The Ötztal Valley

After a slow day of writing and resting tired legs we waved farewell to Thomas who declared the weather to be ‘an Indian summer this week’. It certainly was a sunny start as we left Innerbraz and headed east along the A12 and deeper into Austria.

In anticipation of heat and good walking we headed towards the mountain resort of St Anton in Pettnau, where we might tackle the hiker’s challenge of the Eagle Walk along the granite crags. Honestly, I was in two minds about this. Whilst the views and the thrill appealed, the extreme heights, my inconvenient flashes of vertigo and my occasionally complaining ‘volcano knee’ did not.

Austria’s longest road tunnel

We drove the eerie 14kms through the Arlberg Tunnel wincing as large freight lorries whipped closely past Bertha causing a strange sucking and propelling motion.

It was a relief to see daylight and our motorway exit, but it was closed. We drove to the next one, also closed.

We paused at a busy truck-stop to check the maps and Snopper (the sat-nav) but there was no other way we could reach St Anton without driving up and into the mountains, so we took it as a sign.

Instead, we found ourselves being ushered into and registered to stay at a roadside campsite in Haiming. Unsure how that happened we pitched up as one of three vans on a field set to cater for 100.

The camp was closing in a few days so were pleased our ACSI discount rate was a manageable 16 euros a night. With the bikes quickly off the rack we set out to explore the local area with a map provided by the gregarious campsite owner.

Pumpkin picking in Haiming as a freight train goes by

A short cycle turned into a full afternoon on the bikes as we pedalled along the pretty River Oetz, a tributary of the mighty Inn river. The water was frothy, blue-green and splashing as it burst along downstream over a wide rocky bed.

Crossing the River Oetz

We found a particularly pretty corner where the valley broadened by the curving river and farmers and smallholders were cutting long grass and raking it by hand into long runnels for drying in the hot sun.

A small herd of gorgeous highland cattle surprised us as we crossed the river by a covered wooden bridge.

Cooling down on a warm autumnal afternoon

Pedalling up to the ski village of Sautens we stopped to chat in the tourism centre. We were the only visitors that afternoon and the delightful Austrian girl explained that soon, with the first snows, the character of the village would change from sleepy to bustling again. She advised a hike up to ‘Piburger See’ lake, but as it was already late afternoon we opted for her second suggestion of a visit to a local Schnapps-making family. It was a giggle with the Matte family who also run the bakery. We were sent back down the steep hillside with a bottle of ‘zirben’ firewater, made from the seeds of pine kernels, and probably one too many shots warming hearts and loosening limbs.

Downhill from Sautens, legs powered by Schnapps

The heat had reached the mid 20’s but the clear skies meant a cold night. Bertha’s cab registered just 2 degrees at 7am and as the gas supply was getting low we couldn’t risk the heater. Instead, with icy hands we headed out in the cold misty air on the bikes to Piburger See.

It was bitingly cold to be cycling at that time of morning without a warm hat or gloves. We stopped for a welcome coffee with locals waiting for the commuter trains at Oetztal bahnhof.

Planning the route

Bridge across to Area 47 Adventure Park

                                                                                                    Taking the same route as the day before the valley was warming up as the vast ‘Area 47’ outdoor adventure park hummed into life. Gangs of teenagers were kayaking on the water, climbing rock faces, whizzing overhead on zip wires or just hanging about the extreme sports centre.

A serene Ötztal Valley view

Back in the quiet valley we waved again to the highland cattle and then branched across the river to see the old town centre of Oetz.

The bright morning sunshine lit up the painted houses and flower-filled balconies. Clear cold mountain water poured out of many street side fountains. Again, there was an air of ‘getting ready’ as shops were being stocked up with winter snow gear and large guesthouses aired and cleaned.

Oetz church built into the rock

An appealing painted guesthouse

A first glimpse of Piburger See

Back across the river we charged up the steep hillside onto the wanderweg, or hiking route, to the Piburger lake. It was tough pushing the bikes up steep rocky slopes but it was the fastest way to climb the 200 meters.

The lake is the warmest in the Alps and was busy with splashing swimmers enjoying its 22 degrees, although the sight of shoals of large black fish in the dark green waters quickly put us off the idea of a dip. Instead we meandered about the shoreline spotting toads and glistening gold and silver dragonflies.

It was a shame not to be able to see the waters from above, as we had at Mummelsee, so after chomping our packed lunch we were on our way further up the path to Piburg at 959 meters.

Piburger See

The alpine summer flowers billowed in the green meadows. Bell-ringing goats and cattle munched contentedly on the bright green grass. Cicadas scratched out their calls and sun beat down. It was a cooling and exhilarating cycle back down the steep and long curves of the road to the valley below.

The speedy descent gave us time for a quick supply shop at the local supermarket before a rapid sunset meant another chilly night at the camp.

Preparing for another cold night in the valley