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Most of the mountain huts in the Alps close their doors and send their staff home for the winter, approximately from mid October until mid April. However, many have a winter room which is either unlocked or accessible using an alpine club key. The winter rooms are wonderful places to cook a simple but enjoyable dinner, to look at the stars, to sleep and to wake up to the morning sun with spectacular views.
This winter we visited three different huts, for four nights in total. Twice there were nobody else, once we shared the room with a group of three others, and once on a weekend with particularly good weather there were about 20 hikers and the warden staying in the same hut. However, in that case the whole hut was open so there was enough space for everybody.
The photo of this blog entry is of Bad Kissinger Hütte, which is located in the Tannheimer valley, Austria, about 80 km south of our home in Memmingen. That's one of the easiest huts to reach with about 700 meters of altitude to climb along an easy path. It's also located on the south slope, which means less deep snow, particularly when the winter is already turning towards spring. For us it took around 2,5 hours to climb up including a couple of short breaks, and we did not have snowshoes or skis.
In contrast to the summer when the huts have full restaurant facilities, the winter rooms operate on a self service basis. Mattresses and blankets are usually provided so one could go just with a thin travel bedsheet, but we always carry our sleeping bags to be sure of staying warm. We've also taken a camping cooker which generally has been unnecessary: all the winter rooms we've been to this far had a cooking possibility with either wood or gas. In Bad Kissinger Hütte we did use our own kettle though, as there were two pans but no pots. Nowadays the winter rooms also commonly have an electric light powered by a battery, which is recharged by a solar panel during the day.
The cost of an overnight stay is usually 5-10 euros for alpine club members and 10-20 euros for non-members, depending on the place. Payment works on a basis of trust: people are expected to write their names in the visitor book and make a bank transfer afterwards to the account of the organization which takes care of the hut.
One piece of equipment which we found out to be a nice addition on the winter hikes is a snow glider, a piece of plastic just big enough to sit on, with a handle in the front. When coming back, we can often have fun by gliding down on the snow instead of walking during part of the way. The gliders are lightweight to carry so even if the slope is too icy, bumpy or otherwise unsuitable for using them, it doesn't matter very much.
One of Sandra's dreams was to go for a long walk one day. Like her, I had been on many short hiking trips, lasting up to one week, but never longer than that. So we decided to spend four weeks of our summer holiday by walking over the Alps.
Our route was mostly following the München-Venedig trail, a 550 km hiking route from Munich, Germany to Venice, Italy. Apparently a few hundred people walk at least a part of the trail every year. The route is described with minor differences in at least three books, all in German. We were carrying two of them with us.
We skipped the first 150 km and started near Innsbruck in Austria. The first day was easy: a bus to Tulfes and a ski lift up to 2000 meters left only a few kilometers of distance and 600 meters of altitude to climb up to Glungezer hut, our first place to stay. This time we didn't carry a tent, but our backpacks were loaded with a camping cooker, food, clothes and other equipment needed for the trip.
Second day showed us the reality of the mountains: sunshine had turned into snow and clouds with almost zero visibility. We chose a route which stayed most of the time on a ridge above 2500 m, trusting the forecast which suggested weather to clear up by noon. Well, it didn't and we spent a full day doing our best to find safe steps on the slippery rocks. It was almost dark when we arrived at the next hut.
On the following day the weather was better again and we got used to the already familiar Alpine scenery: snow-capped peaks, rocky ridges, mountain lakes and grass-covered highlands where cows and sheep were grazing between the mountain flowers. A new companion we hadn't so often seen before were marmots, who were squeaking and standing on two feet besides their holes, looking at us.
The trail never climbed over 3000 meters but rarely descended below 1500 meters. The weather varied rapidly from 25°C sunshine to cold rain, with temperature occasionally falling down to 0°C and rain turning into sleet. Once we had to change our planned route: Friesenbergscharte was not passable due to too much snow and clouds. We hiked about 10 km west and crossed the ridge at Alpeinerscharte, knee deep in the fresh snow. On the way we stayed one night at Geraerhütte, which turned out to be one of the most charming huts of the whole trip.
I had usually traveled with a tent so hiking from hut to hut was something new for me. Huts in the Alps are quite well equipped, even luxurious: most have nowadays electricity, hot showers, water closets and a fully equipped restaurant. Perhaps a bit surprisingly, they are still considerably cheaper than hotels and guesthouses in the valleys, at least for Alpine club members. A bed in the dormitory costs 8-10 euros for members (about double from non-members) and meal prices are similar to simple restaurants down in the valleys.
Where the huts differ between each other is the atmosphere. Some are friendly and cozy family businesses where the hosts have time to talk with every guest personally, while others are more busy hostel and restaurant establishments. Small huts far away from roads and cable cars are usually the best. Our favourites on this hike were Geraerhütte (Austria), Kreuzwiesen Alm (Italy) and Rifugio Pisciadu (Italy).
Actually we were in Austria only the first five days before arriving in Italy. However, the main local language was German still for a week and both the mountains and architecture of houses remained similar to Austria. It took a few more days to reach the Dolomites, which looked quite different. More about them in part 2.
Usually I don't have problems choosing what to have for breakfast. Most often I eat some bread, cheese, youghurt, vegetables and fruits I've bought the previous day, accompanied with tea which I can prepare using my gas cooker when camping or by boiling water in the kitchen if I'm staying at a hostel. When staying in pensions or private homes I've had several breakfasts prepared for me as well, in most cases either some ready-made sandwiches or bread with a choice of cheese, cold meat products and vegetables.
In Crowne Plaza Bratislava you could point out which ingredients you'd like for an omelette specially made for you, and proceed to fill your plate from an abundant selection of bread, pastries, cheese, meat, fish, cereal, vegetables, fresh fruit, puddings, you name it. If you wanted to start your morning with a glass of sparkling wine — sure, it was included — or maybe you'd go for the more usual selection of fruit juices, coffees and teas for drinks. The picture on the right shows a part of the breakfast buffet.
The three night stay in Crowne Plaza was with my mother and two brothers; my father was too busy with his work and couldn't come. We spent in total six days together, splitting the time evenly between Vienna and Bratislava. We don't usually go for the very top end accommodation and our hotel in Vienna was more modest, but in Bratislava it ended up so as a result of some other hotels being full and my family finding an acceptable price on the Internet for the more luxurious option.
The higher standard of the rooms and especially the breakfast buffet was the largest materialistic difference to my usual days when traveling. We naturally also had good dinners together in restaurants, perhaps slightly more classy ones than I mostly go to, but even when traveling alone I quite often go to a restaurant for a nice three course meal with drinks. One of my basic guidelines in both cheap and more expensive countries is to spend more money rather on food than accommodation.
The main thing during that week was naturally to meet my family members, but we also did a lot of sightseeing in Vienna and Bratislava. I've met several other travellers who didn't like Bratislava much, but I found it quite nice. For me the compactness the old town and relatively small size of the city in general (compared to many other European capitals) was appealing rather than limiting. It was also worth going a little bit out of the center to see the Devin castle, not so much for the castle but for the spectacular setting on top of a hill overlooking the Danube river.
In Vienna I didn't feel like getting a good grip of the city in three days. We went to see some magnificent buildings, like the Opera house and Schönbrunn castle, both from the outside and inside, but they remained separate and superficial experiences for me. We spent quite a few hours every day walking around in the city but I still cannot easily name a favorite spot or area there. I would probably find some if I stayed longer but the city just didn't open up immediately for someone who is not a big classical music and opera fan. One special positive thing which I must mention as a cyclist is that Vienna had a very nice city bike system. I didn't try it but both the network of pick-up/drop-off points and the bikes looked good.
Copyright Arto Teräs <firstname.lastname@example.org>, licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported License. (Unless otherwise mentioned in individual photos or other content.)