“Are you ready?”, I heard him say right into my ear. “Yes,” I say. NO, I think – but what can you do. Slowly I start walking forwards. Suddenly a heavy weight pulls me back and forces me to stop. “And now run,” he shouts from the back. I do as I’m told – and as any woman would do when pilot Dreamy Eyes commands. Left, right, left, right; at the next step my left foot kicks into the empty air. The weight pulling me back just seconds ago is now lifting me off the ground. Higher and higher I rise until I realise – I’m flying.

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But let’s start at the beginning. Together with my best friend I recently visited Kössen in Kaiserwinkl, a region in northernmost Tyrol. Kaiserwinkl consists of the villages Walchsee, Schwendt and Kössen, and lies so close to the German border that you could hike to Bavaria in a few hours. This far north, the peaks of the Alps don’t surpass 2,000m but are no less breathtaking than anywhere else. Spectacularly “Wilder Kaiser” (which means ‘wild emporer’ in German) rises up high above the valley. The less spiky and lower mountain next to it is “Zahmer Kaiser” (‘tame emporer’). In winter Kössen’s own hill, Unterberg, is great for skiing, although the network of slopes is not as extensive as in the bigger resorts elsewhere in Tyrol. Once the snow rolls in the valley is a paradise for cross-country skiing and snow-shoeing. But what made the region particularly popular year-round is its air. Not that it is fresher than in other alpine region, but it’s abundant with winds and thermal lifts – perfect for any kind of aviation. On a good day there are up to 200 paragliders in the air at the same time.

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And that’s exactly where I find myself as well together with pilot Herbert Tamegger who offers tandem flights for anybody who loves views and adrenalin. We start from Unterberg at 1,440m and reach the ground after only 30 minutes. The thermal lifts were not in our favour otherwise we could have easily reached the clouds and stayed up longer – I’m so thankful for these “bad” lifts! Although I’m a little scared of heights I still loved every minute of the flight (except for the spiral-flying in the end, which is optional but somehow I wasn’t asked for permission). During the flight you sit in a big harness which blocks your sight right below you. All you can do is look ahead and the views are simply amazing! In the far distance I even saw the snow-clad peaks of Zillertaler Alpen. Most of the time I felt more like sitting in a breezy rocking chair, than flying 1,000m above the ground. The best thing about paragliding is that you never experience free-falling, which is definitely the worst to feel if you are scared of heights. So, you don’t fall and you can’t look down – there is no reason to be scared. Herbert runs Flywear (they also sell equipment) together with his brother Mario; both have been flying since their teenage years and are very experienced and trustworthy pilots (they also both have dreamy eyes). Any more questions?

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Much more effort went into trusting gravity – which really does not make any sense; it’s a natural force after all, no failures on record. This just doesn’t matter if you are surrounded by narrow rocks and an ice-cold river below you. Canyoning is another speciality of the region and the tours organised by Adventure Club Kaiserwinkl definitely belong to the best. Together with our guides Max and Joey we first climb up Traxer Klamm, a narrow gully close to Kössen. From then on it goes only down – quite literally. The two abseil us into the cold stream, we slide down natural slides, climb from rock to rock and – well, and jump off a few of them. Wishing myself back into the free-falling free rocking chair called paraglider I see one participant after the other jump out of sight ahead of me. I’m the last in line. I step forward and clinging to Max’ hand I look down 6m between two walls which seem to be less than 1m apart (in fact there are about 3m). I pull myself together, count to three and with a little help by Max take a step forwards. Once again, my feet kick into the air – although not long before I submerge in the ice-cold water, tumbling around until I reach the surface and – gulping for air – swim towards my best friend waiting at the shore. Behind me Max soars down as if he was born to do it. The rest of the tour is peanuts compared to that first jump, but at least that leaves me more time to marvel at the beautiful gully we are in. The thick neoprene keeps me warm and by the end of the tour, I wish we could start over again – well maybe minus that jump.

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To come down a little bit Friedl, who runs Adventure Club Kössen, takes us on a leisurely bike ride up to Taubenseehütte, a traditional hut surrounded by alpine pastures. Mounted on e-bikes we set out and bike along roads and later trails into the hills. The sun blazes down which totally results in my skin burning – even the autumn sun is much stronger in the mountains. Nevertheless we enjoy this ride – e-bikes are simply the best. Uphill it is important to pedal slower (not harder as your instinct might be) as this way the engine can give you optimal support. It is still a good workout though! On our way up we stop at Frankenalm, a small wooden hut whose owner is offering fresh buttermilk and schnapps that burns your throat (in a good way). Further up the hill, we lock our bikes behind a stack of firewood and proceed on foot. the path up to Taubenseehütte is simply to steep to go up or down in anything but a military truck – one wrong step and you will slide down the steep hill. The hut lies right next to Taubensee, a stunning mountain lake, and from the terrace we can oversee the entire valley. We sit down for lunch and more schnapps (I recommend the hazelnut schnapps as it is quite sweet). Don’t be surprised by the prices, a full meal (food, drink and schnapps) can easily come up to €15-20 per person, but if you consider the effort it takes to get everything up the mountain, this is totally acceptable.

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Just as we are ready to get going we witness something so spontaneous, it could not have been set up any better. Austrians are a cheerful folk, especially when they are in the mountains – and so it happened that three men started singing traditional songs right there in the sun. Fuelled by a free schnapps served by the hut’s owner, they bring out a harmonica and entertain the surprised lunchers for another 20 minutes. Who would have thought?

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You see, visiting Kaiserwinkl is not only exciting, it’s also authentic Austrian. The valley is dotted by traditional Tyrolean farm houses with wooden balconies which are decorated with surreal flower arrangements. Even hotels bow to this architectural state of the art. The hotel we stayed at is Hotel Alpina, a massive complex with two restaurants, the biggest spa and wellness area I have ever seen and an abundance of balconies facing East. It is a little outside the village, surrounded by meadows; which means there is nothing between you and the sunrise in the morning – it’s breathtaking! The interior is quite traditional, dominated by wood and resembling an old Tyrolean village. The service, food and atmosphere however were outstanding! My favourite part of the day was the breakfast on the East-facing sun terrace – that is until we discovered the outdoor swimming pool.

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If you don’t have a car you can reach the villages of Kaiserwinkl by public transport. The closest big international airport is Munich, which lies only 1,5h away by car – a little longer by bus.

With summer reaching its end and temperatures going down a little Kaiserwinkl enters its high season for hiking. Make sure to come here before snowfall sets in and covers the hills in a white coat. And if you can’t make it that quickly, there is always a next summer!

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Many thanks to Maro und Partner and the tourism board TVB Kaiserwinkl for their support in exploring the region!
All photos by Kathi Kamleitner & Hotel Alpina