The hills were alive with the sound of … cowbells! As we hiked up the mountain trails of Austria, Liechtenstein and Switzerland, the clang of hundreds of cowbells announced the presence of those sweet creatures long before we saw them. We’d come around a grassy bend and there they’d be, cows dotting the hillside and looking a bit startled as we interlopers stood before them, squealing with delight.
These are very pretty cows, taupe colored with great, soulful brown eyes. Our guides explained that they graze on the mountains until October, when they’re brought homeward from the high pastures in a celebratory parade, decorated with crowns and garlands of wild flowers, and the prettiest among them is chosen Queen.
When I was invited to take part in this mountain hiking trip, I didn’t hesitate for a moment. I’ve always been fascinated by mountain climbing and though I’m hard-wired for cowardice when it comes to extreme sports, simply hiking mountain trails strewn with cows and wildflowers? I’m there.
Finding myself in Lech, a cozy town of 2,500 inhabitants in the Arlberg region of Austria, I felt drawn to the mountains, its hollows, the valley floors and wooded Alpine hills. The landscape simply would not let me rest. So up I went with my group, to walk and walk — and walk — up hills, down dales, around and around till we reached the top. What I came to realize was that to walk is a great form of enlightenment — of one’s surroundings and one’s emotions and feelings. Actually it’s not widely known but ancient Greeks also valued the benefits of walking. Aristotle’s students, for example, kept walking back and forth in their classroom as an exercise in enlightenment. My Alpine hikes proved to work in much the same way.
Lech is one of the most glamorous and expensive resorts in Austria and has been awarded “The Most Beautiful Village in Europe” by the Best of the Alps organization. Hiking there was like entering a different world. I felt somewhat breathless and not because of lack of oxygen or exertion. No, the air is actually a feast for the lungs. Instead, it was the mountain landscape that intoxicated with an explosion of sensual impressions. When the sunlight broke through the cloud cover and I spied an ibex on the rocky ledge opposite and then another and another, well, it happened. Mountain fever of the very best kind.
The next day we traveled to the neighboring village of St. Anton. The sight of majestic mountains, untouched valleys, green slopes, roaring mountain torrents and the ubiquitous grazing cattle was a comfort for the soul. Not quite as comfortable, however, was this day’s hike. Now we picked up the pace, the hills were higher, the descents steeper. On this hike, I clearly lagged behind the rest of the group. I, a veteran of five New York City Marathons, was last. Heart pounding, gasping for breath, I tried to speed it up, but whether it was the altitude or the fact that I hadn’t tested my endurance in a marathon for several years, I simply could not keep up and the ego-shattering realization hit me that, on all of our upcoming hikes, I was always going to be last.
Once this realization settled in, a most lovely thought came to me. So what? When I stopped staring longingly at my companions’ backs as they blazed the trail, I began to notice the otherworldly beauty of my surroundings and even picked some Alpine flora that covered a nearby meadow. I knew that this was OK. In fact, it was better than OK. To be here, now, every hill-climbing, boulder-hopping, root-tripping moment was to be experienced and cherished. Enlightenment? You could call it that.
Then we were on to the neighboring country nestled between Austria and Switzerland: Liechtenstein. It is a principality that in 2006 celebrated 200 years of sovereignty. It is one of the smallest countries in Europe, composed of just 11 regions and 35,000 inhabitants. Vaduz, its capital, has several fine museums including a huge black cube that is the Kunstmuseum, home to a collection of artwork of international renown.
We hiked to Malbun from the flat tracks along the banks of the Rhine through marked trails with thick pine forests and wild landscapes peppered with rare orchids. At the Galina Falconry Center we lunched on a typical Tyrolean dish called kasknopfle, a kind of spaetzle made with flour, butter and cheese. A no-nonsense looking peregrine falcon took off, circled majestically and returned, swooping just a few feet over our heads at 185 mph to land on the glove of the falconer and happily enjoy his very own lunch.
Our last stop — Switzerland, Zurich to be exact. We had a very short hike on Mount Uetliberg, challenging and still long enough for me to capture a few iconic Swiss images. Just in case you thought that this city was all about banking and high finance, let me update you. This is now one of Europe’s style capitals, a world city. We found the shopping unbeatable, spent some fun evening hours in a couple of their many clubs, and if it’s high culture one seeks, Zurich’s opera house and art galleries are nothing short of world-class.
In thinking back over my Alpine mountain trip and I know one sure thing: I will not say farewell to hiking. I learned a valuable lesson on this trip, and that is hike to one’s own drummer. One’s personal drumbeat is good and true and will allow you to most definitely be there now.
If you go: Austria, austriainfo/us; Liechtenstein, tourismus.li; Switzerland, MySwitzerland.com.