Gosh, it’s surely one of winter’s bleakest days – dark oppressive skies, rain in sheets, impending Brexit doom and no light at the end of the tunnel; meanwhile the Allgäu, where we recently spent a few happy snow days over Christmas, is now buried under metres of the white stuff, with avalanches threatening to sweep away alpine villages, people stranded and remote communities effectively cut off from the rest of the World. A good time then to stay close to the fireside with a hot toddy or a mug of glühwein and to reflect on some sunnier, warmer days spent in the mountains over the last year or two.
One place that keeps pulling us back, time and time again, is the valley of Tannheimer Tal, located on the border between Bavaria and Tyrol to the SW of Munich. Although the Tannheimer Tal is frequently referred to as one of the most beautiful high valleys in the Alps, it’s pretty much off the radar for most UK visitors, who mostly breeze past unknowingly on the way to more popular destinations such as Innsbruck or the Dolomites – some of the hoards being momentarily distracted to mingle with the crowds at nearby Neuschwanstein before heading quickly off again on their travels.
With a light covering of snow on the peaks and the lower pastures turning from vibrant summer green to the more subtle hues of autumn, it’s easy to see why claims about the valley’s beauty are quite justified. There are some super hikes and the mountains are accessible for people of all abilities without being overly crowded, outwith the main holiday season. The scale of the landscape is perhaps also more on a par to that of the Scottish Highlands, rather than some of the better known parts of the Alps such as Mt. Blanc or the Bernese Oberland. Whilst it is still dramatic enough, it makes day hikes a civilised and practical option.
One great route taking in some accessible peaks is the “panorama” trail from Neunerköpfle, just above Tannheim village, to the Landsberger Hut. We did this on a fantastic October day with clear skies and super visibility giving us great views across the Eastern Alps in all directions to peaks such as the Gaishorn, Hochvogel, the Zugspitz and the Karwendel . In particular the views from the Sultzspitze, were sublime and well worth the effort of making a small detour. The Neunerköpfle gondola provides easy access to the start of the route, thereby saving much of the initial uphill grind.
On the opposite side of the valley, the Gräner Höhenweg provides an equally worthwhile experience with a great high level traverse along the tops between the Fussener Jöchle and the Bad Kissinger Hut. As well as great panoramic views along the trail there are many alpine flowers along the route such as trumpet gentians, silver thistles as well as glimpses of elusive chamois (Gämse) and other fauna lurking in forested glades and alpine meadows.
The Highlight of the Gräner Höherweg though must surely be the Aggenstein, a precipitous and seemingly impregnable rock citadel perched overlooking the valley at 1,985m. Although the Aggenstein appears forbidding, particularly from the Northern side, it is in fact a relatively easy scramble from the Bad Kissinger Hut. Whilst there is a short scrambling section at the top, it is well protected through provision of a cable on the airier sections.
Climbing the Aggenstein in October was a particular high point for my son Kai, who’d become pretty obsessed with the idea of getting to the top after previous visits to the area; in particular he loved the mountain choughs which congregate around the summit, remarkably tolerant to hikers, who no-doubt donate much of the contents of their lunch boxes to the birds.
To the North of Tannheimer Tal, nestled under the Breitenberg mountain and in the Vilstal, is the small and unpretenious Bavarian resort of Pfronten, which is reached by an easy pass between the hills from Grän. This offers a good alternative base for exploring the area from the Bavarian side. Around the Visltal and Pfronten there is also much to see including the interesting ruined hilltop castles of Eisenberg, Hohen-Fryberg and Burg Falkenstein which sits perched on another unfeasibly precipitous vantage point overlooking the valley and the surrounding undulating landscape of the Bayerisch Voralpen.
It was at Falkenstein that the “Fairytale King” or “mad” King Ludwig II of Bavaria wanted to build a second and even more ambitious version of Neuschwanstein. The project never got much beyond the design stage, however, due to Ludwig’s rickety financial position and his subsequent capture and death by drowning in mysterious circumstances at Starnberger See near to Munich.
Anyway back to the present, the rain has stopped and there are chinks of brightness appearing through the low clouds sweeping in low over the Eifel hills. Perhaps the brightness of spring, the intensity of summer and golden autumn days will return again when bleak midwinter days have faded from memory…