“The slower you walk, the sooner you’ll get there.” Those words, uttered by Wolfgang Wippler as we climbed a steep mountain trail, seemed to make little sense. It wasn’t long, though, before their truth became evident.
First I began to breathe hard due to the exertion and thin air at 7,500 feet above sea level. Next to go were my legs, increasingly grateful for our snail-like pace. As we caught and passed a young couple who had begun the climb minutes before us at a much faster gait, I understood the wisdom of my guide’s tortoise-and-hare approach to walking up a mountain.
That was my introduction to hiking in the Tyrolean Alps, the peaks that rise sharply from green-carpeted valleys in the western panhandle of Austria. If mention of Austria conjures up images of tiny villages of flower-bedecked chalets, cows and sheep grazing on hillsides so steep you wonder how they stand, and people who cling proudly to their colorful traditions, you’re probably picturing the Tyrol (also spelled Tirol).
Many trips to Austria begin in Vienna, which is aptly famous for its architectural treasures, musical riches, atmospheric coffeehouses and sinfully tempting, artery-clogging whipped-cream-covered desserts. But I chose to spend most of my time enjoying the craggy mountains, lush green alpine meadows and gentle valleys dotted by toy-like villages that characterize the Tyrol.
Skiers prefer to visit Austria in winter, to enjoy some of the most magnificent, and challenging, mountains to be found anywhere. My focus was on activities and appeals of the other seasons.
Innsbruck, the historic capital of the Tyrol since 1420, is a good place to begin an exploration of the region. Nestled between parallel mountain ranges, the city became the seat of the powerful Hapsburg imperial court under the reign of Emperor Maximilian I (1490-1519).
Maria-Theresien-Strasse boulevard leads to the center of the Old Town. There, cobblestone streets are lined by elegant multi-story 15th- and 16th- century houses, an imposing town hall tower and onion-shaped cathedral domes. Some Renaissance and Baroque buildings today house cafes and souvenir shops behind their elegant facades.
The most famous and photographed highlight is the Goldenes Dachl (Golden Roof), a graceful third-story balcony built in 1420 onto what was Experor Maximilian’s Innsbruck residence. Covered by more than 2,600 gilded copper tiles, 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. While I chose to explore by means of day trips, an inviting alternative is to overnight in one or more of the small towns, including 25 “holiday villages,” that surround the city.
Traveling to several of the Tyrolean towns around Innsbruck, I first was struck by their similarities. A graceful church usually occupies a central position. Traditional alpine houses — made of pine that has weathered to a rich, dark patina, and 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 that adorn the sides of many buildings are among signs of the strong Catholic influence. Equally enticing are lovely miniature places of worship, often built and used by several neighbors. I was told that many of these tiny chapels, most with only four to eight pews, were constructed during the time of plagues, when people sought convenient places at which to pray for their lives and souls of the dead. Today they are used primarily for local funeral services.
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 drive from 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 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 outstanding restaurants.
Gasse, one of 22 towns in the Lautasch Valley, is easy to miss. It’s home to about three dozen families, and offers a miniature introduction to some of the lifestyle attractions that visitors to the Tyrol find so appealing.
For example, mailbox-like structures in front of some homes are used by residents to deposit a note with their order for fresh bread, which the local baker leaves in the morning. Little huts clinging near mountaintops serve as temporary homes for men who spend summers there tending the community’s cows, sheep and goats that graze on the steep slopes. I can still picture tiny chapels, as moving and marvelous in their way as the most elaborate cathedral.
Whenever I hike in the future, even near my home, I will remember Wolfgang’s wise words of advice. As I walk, I’ll conjure up countless images of the Tyrolean area of Austria in all of its beauty.