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Lech am Arlberg is one of Austria's most exclusive, and popular, alpine winter sports destinations; yet summer is the season to savour the authentic character of the region
29.07.16 - 12:57 -

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High altitude summer
The summer landscape is stunning, lush with wild flowers. :: Andrew Forbes
Out from the dark doorway of the timber farmhouse Björn emerged into the bright mountain daylight with a small, round wooden tray, carrying robust shot glasses, almost filled to the brim with crystal clear spirit. It was schnapps of course, a warming treat after a morning’s hiking.
I had only been in Austria a few days, but I was already considering myself quite the aficionado of Austria’s favourite tipple. Schnapps is a warming spirit, drunk in the countryside and also as an after-dinner digestive. When I arrived, I went to check out the local Tannberg artisan food market in Lech’s village centre, and was soon offered a small tasting shot of pine schnapps by one of the local traders. The forest-flavoured liquor, with a distinctive reddish-brown colour was surprisingly smooth, and slightly sweet – it’s made from the new season cones of the arolla pine.
Then in the evening after dinner in the family-run Gotthard Hotel, the owner Clemens invited me to try another glass – this time Enzian herbal schnapps, made from the root of the local yellow gentian. It had a distinctive earthy aroma yet a clean, satisfying taste.
Today’s schnapps, enjoyed on the farmhouse terrace, was made by local farmers who each year return to the summer alpine area to graze cattle, make cheese and, well, from the looks of things, live an idyllic summer lifestyle.
Björn is Hotel Gotthard’s mountain guide; a young man from Germany who loves the mountains – skiing in winter, hiking and biking in summer. As the base for my visit to the super-stylish resort village of Lech, the historic Hotel Gotthard was eager to showcase the area’s summer attractions. So this morning, equipped with a packed lunch including freshly-baked bread from Clemen’s bakery, I set off with the experienced guide to discover a Tannberg hiking trail.
Hidden to high-season visitors, who come to enjoy the region’s world-class winter sports, and the more than five metres of annual snowfall, the summer landscape is stunning. It is lush with abundant wildflowers. The most famous here is the iconic edelweiss, Austria’s national flower, which is a sort of silver mountain daisy. It’s hard to find, preferring a high altitude, rocky habitat. Yet here at around 1,700 metres, the mountain pastures are covered in a mass of flowering alpine plants, grasses and thistles – one walks amongst gentians, daisies, alpine roses, wild geranium and many different kinds of intricately patterned orchids.
The walking route also offers glimpses of life as it once was in these striking valleys. Our mid-point stop at this ancient farmhouse, in the historic hamlet of Bürstegg, is a chance to experience a snapshot of rural Alpine life. The hamlet was built by the Walsers, medieval Alpine setters. Buildings here date back centuries, some as old as 700 years. Beside the farmhouse and its outbuildings is a modest church, with a steeple clad in wood shingles – a quintessential alpine scene.
After enjoying the schnapps overlooking the spectacular view, we were invited inside, to sit at one of the old pine tables in the farmhouse salon and snack on cured hams, flavoursome homemade bread, and alpine cheese. These rustic snacks are a far-cry from the gastronomic sophistication of nearby upmarket Lech which often welcomes royalty, VIPs and the super-rich as winter guests. Yet this humble summer mountain meal feels like a feast as we sit and relax within the cosy, historic surroundings of the house, with its walls and doorways decorated with finely painted designs.
Snow and sunshine
Summer in the Alps can mean experiencing a little of each season throughout a summer holiday. I had been woken earlier in the day by bright summer sunshine forcing its way past the edges of my guest room curtains. Yet only the day before it had been snowing on the mountains. Getting ready, I had stepped out onto the balcony of my room at Hotel Gotthard to survey the valley - steep verdant mountain meadows ran up to grey rocky peaks now almost covered in glisteningly white, fresh powder. The light was sharp and bright; the mountain air dry and fresh.
From the room my morning perspective was somewhat different to that now later in the day, high up in the tiny community at Bürstegg.
In the mountains the air was more humid and fragrant; and the sound of cowbells was everywhere.
The distinctive ‘Tyrolean Grey’ cattle that graze these green pastures offer a classic alpine soundtrack to summer activities in the mountains.
The afternoon return hike was pleasantly downhill, passing idle ski-lift stations, and through small forests of tall pines. The dozens of marked hiking routes, covering over 250 kilometres around the alpine villages of Lech-Zürs typically begin or end at bus stops so one can easily make it back to one’s hotel using your ‘Lech Card’.
However there are no queues here. One of the many pleasures of summer in Lech is the tranquillity; the hills are most certainly alive, but not with the sound of thousands of tourists.

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