Day 16 consisted of one long and steady climb to the top of the Gerlitzen, a peak that we had seen ahead of us for the last few days.
After a hearty breakfast, we said goodbye to our friendly Flemish hosts (and their affectionate parrot) and set off towards the foot of the Arriach valley. After a fortunately brief section on a busy road, we veered off to begin the 1200-metre climb.
It was a pleasantly sunny and reasonably cool day, with a few scraps of cloud here and there. The climb unfolded on a combination of roads and forestry tracks through the thick woods, to the sound of Arriach’s bells chiming every quarter of an hour and then going wild for the start and end of Sunday mass.
At around the 1400-metre mark, the two Austrian ladies last seen at the Falkerthaus caught up with us. I was a short distance ahead at that point and, on turning to check on Odile, I was surprised to find her chattering away in French to one of the ladies. It turned out that the latter had spent two summers in France as a girl, one of them near Odile’s hometown of Rennes, and still spoke pretty good French. However, she continued to use German with me, despite my shaky grip on the language, perhaps as a way to include her friend who spoke no French. They told us that they had done the climb out of Bad Kleinkirchheim the previous day and had found it very tough and tiring. So cheating a little had been the right solution!
We made a brief stop at the Hinterbuchholzer Hütte, a beautiful old wooden house perched on a plateau at 1507 metres with a terrific view of the Arriach valley.
The trail then left the dirt road to follow a gently ascending path through the woods. There were huge anthills on either side of the path that was regularly crossed by ant highways as busy as the boulevard périphérique around Paris, without the traffic jams. There were systematically two lines of ants heading in either direction, carrying all kinds of organic debris to the different nests or on their way to find more. As we walked, we took special care to step over these highways so as not to disturb their work.
Shortly after the Steinerer Tisch picnic area (a huge stone table surrounded by boulders to sit on), we were surprised to come across a sign warning us of the presence of wolves in the area. I don’t know if there were actually any around, but they would have been hard to spot in the thick woods.
After Stifterboden, where there were a number of beautiful mountain chalets to rent, there was a brief shower, but it passed before we could get into our rain gear. We then lost track of the trail on the wide ski runs descending from the Gerlitzen, suddenly finding our planned lunch stop at the Almseehütte a good 75 metres below us on emerging from a forest track. Rather than head back downhill, we decided to keep going and find something to eat at the summit.
The trail followed a steep, zigzagging path across the open mountainside for the last 200 metres or so of the ascent, but we were soon within sight of the top, with the luxurious Pacheiner hotel, the cable car station and the Gerlitzen summit café.
Accommodation at the end of this stage had been a slight problem. When I contacted the Pacheiner, they were only taking bookings for three-night stays, and the Feuerberg hotel just below the summit was outrageously expensive. On arriving at the summit café, we discovered that they had rooms, but the combination of an unpleasant manager, horribly expensive food in the self-service canteen and non-stop Austrian pop music playing full blast on the terrace made us glad we had opted for another solution. And so, after an outrageously priced slice of strudel and an apfelschorle, we took the chairlift down to the midway station and the Almresort where we had booked an apartment for the night.
The Almresort turned out to be a very odd place indeed. This huge complex had apparently come under new management earlier in the year and was set to be refurbished the following autumn. All the attached facilities – shop, restaurants, pool, etc. – were closed and, as a result, they gave us a 30% discount on the price quoted. The place was more or less deserted, with the reception closed and our key in a box to which we had been given the code. Still, the apartment was spacious and clean with a fully-equipped kitchen that we didn’t need to use as we had salami, cheese and cereal bars for a makeshift dinner if need be.
However, salvation was at hand in the shape of Theo, the owner/manager of an apartment hotel with a restaurant about five minutes’ walk away. We went along before checking in to the Almresort to see if we could book a table for dinner. It was mid-afternoon and I think we roused him from his siesta when we rang the bell. He seemed a little reluctant at first to take us, saying he had all his half-board guests to feed, but warmed to us when we told him where we were staying and that we lived in France. In basic French, he told us that if we came back at 8 PM, he would feed us. The agreement was sealed over glasses of pine-cone liqueur and, relieved to have found a place for a real dinner, we set off for the Almresort.
When we came back out at around 7:45 to go for dinner, we were astounded to discover the sight before us. There had been a lot of clouds around when we arrived that afternoon, but they had now lifted, revealing Lake Ossiach far below and, beyond it, the whole Karawanken range at the Slovenian border bathed in the glow of the setting sun. It was one of the most beautiful sights of the trail so far.
The dinner that Theo provided was delicious and incredibly good value – a huge mixed grill for two for just 25 euros. With a good Austrian red and some apricot schnapps to follow, we had a great evening.
The next morning, after a night regularly interrupted by monstrous gurgles from the shower in our bathroom, we set off at around 8:20 to return to the chairlift that started running at 9:10 AM. While waiting, we ate the delicious cheese from the cooperative in Radenthein for breakfast, accompanied by two double espressos provided by the owner of the café at the foot of the chairlift, even though he wasn’t yet open for the day.
It was already very misty and chilly at the midway station, but we never imagined what awaited us at the summit. As the chairlift carried us higher, the fog grew thicker and the temperature plummeted. It was tough to make out the chairlifts heading down on the other side, and we only realized at the last second that we had reached the summit station and needed to raise our safety barrier to dismount. Visibility was down to less than five metres at this point.
After a quick stop at the summit station restroom to add a couple of layers of clothing, we set off into the thick fog, passing the summit café where the same awful music was again playing full-blast.
The day’s easy descent was initially made more complicated by the fact that visibility varied between 5 and 15 metres at best for most of the first hour. The trail markings were more or less invisible and we mostly found our way by closely following the app. On the barren summit, we felt like we were in the opening scene of Macbeth and almost expected the three witches to appear at any second!
Visibility began to improve when we reached the tree line but we lost the trail while on the Philosophers’ Path, a section with art installations and quotations from major philosophers. I guess it was only natural to lose our way there and end up wondering where we were going! Even so, we quickly found our way back onto the trail and continued to head downhill at a steady pace through the woods.
The mist continued to clear and, by the time we reached Katrins Buschenscenke, the small inn where we planned to have lunch after our rather meagre breakfast, the sky was blue and the sun was beating down. What a contrast with the summit a few hours earlier! The extra layers of clothing were back in the pack and we were once more in our usual short and T-shirt combo.
The inn had a terrific view of the lake below but was closed until 2 PM when we arrived at 12:30. So we carried on downhill to Steindorf where we had an excellent salad in a friendly little restaurant.
After lunch, it was an easy walk around the end of the lake through a nature reserve to reach Ossiach where we were given a great welcome at the hotel (I had booked the place over a year before and been obliged to cancel, but they had agreed to transfer our booking to the same date in 2021). The two Austrian ladies were there, having completed their last day on the trail, as was the little lady with the luggage transfer, but there was no sign of Birgit. They had spent the previous night with her at the horrible summit café and descended together through the fog, but they didn’t know where she was staying in Ossiach.
We spent a very pleasant evening on the sunny hotel terrace, drinking beers and eating the great food served there, before retiring to our room that resembled a ship’s cabin for an excellent night’s sleep (uninterrupted by a gurgling shower).
The following morning, we said goodbye to the two Austrian ladies who were heading home to Vienna. One of them warned us that we were in for a surprise in Velden later that day, which she called Austria’s Caribbean. It would be like nothing we had seen so far, she said.
The day was sunny and pleasantly warm, without any of the mugginess experienced on our first days on the trail. The way out of Ossiach led us through the beautiful abbey buildings (which housed a music academy and a hotel), before following the trail that we had taken along the lake to the town the day before as far as Rappitsch. There, we headed up into a steep gorge to the Tauernteich pond 300 metres above Ossiach. It was a very steep climb over rocks, with stairways, bridges and fixed cables at times. But the babbling stream and countless waterfalls actually made it quite pleasant.
We took a rest on a bench part way up, when the terrain turned flat, thinking we were at the top but then discovering that we still had another 100 m or so to climb. Just then, Luis popped up from the steep path. We hadn’t seen him since the Bad Kleinkirchheim tourist office a few days earlier. He had not spent the night on the Gerlitzen but had done the climb and the descent to Steindorf in a single day. He had then spent the previous day taking it easy by the lake and covering the short distance between Steindorf and Ossiach. He carried on with the climb as we rested, but we caught up with him a little later near the pond where he was stopped by a cyclist who wanted a photo. We walked a short while together and he told us that, without Covid, he would be in Asia. After qualifying as a mechanic near Stuttgart, he had intended to travel but then the pandemic kicked in and he decided to try something closer to home and opted for the Alpe-Adria. He was hoping to do the full trail but had no precise schedule, unlike us, stopping for the night when he felt like it. After a while, because of our slower pace, he moved on ahead. Maybe he carried on, maybe he stayed in Slovenia for a while or maybe he gave up and did something else, but that was the last we saw of him. That’s the magic and mystery of these brief encounters on the trail.
After the steep climb up the gorge from Ossiach, the rest of the day was easy and a total delight as we wound our way through a blend of woods, small villages and fields towards Velden. In the more open areas, there were terrific views of the mountains on the Slovenian border towards which we were heading. We stopped for a quick schorle in the village of Köstenberg, but it was still a little early for lunch so we carried on towards the Hohenwart castle ruins, deciding that we would stop there to have the salami, cereal bars and dried fruit that Theo had saved us from eating for dinner at the Almresort. The ruins were a little odd, just a few walls and a tower in the heart of a very thick forest. The castle was probably of strategic importance once, but with the trees surrounding it today, it was hard to figure out just what could be seen from its walls!
We met some very friendly people on this section of the trail. First, a Swiss German couple who were having a few days on the Alpe-Adria (with luggage transfers). They had been at our hotel in Ossiach the previous evening and had overtaken us in the gorge earlier. The husband had already done the Camino di Santiago and they were both clearly keen walkers. A little further on, we came across a group of very friendly locals who were out gathering berries and mushrooms. They asked us all kinds of questions about the trail and our experiences, encouraging us and praising our efforts. And, finally, on the descent to Velden, an Austrian girl who had lived for a long time in France picked up on my French accent in German right away and was delighted to chat in French with us.
Another memorable spot on the way to Velden was the Saissersee. We had read on the app that it would be possible to bathe in the lake and, on this relatively hot day, its refreshing waters were just what we needed. There was a very pleasant atmosphere at the lake, with lots of locals sunbathing on a big lawn on the shore or swimming. Quite a few of them asked us about our hike and gave us more words of encouragement. After chatting for a while, we dumped our packs, changed into our swimming gear and dived right in. Sheer perfection!
The atmosphere in Velden itself, a few kilometres further on, turned out to be much less pleasant. The Austrian Caribbean that we had been warned about that morning turned out to be an odd blend of wealth and pure tackiness. The outskirts of the town were pretty enough, with some lovely old villas, but as soon as we hit the centre, we found ourselves surrounded by luxury boutiques frequented by skimpily-dressed, tattooed and noisy influencer types who were either yelling into their phones or posing for selfies. The town even had a casino! As we had promised ourselves an ice-cream after our meagre lunch, we headed for the quietest place we could spot. The ice cream sundaes were excellent, reasonably priced and huge (mine was actually taller than I was in my chair!), but Velden was the first place on the trail that we didn’t like (and would end up being the only one). After hiking through the magnificent countryside and mountains for the previous 18 days, the shock was too much to take and, once the ice creams were devoured, we got out of there as soon as we could, leaving behind the 4x4s, their unpleasant owners and the clouds of exhaust fumes from the incessant traffic.
It then turned out that we had a two-kilometre walk to our hotel as I hadn’t been able to find anywhere reasonably priced in Velden itself (surprise, surprise!). After close on 27 km by that point, a place in town would have been aprreciated, yet at the same time we were grateful not to be in Veden itself. And when we finally made it to the Gasthof Liebentritt, we were even more grateful. Set by a fairly quiet road out of Velden, with a terrific view of the whole Karawanken range, the place ended up among our favourites. The beds were incredibly comfortable and the room was spacious with a large balcony, but what made the place was the lady running it. She gave us a very warm welcome (with two ice-cold beers) and had a terrific sense of humour. When we said how far we were going the next day, she quipped that a 15-minute drive could cover it. And when I asked if our room was on the first floor, she retorted, “If you find the second floor, let me know, I’ve never seen it!” Those are the two lines that stood out, but she was a true comedian and we laughed a lot with her. On top of that, she took really good care of us. Post-COVID, there was no longer a restaurant at the hotel. We had no desire to return to Velden, so she said that if we weren’t too picky, she could throw something together for us. And so, after unpacking and showering, we came back down at 7 PM for some tasty soup with toasted cheese and ham sandwiches. The owner was worried that we might not have had enough to eat so concluded this improvised meal with two huge bowls of ice cream with chocolate sauce and schlagobers (Austrian whipped cream that always reminds me of The Hotel New Hampshire, one of my favourite novels when I was younger and in which there is a character with that name). Of all the meals along the trail, this was perhaps the most special because of the sheer kindness and good humour with which it was thrown together. A memorable evening followed by a terrific night’s sleep.