This spectacular mountainous region stationed on the border between Austria and Italy attracts skiers, wine lovers and outdoor adventurers year-round

WHERE IS THE TYROL?

Ranging over western Austria and northern Italy, this is a magnificent Alpine region of lakes, fast-flowing rivers, pretty villages, lush green meadows, onion-domed churches and, towering above, an endless line of jagged snow-capped peaks: more than 700 mountains are over 3,000m high.

The Tyrol is also a bureaucratic nightmare, at least in terms of its boundaries. It consists of nine different parts. In Austria, the Tirol province comprises of eight districts. Seven make up North Tyrol (which borders the Austrian provinces of Salzburg and Vorarlberg, Germany, Italy and Switzerland) and the eighth, separated by a 20km-wide strip (part of Salzburg province) is the Lienz district, the whole of which is known as East Tyrol. The ninth area, South Tyrol, lies across the Italian border.

WHY IS IT DIVIDED THAT WAY?

A larger area (including the three parts) was known as the Tyrol since the 14th century or earlier. It became part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, but at the end of the First World War, Italian troops penetrated deep into South Tyrol. With the dissolution of the empire, Italy annexed the southern part of the province of Tirol. This territorial arrangement was confirmed by the Treaty of Saint-Germain in 1919 - which also divided the two Austrian portions of the Tyrol. Since the early 1920s efforts have been made to Italianise the South Tyrol, but they don't seem to have achieved much. Places often have both German and Italian names and outside Bolzano (Bozen) and Merano (Meran), the South Tyrol's Italian speakers are very much in the minority. In recent decades, pressure for the establishment of self-government for the South Tyroleans has been increasing, as have demands for the region to be returned to Austria. By and large, the two communities get on, albeit with separate churches, schools - and political parties.

GOOD SKIING?

Some of the best in the world. On the Austrian side, Mayrhofen is great for beginners. Inghams (020-8780 8800; www.inghams.co.uk) offers seven nights' half-board, from £401 including flights from Gatwick to Innsbruck and resort transfers. For a week in Scheffau including return Gatwick flights, transfers and seven nights' half-board accommodation, Crystal Ski (0870 160 6040; www.crystalski.co.uk) charges from £399. The company will offer a free "Learn to ski or snowboard" package to those booking between 28 October and 18 November. Panorama Ski (08707 582 518; www.panoramaski.co.uk) suggests Niederau; one week's half-board, including flights from Gatwick, transfers and services of a resort representative cost from £399. The best resort for experts is lovely St Anton am Arlberg, a high-altitude village two hours' drive west of Innsbruck offering nearly 300km of slopes, great snow conditions and excellent après-ski. For the coming season Inghams charges from £561 for a week's half-board including flights from Gatwick and resort transfers, Crystal Finest (0870 060 1370; www.crystalfinest.co.uk) from £520 per person. Just half-an-hour from Innsbruck, Seefeld is Austria's leading cross country resort. Contact Inghams for beginner packages.

AND SNOWBOARDING?

Boarders should head to trendy Ischgl, high in the Paznauntal valley, which has a vertical drop of 350m and offers the largest snowboard fun park in Europe, as well as very lively après-ski. If you go before Christmas, Made to Measure (01243 533 333; www.mtmhols.co.uk) charges £864 including return flights from Gatwick, a week's half-board at the Solaria and transfers.

CAN I SKI IN THE SOUTH TYROL?

Very much so. For example, the resort of Selva Val Gardena lies at the heart of the world's largest ski area, the Dolomiti Superski, with no fewer than 460 lifts and 1,220km of piste, and all can be skied on one area lift pass. It is good territory for beginners and intermediates. Thomson Ski (0870 606 1470; www.thomson-ski.co.uk) charges from £449 including return flights from Gatwick to Verona, transfers, a week's half-board accommodation (with free wine on six evenings). Inghams charges from £445 for seven nights on half-board, flights from Gatwick and resort transfers.

Karthaus offers year-round alpine skiing on the Schnalstaler Glacier, but this domain remains a well-kept secret, ensuring virtually no lift queues. The Skiing (And Much More) programme from Inntravel (01653 617 906; www.inntravel.co.uk) charges from £625 including return flights from Gatwick to Verona, transfers and seven nights' half-board accommodation.*

* WHAT TO DO WHEN THE SNOW MELTS?

Many of the best winter spots are every bit as enjoyable in the summer. Chairlifts and cable cars whisk you up into the mountains for great views and access to some superb walking. Take rain gear, however, even in the height of summer. Lower down, you'll find opportunities for horse riding, cycling (especially mountain biking), and swimming. During the school summer holidays most tourist offices organise free or modestly-priced all-day activities for children, such as visits to farms, cheese factories or forest walks.

Whitewater rafting through narrow river gorges will keep the adrenalin flowing - near Lienz, try Messner Raft (00 43 4853 5231; www.raftcompany.at). In the South Tyrol, Club Activ (00 39 0474 678 422; www.rafting-club-activ.com) in Sand in Taufers also offers kayaking and canyoning. If you enjoy hiking but want someone to do the planning for you, Inntravel (01653 617 906 www.inntravel.co.uk) offers one-week independent walks in both the South and North Tyrol, which include transfers, half-board accommodation, four picnics, luggage transfers, walking maps and notes. The South Tyrol one-week hike costs from £925 including return flights from Gatwick to Verona.

If you are here for the flora, wait for early next summer. Naturetrek (01962 733 051; www.naturetrek.co.uk) runs an eight-day Alpine Flowers of the Austrian Tyrol trip departing London on 24 June. This costs £995 including flights, accommodation and guided botanical walks.

AN URBAN EXPERIENCE?

Capital of Austria's Tyrol is Innsbruck, twice host city for the Winter Olympics. The mountains provide a dramatic backdrop to the medieval old town with its many gothic and baroque buildings including Hofburg, which houses a museum (00 43 512 587 186; www.hofburg-innsbruck.at; open 9am-5pm daily, admission €5.45/£3.80), and Schloss Ambras (00 43 525 24745; www.khm.at/ambras; open 10am-5pm daily, admission €8/£5.70). Lienz (not to be confused with Linz, several hours' drive away in Upper Austria) is the capital of East Tyrol. Its old town stretches along the banks of the Isel River. The most imposing structure is the 16th-century Liebburg Palace, now the seat of local government. Worth visiting are Schloss Bruck (00 43 4852 62580; www.schlossbruck.at; open 10am-5pm daily except Mondays until 26 October) and the St Andra Parish Church (00 43 4852 62160; admission free).

In the South Tyrol, the capital, Bolzano, is also surrounded by mountains - and 15 per cent of the city's area is made up of vineyards. There's great walking around here, too, but the biggest draw is the South Tyrol Museum of Archaeology (00 39 0471 320100; www.archaeologiemuseum.it), which contains the remains of a man who died 5,000 years ago. In 1991 two German hikers in the Otztaler Alps discovered a body preserved in the ice of the Similaun Glacier. Although "Otzi" was found 90m to the Italian side of the international border, he was claimed by the Austrians. Eventually, though, justice was done and in 1998 he moved to his new home in the museum, which opens 10am-5.30pm daily except Mondays, admission €9 (£6.50).

AND OUTSIDE THE CITIES?

Natural splendours and outdoor pursuits apart, there are many incredibly pretty villages to explore, such as Hall in Tirol (near Innsbruck) and Heiligenblut (between Lienz and Zell am See). You can visit fascinating castles, churches and monasteries, too. Stift Abbey (00 43 52 63 6242) near Stams has guided tours only; call ahead for opening times and prices. Schloss Tratzberg (00 43 52 42 635 6620; www.schloss-tratzenberg.at), near similarly-named Stans, is open 10am-4pm daily, March to early November, for guided tours only; €9 (£6.50).

ALIVE WITH THE SOUND OF MUSIC?

The Austrian mountain scenery here is much like that in the film, but Maria and the von Trapps lived not in the Tyrol but in the neighbouring province of Salzburg (an easy excursion). Innsbruck has a Festival of Early Music (00 43 512 571032; www.altemusik.at) in the last two weeks of July and there are regular classical concerts at the city's Schloss Ambras. Across the border, the annual Merano Music Festival (00 39 0473 212520; www.meranofestival.com) is under way. Attracting international orchestras, it runs until 24 September.

WHICH ARE THE BEST SUMMER RESORTS?

Innsbruck is a good place to base yourself, thanks to a city-sponsored scheme that offers free hikes - including Nordic walking instruction - and even free buses to get you there. Elsewhere in the North Tyrol you could try Seefeld, Kitzbühel, the Achensee area and, for something quieter, the Wildschonau valley (a car is recommended for the latter). Over the border, sheltered by high mountains and surrounded by orchards and vineyards, Merano is one of South Tyrol's most beautiful towns.

HOW DO I GET THERE?

If you're looking for a holiday outside the skiing season, hurry: many operators only run packages between mid-May and late September. Lakes & Mountains Holidays (01243 792 442; www.lakes-mountains.co.uk) is one that offers holidays in both hotels and apartments in the Austrian Tyrol year-round. You can also go by train - Great Rail Journeys (01904 521 980; www.greatrail.co.uk) and Ffestiniog Travel (01766 512 400; www.festtravel.co.uk) can both arrange trips from the UK as well as Tyrolean accommodation and activities. If you drive, it is about 1,200km from London to Innsbruck: you'll need to buy a vignette (motorway tax sticker) to drive on Austria's motorways. These are available at border crossings.

HOW DO I GET AROUND?

Rent a car through, for example, Holiday Autos (0870 400 4447; www.holidayautos.co.uk). On the Austrian side, regional transport (primarily buses and trains) is through Verkehrsverbund Tyrol (00 43 512 57 58 58; www.vvt.at). A range of local zone, regional and "all Tyrol" tickets is offered, including weekly passes. Public transport in the South Tyrol is through SII (00 39 471 415 480; www.sii.bz.it); again, various passes are offered.

MORE INFORMATION

Austria's Tyrol is covered by the Austrian Tourist Board (0845 1011818; www.austria.info) or, more specifically, Tyrol Info (00 43 512 7272; www.tyrol.at) for the main portion, and Ost Tyrol Tourismus (00 43 4852 6533; www.osttyrol-tourismus.at) for the East. For the South Tyrol, try the Italian State Tourist Board at 1 Princes Street, London W1B 2AY (020-7408 1254; www.enit.it) or go straight to South Tyrol Information (00 39 0471 999999; www.suedtyrol.info).

SEALED WITH A SCHNAPPS

Tyrolean cooking is hearty, but vegetarians and those whose dietary requirements forbid pork will be disappointed to hear that many dishes make use of one bit of pig or another. Traditional starters include soups such as frittatensuppe (clear, with shredded pancake) and kohlrabisuppe (the kohlrabi vegetable looks like a turnip, but tastes more like broccoli). The dumpling (knödel) is ubiquitous in the Tyrol, and knödeln come in a multitude of sizes and flavours, for example, kasspatzln - little dumplings with molten cheese and a sprinkling of fried onions; spinatknödel - spinach dumplings; and speckknödel, dumplings with cured ham. Other typical mains include gröstl (fried onion, bacon, pork or veal and potato), schlipfkrapfen (ravioli-like parcels filled with meat and/or potato) and bauernschöpsernes (lamb seared with fried onion rings, braised and then cooked with red wine and potatoes until tender). Tiroler leber is veal or beef liver with onions, cured ham, lemon juice and wine.

Kaiserschmarrn are thick pancakes shredded, sprinkled with icing sugar and served with jam or stewed fruit - so named because they were a favourite of Emperor Franz Josef II. Although this dish sounds like a dessert, it often appears as a main course. More conventional "puddings" include apple strudel, cremeschnitten (mille feuille, Austrian-style) and weinegelee - wine jelly with fruit, usually red or blackcurrants. South Tyrolean food is similar - schlutzkrapfen is another ravioli dish. Many restaurants serve more international food and there's usually a pizzeria nearby.

In terms of drink, beer lovers will find plenty to choose from: the Huber brewery in St Johann puts out a good range. Aficionados of the noble grape will want to cross over the border into Italy and follow the South Tyrolean Wine Road (www.suedtiroler-weinstrasse.it/ english) through 15 towns and villages between Nals (Nalles) in the north and Salurn (Salurno) in the south. A typical ending to a Tyrolean meal is a glass of schnapps. In days gone by, business deals were "sealed" the same way. Many villages produce their own varieties, so it is worth asking in restaurants to try the local brand.

A popular Austrian non-alcoholic drink is Almdudler, a cross between ginger beer and lemonade, also available in a "light" (sugar-free) version. In summer, a cool, refreshing apple juice is hard to beat, and glühwein (mulled wine) is a great - albeit alcoholic - winter warmer. It is said that the South Tyrol has five seasons - the fifth being early autumn - and you're just in time for Törggelen, an age-old South Tyrolean tradition celebrating the harvest season and arrival of the first of the year's wines. Farmhouse inns open their cosy stuben (wood-panelled living rooms), offering siasser (grape juice) and nuien (new wine) from their own vineyards, along with traditional dishes and roast chestnuts (keschtn).

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