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07/28/2006 Archived Entry: "Austria"

An alpine meadow

My wife and I recently returned from an exhilarating week walking and exploring in the Austrian Alps. Many of the ski resort hotels close for the summer months, but there are some hotels that open for a few weeks in the summer especially for walkers. The number of summer visitors is rather less than in winter and this makes for a wonderful atmosphere of peace and relaxation. We chose a delightful family-run hotel in the ski resort of Lech which in 2004 was declared the most beautiful village in Europe. The journey from Innsbruck airport to Lech took us through stunning scenery, mountain tunnels and Alpine villages and when we arrived at our hotel, the owner and his receptionist came out to greet us, just like old friends. It was the warmest welcome I’ve ever received from strangers.

Next morning we awoke to breathtaking views of lofty snow-tipped mountains and Alpine meadows. We couldn’t wait to get out there. So, armed with our ‘Active Inclusive Card’ (given to us when we registered at the hotel), we ventured forth. The card gave us free access to all cable cars and ski lifts, local buses, child care in the Kids Active Club, a forest swimming pool and sports complex, various guided hikes, tours and themed walks as well as the museum, library, slide shows, concerts and even the Lech Golf Academy. In addition, our hotel provided a daily packed lunch and we could have requested the company of an experienced guide, also free of charge. With this kind of support, our walking tour of Lech am Arlberg promised to be most enjoyable; even the weather was excellent with sunshine and clear skies.

Our first venture was a ski-lift to Schlegelkopf just below the summit of Kriegerhorn (2173m). As the chair slowly ascended with our feet dangling in space, we began to appreciate the sheer beauty around us. Our ascent took us up what is, in winter, a ski slope but in summer, an Alpine meadow. I have never seen such a massive variety of wild flowers in one place; spread across the entire mountainside even at high altitude there were flowers galore, many being rare in our country while others grace our domestic gardens. Where we have heather in Britain, the Alps have flowers and a walk which should take an hour took us three hours, simply because we stopped to admire, photograph and hopefully identify the different species - brilliant blue gentians, edelweiss, primulas, buttercups galore, several species of wonderful orchids, Alpine clematis, woolly thistles, vetches and saxifrage, various poppies and geraniums, anemones, louseworts, lupins, asters, hyacinths and pasque flowers, cotton sedge, butterwort and many, many more, some of which are found only in Alpine regions.
All the footpaths are clearly marked and well maintained. Discreet signposts point the way to distant summits, valleys, villages and refuges, but do not give the distance. Instead, they give a reasonable time that is required to reach the destination, thus a signpost will say ‘Zug – 40 mins’.
On our climb to the final summit of Kriegerhorn, we paused to photograph cows grazing near a pond and when we saw the ski hut nearby advertising glasses of fresh milk, we just had to try it. As we sat drinking the cold, creamy milk, listening to the tinkle of cowbells, we reminisced that this was how fresh farm milk tasted when we were children.

On our second day we took a cable car to the summit of Rufikopf (2382m) where there is a café and a platform from where we could look across to other summits; even London, Paris, Rome and New York were recorded, along with their distances. From there, we decided to walk down to Zurs, a village below. The walking time was given as two and a half hours, and it took us via a small lake called Monzabonsee with snow upon the paths and in the hollows, slowly melting.
As we descended from the summit we heard a piercing whistle sound. In some ways it sounded like the call of a buzzard but even with my binoculars I failed to see it. And then, as I scanned the rockier regions of the mountain, I spotted the culprit. It was about the size of a domestic cat with greyish-brown fur, clearly a rodent judging by its strong front teeth. It was on a prominent rock, sitting upright on its haunches with its front paws clutched before its chest as it produced its curious call. A passing walker identified it for me; it was a marmot, a herb-eating rodent found only in the higher reaches of the Alps. Marmots live in large family groups and the dominant male protects his clan by scanning the landscape and then uttering its whistle-like cry if danger threatens. At its sound, all the family members go into hiding until the danger has passed.

Other animals found there are red deer, roe deer, foxes, stoats, pine martens, badgers, otters, dormice, shrews and red squirrels - although the more exotic include wild boar, lynx, ibex, chamois and wild cat. Bird species include house sparrows, blackbirds, swallows, swifts, house martins, kestrels, barn owls, moorhens, dippers and great spotted woodpeckers. I noticed a black redstart on the slopes of Stubenbachalpe. I have never seen one in my part of England although I believe a few may reach our southern shores. Another bird caused us to ponder its identity. It was enjoying a dust bath on a lofty mountain trail and was rather like a red grouse but slightly smaller. Its plumage was grey on the upper parts with reddish-brown mottled areas around its wings. The breast area was speckled with white and it had white marks on its face. Consultation with a reference book suggested it was a hazel hen, a type of grouse.

There was far too much to include in this short piece but my memories of Austria are dominated by the mountains, the Alpine meadows with their flowers, the efficiency and kindness of the people, the quality of the food and the general cleanliness – nowhere did I see any litter or graffiti. We were sorry to leave Austria but it is definitely a place we would visit again.

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