Earlier this summer, I made the decision that this July would be my last hiking trip to the Jungfrau Region after six trips. Due to the way I staggered my holiday weeks this year, I was in the rare situation to not have to wait until next summer for the opportunity to take another hiking trip. So the moment I returned from Switzerland in July, I was already looking into candidates to replace the Jungfrau Region.
I knew it was going to come down to two countries. Either it would be another region in Switzerland or a region in Austria. My affinity and familiarity with Switzerland had me first considering Lucerne, Appenzell, and any of a series of towns along the Rhône river in the Valais canton just south of the Jungfrau Region, such as Obergoms. For Austria, which I am less familiar, I browsed the web, researching lists of top hikes in Austria. One area that frequently appeared on these lists was the Zillertal Alps, located in the western part of Austria near Innsbruck.
I wasn’t convinced at first but with the holiday week approaching, I had to make a decision. The idea of doing a hiking trip in a different country intrigued me and ultimately I opted for the Zillertal Alps. The city of Mayrhofen is the main city of this region. I made a booking at one of the many guesthouses in the city and hoped that the COVID crisis would cooperate. A couple days after my booking, it was announced that Switzerland put Belgium on a 14-day quarantine requirement. Any doubt in my decision was whisked away like work stress in Alpine air.
On the day of arrival, when I pulled into the parking area of the Landhaus Gasser and looked around at the surrounding mountains, I knew this was not going to be some consolation prize nor a matter of making the best of something less than I wanted. At dinner, my eyes scanned my trail map with a wide-eyed innocence and started to piece together the layout of the land. I already had an idea of the hikes I wanted to do, but they were mere grey areas in my mind’s eye. Now they were becoming 3D images by the minute, and as each mental puzzle piece was put into place, the knowledge that I was sitting on a hiking goldmine became more evident. Now one week later, with the benefit of hindsight, I can emphatically say that the hiking trip was a huge success. I fell in love with the area almost immediately, both from an aesthetic and practical point of view.
Mayrhofen is the dominant city in the region. If I compare it to the cities of the Jungfrau Region, it reminds me more of Grindelwald than Lauterbrunnen. A lot of guesthouses and a vibrant shopping street. Mayrhofen is definitely a touristy town. Generally that means it is too busy for my taste, but for a first time visitor, it offers the most convenient introduction to the area.
The main thing I love about Mayrhofen is that the two cable cars, Penkenbahn and Ahornbahn, which lead to different mountain areas are within a couple hundred meters of each other and both were within a 5-minute walk from my guesthouse. The Ahornbahn is also next to a decent restaurant, Gasthof Perauer, and the Penkenbahn is across from the Spar supermarket, so I rarely needed to go very far on my exhausted legs to get anything.
While the scenery around Mayrhofen is gorgeous, it does not match the majesty of the Lauterbrunnen valley.
If I compare the cost of a roundtrip for the Stechelberg to Mürren cable car (about 24 euros in 2020) in the Jungfrau Region to the Penkerbahn (about 21 euros) and Ahornbahn (about 26 euros), it doesn’t seem like there is much difference. But it just feels like Austria is cheaper. It is most noticable in the cost of food. In Mayrhofen and the mountain restaurants that I visited, it was possible to get a schnitzel and fries for under 15 euros. In the Jungfrau Region, it is difficult to get any main course for under 20 euros. Of course, I am not stating an all encompassing fact, just my experience.
The one thing I probably dislike the most about the Jungfrau Region is being limited to Rugenbräu and Feldschlösschen beer. Not that they are undrinkable but they are lacking in some indescribable character. Hey, don’t get me wrong, a cold pint of Rugenbräu during or after a long hike goes down as well as any beer. In the Zillertal Alps, the main range of beers is brewed at Zillertal Bier in Zell am Ziller, just up the road from Mayrhofen. They have a complete line of beers including a pils, zwickel, märzen, schwarz, and hefe-weißen. Herein, I think lies the difference between the beer of the Zillertal Alps versus the beer of the Jungfrau Region. Beer in the Zillertal Alps is German style. The hefe-weißen was my favorite of the Zillertal beers. In the Jungfrau Region, the beers are produced with more of a French attitude. Think Kronenbourg (a common French lager). That is Rugenbräu and Feldschlösschen. They are beers. Nothing more, nothing less. In summary, Austrian Zillertal beer is superior to the beer in the Swiss Jungfrau Region.
4. Vicinity to Bavaria and Salzburg
When I drive to the Jungfrau Region from Belgium, the fastest route takes me briefly thru Luxembourg and then down thru eastern France, brushing gently against the beautiful Alsace wine region from Strasbourg to Colmar, an area I have explored all too briefly on one occasion. However, it is not a region that calls my name as a solo traveller. I think the very nature of it being a wine region requires a minimum of two persons to enjoy.
However, the fastest ride from Belgium to Mayrhofen steamrolls along the autobahn past some of Germany’s most brewtiful cities, Bamberg, Nuremberg, and Munich, and then right thru the heart of the Bavarian lake and Alp region, where beautiful scenery and breweries abound. A small detour would take you to another of my favorite cities, Salzburg, Austria. I absolutely love this region. The potential for Beer & Hikes here is astounding and this area is so tragically under-represented on my blog. The possibility of combining so many cool and exciting adventures between the Zillertal Alps, Bavaria, and Salzburg leaves me giddy to the point of almost mental meltdown. Why didn’t I discover this sooner? The ironic truth is that it took COVID to make me confront the idea of driving long distances rather than flying. Hiking trips are better suited by driving, when you can throw all your gear and then some into your trunk and not worry about airports and luggage. The Zillertal Alps, Bavaria, and Salzburg are all a bit further of a drive than the Jungfrau Region, but the pay-off is priceless.
5. Centralization of hikes
When I was looking for a new hiking region, I wanted to find a place where I could do multiple epic hikes without a whole lot of effort with public transportation or using my car. Mayrhofen offers this kind of homebase convenience. Mayrhofen sits in a bend in the valley and has a rough triangular shape which means it gives access to three separate mountain areas, each with its own network of trails and peaks. All three areas provided at least one hike on my itinerary.
|3||Brandberg||Brandberger Kolm||Brandberg (13-minute drive)|
I struggle to find the superlatives to describe the week that transpired. It seems everytime I do a hiking trip, I find ways to rate that trip as the best ever. The temptation to do so yet again is… well, tempting. The hikes that I chose targeted the highest peaks within easy striking distance of Mayrhofen. That is not to say that there are no other worthy hikes in the area, but I definitely went into Mayrhofen with all legs blazing. And in the process I achieved new personal milestones.
Like in the Jungfrau Region, a hiking region can benefit by staying in some of the smaller, more quaint villages, like Stechelberg, but for now all the other small towns in the vicinity of Mayrhofen like Ginzling, Finkenberg, Brandberg and Lanersbach remain unexplored. Will one of these become the next Stechelberg? The answer to that question will remain for 2021 to reveal. And yes, that implies that I will be back.
In the meantime, let’s get on with the hikes…