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Austrian and Italian Alps

In the Alps of Austria and Italy, we celebrate both nature and culture. After conquering the Zugspitze, we tour Innsbruck, visit a remote farm in Austria, and join in a Tirolean village festival. Then we cross the Alps into Italy and tour a uniquely well-preserved medieval castle before joyriding deep into the rugged Dolomite Mountains. After an unforgettable hike, we catch our breath in Europe’s largest high-altitude meadow, then enjoy some more alpine folk music.

Travel Details

Zugspitze

Atop the 9,700-foot summit of the Zugspitze you can straddle the border between two great nations while enjoying an incredible view. From Germany head to Eibsee (reachable by car, or by train via Garmisch-Partenkirchen), then either ride a cable car or cogwheel train to the top. From Austria (the cheaper, less crowded way up), make your way to the cable car station just outside the village of Ehrwald (by car or by train and then bus or taxi to the base of the lift). However you get there, restaurants, shops, a little museum, telescopes, and the "highest Biergarten in Deutschland" await you at the summit.

Walderalm

On this perch high above the Inn Valley you can get a taste of traditional Tirolean life among a trio of dairy farms. From the valley floor a toll road corkscrews up to the meadow of Hinterhornalm, a hang-gliding springboard with its own rustic restaurant; from there it's a level 20-minute walk to Walderalm.

Museum of Tirolean Folk Art

This big museum offers the best look anywhere at traditional Tirolean lifestyles. Fascinating exhibits range from those on traditional Tirolean costumes (which differ from valley to valley, and from village to village), rites of passage, and supernatural beliefs. The highlight is the carefully reconstructed interiors of several Tirolean parlors with their small windows, wood paneling, and finely crafted furniture. You can also peek into the interior of the adjacent Hofkirche (statue-lined court church of the Habsburgs).

St. Nicholas Parish Church

Hall's much-appended church is dedicated to the patron saint of sailors — in honor of the riverboat crews that kept trade flowing along the Inn River. The knight Florian Waldauf, a friend of Innsbruck's Emperor Maximilian I, built this chapel in 1501 to thank God after the two of them survived a harrowing storm at sea, and filled it with more than 2,000 relics.

Hall Mint Museum and Mint Tower

The centerpiece of the museum is a functioning replica of a 16th-century minting press — powered by water and made of wood. (Hall began minting coins in the 15th century, and along with its lucrative salt-mining industry, minting became a hallmark of Hall.) The 150-foot-tall, 14th-century Mint Tower — both a fire watchtower and a castle fortification — is a town landmark.

Gasthof Badl

This big, comfortable, friendly riverside place with 26 rooms is run by Sonja and her family, with help from Ella, their enormous, easygoing dog. It's my sentimental favorite in the area for its convenience (a short and scenic walk from Hall's old town), peaceful setting, big breakfast, and warm welcome. Their restaurant serves excellent dinners in a cozy, pub-like dining room.

Reifenstein Castle

While it has one of my favorite castle interiors in Europe — its layout and decor have changed little since the 15th century — this privately owned castle has not been developed for tourism, and visiting can be a hassle. It's only open for a few tours a day (in German and Italian), and English-language tours need to be booked in advance (and photos aren't allowed). Drivers will find it easy to reach, but it's definitely not worth the trouble for those without wheels.

Seceda hike

From the town of St. Ulrich/Ortisei/Urtijëi to Seceda, a cable car drops you at the edge of a thrilling cliff with unforgettable ridge walks and jaw-dropping views that make Seceda one of the most dramatic experiences in the Dolomites.

Seiser Alm / Alpe di Siusi

This grassy mountain plateau above the village of Seis/Siusi is a premier hiking and skiing area, and also home to hundreds of cows every summer. Undulating rather than flat, broken by rushing streams, and dappled with shapely evergreens, what makes the Seiser Alm really spectacular are the views of the surrounding Dolomite peaks. At the meadow's far end, the jagged Langkofel and Plattkofel together form an "M"-shaped storybook Dolomite backdrop. Well-kept huts, trails, and lifts make hiking here a joy (the season runs roughly mid-June–mid-October, with wildflowers at their peak in June). Being here on a sunny summer day comes with the ambience of a day at the beach.

To keep the meadow serene, it's closed to cars during the day (unless you're staying in one of the hotels in the park), but the Seiser Alm Bahn gondola makes it easy to reach the meadow's tiny commercial hub of Compatsch from the main Kastelruth–Bolzano road (easy bus connections and parking at base station). Up top, a shuttle bus ferries visitors to and from key points along the windy road at the meadow's base, and several lifts expeditiously get you into the higher and more scenic hiking areas.

Script

See the Travel Details above for recommendations highlighted in bold, excerpted from Rick's guidebooks.


Hi, I'm Rick Steves, back with more of the best of Europe — and right now, I'm the highest person in Germany, proving that almost anyone can make the summit in Europe's Alps. And from up here we venture south, for the best of the Alps in Austria and in Italy. Thanks for joining us.

I love how, in Europe, nature and culture mix it up. And here in the Alps, each region has a distinct flavor. In this episode, we celebrate both nature and culture in the Alps of Austria and Italy.

After conquering the Zugspitze, we'll visit a remote farm in Austria and join in a Tirolean village festival. Then we cross the Alps, tour a uniquely well-preserved medieval castle, and joyride deep into Italy's rugged Dolomite mountains. After an unforgettable hike, we'll catch our breath in Europe's largest high-altitude meadow, and then enjoy some more alpine folk music.

Germany, Austria, and Italy come together high in the Alps. We start in Bavaria, at the Zugspitze. From there we travel south into Tirol — an historic region that today is split between Austria and Italy. We visit Innsbruck and Hall before crossing [the] Brenner Pass into Italy. From Kastelruth, we explore the Dolomites.

Across the Alps, mountain resorts are investing in their infrastructure. And here in Bavaria, they've made it quick and easy to experience their mightiest peak.

The Zugspitze, at nearly 10,000 feet, is Germany's highest mountain. And this cable car zips us to the top in 10 minutes. The cable is about three miles long. It's supported by only one pylon. And it stretches nearly two miles to the summit with no support at all.

While there are many higher mountains in the Alps, the Zugspitze is unique. It stands alone, offering a view of hundreds of peaks in Germany, Austria, Italy, and even Switzerland. The mountain marks the border between Germany and Austria.

From here the Alps arc like a grand alpine symphony — from [near] Vienna way in the east all the way to the French Riviera, where these mountains finally plunge into the Mediterranean.

The Zugspitze summit attracts huge crowds. As on so many European mountaintops, you'll find restaurants, shops, and well-entertained tourists.

The Zugspitze is famed for a cold and ghostly wind that can really howl in the winter. This hikers' hut has been perched here for well over a century. And thanks to these beefy cables, it's never been blown off the top.

The summit — first climbed in 1820 — is marked by a golden cross, carried up here by hardy villagers back in 1851. Today, with the help of iron steps and cables, it's climbed — either from the distant valley floor or from the adjacent summit restaurant — by families, seniors, and even travel writers.

These days, escaping the tourist crowds takes initiative — and having a car can be helpful. We've crossed into Austria and are ready to explore. Detailed maps show tiny roads you might not realize exist. For a car-hiker's look at life in the high Alps, we're switch-backing up to a 5,000-foot-high perch.

From the end of the road, it's an easy 20-minute stroll to the Walderalm farm. It's actually a cluster of three family-run dairy farms, with 70 cows sharing their meadow amid staggering mountain views.

These families have eked out a living on these farms, with remarkably little change, for generations. Hans, while well into his 80s now, is still involved in the family farm. Today, it's so hot the cows are hanging out in the barn. But there's still work to be done.

And, with the chores finished, Hans enjoys whittling in his spare time. His favorite subject? Cows, of course.

The traditional alpine farmhouse was energy efficient, considering the technology of the day. The family lived here, on the middle floor. The cows got the ground floor — there's about 40 cows just down there; they'd catch the body heat of the cows and that would help to heat the family. And the hayloft provided insulation and the assurance there'd be enough food to get the cows through the winter. And on this farm, the system works to this day.

These days family farms struggle to survive. Here in Europe, many manage only with the help of government subsidies and by tapping into the tourist trade. A steady stream of hikers and bikers work hard to reach this idyllic spot. And Hans and his family are happy to serve a hearty lunch or refreshing drink.

From up here, it's all downhill to Innsbruck. Filling the valley floor, it's one of the biggest cities within the Alps. Innsbruck was an important outpost of the Habsburg Empire. For five centuries, it was their capital of Tirol, with all the imperial trappings: a grand church, a stately palace, and an extravagant balcony fit for a king.

This much-admired Golden Roof was built for the Habsburg Emperor Maximilian I in 1494. The roof, with over 2,000 gilded copper tiles, remains the town's centerpiece. Innsbruck's historic center is now a pedestrian zone. Looking past the crowds, it still feels like a once-grand provincial capital.

The city's folk museum is a medieval Tirolean home show. Humble as that rural farming community may have been, an artistic touch prevails. The plow seems to honor hard work. One-legged milking stools were finely carved. Cribs were decorated with religious themes to be sure God watched over the baby. Fantastical characters warded off evil and even served as human scarecrows. Merchants, carrying their wares on their backs, would hike from village to village. This one sold fine fabric.

Intricately whittled dioramas show off the region's tradition of fine woodcarving. While this could be any Tirolean village, upon closer look, it's Bethlehem, in the Alps. Bible stories like this nativity scene made most sense to locals when presented in a familiar hometown setting. Today, this manger scene gives you a glimpse of village life in Tirol a couple centuries ago.

Innsbruck's worth a quick look. But I prefer a smaller town, with fewer tourists. Tonight, we're sleeping five miles downstream in the town named "Hall in Tirol."

Even before the time of the Habsburgs, Hall was an important trading city. Back then, its medieval center was actually larger than Innsbruck's.

Today's laid-back Hall cradles its market square. Its pastel buildings and quaint streets feel refreshingly traditional. Actually, too traditional if you're trying to accomplish anything more than a leisurely lunch from noon till two, when everything closes.

During the Habsburg rule, Hall's castle served as the local mint. Old-time methods are still used here to strike shiny souvenir coins. Five hundred years ago, this was how you made money.

The town's name, Hall, means "salt." Hall was so important because it was a center of salt mining and trade.

In the past, salt was mined like a precious mineral. It was so valuable because before modern refrigeration it was used to preserve food. Salt helped people survive the winters. That's why they called it "white gold."

Back when salt was money, Hall was loaded — its seal features a barrel of salt. The town's elegant architecture and rich church make it clear that in its day, Hall was a local powerhouse.

While the church's structure is mostly 15th-century Gothic, the decor inside is 17th-century Baroque. And with a close look, you can see the wealth was founded on salt. Miners generated the wealth that paid for the lavish altars, extravagant starbursts, and this statue of the miners' patron, St. Barbara. And even the little cupids carry barrels of salt.

The old pedestrian bridge leads over the milky, glacier-fed Inn River to our hotel.

Gasthof Badl is run by the Steiner family. I love a family-run hotel — and here, three generations are hard at work. I've enjoyed Frau Steiner's warm welcome for a generation. She makes each guest feel right at home. Now her daughter Sonja runs the show with the same flair for hospitality. And, clearly, granddaughter Laura is next in line.

We're dining on Tirolean favorites: spaetzle, a traditional kind of pasta, and dumplings. As is typical of the guesthouses I like to recommend, Frau Steiner shares the local culture, and that includes both food and music.

Tonight, under the convivial chestnut tree, the town band and the dancing group are performing for each other as much as the hotel guests. The Tirolean brass band starts things off.

The maiden with the schnapps makes sure to lubricate as necessary.

Then it's time for the dancers. I love how folk dancing recalls the courting rituals of medieval societies. Dancing was an acceptable way to meet the girl or guy from the next farm back in an age when simply connecting was a challenge. And with slap dancing like this, what girl wouldn't say yes?

Heading south, we cross Europe's cultural and geographical divide, driving from the Germanic world, over the Alps, into the Mediterranean world — Italy. The Brenner Pass has been the easiest way over the Alps since ancient Roman times. Two thousand years ago, Roman legions followed this route — the Via Claudia — as they marched north to conquer much of Europe.

Sections of the ancient road are still preserved. Deep grooves are reminders of countless wagon wheels that followed this very route.

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 of the Europabrücke, or Europe's Bridge, it feels like just another 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 in about 30 minutes. How about pasta for lunch?

While the autobahn in Germany and Austria is toll-free [the Austrian autobahn does require a paid sticker], the Italian autostrada has plenty of toll booths.

But that's nothing new here. This crossing has long been a gauntlet of toll booths and forts. Empires from Roman times to World War II understood the strategic value of [the] Brenner Pass. This fortress, called "Franzensfeste," was built in the 1830s. It was one of the mightiest of its day. A huge investment by the Habsburg emperor in Vienna, it was designed to protect his empire from invasions from the south.

Throughout the Middle Ages, this was the trade route that connected the Germanic world with cities like Venice and Florence. When medieval traders reached this valley, chances are they were stopped, willingly or not, at a castle like this. Reifenstein Castle was built to control trade. But Reifenstein has grown more welcoming with age. While it used to take a battering ram to get these doors open, now all it takes is a few euros.

Caretaker: Hello, hello.
Rick: Hey — guten Tag.
Caretaker: Welcome to Reifenstein.

Reifenstein offers one of Europe's most intimate looks at medieval castle life. The actual count and countess of Reifenstein are determined to preserve their historic castle. The castle caretaker shows visitors around on tours several times a day. We're enjoying a private visit.

While the castle was originally built a thousand years ago, what we see today is about 500 years old. It's a rare opportunity to see an intact medieval castle interior. Within its mighty stone walls, hefty timbers flesh out the staircases and rooms. The woodwork is artful, and the engineering ingenious.

While there was no well, rainwater was collected into a cistern that functions to this day. Paintings adorning the walls feature only one family: the noble German family that has owned the castle for centuries. Here the lord and lady seem proud of what must have been an impressive fortified home in its day.

Here's a fun fix 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 for the nobility was pretty comfortable. The painted walls are original — a rare example of secular art surviving from the Middle Ages. With voluptuous swoops and curls, this scene, frescoed in 1498, is a fantasy of elves, jesters, archers, and fruity symbols of fertility.

You can catch a view across the valley to Reifenstein's sister castle. Two castles like these, strategically straddling the valley, could control much of the trade passing between Germany and Italy.

To exercise his power and collect those tolls, the castle lord needed a small personal army. This room is the knights' quarters. Up to eight men shared each of these boxes — complete with hay, for maximum comfort. Imagine 40 snoring knights packed into one room. There was no fire for warmth, as an accident would set the entire place up in flames. So, the knights huddled together to stay warm.

And every good castle needs a dungeon, used mostly to enforce the payment of debts. The only way in or out was through this hatch. If you couldn't pay your bills, you could spend days down here — no food; only a little water.

OK, enough about debts and dungeons — we've escaped, and we're on our way to Italy's dramatic limestone rooftop. The Dolomites, with their distinct and jagged peaks, offer some of the best alpine thrills in Europe.

And these mighty mountains seem to protect the traditional culture in the region's villages and bucolic farmsteads. Historically Tirol was its own state. Today that region is divided: part in Austria, and part in Italy. The Italian part is called "South Tirol."

The region is a mix of the two cultures, and officially bilingual. While the traditional economy is farming, today tourism is also big — skiing in winter, hiking in summer.

The Great Dolomites Road — beautifully engineered — leads to the nearly 7,000-foot-high Sella Pass. It's great for a joy ride, and famously a big challenge for bikers. Making it to the summit is always a good excuse for a triumphant group photo.

These bold limestone pillars offer something for everybody. This is rock-climbing country — thrilling, even for spectators.

From the town of Ortisei [a.k.a. St. Ulrich or Urtijëi] we're catching the Seceda lift. All over this region, the lifts do the climbing fast and easy, depositing hikers sweat-free at thin-air trailheads. I love walking on a ridge. And with as many nationalities enjoying this scene as there are flowers in the fields, the blissful world up here is one of pristine nature, and happy hikers.

These slopes are busy with skiers in the winter. When planning, be aware that in early spring and late fall — that's between seasons here in the Dolomites — many lifts, huts, and restaurants are shut down, and trails can be covered in snow. We're here in summer and everything's wide open. Everywhere I look feels like an alpine adventure awaiting my arrival.

One thing I love about Europe: I've been coming here all my life, and there's still places to discover.

The town of Kastelruth feels like an alpine village, rather than a ski resort. That's why I feature it in my Italy guidebook as the ideal home base for exploring the Dolomites.

The hyperactive bell tower seems to ring out the wisdom of honoring local traditions. Buildings are painted with murals celebrating the town's rich heritage. Clearly, fire has long been a concern. St. Florian, the patron of firefighters, is shown all over town putting out fires. The town cemetery is like a lovingly tended garden. Entire families share a common plot. Cobbled lanes lead past friendly shops to the welcoming town square. And for generations the fountain, with its metal cup, has invited all for a refreshing drink. The fountain also watered horses back when coaching inns lined the square.

Here in the region of South Tirol, even though we're in Italy, locals speak German first and Italian second. That's because, for centuries it was in the Austrian Habsburg realm, ruled from Vienna.

After World War I South Tirol ended up as part of Italy. Mussolini did what he could to Italianize the region. He even gave each city a new Italian name. This town, Kastelruth, became "Castelrotto." But the region's Germanic heritage endures. You can see it in its prosperity and in its lively folk culture.

Amateur folk bands have fun keeping that heritage alive. The instruments are traditional, as are the costumes. The blue aprons come from a time when humble workers needed to protect their precious clothing. It's nice to think that these boys are both modern and traditional — and their traditions are clearly surviving into the next generation.

Kastelruth is the gateway to Europe's largest alpine meadow, the Alpe di Siusi [a.k.a. the Seiser Alm]. As automobiles are generally not allowed, visitors approach by cable car. Landing at Compatsch, the commercial hub of the meadow, hikers can hop a lift or a shuttle bus to the trailhead of their choice. The Alpe di Siusi [Seiser Alm] is a natural preserve at the foot of the mighty Sassolungo [Langkofel] and Sasso Piatto [Plattkofel] peaks.

The meadow is three miles wide by seven miles long and seems to float at 6,000 feet above sea level. It's dotted by farm huts and wildflowers, surrounded by dramatic Dolomite peaks, and crisscrossed by meadow trails — ideal for equestrians, flower lovers, and walkers. It's also just right for someone needing a lazy beer with a spectacular view.

And completing this storybook Dolomite setting, the spooky mount [outcropping] Schlern, home of mythical witches, looks boldly into the haze of the Italian peninsula.

I hope you've enjoyed our look at the Alps of Austria and Italy — the Tirol — where nature is wild, yet so accessible. Thanks for joining us. I'm Rick Steves. Until next time, keep on travelin'.

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