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Via Alpina Trail Dispatches: Austria
In mid-July writer Alex Crevar and photographer Carly Calhoun set out to thru-hike 1,500 miles (2,414 kilometers) along the Via Alpina.
Text by Alex Crevar   Photographs by Carly Calhoun 

Photo: Eating in the Alps

Gastronomical delights abound in the Austrian Alps.


Photo Slide Show >>

Where to Stay >>

Map Packing Tips >> 

Hiking Eats: Recipe >>

What's in the backpacks?

There are always adjustments one makes over the course of any trip, especially when all of your belongings are strapped to your back.

One change I would have made thus far would be—believe it or not—an addition: a silk sleeping sack.

In huts all along the Alps you are often given a bunk with a blanket. Not only would you not want to sleep on the bare bunk (for obvious reasons: avoidance of foreign bodily fluids and funky smells) but it is also not allowed. For this reason, a light, silk sleep sack is the perfect accoutrement for a stay in a hut. Even if you bring your tent, such a sheet works wonderfully.

* *

On July 14, Alex Crevar and Carly Calhoun set out to hike 1,500 miles (2,414 kilometers) along the Via Alpina, a newly connected megatrail linking eight nations.

Read about their trip >>

Trail Dispatches

Slovenia >>

Austria >>

Italy >>


If I failed to mention it sufficiently before in our last dispatch, let me do it now and scream it from the mountaintops—literally—cheese and bacon! These scrumptious gastro delights are a way of life here in the Carinthia section of Austria. And that's a good thing, because, after seven hours of hiking, you're not exactly reaching for soy crisps.

Photo: Hiking the Austrian Alps

We knew nothing of Carinthia's taste sensations when we crossed the border from Slovenia into Austria. We could have guessed that there were a few scrumptious traditions hanging about here and there in the random mountain village, but what we quickly learned was that we were walking back in time both agriculturally and gastronomically. We also learned that that sense of time is something villages along this section of the Via Alpina are actively trying to save. The thing is, they're doing it so well that they've created a cottage-industry cult following with people from nearby towns and countries coming to get a deep breath of yesteryear.

Photo: Austrian cheese

Here's how it works. Villages all along the Karnische Hoehenweg, which is the long-established trail that the VA follows for the first nine stages in Austria, have their own little mountain pastures called "alms" that sit above the villages themselves. For example, Straniger Alm is above the village Straniger.

Photo: Pasture

These pastures, where local farmers take their animals—cows mainly—up to graze in the late spring and in the summer on particularly healthful mountain grasses and herbs, are generally equipped with little more than a milk house and a place for the farmer to sleep. Lucky for us, on the alms along this section of the VA, there were also mountain huts placed at appropriate intervals so we could lay our weary heads near the cows.

Photo: Mountain hut

There's something incongruously soothing about going to sleep in a barebones but thoroughly sufficient mountain hut—one with a bed, water supply, and breakfast and dinner served daily by the owner—near a discordant orchestra of cowbells. The sound approximates the first day of fourth grade band practice ... except the cows got the funk—oh lord.

Another difference, of course, is that you cheerfully wake up every morning and forgive the cows, with their big innocent faces and imploring eyes, for the noise. Also, because the product of all that commotion is fresh milk, butter, and cheese, which we woke to every morning—including Carly's birthday, when we arose at 4:45 a.m. to watch the farmers bring in the herd for milking.

Photo: Farmer with cows

To the sound of "kim ... kim" or "come … come," the weary cows made their way down from the hillsides to the little milk house. Between a scattering of dark, wooden, alpine houses fringed with bright red, yellow, orange, and blue flowers overflowing from window boxes, the cows wandered—occasionally stopping to scratch their backs on a fence or the corner of a house.

Carly let out her best "Kim!" then "Hep" to one that decided a Fiat looked more enticing than being milked. Inside the milk house, which glowed with electric light and groaned with the occasional cow moan, the alm hands were busy collecting the base ingredients for the cheese man—who would later transform it into the stuff that makes Carly happy, which in turn makes me happy.

Photo: Cheese wheels

Among the region's other claims to fame: 1,270 warm-ish lakes (nearly all of which are so clean that they are drinking quality we were told); the country's highest mountain, Grossglockner (12,461 feet or 3,798 kilometers ); and all along the trail are places that also make a prosciutto-type ham called speck, which, as one might imagine, goes perfectly with the cheese and a tall mug of cold beer after a long day of hiking.

Photo: Hiking the Austrian Alps

With regard to the past, two points are important to mention about Carinthia. First, renowned climber Heinreich Harrer, who Brad Pitt played in Seven Years in Tibet, was a Kaerntner (the region, as mentioned before, is Carinthia, which in German is Kaernten).

When I asked a Carinthian tourism official, Sonja Lampitsch, what she thought of Pitt's accent in the movie, she said, "I just like Brad Pitt." (Of no relation to the Pitt comment, Sonja also told us that Carinthians are the Sicilians of Austria because of their easygoing style. To which I asked if she'd seen The Godfather. She said no.) The second point is that this part of the trail is the equivalent of an interactive World War I museum.

This was the frontline between the Italians and the Austrians during World War I—"the war to end all wars"—and the mountaintops that soared above us marked the first time that peaks were used as battlefields. Thinking of soldiers clinging to the icy ridgelines during the freezing winter while firing at one another and occasionally getting sleep in dank little hovels, where as many died from avalanches as from artillery, put a somber twist on our little walkabout. All along the trail were remnants of bunkers and the additional thought of crossing the path where so many young men had lost their lives did much to adjust our attitudes about the little aches and pains underneath our packs.

The qualities of Austria's East Tyrol, where we next hiked, are not completely unlike the ones in Carinthia: rolling green hills rising to majestic passes, sunsets spreading purple across cloud-haloed mountain tops, homemade cheeses, fresh meats, former front lines, and unbelievably friendly people occupying and manning mountain huts that connected the dots along our trail.

But for us, this region, which is called Osttirol, distinguished itself in several ways. First, I am always intrigued by places I know nothing about and ones that don't go to great lengths to stick their names under everybody's noses. It makes you want to go there more than ever.

As a rafting guide named Dieter Messner told us, "This is a quiet part of the trail—looking down on the Dolomites and close to Austria's biggest mountain." The sense here is that you go to other places in the Alps if you want a splashy vacation, but you come to Osttirol to go climbing and mountain biking and backcountry skiing and rafting. Afterward, you might happily not tell a soul.

Photo: Mountain in Osttirol

In fact, the region's capital, Lienz, has a population of just over 12,000, yet it has two ski resorts. Lienz is also one of the most perfect mountain towns I've visited. A beautiful river called the Isel comes through its center carrying glacial runoff (folks here call it "glacier milk") and the clean streets jam, politely, with cafes and shops. The scene was so idyllic that when I saw an old bottle cap on the sidewalk, I was compelled to bend over and quickly stuff it in my pocket lest another should see it … forcing us to share an uncomfortable moment of public embarrassment like when two strangers watch a bird drop a bomb on a third party's head.

Photo: Town of Lienz

Osttirol made its second and third marks on our trip because of a singular spirit we met ... and a mishap. And, as one could surmise, the two were related. And, naturally, Carly was at the center of the show.

The singular spirit is a fellow named Walter Mair, who along with another beautiful spirit in the form of his wife, Barbara, took us into their home after the mishap. Walter—who grows flowers professionally, is a mountain guide in his mid-60s, and in stellar condition—accompanied us from Carinthia to Osttirol where he waltzed up 2,500-foot (762-meter) ascents as if he were on an escalator, while we struggled under the weight of our claw-foot bathtubs that we call packs. Walter has also written 14 books about the area and happens to be one of the kindest people we've met. With his gentle, laughing nature, he pointed out fossil imprints, which lay between the layers of limestone shards, yellow alpine poppies, and the fragile forget-me-nots that somehow make a living between the crags and cover the valley floor like an indigo carpet.

Now the mishap: Carly and I took a day off the trail so we could go rafting down Osttirol's crystal-clean, icy-cold, multiple-days-of-rain-fueled Isel river. After the first part of the float down, one of the rafting guides asks if we want to get in the banana boat—an inflatable yellow canoe—with her. We naturally say yes—banana boat … hello?!—and we start down the river.

Last words I remember: "Achtung!" Instantly after, our chaquita raft was not so much a vessel, or even a piece of fruit, but more of a banana peel from which Carly and I were rocketed like a vaudeville act on steroids.

For the story's sake, let's pretend like it was the roughest part of the river. And, for ego's sake, let's just say that Carly and I were tough and calm and held onto our paddles and went down feet first and behinds up like the textbooks say to do.

Regardless, Carly twisted the heck out of her knee. Solution: Find the kindest new friends you know—Walter and Barbara—couple them with whole lots of cheese and bacon, some random Chinese herbs and ointments, and two days later ... can I get a witness?! ... you're walking in South Tyrol in Northern Italy.

Austria: Trail Dispatch  |  Photo Slide Show  |  Where to Stay

Via Alpina: Plan a trip >>


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