I spent a lot of time planning our trip to Europe this year. Everything revolved around the Dolomites trip that we were doing with CustomWalks. The end part was easy. The trip ended with a transfer to a town where we could catch a train to Venice. So we planned to spend a few days in Venice at the end of the trip and fly home from there.
The front end was trickier. The Customwalks trip started in San Candido, a small town in the far north of Italy. So when we finished our week of hiking in Austria on our own, we had to be in San Candido or somewhere that would allow us to get there easily. I also had to figure out how we would get around for the week that we would be traveling on our own in Austria. On our previous trips to the Alps, we relied totally on public transportation. In Switzerland we could fly in and out of major cities and take the train to get to and from the mountain towns that we used as bases. Once in the mountains, we could usually hike right from the town we were staying, or in a few cases, take buses, trains or cable cars to reach the trailheads. This worked really well in Switzerland and we didn't need to rent a car on either of our trips there.
This didn't look like it would work in Austria. From studying guidebooks and the web, I concluded that we definitely needed a car to get around. It wasn't so much getting from town to town as reaching the starting point for many of the hikes that we planned to do. So we needed to rent a car for traveling in Austria but we wouldn't need the car for the CustomWalks trip. That meant that we had two problems. First, where would we drop off the rental car and second how would we get to the start of the Dolomites trip. We decided to fly into Munich. That was the closest large city to the areas in Austria that we wanted to explore. Getting a rental car in Munich and getting to the mountains would be easy, at least in principle. In fact it turned out to be a little bit tricky but eventually we made it. Dropping the rental car off would be the hard part. We could drive back to Munich and take a train from there to San Candido, but that would involve a lot of backtracking and take an entire day. Most of the towns in the mountains where we would be traveling were too small to have rental car agencies. We seemed to be stuck.
Then I found Lienz. It's a small city, large enough that it had a EuropeCar agency where we could drop off our rental car. It would make a good base town - it's in a valley surrounded by mountains and and provides access to good hiking. It's only 40 kilometers from San Candido, which we could reach from Lienz in less than an hour by train. It looked like it would work perfectly.
Until Sandy tried to book it. The fee for picking the rental car up at one location and dropping it off at a another was as much as the charge for the entire week's rental! But there is an old chess players saying - forced moves are easy. Translating for non-chess players, it basically says that you shouldn't think too hard about decisions when you only have one choice. So in this case, even though it was expensive, it was our only option. We went ahead and booked it.
Fast forward to near the end of our travel in Austria. We had just finished our attempt to climb the Schleinitz and were back in Lienz. The next day would be our last hike in Austria, and then afterwards we would turn in the rental car. The following day we would take the train to San Candido to join our group for the Dolomites tour.
Just to be safe we thought that we would check where the rental car place was in Lienz. That way we would be sure we could find it after tomorrow's hike and we could figure out how to get back to our hotel after dropping off the car. Sandy went to the EuropeCar website and pulled up her rental agreement. There was a button on the webpage that you could click for directions to the rental car office where we would be dropping off the car. Being high tech, it used our current position and gave us directions from where we were to the rental car office. We expected it to show that it was a short distance from our hotel. But when Sandy clicked, it came back and said that it was two hundred miles away. It was a four hour drive. WTF?
A close examination revealed the problem. We were in the town of Lienz. The rental contract online said that we would be returning the car to the town of Linz. That's also a city in Austria but one that was over two hundred miles away, just as the website was indicating. There was only one letter difference, but it would be like looking up your rental car return in the US and expecting it to be in Nampa, Idaho and finding out that it was Napa, California. Now we had a big problem.
Fortunately we had looked all of this up the day before we were supposed to return our rental car. We had time to go to the office in Lienz today and get it straightened out. Or at least that's what we hoped.
We looked up the address for the Lienz office and it was right next to the train station, across from the public parking lot we had been using when we went into the city center. Ok, right next to the train station makes sense. So when we went into town that afternoon for shopping and dinner, the first thing we did was walk over to the rental car office.
Except that it wasn't there. There was a row of shops, then a car dealer, then nothing. We went back and forth multiple times and double and triple checked google maps on Sandy's iPhone. The car dealer was where the rental car place shold be. We even looked for the rental car lot - every rental car place has to have one, right? Still no luck. Finally we went inside to ask someone for directions. There at the desk was a small EuropeCar sign. The good news was that we had found the rental car agency. The bad news was, it was so small that it wasn't even in its own office. It was just handled by the car dealer. But at least we had found it.
Of course it's always a little daunting to try to have a complex conversation with someone in English when you are in a non-English speaking country. For simple things like ordering food or buying a tshirt, pointing and grunting usually works. This was a lot tougher. We approached the desk with some trepidation but Sandy (she's braver than me) quickly found out that the lady there spoke excellent English. Whew! She confirmed that they did indeed handle rental cars.
We explained the problem to her. We were a day ahead of time, so it should be easy to fix, right? No. Since the car was rented in Germany, and we were in Austria, even though they were both EuropeCar agencies they were different companies. But the lady was very helpful. She got on the phone and even though it took her almost an hour, she eventually was able to get us corrected in the computer system. When we left, she claimed that we were now expected to return the car tomorrow in Lienz, not Linz. All we could think when we left to get dinner was that it was a good thing that we had checked ahead of time. When traveling, it never hurts to double and even triple check the arrangements.
That evening the poor weather that we were having finally broke and the skies cleared. The next morning the mountains were clear and there were beautiful blue skies. We'd had our rest days and we were ready for serious hiking again.
This time we were driving to the trailhead. We would start at the Dolomitten Hutte. It was a short drive but up a very steep road. From Lienz on the valley floor we had to climb a thousand meters to reach the hut at 1620 meters. The guidebook said that the roads were very confusing and the hut was hard to find. Not long after we started we found that the good news was that the roads were clearly marked. A little later we found that the bad news was that I had forgotten my hiking boots and we had to turn around and go back to get them. It's a good thing that my hiking partner is very patient!
About half an hour later we were back where we had been. Drive to the trailhead - take two. This time I had my hiking boots with me. The last stretch was on a private road and we had to pay a toll to drive all the way to the trailhead. Once again the toll sticker that we had worked so hard to get didn't do us any good. Oh well. Better to have it and not need it then to need it and not have it. I guess.
Finally we reached a large parking area just before a gate blocked the road. Time to park the car and start hiking. We walked up the access road barely a quarter of a mile before we reached the Dolomitten Hutte. It was obviously a little early to stop to eat, much less to stay overnight. But I had to admit that the hut was in a spectacular setting. Perched on the edge of a cliff, it had a fantastic view of nearby peaks, the town of Lienz in the valley below, and the mountains beyond. We were able to pick out the Sleinitz, the peak that we had attempted the day before. The clouds that we had hiked in yesterday were gone and now the mountain was totally clear. Sandy was impressed at how big it was and how it stood out from the mountains around it. She looked at me and said "We were trying to climb that?" Yes we were and it would have been awesome if we had made it. Unfortunately, try was the key word. Maybe next time we are in the area we will have good weather for another attempt. Sadly it's on that long list of peaks that I am going to get next time.
As we were admiring the views a car drove up the access road and stopped at the hut. At first I was irritated that someone had driven to the hut when it was at most a quarter of a mile to walk. A young woman got out with with a Tyrolean-style dress over her shoulder and her arms full of bags filled with fresh vegetables. Ok, it's one of the employees. It looked like she had been shopping for supplies for the hut on her day off and was coming back to work. We passed her and started to hike up the access road beyond the hut.
Our route followed the access road to the higher Karlsruhe Hutte, our destination for the hike. Since it was a road it wasn't too steep and was wide and well graded. Easy hiking. We took our time and enjoyed the scenery hiking up. At one point a pickup truck passed us. It looked like a supply run for the upper hut. I always find it annoying to be hiking and have someone drive by, but that was the only time it happened on this trip. Since it is nice to be able to have lunch and cold drinks at high mountain huts, there needs to be a way to get those supplies up there. So I was ok with this. But just this once.
The hike up to the hut took a couple of hours but it was very nice. There was a fair amount of elevation gain, almost 2,000 feet. But since we were hiking an access road the grade was very easy. There was a trail that cut most of the switchbacks on the road and was much steeper, but we didn't see the point to that. It was a beautiful day. We were hiking through the forest with the Lienzer Dolomites all around us and views of the valley and snow covered peaks in the distance. We were content to take our time.
Eventually we got above timber line and turned a corner into the upper valley. Now we could see the hut in the distance, still quite a way above us. Here there were many side trails that led to scramble routes, via ferrata (called kletterweg or climbing path in German) and technical climbing routes on the surrounding peaks. It was a beautiful area and one that provided a lot of opportunities for mountain activities.
When we finally reached the hut we grabbed a spot on the patio to sit down and rest and have lunch. The hut overlooked the Laserzbach Valley that we had just hiked up. It was an impressive view. While we were checking out the menus for lunch we noticed the young woman that we had seen getting out of the car at the lower hut. She must have been in the pickup truck that passed us while we were hiking up. I guess she was back to work after some time off in town. And we were grateful for the supplies that she had brought with her, so that now we could order lunch.
And what a lunch it was. It was awesome. I ordered the noodle soup. Sandy went for the knodel soup that she had discovered the day before on our Schleinitz hike. It was her new favorite dish. Both of our soups were excellent. I also got a large piece of cherry torte with lots of cream. Mmmmm. I was in heaven. And we both had large glasses of cold Coke. Although I like the wilderness ambience of hikes in the US, I had to admit that in Europe it was great to have a delicious lunch after our long hike up to the hut. It's decadent, but hey, we worked hard to get here. There aren't many places that you can do that in North America. The few that I know are in Canada. This was the best lunch that I had on the entire trip. I think the fact that the words "cherry" and "cream" appear in the description explain it. Add in a sunny deck and fantastic mountain views and, well, there you are. I'm not sure how life can be any better.
After lunch we walked a short distance beyond the hut to a small lake, the Laserzsee. It was a pretty setting in a cirque surrounded by rocky peaks, but all the pictures were shot directly into the sun. The iPhone camera is good, but it's not that good. So you will just have to take my word for it that it was spectacular scenery.
From the hut numerous routes lead deeper into the mountains to other huts. There are so many opportunities. But we were on a day trip so it was time for us to head down. The hike down was very enjoyable too. The weather was perfect. It was easy hiking down hill. And there were beautiful peaks all around us.
After the hike we cleaned up and went to the rental car agency/car dealer. We were a little nervous when we saw that the lady that had helped us the day before wasn't there. The lady there today didn't speak English quite as well. But the lady had done all the prep work the day before, and we turned in the car with no problems. After that we walked the mile plus back to the hotel.
It was a nice day so we sat on the patio and had a beer. We were feeling pretty good after an excellent hike and getting our rental car turned in. When we ordered a second round, I got my beer but Sandy got a shandy, a mixture of beer and seven up. I guess the bartender thought that the limit for ladies was one beer. He might have been right. Sandy is a lightweight when it comes to drinking.
Afterwards we had a nice dinner at the hotel. The Austria portion of our trip was over. Tomorrow we would catch a train for Italy and a week of hiking in the Dolomites.