Walking Austria's "Cheese Road" Is Like Heaven for Dairy Lovers
High in the Alps, you can burn calories and devour some of the best cheese in the world.
It’s impossible to tell if cheesemaker Sepp Hechenberger is delighted or affronted when entering his timber cabin and dairy farm, about a mile up the Wilder Kaiser mountain in the Tyrolean Alps of Austria. He’s stirring a copper cauldron like some kind of kinderfresser (that’s “child-eating bogeyman” to you) and tossing 50-pound wheels of his award-winning cheese across his cellar.
Sepp sips a Weissbier, grabs a pocket knife and string-metal slicer, and prepares a brotbrett (“breadboard”) with easily a hundred Euros-worth of his cheese, plus homemade sausages and slices of dark rye bread. He forcefully hands me a cup of his cauldron elixir: a pungent, herbaceous milk concoction. He demands -- or maybe yells? -- for me to take another shot of schnapps and eat up.
It’s the kind of heady, dairy-fueled fever dream to make you temporarily forget that soon you’ll have to walk back down the mountain. In Austria, you don’t just eat cheese -- you hike for it.
In the western state of Vorarlberg, the Bregenz Forest will lead you to this dairy-licious dreamworld, the Candyland for fromage fanatics: the KäseStrasse, or “Cheese Road.” Consisting of more than 60 miles of mountainous footpaths through nearly 100 pastures, the Cheese Road is a unique union of around 200 dairies, restaurants, cheese cellars, cheese sellers, craftsmen, and farmsteads that exists to celebrate lactic acid in all its lovely varieties.
While it’s easy enough to drive (or hop the train) to stand-out towns like Egg (the Egg Museum doesn’t have as many egg photos as you’d like; however, the town has a fantastic 125-year-old brewery), Schetteregg, Langenegg, Sattelegg, basically any town with an “egg” in its name, the more memorable experience involves some hiking boots and a rucksack full of lactase. To truly experience the aromas of the Alps, you have to be all up in ‘em.
For Austrians, cheese-hiking is a 2,000-year-old tradition. It starts with shepherding a bunch of cows all the way up a mountain… then all the way back down again, allowing the cattle to graze on the unique grasses and herbs at varying altitudes. This, in turn, provides the most economical landscaping company in the Alps, as well as some insanely aromatic, world-class milks and cheeses.
Such good dairy, in fact, that not only has this uber-efficient process existed nearly unchanged for the last 200-odd years, but it’s also UNESCO-certified, along with the ridiculously well-preserved 18th and 19th-century walderhauser (“forest houses”) up in the mountain pastures.
Today, the hiking portion of the “Cheese Road” is affectionately known as “The Cheese Path.” Spanning 30 miles and 6,100-foot ascents from Sulzberg to Au, this easy-going path snakes through Bregenzerwald’s dairy-rich pastures with gorgeous panoramic views. Signs direct cheese-hungry hikers past picturesque farmsteads like Alpe Ostergunten and Hennenmoos Alpe.
You can hike the path independently, and for free -- or you can sign up for Bregenzerwald’s official three-day trek. It runs around 600 Euros a person (or $650 USD) and they arrange all of your accommodations. It’s a cultural journey not unlike when Lederhosen-wearing chaps used to -- and still do -- spend their days chasing cows up and down the mountains (major difference: your nights are spent in 3- and 4-star hotels).
Requisite stops along the Cheese Path include the Lingenau cellar to sample one of its 32,000 wheels of cheese. In Egg, guests are guided through hands-on dairying courses like milking cows and manufacturing whey cosmetics. And in the cutesy village of Andelsbuch, you can partake in cheese-making demonstrations and schnapps tastings at the “Cheese Centre.”
The real majesty of the path, though, lies along the undulating pastures themselves. During the summer months -- the best time to visit -- these acres brim with life. The resident cheesemongers retreat to their Alpine huts and spend the season in the skies cultivating their cheeses, sausages, yogurts, and schnapps.
Using only heumilch (silage-free milk), popular cheese varieties include hard Bergkäse (“mountain cheese,” Sepp’s specialty), unpasteurized Emmental (a firm, holey Swiss cheese), creamy Camembert, as well as Bachensteiner (a hearty, stinky semi-soft cheese).
But the real stand-outs are practically unknown outside of Vorarlberg. The hideously green Alpzieger owes its color and funky flavor to the 40-plus herbs wedged inside it. Then there’s the ever-rare pièce de résistance, Gsig. Known as Bregenzerwald chocolate, Gsig is a brown cheese consisting of caramelized lactose, perfect for desserts or eating neat, like a fine whiskey.
To sample these mountainous delights, amble up to any of the wood-shingled cabins and offer a simple “Hello,” “Grüß Gott” or “Bitte gib mir deinen KÄÄÄSSE” (“cheese, please”). As in centuries past, most of the Alpine farmers will provide wanderers with a glass of milk, slice of cheese, some bread, sausages, and a shot of schnapps for the journey ahead. Buy a block to take home, or leave a small tip for their trouble, and keep right on down the ol’ cheese trail.
In mid-September, as the hiking trails slowly heed way to supreme ski runs, this region celebrates the season’s end with the annual “Alpabtrieb.” Herdsmen dress their cattle in their Sunday best -- flower headdresses, bells, sometimes a flowery portrait of Jesus -- and lead the cows into the village of Schwarzenberg for the prettiest bovine competition. Jugs of milk and raclette stretch as far as the eyes can see. It’s a celebration of the 300-plus cows and 18,000 pounds of cheese the Bregenzerwald produces each year, and in typical Vorarlberger fashion, the only proper toast would be with more dairy.