Hundreds of thousands of people visit Austria’s Stubai Valley each year (most in the winter), so it isn’t exactly undiscovered. But few of them are Americans, and the valley is new to us, so we feel like it’s a discovery.
We’re in Tirol, one of Austria’s alpine regions. When our housesit in Switzerland ended, we had two weeks left before our flight back to the United States. We couldn’t afford to stay in Switzerland without free lodging (it’s a very expensive country). But we weren’t ready to leave the mountains yet. So we headed to Switerland’s eastern neighbor, Austria, which is in the less expensive euro zone.
The town where we’re staying is Neustift im Stubaital, whose name roughly translates as “new church in the valley of the Stubai glacier.” (The church in question was founded by Austrian Emperor Maximilian I in the early 1500s.) Eighty-four euros a night gets us a big, bright, one-bedroom apartment in a chalet-style house with wooden balconies facing the mountains. From our bedroom window, we can see the cable cars that whisk hikers, paragliders, and mountain bikers up the side of the valley. On every clear day, the sky above Neustift is filled with paragliders hanging like thistledown in the air. (We got a taste of what that feels like on an extraordinary day in Slovenia nine years ago.)
As usual when we travel, a rental car is out of our budget, so we rely on public transit. The Stubai Valley is perfect for that. Buses run every half hour up and down the long valley. They end at the train station in Innsbruck, from where you can connect almost anywhere. Our apartment came with a Stubai Super Card, which lets us ride for free on all of the buses and cable cars in the valley. It also gets us into the local mountain rollercoaster (rodelbahn) and all of the valley’s public swimming pools and waterparks. From Neustift’s heated indoor/outdoor pool, you can see a glacier and a waterfall while you swim!
On our first day here, we rode the cable car up the mountain closest to us and hiked 2,600 feet back down, along a beautiful 5.5-mile trail through a side valley. The trail passed a couple of farms with restaurants, where we stopped for lunch and later drinks and cake. We also passed a plaque explaining that during World War II, an American B-17 bomber had crashed near that spot after being hit by flak over Innsbruck. The explosion killed a farmer (who was named on the plaque) and his aunt (who didn’t get a name), but the bomber crew survived to be put in a prisoner of war camp. A piece of wreckage from the plane is on display in the local museum.
Not long after the war, a photographer and ethnographer from Innsbruck named Erika Hubatschek started coming to the Stubai Valley to document the life and work of the mountain farmers. It’s the centennial of her birth (she died at the age of 93), and the wonderful black-and-white photos from her long career are on display around the region. In some cases, they’re paired with current photos of the same places or of the same people grown older, so you can see what’s changed over time.
In a film made a few years before her death, Erika was still climbing (slowly) up the steep green slopes, her face brightening with delight when she described farms and villages she had visited and photographed years ago. We watched the film at Neustift’s folkways museum with the 80-something docent, a former woodworker who added wonderful local color. As Erika’s photographs passed by on the screen, he’d say things like “that’s my uncle,” “that’s a friend of mine,” “that farm is right next to my family’s,” “I hiked up that mountain three times when I was younger.” His comments helped bring the exhibition to life for us.
Another day we visited a former silver and copper mine in the town of Schwaz near Innsbruck. The mine, which started in 1420, at one time produced 85 percent of the silver used for coinage in Europe. We rode the old miners’ train through small, dark, damp tunnels 800 meters into the mountain and saw mine shafts, huge water wheels to provide drainage, and miners’ tools from different eras. In its heyday, now-modest Schwaz was the second-biggest town in Austria. And the rich Fugger family that owned the mine—the most famous people, in their time, that you’ve never heard of—bankrolled the political and military campaigns of popes and emperors.
Later we took the bus as far up the Stubai Valley as possible to see the remnants of the once-mighty glacier that carved our valley. Glaciers look beautiful from far away, like white frosting on rocky peaks. Up close, they look more like old snow piles left in a parking lot after a long winter: dark and pitted and full of dirt and rocks. Still, it’s amazing to realize the power that ice had to shape the landscape around us. And as the glacier melts, it feeds countless streams and waterfalls that flow into a river that sustains the plants, animals, residents, and tourists of the gorgeous Stubai Valley.