Sweet Val­ley High

Head for the hills and ex­plore Aus­tria’s Great Walser Val­ley through the eyes of a lo­cal to ex­pe­ri­ence their tra­di­tional way of life.

Virgin Australia Voyeur - - NOVEMBER - Words KA­T­RINA LOB­LEY

See life through the eyes of a lo­cal while trekking Aus­tria’s Great Walser Val­ley.

ELIS­A­BETH BURTSCHER crooks an arm around her nine-year-old grand­son, Levin. They are en­grossed in iden­ti­fy­ing the wild­flow­ers and herbs sprout­ing from the Alpine mead­ows of Aus­tria’s Grosses Walser­tal (the Great Walser Val­ley). Burtscher knows ev­ery fold and field of this ravine-like chink in the Alps that’s been home to Walser peo­ple since small groups of farm­ers moved east from the Swiss can­ton of Valais in the 13th cen­tury.

The re­source­ful Walser have some­how scratched a liv­ing as dairy farm­ers from these ridicu­lously steep slopes. It hasn’t brought riches — oth­ers have poked fun at their ways over the years — but now their knowl­edge of the land­scape is on show thanks to ini­tia­tives such as the Bergtee (moun­tain tea) project.

Burtscher, a Walser her­self, is a driv­ing force be­hind the project in which lo­cal women for­age for wild plants, dry­ing their pick­ings and trans­form­ing them into pack­aged tea. Those who head into the val­ley with Aus­trian Alps Ac­tive, a walk­ing tour com­pany es­tab­lished by Burtscher’s son Pa­trick and his Aus­tralian wife Ma­ree, will meet this wise woman and gather fresh wild­flow­ers to make their own pot of moun­tain tea. “My con­nec­tion to the world of plants is very strong,” Burtscher says, ex­plain­ing that her mother and grand­mother passed down to her their knowl­edge of the val­ley’s flora and its medic­i­nal uses.

“We’re col­lect­ing old wis­dom,” she says. “We never go out and pick be­fore the bees have what they need. And we do not need to tell any­one in this val­ley, as ev­ery­one here al­ready knows, ‘Don’t pick the flow­ers un­less the bees have enough.’”

Burtscher ar­ranges dan­de­lions, daisies, black­cur­rant leaves, red clover, lamb’s tongue, sting­ing net­tles and more on a del­i­cate heir­loom table­cloth be­fore throw­ing a se­lec­tion of flow­ers, herbs and leaves into a pot and steep­ing them in hot wa­ter. The brew is as green as envy, and a rev­e­la­tion that you can make tea from just about any­thing na­ture pro­vides. Ex­pe­ri­ences such as these are part of the rea­son Pa­trick wants his home val­ley to be­come more widely known. “Peo­ple of­ten say to me, ‘I know Aus­tria — I’ve been to Salzburg and Vi­enna’,” he says. “But I al­ways felt, ‘C’mon, there’s so much more to see.’”

SAY CHEESE

He’s right. His com­pany’s 10-day clas­sic walk­ing tour in­volves a thor­ough ex­plo­ration of the val­ley, plus a few side trips be­yond the Grosses Walser­tal. Guests are based in Faschina, a tiny ski vil­lage perched just above Fon­tanella — Pa­trick’s home vil­lage be­fore he moved to Mel­bourne af­ter meet­ing Ma­ree (they now swing be­tween these two home bases). From Faschina, it’s easy to make like the dairy cows that chime out a sym­phony with their bells as they tra­verse the slopes. The vil­lage is the gate­way to a coun­try­side be­jew­elled with alpen­roses (deep­pink rhodo­den­drons). It is also where you find cosy moun­tain res­tau­rants such as Franz Josef Hütte. “We’re see­ing the Em­peror to­day,” jokes Pa­trick, ref­er­enc­ing his­tory when speak­ing about the hütte’s epony­mous owner, Franz Josef Konzett, who’s all twin­kling blue eyes as he pours out our shots of pear schnapps.

Martha’s Hut (of­fi­cially Bre­i­thorn Hütte), on the other side of the val­ley, is an­other charm­ing lunch spot — and it leads to a sonic trail com­plete with an echo wall. Hik­ers can shout through mega­phones at a nearby moun­tain and hear their voice bounce straight back at them. At the other end of the lunch­ing spec­trum is the grand Bad Rothen­brun­nen inn. Fronted by two soar­ing maple trees and a tiny chapel, it sits near an iron-rich spring that’s stained the stones rust-red. Try the inn’s su­perb ‘farmer’s toast’ topped with grilled moun­tain cheese.

Cheese is some­thing of an ob­ses­sion in the val­ley, thanks to those flower-rich Alpine mead­ows (farm­ers in Vo­rarl­berg can even com­pete in the Meadow Cham­pi­onships that ac­knowl­edge the rar­ity and va­ri­ety of plant species in their mead­ows). Some dairy farm­ers shift their fam­i­lies and herds to an Alpine base for the sum­mer. It’s a big deal when the cows re­turn to lower al­ti­tudes in au­tumn — they’re adorned with show­girl-like flo­ral head­pieces for a colour­ful an­nual event known as Almab­trieb.

To buy a wedge of moun­tain cheese, known as the val­ley’s ‘white gold’, drop in to Son­ntag’s Bio­sphere Park House with its ex­hi­bi­tion Alpine dairy, mu­seum and cafe. The val­ley be­came a UN­ESCO Bio­sphere Re­serve in 2000 in recog­ni­tion of the role farm­ers play in main­tain­ing their daz­zling moun­tain land­scape.

You can also en­joy the rich­est, creami­est milk — the sort that’s never to be found in your av­er­age su­per­mar­ket — with break­fast at the Alpen­re­sort Walser­tal in Faschina, the glo­ri­ous base for Aus­trian Alps Ac­tive’s guests. The ho­tel is across

“PEO­PLE SAY, ‘I KNOW AUS­TRIA, I’VE BEEN TO SALZBURG AND VI­ENNA’… C’MON, THERE’S SO MUCH MORE TO SEE”

the road from a dairy where, if you take a peep in­side early in the morn­ing while the roost­ers are crow­ing, you will see cows be­ing milked with their tails del­i­cately pinned to one side.

Hilde Sperger, who dresses in a range of dirndls cov­er­ing the colour spec­trum, runs the four-star ho­tel with rooms that put you at eye level with the dis­tant Rote Wand (Red Wall) moun­tain that’s fa­mous among climbers. The ho­tel’s newer rooms have cosy win­dow seats with views over the res­i­dent al­pacas. A short trot from the ho­tel will take you to the val­ley’s pret­ti­est church: St Anna’s Chapel, dat­ing from around 1700.

Yet the tour in­cludes eye candy for afi­ciona­dos of modern ar­chi­tec­ture, too. If you think of Aus­tria as all choco­late-box fa­cades, Vo­rarl­berg’s avant-garde cap­i­tal will force you to think again. Bre­genz, fronting Lake Con­stance (or Bo­densee), is one of Aus­tria’s famed cul­tural cities. Opera lovers flock each sum­mer to catch a pro­duc­tion on the Bre­genz Fes­ti­val’s over­wa­ter stage. The city also has an in­ge­nious glass-skinned cube of an art gallery: blue-hued re­flec­tions off the lake are dif­fused into a soft in­te­rior light. Kun­sthaus Bre­genz is the brain­child of Pritzker Prize-win­ning Swiss ar­chi­tect Peter Zumthor. And take a close look at the pim­pled ex­te­rior of the nearby Vo­rarl­berg Mu­seum. What ap­pears to be con­crete blooms are ac­tu­ally casts of 13 types of plas­tic-bot­tle bot­toms. Wild flow­ers, in­deed.

CLOCK­WISE FROM TOPSt Anna’s Chapel in Faschina; cows sport­ing fab­u­lous flo­ral head­pieces at Almab­trieb; the stately Bad Rothen­brun­nen inn. OPENER, FROM LEFT Hik­ers above the Laguz Alps; wild­flow­ers freshly picked by Elis­a­beth Burtscher.

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