Let the cowbells ring out in Mayrhofen
ANDREA WATSON attempts to walk on water, just one of the novelty attractions in the mountains above Mayrhofen, a Tyrolean resort in the Ziller valley
EVEN WITH the help of an inflated plastic ball, it is nigh on impossible to emulate what only one other person in history apparently achieved. The balls can be hired for a modest fee at the Funsportstation on the reservoir 1,800 metres above the town in the Zillertal Alps. A sign advertises ‘Free WiFi’. Oh dear. There is also a birds of prey show, mountain bike hire, paragliding and many packages on offer. Cheese-making and falconry may make odd bedfellows, but Dairy Delights and Fearful Flights is one example. An Action Day ticket which offers biking and paragliding seems a bargain at Euros 27.30.
In common with other Alpine ski resorts, Mayrhofen is extending its summer activities to make up, in part, for a shorter and later ski season.
Biking is very popular and the well-oiled tourist machine provides excellent maps as well as free bike service stations for small repairs; a blessing for the non-technical. The most popular activity without a doubt, though, is hiking. The new Penkenbahn cable car enables everyone to get on to the higher trails and all ages can be seen, including stalwart parents pushing buggies. We, too, needed a good walk after the first night’s supper at the Gasthaus sum Griena, which reminded me that in Austria, portions are huge and cheese plays a prominent part in the cuisine.
At this late stage of the summer there is only a dusting of snow on the higher peaks, but the temperature is already dropping rapidly at night and by November the wonderful hut-to-hut walks arranged by the Alpine Association are no longer possible.
The English guide Kate Seiringer, an extraordinary character, has taken the customs of the valleys to heart and provides a non-stop string of anecdotes about the Tyrolean way of life. Married to the local baker, Kate was not immediately accepted by her new family. In fact, her mother-in-law wore black to the wedding. “I had diluted the blood,” she explains. One of the few times she showed Kate any respect was when she went back to work in the family restaurant the day after giving birth to her second child.
Kate later bought us a moon calendar. “You get them in the bookshop opposite the shop that sells tobacco and baby clothes.” She was not joking – it is there. The moon calendar tells you what days it is good to sow seeds, water plants, do the housework, iron clothes and, of course, make babies. Not every woman uses it, but clearly enough do to be worth publishing. It is a glimpse of life in the valleys that tourists do not often see; the steadfast traditions which bond these people and echo back down the centuries.Our hike took us past many points of interest, including a steep rocky outpost used by climbers. It is possible to hire a helmet with a GoPro camera and record your terror as you tackle the roped gulleys.
Perched on a small hill, we came across the rhomboid-shaped Granatchapel, which is dedicated to a local monk martyred in Damascus in 1400. This brought forth more musing on the Austrian way of life from Kate. I had forgotten how intensely Catholic these Tyrolean valleys are – crucifixes adorn barns and roadsides, and every working person who wants to be baptised or married in a church must pay a tithe to the church.
On arrival, our Inghams rep had mentioned that this was the Almabtrieb season, or what I shall call ‘cowdown’ – the ceremony of bringing the herds down from the summer mountain pastures to their winter quarters in the valley.
There was one taking place in a local village called Ginzling, and as it is quite high up, we hired e-bikes for the purpose of getting there. E-bikes have become enormously popular in these parts, as they enable visitors to enjoy far more of the mountains than would be possible on an ordinary walking or even biking holiday. Believe me, though, e-biking is not effortless.
Our guide – a young man in his 20s – thought nothing of the climb, but at 1,500 metres the rest of the party were gasping for breath in the thin air – even on Turbo setting. We begged to stop, and found a gasthaus overlooking an immaculate scene, where the grass had turned gold-green in the late autumn light and the mountains encircling Mayrhofen were an intense smoky blue. We were served by a young woman with a baby in a sling and I was reminded of Kate.
Onwards to Ginzling which is lovely, small and unspoiled. At the restaurant, where we later lunched, the locals had gathered to enjoy beer and sausages, while a trio of musicians ran through favourites like ‘My Way’ and yodelled in a manner to which you must be born.
At Mayrhofen, cowdown has become a large spectacle as many more herds pass through the thronged streets of the town. It attracts thousands, but the animals get quite stressed. Ginzling is better. With their enormous bells, the cows can be heard coming from a good distance. On their broad foreheads, each carried a headdress of pine branches and coloured ribbons inset with images of Christ and the Virgin Mary.
Our hotel, The Elisabeth, is the class place to stay in Mayrhofen – a large pale pine building hung with the massive baskets of geraniums that are the pride of Austrian villages everywhere. The most surprising thing is the spa in the basement, newly built in ultra contemporary style with a massive pool and dark grey jacuzzi with purple underwater lights. There are two saunas, one of which we dubbed ‘the area’, on account of the large sign stating ‘Nude Only’. It seems to be ignored, however.
Our 32.8 kilometres on e-bikes apparently burned 1,450 calories, so dinner at The Elisabeth: in my case goulash, soup, salad and what the jovial waitress called ‘sweetie’, which seemed almost modest. However, when I arrived home, the scales told another story.
Inghams is offering 7 nights half board at the 4.5* Elisabeth Hotel, Mayrhofen, Austria, from £954 per person, saving £95 per person departing 9th September 2017. Price includes return flights from London Gatwick to Innsbruck and resort transfers. For more information or to book, visit www.inghams.co.uk/lakes-mountains-holidays or call 01483 791 116.