Advocating a cultural shift toward slowing down life’s pace, the slow movement is definitely out of place in a place like Virgental Valley in East Tirol. Even thinking of that trend word made me feel really embarrassed. Not at all because Virgental Valley is old school, it’s by no way. Instead, the people living here do so at their own pace, in their own time, and in their own way. They seem to have found their own rhythm, living at ease with simplicity and serenity. In perfect harmony with their inner self. I tried to immerse myself in this way of life and hoped it will stay with me long after I have left. In this blog, I want to share with you what I have learned and experienced in scenic Virgental Valley.
More than natural wonders and historic sights, it is the encounters with people that make travel memorable to me. Some of these encounters are touching, others are awakening. German Hotelier Uli Drewitz feels much like this – he describes his first encounter with Virgental Valley four years ago like that: “When I drove into the valley for the very first time, it was the blue hour, the hour after the sun sets and the sky begins to darken. Smoke rose from the chimneys and made me feel good. It told me there are people living here, that there is a village with residents, that there is life. I would not want to welcome visitors to an artificial place.”
Here’s to my favourite places of the valley, after all one needs a place to rest one’s weary legs at the end of the day. And somewhere to dine :-) Use the map below for orientation. Clicking on a place in the list will get you there.
1) Matrei (Hinteregger Hotel, St. Nicholas Church)
2) Zedlach (Bartlerhof Farm, Strumerhof Farm, “Zedlach Paradise” Interpretive Trail)
3) Prägraten (Anton Kröll Vegetable Farmer)
4) Hinterbichl (Uli Drewitz’ “Heimat” Hotel)
5) Umbal Waterfalls (Umbal Waterfalls Walk, Islitzer Alm)
6) Johannis Hut
Strongly recommended is taking the Walk to St. Nicholas Church. A culture treasure dating back to the second half of the 12th century, the Romanesque St. Nicholas Church is located in the outskirts of Matrei. Among the church’s most impressive possessions are the Romanesque frescoes in the tower. The art and design of the church creates a distinctive atmosphere, which is second to none. This is definitely a must-see!
The high level of personal services at family-operated Hinteregger Hotel in Matrei in East Tirol exceeded all my expectations. Breakfast was excellent, with abundant meats and cheeses, all locally sourced, pastries & cakes. Their homemade wholemeal breads are superb! Furnishings and design are very modern and views of the valley and mountains surrounding Matrei are spectacular. A perfect base for walks in the outer valley area, Hinteregger Hotel has many returning guests—and I definitely recommend it to people visiting the area.
Zedlach Paradise is a natural gem of lush old-growth larch forest high above Matrei in East Tirol. The magnificent, large-sized, up to 600 years old larch trees with a trunk diameter of several meters, offer shade and shelter. The Interpretive Woodland Trail provides an excellent introduction to and explanation of the flora and fauna indigenous to this area. Birds abound on the wide open grazing pastures. If you’re lucky, thrushes, falcons or golden eagles may be out knocking on the trees. The loop trail takes some two to three hours to complete and is best rounded out with a stop at quaint Strumerhof Herbal Inn.
High above Matrei, within easy walking distance from Zedlach Paradise, you will find my favourite Inn in all of Tirol, Strumerhof Herbal Inn. On her mountain farm, Anna Holzer operates an inn where the mysteries of local plant life are unfolded. An expert herbalist, Anna Holzer examines the history of herbalism and how herbs play a role in cuisine and health care today. A program of anecdotes will tell the story of your herbal dish as it unfolds at 500-year old Strumerhof Inn. Your palate will definitely be pleased with a floral feast. I love her lamb wrapped in hay and herbs and her wild weed soup.
Another farm definitely well worth visiting in Zedlach is Bartlerhof. Regina, the farmer’s wife, tells stories of celebrities who travel to her place incognito. And of bodyguards who had to sleep in the wood panelled living room as there was no guest room left for them. She serves vegetable smoothies á la East Tirol, prepared with garden-fresh spinach, carrots, beetroot and kohlrabi. In between, she’s baking bread with roasted sesame seeds and linseed. This woman is bursting with energy! The farmhouse is warm and inviting – the down-home hospitality of Regina Berger provides a relaxing, laid-back atmosphere and by the end of your stay, you’ll really feel like family. In front of the house, you will find delightful gardens. And views! From inspiring peaks, to emerald-cloaked summits, to cloud-piercing, snow-catching, ice-harboring, horizon-dominating glaciers! There’s really something special, magical about this place and it’s no wonder that celebrities love it here. Why did nobody tell me before how pretty this place is?
I appreciate farmers who approach new ways of agriculture. I found one of those pioneers in Prägraten: Anton Kröll grows 40 different varieties of potatoes and 25 different kinds of tomatoes at an elevation of 1,320 meters above sea level. And he felt almost offended by me asking whether his vegetables were “organic” or not. As if that wasn’t natural. I bought potatoes for winter supply from Anton.
A new take on lodging, the Heimat Hotel in Hinterbichl was the former summer residence of the world-renowned Vienna Boys’ Choir. German Hotelier Uli Drewitz has refurbished the place with great passion, innovation and creative spirit. It’s a special place to stay at the end of the valley, strongly recommended for nature and design lovers.
In terms of dining and lodging in Hinterbichl, I would also recommend Islitzer Guesthouse.
Learn about the force of nature and watch the water of Isel River as it pours over mossy rock faces, fuzzed with foliage, into natural plunge pools at the interpretive Umbal Waterfalls Walk. Tumbling over cliffs and down steep-sided gorges, the spectacular waterfalls drop in a series of pretty cascades. Views of the waterfalls are revealed along the circular trail from viewing points with interesting information panels. These platforms are very close to the rushing water. Listen to the relentless, violent roar and feel the misty water spraying on your face. The Waterfalls Walk is an enjoyable stroll, which can be extended to newly erected, environmentally sustainable Clara Hut.
Don’t miss out on taking a stop at Islitzer Alm en route to Umbal Waterfalls, they serve really decadent food. Uniquely situated, they are famous for their wild game specialties. A special treat for sweet teeth are the delicious quark dumplings that taste like granny’s.
Umbaltal Valley is part of Hohe Tauern National Park, the largest protected high-country playground of the European Alps. Virgental Valley greets visitors with mighty ice-covered glaciers, rugged postcard-perfect peaks, flower-strewn Alpine meadows and pastures. To get the most out of this amazing and vast wilderness sanctuary, it is best explored with an experienced and trained National Park Ranger during a guided tour. The National Park House in Matrei in East Tirol offers a great overview of the entire nature reserve. Before joining my first guided tour I have had my doubts about that, expecting some kind of a school field trip. Since then, I have let native and knowledgeable guides showing me around the National Park three times. Once I took the Glacier Exploration Tour, some other time we observed ibexes in their natural habitat and last year I learned all about herbs. One of the best things about Hohe Tauern National Park is the wildlife viewing: With so many species of native wildlife — and knowledgeable guides taking you to so many beautiful places to find them — the real trick would be to leave here without spying a few of the “Big 5” who call the National Park home, the ibex, the chamois, the golden eagle, the lammergeier and the griffon vulture. On most of my tours I have joined National Park Ranger Andreas Rofner: His guided tours takes the guesswork out of seeing all of the natural wonders and wildlife — just listen and enjoy the experience!
Johannis Hut has a superb location for multi-day hut-to-hut walks (to Essener Rostocker Hut or Sajat Hut, for example). Plus, it makes a perfect base for exploring Großvenediger Mountain. The hut is readily accessible by hut taxi, operated by Kratzer Company. Friendly drivers in the know support hikers in shortening their access route. And on top of it all, Johannis Hut serves really great food to gather new strength after the hiking exertion of the day.
With a population of 4,600, Matrei in East Tirol is the gateway to scenic Virgental Valley (not to be confused with ‘Matrei am Brenner’). I have marked it in the map below: