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Alpine Escape: Grand designs in Vorarlberg

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12 Sep 2018
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Words Mark Bailey Photography Joe McGorty

Vorarlberg is a canvas of colourful contrasts, a picturesque corner of western Austria where the natural, rock-hewn architecture of mountains and valleys blends with man-made urban designs and modern sculptures to serve up a photogenic cycling odyssey.

Bordering Germany, Switzerland and Liechtenstein, Vorarlberg is known for its quirky architectural heritage, luxury ski resorts and cultural events.

But with hundreds of kilometres of traffic-free cycling paths now crossing the region, stretching from the sparkling mirror of Lake Constance in the north to the ice-encrusted 3,312m peak of Piz Buin in the south, it is also a designer destination for cyclists.

And because this network of bike paths links up with some iconic Austrian mountain passes and cycling trails in neighbouring regions, it’s the perfect springboard for a cross-border Alpine adventure.

My journey begins in the city of Bregenz on the eastern edge of Lake Constance. Formed during the Ice Age by the Rhine glacier, the lake covers 536km2 – roughly 10 times the size of Loch Ness.

Today swimmers bob up and down by the shore, while distant passenger ferries chug sleepily across the smooth surface. The lake splashes across the borders of Austria, Switzerland and Germany and is surrounded by a popular 270km cycling path.

But I’m taking a trail south instead, so I can zip along the lustrous River Rhine, past sun-drenched bathing lakes and river meadows, to the medieval town of Feldkirch.

This 50km route would make a leisurely day ride on its own, but today I’m extending the journey along the cycle path network to the village of Partenen, from where I can tackle the famous 34 hairpins of the mighty Silvretta Hochalpenstraße.

Riding alongside me is local cyclist Maximilian Braun, a super-fit mechanical engineer who competes in Ironman events. We start with a brief ride past the architectural treasures of Bregenz.

Architecture is an important part of the culture of Vorarlberg, and Bregenz is filled with eye-catching designs. We ride past the Vorarlberg Museum, which is covered in 16,656 concrete flowers, and pass the glass and steel Kunsthaus museum of modern arts, designed by the Swiss minimalist architect Peter Zumthor.

As we ride along Lake Constance I almost crash at the sight of a pair of giant hands reaching out of the water, its fingers shuffling a deck of cards suspended in mid-air.

This is the latest incarnation of the famous ‘Seebuhne’, a floating stage surrounded by a 7,000-seater open-air amphitheatre, which hosts the annual Bregenz Festival of opera and music.

The design of the stage changes every two years. In 1999, for example, a 22m-high skeleton lurked above the performers, while in 2008, when scenes from the Bond movie Quantum of Solace were filmed here, the stage was shaped like a giant eye.

As we trace the Rhine southwards into quieter terrain, we dash past water meadows, shaded forests and fields festooned with wildflowers. Cycling is popular with both locals and visitors and the smooth paths are designed to make long rides as comfortable as possible.

At regular intervals I see vending machines for inner tubes, fitted with handy tools and pumps. This is the home turf of former Hour Record holder Matthias Brandle of Trek-Segafredo, and popular events here include the Highlander Radmarathon, which features 4,040m of climbing over a 187km course.

Depending on your mood you can either blast along the traffic-free bike paths at speed (Maximilian likes to use the cycle paths as a training ground for time-trialling because he can sustain an uninterrupted power output on the smooth tracks) or take some relaxing breaks en route.

Riders can enjoy a leisurely brunch on the luxurious Hohentwiel paddle steamer at Hard; visit the Rhein-Schauen train museum at Lustenau; swim at the Rheinauen outdoor pool in Hohenems; or ponder sculptures in the eerie gravel works of Galerie Im Kies in Altach.

From Meiningen we dash through a broad valley surrounded on all sides by soaring mountains. Hidden among the peaks to the east is the luxury ski resort of Lech – a popular winter retreat for Hollywood stars such as Tom Cruise and Renee Zellweger.

We take a detour to Bangs on the outskirts of Feldkirch, then ride along the Rhine to the border with Liechtenstein. From here, our route takes us to the old town of Feldkirch, an atmospheric warren of narrow medieval streets guarded by the 13th century Schattenburg Castle.

We stop at the Rauch restaurant for a lunch of veal cordon bleu with cranberries, cheese and aniseed rolls.

Anyone could be forgiven for spending a lazy afternoon exploring the historic streets of Feldkirch, but as Vorarlberg boasts the Silvretta, Ratikon, Verwall and Arlberg mountain ranges we can’t resist the temptation to finish the day with a lung-busting climb.

So we follow the bike path network past the town of Bludenz, which sits at the heart of five Alpine valleys, to Partenen, where we leave behind the bike path to lay siege to the 2,032m Silvretta pass.

Our journey to the summit involves a beautiful 22.3km ride along the smooth and quiet Silvretta Hochalpenstraße (high alpine road). Grinding up the 34 hairpin bends we are treated views of rocky pinnacles and the sparkling Vermunt and Silvretta lakes.

Scree slopes run down the mountain and patches of snow stubbornly cling to the rocks. In the distance is the 3,312m peak of Piz Buin – the highest mountain in Vorarlberg. Near the summit Maximilian challenges me to a spontaneous sprint finish.

I agree, and swiftly regret it as he powers ahead – the wild scenery is breathtaking enough. From up here the surrounding mountains seem to be covered in a thick green, black and brown skin, like the scales of a sleeping dragon.

Vorarlberg offers an endless array of riding options, from languid rides to high-mountain challenges. Today we’ve enjoyed a zippy ride along the traffic-free bike paths as well as an epic climb, all within a 107km day ride of Bregenz.

From the summit we could spin back down to Partenen, cross into the Tyrol, or head back to Feldkirch and south into Switzerland: in this stylish and scenic corner of Austria cyclists design their own bespoke adventures. 

The route: By the banks of the Rhine

A leisurely ride along the Rhine ending in a testing climb

To download this route, head to cyclist.co.uk/alpine1. This branch of the Vorarlberg bike path network takes you from Bregenz, past Lustenau, to Feldkirch. From here you can continue along the bike path network through Bludenz to Partenen, from where you can join the scenic Silvretta Hochalpenstraße road to complete a 107km ride.

 

How to get there

Travel

You can take a Ryanair flight from Stansted to Memmingen in Germany (77km from Bregenz), or an EasyJet flight from Gatwick to Innsbruck in Austria (185km from Bregenz), but we flew with EasyJet from Luton to Zurich in Switzerland (120km from Bregenz). Swiss and British Airways also offer direct UK flights to Zurich. We hired a car with Sixt but all major car rental companies have offices at the airport.

Where to stay

We were based in Bregenz, at the Schwarzler Hotel (schwaerzler.shotels.com; +43 5574 4990). This bike-friendly hotel has comfortable rooms, hearty breakfast buffets and a relaxing garden restaurant where you can enjoy delicious fresh fish dishes and nut cakes. Find alternative hotels at bodensee-vorarlberg.com/en.

More info

For information on the local cycling network visit the Vorarlberg tourist site at vorarlberg.travel/en, which has plenty of recommended bike routes with distances, riding times and elevations.

You can also download a mobile app featuring detailed listings of local bike routes. Bikes can be transported on regional trains and boats for a small fee to help you venture further afield or return to your hotel after a long ride.