The hills are alive

An all-weather walk in Aus­tria

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - DESTINATION EUROPE - KEN­DALL HILL Ken­dall Hill was a guest of On Foot Hol­i­days and the Vo­rarl­berg State Tourist Board.

Daniel the driver and I ar­rive in Lin­ge­nau on a mid­sum­mer’s af­ter­noon to find the ho­tel I’ve booked is locked and ap­par­ently aban­doned. A sign on the door fea­tures a smil­ing sun and the cheery Ger­man words, “Heute Ruhetag!” (“To­day is rest day!”)

You can hardly blame the staff for skiv­ing off. It’s a spun-gold day and the val­leys and peaks of the Bre­gen­z­er­wald range in Aus­tria sparkle like trea­sures beg­ging to be dis­cov­ered. Daniel tries the num­ber of the Alpen­blick ho­tel, pulling his bot­tom lip in con­ster­na­tion when noone an­swers. He calls sev­eral times. The sit­u­a­tion seems hope­less un­til a clean­ing woman ap­pears sud­denly on an up­stairs bal­cony. Sal­va­tion with a mop.

Daniel bids farewell and leaves me with this nice woman who only speaks Ger­man, which I do not. Heed­less, she launches into a de­tailed mono­logue and fran­tic cha­rades. I can tell by her ex­pres­sions she thinks it lu­di­crous any­one would come to far-flung Vo­rarl­berg, Aus­tria’s west­ern­most state, and not be able to speak Ger­man. Maybe it’s mad­ness. To me, it’s an ad­ven­ture.

Af­ter show­ing me to my room she leaves and I promptly stub my toe, ex­tremely hard, on a con­cealed riser. Later I stub the same toe on the al­most-in­vis­i­ble wall of the glass shower cube. It black­ens like a rot­ting ba­nana. Not the ideal start to a hik­ing hol­i­day.

I’m due to spend the next four days trekking across the Bre­gen­z­er­wald Moun­tains on a taster itin­er­ary pre­pared by lo­cal ex­perts for Bri­tish-based On Foot Hol­i­days. The com­pany has equipped me with proper schematic maps scrawled with iso­bar lines or whatever they’re called, a book­let out­lin­ing my itin­er­ary, step-by-step walk­ing notes, trans­port timeta­bles and a tourist card for free travel on buses and ca­ble cars and en­try to swimming pools. It’s ba­si­cally a fool­proof kit to keep me on the right track in a for­eign land. It even in­cludes the emer­gency num­ber for Vo­rarl­berg Moun­tain Res­cue, which I mem­o­rise just in case. (It’s 112, by the way.)

My walk doesn’t of­fi­cially be­gin un­til to­mor­row but a test hike seems wise to try the notes and see if I can fol­low them. The hand-built wooden vil­lage of Lin­ge­nau sits neatly in a green valley be­neath a dome of bril­liant blue. Farm­ers are busy mak­ing hay while the sun shines and the warm air is heady with sweet­ish odours of damp grass and ma­nure.

I fol­low in­struc­tions and de­scend a path be­hind the vil­lage past the Quelltuff, a wa­tery wall of lime­stone out­crops in shades from char­coal to palest sand, and cross a sus­pen­sion bridge over the Su­ber­sach River. Youths in bathers sun them­selves on rocks be­neath me like a scene from a Christo­pher Ish­er­wood novel.

Goat bells tin­kle on the steep rise as I climb to­wards the im­prob­a­bly named towns of Rain and Egg. A light breeze and ar­chi­pel­a­gos of pure white clouds greet me when I emerge into an open field of black­ber­ries, but­ter­cups and dan­de­lions. Mis­sion ac­com­plished, for now.

Back in Lin­ge­nau I get some bad news from a lo­cal waitress. When I men­tion I’m spend­ing the week hik­ing the moun­tains, she cries, “Oh! Wed­nes­day and Thurs­day will be cold!”

That’s Wed­nes­day, as in to­mor­row. Not just cold but, ac­cord­ing to my weather app, by 11am there will be a 100 per cent chance of rain. More a cer­tainty than a chance, then. Stub­bing my toe is a bless­ing in dis­guise be­cause it fo­cuses my at­ten­tion on foot health.

First thing next morn­ing I stop by the apotheke for two packs of blasenpflasters, the world’s most amaz­ing blis­ter ban­dages. They stick fast like padded, plas­tic skin to re­in­force heels and toes. And I can’t feel a thing be­low my an­kles.

The moody con­di­tions don’t dim the beauty of the Bre­gen­z­er­wald (Bre­genz For­est). Around al­most ev­ery corner, over ev­ery rise, there is a sight so fine it stops me in my tracks and makes me take a photo.

On the descent into Egg I’m in­trigued by tra­di­tional houses clad in square or fish-scale shin­gles, like el­e­gant coats of ar­mour against the el­e­ments. The ar­chi­tec­ture is a high­light of Vo­rarl­berg, par­tic­u­larly the way old and strik­ingly new wooden build­ings are clus­tered to­gether. It’s al­most Quaker in its aes­thetic.

Egg is quite the lit­tle metropolis, with ev­ery­thing from cloth­ing bou­tiques to a Cal­abrian pizza joint. The lo­cals, known as Walders, bus­tle about in coats and scarfs. The only peo­ple bar­ing their legs to­day are teenage girls, and me.

Church bells toll over the valley at 11am as I plunge back into for­est. The heav­ens un­leash a tor­rent of rain, right on cue. A conifer canopy keeps me quite dry while I perch on moss-cush­ioned rock in an Enid Bly­ton set­ting of tan­gled roots and an­cient trees. If a gob­lin were to scut­tle past, I wouldn’t be at all sur­prised.

By noon the rain eases and, armed with a sturdy walk­ing stick I find be­side a cart track, I de­bouche (the cor­rect term, ac­cord­ing to my in­struc­tions) into a soggy meadow and promptly lose my way. Even while plough­ing through un­der­growth spiked with bramble thorns and pos­si­bly sting­ing net­tles, I con­vince my­self I’m still fol­low­ing the pre­scribed route. It’s not un­til I de­bouche into an­other clear­ing and can’t see the bee­hives or the chapel spec­i­fied on my notes that I con­cede I might have strayed. Things are not look­ing good but then, five min­utes later, I find the chapel. Amaz­ing grace. Once was lost but now am found.

At the base of the next valley lies Sch­warzen­berg vil­lage, which I reach just be­fore the next down­pour. All the restau­rants seem to be heute ruhetag ex­cept for a quiet back­street cafe called An­ge­lika Hohe. Seven eu­ros buys me some­where warm and dry to sit, a cup of tea, a toasted sand­wich, and es­sen­tial ad­vice on how to catch the bus to my ho­tel in Bezau. The inns are all you’d wish for af­ter a hard days’ hik­ing — cosy, friendly and com­fort­able. The food is abun­dant and home-style but if you want gourmet fare then many ter­rific Vo­rarl­berg restau­rants take pure lo­cal pro­duce and turn it into some­thing spe­cial.

At Adler Guest­house in Krum­bach the menu in­cludes a su­perb soup of chanterelles, and lo­cal chicken swad­dled in ba­con and drenched in a sin­ful sauce of smoked cheese. Hik­ing moun­tains is high-kilo­joule busi­ness.

The weather is foul next day. For­tu­nately On Foot’s itin­er­ary sug­gests rainy day al­ter­na­tives, so I board the 36 bus and ride into the clouds. Sen­sa­tional scenery is one rea­son peo­ple come to the alpine mead­ows of Scho­nen­bach; the other is Jagdgasthaus Egen­der, a guest­house restau­rant known for its leder­ho­sen-clad staff and for Scho­nen­bacher kas­knopfle, a gooey mess of dumplings made from lo­cal cheese, eggs and flour served in a small wooden bar­rel and topped with shreds of sweet, but­ter­fried onion. It comes with a side salad to give the ar­ter­ies a fight­ing chance.

On the fi­nal day I go out on a high, rid­ing the 650m chair­lift from Mel­lau into the high sum­mer pas­tures of the Kanisalpe. There’s an itin­er­ary op­tion to climb the 2044m sum­mit of the Kan­is­fluh mas­sif and en­joy panora­mas to Lake Con­stance, but I’ll be happy just to sur­vive the 13km sched­uled walk.

Be­sides, you don’t need to climb a moun­tain for views; they’re stun­ning from ev­ery per­spec­tive. To­day they’re en­hanced by fields of wild­flow­ers, blond-maned Haflinger horses and cows whose neck bells chime in an end­less pas­toral sym­phony. The hills are alive.

My des­ti­na­tion, Da­muls, lies at the end of a five-hour hike and a chair­lift ride down a moun­tain. But when I reach the chair­lift I de­cide to keep walk­ing, to make ev­ery step count. It’s my last day in the Alps and I don’t want it to end.

Later, as I’m wait­ing for the bus at Au to take me to Bre­genz, the state cap­i­tal, I mar­vel at the sight of the high pas­tures and peaks dwarf­ing me on all sides when it dawns on me that I know this coun­try.

I’ve just trudged across some of th­ese very same moun­tains. And it feels good to know that.

Bre­gen­z­er­wald Moun­tains, top; a hill­side chapel, cen­tre left; Lin­ge­nau, above right; cows graz­ing the Kanisalpe, above

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