Dear Readers, when I go for my annual trip to Obergurgl in Austria, there is always one day when the cloud is so low that the scenery disappears behind a veil of mist. I rather enjoy these days – the sound is muffled, the walkers are few, and familiar scenes become mysterious. We always call these days our ‘panoramaweg’ days, in tribute to the information boards at popular tourist sites which set out the view that we should be seeing, with the mountain peaks named and the paths and ski-runs clearly marked, all completely invisible behind an interminable blanket of grey. Sometimes the clouds lift, sometimes they don’t, but we always keep our fingers crossed and head out anyway.
The walk we’re doing today is from the middle station of the Hochgurgl lift, back to Obergurgl. It’s a pleasantly varied walk, involving mountains, bogs and forest. We are greeted on arrival by the usual bunch of cows. Unusually, this time the calves are running with their mothers – in the village, the calves seem to be separated almost as soon as they’re born. And for a few moments the cloud lifts.
There is a positive posse of snowblowers already for action during the winter season. This year, there was a snowfall of several metres in May, and as noted in last week’s post, the vegetation is well behind where it should be. I wonder what will happen to the skiing industry as natural snow becomes less and less predictable? This valley earns the vast majority of its income in the winter season. Everything is changing, and we seem ill-equipped to deal with it.
And then the cloud rolls back in. The alpenroses (actually a type of azalea) are just coming into flower – some years they have already finished by the tme we arrive.
And I have always been fond of this chap.
As we turn the corner towards the boggy bit of the trail, we are confronted by a most unusual sight. There are several cars and vans parked beside the track. There is a man wearing only swimming trunks under a massive fur coat. My husband tells me that there was also a woman in swimwear but for some reason I didn’t notice. There are cameras and one of those white umbrellas that photographers use.
Clearly, no one told the photographer what the weather forecast was.
As no shooting was going to take place any time soon, we ambled on down the path, stopping only to take a photo of a rather splendid hat that is presumably going to be utilised when/if the cloud lifts.
The ponds along the track, which are sometimes dried up by this time of year, are full of water, and even contain a few tadpoles.
We march on upwards through the mist. We can hear the jangle of bells in the distance, but are unsure whether they come from particularly acrobatic cows, goats or the long-eared Italian sheep that graze here. Finally we find out as we see a little family of sheep silhouetted against the skyline. They are unusually skittish and gallop off up the mountainside, though I suspect that the rustle of a lunchpack would soothe their nerves.
Onwards! The next part of the path leads into the Konigstal, a particularly difficult valley (from the point of view of someone still recovering from a sprained ankle). It was a popular spot for smugglers crossing into Austria from Italy – they brought tobacco, sheep, furs, and even tea. There is still a customs hut at the top of the Konigstal, and I suspect that many a backhander was passed over – how else could someone drive an entire flock of sheep past, even at dead of night?
On the way we pass some black vanilla orchids. I’ve seen about four species of orchids this year, and I know that many more pop up later in the season. This place really is a botanist’s dream.
To cross the Konigstal you have to go a long way into the valley, and to keep your fingers crossed that the bridge is still there. One year it wasn’t, and we ended up wading across. It’s always a relief when it looms into view.
There is a lot of snow about this year, and where it’s melted back there are the alpine snowbells. These are the first flowers to appear once the snow is gone, and they take advantage of the lull before the other plants, overwhelm them. I love the fringes on the ‘cups’, and think of them as the quintessential Alpine flower. They only grow above 900m and are normally seen just after the snow melts.
From now on the walk is one long descent, through the pine forest and eventually to Obergurgl. The clouds appear to be lifting a bit (or we’re getting lower) (or both).
We can hear the constant calls of nutcrackers (Nucifraga caryocatactes) above the trees – these are a kind of jay, and are responsible for planting a lot of the pines, as they bury the pine nuts for winter sustenance and often don’t eat all of them. They are rambunctious birds and at this time of year often have youngsters in the nest, but they are also shy and difficult to photograph. So here is a photo taken by someone with infinitely more patience than I have (and probably a better camera too)
I love this part of the path, where the smell of pine resin rises and the walking becomes a little easier. The sun finally comes out, persuading us to take off our waterproofs.
There are gentians of some kind along by the path – probably trumpet gentian (Gentiana acaulis) though they seem a tiny bit pale. I am holding out hope that they are the slightly rarer Clusius’s gentian (Gentiana clusii). I really must get a better book for ID of Alpine flowers – does anyone have any recommendations?
And finally, Obergurgl heaves into view. I cannot believe the amount of building work that is going on this year (we have a morning coffee every day and admire the different cranes and lorries that are operating on the Edelweiss and Gurgl hotel and the new conference centre). But from here, all is peaceful, and we are starting to look forward to a Radler (shandy) or an Almdudler ( a traditional herbal drink which tastes like a cross between ginger beer and green tea).
We climb up again to cross the final waterfall before heading down into the village. One year we were staying here and learnt that a woman at another hotel was terrified of heights and also of crossing running water. The whole holiday must have been purgatory for her. I can only imagine that she was very poorly advised.
And finally we meander into the village through a mass of meadow plants, including this magnificent clover. There must be a dozen different clovers and vetches in the fields around Obergurgl and this year I’ve been able to enjoy them for the whole fortnight: normally the first cut of the meadows has been at the end of the first week in July, but this year the weather just hasn’t been good enough, though the hay trucks are starting to roll now.
And so tomorrow we will be heading home after another holiday in Obergurgl. It’s hard to explain how much this place means to me – it seems to be quintessentially healing for the mind and the body. I always come back to London feeling refreshed, and this year is no exception. I still have challenges to face, and no doubt all sorts of things will be waiting for me at home, but I feel better able to deal with them. And now, it’s off for a final apfelstrudel. Tschuss!
I admire your positivity. I’d be disappointed if the cloud came down, but it just goes to show you can always find something to enjoy and photograph in the mountains. 🙂 The book I use is published by the Swiss alpine Club and is called “Our Alpine Flora” by E. Landolt / K. M. Urbanska. The former being a Professor of Geobotany at the Swiss Federal Institute in Zurich. It is published in English but, sadly, the photos are small (only about 2″ by 2.5″). It covers all Alpine plants (Swiss anyway, though I doubt Austria will have too many more, though not all are pictured) with detailed explanations of each. (I’ll maybe send you a picture as an example). As for the Gentians, it says the Gentiana acaulis is a Koch’s Gentian and the Gentiana clusii is the Trumpet Gentian. (I’ll maybe use that page as an example).
The many dangers of common names, eh…..plus my camera doesn’t always pick up the exact colour of the flower. These were a much lighter blue than the gentians that I normally see. I will have a look at the book, and will also scour the Natural History Book Society for alpine flower books. I only use them once a year, but I get so frustrated with the books that I currently have.
Wonder if the hat will be mobbed by crows?
Actually, up here it would be ravens, which would be quite something 🙂
A good read. In one of the final photographs I noticed a yellow Liebherr crane, a ubiquitous sight throughout the Tirol. As a frequent visitor to the Oetztal but not for a few years I am curious how the Edelweiss and Gurgl can squeeze anything else on to the site they occupy. Is the conference hall being built on the site of the Piccardsaal?. Great to see the Nutcracker; I first saw one from the Hohe Mut lift in 2001. Regards.
The Edelweiss is renovating rather than getting any bigger, though rumour has it in the village that the works will take two years and the hotel will no longer open in summer. And yes, the Picaardsaal is no more, with a fancy new conference hall scheduled to open in January of 2020. They have, apparently, saved the stained glass windows….
Shame if it shuts for summer customers; despite never staying there it was always a draw in the evenings for a pleasant drink and catch up. Everything seems to be getting bigger and more modern in even the most remote parts of the Tirol, but that can be and often is to the detriment of the immediate and wider surroundings.
I know. I first visited in 1993 and stayed at the Edelweiss. One early morning I heard a crunching sound and opened the curtains to find a pine marten eatng some biscuits that i’d left in the window box for the birds. Deer used to come right down into the village at dusk to feed, and I once saw an ibex by the Rotmoos waterfall. That was in the days when the Hohe Mut lift was a single person chairlift. Sigh. It will be interesting to see if the new conference centre does attract more people in the summer, as is hoped, though if the Edelweiss isn’t going to open I’m not sure where all the delegates are going to stay. I think the Deutschmann is now the Crystal – the local family sold to it to a Russian buyer, which caused shock waves right through the village.
Yes, I saw Nutcrackers from that single-person chairlift. I am not very pleased to be sharing a visit to many of the higher resorts in Austria with countless cranes and cement trucks. For resorts like Obergurgl, Galtuer and St. Anton the summer is though the ‘low season’ so such ‘improvements’ have to be undertaken then or never. I will see in a few weeks how much Kitzbuehel has changed! Regards.
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