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Corkscrew Tunnels and Hairpin Turns - on the Road Through the Austrian Alps

CORKSCREW TUNNELS AND HAIRPIN TURNS: On the road through the Austrian Alps
by Diana McLeod

Never let a man drive a Mercedes Benz. Once he does, he will be spoiled for life. He will never be truly content to drive the old clunker in the driveway again.

      We rented the fateful vehicle in Innsbruck Austria, for several days. On one of those days, Dave had devised an ambitious plan to tour a highly scenic and challenging Alpine road. It was going to be a long day. We had to traverse a substantial distance by mountain road, going way down near the south-eastern Italian border, and back up north, The road went from Innesbrook to Lienz, and then through a fierce mountain pass in the Hohe Tauern National Park.

      I got the map out and started studying it. This turned out to be a fun job, because the town names were very unusual. Here are just some of the towns we passed through on this trip: Shlitters, Fugen, Zeil-am-Ziller, Finkenburg, Oberfelben, Helgenblut, Worgl, Rattenburg, Brixlegg, Vomp, Vomperberg, Unterschick, Pill, and Wattens. We attempted to pronounce them with our dreadful Austrian accents.

      The road from Mayrhofen was not so good. It was the modern Austria I was expecting – Lots of ski resorts, with fake new “alpine villages” and tacky gift shops set up for hordes of tourists. It was September, but the cable cars were running anyway, taking non-hikers up to the mountain views. In between tourist traps, the road was narrow, with no room to pass the tour bus caravan that we were stuck behind. We soon lost time, and it was just like being stuck behind leaf-peeper RV’s at home. Dave fumed, and prepared to pass at the earliest opportunity.

      At last, we flew past the offending vehicles, and made better time down to Lienz. There was a super-long tunnel on this road, for which we had to pay an equally impressive toll. We were amazed by the number of tunnels in Austria. They were everywhere, even on small secondary roads. When we finally popped out of this massive tunnel, the mountain view had changed. We were now looking at the range that divides Austria and Italy. Even the towns were different:– more Italian, and less Tyrolian.

      From the city of Lienz we turned northwards again. The road went up steadily, through mountain gorges and incredibly scenic valleys. Dave stopped in one isolated little village to take a picture of the local church. When we stopped the car, we noticed that there was not a soul in sight -– the town looked utterly deserted. Then, we heard music, coming over a P.A. system, so we decided to investigate.

      The entire community was gathered in the village square for a harvest festival. To our amazement and delight, most of the villagers were wearing real Trachten (genuine traditional Tyrolian clothing.) The men wore traditional lederhosen and jaunty alpine hats, and the ladies were beautifully decked out in bodices, lacy blouses, full skirts, and actual lace stockings, most of which were probably hand made. The ladies held bouquets of flowers, and their hats were wide, broadbrimmed affairs, with ribbons streaming down their backs. Since this was a genuine festival for the local people, and not a put-on affair for tourists, the folks were proud and delighted to have their pictures taken. We were almost the only tourists there!

      Everybody was busy swilling beer, socializing at picnic tables, and watching the local dance troupe, who were performing on a small stage. Local musicians provided traditional music. There seemed to be two types of dancing: polka dancing for men and women dancing together, and other dances for an all male group. They performed a highly energetic dance, with lots of foot slapping and stomping.

      To everyone’s' amusement, a little child climbed right up onto the stage and joined the men’s' dance, next to his dad. The tiny toddler imitated his father quite well. He was more or less able to follow the complicated movements of the dance. We whipped out our video cameras, and started shooting. I think I really should submit the footage to “"Austria’'s Funniest Home Videos,"” if there is such a thing. The small child, dancing with Dad, wearing his tiny lederhosen, was hilarious, and the crowd was soon howling with laughter.

      After the dancing, the crowd prepared for the decorated tractor contest. All the farmers had driven their tractors to town, proudly decorated with flowers, pumpkins, ribbons, scarecrow figures, and other harvest-themed decorations. One tractor, which looked like it was going to win, pulled a decorated haywagon full of small blond children and an adorable baby goat.

      We wanted to stay longer, have a beer, and get to know the people, who were all very nice, but we had no time. We shot some more pictures on the way out of the festival, including one of the Town Constable. He had worn his gun along with his lederhosen, and, when Dave aimed a camera at him, he jokingly tried to pose with the gun. He went to pull out the weapon, but he had forgotten that he had also stuck one of the ladies’ bouquets in the holster, along with the gun, so he wound up pulling out the bouquet, instead. Everyone had a good laugh.

      Back at the car, we calculated our distances, and decided that we had better hustle back to Innsbruck. The festival and the traffic had added at least an hour and a half to our trip time. Austrian roads are confusing and poorly marked, and we did not want to get lost at night. Dave decided that he needed to step up his driving speed. Dave gunned it out of town, knowing the cop was busy partying, and we hit the road in earnest.

      The road climbed steadily, up a fabulously green Alpine valley. Ahead of us were jagged whitecapped mountains. We rounded another corner, and discovered something else ahead of us – another toll booth! This road trip was going to cost us another $50! Austria is lovely, but, for us Americans, it is NOT CHEAP!

      The toll also turned out to be the entrance fee to the Hohe Tauern National Park. I soon begrudgingly forgave the Austrians their fees, when I saw the absolutely insane amount of construction and maintenance this crazy mountain pass required. On the map, the road looked like a piece of string, dropped haphazardly on the floor. In reality, it was a dizzying, winding, rollercoaster ride, with hairpin turns, sheer cliffs, showsheds, and tunnels. One corkscrew tunnel allowed the road to circle right over itself.

      We reached the glacier overlook, where we could look down on a permanent ice glacier. Above us rose the Grossglocker, Austria’s highest peak. An early storm had blanketed the peak with fresh new snow, and it stood out magnificently against the bright blue sky in the sunshine.

      As we left the parking lot, we were instantly stuck behind some slowpokes, and Dave decided to pass, even though we were heading for a sharp curve with a sheer 1500 foot drop-off. I put my hands up in alarm, but Dave was confident. "“Piece of cake,"” he grinned. “"This car was made for this kind of thing.”" Sure enough, it really was a feasible pass, and he was able to make the turn easily.

      The magnificence of the pass grew even better as we climbed higher. I gazed at the peaks, with the inevitable songs from “The Sound of Music” running through my head. (That iconic movie would haunt us all through the trip, with lyrics from some of the most irritating songs popping up at the most unfortunate moments). Dave, however, was humming a different tune. I heard “"dum, da-da-da DUM dum dum dum”" and I knew it was going to be a wild ride. Yes, it was the James Bond theme song. There was some bonding going on, between the man and his car…

      Dave is an excellent driver. A long time ago, we lived on a dangerous mountain road in Vermont, with some very tight fall-away curves. Dave had to drive it all the time, and he got used to it. The switchbacks on this mountain were far tighter, but they were better engineered, and the car was fantastic. For him, the excuse of lateness was just what the doctor ordered. He was having fun. We roared over the snowy pass, and down the other side, leaving even the local Austrian drivers in our dust. Dave was really putting the car to the test. I was hanging on for dear life.

      The scenery, when I could take the time to look at it, was very beautiful. Multiple waterfalls cascaded off the northern flanks of the Grossglocker, arching into the deep gorge below. The descending sun backlit the craggy mountains against the brilliant sky, giving a golden warmth to the grassy highland pastures on the eastern side of the road.

      It was both a disappointment and a relief when we got back to a real highway again, and made our way back to Innsbruck. And, when Dave contemplated the staggering bill from the rental agency, not to mention the cost of diesel in Europe, it wasn'’t too heartbreaking for him to return the Mercedes to its rightful owners.

      Thanks for reading! Diana

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