16/08/2018
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Motorhome travel: Hiking in Austria

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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. 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 hike and torchlight hike and unlimited use of many buses. The thought of being whisked up the mountains of Rendl (2,030m/6,660ft), Kapall (2,330m/7,644ft) and the mighty Valluga (2,811m/9,222ft), has us straining at our seatbelts to get out of our motorhome, Roly, and 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. We have to stop to let our motorhome's brakes cool, the unmistakeable hot smell permeating the cool mountain air.

Arlberglife is a small campsite tucked below an apartment-hotel over which the Hoher Riffler looms. The outlook from our pitch is, as you can imagine, fabulous. We’ve only been in Austria 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’m almost wishing 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.

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 330km (205 miles) network 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? 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 3,000m/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. The very small gondola 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’.

Next day we take the Rendlebahn 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 zigzagging 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. A

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, pass an eye-catchingly 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.

Our remaining days in St Anton are hot and sunny and are spent hiking, often along what, in winter, are cross-country ski trails. The Schlosskopfweg leads through wild woods (Unteren Herrenwald) to a picturesque chapel and yet another bewitching scene. We experience a rather bittersweet moment as we reach the Arlberg Hospiz Hotel in St Christoph, as this is the start (and finish) of the 280km (174 miles) 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 campsite 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, with fantastic views of the Ahorn and Filzenkogel. As we climb up to the top cable car station we have the distinctive volcano-looking Brandberg in our sights. From our Mayrhofen campsite 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 Austria’s biggest, taking up to 160 people over 3km (1.86 miles) in just over six minutes. Platforms look out on the snow-capped Großer Löffler 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. It seems odd to be sunbathing on wooden loungers whilst surrounding peaks are covered in snow. There’s a storm coming as we look out over the Hintertux Glacier from one of the trails on the Sommerberg. The echoes of thunder and the suddenly darkening sky add drama, especially as the glacier 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). There’s a sickening smell of fuel in the Felbertauernstrasse tunnel and I’m glad to emerge into the bright sunshine and the lovely Hohe Tauern, Austria’s largest national park.

Waterfalls gush down the mountainsides and a swollen river rushes along the valley bottom. Schwimmbad Camping Mössler is 500m (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 (£4.07) per day, but are free in the evenings. The weather’s scorching, so we scramble high above Döbriach on a trail labelled as ‘difficult’. We emerge almost directly over our campsite at a viewpoint towards the Gailtal Alps over Millstätter See.

Evenings are spent along the lakeshore when the sun worshippers have gone. Kids still play on the water slides and cartwheel off jetties, but the lush lawns are empty. The boats and floats around Millstätter See become colourful dots as we head for Slovenia...

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