Austria

Hike in the Alps with Molly and Alex

Molly and Alex were our first visitors of the year and stayed with us for nine days at the end of March!  We knew that they would be great companions for an all-day hike in the mountains so we began planning a short getaway to the Alps.

The morning after they arrived we packed-up the car and headed south for what was expected to be a spring-like weekend in the Montafon valley of Austria. It was Molly and Alex’s first visit to the Alps, and our first to the Vorarlberg.

This corner of Austria shares a border with Germany, Switzerland, and Lichtenstein and is a popular area for skiing and winter activities. We stayed in Bartholomäberg, a mountainside village that overlooks the small city of Schruns in the valley. The hills of Bartholomaeberg are grassy pastureland that are home to residences and several small farms. Higher there are wooded hiking trails with rocky terrain near the top.  It had several options for Winterwandern ‘winter hiking’ (snowshoe trails and groomed winter hiking paths) which made it the perfect base for the next few days.

 

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We were there during the last week of March, a quiet time to visit.  Some of the Alpine Huttes and Gastofs that serve as hiking destinations were closed for a week of ‘spring break’ before re-opening for the summer tourism season.   We were in search of a traditional Austrian house to stay in and found a cozy two-bedroom apartment in the lower level of a country home. The family operates a small farm with cows and small animals. They gave us a genuine welcome and shared that we were their first visitors from the USA!  It was an extra treat when Sabine baked us the most amazing loaf of spelt bread on our last night.

 

Hiking Day 1: Wannaköpfle

The next morning we packed lunches and set off early for a day-long hike. We began from the town center of Bartholomaeberg (1087 m) and reached the peak at Wannaköpfle (2031m) a few hours later.   The valley was clear of snow so we decided on a snowshoe trail that would take us through the most scenic hiking areas.

There was snow sooner than we expected!! We alternated taking the lead to forge a path for our not-so-waterproof hiking boots.  The snow was losing it’s density from the morning thaw and the unpredictable depth created a number of humorous challenges and surprises!   The winter trails stopped with the peak in sight, so we finished our climb through unchartered snowbanks.

We were the first ‘spring’ hikers to Wannaköpfle!

Really, our “hike” was a lot of climbing through snow drifts and the tripping, falling, and laughing that goes with it — or Molly helping me rescue my foot from a deep snow well.  (Snow shoes should have been essential at this point!)   Thanks to the thaw we were able to walk on gravel part of the way which was a nice break for our damp feet.

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(Below) Halfway there— Time for a rest and a snack.

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Wannaköpfle (2031m)

Our destination! We found some mossy rocks where the snow had melted and made it our seat for lunch and munched while we took in the surroundings.

It was one of the mildest days of the month, and though we were surrounded by snow, the midday sun made the mountain perch a warm oasis. It was sunny, breezy, and nearly 60°F. We snapped photos and watched paragliders float over the valley.  It was a memorable moment for all of us — the views were completely worth the climb!


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Hiking (+ Beers) Day 2 

The next day, we all slept in. With sore legs and sopping wet boots, we opted for an easier ascent by taking the St. Gallenkirch Valiserabahn (a ski gondola) to another scenic Winterwandern path.  We were now on the other side of the valley in a ski area.  The path turned out to be less than 1km of hiking so we decided to spend the afternoon drinking beer at the Alpine Huttes!

We met a lively German man who took our group photo and recalled his trip to California as a young man in the 1970’s.  When he was there he bought a Mercury convertible to drive along the coast.  He laughed at his impulse because he had no idea how he would ship his new car back to Germany, but it all worked out and the week prior he had been cruising from his home near Lake Constance through the Alps!  🙂

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NachtRodeln 

Afterwards we rented Rodel, the traditional wooden Austrian toboggan. One winter attraction of the Montafon is a place that offers NachtRodeln a few evenings during the week, where you buy an inexpensive chairlift pass and ride to the top of  a 5km toboggan run.   We rented our Rodel on site where the tradition is to drink a shot of Schnapps before you set out.  You can watch a few clips of the action in Molly’s video below!

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Relaxing in Bartholomaeberg

Our accommodations were in a serene, quiet part of Bartholomaeberg. The village is referred to as the sun balcony of Montafon because of its southern exposure. The location had nice panorama views of the valley and we could have happily camped out there for the rest of the week!  For Derek and I, it was our last visit to the Alps for the foreseeable future which made it all the more special.  We were happy that we were able to share this memorable time with family.

After our trip to the Alps, we spent the next few days in Würzburg with Molly and Alex. They are a ton of fun and we loved having them as visitors!!

 

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(Above) Photos by the wonderfully talented– Molly and Alex

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Lienz + Austrian Dolomites

On New Years Day, we packed up and drove to Austria for 4-days in the Alps.  Our proximity to the mountains is something we have enjoyed during our stay in Germany, it is our ideal weekend getaway. This time we were headed to a more distant part of Austria, the East Tirol.

We stayed near Lienz, a city that is nestled in a valley on the Austrian side of the Dolomites– not far from the border of Italy.  We stayed in a  frühstück pension (B&B) in the tiny village of Islesberg on the north side of the valley. Below is a view from our window, which overlooked the city of Lienz.

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Winter in Würzburg has absolutely been the mildest we have encountered. Temperatures have lingered around 1ºC (34ºF)  —- While at the same time our home in Saint Paul was  -18°C (-4ºF — brrr)!  Our friends in the Midwest may be rolling their eyes in disbelief, but by early January we were beginning to miss the familiar signs of winter.

As we passed Munich, we were enthused by the sight of fresh snowfall that continued through the Austrian ski village of Kitzbühel though Lienz was still 80 miles away on the opposite side of the mountain range.   To access the East Tirol we passed through a 3-mile mountain tunnel and unfortunately left the snow in the rearview mirror.

Even without snow, the Mölltaler valley surrounding Lienz was incredible—although we pondered where to ski.  The next morning we drove to Heiligenblut, which is in the neighboring mountain range. It faces Grossglockner (3,798 m), the tallest peak in Austria.

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Two years ago when we first skied in Austria we learned that the Alpine pistes are underrated by most North American comparisons.  Although the same ranking system is used, (beginner, intermediate, expert) many of the easy runs could satisfy a seasoned skier.  Derek is an experienced snowboarder and I began skiing in my 20s. I previously found the beginner Alpine pistes to be challenging, but not impossible.

The Alps have many more enticing runs for an experienced skier.  On trips together Derek has always willingly skied within my range of ability (thanks! 🙂 ) which I am grateful for because he typically enjoys a challenge.  This time, we saw that there was a panoramic restaurant at the summit, which for me was a nice alternative—  I spent the morning reading with Kaffee and Apfelstrudel near a sunny window while he hit the slopes.

I enjoyed Heiligenblut!  The village was remote and tiny, but there were a handful of restaurants and gift shops to keep a non-skier busy for an afternoon.  I observed that Austrians along with their German neighbors seem to take their dogs with them everywhere —- on the train, shopping, to the hair salon— We’ve even sat next to a dog at the bar. But this was the first time I had seen one on a ski hill!

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Lienz

Lienz is called die Sonnenstadt,  ‘the sun city’ of Austria, and serves as a hub for the surrounding valley. There are train connections to Lienz and buses to ski resorts in the area.  We didn’t find many activities there, but it was a nice place to spend a morning and pick up ski rentals.

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Hiking in Hohe Tauern

The valley was almost bare after two days near 40ºF which made hiking an easy choice for the next afternoon. A large area adjacent to Lienz is Hohe Tauern National Park and we were happy to see a hiking trail right behind our B&B in Iselsberg that offered an elevated view of the Lienzer Dolomiten.  The most unique aspect of the area around Lienz was its sense of remoteness. We were over two hours from Austria’s largest cities, and it felt much more isolated and rural than other places we have visited in Germany and Austria.

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Skiing Kals-Matrei

The forecasts predicted a day of steady snow a short distance from where we were staying, so we set out for another day of skiing.  Lifts connect the runs between the two villages of Kals and Matrei;  so while Derek snowboarded, I checked out the village.  Matrei was a little more gloomy than I anticipated, but the village had moments of charm– it is completely surrounded by mountains.  As I walked through its quiet streets there was a comforting smell of wood smoke in the air, and I appreciated its rugged presence within the mountains. I quickly remembered that it was Sunday, which meant that nearly everything was closed, I finally found an open bakery and was happy to warm up.

Derek was more enthusiastic about the ski conditions!   It was snowing higher in the mountains where he was and he found challenging runs and fresh powder.  Kals-Matrei is not an international tourist destination nor does it have the Après-ski scene that some Austrian villages are famous for. Overall, Derek was impressed with Kals-Matrei and found some of the best skiing he has had in a long time. We read this article from the Guardian during planning, which shares more about the resort.

 

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Where we stayed

Austrian ski villages can be pricey during the snowy months—   It is not hard to spend thousands of dollars for a week of lodging.   We’ve had to search, but have been lucky to find reasonable accommodations in Austria during ski season using sites like hostelworld and booking.com.  Both led us to home-style B&Bs in very small neighboring villages, and have since been two of our favorite places we have ever stayed!

Two years ago, we stayed here in a village that borders Sankt Anton am Arlberg. Getting to the ski hills without a car was no problem— the surrounding villages were connected to the resorts via shuttles.  This time, in Iselsberg we stayed here.  A car was definitely necessary in the areas around Lienz.

This portion of the Alps is higher and rockier than the Bavarian Alps, and more rural and open than the Arlberg. We are headed to the Montafon in late March, and are looking forward to another comparison!

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Links

East Tirol – Austria’s secret ski destination The Guardian UK

A Perfect Ski Day at Heiligenblut YouTube

24 Hours in East Tirol Blog Tirol

Soelden’s Snowy Spectre: James Bond Films in East Tirol  Daily Mail

Epiphany and the Sternsinger The German-Way