The first time I set foot on Austrian soil was when we flew Austrian Air from Venice to Mumbai via Vienna. This was back in 2012 , when I first fell in love with Europe after a 10 day trip to Italy. I then made a mental list of European destinations I wanted to visit and somehow, Austria never made the list.
A cheap flight from London to Salzburg caught my eye a few weeks back and thus serendipity played a big part in us discovering this beautiful landlocked country. We spent 5 days in the Salzkammergut region ( alpine lake district ) and i tell you – I could have spent weeks there.
Picture this – walking up a road from the parking lot , we turned a corner and had our first glimpse of Lake Gosau – a green green lake nestled amidst mountains with its waters gentle lapping against the shores. It was like stumbling upon a secret lake – though the presence of a few other visitors made us aware that we were not the only ones who knew about this bewitchingly beautiful spot.
I thought Gosausee was the most beautiful lake I had ever laid my eyes on – till I went on a lovely walk along the Wolfgangsee from St Gilgen to Furberg. The lakefront at St Gilgen is pretty but not spectacular – a promenade with benches , motor boats bobbing in the water , ice cream and souvenir shops in the vicinity. We then followed the signs and started walking along a trail known as the Pilgrim’s Way which goes all the way from St Gilgen to St Wolfgang. Initially the trail was along a quiet road with pretty houses and then it forked in two – one for motor vehicles and the other for pedestrians. As we walked along the road now, trees on the side suddenly cleared to give us a glimpse of the lake just beyond. Here there were no boats or shops – just the turquoise waters of Wolfgangsee and the chirping of birds in the bushes and trees. The trail now hugged the lake and we scrouched down to look into the clear greenish-blue waters to see schools of fish and a plethora of aquatic plants. A picnic lunch along the lakeside followed – and I felt like Anne in the book Anne of Green Gables ( If you have read this book , you will know what I mean!)
Throw a UNESCO world heritage site ( Hallstatt- Dachstein ) into the mix and it becomes more interesting. Hallstatt – a small town along the banks of the Halstattsee – was known for its salt mines as early as the 2nd millennium BC. Now it attracts hordes of visitors who walk the narrow alleys and point selfie sticks everywhere. Despite this , Hallstatt is still a must see because it is simply stunning. There is a reason busloads of people make their way here everyday. Minutes away from this picture-postcard lake town , is the Dachstein glacier and a cable car takes visitors upto Krippelstein at 2100 m. From here there are jaw-dropping views of the glacier. There is a restaurant , where one can have a coffee on their terrace while looking out at the impressive view. The famous 5-fingers is a 20 minute walk from the cable car station – sweeping views over the Hallstattsee and surrounding Alps make this a favourite for tourists.
It is not all about lakes and mountains though. Salzburg is a city which is charming in its own right. Its Altstadt ( old town )is home to the gorgeous Dom Cathedral and the wonderfully preserved Hohensalzburg fortress. What Salzburg is most famous for though is Mozart and The Sound of Music. The prolific composer was born in Salzburg and started his career in music in this city as a court musician. The Mirabell palace, where Mozart once played , hosts music concerts – and is also a wedding/conference venue! The adjacent Mirabell gardens are exquisite – this is where Julie Andrews sang and danced to ‘Do Re Mi ‘in The Sound of Music. There are tours which take visitors to the filming locations in Salzburg and surrounds – though I love the movie, we did not go on one of these tours.
As if all the above is not reason enough to visit , Berchtesgaden in Germany just across the border is an easy 30 minute drive . I am a World War II junkie and I just had to visit Eagle’s nest , which was Hitler’s holiday home. Built on a mountain top , Kehlsteinhaus as it is known in German , was hardly ever visited by Adolf Hitler but was popular with the Nazi top brass. The surrounding Obersalzberg region was under the control of the Nazi party with restrictions on visitors and Hitler spent a lot of time at Berghof , another of his homes in the area , plotting and planning war and genocide. The documentation centre here has detailed description of events that took place in this region during Hitler’s time. Eagle’s nest today is a restaurant-cafe — to go there, we had to drive up in our car, then take a bus and lastly a brass elevator built inside the mountain. An engineering marvel of its day , Kehlsteinhaus was built on a rocky mountain spur in just 13 months. It is also the only surviving building amongst all the other Nazi party’s buildings in the Obersalzberg – the rest were all destroyed in or just after the war. The website http://www.thirdreichruins.com/ has some pretty cool images of the Eagle’s nest then and now – have a look if curious!
Entrance to the mountain tunnel leading to the brass elevator
How to get here:
Many budget airlines fly between major European cities and Salzburg. Ryanair and British airways fly from London.
Where to stay:
Salzburg is an obvious choice , especially if you are using public transport. St Gilgen is also a good choice if a lakeside town is preferred, as it is well served by buses. If you have a car , then any town or village will do 🙂
What to eat :
There are a plethora of restaurants serving local delicacies. Vegetarian options are more limited but most restaurants have at least one vegetarian dish on the menu. If nothing else, there is always apple strudel- you definitely will not go hungry here!
Helpful tips :
- A toll sticker or vignette is required to drive on the Autobahn – make sure to buy one as the fines are very steep!
- Knowing some German will help but English is spoken by almost everyone
- Austria is kid friendly – there are discounts for kids everywhere and restaurants will just make a smaller portion of whatever you choose off the menu though there is no separate children’s menu.
- Most places accept card payment but there are still some establishments which accept only cash , so keep some handy.
- Take lots of photos! Austria is a beautiful country!