Caravan touring: A head for heights in Austria
If you love mountains and crystal-clear lakes you'll be on top of the world in the Tyrol and Carinthia
Words by Helen Werin Pictures by Robin Weaver Additional Images: Alamy
Daughter Sophie’s thrilled to bits when we pop out from the 6km long Pfändertunnel from Germany into Austria. Austria marks her sixteenth country in as many years (though she will add to that total and celebrate a birthday before our two-month European tour is up).
I’m thrilled by the size and spectacle of the mountains. We’ve left the busy shores of Lake Constance and are nearing our first Austrian stop at St Anton am Arlberg in the Stanzertal Valley.
Awesome Alpine caravan touring
Summer season tourists are treasured in this part of the Tyrol, the population of which skyrockets in winter because of its claim to fame as the ‘cradle of Alpine skiing’.
We’re picking up free St Anton Summer Cards from the campsite which will give us, among many other things, a day’s worth of free rides on the Arlberg cable cars, an e-bike tour, guided hikes and torchlight hike and unlimited use of many buses.
The thought of being whisked up the mountains of Rendl (6,660ft), Kapall (7,644ft) and the mighty Valluga (9,222ft), has us straining at our seatbelts to get up into these awe-inspiring Alps!
The Arlberg tunnel is closed for renovations, so we have to take the Arlberg Pass. What an exhilarating introduction to the Tyrol this is. Even though it’s July, snow nestles in clefts between the jagged mountaintops.
Arlberglife is a small site tucked below an apartment-hotel over which the Hoher Riffler (10,453ft) looms. The outlook from our pitch is, as you can imagine, fabulous. Looking down the valley we can see the ‘Iron Peak’, the Eisenspitze (9380ft).
Sitting outside in the late afternoon the scenery constantly changes; from sun sparking off the mountaintops one minute to clouds clinging around their summits, almost like smoke out of a volcano, the next.
Then the mountains disappear as stormy clouds envelop them. After a short deluge,
the sun blinks and there is the most beautiful light bouncing off the sides of the valley with a rainbow arching from the Eisenspitze adding a delightful flourish. We’ve only been in Austria for a couple of hours and, already, it has us firmly in its thrall.
Tuesday night is Tyrolean night at the Arlbergsaal in charming St Anton eight minutes’ drive away. We tuck ourselves halfway down a row in a large hall in a bid to avoid the dreaded possibility of audience participation. By the end of the evening, I almost wish that we could have joined in; it’s so much fun!
Men in lederhosen slap their thighs and feet, ladies in dirndls sing traditional songs and there’s some very impressive yodelling, as we’d anticipated. It’s the dancing that amazes us, with one entertaining feat after another.
In ‘the swinger’, the women swing out from the men’s arms as if on a carousel. In the most impressive, five men on stilts dance about with incredible balancing skills before forming a circle, leaning alarmingly backwards and swiftly spinning around whilst holding on to each other.
How all of them don’t topple into an ungraceful heap, I don’t know. It’s really very difficult to resist yodelling and thigh-slapping my way back to the site! As we wake up to that glorious sight of the Verwall and Lechtal Alps again, we’re overwhelmed by what to do.
Should we explore some of the 205 miles of hiking trails? Hire some bikes? Wander up the Verwaltal valley and around the lake, cocooned by mountains? Stroll along the banks of the Rosanna river to Flirsch, via Pettneu and Schann, before returning along the opposite side?
It’s Sophie’s choice and the Valluga wins hands down. This is ‘the roof of Arlberg’, towering over St Anton, and with the appeal of three cable cars to ascend it. We’re hopeful of being able to see into Switzerland and back to Lake Constance from the summit, with a 360-degree vista of the ‘Three-Thousanders’ (peaks averaging 9,843ft high).
Our approach to the first station slowly opens up the pretty valley until we spot ‘our’ tiny village of Pettneu with its distinctive church spires. The second car glides over a lake and a water play area for little children.
At Valluga View, we can indulge in childish games; throwing snowballs! The gondola cable car to Valluga’s summit is a marvellous experience, rattling through clouds and skimming jagged rocks. A metal staircase leads to a viewing platform. Yes, this is the moment for that sharp intake of breath. There is no other way to describe it other than ‘being on top of the world’.
Swirls of cloud kiss the crests of the Parseierspitze (9,960ft), Kaltenberg (9,514ft) and the Weißschrofenspitze (9,028m).
The view on the other side is just clear enough for us to see chamois on the green slopes, but not Lake Constance.
To our surprise, the only people up here are a lone Frenchman and a ranger scanning the mountains with binoculars. Sophie turns cartwheels and does handstands in the clouds, without realising that everyone visiting the tourist office in St Anton can watch her antics on a webcam.
Eating out in Austria
Lunch is in the Sporthotel on St Anton’s largely pedestrianised main street; a traditional dish of roasted dumpling with a sauce made from local mushrooms and strudel with a white cheese filling; all incredibly delicious.
Austria is surprising us with its prices; groceries cost much the same as in the UK. Eating out is, if anything, cheaper. We get a taste for the generous bowls of hearty goulash soup served with huge chunks of bread which cost €3.80 in most places, even in the mountain restaurants.
Next day we take the Rendlbahn up the other side of the valley. Soaring above enormous evergreens make us feel slightly quaky as we peer through the windows of the car. Following a rough track zig-zagging down Rendl gives us glimpses of the Valluga.
A stream swelled by a few days of heavy downpours pounds down the Moostal Valley, and we get an amazing angle on St Anton and the other cable cars, stations and chair lifts as we descend.
Austria really packs in the fun! You would not think that riding uphill and getting soaked (despite ‘waterproofs’) would be highly enjoyable. On our free e-bike tour it is.
I resolve to use as little battery power as I can, though the roads out of St Anton are steep. For most of the ride the rain holds off as we skirt pine woods, passing an eye-catching turquoise lake and pause to cross a creaky metal footbridge above a raging river.
Then the heavens open, and we fly down tracks back to St Anton, thankful for the changing room facilities in the arl.rock sport and climbing centre where we’d picked up the bikes.
Another steaming bowl of goulash soup sets us up for an afternoon on chairlifts up Gampen (6,070ft) and Kapall. The attendant looks at us as if we are mad. Icy hail stings through our waterproofs as we jump into our seats. Thank goodness for the drop-down cover.
At first, we’re able to see the route along that we’d e-biked and the path we’d taken down Rendl and into the Moostal Valley. At Kapall we can’t see for more than a couple of feet because of the atrocious weather, so descend to a distinctly unsurprised attendant.
Our remaining days in St Anton are hot and sunny and are spent hiking, often along what, in winter, are wide cross-country ski trails. The Schlosskopfweg leads through woods (Unteren Herrenwald) to a lovely chapel and yet another bewitching scene.
The Arlberg Hospiz Hotel in St Christoph on the Way of St James has been offering shelter to journeying pilgrims since the fourteenth century (it’s now five star luxury!). We experience a rather bittersweet moment; this is the start (and finish) of the 280km Eagle Walk crossing the entire Tyrol province, and we’re itching to traverse some of it. There’s no time as we have to move on to our next site in the Zillertal Valley.
Paragliders swooping down either side of the valley greet us at Mayrhofen. We watch them take off from the panorama trail on the ‘action mountain’ of Penken (6,873ft), with fantastic views of the Ahorn (9,754ft) and Filzenkogen (7,306ft).
As we climb up to the top cable car station we have the distinctive volcano-looking Brandberger (8,858ft) in our sights.
Cable car fun
From our Mayrhofen site I catch the last of the evening sun glinting off the top of the Ahorn. The call of this giant can’t be ignored. The Ahornbahn gondola is the biggest in Austria, taking up to 160 people over 3km in just over six minutes.
Platforms look out on the snow-capped Großer Löffler (11,086ft) and the panorama trail around the Ahorn really packs a scenic punch with sensational visions of the central Zillertal Alps. The Ahornsee water park (free) is full of children splashing and pulling a raft across. It seems odd to be sunbathing on wooden loungers with surrounding peaks covered in snow.
There’s a storm coming as we look out over the Hintertux Glacier from one of the trails on the Sommerberg (6,890ft). Around Hintertux is a hikers’ ‘paradise’ and people ski on the glacier all year round.
We’re less energetic, having taken yet another cable car up here, enjoying the stunning perspectives down the valley. The echoes of thunder and the suddenly darkening sky add drama, especially as the glacier before us was bathed in sunshine a few moments before, but it quashes our plans to walk further.
A 40-minute bus journey from Mayrhofen brought us here, with the bus swinging around tight bends so often that I was glad to get off!
Hairpin bends seem to go on forever as we drive through the mountains above turquoise alpine lakes towards Döbriach on Millstätter See (Carinthia). Workmen are repairing the edge of a road which appears to have fallen away, leaving a very long drop into a gorge. It’s a gross understatement to say it is unnerving as we inch closer to the edge — without any barriers on this stretch — to get around the line of oncoming traffic.
There’s a sickening smell of fuel in the gloomy Felbertauernstrasse tunnel and I’m very glad to emerge into the bright sunshine and the gorgeous Hohe Tauern, Austria’s largest national park. Waterfalls gush down the mountain sides and a swollen river rushes along the valley bottom.
Life by the lake
Schwimmbad Camping Mössler is (1,640ft) down a track from Millstätter See. Most of the lake frontage is private lido gardens which incur entry charges of about €4.50 per day but are free in the evenings. In the summer months, it's definitely worth waiting until the crowds disperse.
The weather’s scorching, so we scramble high above Döbriach on a trail labelled as ‘difficult’. Knotty tree roots provide steps along steep paths covered in pine needles and cones. We emerge almost directly over our site at the viewpoint towards the Gailtal Alps over Millstätter See. We can just make out our pitch among the trees next to the swimming pool — although it looks rather small from up here!
As distant thunder rumbles, we scuttle back down the forest track instead of the downhill dusty scramble and narrowly avoided being caught in a downpour.
Evenings are spent along the lake shore, at its best without scores of sun worshippers. Kids still play on the water slides and cartwheel off jetties, but the lush lawns are empty. It’s rather romantic to watch the sunset from the steps leading into the lake — until a very aggressive goose forces us to retreat.
The boats and floats around Millstätter See become colourful dots as we head for Slovenia — the next stop on our tour. We’re very sad to be leaving Austria, but excited about our next destination. As we approach the Karawanken Tunnel, which links the two countries, the satnav says that it’s only a half an hour to our campsite at Bled.
It’s Saturday lunchtime, the road is packed and, rather ominously, highway authority workers are distributing bottles of water. It looks like we’re going to be in Austria for a little while longer.
- The St Anton Summer Card is given free at campsites. Upgrade to a Premium Card for €55 for three days for unlimited free use of all cable cars, daily use of pools, all activities on the weekly programme including e-biking, yoga, Nordic walking and archery, plus green fee for the local golf course: sommerkarte.at
- Early birds can enjoy the sunrise breakfast every Thursday during July and August on the Ahorn with a cable car trip between 5 and 6am. Advance booking required on 0043 5285 62277.
- The Zillertal Activcard (adults €63.50 for six days) offers one return cable car trip per day, one visit per day to outdoor pools, free use of most of the region’s public transport and discounts around Zillertal.
Where to stay
Prices Couple, Electric Hook-up, Per Night
6574 Pettneu am Arlberg, Austria
T 0043 54488352
Open December-end September
Price from €26.20
The site is a short walk from pretty Pettneu’s village centre, with shops and places to eat. It's a relaxing place to pitch and has some wonderful views.
Laubichl 125 A — 6290 Mayrhofen
T 0043 5285 6258051
Price from €26.50
Open all year
This is a large site that is popular with all nationalities, set on the edge of pretty woods on the northern outskirts of Mayrhofen and with lovely views of the mountains. Mayrhofen is a top skiing destination if that's what you're into! Book ahead to make sure you secure your pitch in the busier months.
Schwimmbad Camping Mössler
Glanzerstraße 24, 9873 Döbriach
T 0043 042467735
Open 18 March-5 November
Price from €19
We were glad of the plentiful shade at this attractive, spacious, level and well-maintained site. The site gets a constant stream of great reviews, and we know why!