Borders Of Adventures | Adventure, Culture & Travel Blog By Becki Enright
Becki Enright likes to keep a good conscious while she explores the world and hopes to inspire her readers to do the same. Her blogging focuses on responsible travel while still checking out all of the best that the world has to offer.
Mountain biking in Achensee, Tirol counts as one of my most scenic bike rides in Austria. The area, famed for its gigantic turquoise lake and rugged mountain parameter has over 250km of cycling and mountain biking trails from which you can follow a designated path or craft your own with a guide.
“If you want a take the route with the best mountain view it will add an extra one and a half hours to the journey”, my guide said. And how could I refuse?
This would encompass a valley route through forest and meadow landscapes of an area called the Koeglalm, climbing towards the main trail of the Rund um den Unnütz. That was until my guide asked if I would like to extend my time out in the wilderness and get a better view of the mountain ranges.
It was an adventurous extension that turned into a glorious five-hour exploration complete with challenging inclines and a reward of whooshing downhill speeds.
A journey that became a never-ending path of dramatic cliff faces, soaring mountains, and alpine meadows that turned into another track known as the Schmalzklausen Runde, with lush forest with gravel tracks, rock tunnels, caves and waterfalls.
In between the two main tracks, we rested at the viewing platform, Kaiser Maximilian Rast for a forest ledge panorama lookout. It’s more of an elevated wooden ‘throne’ in design, named in honour of Emperor Maximilian I of Austria, who was once partial to a woodland walk in these parts during his summer residency in the Achensee village of Pertisau.
Although, with a conveyor belt of scenery all the way you will find yourself stopping often to take it all in or capture some impressive imagery.
We ended back in Achenkirch on a hunt for beer and a light snack, since we had passed the lunchtime slot. The beauty of guided bike tours is in the customisation to your interests, speed and skill and the spontaneity in just taking whatever comes.
While you know that mountain biking in Achensee will guarantee you a picture perfect backdrop, the glory is that without a fix plan no two journeys are ever the same. Which is exactly how grand exploration, even on two wheels, should be.
Things to Know:Planning and Booking Mountain and E-biking in Achensee
Busslehner Sports is located in the village of Achenkirch, providing everything you need for an active holiday where over 50 activities are on offer. You can both buy and rent equipment including e-bikes, stand-up paddleboards and hiking equipment (and ski, snowshoeing or tobogganing equipment in winter). Expert guides are also on hand for adventurous escapades or simply to dispense advice about sporting activities in and around Achensee.
Plan a Summer in Achensee
For further information on planning your summer trip to Achensee and all the activities, trips and tours available, visit the official tourism website for the Achensee Sport & Vital Park.
Where to stay in Achensee, Tirol
I shared an apartment in the village of Achenkirch (30-minutes drive from the main train station in the area – Jenbach). A village of little over 2,000 people, it has everything you need for a relaxing stay in a more tucked away setting. The Tiroler Madl Chalet is a cosy mountain home with modern furnishings and it is just a few minutes walk from the northern end of the Lake Achensee. It’s location in the centre of the village meant all stores and restaurants were close by. Fully equipped with all amenities, each of the five rooms can sleep up to four people (a double bed and bunk beds). That’s one fun chalet with a group of friends.
The challenge of my long adventure biking in Achensee was a part of the #Blogville Europe campaign showcasing the Emilia Romagna region of Italy and two regions of Tirol (one being Achensee). I took a train from Emilia Romagna to Tirol, which was a beautiful adventure in itself. All opinions of my daily adrenalin-fuelled sporting endeavours remain my own, because I’m just a crazy adventure-seeking girl.
The Bregenzerwald in Vorarlberg is one of the six regions of this western state of Austria where you can map out adventure on all levels and better understand the unique culture of alpine cultivation and design.
On my second visit I decided to explore some other layers of the landscape in the warmer months, having spent the winter on the valley ground sampling some of the 12 marked architectural focused ‘Umgang Bregenzerwald’ trails, skiing up on the alpine and taking to the skies on a paragliding flight.
Now was the season to get lower into its canyon bed and hike village to village for a better understanding of the preservation of the alpine hills as the seasons change, crossing through green pastures, manicured meadows and wild forest.
Canyoning in Bregenzerwald – The Gorge’ous Underworld of Vorarlberg
One of the highlights of my time in the Bregenzerwald, was canyoning with the local adventure enthusiast Franko from Frankorietzler Natur Leben. It was a short 30 minute drive from our hotel in the village of Au to the gorges and caverns of the “Merlin’s World Canyon” of the Kobelach River on the cusp of the Bregenzerwald region.
Canyoning in Vorarlberg - The Underworld Gorges of Western Austria - YouTube
We parked up by the shallow river bed and changed into our wetsuits and harness gear, starting with a practice run about how to use the karabiner system, perfecting our abseiling technique over a small bridge and building up some team motivation with my friends Natalie and Rob from Love & Road. We were all set for the half-day voyage.
Within minutes of scrambling over shallow river water and navigating the large rocky pathway, the obstacles to get you further down into the canyon quickly appear. It was both heart-racing and exhilarating experience as we took on challenge after challenge that included high jumps, ziplines, rappelling down big waterfalls, small sections of Via Ferrata, alongside backward and headfirst slides down smooth, narrow rocky channels.
Canyoning in Vorarlberg was harder than my last experience in Tirol, and this time I faced more fears and came out of the other end (of a rushing pool of water) smiling and pumped full of adrenalin. What a day it was, getting to grips with Vorarlberg’s spectacular underworld of fun. Emerging from the short forest walk at the end, where we had painted our faces with mud stripes, we called ourselves the ‘Vorarlberg Warriors’ for our triumph in conquering nature.
Hiking inBregenzerwald – Alpine Preservation of Vorarlberg
With over 1,500km of signposted hiking trails from the valley basin to the mountain peaks, you could hike in Bregenzerwald for a long time. There is a hiking map available with 50 suggest hiking paths if you don’t know which layer of green to feast your eyes on first, but my day was spent hiking between two villages of Schönenbach (a slightly off-track alpine pasture settlement where we indulged in Käsespätzle, pre-hike) and Au.
On a journey that took approximately three hours, the hike incorporated winding alpine pasture track with dense forest exploration, with a chance to admire the valley views high up at the half way point where we celebrated with a little Schnapps and a quick rest to admire our surroundings before hiking back down.
These short hikes are a picture perfect way to hop from one village to another, with elevated views of the mountains and the valley basins below. Rounding another pasture corner, the setting is like an oil painting region you can walk through when you come to Vorarlberg.
Summer here is a different kind of adventure than the days of ski. It felt new again, which is the best kind of feeling.
Hiking in Bregenzerwald is also a chance to immerse oneself in a unique cultural trait of Vorarlberg when it comes to the unique preservation of the landscape – the 3-level cultivation system of the fields. This is where the snow melts and the cows graze on the valley pastures, then the move to the mountain pastures and by mid-summer are living on the high pastures, before coming back down to the barn for the cycle to begin again.
This method of cultivating the land for optimum use (alongside the preservation) has been practised for centuries and it has been added to the Austrian national UNESCO List of Intangible Cultural Heritage for its continuance today.
Where will you see the cows as you wander through the Bregenzerwald?
The structured co-operative farming here means lots of small farms are producing the tastiest produce. Each farmer has around 12 cows and the 3-tier system ensures the healthiest possible diet for the cows. One result of that is tasty cheese! Finish your hike by tasting of the regions famed alpine cheese that is produced in the 17 small alpine dairies and hay fed cows from 70 alpine pastures.
Alongside other themed hiking trails that include overviews on alpine conservation, the farming of goats, the importance of the forest and an energy trail that tell stories about life, culture and craftsmanship in the region, there is a cheese trail – the ‘KäseStrasse Brehenzerwald’ – dedicated to the cheese culture. Look out for the green ‘Alpzieger’ and caramelised lactose ‘Gsig’ or for dedicated tastings and cheese workshops.
The region is also known for high quality food and other products produced and sold directly by the local farms including meat, sweet treats and schnapps, (although many local restaurants are also members serving up the local delicacies) alongside cosmetics like the whey based products by the farmer, Ingo Metzler. I even found great locally produced gin at restaurant Löwen – a small distillery located in an old Bregenzerwälder house (where you can rest up post-hike with a beer).
Where to stay in the Bregenzerwald – Design Hotels
Vorarlberg is where innovation in design dominates. Where traditional blends with modernity to continue the centuries old craftsmanship the state is known. Often found in villages where people have artistically designed and built homes with flair but which match the feel of the village, hotels are also incorporating this..
As the Danube River curves east towards Vienna, it weaves through a collection of enchanting hamlets, timeworn fortresses and perfectly stacked vineyards of the Wachau Valley in Lower Austria.
The steep terraced landscapes of ancient, hand-made stone walls are the laid tracks of the compact 15km stretch of meticulously manicured, towering vineyards that have come to define one of Europe’s most beautiful and world-renowned wine landscapes.
A UNESCO World Heritage Site since 2000, the Wachau in Austria is as culturally rich with its scattering of old medieval towns as it is a nature haven of hiking and biking trails through a uniquely preserved landscape. All held together within a region that tells its centuries old stories through wine.
For a trip to the Wachau is not complete without sampling the famous Grüner Veltliner and Riesling varieties from the very vineyards you pass through on your exploration. You might just have to ‘work’ for it first.
Joining a Grape Harvest in the Wachau Valley
There was a six-month stretch between my two trips to the Wachau Valley. My first in April meant wandering through sleeping vineyards, not yet ready for harvest. By October, I was standing right in the heart of the first stages of internationally revered wine production.
Within the bundles of red, green, yellow and orange that spread like waves over the vine verandas, I spent a morning helping out at a grape harvest, picking grapes in the sunshine with the family-run Laglers vineyard in Spitz.
Spitz began life in the medieval period and remains an important site of the Wachau, yet old legend brings it back to wine. The Tausendeimerberg Mountain is given its name from the days where it was said it would produce 1000 buckets of wine in the years of good grape harvest. Now the area flourishes with 150 metre climbs of vines, giving it the reputation as one of the best wine-producing villages in Austria.
The Wachau in its entirety is seen as an ‘artwork in stone walls’, a traditional from over 1000 years that holds these vine balconies in place to maximise the land for wine production. The Romans first brought the cultivation of wine to the Wachau – a practice later continued by the monks who further studied the terroir and constructed the cellars, wine houses and the thousands of kilometres of dry stone walls that are preserved meticulously today.
The special climatic conditions of the area, combined with the geological formation of rich soils (part of an old eroded mountain range that left millions of years old rock) have come to produce the world-class white wines of today. The stone layers preserve the shallow soil on high vineyards and deeper soil on the bottom, prevent erosion, disperse the water, store warmth and house all manner of flora and fauna essential to the preservation of vineyards.
Anyone can join a grape harvest in the Wachau for a day, a week or for a longer stretch of the season, helping out local producers. Armed with boots, an apron and a pair of cutters, it was both therapeutic to lose yourself in nature and small family feel of teamwork. It was also a deeper insight into the hard work that goes into the manual production of the wine and a lesson in what constitutes a good grape and thus how to pick and sort accordingly.
While I am better at drinking Austrian wine, I felt as if I had contributed a little to the Austrian wine production of 2017, with a grape harvest filling another space on the new experiences list.
Hiking the World Heritage trail in the Wachau Valley: Walking for Wine
Six months before the foraging of ripe grapes in Spitz, I was in Krems hiking is a part of the World Heritage Walking Trail to Dürnstein. It was Spring, and while the colours may have been more muted, I spent a few beautiful hours hiking along one of the 18 sections of this dedicated trail that connects this wine fuelled valley dotted with historical towns, old abbeys, castles and tiny villages.
With the four-hour trail almost to myself, I was the master of all vineyards I surveyed, which were yet to break into full bloom. If you are lucky, this is the time of year where you’ll see the Apricot trees just starting to blossom. Apricot trees are just as much of a famous feature of the region, with ‘Marille’ jams just as famed as the wine. The Wachau Apricot can be found on menus everywhere in the form of juices, cakes and chutneys, especially in July and August.
The Wachau is where swaths of forest have been transformed to terraced vineyards. The curving pathways weave through and around the hilly mounds that are covered in the lattice of stone walls that piece this region together, intersected by patches of serene woodland, which I wandered in blissful hours of disconnect in high altitudes, looking down onto the Danube.
Nature embraces you and artistic sculptures greet you along the World Heritage Walking Trail. Along the way are ‘Wine Sculptures’ by local artist Fritz Gall, depicting one of the main industries and attractions of the region. I found them nestled on the edges of vineyards, dotted along part of the walking path – an indicator of your arrival in Dürnstein where more wine awaits.
Hiking towards Dürnstein on the World Heritage trail in the Wachau Valley means hiking towards wine tasting and a visit to the elite Domäne Wachau winery is a must. Considered to be one of the top producers in the region, and the only winery to own vineyards in every renowned single vineyard, it’s here that you can set your taste buds on the best Grüner Veltliners and Rieslings as well as get a tour of old and new wine cellar and exquisite Cellar Palace, that still stands proudly on the Baroque front lawn.
Wine tasting here in this slick and modern complex, five minutes from the centre of Dürnstein village, happens five to six days a week, all year-round. Experts explain the variety and spectrum of wines produced in the Wachau as a result of different winds and temperature changes, altitudes and positioning to the Danube. Because of the unique climate conditions, mixed with the topography, harvest occurs late to extend the hang time as long as possible to achieve the perfect, most ripe grape from each individual plot of land.
Today, there exists three categories of wine in the Wachau: Steinfeder (the lightest of the varieties with maximum 11.5% alcohol volume), Federspiel (wines defined as having more vitality and character, typically with delicate aroma components) and Smaragd (the highest quality category of wines, usually those harvested late from the best vineyard sites).
The question is: how many bottled of wine can you carry home, or continue hiking with?
Danube Cycle Trail in the Wachau – Vineyards and Views
Another way of travelling though these wine lands is on two wheels. On a reverse journey, I biked a part of the Danube Cycle Trail from Spitz to Dürnstein and then to Krems, where I would then catch the short train ride back to Vienna.
Achensee in Tirol is one of 34 areas that make up Austria’s third largest province and itis defined by striking scenery and its status as a sporting haven.
It’s most famous feature is the luminous 719 hectares of turquoise blue waters of Lake Achensee – Tirol’s largest lake that is snuggled between the jagged formations of the Rofan mountain range and the uninhabited Karwendel mountain range that belongs to the northern Limestone Alps.
Surrounding that are Achensee’s five villages of Achenkirch, Maurach, Pertisau, Steinberg am Rofan and Wiesing which bound together to form one giant adventure playground known as the “Achensee Sport & Vital Park” with over 50 activities to tempt the nature-loving, adrenalin-seeking and wilderness-craving souls.
Jagged mountain peaks, high alpine pastures, winding roads up to magnificent viewpoints and a huge water basin to bathe in make Achensee a much-loved summertime retreat.
It’s no hidden secret, but Achensee’s terrain and adventure offering are the reason its one of the most popular areas of Tirol to visit and a prime place to start with your exploration of it.
People have been flocking here since 1887, when the first steam ship took to the lake. The Achensee Shipping Company still ferries passengers across the emerald waters to this day. Not to mention the steam-powered railway, chugging passengers from Jenbach station towards Achensee on a 6.4km journey that climbs over 400 metres in altitude.
Here’s a taster of what to do in Achensee in summer and everything I got up to in one week, from the rite-of-Austrian passage hiking and biking to skygliders, watersports and sun-drenched relaxing lake-side afternoons.
Tackling the Achensee 5-Peaks Via Ferrata
Sport is as much as much about having fun as it is pushing yourself to new limits, and it was on the Rofan that I completed the first section of the mid-range difficulty Grade C climb that is part of the Achensee 5-Peaks Via Ferrata.
This was my first time attempting a full via ferrata route, which included some hiking either side to reach the start point and to get back down to the cable car level at 1,800 meters. Combining elevated scenic viewpoints with daring spirit on one of the largest via ferrata in the Alpine region, it was a two-kilometre adrenalin challenge that took me through the craggy landscapes and misty blankets of the five mountains that surround Achensee lake: Haidachstellwand, Rosskopf, Spieljoch, Seekarspitze and Hochiss.
There’s a distinct euphoria that comes from getting close to nature, and while there were times it was treacherous and testing, I absolutely loved it as I fist pumped the air with each new mountain cross I clambered to as a mark of achievement.
This one-day tour on the Achensee peaks has cemented climbing as my favourite summertime mountain adventure.
Bike Tour Around the Valleys of the Achensee – Schmalzklausen Runde Trail
I will never forget my five-hour mountain bike ride taking in the valleys and peaks of Achensee, as it counts as one of my best biking adventures – a never-ending path of dramatic cliff faces, soaring mountains, and alpine meadows that turned into lush forest with gravel tracks, rock tunnels and waterfalls.
The beauty of guided bike tours is in the customisation to your interests, speed and skill. While you know that mountain biking in Archensee will guarantee you a picture perfect backdrop, the glory is that without a fix plan, no two journeys are ever the same.
Rock Climbing on the Rofan and Karwendel Mountains
At this point I had only ever tried indoor bouldering, but I took to rock climbing in Achensee quickly. Considered one of Tirol’s best landscapes to practice in (and with an incredible backdrop to boot), the rocky mountain walls here helped me find a new sport to become obsessed with.
The Rofan and Karwendel mountains attract climbers of all levels, from beginners like me, to the more experienced who often have secluded crags to themselves, including rock faces around the Lamsenjoch up to 400 metres in height.
With my mountain guide, I learnt the basics from how to tie ropes and the main harness knot, before practicing abseiling and balancing manoeuvres to get back down. During the climbing process, you are constantly given tips on foot placement, how to position your body better according to weight and balance and how to trust your instinct.
These panoramic heights (because it’s good to have a little peek behind you when you find a little ledge of rock to take a breath) add a new vantage point to the area, spurring you to climb higher for an alternative view.
Fly like an Eagle on the Skyglider Airrofan
There’s a soaring eagle shaped skyglider on a 600-metre rope, 200 metres high and it pulls you at speed of 80 kilometres per hour towards the Gschöllkopf Mountain in the Rogan ranges. That’s some adrenalin for you in Achensee, if hiking and climbing isn’t enough to get the blood pumping.
Skyglider Airrofan is situated nearby the top station of the Rofan cable car and is a quirky adrenalin buzz highlight of the 320km ‘Eagle Walk’ trail in Tirol. You are strapped into a colourful body sack at a horizontal level, where the line pulls you up slowly ready to release you like a bird as the speckles of people below watch you in awe.
Kitesurfing on Lake Achensee
With Achensee Lake having some of the best wind conditions of any lake in Austria, it was fitting to try kite surfing here for the first time. Just one introductory afternoon course with the kite school ‘Learn 2 kite’ in Maurach proved it’s a lot harder than it looks and has come to be seen as one of the most impressive water sports to gain popularity here in recent years.
In pairs you learn the basic techniques of the green and red kite-to-rope steering lines, how to catch the wind and get the kite into the air (and easily back down) and emergency stopping procedures where you can detach from the kite quickly.
You and your partner support one another so that when one is steering the kite, the other is holding onto your harness behind you to keep the balance. Expect to fall over, giggle, watch the kite you were so confidently flying go crashing into the water, and then start the process all over again.
If it rains, you have to stop since the wind usually disappears and when it returns it can come at full speed – the winds strength here can reach level five, due to gusts from Bavaria. However, it’s not such a bad idea to hang around in these beautiful emerald waters for the winds to pick up.
It can take up to three half-day lessons before you even start getting onto the board, which can be frustrating after hours of flying the kite and feeling like you are ready to move forward and cut some waves! But your instructor soon shows you that there’s a lot to perfect with the kite flying first.
Sunrise Hike fromthe Southern Shores of Lake Achensee
The 4am start might have felt like a terrible decision at the time, but the triumph of sunrise after a hiking tour to the Astenau Alpe in the Rofan Mountains soon erased that initial pain.
The start of the hike always depends on the sunrise at that particular time of year and on this July day was set for 05:21. The climb is a 90-minute journey through narrow rocky pathways and isolated woodland, guided by a local who embarks on this journey almost daily.
It’s so still and serene as you walk at a slow pace that you almost lose yourself in the pitch-black wilderness as it slowly turns into spectrums of violet and blue in the approach to summit. Then, within minute comes the hues of yellow and orange and they quickly illuminate the Inn river and each village as it wakes. Up here, you get a unique view from the Kaiser Mountains out to the Zillertal Alps and across the Inn Valley as it spreads below.
After the salutation to the sun in the form of pictures and lightly exhausted achievement, it was time to indulge in a bacon and eggs breakfast at the Astenau Alpe on the peak, with coffee and a glass of prosecco for good measure.
Just don’t think you will leave without the owner offering you schnapps to see you on your way. Remember, you still have to climb back down!
Hiking Around or Relaxing at Lake Achensee?
I remember waking up one morning and declaring that I would spend the day hiking the entire parameter of Lake Achensee since I had no sports scheduled for that day. My friend simply told me I should rest.
So while I would happily hike the 719 hectares in a round trip that takes you through varying elevations of walking trails, dense parkland and hidden viewpoints, I was also happy to do as many locals here do – relax next to the lake.
I not one to sit still for long, but this is a backdrop that stops you in your tracks. Achenkirch (which is close to the German border) is already picturesque in itself, home to the 650-year-old farming estate, The Sixenhof and other traditional farmhouses surrounded by bounteous pastures. It’s also right on the lake and means within a five or 10-minute walk you have access to one of Tirol’s best displays of nature.
Lake Achensee and the Achental valley form the border between the..
Burrowed within Austria’s Kitzbühal Alps are two neighbouring valleys – Alpbachtal on the one side and Wildschönau on the other, where you can meet halfway up on the Schatzberg Mountain.
A valley of four villages, each increases in altitude as they climb towards the adjacent Zillertaler Alpen. First Niederau at 824m and the starting point to the Markbachjoch mountain, Oberau at 938m, Auffach standing at 869m before the climb to the Schatzberg and Thierbach at 1175m.
Based in the centre, in Oberau, I spent two days exploring the valley before moving on to Alpbachtal. From the ground to the skies, village to high alpine, Wildschönau is a nature haven, cheese heaven and the European hotspot for sky-high adrenalin.
Biking and Hiking the
Before I took to the mountains for adventure, I decided to explore a little on ground by e-bike, casually drifting through the villages filled with traditional farmhouses. Starting at my hotel in Oberau (where I was able to hire my e-bike) and ending in Niederau, it was a casual three hours of bike riding within a peaceful and idilyic setting and provided the chance to explore without taking on anything too strenuous.
These two villages in particular are easily connected but a straight main road, making it easy to navigate between the two while getting off-track along the way, like on secluded-feeling forest track that runs behind the Bergbauernmusuem.
Wildschönau is also perfect to explore by foot with an extensive network of walking paths – over 300km of tracks through valleys beds and farms, high pastures and pine forests and more challenging, mountainous terrain. A series of weekday walks are free with the Wildschönau Card, including Schrofen mountain, which is well-known for its restaurant serving some of the best traditional dishes from the region, Birgit farm and its herb garden at 1030m, where a local expert brews up some great herbal teas and natural remedies and the Minz path from Oberau eventually leads you up to the Kragenjoch Mountain, flanked by a pathway of wild flowers.
Markbachjoch Mountain Views – Valley Panorama
As the Summer days draw to a close, cooler autumn air sets in and the cows live out their last days up high on the alpine before they return to the valleys below. I enjoy these months of alpine green against the endless mountain backdrops, before waiting for the snow and the ski season sets in.
However, the Markbachjoch Mountain at 1500m has one of the best panorama views of the ranges in Tirol, including the Rofan and Wilder Kaiser Mountains. These elevated alpine heights are great for short strolls or longer hikes, where people walk to the Holz Alm for the cheese and to the Horler Stiegl chapel at the Rosskopf peak.
The mountain top may have been shrouded in mist on the day I was due to fly, but I soon learnt not to discount a cloudy day when it comes to this kind of adventure. I went paragliding in Wildschönau when the clouds were rolling in high up on the Zillertal Alps, and my tandem pilot said we should take the opportunity to float through them and find ‘the hole’ from which we entered the valley bed below. It felt like we had found a magical portal to another world.
Despite the slightly wracking-run off the mountain (although I enjoy the adrenalin kick I get from it), paragliding is actually a relaxing way to glide freely through nature, picking up a little speed before slowing down to take in the views. I also had the opportunity to take control of the suspensions lines/strings, understand more about the air pressure and was able to change direction myself. Ask nicely, and your pilot might also agree to a fast spin session if you want to play with the wind and really feel the force of it.
Wildschonau is one of the best regions for paragliding in Tirol as it is said the winds here are near perfect because of the protected location. Because of this, it is also considered one of the safest flight areas in Europe, and the ideal place to perfect your skills if you are looking to take a full paragliding course. The special microclimate here means you can take to the skies for up to 300 days per year.
A tandem flight with Flugschule Wildschönau costs €99 for a 20 minute flight session. You will meet your instructor at the bottom of the Markbachjoch cable car.
Meeting Johann Schönauer – The Master Cheese Maker of Schönanger Pasture
People and personalities make up just as much of a region’s makeup as the surroundings. In Wildschönau, you can’t miss a chance to meet master cheese maker, Johann Schönauer. The second you spot him as he comes out of the wooden hut, you know he’s a real character with a happy presence.
Johann is one of the 24 farmers on the Schönanger pasture in Wildschönau, Tirol who spend the summer making award-winning alpine cheeses, which you can sample and buy at the restaurant at the Schönangeralm. After a quick look around his cheese-making stronghold, Johann gave us enough cheese to feed 20 people, as we stopped for a coffee and a quick chat.
A local legend that has racked up many gold awards at the annual ‘Cheese Olympics’ (yes, that’s really a thing in Austria), he might well invite you in for a cheeky serving of Schnapps if you happen to be passing by on a hike. This area has some of the highest peaks in the region and there’s always a need to re-fuel – local produce being the best choice.
Things to Know:
The Wildschönau valley is made up of the four villages of Niederau, Oberau, Auffach and Thierbach lies in the Kitzbühel Alps region.
Where to stay in Wildschönau
I stayed in the Hotel Tirolerhof in Wildschönau-Oberau – a family-run, 3-star spa hotel in the heart of the village. It’s modern, yet homely keeping with the family feel, with staff readily on hand to help you book trips, hire e-bikes or simply impart their tips. The bar and restaurant are open during the day, with themed buffets in the evening.
The Wildschönau Card
The Wildschönau Card gives access to free and discounted services, including:
Daily free journeys with the three summer cable cars (including those in neighbouring Alpbachtal):
Markbachjochbahn, Niederau – Wildschönau
Reitherkogelbahn, Reith im Alpbachtal
Use of public buses in the whole of the Alpbachtal region
Daily free admission to several museums including the Lehenlahn silver mine and various discounts for e-bike hire, paragliding sessions, and the high ropes course, among others.
My time in the Wildschönau valley was a part of my ‘Year in Austria’ project, as the UK ambassador for the Austrian National Tourist Office. I visited various destinations across the country (from my home base of Vienna) over a period of 12 months, showcasing a variety of regions and activities. Follow #YearInAustria for all the stories through the seasons.
Winter in Lake Louise is vastly different to the infamous image we see of its sunlight-reflecting turquoise blue glacial waters, on which people glide through on canoes. But that doesn’t mean there’s not as much fun to be had in this part of Banff National Park during the subarctic season.
The 2.5 kilometre long emerald spectacle that is Lake Louise is just one of the handful of hamlets that make up Banff National Park’s humongous 6,641 square kilometres of hinterland at the base of the Canadian Rocky Mountains. The UNESCO World Heritage Site can be easily broken down in sizable exploration patches of adventure, connected by the Trans-Canada Highway (Highway 1): the area surrounding Banff town, Mount Norquay and Lake Louise, which all connect eventually to Jasper National Park in the north.
In winter, Lake Louise becomes a giant ice-skating rink and hockey pitch when its 90 metre deep waters freeze over to match the white cloak of the rocky wall formations and the Mount Victoria backdrop. The surroundings are home to one of Banff’s biggest ski resorts and snow-laden basin for some adrenalin adventure.
After a seven-month long winter chill, it thaws out in June where the colours re-emerge as the lake basin fills once again from the melt waters of the Victoria Glacier. Since the snow season is my favourite of all, I was excited to put a couple of the winter activities in Lake Louise to the test.
Winter Adventure in Banff National Park – Alberta, Canada - YouTube
Hiking in Lake Louise – Snowshoeing the Peaks of Lake Louise Ski Resort
I’ve tried snowshoeing a handful of times and it usually involved getting off-track and into the forest. At Lake Louise it’s a little different. The beauty of Banff National Park is its pristine nature and absolute serenity, making it perfect for a snowshoe hike up to some of the Rocky Mountain peaks where you walk along open pathways, warmed by the blue skies, and with the most incredible panoramic views including a glimpse of the royally loved Skoki Lodge, located in the Lake Louise backcountry.
Banff National Park prides itself on its conservation efforts, and this is apparent at Ski Louise Ski Resort, whose passionate guides point out wildlife footprints, tell you about the nature and preservation efforts, as well as make sure you do not venture off the dedicated hiking path (since it has been carved out to preserve the wider area as a whole).
I wish I had the time to sample the slopes here, after carving a few S-shapes on the fresh snow at Banff’s Sunshine Village Resort. There’s four mountain faces with over 4200 acres of ski terrain, and 145 runs to choose from beginner to advanced. Massive wide-open space, perfect light, dry powder and the chance to be in one of North America’s biggest ski areas, is all the more reason for return. While snowshoeing we crossed some ski trails of this protected wilderness, so it’s a good opportunity to get a ‘taster’ of the ski scene up here.
Dog-Sledding the Lake Louise Basin
Winter activities in Canada’s Alberta don’t always require strength and stamina to be an adventure. You can always relax and let six of the cutest and most excitable of all employees of the Lake Louise region of Banff take control, whooshing you around a basin of the Rocky Mountain Peaks.
The dogs howl and bark in excitement, undeterred by the snow and minus temperatures. It’s important to know the genetic make up of these dogs, and how they have to release the incredible high levels of intense horsepower energy us humans could only dream of having. It’s why they were once used by the Inuit people of the Canadian Arctic as the main means of transport.
These dogs are incredibly loved and cared by the people who work at Kingmik Dogsled Tours, and it’s important to know that (especially in light of a story that came out of Canada about a dog-sledding company that wasn’t wholly reported on). They know every dog by name, what excites them, what run position they are best for and when they are raring to go (and ultimately, when not).
It was a joy to have pre-ride cuddles with Skoki, McFuzz, Chips, Nunchuck, Paisley and Lacey they got hyped up for their run. During the dog-sledding ride, I was told about their individual personalities and got to feed them afterwards (which they are just as excited for).
Today, in making a tradition as recreational activity, the dogs swiftly guide you around this wild landscape, as you stare in wondrous awe, tucked under the cosy blanket of your sled. Open pathways turn into forest wilderness, and for the geeky border enthusiasts, you even get to ‘turn around’ in the neighbouring Province of British Columbia at the ‘Great Divide’.
Chateau Lake Louise
Each main area of Banff is flanked by grand hotels, originally built by the Canadian Pacific Railway to lure in visitors on their journey through the country. Like its predecessor, the Fairmont Banff Springs Hotel, the Fairmont Chateau Lake Louise hotel – once built as a base for outdoors enthusiasts before turning into more of a luxury mountain resort – stands proud at one end of Lake Louise, and is as much as part of Banff National Park and its nature surroundings.
Ice carvers from around the world compete annually in the Ice Magic Festival held at Lake Louise, turning blocks of ice into magnificent pieces of art. I was lucky to catch the festival in its last days, and while I couldn’t catch the artists in action, I was able to view the final ice masterpieces and see which ones made the prize status (although I had a few favourites of my own). This artistic festival has being running here for over 20 years, and is a firm fixture on the calendar for winter in Lake Louise.
Things to Know:
About Lake Louise and Lake Louise Ski Resort
The area of Lake Louise is located just off the Trans-Canada Highway (Highway 1). People choose to stay here as a quiet alternative to the town of Banff and for those wishing to spend more time closer to the glacial lake, which is only five kilometres from the small town of Lake Louise.
While the lake was named in honour of Queen Victoria’s fourth daughter, its first name was Ho-Run-Num-Nay (the Lake of Lake of Little Fishes) – a name given to it by the Stoney Nakoda First Nations people.
The Mountain Institute was established to help educate and raise awareness amongst visitors about how to explore and Banff National Park responsibly. This is an interactive platform of videos that make up a variety of fun quizzes and knowledge tests about wildlife, adventure exploration, camping and more. Once you have completed the modules you will get certificate to prove your commitment to the preservation of Banff National Park.
Want to Join a Small Group Tour in Banff?
I was whisked around this incredible space by Discover Banff Tours, who specialise in private and small group tours to get you right into the very heart, history and culture in Banff. That means avoiding the crowded tour buses and masses of people when exploring the Banff landscape, instead being one-on-one with the guide or in a small setting. Banff is so large that it may be hard for you to find things on your own, or navigate the enormous space and long drives. Plus, Discover Banff Tours know the secrets, the best viewpoints, and where is best to visit at a particular time. A special shout out to my guide, Noam, who is also a chief wildlife spotter!
You can book packages from single to multi-day excursions for wildlife tours, to go and discover Lake Louise, tackle the Johnson Canyon Ice walk in the narrow ice laden canyon, snowshoe in the Vermilion River Valley or to the 40-meter deep gorge of the Marble Canyon, get your crampons some action on the frozen creek bed of the Grotto Canyon Ice walk, or book stunning heli-sightseeing and heli-skiing days.
Further information on planning an Adventure Filled Winter in Banff
I undertook this trip with the help of Banff and Lake Louise tourism and Travel Alberta Tourism, in the hope to inspire you to visit Banff in winter and be inspired by this absolutely incredible and pristine part of Canada.
The Alpbachtal valley in Tirol, Austria may be best known for its glorious ski season and access to the prime Ski Jewel resort that merges the ski area here with the neighbouring valley of Wildschönau, but that doesn’t mean Spring and Summer are limited when it comes to exploration, local life and adventure.
The beauty of Austria’s alpine valleys is that they are completely different places with the changing of the seasons. Which means one visit is never enough to know it in its entirety.
After spending winter in the snow dusted village of Alpbach as part of my year-long quest to uncover all angles of Austria, it was time to see the region as it sprouted a layer of green, and swap skiing and snowshoeing for climbing and biking. I also switched up village life and stayed in neighbouring Reith.
So whether you missed a ski season in Alpbach and can’t wait another year to get back, or loved the region in winter and now want to see it differently, here’s your chance to head back and mix up the adventure.
Agility in Alpbachtal: High Ropes Course in Kramsach
A rolling valley filled with dense patches of woodland, it was only right to get stuck into a small patch of Alpbachtal’s tree-filled basin. The first adventure was the High Ropes Course at the Outdoor Centre in Kramsach – a short drive from the main villages of Alpbachtal.
With a guide in tow, you get to put your balancing skills, adrenalin rush from heights, co-ordination and power of strength to the test. During a crazy couple of hours you tackle all kinds of wavering and wobbling apparatus and wire line obstacles, before whizzing through other parts of the forest on various ziplines, including one with a snowboard!
High Ropes Course in Kramsach, Alpbachtal – Tirol, Austria Adventure - YouTube
I love climbing but I have naturally poor balance, so even though this was my second time on a High Ropes Course in Tirol, it was still a good challenge where you not only need to rely on your own mental agility, but have good team work skills too (which also involves lots of laughter). It’s well worth the adrenalin rush, especially since we had to adapt some of the obstacles to complete them while slightly slippery from the rain. It’s all part of the fun!
Staying in a different village means having new ground to explore, despite already having wander part of the parameters of the valley on a short snowshoe hike. So I swapped the means of exploration this time for two wheels and went out on a two-hour e-bike tour around the village up in the woodland and around the valley, via the village pathways with a guide.
If you don’t want to take a bike on some of the 250km of trails, there are over 900km of hiking paths and trails in this region for all levels of expertise.
Austria is known for its nationwide passion for inventing some of the best sweet treats and eating cake, and you haven’t got to the true sugary soul of Alpbachtal until you have indulged in some Prügeltorte. At the 500-year-old forester’s house known as the Kaiserhaus in Brandenburg, you to see the famous Prügeltorte cake being made as one guy spins the rod over the open fire and the other artistically builds the hollow roll of goodness with a special mixture.
Once you are filled with childlike smiles evoked from the smell of freshly baked cake and thus experiencing induced hunger, it’s only fair to take a seat facing the garden and stuff your face with a slice of said Prügeltorte (and a dash of fresh cream), which goes well with a fresh coffee.
This building is steeped in history, and was once a place where the emperor liked to go hunting with friends. So do the imperial thing (minus the hunting) and take a little walk after you’ve enjoyed the cake, because the nature here is pristine, and the gorge that surrounds the house is calling you…
The sound of fresh, rushing water and the sight of glimmering turquoise through the overgrowth, is enough to entice you into the Brandenberg valley – home to Die Kaiserklamm gorge that is said to be one of the most beautiful canyon landscapes in all of Austria.
Historically, the timber industry was at the heart of Brandenburg and its main source of income, where logs would be drifted down the raging eaters of the Ache River, to be collected at the widest point below and distributed out of the valley.
Now, people coming to enjoy the same protected hiking trails that the Kaiser once did around neighbouring Tiefenbach Gorge, but mainly come to marvel at the sheer size, scenery and serenity of the Kaiserklamm Gorge. There’s a one-kilometre pathway that takes you through cave-like tunnels and over bridges where you can get a view of the dramatic cliff-faces that guard the powerful waters of this nature hideaway.
It takes around 30 minutes to walk from one end of the gorge to the other, or you can tackle some of the many hiking routes around its wild and rocky landscape, which can be found signposted around the Kaiserhaus. Hike the ‘Erzherzog-Johann-Klause’ route for a six-kilometre wander through dense forest paths that lead to this dam where the logged trees were once collected.
Alternatively you can choose to rapidly traverse its emerald waters via water raft or tube, or cruise leisurely in a kayak.
The Alpbachtal Seenland region is made up of 10 resorts: Alpbach, Brandenberg, Breitenbach, Brixless, Kramsach, Kundl, Münster, Radfeld, Rattemberg and Reith im Alpbachtal. This means there are plenty of regions packed full of activities from relaxing to high adrenalin.
Suggestions Excursions in Alpbachtal Valley
Museum of Tyrolean Farmhouses in Kramsach. Close to Lake Reintalersee is an area where you can explore 14 typical and traditional Tyrolean farmhouses – an interactive, open-air museum about the history of this region. (Admission is free with the Alpbachtal Seenland Card).
Lake Berglsteinersee. One of the many warm bathing lakes in Tirol where you can relax in nature and its fresh waters. In this region you can also visit Lake Reintal, Lake Krumm, Badl Breitenbach, and the lake in Reith where I spent an afternoon after some crazy adventure.
Wiedersbergerhorn Mountain Alpbach. Take the gondola to the top station and walk up to the peak (it takes around 40 minutes) or enjoy the panorama viewpoint across the valley below. The other gondolas are Reitherkogelbahn and Markbachjochbahn (in neighbouring Wildschonau) all of which are included in the Alpbachtal Seenland Card.
Rattenberg – Austria’s smallest historical town is known for its class blowing craft, while craft beer lovers can head to the one-man brewery in Inner Alpbach and try the unique beers brewed by local, Jos Moser.
If you are looking for a nearby city excursion, head to Kufstein (the second biggest city in Tirol after Innsbruck). To the north of Alpbachtal and on the border with Bavaria, you can lose yourself in narrow streets lined with traditional houses and climb to the medieval castle fortress that looks out to the mighty Alps.
Where to stay in Alpbachtal
There are over 600 accommodation facilities in the valley area from farmhouse holiday to 4-star spa hotels.
The Alpbachtal Seenland Card gives you access to: The three summer gondola cars, including the main one, Wiedersbergerhorn Mountain Alpbach, alongside free bus service in the region, free admission to the adventure wave pool, guided hikes and walks as well as discounts at shops, museums, excursions and more. It is free of charge at all accommodation partners when booking at least a one-night stay.
Further Information about Spring and Summer in Alpbachtal
My time in the Alpbachtal valley was a part of my ‘Year in Austria’ project, as the UK ambassador for the Austrian National Tourist Office. I visited various destinations across the country (from my home base of Vienna) over a period of 12 months, showcasing a variety of regions and activities. Follow #YearInAustria for all the stories through the seasons.
I’ve wanted to explore and stand before the incredible Rocky Mountains for as long as I can remember. So I went straight into the minus degree heart of winter in Banff National Park in Alberta, Canada, taking in a minuscule portion of their 3,000 mile North American stretch.
It’s a mere 90 minute drive from Calgary airport before you are reduced to a tiny spectator looking towards the grand stage of Banff National Park, where winter puts on its finest show. A seemingly never-ending showcase of snow-capped peaks with unbeatable panoramas from over 2,000m high, corridors of glacier walls, frozen lakes and waterfalls that become a canvas for play, and a dense wilderness full of diverse wildlife – this is THE season to be here.
One where snowfall and crystallised layers can last for up to seven months of the year.
One of the world’s most stunning mountain destinations, Banff is famous for good reason. Aside from being a spectacular hinterland mass of 6,641 square kilometres, it is Canada’s first designated National Park after explorers stumbled upon a hot spring in a cave and decided that beauty needed to be shared and saved.
That was back in 1885, with Banff now a highly protected ecosystem (one that runs from the Yukon to Yellowstone National Park in the US). While we must not forget that the First Nations people long occupied the area for over 10 thousand years prior to this, the dedication given to Banff today for it to survive for thousands of more years to come means experiencing a real adventure into one of the planet’s best wilderness arenas.
Winter in Bannf is Canada in one of its most magnificent and unfiltered forms… Even if the bears are sleeping.
Winter Adventure Activities in Banff
Ice Climbing on Banff’s Waterfalls
The Canadian Rockies are considered by many to be the ice climbing capital of the world, so I went straight out into the adrenalin action the morning after arriving for some beginner lessons. Armed with a pair of ice axes and fixed into some ultra sturdy crampons, it was time to tackle nature’s best wintertime climbing wall – a frozen waterfall.
It was a short 15 to 20 minute climb up a short forest track to a waterfall that stands just outside of Canmore – the neighbouring town to Banff. Here I was taught the basic skills for ice climbing, with the help of the accomplished climbers from Yamnuska Mountain Adventures.
It’s exhausting in the way that is exhilarating for the two hours you try and mercy with the strength of nature, but you soon get into a groove of how to swing your ice axe with a momentum that comes from the lower arm and elbow in a swift motion.
The crunch and clunk of gripping your feet into the ice using the toe spikes of your crampons becomes second nature as you find a way to scramble up a jagged veil of thick, glistening blue toned ice. All before lowering yourself down it with the top rope belay.
If you can, while taking a few seconds of rest balancing in a small ice grove, take the time to look behind you a little. The Rocky Mountain panorama is always hugging you while you explore these mighty details that are burrowed within its basin.
Skiing in the Rocky Mountains – Banff Sunshine Village Resort
To finally say, “I’ve skied in Canada” is a dream come true, since it’s all a part of the mountain obsession. Banff Sunshine Village Resort is a short drive from Banff town where you have three mountains with the most fresh, powder soft snow and incredible views at you disposal. Not only that, but by staying in the Sunshine Mountain Lodge at the top of the main cable car line, you can step out of the door and STRAIGHT into the ski action. It really adds to the excitement, being one of the first to makes some S’s in the now, as well as shaving time off the ground-village-to-higher-altitude hop.
The three peaks are easy to navigate when it comes to knowing your skillsets and what level of slope you want to take on from the 3,358 acres of skiable terrain. I was here to get back to basics after some ski trauma with a bad instructor, and Ellen from Sweden (who, of course, has winter sport skills in her blood) had me back to my ski-pro-in-training self in no time at all. I can’t recommend her enough for beginner training here.
Canada works differently to Europe where a Green run is European Blue, Blue is a European Red, and here Black is split into two levels (Double Black being the most extreme). Sunshine Village resort has 137 runs (longest is 8km), 12 lifts and is split into a rough terrain of 20% beginner (green), 55% intermediate (blue), 25% advanced (black).
As a beginner skier looking to move to intermediate level, Lookout Mountain was great for both gentle, scenic runs and steeper slopes to carve out some better technique. On one side of the mountain, I practiced on the wider and steeper inclines (like the long Green run: 34) where you were nothing but a speak on white with a wide open view, before moving on the forest lined and wilderness runs on the other side, with names like ‘Miss Gratz’, ‘Pilgrims’ and ‘Cottontail’.
‘The Eagles’ is the peak between Lookout mountain and Goat’s Eye Mountain, and is home to the Eagle Basin and the ‘Delirium Dive’ extreme freeride zone where it mandatory for all riders to be equipped with an Avalanche Pack. Goat’s Eye, while sporting a long Blue Run (71), is the place for those seeking Black and double Black adrenalin routes. However, the runs from Lookout mountain eventually connect with the basin of Goat’s Eye, so not all is lost when taking on lighter runs, since you will get to sample it in some form. For more Green and blue runs aside from Lookout Mountain, Mount Standish is the area to explore.
Banff Town and Banff National Historic Sites
As the point of the ‘discovery’ of what became Canada’s first national park, the Banff Cave & Basin is one of the National Historic Sites worth visiting. It may be a tiny cave hole with a strong sulphur stench that radiates from the aqua pool of water, but it has huge significance.
You can learn more about the history of the region in the neighbouring exhibition space of the Banff Park Museum, before continuing to the other hot spring and layers of woodland outside.
I even had the chance to practice curling and help build an ice palace during the setting up of the winter festival that is held here.
Banff town is small enough to be explored on foot, or a scenic drive where you can reach tucked away viewpoints such as ‘Surprise Corner’ that looks over the Fairmont Banff Springs Hotel – the first hotel to be built in Banff that almost looks like the town’s very own Hogwarts.
Other National Historic Sites, including the Cosmic Ray Station on Sanson Peak, Skoki Lodge, Abbot Pass Hut and Howse Pass, require varying degrees of hiking and backcountry access, which is all a part of the wilderness fun and pristine seclusion.
You certainly need more than one winter in Banff to see it all. Maybe a lifetime. Banff is a playground that serves to reminds us that as much as we try and conquer nature, it will always dominate. And in its protection we are shown how this patch of earth once existed, untouched… long before we did.
Coming up: Winter in Lake Louise. Stay tuned!
Things to Know:
Banff town: It is located in Alberta’s Rockies along the Trans-Canada Highway, approximately 126 km west of Calgary. It extends to Lake Louise and eventually connects to Jasper National Park further north.
Banff Sunshine Village Resort
The Sunshine Village Resort in Banff boasts the longest non-glacial ski season in all of Canada – open for around seven months from November until May.
At an altitude of 7,200 feet, fresh powder snow is guaranteed almost daily. The resort is open from 9am until 4pm, with gondola hours from 8am until 5:30pm with extended weekend hours.
For more information on planning your ski trip pre-arrival and on the day at the slopes, download the Banff Sunshine Village App for iPhone and Android.
Want to Join a Small Group Tour in Banff? Travel with Discover Banff Tours!
I was whisked around this incredible space by Discover Banff Tours, who specialise in private and small group tours to get you right into the very heart, history and culture in Banff. That means avoiding the crowded tour buses and masses of people when exploring..
Nestled between Madrid and Barcelona, skipping a visit to Zaragoza en route means missing out on ones of Spain’s most artistic and underrated cities. I’m glad I got to jump off and explore on an AVE train journey from Tarragona to Madrid, feeling like I’d stumbled upon a Spanish secret.
The capital of mighty Aragon,Zaragoza is the gritty and urban mixed with the ancient and decadent, held together by a historical thread of architecture and art, and a heritage showcasing a continuous turnover of design and expression.
– UNESCO World Heritage Zaragoza
Native to Aragon, Mudejar art blends Islamic and Christian elements from a time during the 12th and 17th centuries when both faiths coexisted. A core part of Zaragoza’s architectural heritage, the sheer amount of Mudejar art earned it a UNESCO World Heritage title, with the Ajafería Palace being the most symbolic.
This 11th century medieval Islamic palace remains one of the most beautiful and important of all the sights in the city as well as the seat of the regional parliament. It’s an open museum of the residential structures of the Taifa kingdoms. By 1118, it became a Christian Palace and the residence of Aragonese monarchs, who added extra layers and extension to the existing design, as did the Catholic monarchs with the Throne Room in 1492. Modernisation into the fortress style we see today came in 1593. Each room is like a puzzle piece of this architectural timeline, and while it draws the crowds, it’s a place where you can easily get lost in its detail, most notably in one of the main halls with these mesmerising archways.
For those with a keen eye, it can be found all around the city. The Roman past is interlaced with Mudejar art like at the Lonja Market, or at the Parish Church of San Gil Abad – a Romanesque temple destroyed in 14th century to make way for the now Mudejar church. El Salvador Cathedral was built over the main mosque of the old Muslim city, where Mudejar art can be found on the outer wall of the parish chapel and the Church of Mary Magdalen is Mudejar in style with a tower and intricately patterned tiles.
Plaza del Pilar Display
– Zaragoza and the Discovery of the New World
One of its defining features of Zaragoza is the stunning Cathedral-Basilica of Our Lady of the Pillar – a Roman Catholic Church in the heart of the Plaza del Pilar (the largest of all in Spain).
It provides one of the best-elevated views over the multi-domed dreamscape and a better perspective on the artistic plaza and its water features. Controversial, but central to Aragon’s history, it’s here where you will see how the Fuente de la Hispanidad (fountain) is shaped like Latin America in reference (amongst other symbols) to Columbus – Ferninand II of Aragon being the monarch who commissioned him for the ‘discovery of the New World’.
A Design Legacy of 2,000 Years
– Roman Zaragoza
Zaragoza’s Roman legacy is mostly found in the many archaeological museums, preserving a prominent layer of the city’s design, even if modern elements built over them, like the San Pablo church that was built to replace the old Roman hermitage of San Blas. The Caesaraugusta Theatre Museum (Museo Del Teatro De Caesaraugusta) is one of the largest theatres of Roman Hispania that once held 6,000 spectators. Ruins from a market can be viewed at the Caesar Augustus Forum Museum and you can still view an 80 metre long section of the old roman walls.
Street Art & Regeneration
– Urban Zaragoza
We were able to wander beyond the opulent centre of Zaragoza, where there is an interesting contrast in its abundance of street art. It’s all a part of an annual urban regeneration drive, Festival Asalto (the International Festival of Urban Art), bringing an artistic new life to forgotten neighbourhoods.
Since it’s inception in 2005, the city has filled with over 70 artworks using mural, graffiti, templates, posters and installations as the medium of expression by local artists and groups. You can embark on a self-guided walking tour to find them all using the handy online map (a printed version is also available).
2008 Expo Architecture
– Modern Zaragoza
Ultra-modern architecture adds to the multi-layers of artistry here, which you can see showcased at the Zaragoza Expo Zone, constructed in 2008. My two favourite designs were the Alma del Ebro sculpture that stands outside the Congress Palace and made especially for this International Exhibition by Spanish sculptor Jaume Plensa, and the Bridge Pavilion designed by British-Iraqi architect Zaha Hadid.
Homage to Goya
– The Artistic Son of Zaragoza
In the home of Goya, it’s no wonder that art plays a central role in the city’s persona. The dedicated Goya Museum (housed within at the 16th-century Renaissance building, Calle Espoz y Mina 25) showcases works from 15th to 20th century, with rooms dedicated to Goya’s self-portraits and etchings – the only museum which has the entire six series on display.
Gastronomic Cultural Expression
– The Art of Cuisine in Zaragoza
Much like art, people are reinventing old recipes and adding modern twists to traditional establishments and food customs. Zaragoza’s restaurant and culinary establishments are filled with local produce, and the love for tapas lines every corner and alley, such in the El Tubo district known for attracting the hungry crowds and Plaza de Santa Marta for café culture.
Mixing old and new in the form true to our daily historical wandering, we attended a tapas workshop at the modern gastronomic space that is La Zarola, later followed by a masterclass of jamon carving by Félix Martínez at La Jamoneria (it’s not my forte, but eating it is) and a little indulgence of candied fruits and chocolates at the vintage 1856 confectionary shop, Fantoba.
Things to Know About Zaragoza:
Tarragona to Zaragoza is a mere 1 hour and 30 minutes journey on the train, landing you right in between Madrid and Barcelona. Zaragoza is also 90 minutes from Madrid by train and just under two hours from Barcelona.
If you are looking to visit a lot of museums and monuments, and make use of public transport, consider getting the Zaragoza Card. From €20 for 24 hours or €23 for 48 hours, you’ll have access to all major sites, buses and tram lines, as well as discounts for listed shops and restaurants.
How to Book a Renfe Train Ticket in Spain – AVE Guide
You can book tickets via the Renfe website in English here, and specific high-speed network tickets here. All tickets have to be pre-booked (payable by Visa, Mastercard and Paypal), since you can’t turn up on the day and book at the station.
The AVE trains have nine classes if you count the overnight trains with sleeper/bed options, but there are two main ones to consider – Turista (a second class option with 2 x 2 seating rows) and Turista Plus, which is a little more spacious (with 2 x 1 seating rows). I travelled to each destination with a Turista ticket – comfortable and great value for money.
If you are looking to book a multi-stop trip, consider getting a ‘Spain Pass’. This means you can travel using just one ticket for the AVE and other long distance trains. You must reserve a seat before every trip, as limited space is assigned for Spain Pass holders.
I’m a self-confessed train geek and avid city explorer, and these two passions are perfectly combined in Europe where I recently added train travel in Spain to the list. My most recent rail adventure meant traversing four cities in four days in a whirlwind tour of Tarragona, Zaragoza, Madrid and Seville via Spain’s high-speed Renfe AVE service.
Spain by Train - Tarragona, Zaragoza, Madrid & Seville on the AVE - YouTube
Why Travel Spain by Train?
While Spain’s transport infrastructure overall is well established, did you know Spain is the second country in the world with the most amount of high-speed tracks after China? And while Japan holds the title for the fastest high speed rail, Spain still comes in 5th.
A relatively small country, that means you can see a lot more of Spain easily, cheaply and quickly in comparison to long bus journeys or multiple fight routes. This is all via Renfe – Spain’s nationalised railway network, which operates the regular city-to-city, and inner city regional train services, as well as the high-speed AVE (Alta Velocidad Española which means ‘Spanish High Speed’), reaching speeds of up to 350 km per hour!
Having spent a month traveling around Japan on a similar adventure, it brought back memories of the bullet trains – the ease and comfort, the unforgettable whoosh as the trains passed the station and the excitement of arriving in a new city in a matter of a few short hours.
Spain AVE City-Hopping – What Will You Choose?
With over 2,000 stations and 2,270 kilometres of railways, travelling around Spain by train means being presented with a lot of choice where you can mix countryside with cities and coastlines. When it comes to the AVE high-speed options, there’s plenty of information out there to get you started with planning your route.
With Madrid and Barcelona being connected by a two and a half hour journey, these two cities form the major hubs from which to use as start or end points and often steal the limelight. However, with plenty of other cities being home to airports with great connections, you can literally take your pick from any corner of Spain.
Aside from my Tarragona-Zaragoza-Madrid-Seville itinerary (which would make for a great seven day trip), below are some of the most popular routes to get you started, as shown on the website where you can check the schedules.
The AVE Experience website also has a helpful shortlist of useful guides about Spain’s AVE Cities, from the more well known places like Alicante, Córdoba and Valencia, underrated cities like Malaga and the lesser explored Valladolid, Lleida and Puertollano. The Renfe AVE network is extensive, with various stops to choose from even between two major cities.
City One: Tarragona
Flying into Reus airport, it was a short 20-minute drive to the centre of Tarragona. A northeastern coastal city full of ancient Roman ruins from its days of a colony known as Tarraco, Tarragona is a great historical hotspot from which to start an overlanding adventure.
A new city built on top of an ancient city; the beauty here is in exploring its many layers and losing yourself in its golden structures.
The highlights can be seen in a day, as Tarragona is a compact city. Not only can you wander the amphitheatre (one of the seven in the country preserved and open to the public), but also a cathedral now stands on the site of the former Roman temple, where we climbed the spiral staircases for a panoramic view of the city as it stands today.
Then there’s the Roman Circus, which was once used to hold grand horse and chariot races. Parts of the spectator archways still remain, while the Tarragona of today was built on top of what was once the racing circuit.
City Two: Zaragoza
Tarragona to Zaragoza is a mere 1 hour and 30 minutes journey on the train, landing you right in capital of the Aragon region in northeastern Spain, nestled between Madrid and Barcelona.
One of its defining features is the stunning Cathedral-Basilica of Our Lady of the Pillar – a Roman Catholic Church right in the heart of the Plaza del Pilar (the largest of all in Spain), providing the best views over the multi-domed dreamscape.
Another is the Ajafería Palace – the 11th century medieval Islamic which today remains one of the most beautiful of all the sights in the city as well as the seat of the regional parliament.
Wander beyond the opulent centre of Zaragoza and you will soon see an interesting contrast in its abundance of street art that’s part of an annual urban regeneration drive, bringing an artistic new life to forgotten neighbourhoods. In the home of Goya (with a dedicated museum of his works to boot), it’s no wonder that art plays a central role in the city’s persona.
Ultra-modern architecture adds to the multi-layers of artistry here, which you can see showcased at the Zaragoza Expo Zone, constructed in 2008. Like the Alma del Ebro sculpture (The Soul of the Ebro), made especially for this International Exhibition by Spanish sculptor Jaume Plensa that stands proud outside of the jagged lines of Congress Palace.
City Three: Madrid
Zaragoza to Madrid was a 90-minute journey, so you can jump on a morning train and still have the full day to explore.
Madrid is pretty and gritty in equal measure, with classical architecture and an avenue of art museums, mixed with street art and edgy neighbourhoods. A perfect combo of sights and vibes when exploring a big capital!
One of the best things to do in Madrid, apart from lose yourself in its multiple sub cultures of neighbourhoods and buzzing tapas bar culture (especially on the weekend when the streets are alive) is to whizz around in a nostalgic SEAT 600.
City Four: Seville
In just three hours you can find yourself in Seville, whose name immediately conjures up a romantic vibe. From bustling Madrid to the charming, flamenco dancing famed Seville, this may be a city you may instantly fall in love with where colourful, artistic streets contrast with the delicate, classical architecture of the open squares and boulevards.
The Cathedral is a city centrepiece as is the exquisite Plaza de España is a plaza in the Parque de María Luisa. A mix of Moorish and Renaissance designs, this 1928 masterpiece is a symbol of the city known for its grandeur of tiled fountains, opulent bridges and lush gardens.
If you have time, dedicate at least half a day to exploring the vast landscapes and dazzling detail of the stunning Mudéjar architecture of the Real Alcázar of Seville, whose origins began as a royal palace, built in the 14th century by Muslim Kings. The huge grounds are worthy of a full day of exploration, despite the intense crowds it can draw. From archways and courtyards, and manicured gardens that have been used as film sets including those of Lawrence of Arabia to Game to Thrones, it hard not to lose yourself in its romantic beauty of the oldest royal palace still in use in Europe.
Like other major Spanish cities, Seville is not without its modern architectural additions. Occupying one of Seville’s squares, the city’s Metropol Parasol (more affectionately known as ‘the mushrooms’) is the largest wooden structure in Europe, whose curling walkways up to 26 metres high provide a new panoramic view of the city.. Designed by German architect, Jürgen Mayer, it has been the subject of much controversy since its completion in 2011.
How to Book a Renfe AVE Train Ticket in Spain
You can book tickets via the Renfe website in English here, and specific high-speed network tickets here. You can pay by Visa, Mastercard and even Paypal. All tickets have to be pre-booked, since you can’t turn up on the day and book at the station.
The AVE trains have nine classes if you count the overnight trains with sleeper/bed options, but there are two main ones to consider – Turista (a second class option with 2 x 2 seating rows) and Turista Plus which is a little more spacious (with 2 x 1 seating rows). I travelled on each of my journeys with a Turista ticket, which was comfortable enough and great value for money.
If you are looking to book a multi-stop trip,
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