Lederhosen, cable cars and star dust in Austria’s Tyrol

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“I’m surprised by just how many people wear Lederhosen in Austria?” I remark, as we sit in a café tucking into a delicious apple strudel, in that well-known town called Worgl in Austria’s Tyrol (we took the train there to buy a kettle!). I thought that Lederhosen, much like the Kilt in Scotland, would be restricted to local gatherings and special events (weddings, birthdays and rugby matches), but it seems that men (and women) grab every opportunity to wear these strange leather shorts; walking around the town of an afternoon, waiting tables in restaurants and even strolling up a mountain! Along with the Dirndl (the traditional Austrian pinafore dress, with low cut blouse with puff sleeves), they are readily available to buy (at a price) in the high street. Influenced by the costumes of farmers and rural peasants and characterised by high quality linen, leather and loden (felt), the Tirolean costume is worn with national pride and has recently inspired a new fashion style called Landhausmode (Country House Style). There is certainly more to this country than meets the eye.

Being in Austria, I am keen to get into the mountains and at our campsite near Hopfgarten a cable car entices hikers and skiers to the top of Hohe Salve. This mountain, 1829m above sea level, is surrounded by more than 70, 3000-meter peaks, and offers a panoramic view of the surrounding Kitzbühel Alps. We arrive at the campsite in glorious sunshine, but the next day low cloud and rain are threatening. We take the cable car up to the midway station planning to climb the rest of the way to the top, but mist, rain and a wrong turn on the path forces us back to where we started.

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Mist and cloud rolling in on Hohe Salve

On a day trip to Innsbruck from our next campsite near the village of Weer, we try again.

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Innsbruck, the Hafelekar in the background 

The Nordkette (the North Chain) cable car leaves from the city centre up to Austria’s largest nature park, Karwendel. There are 3 stops, the first of which (Hungerburgbahn, 860m) can be reached by a modern funicular. John stops here but I decide to take the further 2 gondola lifts to the top (Hafelekarbahn, 2256m). It seems expensive (£36.50 Euros return…. yes, you can go one way and walk the return journey), but for the sake of my knees it’s worth every penny. It has been an overcast day so far but as I reach the top, the clouds lift, the sun comes out and the views take my breath away. I take my time, breathe in the fresh, cool mountain air and enjoy the 360-degree views all the way to Italy in the South and Germany in the North.

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Views from the top of Hafelekar

At the top, the Hafelekarrinne, one of the steepest downhill ski routes in Europe (a gradient of 70%), is reserved for expert skier’s only……I look down in awe. Many other activities are also available. There’s the Geothe- a geology walking trail providing a fascinating insight into the Karwendel’s reef limestone formations, a panoramic circular hiking route, a downhill mountain bike trail and 40 single-rope access climbing routes. If that’s not enough to get the adrenalin going, you could always paraglide from the top. I vote for the gentle climb a further 78 meters to the summit where a flock of ominous black birds circle the mountains crags and crannies.

View down to Innsbruck from the summit

For many here, young children, grandparents and those with disabilities, it may be the only summit they will ever reach, but with this extraordinary cable car trip everyone gets to experience the majesty of the mountains. This has been the highlight of our trip to Austria and the Nordkette mountain range has left a powerful lasting impression.

Views from the top

Austria welcomes tourism with open arms and like in Lake Bled we are gifted with local access cards during our stay, which provide free local transport, reductions in entry fees to local attractions and a daily activity programme. From Hopfgarten we take the train to Kitzbühel, a small Alpine town and fashionable winter resort, famous for its annual Hahnenkamm downhill ski race.  Boutique shops (selling plenty of lederhosen and dirndl) and cafes line its medieval centre and rooftop terraces provide sweeping views of the valley.

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Kitzbühel’s Medieval centre

In Weer we take a local bus to Schwaz where our Silber card (https://silberregion-karwendel.com/en/silbercard-summer) gives free access to Schwazer Silbergwerk (https://www.silberbergwerk.at/en),‘The mother of all silver mines’. At its peak of production (in 1500) Schwaz was the largest mining city in the world, with 12,000 miners producing 85% of the world’s silver. The profits fuelled the Habsburg Empire signalling the beginning of early capitalism and the basis of power and politics in contemporary Europe. The nearby coining site in Hall used the silver and copper from Schwaz to produce the Haller Taler, which remained Europe’s dominating currency for 300 years.  Hans Loffler’s casting mill in Innsbruck developed the formula for converting Schwaz copper into Bronze. It was this discovery which led the Emperor Maximillian to cast copper cannons, providing light, mobile escort artillery, and aiding the ascent of the Houses of Austria to world power.

Before entering the mine, we don a silver cape (it’s a cool 12 degrees, wet and humid 800 meters below) and hard hat. A tiny train arrives and zips through the 1.5km of tunnels which took the miners 26 years to dig. The tunnels are tight (and dark). This ride is not for the claustrophobic. The rest of the tour is on foot and our guide Manu, directs us through the tunnels along with an excellent audio guide. We learn of the miner’s hardships extracting the Fahlerz ore (containing the silver and Copper) from Dolomite rock, and their endless battle with water filling the mine shafts. The Schwaz mine was at the forefront of technical advancement and a huge water wheel, moving 1.2 million litres of water a day (a job previously done by the miners themselves) was a welcome development. The difficult and expensive mining techniques and cheaper silver imports from the New World however saw to the eventual demise of the Silver industry in Schwaz.

20190816_123657.jpg In our silver cape and hard hat, Schwazer Silbergwerk

Manu reminds us that silver is star dust and its formation is older than Earth itself. More than 5 thousand million years ago a stellar inferno shook our Milky way, exploding an enormous star and showering dust and gas throughout outer space. Temperatures of 950 million degrees created by this violent explosion led to the formation of silver in the rocks of our planet.

And so, as we leave Austria, it has left a lasting impression. The country may be small but is a giant in tourism. It has a fascinating history, winning scenery (summer and winter alike), friendly and helpful people, lots to do (both inside and out) and to top it off…. great apple strudel. A visit in Winter, with its snowy peaks and valleys would be beautiful……. but maybe just not in the motor home!

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