The Austrian region of Tirol requires an eye for adventure and a head for heights, finds Celia Topping.
Tirol in Austria is a high and mighty destination
Such a romantic notion, the idea of the Italian infantry manoeuvring over the Dolomites during the First World War, using these via ferratas, or "iron roads", which are no more than iron rungs, steel cables and skinny bridges running like veins all over the craggy mountainsides. Not so romantic is being 150 metres up an Austrian rock face, clinging pathetically to said rungs and realising you really don't have a head for heights. With sweat pouring into my eyes and legs shaking like a whippet in winter, I realise that I can't actually move. So this is what "petrified" means.
"Alley-oop!" encourages Willi, my impossibly dexterous guide, pointing to the next rung for my white-knuckled hand to reach. Using all my strength to keep hold of the rung with the other arm, I gingerly reach out to grasp the one he's pointing to and awkwardly shift my weight across. I think Willi can see the complete terror in my eyes, as he stays with me for pretty much the whole climb, while the rest of the group jauntily swing themselves upwards like they've been doing it their entire lives. There's even a 10-year-old kid scrambling up the rungs, with only the merest of assistance from his dad, as if to prove that this really is the easiest of the via ferratas on this particular rock face.
Theoretically, via ferratas are incredibly safe - so long as you have one of the two carabineers, which are attached to your harness, on the steel cable at all times, you can't fall. But fear takes over logic, and I'm far happier when I reach the top, 210 metres above the Zillertal Valley in Mayrhofen. As a reward, the Zimmereben Gasthaus brings out a vast pan, full of Kaiserschmarrn; fat, fluffy pancakes ripped up and served with cranberry sauce, oozing with plump mountain cranberries.
"The great thing about via ferratas is that you can do them yourself at any time, you don't need a partner to belay," explains Willi, looking pointedly at me. I nod and smile, thinking that you'd have to be plain bonkers to go up there alone.
Austria has an undeniably rich cultural heritage, with composers such as Mozart, Haydn, Schubert and Strauss topping the musical bill; the artist Gustav Klimt, whose 150th anniversary was commemorated last year; Sigmund Freud, without whom the world of psychiatry would be a very different place; and of course, not forgetting Arnold Schwarzenegger, everyone's favourite beefcake-cum-politician. However, the Tirol region is perhaps best known for its winter ski season, with thousands of kilometres worth of piste and off-piste runs. Mayrhofen itself is home to the annual Snowbombing Festival that, for one week in spring, turns this charmingly pretty town into a Glastonbury-style party on ice.
I'm here in midsummer though, hoping to get to grips with what the area has to offer for sun and fun-seekers. "I came here for the winter season five years ago, because I love skiing, but stayed because I realised it's fun all year round," Helen, the English receptionist at our hotel, tells me. And there certainly is plenty to do: with hiking, biking and climbing routes running all over the mountains, rafting, canyoning and kayaking in the rivers, caving below ground and paragliding and high-rope gardens above it, it's difficult to know what to choose first.
So, after the morning's exertions, I'm quite happy to relax in the garden of Hotel Strass to think about it, and let the warm sunshine soothe my aching limbs. Overhead, the bright yellow cable cars look slightly incongruous without the snow and the skiers, but they doggedly make their way up to the Penken mountain area regardless, carrying a different crowd of sunhatted holidaymakers up what is known in summer as the "Action Mountain" because of all the activities available thereon.
It's my first time in Austria, and I'm instantly impressed by the spectacular beauty of the Tirol region, a mountainous state in the west of the country, with Innsbruck at its heart. Bordering Bavarian Germany to the north, the people share a lot in common with their German neighbours, not least their penchant for wearing leather lederhosen, and a predilection to schnapps, a strong spirit made from many flowers and herbs found on the mountainsides. The next morning, Andrea Sporer, a local guide and keen botanist, takes me on a nature tour of Ahorn, the mountain directly opposite Penken, which in turn is known as the "Leisure Mountain" for its gentle walking trails and panoramic views.
On exiting the Ahornbarn gondola, 2,000 metres up the mountain, we see a group of cows lazing on the pasture against a majestic backdrop of snowpeaked mountains, their cowbells tinkling as they munch on grass and alpine flowers. If Heidi had come skipping around the corner with Grandfather in tow, I wouldn't have been surprised, it's so picture-book pretty. Sporer wastes no time in pointing out the best flowers with which to make soup and salads. The nature trail takes us past a 200-year-old wooden mountain hut, and a little farther down we stop awhile to take in a falconry display. Ahorn is known for its stunning array of birds of prey, and here we are shown just a little of what these birds are capable of, against the phenomenal view of the Zillertal Alps receding into the distance. An impressive steppe eagle swoops down to the falconer's arm, as he explains that this bird can fly up to 10,000 metres high and reach speeds of up to 300 kilometres per hour on the downwards plunge. I pity the poor bunny on the end of that.
After lunch, the "leisure" is over, and I'm taken, along with a small group, to the Ziller river, where we meet Rudi Kroll, an ex-professional snowboarder who has turned his hand to rafting and other watery pursuits. After a quick explanation and safety check, we're jumping into the raft and out into the surprisingly fast-flowing river. Over the next couple of hours we experience all the pleasures and pains of rafting, from paddling ferociously in swirling eddies, jumping into the water to swim and hanging on to the raft as we're swept downstream. It's an exhilarating journey and I wish we could continue on to the rapids of the Inn, into which the Ziller flows farther down the valley, but it's time to transfer to Alpbach, about half an hour's drive north of Mayrhofen, to see one of the oldest parts of the region.
The fact that there wasn't a road into Alpbach until 1926 helps to explain the isolated nature of the village. The individual style of wooden architecture hasn't changed in hundreds of years and it's not hard to see why this year it has been voted the prettiest village in Austria for the umpteenth time; window boxes overspill from every window ledge in a riot of colour, and the houses are so neatly kept it's like being in a life-size toy town. There are still over a hundred working farms in the area, but there's a restriction on further development, so the surrounding countryside maintains its fresh, pastoral appearance, with just a few pretty chalets dotting the verdant foothills.
However, for our walk up on Wiedersbergerhorn the following morning, the day is disappointingly dismal. The cloud cover that had begun to descend in a sullen manner the evening before has churlishly refused to shift. We take a lift to the top station and walk a further hour to the peak, up steep paths and rocky outcrops. Our guide tries to enthuse about the impressive panorama we can't see all around, but despite the walk being a good scramble, it's no fun trying to imagine the scenery. We take some solace in the fantastic lunch at Gasthaus Wiedersbergerhorn; one thing you can always rely on in Austria is a cosy restaurant with ridiculous amounts of meat.
The afternoon's plan is to take the group to the high-rope garden in Kramsach, where we can swing around on various obstacles in the treetops about 30 metres up in the air. Considering my via ferratas debacle, I decide to give it a miss, and go instead to Lake Reintalersee for a swim. There are several warm-water lakes in the Tirol and, despite the gloomy weather, it's a pleasure getting into the 23°C water for a splash around.
The last activity on this whistle-stop tour of the Tirol is a Segway trip. Having only seen a Segway used in a large conference centre in London, I'm dubious as to its place in the highlands of Austria. I soon change my mind. Once you get used to the gyroscopic movement of the thing, it's undeniably good fun. Our Segways have been pimped with cross-country tyres, so we set off through pine-forest tracks like some sort of low-budget sci-fi movie, passing several bemused goats on the way. It's faster than walking, requires no physical fitness, is relatively safe and very simple to use, so I can see why some people might take such a tour, but at around US$7,750 (Dh28,466) a pop, I'd rather get on a bike.
At the end of my trip, I'm not ready to go home yet. There are still more mountains to climb, more beautiful fresh water lakes to swim in, many more weird and wonderful recreations to enjoy-slash-endure and all set among gorgeous The Sound of Music scenery that I could never grow tired of. So, as Arnie once famously said, "I'll be back."
If you go
The flight Austrian Airlines (www.austrian.com) offers flights from Dubai to Innsbruck, via Vienna, from Dh3,075 return, including taxes. The total flight time is eight hours
The hotels A week’s stay at the four-star Hotel Alphof in Alpbach (www.hotel-alphof.com, 0043 5336 5371) starts from £465 (Dh2,607) per person on half board, including airport transfers. A week at the four-star Hotel Strass in Mayrhofen (www.hotelstrass.com, 0043 5285 6705) costs from £445 (Dh2,495), including transfers; both bookable through Crystal Summer (www.crystalsummer.co.uk)
Further info For more on the Austrian Tirol, please visit www.visittirol.co.uk; for Alpbach, visit www.alpbachtal.at; for Mayrhofen, visit www.mayrhofen.at
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