By Victor Block
"The slower you walk, the sooner you'll get there." Those words, uttered by Wolfgang Wippler as I followed him up a steep mountain trail, seemed to make little sense.
It wasn't long, though, before their truth became evident. I began to breathe hard due to the exertion and the thin air. Next to go were my legs, increasingly grateful for the near snaillike pace. Then we passed a younger couple who had begun the climb before us at a much faster gait and had paused for a rest, and I understood the wisdom of my guide's tortoise-and-hare approach to walking up a mountain.
That was my introduction to hiking in the Tyrolean Alps, the peaks that rise sharply from green-carpeted valleys in the western panhandle of Austria. If mention of that country conjures up images of tiny villages filled with flower-bedecked chalets, cows and sheep grazing on hillsides so steep you wonder how they stand, and people who cling proudly to their colorful traditions, you're probably picturing the Tyrol (also spelled Tirol). No picture postcard can compete with the breathtaking visions that wait around every curve of the road and step along a hiking trail.
Vienna is aptly famous for its architectural treasures, musical riches, atmospheric coffeehouses and artery-clogging whipped-cream-covered desserts. Other Austrian cities and regions also make their claims to fame. But the craggy mountains, lush green alpine meadows and gentle valleys dotted by toylike villages that characterize the Tyrol have a magic of their own.
While many people visit Austria in winter to enjoy some of the best skiing anywhere, my focus was on summer activities. That's when the last snow has melted from many mountaintops and been replaced by an explosion of flowers that cover hillsides, blanket valleys and decorate fanciful wooden cottages.
Innsbruck, the capital of the Tyrol since 1420, is a good place to begin an exploration of the region. Nestled along the River Inn between parallel mountain ranges, the city became the seat of the Hapsburg imperial court under Emperor Maximilian I. Maria-Theresien-Strasse is a broad boulevard that leads to a market square in the center of the Old Town. The cobblestone streets are lined by elegant 15th- and 16th-century houses, the town hall tower and onion-shaped cathedral domes. Some of the buildings today house cafes and souvenir shops, but even those nods in the direction of modern commercialism can't hide their elegant facades.
The most famous highlight is the Goldenes Dachl (Golden Roof), a graceful third-story balcony built in 1420 onto what was Emperor Maximilian's Innsbruck residence. Covered by more than 2,600 gilded copper tiles, it served as a royal box from which to view festivities in the square below.
Along with its architectural riches, museums and other treasures, Innsbruck provides a perfect home base for excursions into the surrounding countryside. While I explored during driving day trips, an equally inviting alternative is to overnight at one or more small towns, including 25 "holiday villages" that surround the city.
Accommodations include hotels, bed-and-breakfast facilities and farmhouses that welcome guests. Driving is easy on well-paved and clearly marked roads. An alternative is the excellent public transportation system of postal buses, trains and cable cars that provides easy and inexpensive access throughout the area.
Many of the Tyrolean villages share similarities. A graceful church usually occupies a central position. Traditional alpine houses — made of pine that has weathered to a rich, dark patina and balconies festooned with an explosion of colorful flowers — stand adjacent to rambling farmhouses up to 500 years old that were enveloped as the towns grew around them.
Ubiquitous roadside crosses and religious paintings adorning the sides of many buildings are among tangible signs of the strong Catholic influence. More enticing to me were lovely miniature places of worship, often constructed and used by several neighbors. Many of these tiny chapels, most with only a handful of narrow pews, were built during times of plague, when people sought convenient places at which to pray for their lives and for the souls of the dead. Today they are used primarily for local funeral services.
Delving more deeply into the essence of each village, I discovered intriguing differences. Seefeld, a town of about 4,000 residents, is only a 15-minute ride outside Innsbruck up a winding, hilly road. Although it's one of the more touristy villages, it doesn't present a crowded feeling even in summer. Of special interest is the Baroque Seekirchl church with its eight little pews.
Igls helped to launch the area's tourism business beginning in the 1920s. The focus then, as now, was on health and the clear air that visitors come to breathe. Sistrans, by contrast, attracts few visitors, and those who find their way there have only a few B&Bs for accommodations. The main draw in little Lans are several outstanding restaurants and a lake area where locals gather to swim, sun and socialize.
Gasse, one of 22 towns in the Leutasch Valley, is easy to miss. Home to about three dozen families, it offers a miniature introduction to some of the lifestyle attractions that visitors to the Tyrol find so appealing.
Mailboxlike structures in front of some homes are used by residents to deposit a note with their order for fresh bread, which the local baker leaves the next morning. This is one among many memories of the magnificent Tyrol that linger in my mind. So do the wise words of Wolfgang Wippler, which I recall whenever and wherever I am hiking.
WHEN YOU GO
For more information about Austria and its enticing Tyrol region, call the Austrian Tourist Office at 212-575-7723 or visit www.austria.info/us.
Victor Block is a freelance writer. To read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate website at www.creators.com.