

Hiking at the AchenseeThe trail we were on followed the edge of this elegant lake. Once we were past the touristy area the paved pathway narrowed, then became gravel walkway, then smaller again to become a dirt footpath. The lake began to reveal itself as we walked and passed small springs and quiet pebbled beaches. At one point a waterfall burst over the edge of a precipice – from fifty feet above – and tumbled down upon the path. The force of the water was strong but this part of the trail was shielded by a tin-roofed structure that looked all the worse for wear. The falling liquid drummed loudly on the roof as we passed under it.

The trail meandered along the inlets and indented shoreline of the lake. At one point we passed a great disgorgement of stone that had slid off the mountain – the action had created a jumble of rocks that fanned into the lake – we stood at the tip of a giant landslide. The mountain above was scarred like a great wound had been inflicted upon the surface.

We had been walking for two and a half hours since we left the train and were hungry. The plan was to meet several family members at an Alm about halfway up the northwestern side of the lake. They would arrive by ferry. We met them at the Alm and ate lunch, though, afterward we wished we had not eaten, for the meal was industrial in its preparation and it was presented without emotion. The meal was a disservice both in flavor and price paid -it did not represent this beautiful area. Having said that I must add that as I left the restaurant we passed others wolfing down the same meal, they were raving about how good it tasted.

FerryWe went outside and waited for the ferry. Our return trip would be by boat rather than by shoreline.

A large ferry boat out on the lake blurted its horn. It approached and with surprising agility maneuvered up to a small dock; we boarded. Not many people were on the ferry and we had the ship mostly to ourselves. Placards inside the main cabin advertised a nighttime cruise, an attached photo showed a sparkling and illuminated vessel on a dark body of water with a setting sun over a backdrop of mountains.

The ship hugged the shoreline. Now, just offshore I could study the topography of the steep and rugged mountains; from the sharp angle of the land entering the lake, it was obvious our ship traversed over deep waters. Looking overboard and into the lake’s water, the late afternoon sun shot lances of light down into the depths. The visibility was about 9m (27 feet) or so.

The recently eaten lunch sat in my tummy like a brick and I thought that if the vessel was struck by a calamity and sank into the dark waters of the Achensee that I would sink with it, like a stone, all because of that unfortunate meal that weighed so heavily on my stomach.

Ferry on the AchenseeWithin twenty minutes the vessel covered the same distance that I had walked in about 2 and half hours on the shoreline. It was then I realized I had not been so far away from the touristy area as I perceived myself to be, in fact, I had been in the middle of it. We docked near some hotels to gather passengers and the same solemn looking tourists I had seen earlier boarded. I guess they had eaten some terrible food too and that unhappy experience had etched itself on their faces.

In another fifteen minutes, the ship docked again and we disembarked. The Achenseebahn was quietly puffing away, waiting for us and others to board and be returned down the mountain.

The engine growled to life and we enjoyed a pleasant journey back to the train station. Everyone was tired and some of the people on the train slept, which was surprising considering the noise from the engine.

The late afternoon light provided great opportunities for photos as the train descended into the Inn Valley. In the distance, the train station and our final stop. Ten minutes later a modern, electric powered train arrived at the adjoining station and transported us back to Innsbruck in comfort.

An Abundance of Shrines in Tirol

Religious shrines are abundant in the mountains, cultivated valleys and forests of Tirol, Austria. The observant visitor will see them everywhere: at the edge of roads, on city streets, in the woods, at restaurants, in businesses, outside of cafes, and even on remote hiking trails.

An Abundance of Shrines in TirolMany of the smaller shrines are carved from wood, are raised off the ground, and sit at eye level. They can even displayed on a tree. Inside these shrines, protected from direct wind and rain, can be paintings or photos of revered figures: the Madonna, Jesus, Saints or even loved ones.

Some shrines are large and placed in prominent places like sidewalks; while others are small and in out-of-the-way places. One of the smallest shrines I saw rested about 4 meters (12 feet) up a cliff, directly overhead, on a hiking trail. I would not have seen it if I had not stopped for a drink of water and happened to glance up.

An Abundance of Shrines in Tirol - Several Near a Walking PathOther shrines are made of stone or cement; they can be the size of a small car or that of a small bus. These shrines generally have a gate or a fence outside while inside are paintings or statues. Frequently I saw flowers, candles and photos of people resting just inside such shrines.

In family-owned cafes or in people’s houses a small shrine might be found, but usually the most common symbol to be seen is a large, ornately carved wooden Crucifix hanging in a corner or along the wall.

If you travel to the top of a mountain a large cross will be located at the highest point. A walk through a thick forest can even reveal a small shrine.

An Abundance of Shrines in Tirol - In the ForestEvery town has a church. These Alpine churches are often graced by the well-known tall rectangular spires that symbolize the Alps. Larger towns might have a basilica and in some cases cathedrals.

Tirol is sometimes referred to as the “Holy Land Tirol” by residents.

The great majority of Tirol’s populace are Roman Catholic.

A Day On Nordkette

If you stand anywhere in Innsbruck, Austria, you will notice an imposing mountain range rising 2454m (8051 feet) over this beautiful city. This is the Nordkette (Northern Chain) – an immense wall of granite with numerous peaks and trails to explore. Visitors can easily visit via the Nordkettenbahn (gondola) which whisks people up the mountain in 20 minutes.

Starting near downtown Innsbruck (560m, 1837 feet), visitors can take the fast and modern Hungerburgbahn and in ten minutes be within a few steps to the Nordkettenbahn (gondola).

NordkettenbahnThe Nordkettenbahn (gondola) glides over rooftops and farms, hiking and biking trails that quickly reveal themselves hidden among the trees. The sun that day was bright and the clean air allowed for endless vistas as the gondola ascended ever higher. After 15 minutes we stopped at a solid rock building known as the Seegrube.

The Seegrube station is located at 1905m (6350 feet) and offers a restaurant and areas outside for play and exploration. It is a joy to walk down the mountainside from this location, but that is another story.

In the summertime musical events are held outside Seegrube and people often bring tents and camp out on the side of the mountain. The terrain here is rocky and barren looking, but quite beautiful. As people disembarked from the gondola a nippy temperature embraced everyone. People quickly began putting on warm hats and an extra jacket.

We walked a few paces inside the building to the second leg of the gondola ride. A small cable-car glided into the station; this was the more petite-sized Hafelekar station bound gondola. In a few minutes our gondola-pod, holding maybe 10 or 12 people, rose over the shattered and rough looking stones below. We climbed, at a very steep ascent of 40-45 degree angle up the mountain. Upon the barren rock face were large metallic structures, fences designed to hold great weight and guard the city below against avalanches.

HafelekarspitzeAs we approached the Hafelekar our gondola slowed to a crawl. At that moment a powerful wind gush pushed the car to one side and people in the pod briefly lost their footing. As the pod swung back the operator increased the speed and the pod – with a hard bump and then a dull thud – arrived safely at Hafelekar, elevation 2256m (7729 feet). The landscape here was naked, only grass and lichens were visible on a barren landscape of jagged stone. The air was cold – around 6 degrees C (42F) and made colder by the fierce wind that boxed our ears and made our eyes tear.

Several tourists wearing only shorts, a t-shirt and a camera bolted quickly up the mountain for photos. After ten minutes they vigorously returned and clamored into the warmth of the station.

Cross on HafelekarspitzeReaching the actual top of the mountain requires 15 minutes walk up a steep and rocky path to the summit of Hafelekarspitze. This small trail was well worn during the years of visitation. The top of the mountain has a small protective rock wall for visitors, near this area sits a large cross. From the mountaintop, you can see miles beyond in every direction. Below, Innsbruck appeared like a miniature toy city, with tiny buildings and small train yard. The mighty Inn River was just a appeared to be a gentle ribbon of water.

Standing on top of the mountain the setting was peaceful; a bit windy, but the sun was shining, a blue sky was overhead, and the dramatically sculpted mountains surrounding us looked peaceful, but that was about to change.

While exploring some side trails the wind grew very fierce and some menacingly gray clouds appeared to spontaneously generate overhead. We quickly removed ourselves from the mountain via the gondola and shortly we stood again in Innsbruck. We peered up the great line of mountains, the area near the top – where we were – was blanketed by dark clouds and was hidden from view.

An hour afterward, these clouds had silently marched down the mountainside and were bathing Innsbruck in a cool rain.

Learn more:
http://www.nordkette.com/en/top/home.html

Hafelekarspitze
View from Hafelekarspitze
Hafelekarspitze
View from Hafelekarspitze

Curious Finds in Hötting

Innsbruck has a number of colorful neighborhoods, one of the more curious is Hötting.

Hötting is located in the northwestern part of Innsbruck, just a short walk from the touristy and historic Altstadt area. Immediately crossing into Hötting it is noticeable the crowds have thinned and the pace of life is slower and more relaxed.The main street, Höttinger Gasse, is quiet except for the occasional auto that whizzes past. Walking up the gradient of the street sharply increases but it is not uncomfortable, possibly this detracts most tourists from venturing to this area. The streets are Curious Finds in Hottingvery narrow here and suggests this is a very old section of town. According to the Stadtarchiv Museum (City Archives) this is actually one of the oldest sections of Innsbruck. The streams here were once used as a water source for the city.

A short way up the street are signs of artistic graffiti on a long wall. Some of the images, artwork and designs have humorous slants. One image mixed in with the tangle of colors is a life-sized paintingCurious Finds in Hotting of the animated character Homer Simpson, of course he is thinking of beer as shown by several thought bubbles. At the end of the wall is a curious visual display; several large plate glass windows – like those of a shop – offer a glimpse into a bedroom. In the bedroom are two mannequins with a variety of arms and legs sprawling in every direction; in the midst of this revelry the mannequins gaze at each other with unemotional expressions. The scene is cause for a double-take among passing pedestrians. Another area along the street, in a recessed area, is a stenciled picture of a former US President wearing an elfin looking holiday stocking on his head with the words, “Happy X-mas USA.” A small business selling drums and didgeridoos is nearby. Another small business has a sign offering eastern meditation and martial arts classes.

Curious Finds in HottingContinuing up the street is a very curious memorial; it is from World War I and dated “1914-1918” and the words, (translated to) “The Fallen in War from Hötting.” The marker features several carved crosses and a man – a soldier, his head down, his hands resting on and over the barrel of his rifle, his expression austere. However, approaching the monument his expression changes, he now appears sad, somber and mournful. He stands over a number of names of soldiers from World War I – those who never returned. A second set of names appears below the first grouping; these names appear on a memorial that was never intended for them, these are names from World War II.

Curious Finds in HottingFurther up the street is a church, the “Alte Höttinger Pfarrkirche” (Old Hötting Church). This church is quite old and has some refurbishment work that is under construction. Nearby is a simple graveyard, a peaceful and colorful place with various dates on the markers along with photos and flowers for loved ones. Walking out of the cemetery, through a stone gateway and up a curved street is a small green space with magnificent and expansive view of Innsbruck. Several benches are placed here for the enjoyment of folks who have discovered this fine location. Curious Finds in HottingLooking below are the streets of Hötting and downtown Innsbruck can be seen not far away. Hötting is very pleasant, safe and quiet. It is a worthwhile place to explore, the quiet back alleys and narrow streets reveal farms and houses with gardens.

Find Fresh Food at the Markthalle in Innsbruck

Eating healthy foods can be a problem when traveling. Dealing with a different schedule, an unfamiliar language, and the lack of a kitchen means that most meals come in the form of a ready-made sandwich or dining out. Often, this food may not be prepared with the healthiest of ingredients. When I explore I deliberately seek out places that offer fresh food – and places recommended by locals.

One great location for fresh food in Innsbruck, Austria, is the Markthalle. The Markthalle offers a place for farmers and small businesses to gather under one roof; it is a big warehouse packed with fresh food, colorful vegetables and fruits, recently harvested meats, fresh baked bread, decadent deserts and several places to grab a decent cup of coffee. The weekends are especially busy as both vendors and customers flock to the market.

The Markthalle Innsbruck is just a block from Altstadt (Old Town), the heart of the city. The market is located next to the river close to the Innbrücke (Bridge over the Inn) and Market Square.

The hours are:
Mon – Fri: 7:00 am – 6:30 pm
Sat: 7:00 am – 1:00 pm
Sun: closed

For more information visit their website (the site is in German):
http://www.markthalle-innsbruck.at/index.php

Where Innsbruck’s Hidden Stories Are Kept

While in Innsbruck, Austria, I observed the one-hundred year old building I was staying in was similar in architecture, but obviously much older than the surrounding buildings. I asked some local residents about it. They were not sure, but the question intrigued them. Finally, a call was made to Opa (the Grandfather) of one of the residents. He had lived in the building as a child.

He said the nearby rail yard in Innsbruck was destroyed by Allied bombs during the War (World War II) and many of the surrounding buildings had been pulverized, but his building survived – he was age 4 when the war ended. For many years afterwards he could remember having a clear line of sight, all the way to Schloss Ambras castle, several kilometers aways. In the late 1940’s and early 1950’s the ruble was removed and the city rebuilt.

Wow! A simple question had uncovered a great story. My curiosity had peaked, but where could I find other hidden stories? The next day I made a trip to the Stadtarchiv Museum (City Archive Museum) located in the Altstadt (Old Town) part of Innsbruck.

The museum has two entrances, but the front entrance from Altstadt is the most alluring. Peering in from Altstadt via a tunnel you see a pleasant courtyard. Most tourists see the courtyard and just move on, but if you take the time to explore, a small cobbled alley – almost hidden from sight – reveals itself. The museum entrance is just ahead. The museum itself is small and consists of two halls.

The first hall chronicles the history of Innsbruck from the initial founding roughly eight-hundred years earlier to the 1800‘s. It also includes many stories about the cultural and economic contributions of the city. Take some time to enjoy the beautiful paintings of Innsbruck at different times through the centuries.

The second hall includes an exhibit about the time between the wars, when Tirol was annexed by the Nazis. It and also features photos of the liberation by the Allied forces. One picture provided a direct connection for me; it is a black and white snapshot of an American soldier standing in the middle of a street directing traffic – it was the same location I had walked across that morning coming to the museum.

I saw a map of the bombs that had been dropped on Innsbruck during the War. The area around the building where I was staying was in was a sea of red dots, indicating where the various incendiaries had detonated. For some reason, possibly luck, the building survived while others around it had been devastated.

The exhibit then moves from that ugly period in history and continues to the more aspiring time when Innsbruck hosted several winter Olympic games.

The displays in the museum are in German, but translations of the displays are available in a booklet printed in English.

This tiny museum is one of the most fascinating in all of Innsbruck, yet possibly one of the least visited or even the least known. It is best enjoyed once you have seen many of the other sights, traveled around and obtained a ‘feel’ for Innsbruck. Only then will some of the hidden stories written within the museum make themselves known.

See the Sights and Save Money in Innsbruck

Visitors to Innsbruck, Austria, can keep some cash in their wallet by using the Innsbruck Card.

The Innsbruck Card is like a ‘golden ticket’ for the holder and provides free entrance to the beautiful sights and historic museums in the Innsbruck area; a ride up and down on one of 7 lifts and free transportation on public transit lines. The card is valid for either, 24, 48, or 72 hours, depending on what you purchase.

innsbruck card - image source - www.innsbruck.infoThe price (at the time of this writing) per adult is €29 for 24 hours; €34 for 48 hours; and €39 for 72 hours. The kids price is half the adult amount. This might sound a lot of money, but museum entrance and bus transit fees start adding up and can wreck a budget.

I found the card to be a great investment. The card allowed me to see some amazing stuff, it easily paid for itself in a day and personally saved me $80 in entrance fees over three days!

If you have the time and budget I would recommend the 72 hour card; it provides the most flexibility to accommodate weather, crowds and Monday. Museums are generally open 6 days a week, but Monday is the day that museums in Innsbruck are closed, so plan around this day accordingly.

The Sightseer BusThe city has an exceptional transit system, but you should consider using the Sightseer Bus with your Innsbruck Card. This big red bus makes stops at all the major museums and runs every fifteen to twenty minutes, it is a very fast and direct way to get around, and of course, free with your Innsbruck card.

The Innsbruck card can be purchased at the ‘Tourist Information’ center downtown which is located at the border of Altstadt and the Maria-Theresien-Straβe (street). The desk staff are multi-lingual and very informative. I suggest you go early in the day to avoid the tour-bus crowds.

Maximize your experience by knowing the places you want want to visit before you buy the card. When you purchase the card you will be asked about the 24-48-72 timeframe and an important question, “What Tourist Officetime do you want the card to start?” Be careful, do NOT say “now” and then leave to enjoy a coffee. When you purchase the card a chip embedded in the card is activated. At the end of the 24, 48 or 72 hour time period the card will be invalid. I made good use of the card for 72 hours, but was four minutes late arriving at one museum. I attempted to use the card when it was 72 hours and 4 minutes old, but only found it was no longer active.

All cards comes with a brochure that lists all of the museums and sights, includes a map and shows the route of the Sightseer Bus.

Riding Innsbruck’s Hungerburgbahn

Years ago during a visit to Innsbruck, Austria, I had the pleasure of riding a quaint and antiquated one-hundred year old funicular railway, called the Hungerburgbahn. A funicular railway is designed to climb steep slopes. The old Hungerburgbahn (shown in a photo from the early 1900’s) squeaked, clicked and creaked up the mountain making the ride an adventure in itself. The route was a simple straight track that traversed over a bridge Hungerburgbahn - source Wikipediaspanning the Inn river, then up the mountainside, past the Alpenzoo and beyond to the Hungerburg cable car station. The track was less than one kilometer in length, but riding it was like stepping back in time. Sadly, this funicular railway was closed in 2005. It was replaced in 2007 with a modern, safer and more expedient railway.

The new Hungerburgbahn is step forward in time. A futuristic building with rounded and sweeping architecture identifies the Congress station to riders. This underground station is close to Altstadt (Old Town) Innsbruck, the center of shopping and tourism. At the station quiet escalators move passengers below ground to a small waiting area where a polished and modern tram car glides quietly to the boarding area. The doors whisper open and people board. The doors close with computerized efficiency and the tram hums away down a dark tunnel. With a sudden flash the tram bursts into the daylight, making a quick stop at the Löwenhaus station, then crosses an architecturally stylish bridge over the River Inn – treating riders to a postcard view. The train disappears into another Hungerburgbahn - Newtunnel and begins a steep ascent up the mountain. Individual pods on the tram change their angle, keeping the riders comfortably level, but this action is so silent, so normal that people do not observe that any change in the angle has occurred. Now the tram re-emerges into the light, the Alpenzoo station is just ahead. To the passengers, the sights and buildings of Innsbruck begin to appear in miniature as the tram climbs higher. A stop is made at the Alpenzoo and then just beyond is the terminus of our ride at the Hungerburg station. From this station passengers can explore the countryside or catch a gondola to explore the top of the mountain. The Hungerburgbahn travels less than 2 kilometers and climbs 288 meters in elevation in just a few minutes.

Visitors to Innsbruck will appreciate the close to downtown station and the fast travel time up the mountain – especially if you are traveling with kids or the weather is a concern.

Reference: Wikipedia.

Exploring the Halls of Schloss Ambras (Castle Ambras)

An enjoyable outing while visiting Innsbruck, Austria, is Schloss Ambras. Schloss in German means castle. Plan to spend at least half a day to explore the armory, the chamber of curiosities, the gardens and the many rooms of this Renaissance palace. The castle houses a splendid collection of historical items and artifacts that have been collected over the centuries.

Schloss Ambras ArmoryThe first stop is the armory. Here visitors are greeted by a life-sized exhibit of armor-clad knights on horseback. The craftsmanship of the armor is first-rate. The metal work is so shiny that at times a visitor can be momentarily blinded by the reflecting lights. Adjacent rooms have a weaponry-cornucopia of swords, pikes, lances and a variety of hunting blades, even some of the earliest rifles.

Vlad aka DraculaThe Chamber of Arts and Curiosities lives up to the name. Some of the items in the collection do not need an introduction, like a painting of Vlad the Impaler, who was notoriously known throughout the centuries as inflicting horrific, slow and grotesque deaths upon his enemies. His atrocities have sobered many throughout the years, causing a person to wonder if such a human was really a monster? Vlad was the inspiration for the character we know today as Dracula.

Another painting features a man who survived being impaled in the head at a jousting tournament and apparently survived well enough and long enough for his portrait to be painted.

TödleinThe collection includes hundreds of items, but one tiny wooden sculpture, called the Tödlein, less than foot tall, is so ornately carved with such precision and detail that one catches their breath – only then to see the carving is without facial features – a skeletal head with deep and empty eye sockets and the toothy face of Death – and one catches their breath again.

Spanish Hall - source wikipediaWalking across the green courtyard in the brilliant sunlight you pass a small cafe and walk to the upper castle. Here is the Elegant Spanish Hall. This beautiful hall was built between 150 and 1572 and is truly a feast for the eyes. As in years before people have donned their finest attire to attend waltzes, balls, and social events and visit this hall for an evening of revelry and fun. Today, waltzes and other events continue held here in this lovely hall.

The remainder of the main castle offers 4 floors to explore. On these floors are 250 paintings from over 400 years of members from the House of Hapsburg and relations. You can also find special traveling exhibits. There is also a small, but the ornate church, and a bath hall.

Schloss Ambras GroundsFinish up the visit by exploring the lush grounds that surround the castle.

Learn more:
http://www.khm.at/en/plan-your-visit/ambras-castle/

Innsbruck’s Glockenmuseum (Bell Museum)

Ever wonder how those gigantic bells at the tops of cathedrals and town halls in Europe are made? A visit to the Bell Museum and Grassmayr Bell Foundry in the middle of Innsbruck, Austria, can help to answer that question.

For over 400 years bells have been forged at this small business. Visitors can explore the bell museum to learn about the manufacturing process, tour the old foundry and get a peek into the modern facility that continues to make bells. This is not a large museum, but a good amount of information and history is packed inside.

A ten-minute video plays continuously in a small room. It chronicles the birth of a bell from ore, through being produced, to completion. The video is in German, but English only speakers will still learn a good deal. Two items from the video are of particular interest: with all of the wars in Europe over the centuries few enterprises survived, however this bell foundry continued by producing cannons; the video also states that records were kept of all the bells that were made (over 6,000) but no records were kept of the number of cannons produced.

In the museum are bell patterns and casts of all sizes. Markings on the floor show sizes of some of the large bells – some of which are several meter in diameter! Outside is a coutryard lined with bells where you can see just how big and sturdy some of these amazing bells are up close.

For more information visit:
http://www.grassmayr.at

The Old Foundry
The old foundry
The New Foundry
The New Foundry

Tips for Dining Out in Tirol

Whether you are visiting family members, on a tour, or independently exploring Tirol in Austria, you will ultimately find yourself eating at a restaurant or cafe. Here are four tips to help you have a more enjoyable meal.

Water:
In the U.S. a glass of drinking water (tap water) is always served in a restaurant and is complimentary with the meal. It is OK to have just water, and not any order social drinks, with a meal. Mineral water can appear on a menus, but is sometimes considered extravagant.

In Austria, and much of Europe, a glass of (tap) water is not a complimentary item. Asking for just tap water, and not ordering social drinks, is considered rude and cheap.

Water can be ordered but what you will receive will be mineral water. The waiter will ask, “Do you want Stilles Wasser or Prickelndes Wasser?” Prickelnd means with bubbles, the water is carbonated; Stilles Wasser means no bubbles, just mineral water. The waiter will then bring a small bottle of mineral water to you.

If you want regular tap water, you can ask for it, but request it AFTER the other drinks have been ordered or when your meal is delivered to the table. Requesting water in this way will save any locals at your table any social discomfort or embarrassment.

Tax:
The prices listed on menus have the tax included. A dinner that is advertised at €15.00 will cost you €15.00. Tipping will be extra.

What to Tip:
In the U.S. a waiter often earns a base pay (sometimes under minimum wage) and makes up the difference in pay through tips. In the EU, a waiter, as an employee is already covered by a handsome benefits package and has state run health care. So, tipping in Austria has different rules than it does in the U.S.

I checked with natives of Innsbruck to ask how they tip. Their general rule is: if you order drinks, tip up to the next Euro. If you order food, tip several Euros. So when drinks cost €6.20 you might pay €7 which includes the tip; if dinner costs €25.40 you might pay €28.00 which also includes the tip. Be careful of touristy restaurants (a place that talks to you in good English and gives you a menu in American English) because they sometimes play to the American custom of tipping at 15% – 20% and will even print this request in the English worded menu. In the end, wherever you eat, if you receive excellent service tip what you wish.

Paying the Bill:
In America, a bill is placed on your table near the end of your meal. In Austria, you must ask for the bill. This custom does allow you to stay at the table and talk sometimes for hours. When you are ready to pay identify yourself to the waiter and ask for the bill. In smaller restaurants the owner will approach with a small change purse and a copy of the bill. The owner will show you the bill and say the total amount. You reply with the amount you will pay, (following the tipping rule). Any change will be returned.

Camping in Tirol

Camping in Tirol, Austria, can be very different from camping in the U.S.

I was invited to go ‘camping’ at a place about an hour east of Innsbruck in the beautiful countryside of Tirol. What I encountered was very different from my expectations: camping under the stars, cooking over an open fire, and being away (or at least not too close) from other people. What I encountered was a more leisurely and communal form of camping. The closest American counterpart I can think of is staying at a KOA.

Camping in TirolThe experience began with turning off the main highway and traveling down a nicely paved road lined the waving flags. This guided us us to central building that included a restaurant, recreation room, showers, and a small cafe. I was surprised to see the campground even offered Wi-Fi. Cars and trailers were parked in organized rows, each in a specific lot. We parked our car in a side parking area and walked to our trailer.

Outside the small trailer was a raised platform where a small table or chairs could be set and a shade cloth raised overhead.The remaining grassy area was maybe 9 meters square. The neighbors’ trailer provided the boundary of the lot on one side, some bushes on another with the road providing the third side, the trailer fenced in the fourth side. You could pitch a tent in this space if you wanted.

Camping in TirolAt one point in the afternoon everyone walked to a small lake about 5 minutes away, it was surrounded by a large green space with an abundance of geese. The lake was picturesque and a good many folks enjoyed swimming in it. Nearby was a small water monitoring facility. I was told that on weekends the lake is packed. Some locals visiting the camping area told me the owners are very concerned about the quality and safety of the water as it “was the basis of their livelihood.” Afterwards we returned to the campsite.

A long extension cord snaked from some unseen power box into our site and into the side on a electric grill. Dinner was prepared on the grill and everyone helped to set the table. We took the dishes to a large building that offered hot showers and included a large bank of sinks for washing dishes.

In the evening people stayed inside their trailers, socialized or watched tv. For the those in tents they stayed up talking.

I was surprised that for all of the compactness of the campground, it was quiet and the neighbors were very pleasant.

Many of the campers had brought their RV or trailer to the campground and leased a space on a long-term basis; the purpose being that on weekends or during time off they might come to the campground to relax.

If you get the opportunity to go camping in Europe by all means do, you will have a good time; but set your expectation that such ‘camping’ might be more leisurely and less roughing it.