The hills are alive
An all-weather walk in Austria
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