Summer in the AlpsEthical Travel News & Features
This article first appeared in our autumn ’18 issue of MyGreenPod Magazine, The Consumer Revolution, distributed with the Guardian on 16 Nov 2018. Click here to subscribe to our digital edition and get each issue delivered straight to your inbox
Pitztal Valley is home to countless waterfalls, mountains, wild swimming spots and, according to legend, a witch: an ageless energy that protects the area from natural disasters. She is kept alive by locals who ask for protection when travelling through this sublime region of the Austrian Alps.
If tourists knew about the witch, they’d want her on-side, too. The area boasts 120 hectares of skiable terrain, with 70km of cross-country ski trails. Ice climbers from all over the world ascend Pitztal’s icy waterfalls, and the area is a paradise for mountaineers and hikers.
Bagging a peak
The main road winds through the valley until it reaches a dead end; from there the only way is up into the Ötztal Alps – and it’s a long way up. The highest mountain is the 3,774m Wildspitze summit, which can be ascended or circumnavigated. The easier option is to admire the mountain from afar, which is exactly what we did when we visited the area with our daughters in August.
From the main road we boarded ‘the world’s fastest funicular railway’, the Gletscherexpress (Glacier Express), which tunnels through the mountain and takes visitors 2,840m up the Hinterer Brunnenkogel to the Pitztal Glacier. This is considered to be one of the world’s most beautiful glacial areas; it’s the highest glacier in Tirol and the snow reliability makes it a popular ski spot in winter, with wide open slopes suitable for kids and pros alike.
This beautiful spot has far more than just snow; in summer you can explore the high Alpine region almost effortlessly thanks to gentle walking trails and paths. We strolled round the sun-kissed craggs before re-entering the station to board the Wildspitzbahn, ‘Austria’s highest mountain gondola’.
The six-minute journey took us all the way to the peak of Hinterer Brunnenkogel, and we exited into the beautiful Café 3.440, a mind-blowing feat of architecture that perches on the summit. With a suspended terrace complete with sheepskins and ‘Austria’s highest coffee specialties’, this was definitely the place to acclimatise. The 360-degree views, covering more than 150km, are spectacular; the café is circled by more than 50 mountains higher than 3,000m – including the 3,774m Wildspitze summit – and offers unique vistas of the nearby glacier world, which we were all keen to see.
The Austrian Alpine Association’s annual glacier survey revealed that Austria’s glaciers experienced the ‘biggest length losses since 1960’ in 2016/17, with an average retreat of 25.2m. The tongue of the Gepatschferner in the Ötztal Alps melted back 125m following the warm summer in 2017.
Pitztal Glacier is conserved and protected, yet locals confirmed it’s nevertheless shrinking at an alarming rate. From the bottom of the valley, the receding glacier sticks to the mountain like a Post-it Note: it’s a constant reminder of the impact of global warming on our environment.
One person alert to the dangers of climate breakdown and its implications for the living planet is Trudi Melmer, owner of Biohotel Stillebach in Sankt Leonhard im Pitztal. The organic hotel, in the narrow upper valley of Pitztal, has a scattering of neighbours and opens out onto an undisturbed stretch of green. No new buildings will ever disturb this view: the adjacent land has been classified as a red avalanche zone, meaning no development is permitted.
The hotel has been in Trudi’s family for generations, and as a child Trudi was raised to be attuned to the environment. She might not hop on the Glacier Express much, but Trudi needs only to look at the rising river water to see exactly how much the glacier is melting.
This change is one of many that led Trudi to run Stillebach as a sustainable and organic hotel. For her it’s no more than an expression of how things should be, and how they always were. Trudi grew up with animals as her friends. She worked with her hands. She sees an absurdity in calling her hotel ‘organic’, as for her this way of working with the land is ‘just normal’.
When Trudi started to witness the mechanisation of livestock farming and agriculture, she felt the need to stop and return to the ‘normality’ she had experienced as a child. Things changed far more rapidly in her lifetime than they did for previous generations, which is why the organic foundations of the hotel were never really promoted before Trudi took the helm a decade ago.
Living within boundaries
Travel and hospitality are key industries in Austria and hoteliers are all trying to carve their own niche in the market. You can find accommodation for hikers, sports enthusiasts and those who look forward to spa-style pampering after a day on the slopes. Being ‘just another hotel’ doesn’t cut it these days – each one is trying to develop its own USP.
Applying for Biohotel accreditation was a bold move; when Trudi chose to specialise in organic, people in the area thought she was mad. She was ahead of the curve because she trusted her instincts, and no one doubts her now. Her philosophy is that she will do things honestly, authentically and, crucially, in line with her own principles. Guests can take it or leave it, in the nicest possible way.
‘The world is so complex’, Trudi said. ‘All you can do is take ownership and responsibility for your own area. It’s good to follow your convictions but you need to consider people as well. You can’t force it – you can’t push people too hard. The radical approach just creates more separation.’
As far as Trudi’s convictions are concerned, modesty and simplicity are everything. ‘Some materialist people want more and more’, she says. ‘Here you can’t have more and more. The valley imposes its own boundaries. Growing up here teaches you that you can’t have everything.’
A natural beauty spot
For all its simplicity, Stillebach is absolutely stunning. It’s framed by the Mittagskogel and Wildspitze mountains, edged by a forest and has the gushing Klockelefall, one of the largest waterfalls in the Pitztal Valley, as a spotlit backdrop. The grounds include a natural outdoor pool with a slide and rafts. It’s a child’s paradise with surprises round every corner: there’s even a mud pit, fed by the thundering waterfall, and outdoor table football and table tennis. If the weather’s not too inviting, you can take advantage of the fantastic bouldering room: with 45-, 30- and 15-degree walls and a boulder area of 150 square metres, it’s great for beginners and pros alike.
As you might expect from a Bio Hotel, the food at Stillebach was exquisite. The evening meals were exactly what you needed after a day’s hiking, biking and scaring yourself silly up mountains. Four courses of nutritious, delicious fare, all sourced locally and all organic. Each plate was a rainbow, and so beautifully presented it felt criminal to disturb it with a knife and fork. The fine-dining experience was made all the more enjoyable by the friendly welcome extended by other guests. Each person was welcomed to the dining area with a smile and a friendly ‘hallo!’ Some guests have been visiting Stillebach for years; they recant stories of friends tying to ‘rescue’ Trudi when an SMS alert has given a two- or three-day warning of sudden changes in the weather. They say Trudi’s response is to laugh ‘allés gut, it’s normal!’ If things get really dicey a siren rings out a warning to locals, at which point there’s a trust that the community would rally round – and that the ever-watchful witch would do her thing.
Summer in the Alps
The hotel itself is bursting with charm and character, with light, spacious rooms that aren’t short of luxury. The walls are dotted with black and white photos of Trudi’s family; they serve as a constant reminder of Trudi’s journey: her long history and deep connection with the hotel and the land.
Trudi operates from the heart and through instinct: as a result everything at the hotel – from the food to the service – remains consistent all year round. The only thing that changes is the weather, and consequently the local activities available. There are two very distinct seasons: guests visiting Stillebach from June to October are mainly there for natural swimming, hiking and walking to explore the mountain plants. Skiing and cross-country skiing is usually possible from December to April. The hotel is closed in May and November, and Trudi uses these two ‘awkward’ transitional months to take a break and get any necessary building work done.
This was the first time we’d visited a ski spot out of season so we weren’t sure exactly what to expect. In short it was bliss; when the sun shone it lit the soft purples and vivid greens of the landscape spectacularly, bouncing off wild herbs and flowers and illuminating sap that dripped from the pines. And it was hot; we spent most of our time in T-shirts and shorts as we cycled and hiked up from the valley.
The weather could change quickly, though; two of us elected to leave raincoats behind when we set off for a two-hour hike up to the picturesque Tiefenthal Alm, which served local food and drink and was set in stunning grounds with lots of animals. It rained (of course) and we – along with several other equally unprepared walkers – crammed round a wood-burning stove in a cabin at the top, peeling off damp clothes and nailing them to beams to dry. We chatted, ate and waited for the rain to end. We weren’t caught short again, and enjoyed beautiful sunny bike rides and haflinger hacks from the nearby family-run Reithof Pitztal stable.
The Bond effect
The local landscape was so breathtakingly beautiful that it was hard to imagine it buried beneath deep blankets of snow, but millions got a taste of the winter scenery when they watched Spectre. Sölden – 50 miles from Pitztal – was one of the locations for the James Bond film – and as luck would have it, it just happened to be on our way home.
A glass-fronted bar and gourmet restaurant, Ice Q, sits on the peak of Gaislachkogl mountain. Accessible only by cable car, it featured as the private medical clinic where Daniel Craig first meets Bond girl Dr Madeleine Swann (Léa Seydoux).
The building itself is 3,048m above sea level, surrounded by over 250 3,000m mountains. On the day of our visit there was a thick, low blanket of cloud, which created an illusion that the cable suddenly stopped in mid-air as we penetrated the cloud on our ascent and descent. It was a mind-bending but spectacular journey – and the reward at the top was well worth it.
Ice Q offers light snacks, coffees, full meals and fine wines; we enjoyed a delicious vegan lunch, served by friendly and attentive waiters, before Jarvis and Sophia visited the Elements exhibition. This immersive James Bond extravaganza takes visitors through the making of Spectre, and even features the reconstructed aeroplane Bond used to race down the mountain in pursuit of Madeleine Swann. This was a great day out and one we just couldn’t miss while we were in the area.
A journey of Discovery
The Bond theme continued as we drove home; we’d travelled to Austria in a Land Rover Discovery 2.0 Sd4 HSE – one of the few cars capable of handling the off-road adventures we inevitably experienced during our stay in the mountains.
The hours flew by as we crossed Austria, Germany and France in luxurious comfort – the sound system pumping out the Spectre soundtrack at its best – before boarding the Seven Sisters DFDS ferry at Dieppe. The smooth, four-hour crossing to Newhaven was long enough to stretch, get some rest and enjoy a lovely warm meal together after eating supermarket salads thrown together on the road.
As we approached Newhaven the white cliffs looked smaller than I’d remembered – but the pleasure of knowing I could walk to the top without relying on cables was pretty hard to beat. Still, the next time I’m out in the elements or on challenging terrain, I’ll remember to ask the witch for protection, and thank her for conserving the sublime beauty that’s all around us.