Alps of Austria and Italy
See more travel details for recommendations highlighted in bold, excerpted from Rick's guidebooks.
Hi, I'm Rick Steves, thanks for joining us as we share some of my favorite European discoveries. We're starting on the Zugspitze — the mightiest of German peaks, at 10,000 feet. The Zugspitze straddles two great nations. I'm in Germany, I'm in Austria..!
Descending the Austrian side of the Zugspitze, we'll see busy Innsbruck, but stay in small town Tyrol. After crossing the Alps, we'll tour my favorite medieval castle interior and make the town of Kastelruth our homebase for sampling Italy's rugged Dolomites mountains.
In Western Europe, Germany, Austria and Italy come together high in the Alps. From the Zugspitze, we'll travel through Innsbruck and the Tyrol in Austria before crossing the Brenner Pass into Italy. There, we'll make stops at Bolzano and Kastelruth.
This cross marks the spot where climbers first reached the summit here in 1851. While this marks the highest point in Germany we're heading into Austria where there are plenty of higher peaks.
From here the Alps arc before us like a grand alpine symphony.
At the Zugspitze summit, as on so many European mountain tops, you'll find restaurants, shops, and well-entertained tourists.
The German side is scaled by cogwheel train and cable car from Garmisch, about an hour's ride to the north. This speedy tram takes us down the Austrian side to the village of Ehrwald where we parked our car.
The famous Zugspitze attracts travelers from around the world. Escaping the crowd takes initiative and, to reach some places, a car. We're driving to Fallersheim, a tiny tumble of log cabins at the end of a road. Our goal? To catch a glimpse of Austria as it might have been a century ago.
Fallerschein, at 4,000 feet, replaces the modern scramble with a flower speckled world of serene slopes and andante cowbells. Thunderstorms roll down this valley like its God's bowling alley.
Braced against the weather, the tiny hamlet continues to survive. Daily life and the economy of has revolved mostly around the cows.. Originally this was a summer-time only community of dairy farmers. But today the village is a popular rustic retreat for Austrian vacationers who've rentd cabins here. Fallershein is famous among those in the know as a romantic get-away.
Hikers and budget travelers bed down here at the Almwirtschaft Fallerschein. Above the mountain restaurant is a loft filled with mattresses. This is a mattress loft — or "matratzenlager." Throughout the Alps, lager is a key word for cheap bed.
The restaurant and lager is open May through October — weather permitting.
After Fallershein, Innsbruck — a couple hours' away by car — feels like a metropolis. Six hundred years ago, this popular tourist stop was the Habsburg capital of the Tyrol. By the time they got here, the Hapsburgs were well on their way to being Europe's most powerful family.
They expanded and, consolidated their vast power through clever alliances and politically helpful marriages. This much-ogled Golden Roof was built by Hapsburg Emperor Maximilian in 1496 —
The roof with over 2500 gilded copper tiles remains the town's centerpiece. The Habsburgs ruled here until the end of WWI. Innsbruck's medieval center is now a pedestrian zone. Looking past the crowds, it still feels like an old provincial capital.
The city's folk museum is a medieval Tirolean home show. Cribs were decorated with Christian themes to be sure God watched over the little baby — but to cover all their spiritual bases, a pre-Christian Druid pentagram was carved on the headboard.
And offering another kind of protection was this man, a saltner — or human scarecrow who guarded the vineyards from — boars, foxes and birds.
This exhibit shows off the region's tradition of fine woodcarving. While this could be any Tyrolean village, it's Bethlehem in the Alps. Bible stories like this Nativity scene made most sense to locals when presented in a familiar home town setting.
One of the most famous sites here is above the city, the ski jump. The spotlight of the world was on Innsbruck as it hosted the Winter Olympics twice — in 1964 and '76. Sports fans may recall many infamous crashes off this jump. For safer sport, hikers take to the surrounding mountains on foot.
Innsbruck's worth a quick look. But I prefer a small town — one with fewer tourists. Tonight we're sleeping five miles down stream in the town of Hall.
Before the time of the Habsburgs, Hall in Tirol was a rich salt-mining center and Innsbruck was — as its name implies — just a humble bridge town on the Inn River. So, Hall's medieval old town is actually larger than Innsbruck's.
Laid-back Hall cradles its market square. Hall's pastel buildings and cobbled streets feels refreshingly real. Too real if you're trying to accomplish anything more than a leisurely lunch from noon to 2:00 when everything closes. And in small town Europe, many restaurants take a weekday off. This sign says "heute ruhe tag" — German for "today is our quiet day."
During the rule of the Hapsberg, Hall's Castle served as the local mint. Five hundred years ago, This how you made money. Traditional methods are still used here to strike shiny souvenir coins.
Back when salt was money, Hall was loaded. The town's elegant architecture and rich church make it clear that in its day, Hall was a local powerhouse. This much-appended Gothic church is decorated Baroque with fine altars, gilded starbursts, and the skulls and skeletons of saints Eerie relics that look back at you.
The old pedestrian bridge leads over the Inn River, and to our hotel. In Europe, I rely on a good guidebook for hotel listings, telephone for reservations a day or two in advance, and reconfirm by phone before showing up.
Gasthof Badl is a friendly place run by Frau Steiner. It's convenient and offers a warm welcome.
As in many hotels, tourist information in English is readily available in the lobby. Frau Steiner is checking to see if there's a Tirolean folk evening nearby.
Great, thanks. OK, so tonight in the village of Maurach we've got a folk evening. It starts at 21:00. Europe uses the 24-hour clock: So, anything over 12 subtract 12 and add p.m. 2100 minus 12 — 9 pm.
Alright, we have time for dinner and Frau Steiner is joining us.
The cuisine of the Tirol is not to be missed, and guesthouses take pride in serving local specialties, like spaetzel, roast port.and sauerkraut
Rick: You must like dumpling. You ordered the dumpling extravanza.
Frau: I love dumplings.
Rick: Do you?
It's a quick course in fine eating — "Dumplings 101."
Rick: You don't want to tell us the secret of the dumplings?
Frau: I think I have to keep the secret of the Tirol with the dumplings.
Oh well, we'll have to take comfort in the apple strudel. Okay, onto some music!
Tirolian Folk Evenings might be touristy...but a rousing dose of slap-dancing is a lively glimpse of tradition. How did the custom start? Strutting your lederhosen and schnapps must be in there somewhere. Rather than a big city stage show, we've opted for a small town hotel evening. It's intimate, lively, and right in your lap.
Slap dancing is a snappy cap to our folk evening in the Tirol. We'll be yodeling in our dreams.
For a car-hikers' look at life in the high Alps, we're taking the toll road up to 5,000 foot high Hinterhornalm.
Detailed maps show the tiniest of roads leading to the grandest of alpine perches. The mountains surrounding Hall and Innsbruck are a nature lover's wonderland offering countless mountain lifts, huts and a lifetime of trails.
Whether you are car hiking, biking, rock or parasailing these Alps demand only as much exercise as you feel giving.
From the parking lot at the end of the road, it's a 11 minute stroll to the Walderalm farm. This is actually a cluster of three family-run dairy farms sharing a meadow with the clouds. Seventy cows enjoy ridge-top rambles surrounded by cut-glass peaks.
Today, happy hikers can sample wild mushroom soup for lunch, and milk doesn't get any fresher.
The Brenner Pass has been the easiest way over the Alps since Roman times.
Nearly 2,000 years ago, Roman legions followed this route — the via Claudia — on their way north to conquer much of Europe. Well grooved sections of the old road are still preserved.
Today, the Brenner Pass is easier than ever to cross as drivers' arc gracefully along one of the engineering wonders of Europe. From the top the Europabrucke or Europe's Bridge feels like a freeway, but from the windy old road at the valley floor it looks like a mighty sculpture.
The freeway zips drivers from Innsbruck to the Italian border — about 30 minutes. How about pasta for lunch?
These days crossing borders in Europe is a wave through. The Automobile Club at the border is worth a stop.
Man: gives directions
While the Autobahn in Austria and Germany is tollfree, the Italian autostrada has plenty of toll booths. But there's nothing new there. For thousands of years, travelers have had to pay to pass Brenner Pass. Since Roman times this strategic valley has been lined with forts — ancient toll booths. In the Middle Ages this was the German trade route to Venice and Florence.
When medieval traders reached this valley, chances are they stopped, willingly or not, at a castle like this. Reifenstein Castle has grown more welcoming with age.
While it used to take a battering ram to get these doors open, but now all it takes is a few Euros.
Reifenstein offers one of Europe's most intimate looks at medieval castle life.
The actual countess of Reifenstein still lives in her private and rustically elegant castle quarters. Her aide, Frau Plank, shows visitors around several times a day. We called this morning to confirm our 10:00 tour. Frau Plank gives the tour in both German and Italian and she squeezes in what English she can.
She let me try an ingenious gadget for a tipsy lord.
Too much to drink? A clever funnel guides the key right into the hole
From the looks of the sumptuous green room, medieval life here was pretty comfortable. Some of the original painted wall decorations survive. You can catch a view across the valley to Reifenstein's sister castle. Two castles straddling the valley could control much of the trade passing between Germany and Italy
But to exercise his power and collect those tolls to and from Brenner Pass, the castle lord needed a small personal army. This room is the nights. Six to eight fighting men shared each of these boxes — complete with hay for maximum comfort. Imagine 40 snoring knights packed into one room.
And every good castle needs a dungeon, mostly to enforce taxation. If you couldn't pay your taxes you'd spend eight days down here — no food but a little water.
Enough taxes dungeons and duties, we've escaped and we're on our way to relaxing Italian town south of Brenner Pass.
Bolzano is the leading city of the Italian Tirol. Except for the sunshine, it feels more like Innsbruck than Italy.
The arcaded main street stretches through the medieval heart of town to the Piazza Erbe with its ancient and still thriving open-air produce market. In Bolzano, everything you'll need is within a short walk of the train station.
This enjoyable old town of 100,000 is the most convenient gateway to the Dolomites.
The Great Dolomite Road leads to the nearly 7,000 foot high Sella Pass. The Dolomites are Italy's dramatic limestone rooftop. They offer some of the best alpine thrills in Europe whether you want to stay firmly planted on the ground or soar high above the valley floor.
The bold limestone pillars offer something for everybody.
This is rock climbing country — thrilling, even for spectators. The Val di Fassa ski country is busy with hikers in the summer. The many lifts do the climbing fast and easy, depositing sweatfree hikers at thin air trail heads.
Your entertainment: views of the mightiest of the Dolomites. These gondolas are filled with skiers from December through April. Springtime — that's dead time in the Dolomites. The lifts are shutdown huts are closed and the most exciting trails are covered in snow. We're here in late summer, and everything's wide open. Hiking season is mid-June through September.
Kastelruth feels more like an alpine village rather than a ski resort. I feature it in my Italy guidebook as the ideal homebase for exploring the Dolomites.
The hyper-active belltower seems to sing the wisdom of honoring local traditions, like woodcarving. For centuries, farmers around here have spent their winters carving. Today their descendents- many with international acclaim carry on the tradition.
Erich Perathoner had decided by age six he wanted to be a wood carver. He was inspired by the life-size sculptures towering over him at Sunday mass. Training under his father and grandfather, he his trade well and developed a passion for religious themes. Now, much of his work is done for the Church.
Many European villages find their young people fleeing to the big cities to join the modern parade. But Kastleruth's young generation knows they have a good thing going, and they're staying.
We happened on to Kastleruth's Bobbenfest or boys festival. On this special Sunday, everyone turns out to celebrate the town's young bachelors — dressed up peacock-proud in their Tirolean finery.
A traditional rite of passage, the celebration includes an elaborate Sunday Mass. Later, the village gathers for a grand town picnic. I asked: Where are the girls? Don't worry I was told. The parents are taking careful notes.
A hard-fought history has left the region bi-cultural and bi-lingual. Locals speak German before Italian. Over the centuries the region has flip-flopped its cultural orientation. After the Roman Empire fell the region's allegiance turned to the north.
Later, it was firmly in Austria's Hapsburg realm. But by losing WWI, Austria lost this land. Austria's South Tirol became Italy's Alto Adige. Mussolini did what he could to Italianize the region, including giving each town an Italian name.
Kastleruth became Castlerotto. To win the regions favor, the Italian government has wooed locals with economic breaks. These have made it one of Italy's prosperous and expensive areas. Today, whether you call it Alto Adige or Süd Tirol, all signs and literature are in both Italian and German.
From Kastleruth we're heading up to Alpe di Siusi. Visitors ride a free park shuttle bus to Europe's largest high alpine meadow — a natural preserve at the foot of the Sasso peaks. The bus takes you to the trail head of your choice.
The meadow is 3 miles by 7 miles wide and seems to float at 6,000 feet. It's dotted by farm huts and wild flowers, surrounded by dramatic Dolomite peaks, and criss-crossed by meadow trails — ideal for flower lovers, walkers, and equestrians.
The Sasso Lungo mountains standing at the head of the meadow provide more demanding hikes,-and a storybook Dolomite backdrop. Meanwhile, the spooky Schlern — home of mythical witches — looks boldly into the haze of the Italian peninsula.
Not surprisingly, the Schlern, standing like a devilish winged victory, gave superstitious people the willies.
But today, the Schlern witch is welcome in the villages, surviving only as folk art. She's become a kitchen witch — an amusing souvenir riding her broomstick into the hearts of travelers.
And chairlifts — not broomsticks — provide springboards for more Alpine thrills. Thanks for traveling with us. Join us next time for more travels in Europe. I'm Rick Steves wishing you happy travels. Ciao.
See more travel details for recommendations highlighted in bold, excerpted from Rick's guidebooks.