“This is the root of the Meisterwurz. It’s very good for making schnapps,” explains Andrea, my guide.
We’re 20 minutes into our walk on Ahorn, one of the two biggest mountains of the Zillertal Valley in Austria’s Tyrol, and every flower, plant, stem, grass and root Andrea points out seems to be good for making schnapps, the seriously strong spirit merrily chugged by Austrians everywhere.
“We drink it for health reasons,” insists Andrea, with a sly grin.
“It’s a great digestion aid and can cure many ailments.” I can’t help wondering which schnapps can cure the headache caused by drinking so much schnapps.
Tyrol is gorgeous. Think of Maria, wide-armed and full-skirted, dancing on a mountainside in the Sound Of Music, and brown cows with tinkly bells munching on alpine flowers against a backdrop of craggy mountains topped with snow.
Vienna may claim all the cultural kudos, producing masters such as Mozart and Schubert, while other regions of Austria boast international heavyweights including Sigmund Freud, not to mention everyone’s favourite beefcake-cum-politican, Arnold Schwarzenegger. But it’s here in Tyrol where the nature happens, in all its glory.
Mayrhofen, about an hour from the Tyrolean capital of Innsbruck, is probably better known for its winter season – it’s home to the awesome Snowbombing Festival, where once a year the quiet, unassuming valley is turned into a rave, with snow.
However, I’m here in midsummer, to discover what this picturesque idyll has to offer when the snow melts, which is why I’m clinging to an iron rung fixed in the side of a rockface, about 200m above the valley, with the River Ziller thundering beneath me.
Via ferratas, or ‘iron roads’, were first used by the Italian infantry in the First World War to manoeuvre around the Dolomites. But now these iron veins run all over the mountains of several European countries, including Austria, Germany and even Scotland, a sort of ‘rock-climbing-lite’ for the uninitiated.
Guide Willi tells my group: “The great thing about via ferratas is that you can do them alone, you don’t need anyone to belay.” As the steel cable and iron rungs are already in place, all you need to do is clip on.
I struggle, inelegantly, to get to the top, having realised early on that I don’t have a head for heights. But I’m determined not to fail.
On reaching the top, the rest of the group are ebullient with the thrill of the climb and we reward ourselves with a hearty meal of traditional wiener schnitzel, huge glasses of beer and, of course, schnapps – just to steady the nerves, of course.
The next day brings more adventure as I go rafting on the River Ziller. Rudi Kroll, guide at Action Club Zillertal, ex-professional snowboarder, and all-round thrill seeker, takes my group out on the river, and we’re instantly paddling like mad in the rushing water.
As we tumble along, I catch sight of several onlookers waving and shouting to us on the banks and bridges, and one kid tries, and fails, to keep up with us on his bike.
Rudi encourages us to jump into the swirling water and hang on to the raft to be swept downstream before being pulled back in, spluttering, with racing hearts.
The next two days take me on a cross-country segway tour, along a high-rope garden, swinging in the treetops of Tyrol’s ‘lake village’ of Kramsach, and hiking on the steep, rocky outcrops of the 2127m-high Wiedersbergerhorn.
Speaking to local Markus Kofler, resplendent in his lederhosen, it seems I’ve only touched the surface of what the Tyrol has to offer. After I recount my adventures, he tells me that there are still hundreds of kilometres of mountain biking and hiking trails to explore.
The rivers offer not only rafting, but kayaking, canoeing and canyoning; the skies can be paraglided; and under our feet, cavers are delving deep into the mountain rock. It seems there’s no part of this verdant landscape that can’t be used for some active purpose.
My suspicions are confirmed upon my return to the hotel, where I get chatting to 25-year-old receptionist Helen.
“I came here for the winter season, because I love skiing,” she tells me. “But I stayed because I realised it’s fun all year round. So I’m still here – five years later!”
More on Austrian Tyrol at http://www.tyrol.com
Celia was hosted by Crystal Summer, which can organise all the activities described here, plus many more.
Celia also stayed at Hotel Alpbacherhof in Alpbach – one week costs from £545 per person on a half-board basis (including flights from Gatwick and transfer from Innsbruck)
Direct flights to Innsbruck are available twice weekly with easyJet starting from £45.49 one way
Eat, Drink, Sleep
Budget The cheapest option in Mayrhofen is to pop into Gasser, the local butcher, for a meaty snack on the go, for as little as a couple of euros. There are also tables outside if you have time to linger.
Midrange After a nerve-jangling climb up the Hunteraner’s via ferratas, you’ll be ready for a traditional weiner schnitzel and beer at the Zimmereben Gasthaus. The delicious kaiserschmarrn (a sort of light, caramelised pancake split into bits) are a tempting treat. From about £4.50.
Luxury Just a few miles away in nearby Hippach is the gourmet restaurant of Hotel Sieghard. Chef Sieghard Eder prepares both regional and international dishes to an excellent standard, and there is a great view of the mountains to enjoy while eating. Expect to pay about £80 per head.
Budget Enjoy a few ‘medicinal’ schnapps at the cosy cellar bar, Apropos. Their Happy Hour generously runs from 8.30pm to 10pm and the bar is open until 4am. Drinks from £2.35.
Midrange A fun, friendly place with a modern, easy-going atmosphere is Coup and More. There’s an outside sun terrace, too. Drinks from about £3.
Luxury Named after Mayrhofen’s suicidal skiing slope, Harakiri is a neon-lit bar/ nightclub that keeps punters happy until 2am, with a good range of cocktails from £4.75.
Budget Gasthof Zillertal is housed in an old lodge, on the banks of the River Ziller, a short walk from the town centre. Choose from dormitory, double room or spacious apartment accommodation from £8.55pn.
Midrange Take a dip in the pool, then lie back on a lounger in Hotel Strass’s grassy grounds and watch the bright- yellow cable cars leisurely make their way up Penken, just metres away. From £525pppw on a half-board basis (including flights from Gatwick and transfer from Innsbruck).
Luxury The only five-star hotel in the Zillertal Valley is the Elisabeth, a charming, friendly establishment. It may be a little dated, but most rooms boast a four-poster bed and a balcony with great views up to the Hintertux glacier. From £130pn for a double room.
Photos: Celia Topping, Danny North, Austrian Tourist Board, tirolimages.at