It’s a sunny September day and there’s such a stillness to the Zillertal valley. I’m stood waiting opposite a derelict farmer’s barn at the end of a long, winding road past open fields and charming Austrian houses, each bedecked with their perfectly arranged window box of geraniums.
Listening hard for a noise I’m told is about to come any second, all I can hear is the trickle of the nearby crystal blue stream making its way down from the mountains, on the top of which you can just about see a careful dusting of snow – the first signs of the coming winter season that will turn this region into a hive of skiing and snowboarding activity.
Late summer or autumn is a beautiful time of year to visit this picture postcard corner of Austria as the hills quietly come alive with greenery, wildlife and lots of new possibilities to explore this region, from paragliding to biking to hiking, all unhidden from the cover of snow. With the air so still, the sun casts extraordinary colours of light over this rather ridiculously pretty part of the world – ideal for keen photographers or for boasting about back home.
Waiting as we are in the shadow of Mount Penken, I can suddenly hear the sound of bells.
Down from the mountain, a whole family of cows are today making their way down to the valley in an annual festival that’s been going on for generations called Almatrieb.
In every village in this part of the world around this time of year, you’ll find groups of cattle shepherded down to the valley by their farmers. Some are gigantic processions and today a bit commercialised. Others, like the one we’re watching in the little village of Ginzling (right next to Mayrhofen) are smaller, quaint and traditional, practically unchanged from when farmers would this exact same procession centuries ago.
But these are cows as you’ve probably never seen them before, all dressed up in resplendent floral headdresses made by the farmer’s wife as a sign of another season of new life. For the farming communities where sadly disaster has made its mark this year, the cattle will come down bare-headed.
However, if it’s a good year, every cow will proudly display this elaborate, fabulous headgear, along with their customary Austrian cow bell.
It’s a chaos of noise and colour as the farmers lead the cows through the village, albeit with a bit of a wobble in their step – it’s tradition for all the locals to bring out schnapps for the farmers as they make their way down from the mountain – you can imagine the state they’re in by the end of it.
If you’re after a nostalgic sense of tradition, you’re in the right place. This place is spellbound by a sense of the past, every mountain hut, guest house and neighbourhood seemingly looking over their shoulders at what’s gone before.
The culture is traditional – think wood-chopping, yodelling and a healthy dollop of thigh slapping. The surrounding nature has been carefully sheltered, as if under a snow globe, for centuries, every bit of wildlife and natural beauty conserved and protected by the people – there’s a rule here that states anyone who chops down a tree must plant another two in its place.
The food is authentic, locally sourced and made to family recipes – the main requirement of every meal being that it’s massive (expect a minimum of five course, each with a hefty serving of cream or cheese). Even the locals live largely by tradition, the women in the guest house we visited the first night still choosing to wear their dirndl on the left to show she’s unmarried, while the married women move theirs to the right.
Whole families still live together on the land their ancestors cultivated years ago, practicing ancient past-times in their homes like making schnapps (many from their own distillery) and felling their own wood. It's a charming way of life and a look back to the past that's so special to share a part in even just for a fleeting summer/autumn get-away.
What to do
- Take the new Penken Bahn lift to the top of Mount Penken where stunning views across the Zillertal valley greet you. Up there, you’ll find plenty to keep you busy from biking to hiking to rolling around on the water in Funballz to sitting by the reservoir with a picnic – just visit the Funsportation next to the Penken reservoir for full details. The brave could even try rock-climbing or paragliding. Just be sure to finish it all off with a trip to the mountain-side inn for a gigantic viener schnitzel and glass of schnapps, made from the pine cones you passed as you came up the mountain - it tastes just like licking the forest floor.
- At the mountain top, look out for wildlife such as marmots, goats, ibets, eagles and of course more cows. Be sure to also explore the special church at the very summit, designed in the shape of an amethyst in memory of the amethyst mine that used to run here
- If you want to wander further afield, you could look into doing the Berlin High Trail, a special route that takes you through stunning mountain views, jumping hut to hut for the night. The whole trail takes seven days but you could opt to do just a section of it
- Go on an e-biking tour. If pedalling up a mountain doesn’t sound like your cup of tea (mine, neither), have a go on an e-bike which makes it much easier to deal with the steep terrain around and let’s you explore further. I’d recommend booking a special e-biking group tour with Stefan Krull who offers group and private tours from 35€. Visitwww.bikeguide-zillertal.at
- Have a wander round the local dairy, ErlbnisSennerei Zillertal Dairy, and see how this family run business create typically Tirolean cheese. They often have music events going on too so try book to have your cheese tasting to coincide with a little light music
Where to stay
The 4.5* Elisabeth Hotel is a charming hotel in Mayrhofen which combines Austrian tradition with modern comforts and has a relaxing atmosphere. It is located just off the high-street, a stone’s throw from the centre of Mayrhofen. The hotel has an indoor pool with various saunas steam room and relaxation room.
Address : Einfahrt Mitte 432, 6290 Mayrhofen, Austria Hotel’s phone number: +43 5285 6767
You can get to Mayrhofen by flying to Innsbruck, Salzburg or Munich.
- 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 flight 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
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