Motorhome travel: A tour of Austria and the tranquil Tyrol
Words and photos by Janet Banks
No matter how many times we make the Channel crossing, that tingle as we leave the Eurotunnel is a fantastic feeling. With a rough route in place, ACSI and Camperstop Europe books to hand and Lucy (our lovely motorhome) fully serviced, the open roads of Europe lay ahead.
We were planning a leisurely, toll-free drive to Austria at the start of a six-week trip. The grey drizzle in Pas-de-Calais didn’t stop us grinning from ear to ear. Even a wrong turn out of Boulogne, resulting in a slow road through the fog to Arras, did not dampen our spirits.
As the day wore on, clouds lifted and we enjoyed the scenery, towns and villages along our way: Cambrai with roadside storks nesting, the forests around Hirson, Charleville-Mézières on the banks of the Meuse and Sedan with its medieval castle.
Into Ardennes and Montmédy
The rolling hills of the Ardennes were bathed in sunshine. A sign to the enormous citadel as we approached Montmédy was just too tempting. We parked just below the ramparts in an aire and explored the walls, fort, huge church and the old town.
As the gateway to Lorraine, the outcrop has been fortified from the thirteenth century and governed by Luxembourg, Austria and Spain, before finally passing into French hands. Vauban, the great French military engineer, reinforced the fortifications to create the impressive stronghold that we see today.
History can be hot and thirsty work. Fortunately, a bar was open nearby and that first beer on foreign soil slipped down a treat.
Despite hitting the outskirts of Luxembourg city at rush hour, we made it to the aire at Sierck-les-Bains, beside the Moselle, by early evening. A waterside path took us the short distance into this delightful medieval town.
Our explorations of the narrow streets, stopping at the many information boards detailing the town’s history, whetted our appetite for a visit to the château next morning. As the first visitors of the day, we had the château to ourselves for an hour or so and could soak up the atmosphere.
Again, Vauban’s handiwork was visible, but there were domestic touches, too: beautiful flower beds and a massive bread oven, which is still used on feast days. We tore ourselves away late morning and pointed Lucy in the direction of Germany.
Making good time once on the autobahns we decided, rather than press on, to head for the university city of Ulm. The stellplatz is, basically, a car park with some large bays but it is very conveniently located. Bikes off the back, we had a pleasant ride into the medieval centre.
Under the arch of the tilting Butcher’s Tower, we couldn’t miss the imposing gothic Ulm Minster. It was too late in the day to go inside, so we were content to admire the murals on the town hall (rathaus) and to get lost in the maze of little streets leading down to the oldest part of the city and the Danube river.
By late morning next day we were parked up at Dachau Concentration Camp Memorial Site camp and lucky to catch the last English-speaking tour of the day. We spent three hours listening, learning and contemplating. As the first camp to open (in 1933), its intention was to hold political prisoners. This, of course, changed – with 32,000 documented deaths at the camp. Despite the obvious horrors, I would recommend a visit to anyone of any age.
The tranquillity of our stellplatz on Chiemsee that night was truly welcome after navigation of Munich’s ring road, roadworks, a cloudburst and the rush hour. What was essentially a gravelled car park was slightly set back from the lake. Our view was of water, manicured lawns and the distant mountains of Austria rising on the other side of the lake. Bliss!
As we watched a few people park, then go down to the water’s edge with towels tucked under arms, we followed suit. That swim as dusk fell was a holiday highlight.
Arriving in scenic Austria
The sun shone for our scenic drive into Austria. We’d decided to keep to non-toll roads and, yes, they were sometimes challenging, longer and definitely slower. However, it meant that we could stop when the scenery demanded our full attention and absorb the subtle change in the towns and picture-perfect Tyrolean villages once we had crossed the border.
Passing St Johann in Tirol, we reached Fieberbrunn and Tirol Camp just as the reception was closing for a two-hour lunch break. Lunch in Lucy and a quick visit to check out our preferred pitch made good use of the time as, come 2pm, we checked in and set up.
The campsite has wonderful mountain views and is right by the ski lifts. Whilst there are many seasonal pitches on this site, there were plenty of tourers at the time of our visit to give a ‘camping’ atmosphere.
We were intrigued by the winterised caravans with their solid protective roofs, sturdy annexes and pitches with hook-up to water, waste, electricity and the gas supply. Maybe this could be a future skiing holiday destination for us, we thought.
In fact, as we took the footpath at the top of the site, we suddenly realised that we had actually skied to this place when staying in Saalbach a few years before. Yes, places look very different when covered in snow!
Intent on a high mountain walk, we togged up and strode purposefully to the ski lifts the next morning. There was an ominous lack of mechanical activity and a helpful lady in the kiosk explained that all lifts were closed for three weeks of maintenance. She did, however, give us a trail map, which included the lower part of the mountain.
So, not to put off our original plans, we walked up, up and up again for more than two hours. The clouds cleared, the sun came out and the factor 30 was slapped on.
The trek was strenuous, but with rewards aplenty. We disturbed a pair of sleepy mountain hares, saw beautiful purple orchids and meadows full of wild lupins.
The lure of an ice cream kept us going. Sadly, the alpine chalet, Lärchfilzhochalm, was closed. Our picnic was munched to the sound of cow bells and we mused on why they are so big – the bells, that is (the cows were of a normal size).
Deciding on a circular route, we set off on a gentle incline with views to the still snow-topped mountains of the Salzburg Tyrol, before we dropped into the forest and finally back to the campsite. Our first ports of call were the swimming pools – one a standard pool with sunbeds and terrace and the other naturally landscaped, with reeds and grass surrounds. The sunshine and swimming soon soothed our aches away.
My trusty activity tracker had recorded a climb equivalent to 168 floors so, feeling very virtuous, we felt it only fair to replace all those expended calories with a beer at the very inviting campsite bar. A barbecue alongside Lucy whilst watching the ever-changing mountainscape was a perfect end to our energetic day.
Another day and another destination so, with a couple of mountain passes ahead, we breakfasted early and headed south.
Over the Thurn Pass and into Mittersill
Aiming to keep to our non-toll roads principal as much as possible in our four-tonne motorhome, we drove through Kitzbühel and over the Thurn Pass, dropping down to Mittersill. My role as chief navigator consisted of holding my seat edge whilst peering around those hairpin bends and shouting ‘clear’.
The joys of owning a right-handed vehicle and driving in Europe!
The drive over the second pass was exhilarating with hairpin bends (I lost count of the number after reaching 22) and very scary drops at the edge of the road. After a tunnel under the mountains at the highest part and then a descent all the way down to Lienz, all I could say was, “Phew” and, “Well done, Lucy!”
Our campsite at Lienz was to the south of this pretty medieval town. Camping Falken was busy, but it has good-sized pitches and we quickly set up and cycled to the Hochstein station. It so happened that the gondola up this mountain was only open on weekends at the time that we were visiting. Fortunately for us it was a Sunday.
The reason for our urgency was our need to try out the Osttirodler – an alpine coaster (roller coaster-like toboggan) – down the mountain. We paid €12 (£10.69) each for the lift up and one ride down. This also gave us access to some splendid mountain walking without the exertions of that initial ‘up’.
A stroll through the forest took us to a small lake and we learnt that this was used as a water source in the winter for the snow-making machines. After enjoying an ice cream by the small animal park, we were ready for our turn on one of the longest alpine coasters in the world. I went whizzing down the mountain, swaying from side to side and tearing around the many corkscrew turns. It was 1.7 miles of fearful squeaks and squeals, but I wouldn’t have missed it for anything.
An early supper in one of the many attractive eateries in the pedestrianised centre of Lienz restored my equilibrium. Apple strudel in Austria certainly tastes ten times better than it does back home.
We had chosen a pitch on the campsite’s perimeter with views of the majestic Gailtal Alps, which took on a glorious rosy tinge as the sun set and we relaxed.
Overnight rain cleared and normal service resumed: sunshine and blue skies. It was time to get cycling.
A path by the side of the River Drava was perfect: quiet, cool under the trees and just a very, very, gentle incline as it threaded through the valley towards its source at Toblach. We picnicked watching canoes on the slalom course, but there was a bit too much white water for me to feel tempted.
Instead, we rode back into Lienz and up to the imposing Bruck Castle, which was built in the thirteenth century.
The recently restored grounds are beautiful and the castle commands a superb position at the entrance to the town but, it being a Monday, it was shut.
Crossing the River Isel, we headed to the town centre and followed a tourist trail that took in ancient towers, shops selling traditional lederhosen and last, but definitely not least, a nice café with a riverside terrace.
Kaffee und kuchen - of course!
The Austrian tradition of kaffee und kuchen is one that should be continued and relished and so we settled in among the floral displays to enjoy an enormous slice of gateau with an iced coffee; delicious.
A gentle ride back to Camping Falken and an evening of mountain watching followed.
Our seven nights had seen us travel under 1,000 miles and had led us to experience the cultures in three different countries.
We’d enjoyed overnighting on aires, stellplätze and campsites; motorhome touring at its very best.
This travel feature was originally published in the July 2019 issue of MMM - to buy a digital copy of the magazine click here.