Best of Hiking in the Austrian Dolomites

Lienz, Osttirol

In June, just before our trip to Trieste we spend a couple of days in the Austrian Dolomites for the German hiking network Best of Wandern (best of hiking). They invited us to a weekend of live-blogging on their plattform while a near dozen other teams did the same at different locations. Since Lienz is a bit off the main traffic arteries we decided to take a rental and pack it with as much camera equipment as we could think of and took the 1.000 km drive down south.

We arrived in Lienz, the capital of the Austrian region Osttirol in the early evening hours after spending a rather long time in gridlock on the famous German Autobahn and were welcomed by National Park Ranger Inge at the lovely Hotel Grindelhof, where we had a nice big room with a shared terrace that overlooked the Lienz valley. Inge, aged around 40, is everyting you would expect from a ranger and guide in alpine enviroments; sturdy, deeply tanned with an open and sunny disposition towards life as long as you don’t ask about Südtirol. We are provided with regional food, that is good but not exceptionally so and of course we sample the first of many local spirits, we will drink over the next 2 days. But I must admit I’m something of a snob when it comes to food and after enjoying the scenic view for a couple of minutes, I would be very hard-pressed to complain about anything – and I’m really, really good at complaining, seriously, that’s one of the things people come up with, when you ask about my strengths.

Day 1: Ederplan

So, the next morning after a hearty and early breakfast on the Hotel terrace while the sun burned away last nights mist, we pack our bags and start for our first hike. Before we actually do this we pay a short visit to the Test center in the local tourist office to gather some free gear. Following our guide’s directions we steer our rental half-way up the mountain on the opposite side of the valley and park it at a crossroad of trails all leading up to our destination the Anna mountain hut, just below the high altitude plain Ederplan. Of course we pick the one with the shortest time specified on the signposts. Which means, for the first hour or so it’s more or less straight up in 45° degrees. Even though the trail runs mostly in the shade of impressive pines it is stifingly hot and soon you could hear us panting and dripping, so naturally there’s no wildlife around to speak of. The Anna Schutzhaus is a rustic wooden construction at least a 100 years old and probably much older. A couple of rough-cut wooden tables and banks are lined up for an amazing alpine panorama with snow-capped peaks all around. There is nothing quite like real mountains to let a city boy realise his own insignificance. Before we order our lunch we climb the last 20 minutes to the summit with the obligatory cross on top and let ourselves cool down with the help of a gentle breeze.

360° degree panorama of Ederplan in the Austrian Dolomites.

Lunch is excellent and comes with a Schnaps – or three – like every single meal we will have during our trip. Naturally after that our inclination towards physical exertion is rather limited and we decide to put our straw hats to good use and take a nap in the early afternoon sun. We choose to try another trail on our way down and pass a small collection of huts that people can rent who want to enjoy the solitude of the mountains for a while longer. I imagine it must be quite nice to get up in the morning with nothing around you but mountains, green gras and trees while a lively brook jumps over the rocks to provide a bit of soundtrack. Long story short, we take as long going down as we took going up, the difference being, that it’s way more ardous on your thighs and the last km or so we are kind of struggling. It’s even worse when the 1.800 steps in Kotor, but this was at the end of a 3-week-trip through the Balkans and we were used to constantly walking up and down.

We spend the afternoon in “downtown” Lienz, a small town whose economy is dominated by Liebherr a producer of white wares and tourism. Everything is very tidy and cute, with a couple of interesting buildings to liven things up. Actually is there quite a lot to see, like the ruins of Roman baths, a fortress and a russian cemetery, but this time we’re not here for history but the mountains. So in the end, after another heavily meat-oriented dinner and two hours on the laptop to write our first blogpost for Best of Wandern we call it an early night.

Mountain panorama of Lienz, Austria

Sunrise over Lienz


Day 2: Apollo trail

On day 2, we are picked up rather early by our guide and her car, which later turns out has a lot of character, that’s both, car and guide alike. Our destination is the Defereggental, the small village Lerch to be precise. We are welcomed by the village teacher Manuela, her daughter and a rabbit. Of course the first order of the day is to try another Schnaps. I get it, life in the mountains is hard and you have to find pleasure wherever possible, but really spirits at 08:30 in the morning? When Manuela her daughter – and the rabbit come to join us for the first leg of our hike the whole scene starts to feel decidedly staged. Anyhow, our goal today is the Apollo trail named after a type of majestic butterfly that lives on the mountain pastures. Our guide Inge provides a plethora of knowledge about animals, plants, rocks and local politics and soon our heads start to swim with all the new things we’re trying to cramp into them. She identifies dozens of blossoming flowers among them many species of orchids, insects buzz around us and the mountain pastures we cross are a veritable cornucopia of life. At first glance it all looks like Nature, until you realise these meadows have to be cut every now and then, if they’re not to become woodland and/or brushwood. So a big part of local farming consists of landscaping work. From time to time we spot steel cables running up and down the slopes to get hay and wood from the heights to the villages. It’s dangerous work cutting wood and hay on these steep mountainsides. Combine this with the aforementioned preference to alcoholic beverages and you can imagine that almost every family has a story of an uncle or cousin that lost his footing and and consecutively his life. We cut through the woods for about two hours before we rest at another small mountain refuge for our Brotzeit. That is what you call a simple lunch of bread, sausage, cheese and – you guessed it – Schnaps! Unsurprisingly we take it a lot slower on the second half of our hike. The trail is broad and level enough, but there are no trees to arrest our fall should we stumble, which just became that much more likely.

A woman reading a sign post, snow-capped mountains in the background

Woman checks a signpost in the Defreggen valley in the Austrian Dolomites

The weather forecast announced a thunderstorm for the afternoon, so we decide to cut our hike short and walk back to the upper village of Lerch about 400m about the lower where we started. To get back down we use a creaking, small cable car with a wooden cabin whose operator we have to call. I must admit it, it takes a great deal of trust to embark, but after all, if it worked the last 70 years, why should give just now. In winter these cable cars are sometimes the only connection to the outside world for the villagers because from as early as November the streets are largely unpassable. With the thunderstorm still some way off we decide to check out the local public pool which is no pool at all but a small lake at the foot of a light-grey nearly white cliff that is so typical for the Dolomites. When it comes, the storm is the perfect lightshow and better evening entertainment than Netflix can ever be.

Day 3: Dolomitenhütte

Photosphere of Dolomitenhütte, Osttirol
For day three another self-guided tour is scheduled. Even though we’re equipped with a sheet of extensive directions we manage to get lost and instead of water-related educational hike we end up at the Dolomitenhütte (or Dolomite cabin) a restaurant with a large and lush valley in front and more cliffs in the back. From there it’s about an hours walk to a small chapel in a dead-end valley with a small stream and a pond that’s a near perfect mirror. Once again the old adage that getting lost is the best way to explore is confirmed. Content, full of impressions and a renewed love for the Alps we say goodbye to Austria and make our way further south to Trieste.

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