The Austria’s Tirol is awash with natural beauty to a point of complacency. While though most of its valleys are simply named after the region or municipality in which they sit between competing mountainsides, the Wildschoenau boldly goes where all others dare not venture – by self-titling from its very attributes that cannot be denied: wild and beautiful.
Comprising of four modest settlements – Auffach, Thierbach, Niederau, and Oberau – the Wildschoenau valley is a long-established favourite with the British and particular the Dutch, the latter perhaps likening the more rolling than vertiginous landscape with their predominantly tableland-like country. Although this isn’t an Ischgl or Obergurgl, one must not confuse altitude with difficulty of terrain. While the Oetztal contains Austria’s highest parish at 1930 metres, it is the inevitably thinner air rather than overly taxing pistes and hiking that can incommode skiers and walkers. Some of the upper trails in the Wildschoenau deserve respect and careful attention, despite personally only ‘topping out’ during my visit at 1964 metres.
For those craving the jagged peaks of the western Tirol a day of high visibility from the deceptively brutal Feldalphorn (1923 metres) offers expansive, wide-ranging views; the eponymous Kitzbueheler Horn is also a constant companion throughout much of the WIldschoenau. With a gondola cableway in both Auffach and Niederau higher ground can be reached in a matter of minutes, although several of my preferred walks are accessed from the valley floor. Starting from behind Niederau’s Hotel Austria the route to the Moeslalmkogel offers a relatively gentle introduction to the area, with surprisingly pleasing views of Woergl, the immediate area’s industrial and shopping capital. Coupled with the more challenging and lonely hike to the Eisstein summit, both offer a fine day’s walking without the need to use artificial upward momentum.
The wildness of the area’s moniker is never better exemplified by the local ornithology and fauna evident to those willing to watch and listen, and perhaps head only slightly off the beaten track. Despite the modest differences in altitude between the Wildschoenau’s settlements and the upper extent of many of its best walks, the call of the Cuckoo is soon heard once one has alighted at the Markbachjoch’s top station. Indeed, the at times extremely challenging route to the Feldalphorn summit is mollified by the calls of many Cuckoo resounding around an area acting as a natural echo-chamber. I was fortunate to witness a persistently vocal Cuckoo calling from atop a lightning-damaged tree, as well as during my stay observing a Little Owl, deer, Red Squirrel, Yellowhammer, and countless large but unidentified birds of prey enviably riding the thermals.
A travel agent in Niederau offered day-trips to the usual touristy suspects – Krimml Waterfalls, Berchtesgaden/Eagles Nest, Chiemsee, Salzburg – but even during the one washout day of my stay I wasn’t tempted to leave the valley – an utter dreamscape. With further possibilities than I had time to explore, including some higher peaks accessed from Auffach’s Schatzberg cableway, it is entirely feasible to while away a month in the Wildschoenau without doing the same route twice(although you may wish to retrace your steps) and crucially, getting bored. Despite sore knees and superficial sunburn, I don’t think I can ever recall thinking the same about any other part of the Tirol.
My stay was made all the more comfortable from the welcome extended by the family-owned Oberau-based Landhotel Tirolerhof. A low-key, unobtrusive but ‘there to help’ attitude held sway throughout my stay, with constant attention given to my individual dietary requirements. It was plain for all to see how hard the Erharter family work to maintain a level of service that has set a very high standard, outwardly portraying a seamless operation which involves methodical and intricate organisational acumen behind the scenes.
A lack of good quality hotels open during the Wildschoenau’s summer season subsequently places at a premium the rooms in the better-run establishments; if you can therefore secure lodgings at the Tirolerhof it is not unrealistic to feel a sense of privilege. Some accommodation providers in Niederau have embraced the ‘pile it high, sell it cheap’ philosophy popular with UK tour operators specializing in coach holidays but viewed from a positive angle this offer a cheaper route to arguably seeing the Tirol at its very best. One can though contend that while time in the hotel should be kept to a bare minimum, it is nice to look forward to returning to your accommodation at the end of each day, rather than with a sense of trepidation. As ever – you pay your money and take your chances.
Eleven years after last visiting the Wildschoenau my recent stay proved to be a stunning revelation. Rekindling loves of yesteryear are rarely advised, although not only can absence make the heart grow fonder a very tangible realization can be engendered that experiences second time around can embellish, not tarnish, the sepia-tinted memories of yore.
Wildschoenau Tourism: www.wildschoenau.com/en
Landhotel Tirolerhof: www.hoteltirolerhof.at/