Under the Wings of an Eagle

East Tirol: Mountainous Austria at its airy best, above rolling pasture so smooth you think it had been cut with scissors

On The Town | Christian Cummins | November 2009

Schnapps was not the first thing my stomach called for we saw was the top of the red and white Tyrolian flag, standing tall and rather proprietorial in the luminous mist. At last a mountain hut!

I was feeling exhausted and light headed after an exhausting two hours of winding climbing up from the East Tyrolean village of Matrei on my mountain bike. The path had at first rolled along pastureland so smooth you might have thought the grass had been cut with scissors, but had quickly brought us to a viciously steep forest track that wound up the mountainside in impossibly tight serpentines and had gradually punched every last gasp of air out of my lungs

The Hohe Tauern national park is wonderful because it is so wild. Here, in one of Austria’s remotest regions, you really feel far from the madding crowd. Here, among the towers, spires and curtains of rocks, even the most unobservant tourist is likely to see marmots, chamois and even Austria’s national emblem the – eagle. But since it is a nature reserve and ski lifts are stringently restricted, you are going to have to pant for your pleasure.

I staggered bow-leggedly into the hut – the Zuniglam, following both my girlfriend (who still seemed sickeningly fresh) and the smell of beef soup stock that was seeping under the weather beraten timber door. Inside it was surprisingly bright. The light was streamed through the box windows of the narrow ‘Stube’ and illuminating the honey-colored wood that clad the walls and ceiling. It might have looked bare, but for the darker grain of old skis that had been nailed on to the walls and, for a porcelain doll perched on a ledge in her Sunday-best, smiling down on a table of hikers.

We’d hardly found a seat when the aging landlady came bustling in bearing two thimble glasses of schnapps. Beaming at me from above her blue apron, she placed them down carefully in front of us, took a step back and girlishly brushed a loose strand of hair from her face.

"Welcome!" she said, taking in our cycling clothes with twinkling eyes "A long way up, isn’t it?"

The complementary homemade schnapps is an age-old tradition of East Tyrolean hospitality, it seems. To refuse it seemed a serious breach of mountain etiquette, even on an empty stomach. Nothing for it but eyes closed, elbows raised and down the hatch!

But far from the gasoline throat-burn of Après Ski poisons, this schnapps tasted delicately of mountain flowers and filled me with a wonmderful and comforting warmth that spread quickly from my stomach up to between my shoulder blades. It was as if the kindly old rosy-cheeked "Wirtin" was now standing behind me rubbing my back. These were my first few hours in East Tyrol, but already I was discovering that there is much to love.

We settled in at the Zunigalm. I tried a homemade apple cake drowned in cream and then a second thimble of schnapps, in order to make sure the first one wasn’t a fluke. Then I tried a second helping of cake, to make sure that wasn’t a fluke and then began to flirt with the idea of spending the whole day there, if not the whole week.

But luckily the sun, which is no fan of sloth despite its reputation, came to the rescue. Whilst I was guzzling the second cake it had won its battle with the clouds and was now lighting up the village below. We went out to have a better look. From this height, the houses and even the hotels looked tiny, uniformly white and square. They were sprawled out towards the opposite side the valley as if some giant had been playing dice with them. But to the north-west there was a real treat: at the end of the Virgental valley,  we could see the never-melting snow of the Venediger glacier, dazzlingly bright in the sun and framed by jagged peaks.

The majesty of the view trumped the coziness of the hut and helped us gather the necessary willpower to remount our bikes and head off around and up the mountain for our next target the Arnitzalm.

The new path took us across a dark wooded ravine that followed the course of a mountain brook down to the valley. It was suddenly chill again and the rocks that shouldered were green and slimy with dripping moisture. The path led us precipitously down, through a pebble-bottomed ford, and steeply up out of this cold world and onto a wider gravel logging road that wound upwards through a pine forest. The afternoon light was filtering through the trees, which gradually became sparser and shorter as we climbed. Then, finally, we emerged, pedaling laboriously, onto a wide-stretch of high alpine pasture above the tree line.

The grass, which had been so lush in the valley, was a yellow-tinged brown up here and the landscape was dominated by a canine tooth outcropping of rock – its sharp peak lit up by the afternoon sun.  A thin rush of white water came cascading down from the high wall of mountain crags beyond.

Our path ran briefly parallel to the plunging stream then swung round to the right, crossing the torrent on a wooden bridge, turned its back on the grey crags and headed, past a herd of jostling Alpine cattle, up to our destination – a series of three weather-beaten dark-timbered huts. The huts were joined to each other on the different levels down the ridge of the mountain slope, the eaves of the higher resting against the base of the lower so that they looked like a small flight of stairs running down the hillside.

Unclipping from the pedals, we were accosted by two small children who shouted across at us in squawking local dialect. They were perched on each end of a cattle trough that had been fashioned from a hollowed-out log.

Balancing precariously above the icy water, the older, a girl, was waving a little red bucket in the air. "We’re emptying this trough here!" she announced earnestly, scooping out another half litre of water. I was doubtful – a pipe poured spring water steadily into the trough. Then, apropos of nothing, the little boy in red round-rimmed glasses, piped up in a voice that reminded me of a quacking duck:"Do you want to see a little calf?"

We did indeed, so the pair of them climbed down and led us past a tethered goat with horns like Satan and into a dark low-beamed barn under the terrace of the main hut. The gangly-legged calf was penned in one corner. "He doesn’t like being stroked on the head," said the little boy with the knowing air of one who had experimented thoroughly on the subject.

Stroking shy cattle is thirsty work, of course, and we quickly made our excuses and went to sit with the parents, who were huddled on a narrow wooden terrace tucking into "Graukäse" washed down with beer. They shifted to make room for us on the bench that ran along the front of the hut, and we looked out at the silver thread of the brook disappearing from sight into the wrinkled shards of rock in the distance. After a few minutes, the equally silver-haired, weather-beaten man struggled to his feet. He gave us a serious, fatherly look, glancing down at our sweaty clothes and then, back over his shoulder at the handsome crags that were now totally enveloped in frosty shadows.

"Better get you your schnapps, eh," he said, "don’t want you catching a cold now, do we?"

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