Continuing the theme from my previous blog post, this time around I will be extolling the virtues of several other Austrian alpine settings, which if only given a limited number of places to visit for the remainder of my existence, would rank alongside the Wildschoenau, Saalbach Hinterglemm, Kitzbuehel, and Bohinj (Slovenia) as ‘go to’ locations. There are numerous other mountainous regions in both Slovenia and Austria which I am sure are just as worthy candidates as my chosen few, but it is impossible to go everywhere and experience everything, either throughout the globe as a whole or within a certain genre of travel, i.e., lakes and mountains. As with my previous blog post this does not seek to list every plus and minus of the areas mentioned, and as ever is wholly subjective.
Pros: The Oetz valley, with Obergurgl and Soelden being the most well-known locations within it, has always been for me about getting away from it all. That isn’t to say the valley isn’t prone to horrendous traffic conditions especially but not exclusively during wintertime, but as one ventures further into the valley and beyond Soelden the landscape opens out amongst villages that become more scattered, and those sought-after feelings of solitude and being as one with nature become very real. Above Obergurgl, between the top station of the Hohe Mut gondola and the Schoenweiss Huette mountain restaurant it is possible to see over twenty separate glaciers, although their scope and longevity are now both in terminal decline. Nevertheless, this ice world is not just something to marvel at but can be interacted with, subject to appropriate knowledge, fitness, equipment, and local guidance. Despite Obergurgl being at 1,930 metres, higher than many peaks within the Tirol, altitude should not be confused with difficulty of terrain. Of course, there are challenging hikes for those with the ability to undertake them but walking above Obergurgl is not an overwhelmingly difficult experience with only a decrease in oxygen levels as one descends being something to take into consideration. There should though always be the applicable respect paid to the high alps, including the carrying of suitable refreshments and kit. The higher reaches also offer something different for botanists and ornithologists, with gentian, edelweiss, ring ouzel, and the wonderful nutcracker, something of a large starling, found in the Oetztal. I have even seen a cuckoo adjacent to the access road to the Hohe Mut middle and top stations. The Oetztal does not have a railway line running through it, although at the entrance to the valley the rather ‘say it as it is’ Oetztal Bahnhof affords visitors a vital link to a bus service that travels the whole length of the Oetztal, terminating in Obergurgl. A bus also branches off to Vent, above where albeit after a trek of some hours the ‘fundstelle’ of Otzi the Iceman can be located.
Cons: For those more used to bustling Austrian villages and towns Obergurgl can be something of a shock to the system. It is quiet, all the more so in the last few years when more hotels have adopted a ‘winter only’ business model. This inevitably impacts upon the already small number of shops in the village, although its Spar supermarket is enduringly popular and extremely useful. The starting point for several memorable treks and the base of several all-year-round lifts Soelden is it is fair to say is not everyone’s cup of tea. Representing a benchmark of the now unfortunately many alpine settlements that look better at valley level when covered in snow, huge hotels and tacky bars aimed at a winter audience would not be aesthetically pleasing in any location, but all the more so when set against such stunning alpine scenery. Nevertheless, the cableways soon whisk its occupants away from the artificial and man-made into a world of towering peaks, (semi) permanent icefields, and extensive walking trails serviced by a good number of appositely sited mountain huts.
St. Anton am Arlberg
Pros: One of Austria’s elite winter resorts, St. Anton’s fearsome terrain, chic hotels, and a very handy railway station ensures it has much in common with Kitzbuehel. Written from a summer perspective that is though where the similarities end, as a limited village centre and far more extensive walking possibilities offers more at altitude but less at ground level than Kitz. Walking above St. Anton is not generally for those who are inexperienced and not as fit as they’d like to be, with the length and complexity of some treks being extremely challenging. As ever, preparation is key, in both the kit you wear and take, as well as meticulously planning routes that offer ‘get outs’ in the event of electrical storms. Hiking to the Darmstaedter Hut using St. Anton’s Rendl gondola is a favourite, although a drop in three hundred metres before gaining six hundred to reach the hut offers a real sting in the tail on the return journey. For alternative terrain away from St. Anton, nearby Lech and Zuers, accessed by bus, offers similar challenges. Using the Rufikopf lift in Lech an at times challenging hike over late lying snow to the Stuttgarter Huette before initially steeply descending into Zuers is a fine round trip, even more so if it dovetails with the bus timetable.
Cons: As a village St. Anton is not especially vibrant during the summer months, although visiting is more about getting to and beyond altitude than patrolling cafes and shops. Whilst its railway station is a large plus point it was unmanned during my last summertime visit, instead serviced by an albeit multilingual ticket machine. This might not be a problem to most, but some visitors undoubtedly welcome reassuring interaction with a human. If, and of course it is a big if, travelling on a package deal with a UK Lakes and Mountains provider, the choice of hotel is limited but somewhat expensive, especially for those with mixed reviews. The cableways offer a comparatively limited schedule during the summer, although there is still plenty of scope to use a different lift each day. Visiting nearby Lech and Landeck, as well as the other villages of the Arlberg gives visitors alternatives what to do during their vacations, although as with the Oetztal staying in St. Anton can be a bleak experience during periods of heavy rain and low cloud.
Pros: It has been some years since I visited Galtuer in the Paznaun Valley, on the Tirol side of its border with the western province of Vorarlberg. It does though live long in the memory as a peaceful summer haven that has for the time being avoided the architectural excesses of Soelden and serves as a counterpoint to the nearby Ischgl, an arguably vulgar, brash cousin where too much is often not enough. Walking above Galtuer is tough, and not somewhere to take your first tentative alpine steps. There is a feeling of solitude that again might not be for everyone, but regular visitors know exactly why they return. Where Austria has unfortunately gone down a path of exploiting many of its alpine areas for gain through overdevelopment that errs on the side of gaudy than sympathetic, Galtuer and its satellite villages abstract from Ischgl are delightful in their admittedly extremely rugged setting which in February 1999 claimed over thirty lives as a huge avalanche devastated the village. Today, Galtuer’s Alpinarium chronicles the event and serves as an educational tribute to the victims. An essential part of any visit to the area, the centre’s reason for being is to remind of nature’s power in the Alps, and the futility of man’s attempts to harness it. It should also act as an omen that this event took place long before the current climate emergency, which has been so starkly laid bare in Europe’s alpine regions.
Cons: There is no limit to the choice of walking in the area, although Galtuer is not somewhere to gain your fitness. If on arriving one finds the terrain to be too difficult, Galtuer is not really a centre for alternative pursuits. There is a wonderful walk across meadows between Galtuer and Ischgl, but reaching altitude is the minimum requirement for the vast majority of those who visit. The nearest railway station is 35 Kilometres distant, in Landeck, which can be accessed by a regularly irregular bus service. This represents one of the few ‘rainy day’ alternatives for visitors. Many hotels, of which there are not many in number, are inevitably closed during the summer season, which can make securing a room during July and August a difficult proposition. The extremely limited exposure of Galtuer to UK-based Lakes and Mountains tour operators ensures this is not a route to staying in the village that I would recommend.
Next time, I conclude this series of ‘bucket list’ locations with Slovenia’s second city Maribor, and its Pohorje Massif.
*All photographs are the copyright of C. Bowman. Any reproduction must be undertaken with full acknowledgement of and permission from the right’s holder.