Day four on the trail was one rich in encounters.
Everything began at 7 in the morning. The only other person having breakfast at the same time turned out to be French. She too was a hiker, also heading for Trieste, but following the high-mountain route from Munich. Horrifically self-centered, she didn’t listen to a word we said, but carried on about how wonderful her trek was and how ours unfolded at “much lower altitudes”. From the way she spoke German, we immediately pegged her as a German teacher, an example of the pure arrogance that some people of a certain generation working within the French education system often display. She didn’t even bother to say goodbye when she left. Fortunately, the day’s other encounters would turn out to be much more agreeable.
We set off before 8 o’clock, with mist rising from the valley after last night’s storm. Before leaving, the owner of the guesthouse recommended a possible shortcut that would make things easier later in the afternoon. I had originally booked a place in Innerfragant, the end of the stage from Stall, but on receiving a message wishing us a safe journey home in the middle of June, I realized that I had booked for the wrong month. When I got in touch with them, they had no rooms available for July 26th. As there was no other accommodation available in that village, we had to pick a place another 8 km along the trail. The shortcut that the owner gave me would reduce this distance. We didn’t decide right away whether to take it, but as the day wore on we started to realize it might be a good idea.
About an hour from Stall, the trail left the road and started to head up through the woods next to a small farm where there was an incredible number of beehives of every colour. As we turned off the road, a friendly sheepdog came bounding towards us. She started heading up the trail, as if showing us the way. We were actually quite grateful at this point because the trail was fairly overgrown and she did a great job of guiding us. Whenever one of us fell behind, she would go back to check everything was okay. We thought that on reaching the road above, the dog would head back down the forest trail to home. However, that was not the case. As we set off along the road, she carried on with us. We pointed out the way back, but she didn’t give a damn and just ran on ahead. At this point, we were beginning to feel a little worried. We had no desire to become dog-nappers or end up walking to Trieste with a canine companion, however friendly, so we took a look at her collar, discovered that her name was Bibi, and found two phone numbers to call. Both went straight to voicemail. I left messages in truly appalling German that must have confused the owner no end. At that point, we decided to take Bibi back to the top of the path that she had shown us and point her down it. That seemed to work, so we set off again in the right direction. However, after a minute or so, Bibi came bounding over the rise in the road to join us. In desperation, we asked four guys working on a bulldozer if they knew her, but they were no help. We then tried a nearby house where I more or less managed to explain things to the owner. I couldn’t understand much of what he said in his thick Austrian accent, but he seemed to be telling me that Bibi regularly attached herself to hikers. He too tried sending her off down the path, but that didn’t work. So he kindly took charge of her and told us to carry on our way, which we did without any further ado, relieved to be rid of our affectionate but troublesome companion.
Shortly after, as we hiked along the road above the mist, we met a couple of German girls whom we had seen during our picnic at Döllach. They were only going as far as the Goldberghütte, the end of the 900-metre ascent from Stall where we were planning to stop for lunch. As we leapfrogged around each other, when they stopped to shelter during a brief rain shower, for example, we were able to observe that they were sticking to the mountain farm tracks, rather than taking the steeper trails up through the woods. We decided to follow their example because the steeper parts were exhausting at times. All of a sudden, the climb seemed much easier.
By this point, the rain had cleared and the sun was back out. We moved higher and higher, between glorious sunshine and cooler areas when a cloud passed over. The day’s hike was classified as difficult in the official guide, but we found this ascent extremely pleasant and nowhere near as tough as the hideous descent towards Stall the day before. We were hiking through a sort of bucolic paradise of alpine meadows, full of flowers and raucous insects whose humming and chirping provided a glorious soundtrack to our progress,
After a while, we caught sight of the Goldberghütte up ahead. We were both tired and thirsty at this point. The weather was beginning to turn muggy again and it was already pretty hot, so we were grateful for a rest stop.
When we arrived at the hut, we found the two German girls from earlier relaxing in the sun. They were going to spend the night there. We went up onto the terrace and had a terrific reception from the hut manager who immediately sat us down and brought us drinks. She then offered us a choice of soup or a hiker’s snack platter. We opted for the latter and were a little taken aback when she placed a copious mix of cheese, speck, vegetables and other treats in front of us. One for two would have been more than enough!
The hut manager was quite a character. She told me that, for most of the year, she drives a school bus, but spends her summers running the hut to get a little peace and quiet. In September, she’ll head back down into the valley to resume her normal job until next summer. She said the work wasn’t too hard as there were not that many people passing by. Unlike the other refueling spots that we had seen so far, road access to this hut was nonexistent, with just a track used by the national park van to bring her supplies. In the hour and a half that we spent there, only one other hiker turned up, ate a quick bowl of soup and set off again. Apart from the two German girls, she wasn’t expecting anyone else to spend the night. So, all in all, it seemed like a great way to spend the summer.
A short while after leaving the hut, we came to a fork in the path where we had to decide whether to take the shortcut recommended by the guesthouse owner in Stall or continue to Innerfragant and then walk the extra eight kilometres to our hotel. With a thunderstorm forecast in the next two hours, we opted for the shortcut, even if it would mean missing a trail checkpoint. So we began to head downhill along the forest trails, alone in the world with just the birds’ song and a few squirrels to accompany us. It was, quite frankly, a pretty boring descent, but it did save us a lot of time.
And, when the thunderstorm finally hit us about an hour and a half into the descent, we were glad we weren’t in some rocky, exposed area as we would have been on the normal route. Instead, we were on a sort of sunken path between two villages when everything suddenly turned very dark, the wind started blowing like crazy and the heavens opened with lashing curtains of rain.
The path emerged into a very small village, bypassing a tree that had clearly been blown down in the previous evening’s storm. We spotted a house with a overhanging roof and ran over to it to shelter. A crooked little old man on the doorstep of the house made a few remarks about the weather before going back inside. We pressed against the wall and sheltered as best we could. However, after a minute or two, the door opened again. The little old man came out with his sweater over his head for shelter and invited us in. He ushered us into a very simple kitchen with bare wooden floorboards where we were joined shortly after by his aged wife who was as crooked as he was. Communication was not easy as they spoke a form of Austrian patois. However, we made them understand that we were from France and that we were walking all the way to Italy. This seemed to impress them no end and, at that point, the little old man toddled over to a dresser, got out a bottle and filled two schnapps glasses with a very dark liquid. This turned out to be zirn (I’m not sure of the spelling), a local liqueur made from a special sort of pinecone. It was absolutely delicious, with a very fresh taste of pine to it. It was probably homemade as well, because when I asked what it was, the little old man went into a sort of pantry and came back with one of the pinecones to show me. We sat there with them for about a quarter of an hour, sipping our liqueur and smiling at each other. By then, the rain had eased off and we decided that we should get going. There was something quite magical about this encounter. Simple people, giving us shelter in the storm, and sharing something that they had made themselves. It was a moment that we are never likely to forget.
The rain continued to fall after we left them, but never heavily enough to warrant getting out the rain gear. We headed downhill as quickly as we could, hitting speeds of up to six km an hour at times (which was not good for my poor toes). It was a relief to finally reach Flattach, but then we realized that our hotel was at the opposite end of the town, about two kilometres further on. Still, the rain had completely eased off by that point, so we just kept walking until we found the hotel. It was another family-run place where we got a great welcome, with a comfortable room and a good light dinner. And, after such a long day, close on 26 km with over 1000 metres in ascents, we just flopped into bed and went out like lights.
The next morning, after breakfast, when we were paying for our room, the hotel owner told us that the day’s hike would be a lot less strenuous than the previous one. There would be yet another long climb, but we had a much shorter distance to cover, so even if it was rated as difficult in the guidebook, we felt pretty confident as we set off.
Just after leaving the hotel, we ran into the guy who had appeared at the Goldberghütte for a bowl of soup the previous lunchtime. He had spent the night in Innerfragant and had already covered the eight kilometres between that village and Flattach by the time we were setting off! He was clearly totally at ease in these mountains and soon vanished into the distance ahead of us, heading straight uphill.
After about 50 metres on the road, the path headed up steeply into the woods. It was a tough climb but unfolded at a steady pace without too many tree roots and allowed us to ascend 300 metres quite rapidly. Just before reaching the road, there was a spring with a metal mug attached to it so hikers could drink. The water was beautifully refreshing after the steep climb.
We then continued to gain altitude at a steady pace on a mixture of roads and farm tracks, partly in the woods, partly across more alpine meadows. We were feeling much more in shape by this fifth day and the glorious scenery around us made everything seem easy. There’s something magical about Carinthia. The area is so unspoiled and still so agricultural, walking here was like taking a journey back in time.
Our climb ended at Staneralm, the highest point of the day. This was a beautiful alpine farm made up of fine old wooden buildings with fantastic views of the valley below, all the way to the odd, pyramid-shaped Danielsberg hill where we would be staying two days later.
From Staneralm, there was an easy descent through the woods to the Himmelbauer restaurant with its balcony-like setting high above the Möll valley. We stopped there for lunch and finally got to sample a local speciality, kasnudeln, a sort of ravioli stuffed with potato, fresh cheese and mint (in this case). They were clearly made to order and we absolutely delicious. While we were eating, a pig in a nearby sty kept squealing for some reason, making a terrific din until our waitress went and told it off!
On leaving the Himmelbauer, fortified by our hearty lunch, we found ourselves on a tougher section of the trail, a narrow path riddled with tree roots heading down to the Mallnitz valley. A sign at the bottom said that the path had been laid out by local hikers in the 80s. I imagine the tree roots were less of a problem at the time.
We then had another 150 metres to climb to Mallnitz, first in the depths of the valley were we were able to filch a few cherries and sweet red currants, then along the old Mallnitzer Landstrasse formerly used by farmers to descend to Obervellach and now a very pleasant hiking trail that leads across the countryside to Mallnitz, passing farms with colourful roosters, unusual breeds of rabbit and muddy, happy pigs. Just before Mallnitz, we passed the train station where we had arrived just under a week earlier to take the bus to Heiligenblut.
Mallnitz was a pretty little village with a huge number of hotels and guesthouses. We arrived just as it was starting to rain. The bed, breakfast and evening meal at our hotel turned out to be incredible value for money. We had a huge room overlooking the river whose sound lulled us to sleep in no time at all
Day six was a very easy one. Once again, there had been a thunderstorm in the night that had cleared the air beautifully. We set off through the village, then soon turned into the woods on our way up to the Stappitzersee. About 2 km along the trail, we passed the entrance to the Tauen railway tunnel that connects Mallnitz to Bad Gastein on the other side of the mountains. The inscription over the tunnel entrance showed that it had been built during the reign of Franz Josef in 1909. The construction of a tunnel of more than eight kilometres through the mountains must have been quite a feat at the time.
The walk to the Stappitzersee was especially pleasant on this sunny morning. There were terrific views of the mountains all around, some of which were connected to the valley by cablecar. Waterfalls and mountain streams gushed down from high above, swollen by the night’s rain. It was a terrific morning to be out and about.
We reached the lake after about an hour. Unfortunately, we weren’t able to learn much about it because the information boards at the visitors’ centre were being renovated. Even so, it was a magnificent setting with the mountains reflected in the calm waters.
We then headed back down to Mallnitz, this time on the other side of the valley. Another pleasant walk and not at all tiring. On arriving back in the village, we stopped off at the Kneipp bath at the information point to give our feet a treat. These facilities can often be found in Austria and consist of a cold bath for the feet and arms and a series of stone and gravel paths to walk on to stimulate the circulation. Even though we had only walked 10 kilometres by that point, this was a welcome treat,
Emma, whom we had met in Stall, had emailed us to let us know that the trail from Mallnitz to Obervellach was blocked from time to time, with a number of detours in place. As a result, we set off back along the Mallnitzer Landstrasse from the previous day. It was interesting to do this as the views ahead were those we’d had behind us the day before and we discovered a number of peaks that had been in the clouds on our way up.
Unfortunately, because of work on the trail, we had to spend a lot of time walking on the road. Once again it took us through pleasant meadows, but the asphalt got to be tough on the feet as the day grew hotter and muggier (once again!). And there were huge numbers of trucks on the narrow country road going back and forth to the construction site. We stopped for a moment to take a nap on a shady patch of grass, but soon gave up because of the traffic!
We arrived in Obervellach, a very pretty little town, at around three in the afternoon, the ideal time for the wonderful Austrian tradition of coffee (or tea) and cake that we hadn’t observed until now. We found a little café on the main street and paid tribute to Austrian culture!
After that, we checked into our pension by the church. The owners were a delightful elderly couple and the husband had clearly been quite a hunter in his youth as the walls and every shelf on the stairs and landing were covered with hunting trophies and stuffed animals, many of which are now protected species. It was a little like stepping into the Hunting Museum in Munich!
For dinner, we found a great little place specialized in grilled meats and pasta. Another terrific thunderstorm occurred while we were eating, but it had blown over by the time we left.
So, there we were, six days into our 34 and finally in our element with the aches and pains of the first few days just about over. I knew I’d lose most of my toenails at some point from the battering of the first few days, but otherwise we were starting to feel in great shape, eager to see what the trail had in store for us next…