If the Matterhorn summit chocolate-esque shape is possibly the first thing that springs to mind when you think of the Alps, the next is without question the quiet valleys of Tirol in Austria. This corridor that separates Germany from Italy is nowadays a popular tourist destination for the average ski fan but there is much more to be learned and experienced in this fantastic corner of the Earth.
Its first human settlements in the valleys date back to the end of the last glacier period, around 12,000 BC. In fact, ancient humans were already crossing the highest Alpine passes 5000 years ago, as testified by the Ötzi discovery in 1991. After going through Roman, Goth, Austro-Hungarian, German, Italian and even a recent French occupation (after WWII) it was finally re-established as Austrian in 1955.
The snowy peaks around the Ziller Valley are among the main attractions in Tirol. A railway built in 1902, running between Jenbach and Mayrhofen and still in operation, opened a region previously relying on agriculture and mining to commerce and tourism.
(all pics by João Saraiva)
Initially passionate about climbing, visitors shifted gradually into ski enthusiasts with the opening of the Gerlosstein ski area (today the Zillertal Arena) in 1953 and the Mayrhofner Penkenbahn lift in 1954.
The region offers many options for nature aficionados, both in summer and winter. Hiking trails are well marked and spread throughout the peaks and the valley and are an excellent option if you really want to get immersed in the mountain spirit during the warmer months.
But don’t get carried away: the numerous cows that you’ll eventually bump into while you walk around in the trails will remind you that you are a tourist, and the real mountain people here are the local farmers that have been living in harmony and caring for this beautiful landscape for centuries. It is still this respect for the land that prevents the Zillertal from the disfiguration of mass tourism that one can find in certain areas of the French Alps, for example.
The Hintertuxer glacier on the southern end of the Ziller valley offers skiing year round (the only one in Austria and one of two in the world doing so – the other is Zermatt in Switzerland) and it can really be an experience. At certain points the ice is over 120 meters thick, and the glacier moves so much that the lifts going to the top have to be relocated several times a year to keep vertical.
An interesting visit to a natural crevasse (the Nature Eis Palast) can be performed right at the top of the glacier – but it is however kind of eerie to think about similar death traps spread around the face of the glacier. If you don’t know what you’re doing, don’t ski in glacier terrain.
Oh, and the food, the food! So much to write about!
Despite the fantastic mountain landscape in the summer, it is winter that draws me here. And that will be reserved for future posts…