Rick Steves’ Europe


Austrian and Italian Alps

In the Alps of Austria and Italy, we celebrate both nature and culture. After conquering the Zugspitze, we tour Innsbruck, visit a remote farm in Austria, and join in a Tirolean village festival. Then we cross the Alps into Italy and tour a uniquely well-preserved medieval castle before joyriding deep into the rugged Dolomite Mountains.

AIRED: October 19, 2020 | 0:25:02

-Hi, I'm Rick Steves, back with more of the best of Europe.

And right now, I'm the highest person in Germany,

proving that almost anybody

can make the summit in Europe's Alps.

And from up here we venture south,

for the best of the Alps in Austria and in Italy.

Thanks for joining us.





-I love how in Europe, nature and culture mix it up.

And here in the Alps, each region

has a distinct flavor.

In this episode, we'll celebrate both nature and culture

in the Alps of Austria and Italy.


After conquering the Zugspitze,

we'll visit a remote farm in Austria,

and join in a Tirolean village festival.

Then, we cross the Alps,

tour a uniquely well-preserved medieval castle,

and joyride deep into Italy's rugged Dolomite Mountains.

After an unforgettable hike, we'll catch our breath

in Europe's largest high-altitude meadow,

and then enjoy some more Alpine folk music.


Germany, Austria, and Italy come together high in the Alps.

We start in Bavaria at the Zugspitze.

From there, we travel south into the Tirol,

an historic region that today is split

between Austria and Italy.

We visit Innsbruck and Hall

before crossing Brenner Pass into Italy.

From Kastelruth, we explore the Dolomites.

Across the Alps, mountain resorts

are investing in their infrastructure.

And here in Bavaria, they've made it quick and easy

to experience their mightiest peak.


The Zugspitze, at nearly 10,000 feet,

is Germany's highest mountain.

And this cable car zips us to the top in ten minutes.

The cable is about 3 miles long.

It's supported by only one pylon.

And it stretches nearly two miles to the summit

with no support at all.


While there are many higher mountains in the Alps,

the Zugspitze is unique.

It stands alone, offering a view of hundreds of peaks in Germany,

Austria, Italy, and even Switzerland.

The mountain marks the border between Germany and Austria.

From here, the Alps arc like a grand Alpine symphony,

from Vienna way in the east

all the way to the French Riviera,

where these mountains finally plunge into the Mediterranean.

The Zugspitze summit attracts huge crowds.

As on so many European mountain tops,

you'll find restaurants, shops, and well-entertained tourists.

The Zugspitze is famed for a cold and ghostly wind

that can really howl in the winter.

This hikers' hut has been perched here

for well over a century.

And thanks to these beefy cables,

it's never been blown off the top.

The summit, first climbed in 1820,

is marked by a golden cross,

carried up here by hardy villagers back in 1851.

Today, with the help of iron steps and cables,

it's climbed, either from the distant valley floor

or from the adjacent summit restaurant,

by families, seniors, and even travel writers.

These days, escaping the tourist crowds takes initiative --

and having a car can be helpful.

We've crossed into Austria and are ready to explore.

Detailed maps show tiny roads you might not realize exist.

For a car-hiker's look at life high in the Alps,

we're switch-backing up to a 5,000-foot-high perch.

From the end of the road, it's an easy 20-minute stroll

to the Walderalm farm.

It's actually a cluster of three family-run dairy farms --

with 70 cows -- sharing their meadow

amid staggering mountain views.

These families have eked out a living on these farms

with remarkably little change for generations.

Hans, while well into his 80s now,

is still involved in the family farm.

Today, it's so hot, the cows are hanging out in the barn.

But there's still work to be done.

And with the chores finished,

Hans enjoys whittling in his spare time.

His favorite subject?

Cows, of course.

[ Cattle lowing ]

The traditional Alpine farmhouse was energy efficient,

considering the technology of the day.

The family lived here on the middle floor.

The cows got the ground floor.

There's about 40 cows just down there.

They'd catch the body heat of the cows,

and that would help to heat the family.

And the hay loft provided insulation

and the assurance there'd be enough food

to get the cows through the winter.

And on this farm, the system works to this day.

These days, family farms struggle to survive.

Here in Europe, many manage only

with the help of government subsidies

and by tapping into the tourist trade.

A steady stream of hikers and bikers work hard

to reach this idyllic spot.

And Hans and his family are happy

to serve a hearty lunch or a refreshing drink.

From up here, it's all downhill to Innsbruck.

Filling the valley floor,

it's one of the biggest cities within the Alps.

Innsbruck was an important outpost of the Habsburg Empire.

For five centuries, it was their capital of the Tirol,

with all the imperial trappings --

a grand church,

an stately palace,

and an extravagant balcony fit for a king.

This much-admired Golden Roof was built

for the Habsburg Emperor Maximilian in 1494.

The roof, with over 2,000 gilded copper tiles,

remains the town's centerpiece.

Innsbruck's historic center is now a pedestrian zone.

Looking past the crowds,

it still feels like a once-grand provincial capital.

The city's folk museum is a medieval Tirolean home show.

Humble as that rural farming community may have been,

an artistic touch prevails.

The plow seems to honor hard work.

One-legged milking stools were finely carved.

Cribs were decorated with religious themes

to be sure God watched over the baby.

Fantastical characters warded off evil

and even served as human scarecrows.

Merchants carrying their wares on their backs

would hike from village to village.

This one sold fine fabric.

Intricately whittled dioramas show off

the region's tradition of fine woodcarving.

While this could be any Tirolean village,

upon closer look, it's Bethlehem in the Alps.

Bible stories like this Nativity scene

made most sense to locals

when presented in a familiar hometown setting.

Today, this manger scene gives you a glimpse of village life

in the Tirol a couple centuries ago.

Innsbruck's worth a quick look,

but I prefer a smaller town with fewer tourists.

Tonight, we're sleeping five miles downstream

in the town named Hall in Tirol.

Even before the time of the Habsburgs,

Hall was an important trading city.

Back then, its medieval center was actually larger

than Innsbruck's.

Today's laid-back Hall cradles its market square.

Its pastel buildings and quaint streets

feel refreshingly traditional.

Actually, too traditional if you're trying

to accomplish anything more than a leisurely lunch

from noon till 2:00 -- when everything closes.

[ Children shout playfully ]

During the Habsburg rule,

Hall's Castle served as the local mint.

Old-time methods are still used here

to strike shiny souvenir coins.

[ Indistinct conversations ]

500 years ago, this...

was how you made money.


The town's name, Hall, means salt.

Hall was so important

because it was a center of salt mining and trade.

In the past, salt was mined like a precious mineral.

It was so valuable because before modern refrigeration

it was used to preserve food.

Salt helped people survive the winters.

That's why they called it "white gold."

Back when salt was money, Hall was loaded.

Its seal features a barrel of salt.

The town's elegant architecture and rich church

made it clear that in its day, Hall was a local powerhouse.

While the church's structure is mostly 15th century Gothic,

the décor inside is 17th century Baroque.

And with a close look,

you can see the wealth was founded on salt.

Miners generated the wealth

that paid for the lavish altars,

extravagant starbursts,

and this statue of the miners' patron,

St. Barbara.

And even the little cupids carry barrels of salt.


The old pedestrian bridge leads over the milky,

glacier-fed Inn River, to our hotel.

Gasthof Badl is run by the Steiner family.

I love a family-run hotel, and here,

three generations are hard at work.

I've enjoyed Frau Steiner's warm welcome for a generation.

She makes each guest feel right at home.

Now her daughter Sonia runs the show

with the same flair for hospitality.

And clearly granddaughter Laura is next in line.

We're dining on Tirolean favorites --

spaetzle, a traditional kind of pasta,

and dumplings.

As is typical of the guest houses I like to recommend,

Frau Steiner shares the local culture,

and that includes both food and music.

[ Traditional music playing ]

Tonight, under the convivial chestnut tree,

the town band and the dancing group

are performing for each other as much as the hotel guests.

The Tirolean brass band starts things off.


The maiden with the schnapps

makes sure to lubricate as necessary.



[ Song ends ]


[ Applause ]

-Then, it's time for the dancers.


I love how folk dancing recalls

the courting rituals of medieval societies.

Dancing was an acceptable way to meet the girl or guy

from the next farm back in an age

when simply connecting was a challenge.


And with slap dancing like this, what girl wouldn't say yes?



[ Song ends ]

-Ya-hoo-hoo-hoo-hoo! [ Applause ]

-Heading south, we cross Europe's cultural

and geographical divide,

driving from the Germanic world, over the Alps,

into the Mediterranean world -- Italy.

The Brenner Pass has been the easiest way over the Alps

since ancient Roman times.

2,000 years ago,

Roman legions followed this route, the Via Claudia,

as they marched north to conquer much of Europe.

Sections of the ancient road are still preserved.

Deep grooves are reminders of countless wagon wheels

that followed this very route.

Today, the Brenner Pass is easier

than ever to cross as drivers arc gracefully

along one of the engineering wonders of Europe.

From the top of the Europabrucke,

or Europe's Bridge,

it feels like just another freeway,

but from the windy old road at the valley floor

it looks like a mighty sculpture.

The freeway zips drivers from Innsbruck

to the Italian border in about 30 minutes.

How about pasta for lunch?

While the Autobahn in Austria and Germany is toll-free,

the Italian Autostrada has plenty of toll booths.

But that's nothing new here.

This crossing has long been a gauntlet of toll booths

and forts.

Empires from Roman times to World War II

understood the strategic value of Brenner Pass.

This fortress, called Franzensfeste,

was built in the 1830s.

It was one of the mightiest of its day.

A huge investment by the Habsburg emperor in Vienna,

it was designed to protect his empire

from invasions from the south.

Throughout the Middle Ages, this was the trade route

that connected the Germanic world

with cities like Venice and Florence.

When medieval traders reached this valley,

chances are they were stopped,

willingly or not, at a castle like this.

Reifenstein Castle was built to control trade.

But Reifenstein has grown more welcoming with age.

While it used to take a battering ram

to get these doors open, now all it takes is a few Euros.

-Hello. Hello. -Hey -- Guten Tag.

-Welcome to Reifenstein.

-Reifenstein offers one of Europe's most intimate

looks at medieval castle life.

The actual count and countess of Reifenstein

are determined to preserve their historic castle.


The castle caretaker shows visitors around on tours

several times a day.

We're enjoying a private visit.


While the castle was originally built a thousand years ago,

what we see today is about 500 years old.

It's a rare opportunity to see

an intact medieval castle interior.

Within its mighty stone walls,

hefty timbers flesh out the staircases and rooms.

The woodwork is artful, and the engineering ingenious.

While there was no well, rainwater was collected

into a cistern that functions to this day.

Paintings adorning the walls feature

only one family -- the noble German family

that has owned the castle for centuries.

Here the lord and lady seem proud of what must have been

an impressive fortified home in its day.

Here's a fun fix for a tipsy lord.

Too much to drink?

A clever funnel guides the key right into the hole.

From the looks of the sumptuous green room,

medieval life for the nobility was pretty comfortable.

The painted walls are original --

a rare example of secular art

surviving from the Middle Ages.

With voluptuous swoops and curls, this scene,

frescoed in 1498, is a fantasy of elves,



and fruity symbols of fertility.


You can catch a view across the valley

to Reifenstein's sister castle.

Two castles like these,

strategically straddling the valley,

could control much of the trade passing

between Germany and Italy.

To exercise his power and collect those tolls,

the castle lord needed a small personal army.

This room is the knights' quarters.

Up to eight men shared each of these boxes,

complete with hay for maximum comfort.

Imagine 40 snoring knights packed into one room.

There was no fire for warmth, as an accident

would set the entire place up in flames.

So, the knights huddled together to stay warm.

And every good castle needs a dungeon,

used mostly to enforce the payment of debts.

The only way in or out was through this hatch.

If you couldn't pay your bills,

you could spend days down here --

no food, only a little water.


Okay, enough about debts and dungeons.

We've escaped, and we're on our way

to Italy's dramatic limestone rooftop.

The Dolomites, with their distinct and jagged peaks,

offer some of the best Alpine thrills in Europe.

And these mighty mountains

seem to protect the traditional culture

in the region's villages and bucolic farmsteads.

Historically, the Tirol was its own state.

Today, that region is divided -- part in Austria

and part in Italy.

The Italian part is called South Tirol.

The region is a mix of the two cultures

and officially bilingual.

While the traditional economy is farming,

today tourism is also big --

skiing in winter,

hiking in summer.

The Great Dolomite Road, beautifully engineered,

leads to the nearly 7,000-foot-high Sela Pass.


It's great for a joy ride,

and famously a big challenge for bikers.

Making it to the summit is always a good excuse

for a triumphant group photo.

-[ Speaks foreign language ]

-These bold limestone pillars offer something for everybody.

This is rock-climbing country --

thrilling, even for spectators.


From the town of Ortisei, we're catching the Seceda lift.

All over this region, the lifts do the climbing fast and easy,

depositing hikers sweat-free at thin-air trailheads.

I love walking on a ridge.

And with as many nationalities enjoying this scene

as there are flowers in the fields,

the blissful world up here is one of pristine nature

and happy hikers.

These slopes are busy with skiers in the winter.

When planning, be aware that in early spring and late fall --

that's between seasons here in the Dolomites --

many lifts, huts, and restaurants are shut down,

and trails can be covered in snow.

We're here in summer, and everything's wide open.

Everywhere I look feels like an Alpine adventure

awaiting my arrival.


One thing I love about Europe --

I've been coming here all my life,

and there's still places to discover.

The town of Kastelruth feels like an Alpine village

rather than a ski resort.

That's why I feature it in my Italy guidebook

as the ideal home base for exploring the Dolomites.

[ Bells tolling ]

The hyperactive bell tower seems to ring out the wisdom

of honoring local traditions.

Buildings are painted with murals

celebrating the town's rich heritage.


Clearly, fire has long been a concern.

Saint Florian, the patron of firefighters,

is shown all over town putting out fires.

The town cemetery is like a lovingly tended garden.

Entire families share a common plot.


Cobbled lanes lead past friendly shops

to the welcoming town square.

And for generations, the fountain,

with its metal cup,

has invited all for a refreshing drink.

The fountain also watered horses,

back when coaching inns lined the square.


Here in the region of South Tirol,

even though we're in Italy,

locals speak German first and Italian second.

That's because for centuries it was

in the Austrian Habsburg realm ruled from Vienna.

After World War I, South Tirol ended up as part of Italy.

Mussolini did what he could to Italianize the region.

He even gave each city a new Italian name.

This town, Kastelruth, became Castelrotto.

But the region's Germanic heritage endures.

You can see it in its prosperity

and in its lively folk culture.

[ Folk music playing ]

Amateur folk bands have fun keeping that heritage alive.

The instruments are traditional, as are the costumes.

The blue aprons come from a time when humble workers

needed to protect their precious clothing.


-[ Singing in foreign language ]

-It's nice to think that these boys

are both modern and traditional,

and their traditions are clearly

surviving into the next generation.

-[ Singing in foreign language ]


[ Singing continues ]



[ Cheering ]



-[ Whistles ]


[ Song ends ]

[ Cheers and applause ]

-Kastelruth is the gateway to Europe's largest Alpine meadow,

the Alpe di Siusi.

As automobiles are generally not allowed,

visitors approach by cable car.

Landing at Compatsch, the commercial hub of the meadow,

hikers can hop a lift or a shuttle bus

to the trailhead of their choice.

The Alpe di Siusi is a natural preserve

at the foot of the mighty Sassolungo

and Sasso Piatto peaks.

The meadow is 3 miles wide by 7 miles long,

and seems to float at 6,000 feet above sea level.

It's dotted by farm huts and wildflowers,

surrounded by dramatic Dolomite peaks,

and crisscrossed by meadow trails --

ideal for equestrians, flower lovers, and walkers.

It's also just right for someone needing a lazy beer

with a spectacular view.

And completing this storybook Dolomite setting,

the spooky Mount Schlern, home of mythical witches,

looks boldly into the haze of the Italian peninsula.


I hope you've enjoyed our look at the Alps of Austria

and Italy -- the Tirol,

where nature is wild yet so accessible.

Thanks for joining us. I'm Rick Steves.

Until next time, keep on traveling.

-This is Rick pretending to relax.

We're trying an experiment here

to see if he can pull it off.

[ Laughs ]

[ Laughing ]


We've been making these TV meals for 20 years,

and I still don't know how to do it.

[ Laughter ]

Yeah! [ Laughs ]

Yeah! [ Laughter ]





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