The International Writers Magazine
: European Travel

The Austrian Tyrol
David Francis

Austria – 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 you’d find telling you you’d 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 doesn’t open on Saturdays or Sundays. We fail to master the automatic ticket machine, (it won’t 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 free ride.

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 Europe’s highest lake, the Achensee. Pertisau, thinly disguised, is first of the ultimately several locations for the Chalet School in Elinor Brent-Dyer’s sixty-odd children’s books featuring that establishment. Locate several sites mentioned in the books with the help of two specially written guides.

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. It’s 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 World War.

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". There’s a prohibitively expensive "Otzi experience" just outside Umhausen, a village in the lower part of the valley. We look at the local waterfall instead.

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 springs.

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 he’d rigged up in their junk-yard, so his father went instead. Had always thought Obergurgl was a name the programme’s 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. There’s 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 inn’s 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 cross-country.

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 didn’t 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 accurate….
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

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