1st – 8th August 2017
We have really liked Lienz and our campsite which constantly echoes to the calls of kestrels (well it is called Camping Falken). Not quite as high up as Canazei so temperatures are higher but with the record Europe-wide heatwave in full flow whilst we were there the low 30℃’s were far preferable to the low 40℃’s in Italy, Spain and other parts of southern Europe.
To add interest, our 9-day stay was punctuated by storms. Our neighbour on the site, Imbard, has been coming to this valley for 30 years and has never known weather like it. He said the norm is 2 weeks of stormy weather in summer but this year it has been on-and-off all summer long.
We learnt our lesson the hard way, as usual. After our first walk we opened all the windows and skylights to cool the van down and went for beer. Halfway down our drink the temperature dropped, the wind picked up and we ran back to find the awning struggling against huge gusts of wind as torrential rain started. Imbard helped and after a battle the 3 of us managed to get the awning in. We were then faced with a flooded interior, soaked washing on the line, our bikes had blown over and we were freezing cold and dripping wet. The van shook with wind and thunder. A hot shower and a mop up then we sat and watched the storm. After 40 intense minutes the sun came out and an hour later we were BBQing and eating outside! Bizarre.
This set a pattern for the week, only now we always left the van ready for the storm which came most days in varying intensity. The climax was on Sunday when black clouds filled both valleys, familiar powerful gusts picked up and new campers stood outside looking in awe at the intense blackness above.
It hit ten minutes later, the wind so strong the van was rocking – we guessed 70mph. We retired to the boudoir and curled up with DVD’s and Kindles. Although it calmed after a couple of hours it continued on and off all night.
But there was also plenty of good weather that we made the most of.
Our first day we walked into Lienz, the ‘capital’ of East Tyrol (pop. 12,000) which occupies the valley floor where the Drau and Isel rivers meet. Surrounded by fields of sweetcorn and potatoes as well as plenty of hay meadows, the old town is quite charming in an understated way. Although there is a tourist trade – walking in summer, skiing in winter – with mainly Austrian, Italian, Dutch and German visitors, it is also a community and the centre reflects that with concessions to tourism limited to sale of walking maps and sticks and the provision of more gelateria, coffee shops and restaurants than the local population could use. We bought some interesting schnapps at a specialist shop where the local owner who had spent 10 years in New York has his own small stills. He was horrified when told this was illegal in the UK – just like Danny!
Near the campsite is the town’s very nice sports stadium with athletics facilities including a track around the football pitch, 2 outdoor swimming pools, it’s own bar/cafe, and tennis courts over the road. The town’s marching band practices there in the evening and with the traditional music festival on the Saturday they were practicing for 2 hours every night. We loved it.
We had a couple of good walks. One day we cycled the couple of miles out to Gaimberg and took the lifts to Zettersfeld, a steep climb of around 5,000ft. One was Danny’s first chairlift which gave great views of the para-gliders launching themselves from the hillside watched by some very relaxed cows. It looks exhilarating but too scary to tempt us.
The temperature up there was warm but fresh, far removed from the humidity and heat below. We made a slight detour up to Steinermandl (7270ft) to get the fabulous 360 degree panorama and came across 3 girls doing yoga whilst being filmed. The far-eastern theme continued on the summit where a number of stone cairns had Nepalese prayer flags hung between them. Interesting.
Neualpseen is a pair of lakes formed by a glacier scooping out depressions high in the mountains thousands of years ago. It was only 2.5 miles there but uphill nearly all the way and though we only gained 1200m our legs felt it, probably due to the 8,500ft altitude. The mountains here reminded us of parts of the the Mournes and North Wales – except for the nice brown and white cows and the mellow sound of their bells.
We had lunch on a ridge between the two lakes where we watched a family below with their collie dog bravely swimming in the cold water. Father and son swam to a small island in one of the lakes and their collie followed, shaking all over them on arrival.
Another day we cycled to Schlossbruck in the Isel valley where more lifts took us up, past the signs for the 2017 Skiing World Championships in December, to Sternalm at 5000ft where we started the 1hour 45 minute uphill slog to Hochstein Hutte, 6,700ft.
The path climbed steeply through conifer woodland with a carpeting of needles, lots of ants and good selection of fungi. A completely different landscape to the other day. Hot work but every now and again we were rewarded with a vista of the opposite mountains or the valley. We passed a huge ants nest, a mound 4 feet tall that appeared to be largely made of pine needles – no photo as Kate was too tired!
We tried to save our water as we didn’t know if the “Hutte” was just a refuge or offered refreshment. How foolish of us – this is Austria. On the summit was the Tyrolean restaurant-bar where walkers were tucking into delicious looking lamb shanks. Danny managed a homemade apple strudel with his beer, served by a leggy waitress in rather fetching leather lederhosen! Parasols up, sipping cold beer, admiring the views and enjoying the breeze made all that uphill slog worthwhile.
The longer downhill route zigzagged down a steep, grassy path then joined a more gradual forest road. We saw purple lupins growing wild – introduced as a food crop that never caught on. It was hot and Danny took his shirt off & tied it onto the rucksack – you can see what’s coming. Inevitably it fell off and resulted in a 10-minute uphill slog – a mini Futa experience!!
At the lift we took shelter from a brief storm in the bar-restaurant and chatted to the nice couple behind the bar. They explained how in winter they heated the chalet with a special wood-burning heater and had apres-ski and overnight night full-moon parties – we’d be up for one of them! They also gave us a taste of pine spirit which sounds disgusting but was actually very nice.
One day we took the bikes by train to Sillian near the Italian border – beautifully air-conditioned carriages with free wi-fi and bang on time, with lots of cyclist on it for the Drau cycle path which runs from Italy along the course of the river. We got off and were putting our helmets on when we heard shouting. Danny went to see what the commotion was about and saw a guy in the doorway of our carriage waving Danny’s iPhone – one of the good guys.
The cycle path was excellent and we did the 20 miles with pleasure stopping for lunch at one of the many picnic tables provided along the way. Later on at a stony ‘beach’ we dipped our feet in the cold Alpine waters of the river.
Near the end we stopped for our cold beer reward at the tiny village of Amlach in a garden shaded by trees, waited on by a Scot who has been there for 19 years. How unexpected,
Saturday was the traditional music festival and we were looking forward to it. Rain was forecast but we crossed our fingers and at 3pm, accompanied by large raindrops, we headed over to the crowded sports stadium. All the local villages have their own marching band and each has it’s own individual Tyrolean costume – very colourful. This was clearly the competition part – judges with clip-boards were assessing every aspect, the leader’s mace-work, the neatness of rows and columns, the marching, halting & manoeuvres as well as the actual music. Tuba, trumpet, french horn, trombone, saxophone and flugelhorn were supplemented with clarinets, oboe, piccolo, bassoon, and of course the drums keeping them in step.
There must have been 20 bands there with a surprisingly high number of young people involved. A number of spectators were also in lederhosen and Sound of Music style dresses. Some of the girls in Tyrolean dress wore a wooden keg with a tap and carried 3 small goblets in one hand, the stems between the fingers, and a cloth napkin to wipe them which they used after giving a free drink to someone. Sadly we weren’t offered any so don’t know what it was.
The rain held off, the music was great, the beer was cold, and we finally worked out by observation that in the home of the frankfurter they don’t put them in bread rolls – they eat them with chips or bread on the side with proper mustard and ketchup in dollops on the plate. Tasty.
After 2 hours there was a pause for an hour then the festival moved to the square in the old town where a large group of musicians from all the bands gathered in the main square and played beautifully together. The town had a great atmosphere, it was lovely to see the kids running about and the young people in their traditional dress with musical instruments. There was a really good feel to the place.
The day after the big storm we visited Schlossbruck, the town’s old castle, built in the 1200’s by the Counts of Gorz. Situated on a raise, it has a commanding view of the whole valley from it’s tower. There is not a lot of it’s history on display in the castle, with the exception of the 2-storey chapel which was painted with frescoes in the late 1400’s and we rather liked.
Several rooms in Schlossbruck are given over to the works of Albin Egger Lienz who we had never heard of but we must have seen some of his art before as it was familiar to us. His style changed dramatically between the 1880’s and 1926 when he died, moving from traditional style oil paintings of peasant subjects to a more modern, linear style. Not being particular fans of the modern (and being completely ignorant about art) we were surprised to find them very interesting and thought provoking, and some bits strangely familiar. We were certainly glad we had seen them.
On our last day we took the lifts to Zettersfeld again just to have a nice lunch and enjoy the views. We thanked Lienz for a great time and munched on excellent bratwurst and saurkraut.