Walking & Exploring In Austria’s Carinthian Alps

Posted on: 21 May 2009 by Gareth Hargreaves

Edward Granville walks through stunning alpine scenery, in Austria’s southernmost and sunniest province – Carinthia.


I first came across the Carinthian Alps by accident. After a delightful week exploring the more famous Julian Alps in Slovenia, a change in the weather lured me northwards across the Austrian border, where it was rumoured the sun might be shining. Not only was the weather glorious and spring in full bloom, but I discovered a little corner of the Alps that somehow seemed to have been overlooked.

The Carinthian Alps are really the northern slopes of the Italian Dolomites and form part of the border with Italy. Jagged limestone peaks have weathered over millennia into the spectacular, sabre-toothed ridges and peaks, so photogenic and exciting to explore. Heinrich Harrer - author of Seven Years in Tibet, and the first mountaineer to ascend of the north face of the Eiger – began his climbing life here, and the snowy peaks were also inspiration to both Brahms and Mahler.

Here at the western end of the province of Carinthia, the Lesachtal valley sees the birth of the Gail River, flanked by the rocky pinnacles of the Lienz Dolomites and the limestone summits of the border ridge. It is perhaps Austria’s best preserved mountain valley, where traditional farming and forestry are still the mainstay of existence.

Picture Gallery

Click here to see a selection of stunning images from the Carinthian Alps, in southern Austria.

Dotted along the valley are a number of small farming communities with good, honest Germanic names – St Jakob im Lesachtal, Birnbaum, Liesing – all of which support a dwindling number of inhabitants who nevertheless, remain fiercely proud of their village and their pastoral traditions. On every ridge, a slender church spire points to the heavens and clusters of traditional houses, with their sloping roofs and flower-bedecked balconies, gather beneath, surrounded by the greenest meadows imaginable.

It’s difficult to go further south in Austria and as such this is the sunniest part of the country. All good news for the pastures, which are cut up to 4 times a year and piled into traditional domed haystacks to feed the cattle in the winter.  Higher up the mountains, above the forests, the summer pastures are grazed by cows that seem to know that they have struck lucky – lush grass and a profusion of wild-flowers make for a kind of bovine paradise.

Nearly 80% of Carinthia is covered by forests, meadows and alpine pastures, and is home to a diverse selection of plant and tree life.  In the lower water meadows, willows and alders predominate, whilst higher up you will encounter plenty of spruce, Swiss pine, dwarf pines, larch and beech. Alpenrose – the alpine rhododendron- colours the mountain sides a deep red in early summer.  In August the bilberry bushes everywhere bear fruit, delicious to sample while walking.  Many of the usual Alpine suspects are abundant: asters, toadflax, gentians, pasque flowers, globe flowers, lilies and various orchids can all be seen. Primula auricula can be found both in the meadows of the Lesachtal and also on the back of the Austrian 5 cent coin. In the rocky areas above 2,300 metres the flower synonymous with Austria, Edelweiss, can be found along with the glacier buttercup – the highest growing flower in Europe. 

Above the little village of St Jakob is a ridge-top meadow that is famed throughout Austria for the splendour and variety of its spring wildflowers. With the enticing name of Blumen Paradisen – the “Blooming Paradise” – it draws botanists and flower enthusiasts from all over the country.

Unsurprisingly, there is also abundant wildlife in the Carinthian Alps, including marmots, roe deer, chamois, and hares. Dormice and squirrels inhabit the forests, and the undergrowth provides ample habitat for a diverse insect population including stag and rhinoceros beetles. Swallowtails are the most conspicuous of numerous beautiful butterflies and after rain the shiny black Alpine salamander often makes an appearance. In the sky, buzzards, hawks and sparrow-hawks soar the thermals, and one may even be lucky enough to catch sight of a Golden Eagle hunting near the tree-line. 

But possibly the most famous inhabitant of theses mountains was Helena, a poor but pious woman who in 1513, fell asleep and dreamed of a church and the Virgin Mary telling her she was supposed to build it and where. On waking she distrusted her dream, so set the heavens a test: she lit a candle in a field and decided that if it burned for three days and three nights, her dream was true. Strong winds failed to extinguish the flame… The church was built on the correct spot, which is now the village of Maria Luggau, and was consecrated in 1536. A large sanctuary has now grown up around it and pilgrims, even today come here from far and wide, some walking over the mountains from Italy.

However, for those living in the isolated villages beneath the Carinthian Alps year round, life is still tough.  Winters are harsh, snow can be thick, and the main concern is the need to gather as much wood as possible from the surrounding forests. Lumberjacks are numerous and there are also still a few family-run sawmills plying their trade.

Strong village communities have also built up over the generations, where self-sufficiency has obliged people to work together. Rivalries between villages are notorious, and winter curling tournaments between the communities are contested in a most competitive way. At the annual Mayday celebrations each village has to try to steal the other’s maypole, and should your village’s pole be swiped, the humiliation is said to last for years. 

Low impact sustainable tourism is beginning to reach these communities, bringing income and opportunities for local enterprises and a reason for the younger generation to remain in the mountains without needing to seek work in the cities, but it is limited in its scope.

The Carinthian Alps offer some stunning walking in very varied terrain.  You can embark on challenging full day summit bids, potter for an hour to a glorious picnic spot, or anything in between.  Around the valley villages there are short strolls through meadows and beside the Gail River, past working water mills, tiny chapels, and traditional wooden barns.  On a full day walk one might come across an isolated mountain farm selling delicious cheeses, a hidden lake or two, a sea of undulating grassland surrounded by mountain peaks, or a dramatic ridge with poignant reminders of a World War One frontline in the form of trenches, bunkers and tunnels. 

Walking in this area is best between June and September, with wonderful swathes of wildflowers in the spring time while summer offers refreshing temperatures at higher altitudes.  Local walking maps do exist but can be quite out of date, with marked routes sometimes no longer passable or damaged following winter avalanche.  To avoid the pitfalls of going it alone, see below for a tour operator organising independent walking holidays in the region.

There is plenty to do in the Carinthian Alps other than walking.  Cool off in a naturschwimmbad (swimming pond), go horse-riding, cycling along the gentle Gail Valley or more adventurous mountain-biking.  For watery thrills and spills there is kayaking, canyoning and rafting too, and less wet but just as adventurous there is climbing, paragliding or “megadive” – a giant swing suspended beneath a bridge!  The charming old town of Lienz has a 13th century Castle containing an interesting museum and a wonderful 15th century fresco cycle, while the ruins of the Roman town of Aguntum are nearby. 

There are also some interesting local festivals to be enjoyed during the summer months – there are village festivals in July and August with food and music, hay making celebrations high in the mountain meadows, and speciality festivals such as Hermagor’s Honey Festival (15-16 Aug), the Leising Bread Festival (05-06 Sep) and Kotschach-Mauthen’s Cheese Festival (26-27 Sep).

The cuisine of the Carinthian Alps tends towards the simple and hearty – sumptuous mixed grills and sausages, or great platters of cheeses and cold meats.  There are tarts and strudels galore for dessert and meals are traditionally washed down with some excellent cold beer.  For those with sophisticated tastes, don’t miss a fine dining experience at Sissy Sonnleitner’s in Mauthen where the mouthwatering food is beautifully presented, delicious and innovative, and the service is impeccable.  If offered, try their blue-cheese ice-cream – honestly, it’s really good!

The closest airports to Austria’s Carinthian Alps region are Klagenfurt, Ljubljana (Slovenia), Trieste (Italy) or Salzburg, or if travelling by train from the UK, your best bet is to head for Venice and pick up a hire car there for the 3 hour drive over the border into Austria.

By Edward Granville

Upland Escapes Walking Holidays In The Carinthian Alps

Walking specialist tour operator Upland Escapes (www.uplandescapes.com) offer flexible walking holidays in the Carinthian Alps, based in a traditional rural village, and staying in traditional “Gasthof” accommodation in comfortable en-suite rooms. 

A wide range of meticulously researched and described self-guided walks are available, from half hour strolls to full day hikes and everything in between.  This choice combined with single-centre accommodation allows every guest to walk just as much or as little as they like, and to tailor their holiday and choice of walks to match their own interests and fitness levels. 

In addition 3 organised walks per week are provided giving guests the opportunity to benefit from the company of other walkers and the local knowledge and enthusiasm of a knowledgeable Upland Manager (who also supplies a delicious, deli-style, home-made packed lunch each day!).  Holidays also include a hire-car (carbon-offset) to allow guests to explore independently, and reach the very best walks and rural restaurants in the area.

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