Taming the Alps: Three countries with pair of boots and a backpack
August 16, 2011
Most of Bavaria is covered with low hills planted with corn and barley -- a familiar sight to anyone living near the U.S. Army installations here. But there is still a storybook version of Europe just a few hours to the south in the snow-capped, high-soaring Alps. Instead of waiting all day among massive crowds at the castle Neuschwanstein or paying top summertime dollar at mountaintop chalet hotels, there’s a cheaper and more thrilling way to sink your teeth into Europe’s largest mountain range.
The E-5 is a long-distance hiking path that leaves from southern Germany and continues almost 400 miles to the Italian coastal city of Verona. By far, the most popular segment of the trail is a 150 mile stretch that crosses the heart of the Alps from Oberstdorf (in Germany, just 50 miles from Garmisch-Partenkirchen) to Merano, Italy. By taking 10 days to hike this leg of the trail, you’ll travel through three countries and see the untapped, peaceful side of the Alps that most people miss.
Intimidated? Don’t be. For starters, remember this is Europe, a densely-populated place. Unlike a backwoods trip in the mountains of the U.S., you won’t need to carry a tent and sleeping bag, a portable stove or weeks’ worth of food and supplies. With nothing more than a couple changes of clothes, rain gear and sturdy boots, you can travel for weeks through the Alps with relatively little cost. You should be in relatively good physical condition, but people of all ages and sizes hike the E-5, so climb high with confidence.
The Alps are dotted with well-outfitted mountain houses, known in German as “Alpen Huette.” These ‘huts’ are actually massive stone buildings that feature accommodation (either group bunks or private rooms) and full-service restaurants. When not sleeping in these remote huts high on mountain peaks, you’ll also pass through civilization every day or two in the form of well-stocked Alpine villages complete with grocery stores, Internet, laundry and other creature comforts.
Starting in Oberstdorf, the path takes you up and over several mountain ridges. By the end of the second day, you’ll have crossed from Germany into Austria and the loftiest section of the trail. Traveling through Austria’s fairly empty western panhandle, you may spend five hours in steep-sided canyon without seeing anyone at all, save for a few grazing cattle or darting wild ibex.
The highest point of the trail is the Pitztaler Jochl, in an Austrian branch of the mountains known as the Oetztal Alps. With the help of bolted steel cables, you climb above the tree line along a craggy trail that flirts with 10,000 feet above sea level. Even if snow is falling at that elevation -- likely, even in August -- fear not, because the huts will have fires roaring and be serving up heaping plates of steaming-hot food.
And once you cross the ridges into Italy’s section of the Alps, you’ll be on the home stretch and in the most pleasant part of the hike. Sun-baked hillsides, cuisine with a distinctive Mediterranean flair, top-notch coffee and a culture not entirely German nor Italian are just a few of the unique things in this German-speaking corner of Italy.
To prepare for the trip, visit a German bookstore or search on the Internet for maps of the “Europaeischer Fernwanderweg E5.” The map’s universal language breaks down the stages of the hike into manageable distances, requiring between six and eight hours of walking per day. Make sure your map is detailed and shows elevation changes, and always carry a compass.
It’s best to arrive in Oberstdorf by train so you only worry about walking in one direction. At the end of 10 days hiking, you’ll be in Merano, Italy, a transportation hub large enough to deliver you back north to Germany on a train. Budget for a rest every few days to give your feet a chance to cool and to soak up the serene Alpine life when you find a village that’s especially agreeable.
As a hiker, you benefit from membership in the German Mountaineers club known as Deutscher Alpenverein (DAV), which cuts accommodation costs at the huts in half. With DAV membership private rooms at huts run around 12 euros per person, per night, and spots in mass bunkrooms can be as cheap as 9 euros per person, per night. When staying in small villages, expect to pay around 25 euros per person, per night for rooms in cozy guesthouses that include breakfast.
Though accommodations may be relatively inexpensive, the only way food reaches the remote huts is by cable car, driving up the price of meals. While their restaurants aren’t fine dining, they aren’t dirt cheap either and costs can pile up if you eat every meal up there. You’ll save money by visiting grocery stores or eating at restaurants in villages.
Above it all, you’ll be in a more untouched version of Europe, witnessing rural life that rarely exists anymore. Farmers and woodcutters here still wear lederhosen because the leather pants are the best clothing for the rugged work up in the hills.
The hiking trail is almost entirely utilized by Germans and Austrians, and an American in the mix is still a true rarity. Though a trip along the E-5 isn’t your typical European vacation, a hiker who would be interested in spending two weeks in rustic mountain hamlets and summiting jagged ridgelines almost two miles above sea level probably isn’t your typical vacationer.