Hiking the Austrian Alps

Trekking "Without Luggage" in the Pintzgau Saalach Valley
By Joe Keith
  |  Gorp.com
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In 1854, a physically ailing Henrik Ibsen set off on an arduous journey from his home in the north of Norway to the Austrian Alps. He was looking for a place to recuperate — both physically and spiritually.

After disembarking at the train station in Salzburg, the aging playwright headed west through a narrow corridor in the Alps to the pristine villages of the Pintzgau Saalach Valley. He was awestruck."It is truly marvelous," he wrote, "the entire region attracts me. There a little forest land. . . oh to lose oneself in its shade. There a mountaintop. . . oh, to see the panorama from it. The mountains and mystical valleys. . . oh how wonderful to lose myself in them!"

Indeed, the setting was so conducive to his imagination and health that within six months Ibsen was well enough not only to begin chasing around a young Austrian maiden, forty-three years his junior, but to start work on what would become one of his great plays, When We Dead Awaken — the story of aesthetic reincarnation amidst the power and glory of the mountains.

Ibsen stands in a long line of people who have made pilgrimages, in one form or another, to the Austrian Alps. From the German Kings and Emperors of the Middle Ages on their way to coronation by the Pope in Rome, to the countless individuals seeking cures from various ills, to the relatively new incarnation of backpackers and climbers, the forbidding spires and lush valleys of the Austrian Alps have sparked the imagination of travelers for centuries.

And now the opportunity to make one's own personal pilgrimage into the Alps has been made considerably more luxurious. In 1993, the Austrian Tourist Bureau inaugurated a program in the Pitzgau Saalach Valley named, subtly,"hiking without luggage." The idea is simple. You map out an Alpine trek with one of the local tourist offices (you can also do it with several tourist offices in the United States) to suit your physical level, and then while you hike the ancient footpaths connecting many of the villages in the region, your luggage is transported ahead to your next destination.

It is certainly the most civilized hiking one can imagine. Indeed, if you don't immediately realize the brilliance of "hiking without luggage" then you certainly will by the end of the first day. After trekking through the mountains and alpine meadows, one descends into an immaculate village, with its own ancient church, its own set of folktales — often involving some wayward woodsman — and its own brand of Weissbier, only to find all of your things awaiting you in a tidy Gasthaus room. It is a far cry from what one might usually imagine when thinking of backcountry hiking. Instead of searching around for a campsite before dark and firing up the camp stove for a meal of sticky oatmeal, here one can be kicking it in a Gasthaus sauna before a hearty three course meal of potato salad, fresh trout, Austrian chocolate cake, and plenty of regional Weissbier.

Published: 30 Apr 2002 | Last Updated: 15 Sep 2010
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication



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