Kaunertal Revisited

Idyllic Scenery and Homey Traditions of this Tyrolean Valley Bring Back a Simpler Time

The Kaunertal Gletscherstrasse is popular among mountain- and motorbikers for its steep curves and idyllic roadside scenery | Photo: Kaunertaler-Gletscher.at

Once in a while the hectic, consumerist world we’ve all been sucked into simply becomes too much to endure and we long for a place of the past, where time passes more slowly, the air smells of something other than Marlboros and McDonald’s, and where people still treasure the details of a simple day.

Some may call it nostalgia. Well, that may be. The term actually originally referred to a serious medical disorder in which a person felt great pain yearning to return to his native land. And so that’s what I did…well, kind of.

My mother’s family is from Bavaria but liked to spend their holidays in Tyrol. So in 1976 my grandfather and a friend built a hunter’s cottage with their bare hands, in the idyllic Austrian valley of Kaunertal. In winter and summer groups of friends would spend weeks in the secluded little lodge, hunting during the day and feasting on the wonderfully fresh meats in the evening, drinking Schnaps and playing cards. After many years of absence, we recently decided to travel back in time and revisit the site of all those summers long gone.

The route took us past Innsbruck into the town of Landeck, where we stopped for the necessary groceries for four days. A fresh Schweinsbraten would be the highlight of our meals, which my mother intended to prepare on the wood stove, according to the grandfather’s original recipe, including his famous Knödel. Although we tried to stick to regional foods, we could not resist the glass of Nutella and some bottled soda.

The paved road became more winding, bending its way through minute villages and cliffs. The air blowing through the open car window grew thinner and the sweet smell of wet wood and earthy greens crept into our urban nostrils. It began to rain, and within minutes, fog had rolled over the grand mountain sides and down into the valley, blinding our path. Fortunately, our parent’s memory was intact, and we found the narrow, steep gateway to the cottage.

There it was, built from solid blocks of wood, beautifully aged, with tiny windows and the proud antlers of a stag towering above the carved front door.

Taking in the interiors, an instant warmth crawled over us, set off by the worn wooden table, the ancient oven and the yellowed photographs on the walls. We could almost see our grandfather sitting at the table with a beer and cards in his hands, the smell of a roast hanging in the cool air.

We shook ourselves, and began to settle in, lighting the gas lamps, starting a fire and putting the beer in the outside water basin for cooling. The hut boasted the luxuries of running water and modern toilets, but after that, offerings were limited to life’s essentials, with no modern-day fuss cluttering the space. The relief of being miles away from civilization spread over us, and soon I fell asleep under the warm covers of a cottage bed.

Morning dawned and we were awakened by the singing of birds and a gentle wind blowing through the surrounding trees. The fire had gone out over night, leaving the living room cold and clammy. But as soon as we had rekindled the oven we were able to make tea and eggs and no one seemed to miss central heating or the all-in-one coffee machine.

After breakfast we put on our walking shoes, together with hunters capes and hats, adorned with a birds’ feathers. Looking quite the part, the six of us ventured out into the woods that began immediately behind the hut.

For the next few hours, we went in search of mushrooms and woodland strawberries, occasionally picking wild flowers and sipping water from a natural spring. My mother taught us the names of things and explained what it was like to go deer-stalking. The sudden discovery of five miniature chanterelles, which we recognized by their distinctive bright ochre color, was greeted by smiles and cheers.

Back in the hut we prepared them in a pan with just a little bit of parsley on bread, but it seemed like the most delicious thing I had tasted in a very long time. Later we hiked up to another tiny hut, carving our names into the age-old wood, then spent the time walking in silence, each in his own thoughts.

So this was how we spent our days, hiking, discovering and breathing in the pure air, and slowly, the tension and strain of city life began to fall off.

In the evenings, we all cooked together, played cards and just talked and laughed together, as we hadn’t found time to do in a long, long time. We would tell stories of our childhoods, reliving and celebrating the memory of the grandfather who had made this hut with his own hands.

After four days – which had felt like weeks – we enjoyed our last coffee in the sun, recuperated, energized and somehow reconnected with both nature and ourselves, a family whose roots had taken hold again in the country earth.

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