The rain continued through the night and dawn greeted the Euro2008 expeditionary team with gray clouds and lowered expectations. Is every August in Austria like this, or have we just been very lucky?The Yahoo weather forecast called for thinning clouds and easing showers, so we decided to be optimistic and lay on another family expedition: a trip to an open air market in the nearby town of Leutasch, followed by a visit to the Mountain Spirit Gorge.
By 10:00 the clouds were still blessing us with intermittent showers. I decided that I would hike the trail to Leutasch and she and the girls would take the bus. Hitching camera over shoulder, I once again set off through the woods toward Leutasch.
I worry that after my long description of ascending the Rosshutte, readers might be growing weary of my descriptions of the local hikes. Let me abridge two hours by saying that it was a lovely, and only slightly damp, walk in the woods. I did see the effigy of a witch nailed to the side of a timber-plank home. Whether this was an advertisement or a warning, I could not say.
I reached Leutasch just before the girls, and was waiting for them on the steps of the tourist information office when they strolled over from the bus station. The exertion of the morning had made us hungry. But where does one eat in Leutasch? We appeared to have three main options: two Italian places and one authentic Austrian cafe. I was given the deciding vote, and opted to explore more Austrian cuisine.
The Leutasch cafe is so authentic that the waitress spoke no English. Fortunately, her husband did, and he was able to guide us through a very small selection of dishes. This cafe put the “Mom and Pop” into eating; she served while he cooked in a tiny one room kitchen.
A quick decoding of the menu suggested that it was going to be a Day O' Adventurous Eating. No ham and cheese sandwiches for Mary today. She decided to boldly go where her taste buds had never been before and ordered Wienerschnitzel. The girls both plumped for Frankfurter wurstl, and I ordered “Kassel.” Mary's meal consisted of breaded pork and french fries; the girls had two long, pink hot dog-like sausages served on a mountain of french fries; I had smoked pork (very much like thick slices of ham), sauerkraut, and boiled potatoes.
I must confess that I had selected my dish because it was the only entry on the menu that came with sauerkraut. After my blissful encounter with sauerkraut at the Wiesenhof, I was keen to chew through another pile. Unfortunately, the local Leutasch sauerkraut did not compare with the Wiesenhof variety. One could say that in Leutasch, they put the “sour” in the sauerkraut. A bit of a let down, I fear. Mary liked her Wienerschnitzel, however, and while the girls didn't swoon in rapture over their long hot dogs, they did manage to gobble down all of their french fries.
The open air market also fell well short of expectation, and we were through it in less than ten minutes. The clouds were showing the occasional blue patch of sky, which set the scene nicely for part two of the day's adventure: Die Leutascher Geisterklamm (Mountain Spirit Gorge trail). This is described as a pleasant walk through the woods, following a deep gorge carved through the mountains near Mittenwald, on the Austrian/German border.
We depart Leutasch on the bus and drive through a long alpine valley, boxed in by two glorious mountain ranges. This valley is amazing: its floor is perfectly flat, right up to the point where it intersects one of the mountains. The transition from valley to sheer mountain is strikingly abrupt ― there are no foothills to hold the mountains back. One moment you are on flat ground, the next you begin a vertical ascent. These vast masses of weathered stone loom overhead, shadowing everything in the valley at their feet. It is a stunning, albeit slightly claustrophobic, effect. It must be fantastic in the winter, although, when the sun slides south, I wonder if some of the houses and farms we pass ever see daylight. Perhaps they lie in nocturnal shadows through the long winter months, waiting for the return of the sun.
This area also appears very Catholic. Shrines housing crucifixes and votive candles may be found along roads or tucked away in peaceful groves. Many of the houses have crucifixes placed under their roof gables. As we wind up the valley toward Unterkirchen, Mary and I count a number of small, one room private chapels. I had thought that Lutheranism was the dominant form of the faith in these Germanic regions, but Catholicism has a very strong hold here in the Tyrol. I don't see any more witches nailed under the eaves.
We hop off the bus at the gorge. The trail is supposed to be 5 km long, a circular loop that is suitable for small children and infants with limited hiking abilities. We've heard that before.
The Mountain Spirit Gorge trail has been well designed to offer not only hiking but also an educational opportunity for kids. Stations placed at strategic intervals offer brief discussions about the natural history of the area. Evidently the locals used to believe that the gorge was haunted by a demon who had come down from the mountains (where it is quite cold in winter) to take up his abode in more pleasant surroundings. The “Spirit,” a long-maned ghostly head appears on all of the signs.
For reasons that I no longer recall, we decide to do the loop backward, The trail is wide and well-maintained in the first section, and in no time, we are descending the hill to the northern end of the gorge. The temperature has grown steadily warmer as we've hiked, so imagine our delight when we enter the gorge, which is still being cut by a fast flowing, green glacial stream. The near freezing waters turn the gorge into an air conditioning unit. It is absolutely delightful.
In years past, the fast-flowing water made this part of the gorge inaccessible. Today, however, there is an elevated pathway bolted to one of the walls that allows hikers to walk up to the waterfall. I quickly lag behind, snapping pictures. A few minutes later I spied my companions hurrying back on the walkway, teeth chattering and goose pimples popping. "Did you see the Mountain Spirit?" I inquired.
“It's freezing in there,” I am told. “We're going to go sit in the sun.” Some people have no appreciation for temperate climes.
Eventually I must rejoin my party, abandoning this delightful, cool canyon. With tears in my eyes, we set off up a long series of switchbacks, climbing to the top of the gorge. For a good half mile or so, they have built an elevated walkway that follows the gorge's rim. Unfortunately this walkway is narrow, and as the afternoon shadows lengthen, it has become heavily trafficked ― vast swarms of infants with limited hiking abilities jamming things up. I jest, of course. In fact, many of the infants have been brought onto this narrow walkway in baby carriages. I was gobsmacked. People were trying to maneuver up and down steep gravel switchbacks, and thin steel walkways with bog standard baby carriages. Madness.
The Mountain Spirit Gorge is a beautiful, easy walk. Well worth the trip, although you might bring a heavy shirt to ward off the chill of the icy fingers the Spirit slips down the back of your neck.