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Alpine Traditions

Anyone who thinks that Austria’s mountains are a closed-off, secluded world is mistaken. Their inhabitants have always cultivated contact and exchange with other regions and cultures.

Berliner Hütte in the Zillertal Alps © Österreich Werbung/Peter Burgstaller
Berliner Hütte in the Zillertal Alps © Österreich Werbung/Peter Burgstaller
Grossglockner High Alpine Road © Großglockner Hochalpenstraße
Grossglockner High Alpine Road © Großglockner Hochalpenstraße
Krimml Waterfalls in SalzburgerLand © OeAV Sektion Warnsdorf/Krimml
Krimml Waterfalls in SalzburgerLand © OeAV Sektion Warnsdorf/Krimml

Even the very first settlers of the Alpine regions of Western Austria favoured the high altitude areas to live in. They were more difficult to reach than the valleys, which were often swampy, prone to mudflows and without footpaths. The supposedly insurmountable frontiers of the mountains were thus already conquered in the area’s early history, and the region was bisected by trade routes extending as far as the Mediterranean. The best evidence of this was the discovery of “Ötzi the Iceman” in 1991, whose body was found at an elevation of 3,200 metres on the glacier of the Ötztal Alps, and who conducted trade some 5,300 years ago in the region surrounding Lake Garda.

The manner in which “Ötzi” moved between the various valleys and levels of vegetation lives on to this very day in the many “moving” traditions of the Alpine culture. These customs are often closely related to the raising of cattle, which from the very beginning was a crucial economic factor for the settlers. The mountain “cattle drives”, for example, are among the most vivid traditions still preserved in Austria’s Alpine regions. In early summer, around Whitsun, the herdsmen and dairymen drive the cows up to the mountain meadows, and generally in mid-September the animals are herded back down to the valley. The latter stage, in particular, is accompanied by festive ceremonies. If the summer has passed without any serious accidents, the herds are decorated especially elaborately for the occasion, with the cows bearing a headdress of dwarf pine as well as carline thistle and milkweed.

Many people in the Alpine region were originally farmers and so-called "Säumer", the first freight haulers of the Alps. For centuries they used mules and horses – often Haflingers – to transport salt, wine, schnapps and even gold and silver across the towering Alpine passes. Hikers along these old mountain "Saumpfade" (mule tracks) can still see traces of this ancient Alpine tradition in places such as the National Park Hohe Tauern, which was the most direct but also the most arduous connection to the south. One of the most spectacular of these old paths is to be found in Salzburg’s Pinzgau region and leads past the Krimmler Waterfalls, the highest in Europe. Beyond this mighty world of rushing, crashing glacier water, hikers pass through a splendid high valley with far-flung Alpine meadows before they reach the Krimmler Tauernhaus, a 600-year-old mountain hut that in former times served as an important base for the "Säumer". Parts of the hut have been preserved in their original state and are today protected as a historic landmark.

Another hut that is protected – in this case the entire structure – is the Berliner Hütte in the Zillertal Alps, the first to be listed in Tirol. Opened in 1879 and from the very beginning overseen by the Berlin chapter of Austria’s Alpenverein, the hut boasts an interior that is a jewel of Zillertal craftsmanship. At the turn of the nineteenth to the twentieth century, the building (which lies on an old mule track) became a base not only for mountain alpinists, but also for a completely new generation of "Säumer", housing a post office, a shoemaker’s workshop and a darkroom for photographers. Today, hikers starting out from the Tirolean village of Jenbach can reach the Berliner Hütte in three hours, and at 2,044 metres above sea level, the hut is the ideal base for tours as well as affording spectacular views of the surrounding three-thousand-metre peaks.

What is thought to be the oldest "Säumerweg" in the Alps, incidentally, can today be easily traversed by car: the Grossglockner High Alpine Road. Back in the early 1930s, when this imposing mountain pass was built, its architect, Franz Wallack, made a remarkable discovery: that there had already been a path there. The proof of this was found at the very top of the pass: at the so-called Hochtor, at 2,504 metres above sea level, a small bronze statue with a lion-skin cover was discovered. The construction of the road had unearthed the ancient Celtic trade route across the Tauern, the shortest connection between Salzburg – known to the Celts and Romans as Juvavum – and Aquileia, at the head of the Adriatic. Today one can traverse the Tauern Ridge along Austria’s highest mountain from May to October by car, motorcycle or – for the particularly athletic – bicycle. But travellers taking a break at Hochtor should be conscious of the fact that 3,000 years ago, iron, salt, tin, wood, flax, wool and shoes were transported via this very spot on their way to the Mediterranean region.