Travel: Life is like a box of chocolates

... as Gordon Lethbridge discovered in the picture perfect Austrian Alps
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The Independent Culture
Thoughts of a gentle stroll in lush alpine pastures vanished at the sight of the Nordkette rising above the aircraft as we made our approach to Innsbruck. The wall of cliffs and scree made me wonder about the sanity of embarking on a three-day alpine tour hiking from hut-to-hut in the Karwendal Alps.

The huts are found wherever there are mountains in Austria. And in the Karwendal there are about 40 such shelters connected by a comprehensive network of paths. Many of them are in passes, high alpine meadows or close to summits. All are easily accessible - on foot.The beauty of a hut-hopping holiday is that you don't have to return to the valleys each night for a bed and food.

From Innsbruck, our first 400m of ascent to the hamlet of Hochzirl, was courtesy of Austrian Federal Railways. The next few hundred metres were less easy. Our route took us up a track designed for four-wheel drive vehicles that would never know aching muscles. When we reached the edge of the forest, our track became a path and the mountain became steeper - but we reduced the gradient by zigzagging up the slope. Now we were walking through flower-strewn meadows alive with the hum of insect life, and alongside effervescing mountain streams. Small herds of goats, and occasionally chamois, put in an appearance as if on cue from some alpine stage director. Everything was as I had imagined it would be; a pleasant hike in spectacular alpine scenery.

The network of paths in the Tyrol are well signposted and colour-coded for difficulty, using the same system as for skiing (blue for easy, red for moderate and black for difficult - some climbing skills required). Distances and times are usually given on the signposts. Those used to hiking in British mountains should have no problem with red routes. It is not essential, therefore, to take a guide, but many people do. This not only takes care of any route finding difficulties - as an added bonus, a good guide is a mine of information on the alpine environment, flora and fauna.

After about five hours walking on the first day, we arrived at our first hutte. Some hut. Mountain inn would be nearer the mark. Solsteinhaus, far from being a crude shelter, was a large, three-storey building in typical alpine style. Common to all hutte, sleeping accommodation was in dormitories, or rooms with two to six beds. Food and drink were served all day and can best be described as hutte cuisine: basic but tasty, and adequate and filling.

As food and drink are available all day, the hutten are also refreshment stops. But prices are at least 50 per cent more than in the valley, due mainly to the cost of provisioning. Many of the huts cannot be reached by vehicle, relying on cableways, and occasionally helicopter, for supplies.

That evening at Solsteinhaus was spent in the convivial company of other hikers of all ages. The local postman was up doing a stint as village goatherd and, accompanying himself on the zither, sang the traditional songs of the Tyrol.

We woke the next morning to the tinkling of goatbells and an aroma of coffee so strong you felt you had had your daily caffeine fix before touching a cup. After a hearty breakfast, it was downhill to Moslalm, an alpine meadow packed with sensual cliches. Here, we stopped at a small hut for lunch of Almudler, a sparkling drink of herbs and lemonade, and kaiserschmarren, a cross between a pancake and pizza served with wild cranberry sauce.

Most huts are owned by the Austrian Alpine Club or the German Alpine Club. However, some are privately owned and run by families who have brought their cows and goats up to the summer pastures. Moslalm is one such place.

The next hut on our itinerary was the magnificently sited Pfeishutte. Built on a bluff between two peaks, it looks down a steep-sided valley, making it very popular with walkers. We arrived mid-afternoon and sat out on the terrace mesmerised by the panorama before us.

Pfeishutte is at 1922m, so the following day it was only a short climb of a few hundred metres to the ridge of the Nordkette. From here you can look down to the Inn Valley and Innsbruck, the Stubby Alps to the south and to the north of the Karwendal range. From Hafelekarspitze, a peak on the ridge, you can see, on a clear day, Germany, Switzerland and Italy.

Hafelekarspitze is the top station of the Nordkettenbahn, a cable car. This explained what had happened to a number of the families we had met that morning, and who seemed suddenly to have disappeared. The cable car's lower station was Innsbruck, making it a quick, convenient way down.

Yet use of the cable cars is not to be scorned. They provide easy access for those wanting to enjoy the exhilarating experience of walking the high ridges and peaks of the Tyrol. Along with the hutten, they make the mountains accessible to all.

Flights direct to Innsbruck are scarce outside the skiing season. To Vienna, Lauda Air (0171-630 5924) flies from Manchester and Gatwick; British Airways (0345 222111) from Gatwick; and Austrian Airlines (0171-434 7300) from Heathrow.

Austrian Alpine Club, PO Box 43, Welwyn Garden City, Herts AL8 6PT (01707 324835)

Austrian National Tourist Office (0171-629 0461); e-mail