Mayrhofen ; Austria
Mayrhofen, in the Austrian Tyrol, may be a ski resort, but it is unrecognisable – though equally alluring – without the snow.
The village sits plum in the middle of four pine-covered valleys. To the east is the comparatively shallow Ziller valley. The narrow Stillup is to the south. The Zemmgrund sits beneath the highest snow-capped peaks and glaciers. The broad Tux valley is to the west.
All of which makes it a wonderful spot for walking.
I am here on a mixed-level group trip. When our tour leader, Dick, asks how fit we are, I attempt to impress him, saying that I ride racehorses.
‘But the horses do all the work,’ he replies. ‘You don’t actually walk.’
He advises me to take the easier option.
Over dinner on our first evening at the family-run Hotel Waldheim, I meet some of the other guests – two women who have travelled together from Oslo, a sprightly British couple in their 70s and a solo traveller from Los Angeles.
We’re an assorted bunch, but everyone (apart from me) is a seasoned and well-prepared walker.
Don’t panic, it’s just walking, I tell myself.
When we set off the next morning I am taken aback by the comprehensive kit on display: walking boots, backpacks, litres of water with drinking tubes attached, packed lunches, walking poles, hats, sunglasses, wet weather kit, sweat-absorbing T-shirts, multi-pocketed shorts and multi-zipped trousers that turn into shorts.
It’s just walking, I remind myself again.
A cable car takes us up to the open pastures of Penken to begin our circular trek.
The undulating paths are beautifully maintained and marked, lined with gentian, thistles, scabious and roses, and framed by the mountain peaks.
The vast, verdant meadows are ablaze with buttercups.
It’s a companionable experience and, with Dick’s co-leader, Jim, guiding us, there’s no pressure to misread your own map. The terrain is such that amiable chat is easy.
It’s a gentle climb to the craggy summit of the Penkenjoch, where we eat our packed lunches and appreciate the panoramic views.
This is a simple pleasure and hugely enjoyable. I love the easy fellowship and warmth.
I can understand why people like my lunch neighbour, Stephen, have been taking these trips, with this company, for 50 years – first as a young boy, then as a father with a young family and now with his wife Marion.
Our winding return along the southern slopes and the Finkenberg plateau at the end of Zillertal leads us back to the gondola. It’s hot, with no shade and just an occasional breeze.
But it’s fresh, too, and in such wide open spaces the heat doesn’t feel claustrophobic.
We cover six miles. I wander among the group saying: ‘I’m knackered, are you?’
But I am met with a cheery: ‘No, not at all.’ I am outpaced often, by people 30 years older than me.
Back at our base, I take time to explore the village.
Well-tended window boxes on wooden balconies burst with red and pink geraniums, and the busy main street is packed with small restaurants and dirndl (really) shops.
After a communal dinner, there’s a quiz night.
This is definitely an inclusive group holiday; everyone joins in and it probably wouldn’t suit those who prefer to be solitary during their break.
On day two – and still on the ‘easy’ walk – we start from nearby Brandberg, a hamlet at 3,543ft on the south-facing slopes of the narrowing Zillertal valley, with a population of 350.
We start our 800ft ascent in single file through quiet woods, picking our way over exposed roots, stones and occasional steps cut into the ground before breaking out into clearings and meadows carpeted with wild flowers.
We climb to Steinerkogelhaus for a cliff-top coffee, passing mountain huts with immaculate piles of chopped logs outside and steep, neatly striped lawns.
After lunch, our daunting descent proves to be just as challenging as the ascent.
We return through the trees to the bottom of the Upper Ziller Valley, then take a riverside trail beside the Ziller back to the village.
We have covered another six miles, which seems a lot farther than it sounds.
Homeward bound the next morning, uplifted in spirit and feeling a real sense of accomplishment, I reflect that this has been so much more than a walking holiday.
By Kate Johnson