Sunday, January 21, 2018

Exploring Tyrol area near Innsbruck

Last May, we spent a long weeked in and around Innsbruck, exploring some of the scenic places nearby and doing a few treks. It was a lovely weekend, spending time close to nature in the midst of mountains, surrounded by greenery all around. A totally relaxing and refreshing break from city life.

Our itinerary for the weekend was as follows:

Day 0: Fly from London to Zurich; stay at Hotel Montana near the airport
Day 1: Take scenic train from Zurich to Innsbruck; ride the alpine coaster at Imst; check-in into our lovely chalet at Schlittles; dinner at the nearby Sclittles See
Day 2: Drive to Hintertux glacier; take cable car up the glacier; drive to Schlegeis lake; trek up the mountain near the lake
Day 3: Drive to Braies di Lagos in the Dolomites; trek around the lake; explore Innsbruck town; dinner at Rama
Day 4: Trek up the mountain next to our chalet; flight back to London

Day 0: Fly from London to Zurich; stay in Zurich

We flew from London to Zurich on a Friday night, took a local 15 mins train from the airport to the city centre, and then after a quick 7 mins walk, reached our hotel - Hotel Montana. It was all very efficient and that is how we had planned it. On our way to the hotel, we walked past a huge museum and a church, and then crossed the river.

The hotel was a three star, so very simple and no poshness around it. It was clean and very close to the station, so turned out to be very convenient for us. Before sleeping, we looked out of our windows and could see the mountains, and some houses and churches going all the way up the mountain which looked quite alluring at night.This was the total extent of Zurich we saw on our trip 😄. The weather was so hot, that we had to sleep with the windows open. And there being no air-conditioners did not help. I am guessing they don’t use them much here anyways 😜.

Day 1: Scenic train from Zurich to Innsbruck; ride on the alpine coaster at Imst

We took an early morning panoramic train from Zurich to Innsbruck, leaving around 830 am. It was a 4 hour journey and took us through the Alps all through Switzerland, Liechtenstein and onto Austria. And the route was quite scenic all through. We first went along two grand lakes surrounded by imposing mountains. A lot of these peaks were covered with snow even in May. And then it was the vast green Alpine countryside all along.

There were the usual Alpine wooden houses dotting the mountains, villages with the church spires peeping out, imposing mountains with waterfalls still flowing, huge lakes with crystal blue waters, farms with cattle and cows with bells, and so on. It was the best way to start a vacation where you totally de-stress just looking out of the train window and seeing the slow pace of life that some parts of the world still have!

We also crossed the county of Leichtenstein, a small European country not really known much except as a tax haven. To be honest, it also felt very Alpine and I did not notice much difference with the places around except the houses there felt less rich than their Swiss counterparts 😜. The weather today and the rest of the trip was also brilliant - sunny and warm all the time, which brought out the green colours of spring all the more...

Once in Innsbruck, we had a quick pizza lunch at Testa Rossa restaurant in the station itself and then left soon enough for the alpine coaster in the town of Imst. It was a bit of a drive there and was the start of the exhilarating drives in Tyrol. The weather was sunny and the whole drive felt so uplifting and refreshing. Most of the drive was on the highways and the infrastructure felt good. It didn't feel like driving through mountainous areas at all.

One thing though I should highlight, I found the speed limit there to be the most confusing. There were lots of boards specifying 110 kmph as the speed limit but everyone was overtaking us. When we checked online later, websites specified that the speed limit on the highways was 130 kmph generally but in the Tirol area, a lot of roads had a lower limit. But clearly not many were following it 😝. Throughout the trip, I kept getting overtaken quite often and felt terrible about it because I was the only one following what it said on the boards!!

Down the Alpine coaster in Imst
The alpine coaster refers to a long trail down a ski slope where in the summer, you can sit in toy cars and zoom down huge mountains, at quite thrilling speeds. The coaster goes around along dangerous turns with no view of what is coming and you can keep going down without touching your brakes which is the best way to go down! There are many alpine coasters in this area but the one we went to was in Imst. It was a ski resort during winter and alpine resort in summer. It was fun to be there anyways, with the valley views and all. There were gondolas to go up plus a cafe to enjoy a nice meal with a fantastic view.

We however went to the coaster directly. At the Imst coaster, you sit alone in the car and then off you go. We loved it so much the first time that we went down a second time and it was an electrifying experience! To go down the mountain in full speed with the air blowing in your face, trees all around you and no idea whats round the next corner - all of it makes your heartbeat go very fast! I am guessing it could have been dangerous at times, but I loved the adventure. The first time I was behind some people who were slow and I had to brake 2-3 times on the way down but the second time was pure speed with no stopping at all and it felt thrilling!

After the two rides and some well needed icecream, we drove back to our airbnb in the village of Schlitters. We had to drive past the city of Innsbruck and to our small village. And it was quite a (scary) effort to get to the place. Once we turned from the highway and were trying to find the village, the last 3-4 kms of the route turned out to be through a narrow one-way road up the mountain, with no house in sight and only trees on both sides! It also got colder and darker by this time.

We were sure by this time that we were lost and Google maps had also kind of lost it by then. However, we kept driving on the lonely road even though it felt like it was going nowhere. Thankfully we crossed a car on the way who guessed where we were going and told us that we will find the house on the way, which kept us going. We finally did reach the place which was in a small cleaning on the mountain with 2-3 houses and nothing all around.

Location of our airbnb
Thankfully the house made up for the scary drive. It was a three floor wooden alpine hut with a breath-taking view of the valley below and beyond. There was an electricity line blocking the view in front but I didn’t begrudge it as electricity in such a god forsaken place is clearly a luxury. Our chalet was definitely rural Austria - our neighbour in the next house was a farmer and bred cows. In fact, he even gave us fresh milk in the mornings everyday 😇.

The last part of the drive was so scary that we all wanted to avoid it. But we had to go out and get dinner as there was nothing to eat in the chalet. After checking in and realising that we have to split garbage into 5 categories (paper, plastic, food waste and so on) while checking out (!), we quickly left the place to find some place to eat. Driving out of there was the first (scary) hurdle having to drive very slow and being extra careful of not bumping into anything coming round the corner!!

View from the Schlittles See cafe
And then we realised that most eating places around had already closed as it was the weekend. In the end, we found a small place called Schlittles See cafe just next to a small lake down the mountain and had a quick bite there. The food was quite average but quite welcome when we didn’t have many options. It also turned out that most of the Spars around were also closed for the weekend. So we were unable to find anything to cook and went back to the airbnb without any groceries.

The drive back was again tough and scary plus this time there was no light as it was already dark but at least now we knew that there was something at the end of it 😜. We made it back safe and sound and spent some time just experiencing where we were - in the middle of nowhere, on a mountain with another couple of mountains in front dotted with twinkling lights, the valley below, the stars above and only nature all around. There was so much peace and quiet that we all were very soon in the vacation mode. Its such a surreal and rare feeling for all of us living in cities…

Day 2: Hintertux glacier and Schlegeis lake

We had an early morning start to the day and felt the feeling of living in the country. In the morning, the owner of our airbnb was cutting grass. And the neighbour gave us some fresh milk for breakfast. Once ready, we all took off towards the Hintertux glacier and drove for a couple of hours till there.

The local cows with the Swiss bell
The drive (as all the drives in Austria were) was breathtaking. Cruising through huge bright green mountains, dotted with small houses and villages with steeple churches; waterfalls gurgling from a distance, and lot of cable cars going up the snow covered mountains (which turn into ski slopes in the winter). It was so uplifting just to drive in such a place. The weather was warm, bright and sunny, almost giving us a tan and added to the near perfect experience.

And the place looked so different than it would in winter. We also saw loads of tourist doing different kind of summer activities on the way, like horse riding, white water rafting, paragliding and so one. I think this is how the locals make up for the ski tourist slump in the summers. We got excited to do para sailing on the free day we had but unfortunately that didn’t fructify.

Location of DDLJ photoshoot
There were also loads of wild yellow and red flowers on the sides, almost like shown in DDLJ. (By the way, for me even now, DDLJ is the gold standard of European beauty and the Alps are a big part of that favourite memory). We even stopped at one place on the way in front of some houses to take DDLJ photos 😇. There were a few houses, yellow flowers and a few cows in front, which provided the perfect photoshoot location.

View from the glacier top
Once at Hintertux, we took the cable car up to the top of the glacier. It was a 3 stage journey and we had to take 3 gondolas, taking us from 30+ degree weather to a much lower temperature. On the peak, even in June, a lot of people were skiing - it turned out that the glacier was a summer ski area. But the weather surprisingly wasn’t as cold as you would expect in the snow, given that it was summer and sunny.

Panoramic view around
The views from the top were mesmerising, and given that the Hintertux was the highest peak around, we could get a panoramic view of all the snow covered peaks around as well as the valleys down below. It was quite a majestic sight, almost like being on top of the world. We could also see a view of the Schlegeis lake where we were going next in the afternoon. And there were also a few blue water lakes we could see from the top which were fully covered with ice but still had a blue-green tinge to them. On the top, there was also an ice cave where you could go down and see how they look like. We however gave them a skip.

Trek down the glacier
There was also a track going up all the way along with the gondolas. One of us had walked all the way up but while going down, a few more of us decided to walk down all the way. We walked down the same path as the second gondola and then gave up for the third one as it was taking much longer than we thought. The trail down started with a lot of snow and having to run rather than walk to progress faster. It was fun but quite tough to wade through snow. And then the trail turned to a clearer path making it easier to walk down, with streams of water flowing next to it. We filled our bottles with fresh flowing water from the streams too - the real mineral water. The walk though not a proper trek was fun and picturesque but quite tiring. So we cut it short and then took the gondola down the last part of the way down.

Once down, after a quick lunch at the nearby cafe, we hurried off to the Schlegeis Lake. The drive there was quite different than the other one. Though it was less mountainous and quite flat, it went through very narrow winding paths through the valley and small villages. The lake turned out to be a part of a national park and the dam there is one of the biggest in the area and even offers mountain climbing on its wall which we saw some people doing. The lake was pretty and had a bright blue hue to it. The water in it though was almost 50% less than what it usually is.

Schlegeis lake
After walking a bit around the lake, we started up a mountain, on a trek to a viewpoint which gives a good birds’ eye view of the lake. The trail was mostly along a small waterfall. As we started up, the trek got quite vertical and we started running into snow. It got a bit dangerous and we were not prepared for it. So some of us stopped on the way and started back while the rest walked up. I heard the view wasn’t very different but alas, I did not get to see it anyways.

By this time it was getting dark and we started driving back to our village. On the way, we kept looking out for any shop which sell groceries. We only found one Spar on the way back of two hours long drive but at least that ensured we all got dinner 😊. Once back at our airbnb, we enjoyed the peace and quiet for some time, had a nice dinner and slept off soon to be ready for another long day.

Day 3: Sunday - Lago di Braies in the Dolomites and Innsbruck town

Church at a random Italian village on the way
The next day was another long day of driving, and this time to Italy. We drove to Lago di Braeis, in the Dolomites mountain ranges of Italy. The drive was again mostly on the highways with magnetic alpine vistas all around. But there was a different feel to it, it felt more plain-ish. We drove through wider and bigger valleys. Also the types of houses changed as soon as we entered Italy and there was a type of laid-back feel about it which is difficult to explain. The houses were less Alpine and the villages had a different kind of church steeples. It was clearly a different country. We passed the famous Brenner pass on the way and the path after was through small roads lined with yellow and white flowers everywhere. We even stopped at a random village on the route to take a few photos.

Lago di Braeis lake
It took us about 3 hours to get to the lake. And its first view was quite enchanting - a huge blue-green pearl in the middle of very jagged gray mountain ranges. The Dolomites mountains are lower than the Alps and very jagged and bare in their structure. And the lakes here have a different colour which is probably due to presence of some specific minerals. The lake was quite huge and had a path all along it. It also had a huge hotel on its edge called the Grand which would have been a great location to stay.

Trail around the lake
Once there, we walked around the lake for an hour. It was mostly a flat trek with some ups and downs. And it was so hot, so unlike what we were expecting. I wish we had planned to swim there, it would have been so lovely. The water had just the right bit of coolness to make it pleasant. There was an option for boating too but I didn’t do that.

Lago di Braies

When we were done with the trail, we had a bit of time. So first we stopped at a small coffee place in one of the hotels on the way. And then we stopped at the Brenner outlet mall but found it to have a very limited set of brands to buy. Since we finished early, we went to the city of Innsbruck and had dinner at an Indian restaurant called Rama. The food there was quite quite bad, but as we were all craving Indian so much, we still ate a lot of the food. But its definitely not a recommend.

And then we walked around town a bit after dinner. There was a huge river - called Inn, around which the town grew. The city centre felt like a typical European town with cobbled streets, old buildings and lot of people sitting outside in good weather, chilling. It was charming but the same as the rest of Europe. We had some ice-cream which was yum (by the way, we had a lot of ice cream everyday and I was surprised by how many places there were given how cold the country is most of the year).

Day 4: Tuesday - Back to London

The last day in Innsbruck was a very lazy one for us. We spent the morning around our chalet and then spent time in the city before going off to the airport and back to London.

After a lazy start to the day, we decided to just walk up the road along our chalet up the mountain it was on. It was a marked trail along the mountain and went up almost vertical up through the forests, offering more scenic views of the mountains in front and the valley below. And there were the usual cows making bell noises on the way, as well as white and yellow flowers along the mountainside. We also soon realised that we could have spent more time exploring the area around also as it was quite scenic and refreshing by itself.

Innsbruck town
After checking out from our place, we went back to Innsbruck town. It looked very different than at night. Around the city centre, it was the usual brick and mortar buildings but the city centre was different and typical old European. There were the usual Austrian buildings along the main street in many different colours. And the Alps all around giving it a view of being in the mountains even though its a city all around. We walked through the city centre, and went past a few churches et al.

Then we walked into the Swarovski store in the centre of the city and were mesmerised by how huge it was and all the bling all around. There were some very interesting pieces displayed there including dresses and chandeliers with Swarovski crystals. The small pendants, rings and other jewellery felt quite run of the mill though they were still pretty expensive. I never understand why you would pay that much for glass? Might as well buy diamonds?? There is also a Swarovski museum in the city slightly far off which is quite popular, we gave it a skip though.

We had a quick vegan lunch in the city centre and then were soon off the airport to come back to London. Even though only for 4 days, it felt like a nice break for all of us, being able to be right in the middle of nature all the time. All these vacations make me feel how much I would love to spend a couple of weeks in the Alps, maybe stay in mainland Europe a bit... some day ...??


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