The Alps – Innsbruck and Surrounds

Want to feel small and humble?

Stand at the foot of a mountain and look up.

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Want a thrill ride?

Ride a cable car up a mountain.

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Want to feel invigorated?

Go hiking on a mountain.

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Want to feel like you’re king of the world?

Survey creation from a mountain peak.

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Even a casual mountain expedition fills me with these kinds of heightened emotions.  So when I found myself in Salzburg with a week to spare before I caught my flight home to Australia, it was a cinch that I would hop a train to Innsbruck and into the heart of the Alps.

I have been to a number of mountainous regions in my travels and appreciate the uniqueness of each; but the Alps are the best place to immerse yourself in verdant scenery and explore relatively gentle slopes with well-marked hiking trails.

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And the alpine villages glued to mountainsides are a treat for the eyes when viewed across a valley.

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This appeal only grows as you pass through the villages and study the sloped roof houses with their flower box windowsills. (Nope, sorry don’t have a flowerbox photo handy.)

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Cowbells ringing into the villages from places unseen add a melodious soundtrack to the scenery.

While I was aware of a city called Innsbruck from having watched some television coverage of the 1976 Winter Olympics, I was not familiar with the place.  I arrived on a Saturday morning in August 2013 to find a city which was surprisingly hot and comatose.  Whenever feasible walking is my preferred mode of locomotion so I set off from the train station in, what I hoped was, the direction of my hotel.  However after a half hour, the heat and my poor orientation skills took their toll and I broke down and flagged a taxi.

This was actually fortuitous because not only was I heading in the wrong direction to my accommodation at the Haus Marillac but the driver was a personable fellow who spoke English and was keen to tell me all about Innsbruck and its attractions.  A good tourism ambassador for his city, he was.

Of course we also talked about that topic which is common among strangers, the weather.  He explained that the temperature was unusually warm because the Sahara desert winds had curiously shifted northward to the southern parts of Europe, bringing with them airborne sand particles giving the mountains a red sheen.  I had to take his word for the red sheen because the mountain slopes just looked an inspiring shade of green to me.

After a pleasant and informative ten minute drive he deposited me at the Haus Marillac and we bid each other auf wiedersehen.  Finding accommodation solely by relying on an internet booking site is a crapshoot if you have little knowledge of a city.  Despite assiduously reading hotel reviews my success in choosing suitable accommodation is decidedly mixed.  Sometimes I strike it lucky while other times I enter the hotel room and am overcome by a strong desire to turnaround and run like hell; except that the room charge is usually non-refundable and I’m too “money conscious” to lose the money I have already put up.

My advance booking at the Haus Marillac is one I can place on the positive side of the ledger.  It’s not flash but a rather quiet, spotless utilitarian hotel as would befit a building affiliated with a seminary.  This meant I did have to share the breakfast room with a few elderly priests and nuns.  After being raised as a Catholic I am still not entirely comfortable in their presence.  The nuns served to remind me of the terror inflicted on us school kids while the sight of the priests recalled the shameful things I was forced to confess if I didn’t want to suffer eternal damnation.  Fortunately though no one tried to re-enlist me back into the Catholic Church and I was left undisturbed to enjoy my breakfast.

My room at the Haus Marillac had good Wi-Fi access but lacked a TV set which I didn’t mind.  I found in my travels across Central Europe that the types of places I stay at often carry only one English-speaking satellite station and CNN gets very boring very quickly.  Besides, these days TV takes second place to good Wi-Fi and Haus Marillac satisfied on this criterion.

But the real draw of my room was the vista from the window.

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It was a treat to just sit at my desk, surf the ‘net and peer up at Nordkette Mountain while waiting for a new page to load.  The view became a moving feast a couple of days later when an intense storm randomly discharged lightning bolts over the mountain peak, simultaneously breaking the heatwave.  That was better than anything I’d see on CNN.

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(Trying to capture lightning by camera during twilight is a frustrating proposition.  Take my word for it that a violent storm is brewing.)

I gave up skiing after moving to Australia from Canada almost 30 years ago and I’d be lying if I said I missed it.  The season in Australia is too short, the drive to the ski resorts too long and the snow conditions too often atrocious.  On the day I gave up skiing I experienced blowing winds at the peak, ice in the middle of the run and exposed grass at the bottom.  I hung up my skis after extracting my face from the grass.  Plus, I reasoned, I only took up skiing in Canada because it gave me something to do during winter else wise I would be a shut-in six months of the year.  Now that I had an equal-money choice of spending winter holidays frustrated on an Australian ski slope or in the tropics, I was biased toward the latter.

But as I looked up at Nordkette from my hotel room desk I felt something that had been absent since I last skied in Canada’s west in the early 1980s.  I felt nostalgia for the experience of negotiating a long challenging ski run.  The nostalgia only got stronger the longer I looked up at the mountain.  I began to think I could easily be talked into giving up some of my Australian summer to return to Innsbruck for a skiing holiday.  This would also give me the additional benefit of sampling German Christmas markets.  I’m not familiar with the markets but they run December tours from Australia so they must be worth seeing, or so I surmise.  Even now that I have been back home for some months I still have this nagging urge to head back to Innsbruck and take up skiing again – maybe even be a ski bum for a season.  Who knows, it may happen.  I’m not discounting anything.

The walk between my hotel and Innsbruck’s Old Town was a scenic 20 minute mixture of mountain views and intriguing architecture.

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The views along the route, with occasional discovery detours, accorded just fine with my love of walking.

The Old Town section of Innsbruck has preserved its history and charms with the centrepiece being the Golden Roof.  The Golden Roof was built to honour Emperor Maximilian I’s second marriage to Bianca Maria Sforza and the Royal Couple used the balcony to observe festivals and other events occurring in the square below.

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As with many of Europe’s Old Towns Innsbruck has cramped laneways filled with hole in the wall shops stocking everything from high fashion to the usual tourist trinkets and hoodies.

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But owing to its surrounding geography Innsbruck’s Old Town has a feature that a lot of other European Old Towns lack:  outdoor cafes parked on broad boulevards that allow diners to eat in the shadow of lurking mountains.

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As much as there was to see around Innsbruck there were additional places in the Alps calling out for exploration.  Particularly, I wanted to visit Neuschwanstein Castle, the principality of Liechtenstein and to just cruise along mountain roads and through alpine villages.  But to see and do these things I needed to hire a car.

Having previously travelled through regional European areas I knew that the roads could be treacherously narrow so I needed the services of a small car, the smaller the better.  A Fiat 500 would do the job nicely since its length is only 3.5 metres with a width of only 1.6 metres.  This would also give me the opportunity to try out a Fiat since my wife was going to be in the market for a new car in a few months.  I had been thinking for a while that a 500 would suit her nicely.  It looked small enough to fit into mall parking spaces and agile enough to frustrate my wife’s persistent attempts to sideswipe our mail box.

I was able to find a car hire company in Innsbruck which rented Fiat 500s and arrived at the rental office eager to hit the road and try out a 500 on those treacherous alpine roads.  To my profound grief the company had generously upgraded the rental from my much-wanted Fiat to a monstrous Hyundai i40 station wagon with a 4.8 metre length and 1.8 metre width.  My spirit fell as I studied those extra millimetres on the Hyundai and wondered how high my stress levels were going to rise when I met oncoming traffic on some paved-over cow path.

“What is this bullshit???”  No, I didn’t say that.  I am usually too wimpy to complain at stuffups like this.  Plus the girl seemed so pleased at the prospect that I would have the services of a much bigger car at no extra cost.  So I swallowed any complaints I might have made.  Besides it was pointless, there was no Fiat 500 anywhere in the lot and I was keen to begin my road trip.  I left my complaining to high pitched shrieks on those occasions when I feared I was about to tumble, car and all, over a mountainside.

Turning to the actual trip, Liechtenstein can be disposed of quickly.  It was not much of anything.  Perhaps this is befitting of a postage stamp sized country.  Sure it has its share of scenic mountains, but so does Switzerland, Austria, Germany and France.  It is not unique in this.  I’ve read Liechtenstein is a very wealthy country.  Maybe it is but the houses I saw looked distinctly middle class.  I can only surmise that the wealth is hidden away in the country’s banks, held on behalf of absent citizens of convenience.  I can’t even show off a souvenir passport stamp from Liechenstein: the only activity at the border crossing was a wave through by a sour-looking guard.  I am willing to concede that this unfriendly introduction to the principality may play some role in the formation of my less than complimentary opinion of the place.

About the most interesting thing about Liechtenstein for the day tripper is the Prince’s residence hovering like Dracula’s Castle over Liechtenstein’s capital city, Vaduz.  There is no pretence here that the King is just one of the folks.  Not with a castle and location like this.

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My visit to Neuschwanstein Castle was an entirely different experience. Neuschwanstein always looks spectacular (if slightly over the top) in tourist brochures and so it is in real life.  My first sight of it was quite startling, appearing as it did as an apparition just off the main highway; rising from the top of a small-sized mountain and guarded by significantly higher mounds on its flanks.

 

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Neuschwanstein becomes no less impressive as you leave the main highway and make your way to the village of Hohenschwangau (non-German speakers surely would sprain their tongues if they actually tried to pronounce some of these names) which lies below the castle.  Your mood might deflate a bit as you realise you are only one of many making this pilgrimage.  That sinking feeling might then further descend into desperation as you look for a parking spot.

But you are sure to get a rapid emotional lift once you leave your car and discover that Hohenschwangau is actually an idyllic Bavarian village with numerous hiking trails snaking off from its edges.  For those more attracted to aquatic adventures Hohenschwangau also borders a lake offering canoeing, kayaking and, for those game enough to brave the mountain-fed waters, swimming.

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And those travellers who haven’t done in depth research will be surprised to find Neuschwanstein’s sister, Hohenschwangau Castle peering down from the opposite side of the village.  This castle would properly be a popular tourist attraction in its own right, if it didn’t have the misfortune of being overshadowed by its beautiful sister.

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If I had had the time, I could have easily tarried in the village for a few days, partook of its outdoor activities and toured the inside of both castles.  But as I had budgeted myself a short stay of only a few hours at Neuschwanstein I had to quickly set off on the walk up to the Castle.  While the castle is a steep hike from the village centre it is an invigorating walk, largely carried out under a forest canopy.  Others may have made their way up via a tour bus but I didn’t envy them – although ascent via a horse drawn carriage is enviously quaint.

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This aspect of the castle is one of the most popular seen in tourist pictures and understandably so because it shows off Neuschwanstein as being particularly stately and serene.

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Taking the picture, though, is a decidedly unstately and unserene experience.  The photographer is required to negotiate a narrow footbridge congested with fellow shutterbugs and elbows striving to get that one glorious picture.  (Yes I realise I, too, am guilty of contributing to the congestion.)

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As for the third part of my trip, touring Alpine roads and villages, it was as I feared.  The tank I was driving severely limited my enjoyment.  While the car was fine and I felt secure on the main highways I was terribly insecure on the Alpine roads.  There were a number of instances where I was forced to creep precariously close to the edge of a steep drop off so that another car could make its way past mine.  At such times I found myself wondering how many vehicles slipped over the edge and rolled down, down, down into the valley.  The only thing I was grateful for at moments like those was that it wasn’t winter.

But the pay off for my troubles were wonderful panoramic views.

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But a couple days’ driving with harried nerves and the increasing feeling with every narrow passage that I was really pushing my luck ultimately defeated me.  I decided to head back to Innsbruck half a day early.  After descending from the mountains and taking the wide freeway back, I happily turned the car in.  I made my way to an outdoor café with a glorious view of Nordkette, sedated my nerves with a golden beer and toasted my Alps adventure.

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