Life in the slow lane
By Victor Block
“The slower you walk, the sooner you’ll get there.” Those words, uttered by Wolfgang Wippler as I followed him up a mountainside, seemed to make little sense.
It wasn’t long, though, before their truth became evident. At 7,500 feet above sea level, my lungs soon began to gasp for air. Next to go were my legs, increasingly grateful for the near snail-like pace. As we passed a younger couple who had begun their climb well before us at a much faster pace, I understood the wisdom of my guide’s tortoise-and-hare approach to walking on a mountain.
That was my introduction to hiking in the Tyrolean Alps, the sheer peaks that rise sharply from green-carpeted valleys in the western panhandle of Austria. It’s an area with tiny villages of flower-bedecked chalets, cows and sheep grazing contentedly in lush hillside meadows, and people who cling proudly to their colorful traditions.
No amount of anticipation prepared me for the rugged magnificence of nature. No picture postcard can compete with the breathtaking visions that wait around every curve of the road and step along a hiking trail.
Innsbruck, the historic capital of the Tyrol since 1420, is a good place to begin an exploration of the region. Nestled along the River Inn between craggy mountain ranges, the city served as the seat of the powerful Hapsburg imperial court under Emperor Maximilian I from 1490 to1519.
Maria-Theresien-Strasse is a broad boulevard that leads to a market square, which is the center of the Old Town. There, cobblestone streets are lined by elegant multi-story 15th and 16th century houses, the town hall tower and onion-shaped cathedral domes. Some of the Renaissance and Baroque buildings today house cafes and souvenir shops, but even those nods in the direction of modern commercialism can’t hide their graceful facades.
The most famous and photographed highlight is the Goldenes Dachl (Golden Roof), a graceful third-story balcony built in 1420 onto what was Emperor Maximilian’s Innsbruck residence. Covered by more than 2,600 gilded copper tiles that glisten in the sun, it served as a royal box from which to view tournaments and festivities in the square below.
Along with its architectural riches, museums and other treasures, Innsbruck provides a perfect home base for excursions into the surrounding countryside. The area may be explored during day trips from Innsbruck, or by overnighting at one or more small towns, including 25 nearby “holiday villages.”
Accommodations include hotels, bed-and-breakfast facilities and farmhouses that welcome guests. Driving throughout the compact region is easy, on well-paved and clearly marked roads. An alternative is the public transportation system, which includes postal buses, trains and cable cars that provide easy and inexpensive access throughout the area.
The first impression of the Tyrolean villages deals with their similarities. A graceful church usually occupies a central position. Traditional alpine houses made of pine weathered to a rich, dark patina, and sporting balconies festooned with an explosion of colorful flowers stand adjacent to rambling farmhouses up to 500 years old that were enveloped as the towns grew around them.
Ubiquitous roadside crosses and religious paintings adorning the sides of many buildings are among tangible signs of strong Catholic influence. More enticing to me were lovely miniature places of worship, often built and used by several neighbors. Many of these tiny chapels, most with only four to eight narrow pews, were built during times of plague, when people sought convenient places at which to pray for their lives and for the souls of the dead.
Delving more deeply into the essence of each village, I began to discern subtle yet intriguing differences. Seefield, a town of about 4,000 residents, is only a 15-minute ride outside Innsbruck up a winding, hilly road. Of special interest is the Baroque Seekirchl Church, with its eight little pews.
The hamlet of Igls helped to launch the area’s tourism business beginning in the 1920s. The focus then, as now, was on health and the clear air that visitors come to breath.
Little Lans is known for having several good restaurants, and for a lake area where locals gather to swim, sun and socialize.
Gasse, one of 22 towns in the Lautasch Valley, is easy to miss. Home to about three dozen families, it offers a miniature introduction to some of the lifestyle attractions that visitors to the Tyrol find so appealing.
My memories include mailbox-like structures in front of some homes that are used by residents to deposit a note with their order for fresh bread, which the local baker leaves the next morning.
Little huts clinging near mountaintops, I learned, serve as temporary homes for men who summer there tending the community’s cows, sheep and goats that graze on the steep slopes.
I can still picture tiny chapels, which I found as moving and marvelous in their way as the most elaborate cathedral.
And whenever and wherever I hike, I also remember Wolfgang Wippler’s wise words of advice. As I walk, slowly of course, I conjure up countless images of the Tyrolean area of Austria in all of its beauty and charm.