The International Writers Magazine: European Travel
It was our first visit to the narrow bit in the west, the
Austrian Tyrol. Wife, self, our daughter, her husband and their
three children aged 9, 8 and 4 drive down in a hired people-carrier
from Munich airport. Austro-German border is just marked by the
same sort of sign as youd find telling you youd arrived
at an English village although we see indications of a
long-disused, more fortified border post up in the trees. Petrol
in Austria is noticeably cheaper than in Germany.
We have a self-catering
house in Seefeld, not far over the border. Pleasant large village surrounded
by green fields and mountains hard to realise we are about as
high above sea-level as the top of Ben Nevis. On closer inspection,
Seefeld seems to consist almost entirely of hotels, guest-houses and
self-catering houses or apartments, all in plenty of open space; where
do the natives live we ask?
There are numerous shops in the centre, but almost all catering for
tourists. We locate two (small) supermarkets and a bakers, but no butcher
or greengrocer and fresh veg is not plentiful in either supermarket.
But they do sell Austrian wine albeit from the east of the country,
but a pleasant discovery perfectly acceptable to our uneducated palates.
The supermarkets have strange (to us) opening hours - 8.00am until 6.30pm,
and then again from 9.00pm until 10.30pm!
Austrians are very proud of their wonderful countryside and mountains.
Abundant, well-signed footpaths, ranging from a gentle stroll to the
only-go-with-a-guide-and-the-appropriate-equipment variety. Little restaurants,
usually with limited but tasty and satisfying menus, are scattered in
the hills and on the tops of the mountains. Funicular railways, cable
cars, gondolas and chair lifts are everywhere.
We have a trip around the village and its environs in a horse-drawn
fiacre we find our driver pictured in one of our guide-books
to all Austria! We stop in some woods to look at red squirrels. When
winter arrives, the wheels come off the fiacres to be substituted by
sledge-type runners, so you can go for romantic sleigh-rides.
Innsbruck is the nearest big town, about 3000 feet lower than Seefeld
a very steep drop by road; how the railway does it is a tribute
to those nineteenth-century engineers. We go there by train, and are
surprised to find that Seefeld station booking- office doesnt
open on Saturdays or Sundays. We fail to master the automatic ticket
machine, (it wont take 50-euro notes) so in common with several
people who were behind us in the queue, get on the train when it comes
in anyway, expecting to pay the conductor. None comes, so we have a
Innsbruck has an airport, a bell museum inter alia, a well-presented
Alpine zoo, trams, trolley-buses and an old quarter, crowded with tourists
but worth seeing nonetheless
Crystal World just east of Innsbruck is in a village called Wattens.
An exhibition to celebrate the centenary of the glass/crystal jewellers
Swarovski. Many rooms with exhibits, both representational and totally
abstract made of crystal, designed by well-known artists. A giant jelly-fish
especially intrigues the children. Original works by Andy Warhol and
Salvador Dali also on display. Entry is controlled, so there are not
too many people going round at a time but plenty of room in the
gift/souvenir area at the end!
Jenbach (next town east) station is perhaps unique in Europe if not
the world in that on either side of the main (Austrian State Railway)
platforms are narrow gauge lines (different gauges) belonging to different
companies, both of which still use steam engines, one exclusively, (and
they are believed to be the oldest working steam railway engines in
the world), the other with steam trains alternating with diesel railcars.
The latter has a very interesting beer wagon.
We use the all-steam one to go to Pertisau. A ticket inspector comes
round the outside of the (open) carriages on the running boards, checks
our tickets and then gives sweets to all the children travelling. Also
notable is the number of passengers who use the intermediate stations.
The last part of the journey is by boat on Europes highest lake,
the Achensee. Pertisau, thinly disguised, is first of the ultimately
several locations for the Chalet School in Elinor Brent-Dyers
sixty-odd childrens books featuring that establishment. Locate
several sites mentioned in the books with the help of two specially
Further east still, a sort of alpine country park called Hexenwasser
(witches-water) after some sixteenth-century witches who purportedly
lived in the area. It celebrates water in all its forms, and things
green in general. One of the supposed attractions is the "bare-
foot" walk, OK for a few minutes on grass, but involving much painful
stumbling on gravel and in a stony stream; also through a trough of
what looks like nice cooling mud but what on later reflection is probably
very sloppy cow-muck. Its supposed to be good for the soul!
West and south of Innsbruck, we explore the Otzl valley, a narrow route
leading up a mountain pass and eventually, passing spectacular glaciers,
into Italy. Surprised to see from the map that so many towns and villages
in that part of Italy have joint German and Italian names. Learn that
what is now the Italian Tyrol was part of Austria until after the First
A few years ago, the body of a prehistoric man was found preserved in
the ice of a glacier, just over the Italian side of the border. But
he has been adopted by Austria, and nick-named "Otzi". Theres
a prohibitively expensive "Otzi experience" just outside Umhausen,
a village in the lower part of the valley. We look at the local waterfall
Further along the vertiginous zig-zag mountain road, to another flat
area where we visit a wonderful swimming baths, indoor and outdoor in
the same complex. The water is nice and warm, being supplied by hot
Further on is Soelden, a popular ski resort, where a helicopter transporting
a lump of concrete just recently accidentally dropped it, clobbering
a cable-car, with nine deaths resulting. The concrete was for a building
at the upper terminal of the cable-car run. What are the rules about
helicopters flying directly above cable-car cables one asks?
Right at the top of the valley is Obergurgl, the village where, in the
BBC comedy series, Harold Steptoe was hoping to go to for a ski-ing
holiday to escape his obnoxious father, Albert. Harold broke his leg
practising his ski-ing on a run hed rigged up in their junk-yard,
so his father went instead. Had always thought Obergurgl was a name
the programmes scriptwriters Galton and Simpson had made up until
discovering it on the local map. Just too far away for a visit.
Seefeld holds its flower festival on the second Sunday of our stay.
It includes a carnival procession, so we all go with our euro coins
ready, expecting to be asked to contribute to charities. Wrong! Each
float advertises some local business, so the occupants throw flowers
(and sweets) to the bystanders, canvassing their votes in the best-dressed
float competition. Theres also a procession of old tractors, fire-engines
and other old vehicles. One man in uniform complete with helmet, on
an old motor-bike and sidecar, looks worryingly like a nazi soldier.
It's a very cold day we have to buy schnapps on the way home to warm
up. Snow on the tops of the mountains the following morning.
Dinner on our last night in one of the wayside inns a twenty-minute
walk across fields and through woods. A superb meal, including trout
raised in the inns own pond.
Having plenty of time in hand, we decide travel back to Munich along
country roads. Our landlady suggests we visit Bad Tolz, which she describes
as a typical Bavarian town. The old part has a wide High Street winding
up a hill, (a bit like a large version of Gold Hill in Shaftesbury),
with hostelries and other shops on either side. Some of the locals really
wear regional clothing, the men with little hats and lederhosen, the
ladies in pretty dresses.
We need to do the last bit of the journey on the motorway. Munich has
its own version of the M25, except that only three-quarters of it is
complete, with another chunk severely restricted due to road-works.
Encounter an M25-style snarl-up. We take a chance and successfully find
our way back to the airport using the next available exit and going
Things to do on our next visit: ride the other steam railway from Jenbach.
Get to Obergurgl, the highest parish in Austria, to see where Harold
Steptoe didnt go. Visit Vienna and Salzburg (a bit too far away
for us this time) to explore their many and various musical associations.
It may be too much for one trip. And to visit Obendorf, whence probably
the best-known Christmas carol in the world, "Silent Night",
emanates. The story is that the organ in the village church broke down
just before Christmas, and the curate and the organist hastily cobbled
together a little lullaby that could be sung to guitar accompaniment
for the Christmas Eve midnight mass. Very romantic, but essentially
The EasyJet flight home is surprisingly easy.
© David Francis - September 2005 - cryptic travelogues a speciality
David is a senior subject librarian at the University of Portsmouth
here in Hacktreks
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