Wednesday 28 September 2016

Austria: Made it, Ma! Top of the world on a hiking holiday

Walking holidays

Constance Harris

Published 08/02/2016 | 02:30

Across the border: Neuschwanstein Castle in nearby Bavaria
Across the border: Neuschwanstein Castle in nearby Bavaria

I blame the Camino de Santiago for the popularity of walking holidays; all that contemplation and appreciation of nature and rural idylls.

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That's a joke.

I love walking, but as I am single and not a member of a walking, rambler or adventure group; organising a walking holiday abroad has always seemed daunting. But last year I discovered a non-scary way.

Topflight are one of Ireland's best-known ski holiday operators. When I was on their website, I discovered that they offered walking holidays - from deluxe walking experiences or trekking in Italy to family adventure holidays in Ehrwald in the Tyrolean Alps of Austria and exclusively singles walking holiday weeks. The next one is in June of this year.

The Tyrolean Alps have always evoked fantasies of yodelling men in lederhosen and funny little hats with chintzy things tucked into their hat bands. Also of cows with big, loud bells on them and lots and lots of big mountains and big sky. And lots of cheese.

Readers, I discovered it was true. And then some. I loved it all.

On my trip, our group stayed in Topflight's own hotel, Hotel Sonnenburg - locally referred to as a gasthaus, which was a cosy, wooden building tucked into the side of a mountain - five minutes walk from the village of Ehrwald. Here we enjoyed half board of hearty breakfast and tasty dinner made by our lovely hosts, designed around accommodating our schedule of daily walks.

The walks weren't compulsory, so some people took a day off to enjoy the hotel's own sauna or go to a local spa, try some horse riding or simply to head off for some serious noshing and shopping in Garmish, which was accessible by train just over the German border.

Every day, be it on the morning before or after one of our excursions, I loved to take an amble around the village of Ehrwald, walking by some of the villagers' small holdings, which would invariably have the odd bell-strewn cow, or horse, munching grass in them.

The people of Ehrwald seem to be very house proud and to love gardening; everywhere were handsome houses bedecked with flowers and pretty decorations. One homeowner had the most fantastic collection of gnomes. Yes, it was peculiar pleasure to ogle someone's gnomes, but it had to be done.

On day two of our trip we went to walk around Ehrwalder Alm. Popular with snowboarders, the mountains here enjoy an altitude varying from 1,000 to 1,900 meters.

We took a gondola up to our hiking location. A cheat, I know, but being unfit it saved some of my valuable energy. Some people, the very fit walkers who hadn't expended enough energy by the time our excursion ended, chose to walk all the way back down.

The walking in Ehrwalder Alm was very satisfying. There was an easy walk and a demanding one. The experienced walkers who chose the tougher route found it exciting and challenging. On the less arduous route, we enjoyed gentle, gradient-increasing paths through beautiful pastures with streams and wooden houses, quiet but for the busy streams or wind brushing through trees.

Our guides were lovely fellows, often from the area so they knew it extremely well, and had excellent English and loved to share knowledge. They never judged a gal if she fell behind a tad and wheezed. They just lent a nicely muscled arm to be leaned on a little and gently encouraged. They also knew how to shake it off before it became a crutch.

But nothing could have prepared me for the experience of the Zugspitze glacier. It is incredible. At 2,962 meters height, it is like something out of one of Roger Moore's ski and the death-defying stunt-loving James Bond movies of the 1970s. The people working there lamented that Daniel Craig had yet to make his visit.

To get to the top of the Zugspitze you have to take a long cable ride (thank, wheeze, God) up to the top. Your ears pop, you feel the air getting thinner and the temperature dropping, as it climbs so close to the mountain face.

At the top, we discovered, we were in the minuses temperature wise, despite the warm weather. Being a little used to mountains, I had packed contingency warm clothing, enabling me to spend 10 minutes on the ­sub-zero-temperature Zugspitze terrace to enjoy the amazing views.

The Zugspitze is often described as being 'the top of the world'; it looks so strange, icy and covered in shard-like rocky surfaces, you imagine nothing could survive up here. As you walk around the glacier you see doors saying 'Bavarian Border', 'German Border' and so on, as the federal states of Bavaria (Germany) and Tyrol (Austria) meet here.

When we visited, there was construction going on of a small bridge spanning two sheer peaks with a massive drop between them. Workmen were suspended over the crevice on seemingly fragile looking constructions in burning icy winds, working to build the bridge. It seemed highly dangerous.

Yet, this kind of work has been going on on this glacier for over a hundred years - and they have the museum to prove it. After I came in from the cold, I had a hot chocolate in the café, without a blood-warming brandy in it much as I wanted it, because, as I discovered the hard way once before, alcohol and altitude don't go.

The adrenalin afterwards dictated we needed a super-slap-up nosh. So when we got back to Ehrwald we went to the village's superlatively good restaurant, Al Castagno, which combines Italian cuisine and that of Tyrol, with its love of crispy dumplings in tasty light soups. The local wine was stunning.

And so our trip went on. We even managed a lightening visit to Neuschwanstein, the castle where The Sound of Music was shot.

On our last night, our gasthaus hosts laid on a feast and some local entertainment -yodellers. They found out we still hadn't met any.

After their performance and some yodel karaoke, we and the yodellers danced into the night. I may not be able to walk mountains as well as a Tyrolean, but I now can yodel.

Getting there

Constance travelled to Ehrwald, Austria, with Topflight.

Prices start from only €659pp for Austrian Walking Holidays, as on certain dates no single supplement applies.

Holiday includes: return flights from Dublin; return transfers by luxury coach; 7 nights in the Sonnenburg Hotel with breakfast and dinner included; a welcome drink on arrival; 5 local guided walks through the Zugspitze Arena; 20kg baggage allowance on flight; all taxes.

For more information, telephone: (01) 240 1753 or see topflight.ie

NB: All prices subject to availability.

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