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updated 11/9/2005 2:12:08 PM ET 2005-11-09T19:12:08

Descending via chair lift into the town of Tulfes after a visit to a mountaintop Alpine garden, we stopped for a sampling of homemade bread and raspberry schnapps, made at an on-site still at a local farmer's market run by the same family for over 300 years.

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Seventy-five-hundred feet atop Mount Rangger Korfl, our mountain guide likened our hike through the late spring snow to a trek across the Alaskan tundra.

Following a bike ride across the countryside around Lans, we sought rejuvenation in the town lake that one of the residents described as their "small serene secret."

So many of the 25 "village resorts" around the historic city of Innsbruck in western Austria offer similar diversions during spring and summer that counterbalance the area's well-known appeal as ski country.

Don't be misled. The term "resorts" could not be more of a misnomer. These villages have been around for hundreds of years, with their residents still leading lives in some ways more reminiscent of days gone by than of the modern-day world. With the exception of a few villages, most tourists are just visitors passing through rather than economic staples of the community.

The area is all about outdoor recreation, from hiking, biking and rafting to horseback riding, paragliding and sailing…plus the summer staples of tennis and golf. But mountain hiking is really the backbone of the Tirolean lifestyle. Tying Innsbruck and its Village Resorts together is a free hiking program unavailable elsewhere in Austria.

From May to September, professional Alpine guides accompany visitors, whether one person or a group, on hikes of a couple of hours to a full day, based on individual preferences and abilities. There is no better way to experience the country or the countryside.

"Walk slowly and breath easily," was the first bit of advice our guide, Wolfgang, dispensed as we started our 2300' trek up the mountain, followed by, "The slower you go up the mountain, the faster you get there." The thinness of the air, he explained, demands this.

In the U.S., this would have qualified as a strenuous hike but I suspect by Austrian standards, it was considered a piece of apple strudel. Still, it was made easier as Wolfgang regaled us with tales of his many escapades. Although mid-May, the gently falling snow added to the adventure, and I was glad I had borrowed that perennial packing mantra: bring layers!

The trade-off, unfortunately, to climbing through snow was that upon reaching the summit, we were surrounded by gray and the usual glorious view of the valley below was left to our imagination. Those visiting later in the season were better rewarded.

Slideshow: A European tour All the Innsbruck villages offer opportunities to hike as well as a vast array of other activities, but the glory of traveling from town to town is in the differences between them, and the unique contributions each makes to the journey.

The constant throughout the journey, of course, is the mountains, the splendid, spectacular glorious granite rising up in every direction. Suffice it to say, "Scenic Overlook" signs would be redundant; western Austria is, by definition, one huge scenic overlook. Multi-hued flowers, adorning hillsides, valleys and window-box bedecked chalets, are also ubiquitous travel companions.

Seefeld, a typical Tirolean ski town within 20 minutes of Innsbruck, is by far the most commercial of the villages. The many hotels lining the streets delight with their sloped roofs, wrap-around wooden porches and delicately etched ornamentation. The village spends the summer just waiting for the next ski season to arrive.

But a drive through the extended Leutasch Valley surrounding Seefeld brings you into a world that transcends ski season, whose laid-back farming lifestyle was a refreshing antidote to my city slicker sensibilities. In my hometown, they don't have small cupboards on stilts between homes into which neighbors put baskets at night containing their bread orders for the next day. Imagine a baker who makes house calls.

And then there were the 22 mini-chapels. Each town in the valley sports a tiny, colorful chapel -- often with no more than two to six narrow pews -- named after a designated saint and decorated with religious paintings, trompe d'eil windows and mini-Baroque-style interiors reminiscent of more typical period churches.

The chapels began sprouting up in the mid-1700's during the plague, just large enough to provide solace to the few families in the immediate community. Though used today primarily for ceremonial occasions, they remain as moving and marvelous in their way as the most elaborate cathedral.

Igls, southeast of Innsbruck and the site of two winter Olympics, is also a typical ski town, though not as touristy as Seefeld. Almost 40 years separate two of the top attractions: a cable car built in 1927 and the bobsled, vintage 1964. The first was built during a tourist boom of the 20's and 30's, when an emphasis on wellness and clean air - what a novel concept
- was in vogue.

Igls capitalized on the trend by promoting the purity of its high mountain air, and what better way to access it than by cable car. Still operating today, it takes visitors to the afore-mentioned mountaintop Alpine garden.

The appeal of the Olympic bobsled has been capitalized upon as well, by making the ride a summer option, as well. The 45-second ride on wheels brings all the thrills of its winter counterpart. Looking at the angle close up and visualizing the speed, I remembered once again why the carousel is my favorite ride at an amusement park. Although the bobsled races sideways, to the stomach, it feels like the most harrowing of roller coasters.

In the one-road town of Lans, don't bother looking for the village center; there isn't any. It's the Lanser See Lake that ties the people together. Fortunately, there aren't a lot of people in Lans so the water's calm and lakeside serenity are not often disturbed.

Southwest of Innsbruck you'll find Mutters and Goetzens. A haven for children, Mutters offers a wealth of programs, activities, playground, camping and swim sites that cater to the younger set, and is an ideal family destination. Adding to the appeal are the number of working and converted farmhouses with rooms to rent –- and animals to feed - some dating back to the 15th century (the farmhouses, not the animals).

Goetzens is famous for St. Peter's Church, a gem of Rococco architecture built in 1772-75 that is one of the most important examples of latter-day Baroque style in the whole of southern Austria. The massive church, which dominates the tiny village, is deceptive from the outside. The relatively simple pink and white paintings do not prepare you for the avalanche of ornate gold and marble statues, lavish murals and excessive filigree that infiltrate the interior in 3-D formations.

Although awesome to most, for me, the nave is so cluttered with life-size figures of priests, cherubs, angels and warriors that it overpowers the capacity to visually absorb it all.

Once outside, I was relieved to again see the mountains, which dominate the exterior surroundings as much as the sculptures and statues do the interior of the church. The still snow-covered peaks - the spring had been especially cold - met the sky at a point that strained both the neck and the imagination. The rivulets of white-filled grooves streamed down the slopes like generous portions of crème-anglaise dripping over mounds of licorice ice cream.

So many villages; so little time. Mosern with its hilltop Peace Bell built in 1972 to highlight the cooperation across the borders of the Alpine region; the Post Office Museum in Patsch depicting the history of the post office started by Maximilian I in the late 1500s; sleepy Sistrans with houses painted to reflect family history or religious themes of the 15th-16th centuries.

A visit to these ageless villages, unique in their own music, traditions and art, provides an added dimension to a stay in Innsbruck not usually found outside other European cities.

And everywhere, always, there are the mountains.

For more information:
Innsbruck Tourism

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