The Amateur Traveler talks to Edith about the mountainous region of Austria where she grew up, the Tyrol.
Edith designs for us both a winter and a summer itinerary, both of which involve getting outside and enjoying the beautiful mountains. In the winter we would ski and in the summer we would hike. When we are not hiking or enjoying one of the mountain alms then we can explore the palace at Innsbruck, a hiking museum and the Höfemuseum which is a farm museum.
Edith talks about traditional foods such as Wiener Schnitzel, Kaiserschmarrn (sweet pancake dish), Kaspressknödel (fried cheese dumplings) and Graukäse (literally grey cheese). To work off that rich food (and of course beer) she will recommend we hike between the mountain huts or up her favorite hike Nochspitze.
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This is a transcript of an episode of the Amateur Traveler focusing on traveling to the Tyrol region of Austria.
with special thanks to Cindy the Amateur Traveler intern for the transcription
Chris: I’d like to welcome to the show, Edith who’s coming to us from Bristol but is originally from Austria and has come to talk to us about the Tyrol region of Austria.
Edith, welcome to the show.
Edith: Chris, thank you very much for having me.
Chris: And, first of all, am I pronouncing it anywhere close? The Tyrol, the Tirol? How do you say it?
Edith: Well, in Germany it would be Tirol.
Chris: Tirol. Ok.
Edith: But if you pronounce it the English way that would be fine.
Chris: Ok. And if we are talking about the Tyrol, what part of Austria first are we talking about for those who don’t have a map in front of them?
Edith: We’re talking about one of the more western regions of Austria. It’s one of the nine provinces of Austria and it’s the most mountainous one.
Chris: Ok. And why should someone go to the Tyrol?
Edith: Well, there are different reasons. It depends on the kind of person. If you’re an outdoor person, the Tyrol is just your place to go. If you like mountains, it’s fantastic. If you like climbing, mountain biking. Everything is there in terms of mountains and outdoors. Of course, I must not forget skiing because it is a skiing El Dorado, but that’s the winter. Other than that, culture plays an important role in my part of the country. There is all kinds of festivals and so much you can do and see whatever a person you are. The food. Food is great. Whatever you want to do, there is something for you there.
Chris: And I wonder, we usually talk about what would be a suggested itinerary. I wonder with this area if we should do a winter itinerary and a summer itinerary, because I am thinking it might be very different?
Edith: It is very different. Yes. That’s true.
Edith: That would actually be a good idea, I think.
Chris: Ok. So if I were to go, and lets start with the winter since I think of, you were talking about growing up in Innsbruck, I think of that as being the winter Olympics for those who are my age. So if I were to go in winter, what should I see?
Edith: Well, you should definitely go skiing. That’s the first thing.
Edith: If not into skiing, not into winter sports at all, you can still do all the sightseeing in Innsbruck. It’s got tons to offer. You can go up the ski jump. You don’t have to jump down. You just go up there and enjoy the sight. You can view all the Alps and have a good look out over the city. You can go up the other side of the city and take the cable car and then a lift and a gondola up to more than 2000 meters altitude and the views from up there are just breathtaking even for somebody whose been born there and grown up. Whenever I go up, I even worked up on one of these huts and whenever I had a plate of good food to carry out and serve to people, I would just stop and look at the scenery. It’s just breathe taking.
Chris: Now you say “one of these huts”. I suspect that your ski areas might be a little different from mine, because I don’t have a hut in my mind. So can you describe what you’re talking about?
Edith: Yeah, as a tradition, we have alpine huts. So we have what we call the Alpenverein. It’s a club that is there for hikers and skiers. They have huts up there and it’s not a hut as you might think of it. It’s a sturdy building. It can be quite big. It sometimes has like 30 to 40 rooms to rent. It’s got restaurants and usually serves food and we often have the ski slopes right next to them. So that’s what I think of as a hut.
Chris: And we say “the ski slopes right next to them”, we’re at the bottom of the slope here or the top of the slope?
Edith: On top of the slope.
Chris: Ok. Interesting.
Edith: Or in the middle of the slope and you just ski to them and then have a beer probably or some mulled wine and then ski on a little more wobbly probably after the mulled wine.
Chris: Now, if they’re in the middle of the slope, I assuming I’m not skiing down the slope with my luggage if there are rooms to stay.
Edith: Oh, no you’re not. You could probably or you could take a toboggan.
Chris: I’m not that good of skier actually, I don’t think I could. It has been some time since I’ve been on skies. In the middle of the slope, then it would be just more of a rest stop, a place to have your mulled wine and to converse with people?
Edith: That would not be the hut but more probably like the usual rest stop. Some of them, which they built only in the past couple of years. And then you have the traditional, what we call, an alm. Which in the summer is used by farmers because they put their cattle up onto the high meadows to graze in the summer. And in the winter they often use the buildings to serve food to people that are skiing on the same slopes.
Chris: Oh, ok. Interesting.
Edith: This is something very traditional and of course with skiing being such a big industry, they have built huts that look like traditional alms but are far from being traditional. They are probably five years old. But tourists like them anyway. The natives know which ones are traditional and which ones are new.
Chris: And that’s ulm, U-L-M?
Edith: It’s A-L-M.
Chris: Oh. Ok. All right. Now I got you. So when we talk about a winter itinerary, Innsbruck is where you landed us first of all. Am I staying around Innsbruck? Should I venture further a field from there?
Edith: Usually if you come by plane, you will either land in Munich or Innsbruck. Innsbruck’s got a fairly sized airport for taking that Tyrol is pretty small.
Edith: Munich might be your cheaper option if you’re coming from the United States because Munich’s got direct flights. But sometimes you’ll get pretty good deals into Innsbruck as well.
Edith: So you would probably get into Innsbruck at some point. Public transportation, generally speaking for the Tyrol, is excellent. So you don’t have to have a rental car. You can go anyplace with public transport. Even the tiniest little village has public transport going to it. If you come by train and then just take a bus, all the buses have extra transport boxes for the skis and all your skiing luggage. So if you want to have a rental car, there are many places you can rent a car from all the major rental companies. But public transport is really good and in times like these with global warming and all of that, we usually say you should take public transport and it is really reliable. It is on time. It’s almost as punctual as the German trains are supposed to be. It takes you all places.
Chris: Ok. Now I’m assuming that a lot of tourists are coming into Innsbruck. Where would you go if you were trying to avoid the tourists or where would you take your friends to go in Tyrol that’s a little more off the beaten path?
Edith: Well, I definitely would not go to the big ski resorts if I want to go off the beaten track. There is skiing almost everywhere. If you’re not looking for one of the huge areas, because you can go skiing some places are so big that you can ski for a week and not use the same slopes twice.
Chris: Oh my, ok.
Edith: So it’s gigantic and they sometimes link to other skiing resorts so you can spend an entire day skiing and end up in a different valley and then have to take the bus back. If you’re not an excellent skier like really, really excellent and you just want to practice and have a good time, you can go to one of the smaller skiing areas as well. And then just enjoy being out in the winter wonderland and just have a good time with friends and not boast that you have been to a place like ________ Kitzbuhel. Which are great places to go and ski, but if you want to be off the beaten track, they are not really the places to go.
Chris: Ok. You mentioned that if I wasn’t into skiing that there were still places to see sightseeing. What sort of sightseeing would you recommend in the Tyrol?
Edith: Generally speaking there is so much to see. Wherever you go, if you go to the tiny little villages and you come from a place, let’s say like the United States, you will find them picturesque. Oh, there’s so much culture and tradition and you can see it, you can feel it, you can breathe it. One thing that is special about my area I think is that it’s modern and at the same time very traditional and down to earth. And that you have people who go to school, like young kids with their iPods, and in the afternoon they come home from school, they go to their local traditional club and they dress up in their traditional costumes and practice for some traditional festivities.
Chris: Um. Interesting.
Edith: So this is very special I think and I’m really happy that tradition is still very strong and they could jump over this gap of either being modern or traditional and that we are both in a way. So if you want to see sights, like Innsbruck is very nice to walk through and if you come in what we call the advent, that is the time before Christmas, which would be from the first of December to Christmas Eve. We celebrate on the 24th.
Chris: My mother is of German descent so we celebrate on the 24th also.
Edith: Aah. That’s good. If you come in the advent, we have got lots of Christmas Markets. They are so nice. It’s usually pretty cold and you get your mulled wine, you get roasted chestnuts, dumplings. It’s just really, really nice. That’s what you can do after you’ve been sporting during the day or you’ve visited lots of the museums or the old buildings. There are a lot of castles. There’s the Hofburg in Innsbruck. Innsbruck was the seat of the emperor or the emperor had one of its management centers for its kingdom in Innsbruck.
Chris: And we’re talking about the Austrian-Hungry Empire?
Edith: Yes, but that was before the Hungarians were part of it, I think. As far as my history knowledge goes. Innsbruck used to be one of the centers for the empress. I think it was Kaiser Maximillian, so Emperor Max, and he enjoyed Innsbruck so much. We still have the buildings that were built for all the emperors there and it’s a majestic big building. And it is right in the city center of Innsbruck. Many tourists go there. It’s got fabulous halls and you can go right through where the emperor slept and you can see his room an you can see the halls where they had banquets and balls. You can still rent the halls actually if you have a wedding going on and you have too much money you can rent the halls.
Chris: That is unfortunately not my problem. And where would you recommend that we stay? I know you’re parents aren’t necessarily going to put me up when I come there. So is there a particular place you would recommend either for budget travelers or for higher end travelers?
Edith: Generally speaking you can find whatever you want to do. If you’re a budget traveler, you can go to one of the many youth hostels. So that’s really cheap and I think it would be around 15-20 euros including breakfast.
Edith: But saying that, this is 15-20 euros in a hostel, you can also find private rooms, which are really nice, and friendly people en-suite with bathroom usually. And delicious breakfast of different kinds of cereal and freshly baked breads and what have you for about 25 to a maximum of 30 euros.
Edith: So this is something to consider. Private rooms, of course, are most expensive as well the more service they offer or the bigger the rooms get. And if you want to go a little more high end, we have all the big chains in Innsbruck as well with four-star hotels and we have a five-star hotel as well.
Chris: And if I’m looking for a private room, am I just walking around town looking for some FY sign.
Edith: You can go to Tourist Information and ask them or look it up on the Internet before you go. Which you should definitely do in the wintertime and in the high season during summer because it might be a little harder to find rooms just coming into town and not yet having a place to stay, if you come in the high season.
Chris: And I am assuming we could home base in Innsbruck and get around fairly easily to anyplace else we are trying to get to,
Edith: Yes, because it’s never far. I think it’s just about 200 kms long. You can go to any place in the Tyrol within a day and just come back to Innsbruck. But in terms of itineraries, as we started talking about, I would probably spend a couple of days in Innsbruck, have a look at all the sights. And summer and winter, there’s a really good deal, I think, that I’ve even used being a native when I’ve had friends come over to visit me, is a thing called the Innsbruck Card. If gives you the chance, I think it’s around 30 euros, within 24 hours, you can visit as many museums and sights and what have you that you would like to visit. It also gives you free rides on the public transport. So this is something that if you spend 2 or 3 days in Innsbruck and then just have two days doing sightseeing, which you can do if the weather is not too good and that happens.
Chris: Sure. And when you say the museums. Do you have a favorite museum or two?
Edith: Yes, there is a museum or an exhibition actually in the Hofburg, which is the Emperor’s house. And it’s about why people are so crazy about hiking in the Alps. And they risk their lives and they still do it and why do they do it. Why do they want to be on top of a mountain? Why are they not just satisfied sitting in the valley and looking up? So this is a really nice exhibition. It’s made by the Alpenverein, this hiking club, the big one, the big organization. And another museum I really like is the Hofemuseum, which is the museum of traditional Austrian or Tyrolean farm buildings.
Edith: It might sound a bit odd, but wherever they knew that there were farms and buildings that had to be demolished or …
Chris: They brought them into this one place.
Edith: They brought them into this one place and you can walk around and if you’re not from the area, you get the headset and they will tell you about the history of this building, where it is from and tell you about the architecture and how it has changed and what’s special about it. And especially people who are interested in agriculture and tradition and all of that, they might really enjoy it. And this museum also puts up a lot of traditional festivals. So where they’d have people come in – like music bands, dressed up in traditional clothing and they have this place of how people used to make cloth, for example, from different like natural materials and it’s really, really nice and hands-on and great for kids.
Chris: Ok. And when I come to the Tyrol or to Austria, what should I eat? What’s the traditional meal that I should not go without trying?
Edith: That’s a good question because people will probably tell you that it’s Wiener Schnitzel. Which I pronounce in English now. It’s Wiener Schnitzel in German.
But I had it so many times that having grown up there it’s like nothing special at all and it’s not one of my favorite dishes either. So I think you should definitely try Kaiserschmarn, which is a sweet dish. Oh, Austrians are known to have huge sweet dishes. We can eat sweets for main. Like Kaiserschmarn is in the restaurants you get it as a dessert but back home we had it as a main dish.
Chris: I know Wiener Schnitzel – we’re talking about a pounded veal cutlet. But I don’t know Kaiserschmarn.
Edith: Kaiserschmarn. It’s hard to describe, but the closest you can get is a pancake that’s been cut up and covered in powder sugar and it’s been fried just a little and it’s got raisins in it as well with some recipes, but you can always tell them not to make it with raisins. And some of the places put roasted nuts over it as well. It depends on where you buy it. But it’s a traditional meal. And it’s really, really good.
Edith: And something else is definitely all our dumplings. We’re famous for our dumplings. And my favorite is Kaspressknodel, which is just cheese dumpling that’s been fried as well.
Chris: Oh, that sounds good. Ok.
Edith: You should only try it if you like cheese and if you like smelly cheeses, because it’s made with Graukase, which is a very special cheese from my region and it’s made from a special kind of curd. It’s very lean, but it smells. But it’s very, very good. So if you like strong cheeses, try Graukase, which is translated to gray cheese. It’s really good.
Chris: That sounds better when you don’t translate it actually, I think.
Edith: Probably, yeah.
Chris: So we talked a little bit about winter. How would you change the itinerary, if I were going in summer?
Edith: If you were going in summer? First of all, I have to say, we have great summers. Sometimes I talk to people and they say, “Well, it’s icy cold in your place all year round.” And we’re like, “No it’s not. It’s up to 90 degrees Fahrenheit or 30-35 degrees centigrade in the summer.” But what we can have, and this is a warning as well, pack warm stuff even for summer. Because sometimes we get cold spells and because it is the mountains, it can get really cold. Sometimes we even have snow in August. But this is like once every 10 years or 15 years and other than that, summers are usually warm and nice and people are outside and they enjoy. We have many lakes that you can go swimming in, so that’s really nice. But bring a jumper and bring a waterproof jacket as well.
Chris: Ok. And I picture, as you said when we started, that I really should go there if I love hiking.
Edith: Oh, yes.
Edith: Hiking is big. There are so many paths. The Tyrolean’s, as a people, are outdoorsy people in general, I would say. We love to go hiking. We love to go and just explore what’s in front of our doorsteps, more or less. And there are many, many huts. What I would recommend is that you’d probably go to the Alpenverein. They have an information booth. You can tell them your fitness level and what you’ve done before and then they can recommend a route for you where you can go and paths. What’s really, really cool is if you’ve got two or three days, that you hike up to a hut, stay at the hut, sleep there. Then have a good breakfast. Go off the next day. Hike for another four or five hours or more, if you’re more experienced, of course, to the next hut. Relax in the afternoon sun, have a gorgeous sunset up on the mountains. Some of these huts are up on 2000, even 2500 meters, 2800. So that’s really, really cool. Sometimes you even have glaciers really close by. So you stay up there. The food is usually very, very good and very traditional. And they take great care to use organic or regionally grown produce. It’s just such a great feeling. You can get away from it all up there. Even though the valleys might be bustling with energy and trade and traffic. You go up into the mountains and it’s a different world. And you cross over the alpine pastures and you have the cows out there with their bells around their necks. And you go through areas that have been farmed traditionally for hundreds of years. And then you come up to the higher regions and you have the gorgeous panorama of the Alps in front of you and you walk to this hut and I admit it sometimes hiking up to these huts is exhausting. But once you get there, if you drink beer, you have a good cold beer. Half a liter of good Tyrolean beer in front of you and you have a traditional hardy meal that warms you up and nothing feels better than this.
Chris: And my understanding is if I don’t want to, for instance, backpack up there, am I wrong that there are also places where I can have my luggage sent to the next hut and then hike there myself less encumbered?
Edith: Yes there are.
Edith: What you have to bear in mind as well is that if you hike from hut to hut, even if they do not offer this backpack transportation system, which many of the huts, especially the huts that are along one of the more famous multi-day treks, they usually all offer backpack transportation. But as you can sleep in the hut, you don’t have to bring your own sleeping bag, you don’t have to bring pots and pans and your food.
Chris: Just a change of clothes or toothbrush or something.
Edith: A daypack is usually fine.
Chris: Ok. And what is your favorite hike?
Edith: My favorite hike? My favorite hike is actually up Nochspitze because I can do that when I get back home from work. I just jump into my car, be in the car for like 10 minutes, and then get out of the car, run up the mountain. I usually run up the mountain. And be up on this mountain, look down on Innsbruck, because you can see Innsbruck from this valley and you see all the Alps all around you and the panorama is just absolutely breathtaking. And it just takes me an hour to get up to this mountain, which is I think is something above 2000. I can’t remember exactly. It’s just so great to be up there. If you’re fit, the entire thing just takes you three hours from the car, up the mountain top and back down again. You can just do it after work in the summer.
Chris: Ok. And then we said in the winter, we should come particularly in advent.
Edith: For all the Christmas markets.
Edith: The Advent is also the time you have to come for Christmas Market. Sometimes skiing is not that great at this time of year because the snow has not yet come. Sometimes it has come. Like this year it has been pretty early, my parents told me and they had like 1/2 meter of snow all ready.
Chris: So February or something might be better.
Edith: February, early March and January is definitely ski season.
Chris: And then if I want to come to hike, what’s the best time?
Edith: If you don’t want to hike up too high, it will be June because if you go up to the high mountain passes; they will still be covered in snow.
Edith: So for the regular hiker, that would be something. But if you’re a professional, the glaciers are great for professional glacier hiking. But general hiking, I would say June, July, August and September because we have very nice autumn weather usually. That goes into October as well. And September and October, if you are traveling on a budget, are much cheaper already, but usually the weather is fine.
Edith: So if you are traveling on a budget, that would be something. And winter, if you are not into skiing, you can go cross-country skiing or what I really love and what I always show all of my friends from all over is tobogganing or going down the mountain on a sleigh.
Chris: Oh, ok.
Edith: So you have these little toboggans and you pull them up to one of the little huts or Alm huts. You walk up the mountain for an hour or two hours and then you sit down, have a glass of wine or mulled wine or beer or whatever. Eat delicious food, have a chat with your friends and it’s really cozy in there. They usually have a log fire and it’s small and really, really nice. And once you have warmed up, you put your gloves on, your hat on, you go outside. Everything is white, covered in snow and crystal clear air. And then you go down a small slope on your toboggan for about 30 minutes. Like more-or-less all the way you walked up, you’re going downhill. And it’s really breathtaking and it’s pretty exciting as well because I took friends and they were like, “It’s not going to be really exciting – it’s just something she does.” And they loved it afterwards. They were hooked. And you go pretty fast like up to 30 mph, I would say, sometimes. You have to be careful, please – this is a warning – many people die each year because they get drunk and they run the toboggan into a tree, which you shouldn’t do because a tree is stronger. But it is so much fun and it is free. So if you are traveling on a budget, all you have to pay is the food in the alm, which is cheap too.
Chris: Ok. And at the risk here of getting you home sick, when you picture your home, when you picture the Tyrol and you picture the most beautiful spot, where are you standing and what are you looking at?
Edith: I’m standing at a place called Oxenalm which is an alm area that the name translates that they put their oxen up there during the summer and it’s a teeny-tiny traditional alpine cottage that the shepards use. And it just fits into the landscape perfectly. Behind this little cottage, you have cows grazing and some sheep and then the scenery goes on and you have all the beautiful mountains and there might already be some early snow there and the sun just comes through some little clouds and just puts beautiful autumn light on the scenery. Now I’m homesick, thank you.
Chris: Sorry about that. As we go to wrap this up, and I was afraid that was going to happen, what warning you would give? You mentioned – Bring rain gear in the summer. We mentioned – Don’t drive your toboggan into a tree. Anything else we should know if we are going to the Tyrol?
Edith: Umm, anything else? Don’t go to Après-Ski, which is where you drink lot and then still have all the way down the slope. And something else, if there is a warning for avalanches, don’t ignore it. So many people each year think they can outrun an avalanche and they can’t. Avalanches often travel with like 100 mph. You can’t outrun an avalanche.
Chris: So if there is a warning for an avalanche, go someplace else, is really what you are saying?
Edith: Yeah. Don’t ignore warnings for avalanches. The people that put up the warning signs, they know their job.
Chris: Ok. I want you to finish this thought. You really know you’re in the Tyrol when what?
Edith: When you see beautiful countryside, but you’re still in a country that you can get all your modern amenities but you can at the same time get away from it all.
Chris: Ok. Any suggestions for best resources to plan a trip to the Tyrol?
Edith: Definitely use the Internet. If you use the guidebooks, what I found when I talked to friends who used the guidebooks, they say that the guidebooks focus too much on the bigger villages and the areas that are known by tourists already. So it’s better to just venture out and to go someplace that you’ve seen on a map. Go to the tourist office and ask how to take a bus to go there or where you have to go for the buses and just go there and explore on your own. And other than that, use the Internet.
Chris: And when you say, “use the Internet”, that’s rather a large place. Could we get a little more specific?
Edith: Oh, yeah. There are many places. If you just type in Tirol, but don’t write it with the “Y”, but an “I” instead.
Chris: Oh, ok.
Edith: It’s the Tyrolean way or German way of writing it. It would be T-I-R-O-L. and then tourism probably would do the trick. Or there is another site, if you want to book the hotels? It’s tiscover.com I think, but tiscover – not with a “D” but with a “T”.
Chris: Tiscover, ok.
Edith: Tiscover. That’s a place that I sometimes use if I go on a holiday in my own country and need a place to stay.
Chris: Excellent. And then if you had to summarize the Tyrol in three words, what three words would you use?
Edith: Picturesque, Traditional and Lovable.
Chris: Excellent. Edith, thank you so much for coming on and sharing with us your obvious love for where you grew up. And I hope we didn’t make you too homesick for it.
Edith: No, No. I’m going home for Christmas so that’s good.
Chris: Excellent. Thank you very much for coming on the show.
Edith: Thank you very much for having me Chris.