Ötztal Valley in Tyrol (Austria):
Skiing Extravaganza in the Ötztal
The Ötztal is a valley in the Austrian province of Tyrol and contains some of the country′s most famous ski resorts. More specifically, the Ötztal is a side-valley of the Inntal, the main valley of Tyrol. It is approximately 65 kilometres long and home to five communities: Sautens, Oetz, Umhausen, Längenfeld and Sölden. Especially the skiing areas of Sölden and Oetz are internationally famous, making Sölden one of the most intensively visited places in all of Austria. The Ötztal is the longest of the Inntal′s side-valleys. Only approximately seven percent of the valley (most of it at the base) are suitable for housing; the rest is mountains, agricultural land - and slopes, slopes and more slopes.
Around the Ötztal, you will find several glaciers. The biggest of these is the so-called Gepatschferner (don′t worry if that name sound foreign to you - it does so to me as well, and I am from Salzburg). The Gepatschferner is the second-biggest glacier in Austria after the Pasterze at Mount Großglockner. Other significant glaciers include the Mittelbergferner, the Gurgler Ferner, the Hintereisferner and the Großer Vernagtferner. As a side-effect of these glaciers, you will find many Alpine mountain lakes in the Ötztaler Alpen. This is an asset for the summer season, when the Ötztal is popular for hiking rather than skiing. For more information on glacial skiing all year round, please see my article on summer skiing in Austria.
Ötzi: The Ötztal's most Famous Son
Due to the insulation that the mountains around the narrow Ötztal cause, the valley has a surprisingly mild climate. In some parts of the Ötztal, even vine and chestnuts are grown. The Ötztal is also known for being particularly dry. Global warming in recent years led to a withdrawal of glaciers. This revealed the Ötztal′s most famous (former) resident, the glacier mummy "Ötzi" (in the English-speaking world also known as "Frozen Fritz"). The mummy was found in 1991 (I was 10 years old back than and still remember the lasting excitement it caused in Austria, leading to a nation-wide boom in stone-age enthusiasm among children like myself). It turned out that the mummy was 5,300 years old and equipped with all sorts of fancy Neolithic tools and weapons.
Since Ötzi was found just beyond the border to South Tyrol (Bozen), he is now kept in a custom-built museum in Italy, where scientists also found out that he fell victim to murder. Permanent settlement of the Ötztal after the Romans can be tracked back to approximately the 12th century, when towns like Sölden are mentioned in written documents. The history of the Ötztal is rather interesting, but not different from the rest of Tyrol - thus, I shall refrain from re-citing it here. Just note that by the 19th century, most of the Tyrolean valleys were very poor.
In the Ötztal, a ban on marriages was released in 1830 in order to decrease the population - this ban was lifted again in 1850, but throughout the 19th century, many residents of Tyrol emigrated to today′s Germany or beyond, for example, to the US. Children were often sent to Swabia to work there during the summers. They were called "Schwabenkinder" (Swabian Children). Only with the rise in mountaineering and summer tourism (Sommerfrische) towards the late 19th century, the economic situation of the Ötztal started to change.
Tourism in the Ötztal
The local priest Franz Senn started to do guided tours to the glaciers of the Ötztal around the turn of the century. In 1903, a street connected most villages of the Ötztal with the railway station in Sölden. The Timmelsjoch became a major attraction, and the Ötztal became famous for hiking. After WWI, South Tyrol became part of Italy and the Ötztal was now right at the border. However, this did not really interfere with the developing tourism in the Ötztal. In 1931, the famous Swiss scientist Auguste Piccard landed with his stratospheric balloon at the glacier in Obergurgl.
What was an emergency touch down for Piccard turned into major publicity for Obergurgl - and the starting point for its touristy success story. After the Nazi-embargo on Austria (1000 Mark Barrier) was ended, the Ötztal rose to its previous glory again. Nevertheless, the pre-war tourism was nothing compared to the skiing tourism that occurred after WWII: The ten thousands of skiing tourists that flock into the Ötztal every winter have cause a significant amount of local criticism and resistance.
An art forum in Sölden has opposed the negative side-effects of mass tourism and personally, I can understand the issue quite well: The impact of tourism has been predominantly distorting when it comes to local culture, environment and to the local communities. The Ötztal alone accounts for over three million over-night arrangements every year, two thirds of which are sold during the skiing season. The flagships of Ötztal tourism are Sölden, Hochgurgl and Obergurgl - surprisingly, both places are almost exclusively serving the winter season. In 2004, a thermal spa opened in Längenfelden.
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