The hills were alive with the sound of....cowbells! As we hiked up the mountain trails of Austria and Liechtenstein, the clang of hundreds of cowbells announced the presence of those sweet creatures long before we saw them. We'd come around a grassy bend and there they'd be, cows dotting the hillside and looking a bit startled as we stood before them, squealing with delight.
These are very pretty cows, taupe colored with great, soulful brown eyes. We were told that they graze on the mountains until now, in October, they're brought homeward from the high pastures in a celebratory parade, decorated with crowns and garlands of wild flowers, and the prettiest among them is chosen Queen. When I was invited to take part in this mountain hiking trip, I didn't hesitate for a moment. I've always been fascinated by mountain climbing and though I'm a coward when it comes to extreme sports, simply hiking mountain trails? I'm there!
Finding myself in Lech, a cozy town of 2,500 inhabitants in the Arlberg region of Austria, I felt drawn to the mountains, its hollows, the valley floors and wooded Alpine hills. The landscape simply would not let me rest. So up I went with my group, to walk and walk -- and walk -- up hills, down dales around and around till we reached the top.
What I came to realize was that to walk is a great form of enlightenment - of one's surroundings and one's emotions and feelings. Actually it's not widely known but ancient Greeks also valued the benefits of walking. Aristotle's students, for example, kept walking back and forth in their classroom as an exercise in enlightenment. My Alpine hikes proved to work in much the same way.
A Feast of Fresh Air
Lech is one of the most glamorous and expensive resorts in Austria and has been designated
"The Most Beautiful Village in Europe" by the Best of the Alps organization. Hiking here was like entering a different world. I felt somewhat breathless and not because of lack of oxygen or exertion. No, the air is actually a feast for the lungs. Instead, it was the mountain landscape that intoxicated with an explosion of sensual impressions. When the sunlight broke through the cloud cover and I spied an ibex on the rocky ledge opposite and then another and another, well, it happened. Mountain fever of the very best kind.
Smelling the Roses
The next day we traveled to the neighboring village of St. Anton. The sight of majestic mountains, untouched valleys, green slopes, roaring mountain torrents, and the ubiquitous grazing cattle was a comfort for the soul. Not quite as comfortable, however, was this day's hike. Now we picked up the pace, the hills were higher, the descents steeper. On this hike, I clearly lagged behind the rest of the group. I, a veteran of five NYC Marathons, was last. Heart pounding, gasping for breath, I tried to speed it up, but whether it was the altitude or the fact that I hadn't tested my endurance in a marathon for several years, I simply could not keep up and the ego-shattering realization hit me that, on all of our upcoming hikes, I was always going to be last.
Once this realization settled in, I was struck with an inspiring thought. So what? So what if I'm last. I don't have to prove anything. I knew that the group wouldn't leave me stranded on this mountain so I decided to proceed at my own comfortable pace. When I stopped staring longingly at my companions' backs as they blazed the trail, I began to notice the other-worldly beauty of my surroundings and even took time to pick some Alpine flora that covered a nearby meadow. I knew that this was ok. In fact, it was better than ok. To be here, now, every hill-climbing, boulder-hopping, root-tripping moment was to be experienced and cherished. Enlightenment? You might call it that.
Good Thing, Small Package
Then we were on to the neighboring country nestled between Austria and Switzerland: Liechtenstein. It is a principality that in 2006 celebrated 200 years of sovereignty. It is one of the smallest countries in Europe, comprised of just 11 regions and 35,000 inhabitants. Vaduz, its capital, has several fine museums including a huge black cube that is the Kunstmuseum, home to a collection of artwork of international renown, and the Ski Museum where we saw equipment that helped hometown boy Hanni Wenzel win Olympic gold in 1980. At the National Museum we gleaned a deeper understanding of this country as we viewed exhibits from the Middle Ages to the present.
We hiked to Malbun from the flat tracks along the banks of the Rhine through marked trails with thick pine forests and wild landscapes peppered with rare orchids. At the Galina Falconry Center we lunched on a typical, delicious Tyrolean dish called kasknopfle, a kind of spatzle made with flour, butter and cheese. A no-nonsense looking peregrine falcon took off, circled majestically and returned, swooping just a few feet over our heads, at 185 mph, to land on the glove of the falconer and hungrily dive into his very own lunch. There are approximately 150 kilometers of marked trails here, and I was told that the tourist board rewards walkers with bronze, silver or gold pins as they clock up miles on these paths. As I completed my hike down the mountain to Triesenberg, I kept watching for someone to hop out from the trees and pin one on me. No such luck.
Another day we hiked up to Vaduz Castle which is actually a medieval fortress (12th c) and has been the residence of the Princely Family since 1938. The castle is the most prominent landmark of the town, a fairytale pile that can be seen from all vantage points, and certainly one of the few castles where a real prince actually resides. Liechtenstein is a tiny, albeit incredibly beautiful country with gingerbread houses, fir forests and wild landscapes displaying over 1,600 species of plants. In summer there are numerous festivals from jazz to film and in winter, skiing is superb.
Our last stop -- Switzerland. Zurich -- to be exact. Our plan was to hike Mt. Uetliberg but it was raining so instead we availed ourselves of the myriad other possibilities that Zurich had to offer. Just in case you thought that this city was all about banking and high finance, let me update you. This is now one of Europe's style capitals, a world city. We found the shopping exciting, spent some fun evening hours in a couple of their many clubs, and if it's high culture one seeks, Zurich's opera house and art galleries are nothing short of world-class.
Quenching Your Thirst
An interesting fact: Zurich is a city of fountains, in fact 1,200 of them at last count. We strolled up to the Platzspitz, a park on high with commanding views of the entire city. Here we found a beautiful old fountain spilling water over its sides to a basin beneath. We were tired, our throats parched and the cool, splashing water looked mighty good to us just then. But, who ever heard of simply drinking out of an ancient fountain, however enticing it appears? Turns out, we could and we did. Our guide told us that at all of Zurich's fountains, the water is pure enough to drink.
My favorite activity was just sauntering around Zurich's Old Town. It brought me quickly face to face with Zurich's past and present through their architecture, shops and guild houses. I also made a trip to the Masoala Rainforest at the Zurich Zoo. It is an ecosystem hall of 11,000 square meters with hundreds of species of animals and plants. I had a farewell lunch at the adjacent restaurant and enjoyed stunning views of the rainforest just beyond its windows. A nifty way to say farewell.
In thinking back over my Alpine mountain trip, I know one sure thing: I will not say farewell to hiking. I learned a valuable lesson on this trip, and that is Hike to One's Own Drummer. One's personal drumbeat is good and true, and will allow you to most definitely Be Here Now.
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