We take in the sights, sounds and foods of the stunning Austrian Alps
It’s a scene straight out of a James Bond movie… I am standing on a glass-framed steel walkway, jutting 80 ft over a glacial abyss, feasting on the 360-degree panoramic Alpine scenery. A chain of big and burly peaks of white powdery snow and deep green-blue Alpine lakes on one side offset by rough craggy rock and stones eroded by glacial action on the other side, this is a special ‘view from the top’. Austria’s second highest peak, the almost perfectly conical Wildspitze is so near that I can almost stretch out and touch it! Austria’s Otztal region is a narrow granite-walled valley in Tirol, close to the Italian and German borders with three higher-than-3,000-mt mountains, known as the BIG3. It was in the Otztal region in 1991, two German hikers found the well-preserved body of Otzi — the pre-historic hunter, mummified by Nature, who is today in a museum in Italy.
I drive along the Ötztaler Glacier road, one of the highest roads in the Eastern Alps, connecting the ski town of Sölden to Tiefenbach glacier through a tunnel carved through the mountain at 10,000 ft. We take a gondola car to the very top called Tiefenbachkogl, with views of small blue-green glacial lakes that dot the slopes and the glacier partially covered under protective layers of plastic — I am told this is a new method used to slow down the melting of glaciers in skiing areas. Masses of ice — remnants of the last Ice Age, the thin air, and the almost surreal view give me a high. My guide Carmen Fender tells me about the huge investments in state-of-the-art ski-lifts and gondolas as I ruminate on man’s need to tame the wildest places on earth and wonder if it’s a wise thing.
Over the next few days, I explore this adventure-filled region — where people ski in the winter and indulge in mountain biking, hiking, trekking, Nordic walking and rafting in the summer. We drive past tall church steeples and bucolic towns to a landscape straight out of Heidi with slopes blanketed with wildflowers, and have lunch at a ‘mountain hut’ called the Gampe Thaya. The owners Jakob Prantl and his wife Daniela, besides looking after cattle through the summer, serve traditional food made from the freshest ingredients sourced directly from the farmers. The inside of the hut is decorated with hundreds of cowbells won over the years — they are awarded in September when each herd of cattle returns safely from the summer pastures. Our meal on weathered wooden tables features Tyrolean staples such as spinach dumplings filled with cheese as well as Almdudler — a kind of lemonade-meets-ginger beer beverage with 32 natural Alpine herbs. We end our meal with a Tyrolean speciality — Kaiserschmarnn — pancakes with caramelised apples and raisins cut into irregular chunks and covered with confectionery sugar, served with apple sauce. History has it that this roughly chopped or messy dessert was served to the royals, the Austrian Kaiser Franz Josef and his wife. The health-conscious empress refused to eat it but this dessert was a hit with the king who ate up even her portion. From then on it was called Kaiserschmarnn or ‘King’s mishmash’!
The high point of my stay is the sojourn at the otherworldly Aqua Dome juxtaposed against the craggy mountains. It’s a super luxe spa hotel on the outskirts of the small village called Langanfeld. With futuristic architecture and Nature-inspired treatments, this is a great place to relax after all the hiking and trekking. I spend a day wallowing in the baths and luxuriating in the sauna and steam rooms that come in a bewildering variety — from herb baths to even a hay barn sauna. You can soothe your tired traveller’s feet in the warm invigorating water that comes all the way down from the glacier before bubbling up in the valley. There are three outdoor bowl-shaped basins like gigantic flying saucers — one is with music, the other a whirlpool. My guide Margot Wisiak tells me the contrast is really great in the winter when it snows and you are in the heated bowl! Come evening, we walk to the village of Langanfeld to see small town entertainment — a brass band plays orchestra music to the swinging baton of a young conductor with the locals seated at long tables, swigging steins of beer.
For a different feel of the region, we walk down tree roots and natural stairs carved out of rock to a spectacular viewing platform to see the Stuiben waterfalls — Tirol’s highest waterfalls that gushes out of craggy rocks, spewing white froth. Some 9,000 years ago, a series of falling rocks blocked the rushing waters of a brook in Niederthai village, creating the mighty waterfalls. I enjoy the magnificent play of colours on the waters as I stand on the steel platform. Our local guide Leo tells us that daredevils climb the steel ropes just below the falls and get really up-close. Leo tells me about how the waterfalls are lit up between May and October and there are guided lantern walks to the waterfalls at night. According to medical studies, one hour spent at the falls can relieve asthma because of the refreshing water spray. As for me, I am healthier and happier after a week in the mountains.