06 October 2011

Austria - Alpine Meadows & Lakes

Austria - Alpine Meadows & Lakes

We set off for sunnier regions during the Cape winter. Austria was our first stop. Whilst waiting in Johannesburg airport we came upon a choir from Idaho, USA who were entertaining the crowd with many South African and other songs. Their superb rendition got them spontaneous applause from by-standers. We chatted to a few of the students who raved about their experience in South Africa and voted Cape Town as their very best city! Sorry folks, we locals know it just surpasses Johannesburg in the popularity stakes!!

Flying with Lufthansa, operated by SAA was a pleasure – the staff were pleasant, attentive and friendly. A huge bonus when you are stuck on a flight for 10.50 hrs or so! Due to the strife in Libya, the flight was longer than usual as they had to fly around Libya rather than across it.

We had booked our car through Economy Car Rentals and this turned out to be Dollar Thrifty in Munich Airport. We did not have a good experience with them as they insisted on extra insurance despite the Economy terms stating that all was inclusive and they also refused to accept Euro’s in cash so we ended up ZAR for the car which was not the plan. So be careful and make sure your car hire gives you all the local conditions BEFORE you have to pay your deposit. We did get a GPS for Euro 100.00 and this proved, eventually, to be a great bonus. However, the Car Rental agent did not explain how to use the GPS so we got horribly lost as we had not entered Austria into the GPS as the country required whilst we were still in Germany! Perhaps this is common sense to all the regular GPS users but as we don’t have one at home, it was all new to us. So it took us 5 hours to reach Grundlsee, Austria!! However, it was a sunny day and the frustration dissipated once we reached our stunningly beautiful destination. 

The resort of Mondi Grundlsee offers various sizes of alpine type chalets in a tranquil setting. Our unit was a studio, well equipped but with only a partial kitchen so we had to eat out most of the time. No hardship when one is on holiday!

Our first taste of Austrian food was at Village Tavern Stöckl which is in the village and down the hill from the resort. It was pleasant; the service was good and the food OK. An early night was called for after travelling for nearly 24 hrs since leaving Pinelands.

Breakfast was a simple affair in our unit – yoghurt, bread and cheese but sufficient to get us up and out for some exploring! We headed off to the next village, Bad Aussee and enjoyed a walk in lovely sunshine. The Austrians in this part favour National dress and we saw many such folk during our 2 week stay.

The Austrian villages are very pretty and well-kept. To our dismay, we discovered that all supermarkets are closed on Sundays but we did eventually find a Mini Spar attached to a fuel station. This became our life-saver and was fairly well stocked. The Spar brand is all over Austria with even a Super Spar which was great – they just don’t stay open Sundays!!!

We ventured further to Altausee where we walked past Alpine meadows in temperatures of 26 degrees. The Lake at Altausee is gorgeous with a beautiful 4 Star hotel on its shores. Being budget conscious, we opted for a tiny kiosk next to the ferry station. James has his first taste of sausage and I stuck to pizza (as I hate sausage!!) It was a little mini pizza but one of the best I have ever tasted. With beer and food the bill was Euro 12.00 so pretty reasonable. We then headed back to Grundlsee and drove around the lake where people were out in the swimming gear and catching a tan. Suddenly, the weather changed and the rain came down in torrents with hailstones, thunder and lightning! Wow –what a change with everybody scrambling for cover! We could now understand why many of the roofs have lightning conductors!

The rain stopped in time for supper so we decided to walk down to the village for supper. Bad judgement on our parts! As we got down the hill, the rain came down again and soaked us to the bone. We arrived at Post am See Restaurant absolutely drenched and dripping. The staff were amazing, offered us a table and some towels to try and soak up most of the water! This restaurant, unbeknown to us at the time, has won a number of awards and is a fine dining restaurant!! There was sat in jeans and t/shirts, clinging to the skin whilst all the locals arrived in their finery to enjoy an evening out! At no stage did out waitress or any of the staff make us feel unwelcome and the food was SUPERB!! It’s certainly gained a spot in my heart for the courtesy that was shown to us – many other places would have shown us the door, looking tramp like as we did. Whilst I was pretty cold, the food more than made up for the wet jeans and dripping hair. We when got up to go, it was again pouring down so they lent us both umbrellas to get back to Mondi. Trusting that we would return them in 2 days time…….! The bill came to Euro 87.00 so that was our treat and well worth it. A highly recommended restaurant. Luckily the resort has radiators which we could switch on, have a hot shower and be cosy and warm within minutes again.

James played around with the GPS and we decided to try and find the Alpen Garten in Bad Aussee. We did find it with no fuss – hurray for the GPS and it’s driver, James! The Alpen Garten was started in 1913 and is still going strong. It is run by the local municipality and we met the botanist who looks after this beautiful garden. Anna was a mine of information and lovely to chat to. Her passion is this garden and it shows. Anna has visited Namibia but found it too dry for her liking and with awful tasting water! Given that Austria is so green (200ml per annum) and the water is from the many Alpine rivers and mountains, I am not really surprised that she did not enjoy the deserts of Namibia. Anna mentioned that the government also struggles with enough funding for the elderly and care for children. The tourist industry brings in much needed revenue in this part of Austria whilst the East is more agricultural.

The smells of some of the plants in this garden were so divine I wished I could bottle them to bring home. A lovely morning in the Alpine air with a charming local, Anna.

After lunch we decided to try and find the Tauplitz-Alpine Road
After getting lost, we eventually found it quite by accident! This winding road seems to go on and on and eventfully reaches the ski slopes and ski cottages. The cottages are dotted all around and must be a hive of activity during the ski season. One has to wonder how many mod cons they have. Brrrrr! There were still patches of icy snow around and the only people in sight were crazy cyclists riding up that steep mountain road. Perhaps in training for the Tour de France? Why else would somebody put themselves through so much pain? But I have to admit they are 500% fitter than I am so......rest my case.

The Austrian houses in the country are very pretty; the window boxes are filled with flowers, every now and again you spot a field of cows peacefully grazing on the Alpine slopes. Idyllic?

For dinner, James had fish and chips, Austrian Style - more like a pancake! I enjoyed a lovely chicken salad which was good value at Euro 8.50 but then we spoilt it all by having dessert!

Nordic walking day dawns! We first saw Nordic walkers in Vienna and wondered if the people were all infirm until we asked why they were using these "sticks" Needless to say we were educated about Nordic walking and could not wait to try it for ourselves as it exercises both upper body and lower body. The walkers also make one feel much steadier when going both uphill or downhill so good for those of us who are not so fit!

Petra took us on a great walk, up minor hills, into farmers fields where I stumbled into what looked like masking tape only to get a rude electrical shock! This electrical tape is used to keep the cows on the required field for the day. This was basically the only electric fencing we saw in rural Austria - to keep cows in rather than keeping criminals out. What a pleasure.

Some of the farms are very small - only 30 or so cows and most of these farmers also have day jobs to make ends meet. We passed Anna's house along this walk - the Austrian houses are just gorgeous!

A welcome swim in the Mondi pool after the walk cooled us down whilst we enjoyed the stunning Grundlsee lake view.

After a light lunch we set off to the Schafberg Mountain Railway (Sheep Mountain) in St Wolfgang. The GPS got us to the area but took us all around the back streets before coming out on the main road! Who programs these things??

This Schafberg Mountain Train has been running since 1893 and climbs to 1190 metres in approx 40 mins. There are 7 lakes around this mountain and the views are spectacular. With restaurants and a hotel at the summit, you can spend a night in order to truly enjoy this magnificent view. The railway is hugely popular with tourists. We walked around for about 1.5 hrs - the time just flew past, no time even for a beer! So go up on an earlier train so that you can enjoy a longer stay on the mountain.

We decided to have breakfast at the hotel in order to “fuel” up for our 3 hour walk!
The Koppen Valley walkway meanders along the river between Bad Aussee and Obertraun and is 13 km long. We actually seemed to walk faster than some of the group but had to wait when the path forked as we didn’t want to get lost and have to walk another 13 km back! We enjoyed a chat at the conveniently situated restaurant before we were driven home by bus!

We awoke to a bright blue sky and warm temperatures! Great! So we drove to Altaussee and walked around this lake. The walk is approx. 7.5km long, very easy and beautiful. The village is below the Loser plateau. There is a lovely hotel on the shores of the lake – Seevilla 4* - looks fantastic if you can afford the prices! The little restaurant on the shore was a welcome pit stop again for lunch at extremely reasonable prices. Sitting at tables outside with a view of the lake, what more could one ask for? Needless to say, we sort of collapsed when getting back to Grundlsee – so much exercise!

Friday 27/05/2011
We awoke to a wet and cloudy day but it seemed to clear up somewhat after lunch so we headed off for a walk around Grundlsee Lake. Bad decision! The walk is great but the rain came back and we were drenched by the time we reached Gossl. We ran for the bus but it left before we could reach it. The locals sheltering in the bus station thought the bus would not be long but we waited and waited and the rain just kept coming! Eventually, we decided to brave the weather and head home – the other side of the lake just seemed to go on forever and ever in the driving rain and blustery wind. And no sign of a bus. Suddenly around a corner we spied the bus driver sweeping out his bus! He had no even reached his turning point in Bad Aussee – he had not even reached Grundlsee so no wonder we waited and waited. We climbed in dripping wet while he carried on chatting and chatting on his cell phone! All in German so we couldn’t fathom out what he was saying. All we wanted was a lift closer to the hotel so that we could hop into a hot shower. He finished his call and eventually got going again, charged us an arm and a leg for the short hop, then left us at the bottom of the hill. A short walk in sunshine, a long one in pouring rain with a freezing wind!

For supper I enjoyed lovely Apple and Carrot soup served in a “canned fruit’ jar! Most unusual for us South Africans used to soup bowls only.

Saturday 28/05/2011
Rain and snow on the hills around. A stunning sight! “The Ghosts of Sleath” by James Herbert took up most of the morning until we got cabin fever and headed off to the Feuerkogel Cable Car in Ebensee. The beautiful high plateau offers gorgeous views (on a clear day!) This area of the Salzkammergut has 40 km of marked climbs plus 10km of altitude paths. Accommodation is available in 13 cottages and at 1625m the air could not be any cleaner or fresher. The cable car goes up in about 7 mins and the locals in the car with us headed straight to the hotel at the summit. Most probably to carry on with the champagne that they had popped whilst waiting for the cable car. A rather noisy bunch spoiling the peaceful summit! The other hotel had a group of people dancing away at 16.30 hrs – looked like they were having great fun and keeping warm at the same time. The funniest sight was a group of guys who suddenly appeared from behind the bushes wearing only towels. Now you have to remember that there was snow all around, the temperature was very low and they were prancing about in towels?? Perhaps there was a hidden sauna somewhere – we did not dare go and investigate! It was rather misty so we did not get the full benefit of the views but a great place for a hike in better conditions, a great place for a party as well it seems.

Sunday 29/05/2011
We headed off to Gmuden to enjoy a trip on the lake. As non-smokers used to South African smoking laws, we found the smoking everywhere in public places rather an invasion of our rights to clean air. The Austria air is spoilt by the huge amount of smokers everywhere – one cannot get away from them as there seems to be virtually no “No Smoking” zones. Funnily enough it is marketed as a “health” resort! The Lake Traunsee was very busy as it was a Sunday – lots of yachts out and people walking along the shore, many of them in traditional dress. Upper Austrian are often seen in traditional dress and look very elegant and Austrian! We were fascinated by a skate boarding competition – admittedly, some of the teenagers looked like 60’s punks! But they were having fun which was enjoyed by the onlookers.

Monday 30/05/2011
Hurray! Blue, blue skies. Gosaukamm was our destination – up in the gondola to the top of Zwieselalm. We enjoyed a wonderful walk amongst the wild flowers with glorious views and fresh Alpine air. There was still snow in the upper reaches and there are many ski slopes in this area. Hiking in Austria is just so beautiful, the lakes, the mountains, the wild flowers and the peace.

After our descent we headed for another lake ride, this time on Lake Wolfgangsee. We were lucky to catch the last sailing of the day and we enjoyed sunshine all the way!
The town and the lake are named after Saint Wolfgang of Regensburg, who, according to legend, built the first church here in the late 10th century. This glacial lake has a surface area of 13m km and the mountains surrounding it are just so beautiful. We cruised all the way up to St Gilpen, passing hotels and sunbathing people. The boat then turns at St Gilpen and goes all the way down to Strobl. Being the last sailing of the day, we could not stop off at any points – it would have been good to stroll around the towns of St Gilpen, Strobl and St Wolfgang.  

All these little towns look fascinating – one needs time to explore all the nooks and crannies and absorb the pace of each village.

It was a gorgeous evening back at the hotel but we refrained from dining on the patio due to excessive smoke from guests. Such a pity, really, that smokers have “Right of Way” to the most scenic places in Europe! The large cities of the world battle to keep that dreaded smog at bay and here we were, in the pure Alpine air, being subjected to billowing puffs of smoke! So we ended up being the only guests in the dining room!!  This wasn’t so bad actually as we could talk about anything without fear of the neighbouring table catching parts of our conversation!  Or the other dreaded factor – a deathly quiet dining room when the background music is turned off, or not loud enough and everybody talks in whispers!

Tuesday 31/05/2011
We booked for the walk along the Eastern shore of Hallstatt Lake. Our newly made German friends gave us a lift to the start as the hotel bus was fully booked. Luckily I had taken my motion sickness pill as I had to sit in the bad seat of the car (normally my worst nightmare) whilst driving around a very winding road towards Obertaun. The driver was excellent but, everybody who knows me knows the slightest motion makes me ill.  

We had a very large lady from USA with us on the walk whose ancestors were from Austria and Slovenia. She did not have any hiking sticks and looked extremely unfit. To accommodate her, the pace was very slow but, as my camera was working overtime, it did not matter too much. The lake looked majestic and the little villages on the far shore just begged to be visited. To reach the other side, you need to catch a ferry at Hallstatt station. We were meant to stop for refreshments much further on but the American lady actually looked on the verge of passing out so our guide made us stop at the first restaurant we came to. Whilst the majority of us ordered a drink and a toasted sandwich, this lady devoured a huge plate of shnitzel and chips! I was totally amazed that she could eat such a huge quantity of food when we still had quite a way to go! We finished our lunch and chat and moved on. Unfortunately it started to rain again but we managed to get to the station without being totally drenched. It transpired that our American lady had found a lift to bring her the rest of the way so she opted out of the hike! The train was very modern, very fast but we had to endure an undisclined child running up and down the corridor at top speed – the parents seemed oblivious to the racket and the fact that he was disturbing everybody else on the train. Takes all sorts, I suppose.

Wednesday 01/06/2011
Cloudy and misty! So out came the Rumikub for a few games before we set off on what became our favourite walk along the river towards Bad Aussee but turning off into forest then the farmlands towards Gosern. The views from these farmhouses are stunning, looking across the valley. Even in bad weather it is just so peaceful, still and picturesque. I got to talking to the cows – one answered me back! Unfortunately, my cow dictionary was not in my pocket so I can’t tell you the long story that she gave me. But I can imagine it went like this……no, on second thoughts it is best left between the cow and me. We picked some narcissus in the fields to scent our hotel room as this was the Narcissus Festival time in the area. The scent is very powerful and the flowers delicate.

Festival time means party time for the locals so we headed into Bad Aussee to enjoy a night watching the fun. There was a huge marquee set up for the Brass Band’s Jubilee concert. As you can imagine huge tankards of beer, sausages and the inevitable saukraut. And the BIGGEST bags of charcoal I have ever seen. They put us South African’s to shame with our puny 5kg bags. These must have been at least 25kg.     

The band was very weird – they were smoking and drinking and there was no flow to the songs but this did not seem to faze the audience who appeared far more interested in their beer and friends. The music was just “there” It was not too exciting so we left and headed for home.

Thursday 02/06/2011
Rain and grey skies again this morning so I devoured a repeat read of “Sleepy Head” by Mark Gillingham. When it cleared up, we did our favourite walk again and this time talked to the cutest little steer you ever did see. So sad to think that he will soon be on somebody’s plate. The farmer seemed quite worried that he was so near to us so he called him and gave him an affectionate pat. Perhaps he heard me talking to the cows the previous day and thought I was mental enough to steal the steer? I do prefer vegetables!! Honest!

Friday 03/06/2011
We headed off to drive up Loser Mountain in Altausee. This is a very winding road with many hairpin bends. It reaches approx 1700m. The Ski lifts look extremely scary – high up and with nothing to stop you falling out – or that’s how it appears! There were not working though so I did not have to drum up some feeble excuse as to why I was not going to risk my life in one of them. Again, there were a number of cyclists riding uphill on this torturous road. They must be super, super fit – I felt tired just sitting in the passenger seat going up and up and up. Again the views are just stupendous from the top where you can talk a number of walks/hikes. The air is bracing and it’s a lovely spot to enjoy some lunch at one of the “hutte”

After the most divine goulash soup, we set off back into Bad Aussee to experience some more of the Narcissus Fest spirit. The town area was a pedestrian zone for the festival and it was buzzing! Lots of people in their traditional Austrian dress looking very elegant and beautiful – even the little kids were dressed up to match mom or dad! There were numerous spots where bands had set up and were playing to their various audiences. Flowing beer and the ever-present mounds of sausages! This time the bands in the marquee were all more youthful and the music was great. Excellent musicians despite the large tankards of beer which they have on the mike stands – yes! On the mike stands! I have never ever seen this before. Thirsty work, playing in Austria? It must be the mountain air or something! It was all local music in German so we did not understand any of it but great fun, nonetheless. The atmosphere in the village was truly abuzz and people were celebrating in groups, on their own, with their families or those like us, with wide-open eyes and ears. The weather did not play along entirely but this does not daunt their high spirits – just add the water-proof and carry on drinking! Whilst heading back to our car we came across a group of Morris dancers – all the way from UK just for the Narcissus Festival!

Saturday 04/06/2011
Sadly, we have to leave Grundlsee and the Austrian Alps today. It seems that we have grown into this part of the world and I am very loathe to leave it. Everywhere we have seen cyclists, hikers, camper vans. Dogs are treated like royalty and go on holiday with their owners. Traditional dress is still common amongst both young and old, everybody is so polite and greats with a cheerful “Gus Gott” but they don’t let you in when stuck in traffic! Beer flows freely. The weather is changeable by the second and the thunderstorms are awesome! The Alpine scenery is picture postcard perfect and the well-kept Alpine houses have their window boxes in full bloom. We enjoyed the lovely smell of cows or narcissus in the farmer’s fields. The alpine meadows evoke memories of “The Sound of Music” – it’s a magical part of the world.

We hope to return one day!


© Judelle Drake


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