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Jagdhausalmen Alpine Pastures, Defereggen, East Tirol, Austria, Europe

A Pilgrim’s Progress

Updated on 26.02.2020 in Sports

The mighty „Jakobskreuz“ cross on top of the Buchensteinwand mountain accompanies pilgrims on the Way of Saint James in Tirol between Waidring and St. Johann (c) Tirol Werbung – Jens Schwarz 
The mighty „Jakobskreuz“ cross on top of the Buchensteinwand mountain accompanies pilgrims on the Way of Saint James in Tirol between Waidring and St. Johann (c) Tirol Werbung – Jens Schwarz

"All roads lead to Rome," the saying goes. However, everyone knows that pilgrimages are about more than just getting from A to B. They are a chance to escape the stress of daily life, to be at one with yourself – and to explore the nature of Tirol.

Pilgrims of all religions and faiths have travelled the world since the dawn of time to visit holy places, repent their sins, give thanks to God, make solemn vows and experience miracles. At the same time, they are on a quest to find themselves. In the Christian faith the most well-known places of pilgrimage are Santiago de Compostela, Jerusalem and Rome. Thousands of believers set out each year from their homes to follow in the footsteps of generations before them and reach these holy places.

What drives people to embark on a pilgrimage?

„Pilgrimages are prayers said with your feet,“ is a phrase commonly heard among pilgrims. Walking long distances gives you a chance to reflect on life in a way often not possible in the hustle and bustle of everyday life. Inspiration can be found all around: in the landscape, in your own thoughts, through your inner voice.

While pilgrimages were very much associated with penitence (and freedom) in the Middle Ages, these days most people who decide to embark on a pilgrimage do so in order to rediscover themselves. These days we spend so much time doing what other people want or tell us to do, it is easy to forget to look after yourself and know what your own priorities and values are. Pilgrims may take to the trails in the hope that God will heal them or a person close to them, or to thank God for already having done so. Others sees pilgrimages as a sign of their trust in the Almighty and a symbol of their humility. Whatever drives people to go on a pilgrimage, everyone finds what they want. Or need.

What’s the difference between a pilgrimage and a long-distance hike?

Though both may appear similar at first sight, there are differences between pilgrimages and long-distance hikes. First of all, I would like to point out a few things they have in common:

  • Both involve moving from A to B and then on to C. This is unlike most classic walks and hikes, which take you back to A.  This concept of moving across the landscape on foot makes a big difference. It is a really special experience to slowly but surely progress across mountains and valleys, one day at a time, as you get ever closer to your final destination.
  • Both pilgrimage trails and long-distance hikes lead both along flat valley floors and up into the steep mountains. For example, the Way of Saint James in Tirol runs along the banks of the Inn river and the flat Inn Valley, while the Lech River Trail traces the contours of the Lech river just above the valley floor. In both cases, most of the walking is flat. On the other hand, the well-known Eagle Walk and – for example – the pilgrimage routes High & Holy and Romedius Trail lead into the high mountains and demand the requisite fitness, experience and equipment.

The Maiensee lake near St. Christoph marks the intersection between a pilgrimage trail and a long-distance hiking trail (Eagle Walk). It is the highest point on the Way of Saint James. (c) TVB St. AntonThe Maiensee lake near St. Christoph marks the intersection between a pilgrimage trail and a long-distance hiking trail (Eagle Walk). It is the highest point on the Way of Saint James. (c) TVB St. Anton

So what are the differences?

  • The biggest difference between a pilgrimage and a long-distance hikes is the intention. While long-distance hikes tend to focus on the physical challenge and beautiful nature, pilgrims set out on their journey driven by a religious or spiritual goal. In that sense, it is by all means possible to complete a pilgrimage on a trekking trail and to trek on a pilgrimage trail.
  • While many long-distance hiking trails have been designed to be completed in one (long) holiday, pilgrimage trails can be thousands of kilometres in length.
  • That is why pilgrimage trails are often designed to take the shortest and easiest routes, while long-distance hiking trails intentionally take in some of the more challenging and beautiful spots in the region. (This certainly doesn’t mean that pilgrimage trails aren’t beautiful too – they are designed to avoid heavily industrialised areas, busy roads, etc.)
  • Last but not least, one of the biggest differences for me is the accommodation situation. On long-distance hiking trails the stages are designed to end at a place where you can stay the night (normally a mountain hut). These can generally be booked long in advance. Pilgrimages do not have clearly defined start and finish points each day. That means it is less easy to plan your accommodation, because you don’t always know where you are going to end up staying the night. This can be a little stressful at times, but in the vast majority of cases it isn’t hard to find a warm bed and a hearty meal at the end of the day.

What should I expect from a pilgrimage in Tirol?

The Way of Saint James in Tirol, between St. Johann and GoingThe Way of Saint James in Tirol, between St. Johann and Going

Pilgrimages in Tirol are peaceful affairs. Far from the madding crowd, pilgrims have plenty of time alone to reflect on life. The Way of Saint James in Tirol is less well-known and less busy than the famous Way of Saint James in Spain. For me that makes it a much calmer experience. While pilgrims flock to Spain in their thousands in a quest to reach the Santiago de Compostela, far fewer come to explore the Way of Saint James in Tirol. Indeed, they are so few and far between that often you may well be lucky enough to be offered coffee and cake or a warm bed for the night by a total stranger. I definitely recommend using the chance to get chatting to other walkers, guesthouse owners or local residents as you make your way through our region.

The scarcity of pilgrims in Tirol has another advantage: plenty of space at the inn! This makes it much less stressful when you get to your destination at the end of the day but don’t yet know where you are going to spend the night. Here in Tirol it is much less likely that you will find yourself woken at 4am by someone loudly packing their rucksack before heading off. Tirol does not have that many official accommodation spots for pilgrims, but there are plenty of other places which offer pilgrims a discount.

Something which definitely shouldn’t be underestimated is the fact that you will find a fountain with fresh water in almost all villages (and often in between). The region’s infrastructure is also very well developed, so stocking up on provisions at a local shop or supermarket along the way should be no problem.

Tirol has lots of freshwater drinking fountains both down in the valley and up in the mountains (like this one in Unterperfuss) offering pilgrims the chance to refill their water bottles and refresh tired feet. (c) TVB Innsbruck – Christof LacknerTirol has lots of freshwater drinking fountains both down in the valley and up in the mountains (like this one in Unterperfuss) offering pilgrims the chance to refill their water bottles and refresh tired feet. (c) TVB Innsbruck – Christof Lackner

Which pilgrimage trails are there in Tirol?

The Way of Saint James

                   Zwischen St. Johann und Going
                Zwischen St. Johann und Going

The world’s most well-known pilgrimage trail is the Way of Saint James. A section of this long-distance route leads through Tirol. The Way of Saint James in Tirol („Tiroler Jakobsweg“ or „Via Tirolensis“) leads from Strub/Waidring through the Inntal Valley to St. Christoph in the west of the region before crossing over into the neighbouring province of Vorarlberg and then heading into Switzerland, where pilgrims reach the popular stop at Maria Einsiedeln. Many of the churches and chapels along the way are dedicated to Saint James and bear witness to the fact that even in the Middle Ages many people set out along this route on their way to Santiago de Compostela.

View this post on Instagram pilgern verleiht flügel und wurzeln zugleich. jeder schritt sorgt für noch mehr verankerung. insofern scheint das pilgern womöglich doch ein religiöser akt zu sein?! weil religare bedeutet "wieder verbinden dessen, was getrennt war“. man tritt in kontakt mit seiner inneren haltung, in der eine große offenheit und achtsamkeit besteht. es wird wieder etwas verbunden, was getrennt war. gleichzeitig hat mich diese verbundenheit durch das pilgern wiederum beflügelt (ohne energy drink versteht sich), leichtigkeit eingeflößt, die einen förmlich fliegen lässt. – also ist dies alles eine lüge… ich gehe keine 3000km. ich fliege 3000km! ? #redbull #sommer #lovetirol #pilgern #pilgrimage #religion #visittirol #neuehorizonte A post shared by Ernst Merkinger (@ernstjetzt) on Jul 7, 2017 at 10:22pm PDT

Route details

Most of the Way of Saint James in Tirol leads along forest trails and tarmac roads as well as smaller and narrower paths. There are a few stretches where the terrain is a little rougher, but generally you should be fine with a good pair of trekking boots. You will need a good level of fitness and should be sure-footed. The majority of the route is flat, though there are a few lomger uphill sections – not least the final push over the Arlberg pass (via the Rosannaschlucht gorge and Maienseen lakes).  The reward for all that hard work is a fabulous view of the landscape. By the way, the Arlberg pass marks the highest point of the entire Way of Saint James.

Facts about the Way of Saint James in Tirol:
Length: 270 kilometres
Stages: flexible; 11-13 stages are recommended
More information:

The Romedius Trail

Created in 2014, the Romedius Trail leads along ancient paths from the Romedikirchlein church in Thaur near Innsbruck to the place of pilgrimage San Romedi in Trentino, Italy. Following in the footsteps of medieval pilgrim and hermit Saint Romedius, walkers pass places of pilgrimage such as Maria Waldrast as well as many wayside crosses and shrines as they move from north to south.

Route details

The stages of the Romedius Trail have been designed in such a way that there is cosy accommodation down in the valley at the end of each day, though to get there pilgrims often have to cross mountain passes, ridges and even national borders! Therefore it should come as no surprise that walkers must be sure-footed, have a good head for heights and possess exprience in hiking in alpine terrain. Alpine equipment is also essential. From start to finish hikers must complete almost 10,000 vertical metres of climbing, making the Romedius Trail a very challenging pilgrimage demanding excellent fitness levels. However, it is certainly well worth it for the majestic views and sense of achievement.

Facts about the Romedius Trail:
Length: 180 kilometres
Stages: 12
More information:


High and Holy, East Tirol

The alpine pilgrimage trail High & Holy (in German Hoch & Heilig) leads from the village of Lavant in East Tirol via Innichen/San Candido in South Tirol (Italy) all the way back over the border to Heiligenblut in the neighbouring Austrian province of Carinthia. The route follows ancient pilgrimage trails, passing churches and chapels along the way. Each of the nine stages has its own motto as well as its own stories, exercises and things to think about along the way. At the end of each stage, pilgrims will find a box where they can stamp their pilgimage pass and collect a holy bracelet. Each of these bracelets is a different colour. When placed together at the end of the walk they form a rainbow.

Route details

The stages of the High & Holy trail have been designed so that pilgrims can start and end their hike at each one. The stages can also be combined to create a custom hiking experience. Wherever possible, the route avoids roads. With 13,000 vertical metres of hiking from start to finish, including four mountain crossings, it is a challenge not to be underestimated. Pilgrims must have good fitness, alpine experience and the right equipment. It is also possible to book special guides for the High & Holy trail – for indivdual stages or the whole route.

Facts about the High and Holy trail:
Length: 200 kilometres
Stages: 9
More information:

Places of pilgrimage

Last but not least, I would like to mention a few special places of pilgrimage. Day trips to these locations are easier than a full-on pilgrimage but still provide an excellent chance to reflect on life in peace and quiet. Most  pilgrimage locations are dedicated to the Holy Mary, where it is said she appeared to members of the local population. The most well-known are Maria Waldrast, Maria Brettfall, Maria Stein, Maria Klobenstein and Maria Locherboden. Georgenberg near Vomp is also a popular pilgimrage destination in Tirol. It can be reached via the Way of Saint James or through the Wolfsklamm gorge. Guided pilgrimages to the church at Georgenberg  are also offered on a regular basis.

Photo credits

Way of Saint james: Verein Regionalmanagement regio³
Romedius Trail: Hans Staud
High & Holy: Martin Schönegger
Places of pilgrimage: Tirol Werbung – Bernhard Aichner

A brave mum to two wild boys, Julia König explores the great outdoors with her family in tow. She is always ready to attempt new challenges and explore new places, providing inspiration, tips and reviews for families.

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