Exploring Tirol the Old-School Way
Today you can prepare every trip perfectly. Google Maps, Google Earth, Komoot, TripAdvisor ... But what happens if don’t do any of that and just go with the flow? Our team of reporters tried it out - and discovered that Lady Luck is sometimes the best tour guide.
It’s raining cats and dogs. There’s no chance we’re going to walk in these conditions. Where are we going? Good question. We don't really know. First we cross the border into Tirol. "The next bus to Reutte is just about to leave," says the lady at the tourist information office in Füssen: "If you hurry, you can still catch it. " Reutte it is, then. It's still pouring down when, 40 minutes later, we enter the local optician’s shop and ask the friendly young man behind the counter if there is anywhere nearby where we could stay the night. Despite this somewhat unusual request, he is happy to help and sorts us out with a place just around the corner.
We want to go with the flow. Just hit the road and see where we end up. Travelling, old-school style.
We are travelling in the western part of Tirol. Unusually for us, we really haven’t done any planning – on purpose. We want to be surprised. Our photographer Espen and I have decided not to research, prepare or even pre-book anything on the internet or with travel apps. We want to go with the flow. This way or that way? We’re going to follow our instinct. Maybe because this way looks interesting or is less muddy. Maybe because that was recommended by a local who is standing around and seems friendly. We’re just going to hit the road and see where we end up. Travelling, old-school style. Instead of consulting travel apps with complex algorithms, we want to talk to people and follow their advice –real experts who know the area better than any Silicon Valley tech giant.
We check into our accommodation for the night, the "Hotel zum Mohren". The name is a throwback to the past and means “Hotel of the Moor”. Not sure how much longer they will be able to stick with that name, we comment quietly to each other. Suddenly, after hour upon hour of rain, the sun comes out and bathes the frescoes adorning the outside of this charming hotel in a beautiful natural light. Reutte, the first stop on our journey, turns out to be a pretty cool place. We’re in a good mood and even find time to visit the renovated town centre. It's a pity that the local history museum, known as the "Grünes Haus", is currently closed. Espen pushes the door anyway and suddenly finds himself in front of the curator who, contrary to our expectations, does not throw us out with an angry expletive but instead puts down his paintbrush and invites us for a tour of the museum. We see paintings and statues of saints and the Madonna, meet men in powdered wigs and pipe-smoking peasants. What luck! This is precisely how we had hoped to explore Tirol – by chance, spontaneously, and in the company of a friendly local.
A journey blessed with good fortune
Our chosen way of travelling has unexpected consequences. After all, if we hadn't decided to hitchhike the next morning, we almost certainly wouldn’t have ended up with alpacas eating out of our hands in the afternoon!
It turns out that these furry animals like muesli. But before we go any further, let me tell you how we got here. Standing on the roadside a few hours earlier, car after car whizzes past us. "You'd be better off waiting next to the kebab stand," says a helpful local. "No one will pick you up here, take my word."
Finally dark blue VW bus stops. At the wheel is Layla Margherita Herb. She has just come from shopping with her two-year-old daughter Cataleya. She asks us where we are going. I answer truthfully but somewhat sheepishly: "I don't know – you tell us." And so we end up at Layla's small farm in Hinterbichl, where we are served coffee and muesli. The former is for us. The latter, as already mentioned, is for the alpacas and llamas.
"Relax", says Layla as we walk quickly between the animals with their long necks. "Otherwise they will sense your nervousness". She’s right. It seems like a metaphor for our journey – relaxing and opening ourselves up … to the llamas, to Layla, to the world.
We gladly accept Layla’s offer to accompany her and her daughter to the Frauensee, a lake directly above her farm lined with reeds, forests and mountains. It is the perfect place to unwind. "This journey," I say to Espen, "is blessed with good fortune."
Layla drops us off on the banks of the Lech river, a cascading body of water which is particularly milky here to the south of Forchach. Catalaya, barefoot, waves goodbye. The first chapter of our adventure has come to an end. Time to open the next one.
We decide to walk for a bit. Our heavy backpacks make for slow progress, but we are in no hurry. Over coffee and cake at a nearby café we decide where – at least roughly – we want to go next. In the centre of Stanzach we study the bus timetable and see if and when it can take us to our destination.
We hop on a bus and have to change to another in nearby Elmen. The bus driver says, "If I were you, I'd do any shopping down here". He points to the supermarket right next to the bus stop. As far as he knows, there is no grocery shop in the tiny village of Boden, almost 1,400 metres above sea level, where we plan to spend the night. "Don't you have to get going?", I ask him. "I'm always late anyway," he grins. We are, it turns out, the only two people on the bus. "Go on and do your shopping – I'll wait for you," he says. We buy a few essentials and, true to his word, the bus is still waiting for us when we emerge a few minutes later.
Half an hour later, the bus driver makes an unscheduled stop as we enter the village. "Ask the man with the lawn mower if the inn is open," he advises. Unfortunately, the inn in this village of 31 people is closed. Boden, it turns out, really is a tiny place. A little ghost town in the Alps. Our driver, who by now is behind schedule even by his standards, leaves us in the care of an old man sitting in front of his house smoking. After a short chat, he sends us to a relative at the other end of the village who is happy to rent us her holiday flat.
It's almost magic. On this journey, every problem seems to solve itself.
Afterwards, our landlady even drives us a few kilometres along the winding road to an open inn where we have dinner. It’s almost magic. On this trip, every problem seems to solve itself.
Let yourself fall and I will catch you
As we tuck into a hearty portion of spinach dumplings and beer, we reflect on what it is that makes this kind of travelling different. If you plan everything down to the last detail, you get precisely what you want – and only that. We, on the other hand, have been showered with surprise gifts, unasked for and without ulterior motives. We have been blessed with experiencing the helpfulness, friendliness and spontaneity of local people because we have opened up, spoken to them, listened and learned. That, we agree, is something not even the best app can give you. After all, is it really helpful to virtually walk every hike in advance using online maps? See highlights, photos of the summit, the view from the top. "No," Espen says and orders an espresso. "Still, I'm glad you at least have one map with you."
The next day we make use of it as we hike over the Kogelseescharte ridge into the neighbouring valley. We stumble down the steep descent before throwing ourselves naked into a mountain lake. Refreshed and rejuvenated by the cold water, we feel like we are in the jungle as we continue our walk through mountain pines, pink roses and tall ferns.
Late in the afternoon we reach Gramais, a tiny village whose population multiplies in summer. We are not the only hikers, but we are the only ones who have not booked in advance. Luckily, a thunderstorm and downpour break out at just the right moment. As I am standing in front of a guesthouse, soaking wet, the lady in charge takes pity on me and hands me a room key. In fact, says Getraud Scheidle, she had vowed never to rent her place out for just one night ever again. Not worth it, she tells me.
Despite this somewhat inauspicious start, we soon become friends. Normally there is no breakfast at all for overnight guests, but for us the 80-year-old is willing to make an exception. Under photos of numerous granddaughters we are treated to a fabulous meal with sausages, homemade jam and eggs. Getraud sits down with us and tells us all about her family’s long history here in the valley. I glance at the window. Outside it is drizzling again. Not more rain. We decide we need a shot of schnapps, despite the fact it is just 9 o'clock in the morning.
I envy their gloves, leather caps and goggles, but above all their composure.
We eventually manage to make our way back to the Lech Valley thanks to a German tourist. As he parks his electric car in front of the self-service farm shop next to our guesthouse, I approach him and ask if there is any chance of a lift. The friendly man from Baden is happy to help us and also gives us some advice on the next place to go – we should, he says, definitely visit the village of Elbigenalp. He’s not actually going there, but for us he is happy to make a small detour and drop us off. Despite the rain that greets us, Elbigenalp is a pretty village. It is known for its wood-carving tradition as well as its vintage car rally. The weather isn’t ideal for driving an open-topped car, but that doesn’t seem to put off the participants. I envy their gloves, leather caps and goggles, but above all their composure.
When the sun finally reasserts itself, we board a taxi bus transporting soaked long-distance hikers to the Berggasthaus Hermine.
This guesthouse and inn is located at the end of a gorge, 1,308 metres above sea level. We are in luck – there is still a room available. Actually, to be honest, I must confess that we broke our own rules this time and called ahead to be sure of getting a place.
Espen and I fall in love with the waitress.
Nevertheless, we are soon blessed with more of the serendipitous good fortune which has accompanied us so far throughout this journey: Espen and I fall in love with the waitress. However, our feelings remain unrequited – not least because neither of us get up the courage to tell the beautiful waitress of our secret crush. The next morning we set off into the mountains with the charming waitress still in our minds.
The landscape steams like a locomotive leaving a station. The last wisps of mist have dissipated over the peaks. Thousands of cobwebs shimmer in the meadows. We climb along a steep rock face to a high plateau and suddenly don't quite know where we are. All the other hikers have set off in the opposite direction. I suppose that's what we get for leaving our route to spontaneous intuition. Eventually we find a crooked crucifix and an alpine hut with two pairs of rubber boots drying on its faded wooden deck.
"Hello," Espen calls out. "Is there anyone there?" We are greeted by a husband-and-wife duo in their seventies. They invite us in and serve large glasses of fresh spring water and elderberry syrup. The Kappellers, it turns out, are up here for a few days to tend to the alpine pastures, which can no longer be farmed since a rock fall. Franz, moustache, red cap, striped Bermuda shorts, names each and every mountain on the horizon, one by one. He has climbed every single one of them, he tells us, and is still a keen mountaineer and an important member of a local club aimed at preserving the customs and traditions of the region. A smart, committed man with a strong sense of local identity.
We tell them about our journey. Our decision to do without apps and maps. The idea to simply go with the flow and follow our hearts. "A good thing," they say, "that's how we used to travel." Good point. We have to admit that our idea is not all that unusual, at least not for people over 50. For members of the younger generation, however, it seems like a revolution. I glance at my watch. It’s time for us to get going. After all, Espen and I still have to return to the valley today. We are heading back to the real world – one of meetings, timetables and connecting trains. From Reutte to Munich and on to Berlin.
We stop again at the Berggasthof Hermine. Luckily our waitress is on shift again. We order pastasciutta, a hearty pasta dish with plenty of vegetables. It is perfect to give us the energy we need for the journey ahead. Our faces are beaming. What a trip this has been. Who would have thought the unexpected is so reliable? Turns out that sometimes Lady Luck really is the best tour guide.