Wildflower meadows speckled with yellow daisies, lush green pasture and stunning mountain scenery. These are the images I brought back from my trip to Vorarlberg in Austria this summer. But in this most westerly province of Austria, I discovered a natural landscape that is enhanced by world class art, with food that is sophisticated yet true to its roots and a chance to unwind in nature without compromising on comfort. There are so many things to do in Vorarlberg, but here are just a few that may tempt you to plan a holiday there next year;
The charming town of Lech in Vorarlberg
Lech is one of the reasons to visit Vorarlberg – a charming resort with a glacial blue river running through it, framed by the mountains. In winter it’s an elegant and rather upscale ski resort, where you can find luxury hotels, great food, bars and restaurants. In summer when I visited, things are quieter and the accommodation becomes a lot more affordable – summer walking in Lech is one of my favourite ways to enjoy the mountains.
Within the town, look out for the Lechmuseum Tannberg which provides an insight into everyday life in the region and the Lechmuseum Huber-Hus which is one of the oldest Walser houses in the area and has been restored to show how farmers lived and worked (open June-Oct). You’ll see lots of references to the Walser people, who migrated to these valleys around 1300 AD from the Swiss cantons bringing their own dress, customs and dialect. Summer in Lech is a great time to visit and you’ll find more information at the official Lech Zuers website.
I hope you enjoy this video about summer in the mountains in Vorarlberg
Antony Gormley sculpture and the Horizon Field project
I hiked up to visit the last iron man left above Lech, from the Antony Gormley Horizon Field project which ended in 2012. The whole project was seven years in the planning and saw 100 life sized figures installed around the region at an altitude of exactly 2039 metres above sea level, each within sight of another. For two years the figures stood in summer pasture and winter snow, before they had to be removed, all except the one I saw at Kriegeralpe. It’s well worth visiting him by taking the Petersbodenbahn chair lift and then the Bergbahn cable car from Oberlech (€4 one way for each lift), or of course if you’re feeling energetic you can hike the whole way! After your hike, and a few photos with the iron man, you can relax at the Kriegeralpe mountain restaurant with a drink, observing the mysterious sculpture from below.
Art in the landscape in Vorarlberg
The Antony Gormley sculpture is only one of a number of artistic projects that you can find in the mountains above Lech. Coming by the end of 2017 is Skyspace Lech, a collaboration with American artist James Turrell who is known for the Roden crater in Arizona, where he has created tunnels and underground rooms that open to the sky and are bathed in changing forms of light and colour. Skyspace Lech will be partly buried underground, with a dome where visitors will experience the light installation and a cupola that can open to the sky.
Another way to enjoy art in the mountains is by hiking The Green Ring, a three day hiking trail around Lech-Zuers, which draws on mythology and legend with art installations along the way. You might come across a door on the mountainside waiting to be opened, or a rocky watershed that was once a playground for witches, or a wooden giant climbing through a cleft in the rock. Just below the Antony Gormley statue I came across the Lecher Chluppa stone wall installation, with each rock inscribed with the date of birth of an inhabitant of Lech, forming a permanent archive of all those who live here.
Hiking through the flower filled meadows
When I visited Vorarlberg at the end of June, I was entranced by the wildflower meadows that we passed along the hiking trails above Lech. These are protected and carefully managed to support the natural variety of wildflowers, providing pasture and hay for the cattle, adding flavour and richness to their milk. As we hiked above Oberlech, our path took us through a tangle of wildflowers and grasses, yellow daisies and the white lacy heads of cow parsley. If you can, I urge you to visit in the spring and early summer, to go hiking in Vorarlberg and see the flowers at their most beautiful, before they are mown and made into hay for winter fodder.
Read more: Getting active in Austria’s Wachau Valley
From hearty to refined – the food in Vorarlberg
When you’re in the mountain regions of Austria, you expect to find hearty dishes, the sort that will sustain you after a long hike or afternoon ski-ing. Dishes like Kaiserschmarrn, the sweet pancakes that are cut up and warmed through in butter, dusted with icing sugar and totally delicious served with a compote of berries.
But if you’re looking for sophisticated and refined cuisine, you won’t be disappointed either. The ingredients are often rooted in the location, with local beef or lamb, mountain cheeses, freshwater fish and seasonal vegetables. A perfect example of this was at Hotel Travel Charme Ifen where I ate at the Theo’s restaurant (they also have a Michelin star gourmet restaurant in the hotel). From the set menu I ordered a delicious and beautifully presented choice of cucumber and yoghurt chilled soup with smoked salmon tartar, a main course of Walser lamb saddle with braised bean cassoulet and a desert of light curd mousse with poached rhubarb and rhubarb sorbet and white chocolate wafer.
Read More: 14 things that Foodies will love in Graz
The people you meet in Vorarlberg
One of my favourite things about travelling is the people you meet – such interesting local characters who are both passionate and knowledgeable about the place they live. One such was Herbert Edlinger, a former chef who now works with local farmers to showcase the natural food of the valley and I joined one of his foraging tours. As we wandered along the forest path, Herbert would dive into the undergrowth, emerging triumphantly with a fistful of pungent wild garlic leaves, which he uses to make his popular wild garlic pesto.
Soon we arrived at the bank of a mountain stream, where Herbert spread out a picnic of local produce for us to try. It may seem a little eccentric to make pesto from wild garlic, or cough remedies from young pine shoots, but many of the people I met in Vorarlberg were creating and supporting local businesses that would keep them in the valley rather than leaving for the towns and cities. They were determined to preserve the natural beauty and unspoiled nature of their region for generations to come. For more things to do in Kleinwalsertal visit the Kleinwalsertal Tourism website.
Man in harmony with nature in Vorarlberg
This theme of man in harmony with nature was reinforced when we visited the Narandi permaculture garden in the Kleinwalsertal valley, created by Andreas Haller. At the challenging altitude of 1150 metres, Andi showed us around the garden where salads and vegetables mingle with flowers, bordered by large rocks that absorb the warmth of the sun and then radiate at night time.
Trees had been planted as a shelter zone around the plot, creating a warmer microclimate to support apples, plums, cherries and other fruit. In a nearby tipi, we munched on a lunch of the fresh salad leaves from the garden, as Andi told us about his project to bring school groups here and show them how they can live in the natural surroundings of the Kleinwalsertal. Even the most challenging behaviour seems to be calmed, once the children are free to run and play in harmony with nature.
The glorious mountain scenery of Vorarlberg
One of the biggest reasons for visiting Vorarlberg has to be the gorgeous mountain scenery that you can enjoy while hiking or just relaxing in one of the valley resorts. If you want to try a bit of hiking, you don’t even need to go that far before you come across a pleasant mountain restaurant, where it’s easy to get waylaid on the terrace admiring the view with a drink in your hand! This photo was taken on the way up to the Rud-Alpe mountain restaurant above Lech, which was an easy 30 minute hike up the mountain and served delicious food in the cosy traditional restaurant.
There are a number of themed hiking trails in Vorarlberg, such as the ones around Lech. Try the long distance Lechweg trail, the Tannberg trail with information stations that lead you through Walser history and culture, or The Green Ring, an art trail with legends and stories set in the natural landscape.
Read More: Hiking to Gmunden on the Salkammergut trail
Try the local produce of Vorarlberg
In Vorarlberg, the farmers are guardians of the landscape, which they manage through the cows that graze the mountainside and produce the milk, butter and cheese. For a taste of the food in Kleinwalsertal, Herbert Edlinger presented us with the cheeses from the local farms to try, some young and creamy, others rich and mature. There were air dried beef sausages that would have originally provided a snack for the farmers tending their herd while up in the mountains, eaten with nutty bread, studded with pumpkin seeds and walnuts. Mountain herbs are often used for flavouring, and we tasted a mustard scented with mountain hay, which we tried with the sausages and cheese. Sweet schnapps is flavoured with green walnuts or other fruit and herb flavourings.
In Kleinwalsertal, look out for the GenussRegion mark that is used in shops and restaurants to denote produce that’s authentic and local, and there’s a farmer’s market to buy local produce every Friday. The GenussRegion scheme includes the farmers who are rearing high quality beef and cheeses from the Alpine cattle, the mountain huts serving local and regional produce, or the restaurants that take pride in serving the flavours of the region. Find out more about where you can discover the GenussRegion mark in Kleinwalsertal.
Hotels with a sense of place in Vorarlberg
For me, staying in a beautiful hotel is all part of the holiday experience, especially when that hotel has a strong sense of place in its decor and traditions. There are plenty such hotels in Kleinwalsertal and Lech to choose from, including;
Hotel der Berghof in Lech
In Lech, I stayed at the luxurious Hotel Der Berghof which is set above the main street, so that you feel you’re already on your way up to the mountains. My room was decorated in elegant Austrian style with painted wood furnishings, wooden beams and a balcony to look out towards the mountains and the cable car going up and down close by. This is a lovely boutique hotel that combines Austrian charm while keeping one eye on the latest modern style.
Hotel Travel Charme Ifen in the Kleinwalsertal Valley
While in the Kleinwalsertal Valley on Vorarlberg’s westerly border, it was a pleasure to stay at the Hotel Travel Charme Ifen in Hirschegg. The 5 star hotel has beautiful views overlooking the valley, featuring a large open terrace with landscaped plantings and open air pools leading out from the spa.
My elegant and stylish room in the curved building had pale larch wood and restful shades of soft green, with an oversized stylized headboard. I loved the luxurious bathroom with a bath and shower and the balcony overlooking the valley as well as delightful touches like the bowl of fresh apples.
For more information and to book: Hotel Travel Charme Ifen | Check prices and book for hotels in Kleinwalsertal
Natur Hotel Chesa Valisa in Kleinwalsertal
I also visited the Natur Hotel Chesa Valisa in Kleinwalsertal, which is run by the Kessler family, who have built the hotel up from a simple pension, although the original house has been in the same Walser family for 500 years. New buildings have been added to the original traditional house in line with the Natur concept, which goes beyond Bio or Organic food to encompass a sustainable philosophy in architecture, business and every aspect of the hotel.
All the materials in the hotel are natural and organic and the architectural style is very clean and simple, with pine wood exterior that darkens naturally over time. The hotel works very closely with farmers to source all their food from the valley and everything including the wine and beer is 100% organic. There is a spa with sauna, relaxation room and heated outdoor pool with treatments that follow Ayurvedic principles.
For more information and to book: Natur Hotel Chesa Valisa Website| Check prices and book for hotels in Kleinwalsertal
Visit information for visiting Vorarlberg Austria
Vorarlberg is the most westerly of Austria’s regions, known for its unspoiled mountain scenery and natural beauty. Find out more on the Vorarlberg Tourism website.
Thanks to Vorarlberg Tourism who hosted my visit to their region of Austria