Vienna has its standard cafes, extravagant palaces and locations for its legendary classical-music scene. Salzburg draws in a crowd with all those churches and castles. But within simple striking distance of both big-name tickets are delightful corners of Austria where English-speakers are unusual, crowds are thinner and the gemuetlichkeit is prevalent.
I have an inside track. My expeditions of the country’s lesser-known delights have been led by my Austrian-born mother and cousins who have actually lived in Upper Austria since birth. During my stays there, they’ve squired me on frequent day trips to a multitude of spots unfamiliar to most American travellers but well-liked among Austrians. By the end of my most recent visit, I had actually developed a top-three list: The day spa village of Bad Schallerbach, the Lake District town of Gmunden and the Alpine town of Kaprun.
On a balmy Friday night in late September, I tossed open the large-scale windows in my street-front hotel to the captivating noises of conventional Austrian folk music. Bad Schallerbach residents sat at the outdoor cafe offering all day breakfast, drinking steins of beer, chuckling and talking as an accordion played in the background. The scene was the really meaning of the difficult-to-translate gemuetlichkeit, an Austrian state of being that communicates friendliness, good cheer and relaxation.
The town of about 4,000 homeowners includes just a couple of blocks of shops and restaurants, yet it is visited by more than 400,000 individuals each year, almost all Austrian, German and Czech. Some come for the shows: For more than Twenty Years, it has hosted a series of live shows (70 are scheduled for 2017) showcasing genres as disparate as klezmer and classical.
However the majority of the visitors make the journey for the waters. Since 1918, the town’s natural sulphur springs have brought in those looking for a treatment. Most recently, with an infusion of public dollars, it has morphed into Eurothermen Resort, a huge spa-themed centre situated in the midst of a 22-acre arboretum along the Trattnach River.
Anchored by a glamorous 150-room hotel linked to the medical spa by means of a covered sidewalk, the resort is a series of indoor and outside pools with magnificent pool surrounds, warm springs, waterslides and relaxing locations so comprehensive that a first-timer quickly can get lost.
On a Tuesday afternoon in early fall, one end of the resort, called Tropicana, and hosted a group mainly of young adults bellied up to the swimming pool bar with Caribbean-style drinks in hand. Off to the side, a few individuals lounged in smaller specialty pools instilled with salt, iodine, selenium and sulphur. Covered with a towering retractable glass roofing system and dominated by an indoor-outdoor swimming pool, Tropicana likewise sports a 5,000-gallon tropical fish aquarium, sandy beaches and big plastic palm trees that, if you squint, might pass for the genuine thing.
At the resort’s other end, a number of blocks away, families with screeching children occupied Aquapulco, a pirate-themed water park with 5 slides and an array of sprays, pails and fountains. In between Tropicana and Aquapulco were more pools. In one, called Colorama, visitors swam laps underneath a 16-yard-wide movie screen while listening to an undersea music system. Another large pool was populated by those who choose swimming in the buff.
Those who like dry heat went to an area called AusZeit das Sauna-Bergdorf (Break at the Sauna Mountain Town), which has more than 40 sauna-related facilities, consisting of the women-only Dirndl Health club and one set in the world’s largest cider barrel. Sprinkled throughout the resort were lunching couples, households resting under infrared heating systems, ladies heading into the massage location and older visitors waiting at the Physikarium health centre for supervised medical treatments.
Adjacent to the resort, the free-access parklands offer a break from the day spa crowds with a beautiful landscape design Botanica Park is a peaceful sanctuary that attracts a mix of joggers, parents pushing strollers, pet dog walkers and plant lovers. During an afternoon run, I stopped regularly to take a look at the numerous gardens, including one that focuses on medical plants and another that provides a place to meditate. Walking back to the hotel, I wandered past an atrium where a traditionally garbed Bavarian brass band was performing for wine-sipping employees of a local organisation – gemuetlichkeit defined on a common afternoon in Bad Schallerbach.
We stacked into 2 automobiles at my cousin’s home in the small village of Krenglbach for the 40-minute drive to Gmunden, among many scenic lakeside towns that grace Austria’s Salzkammergut area. We’re not strangers to this historical resort town that rests on the northern end of crystal-clear Traunsee (Lake Traun). Repeated visits never get old with the pledge of a long hike along postcard-perfect routes stressed with lovely prepared meals from the waterside coffee shop. On a recent unseasonably warm day in early October, sailboats drifted previous Schloss Ort, an island castle founded in 1080 and linked to the mainland via wood bridge. The Gisela, a 145-year-old brought back paddle steamboat, ferried sightseers along the lake. A backdrop of cornflower-blue sky and towering mountains controlled by the unique and boulder like 5,500-foot Traunstein transformed the view into something right out of “The Noise of Music”.
After drinking amongst the fanciful scenery during a walk along the quiet eastern edge of the town’s waterside, we moved towards its latest attraction, the Grunberg Mountain cable cars, which began running in summertime 2014.
Backpack-equipped hikers gathered at the bottom of the 3,300-foot mountain while we took the simple method up through among the two 60-person cable cars.
Throughout our climb, a sweeping view of Upper Austria unfolded, eventually providing us far-off take a look at the cities of Linz and Wels. Right there, below us, there was glamorous lakefront houses turned into doll houses.
Atop the mountain, children zoomed down a long, red slide that begins at a lodge-style dining establishment and ends at a play area. As their moms and dads drank tough beers and tucked into plates of schnitzel, the kids raced along the play area’s zip wire and rope walk. A couple of backyards away, brave adventurers lined up to ride the Gruenberg Flitzer, a toboggan-on-a-rail that heads straight down for nearly a mile prior to returning by means of a roped ski lift.
But these man-made amenities play second fiddle to the star of the program, the surrounding mountains. There are lots of walking-stick-equipped hikers, including a few using standard lederhosen, traversed in the miles of trekking courses that link Grunberg Mountain to Laudachsee (Lake Laudach). More proficient hikers dealt with the difficult climb to the Traunstein.
Sated by a hearty lunch of wursts and beer, we once again took the simple way off the mountain via cable car. A hike down would have made us another hour or 2 of idle gemuetlichkeit over strudel and coffee at one of the town’s cafes. Next time, we’ll walk.
Fifty miles southwest of Salzburg, in the heart of the Austrian Alps, the surrounding towns of Zell am See and Kaprun draw more than 500,000 travellers each year. The extensive ski network, using more than 81 miles of runs, draws lovers of winter sports from around the globe. In summer season, visitors pertain to hike, bike and boat.
But my mother yearned to once again check out a close by, far-less-known sight that had caught her imagination years earlier – the Kaprun dams and mountain tanks. While created to offer electricity to the Salzburg area, building of Austria’s variation of the Hoover Dam had an unintended effect: It created simple access to a location that is teeming with natural appeal.
The two dams and adjacent tanks – Mooserboden and Wasserfallboden – have a dark history. Begun by the Nazis in 1938, the initial phases were developed by thousands of prisoners of war and oppressed employees under terrible conditions; the main employee death tally is 120, however a lot more might have perished. After the war, the dams were finished, first by German and Austrian POWs, then by workers including my uncle. Declared as an ideal example of post-war restoration, it wasn’t up until years later that the function of slave labour was acknowledged.
On a blue-sky, puffy-white-clouds day, we took the drive to Kaprun. Pulling into an inauspicious parking garage after more than two hours and after that walking a few yards to catch a bus outside a gift store, I was underwhelmed. What could my mother be raving? A number of minutes into the very first bus ride, I began to get it.
On a narrow roadway through rough-strewn rock tunnels, some so narrow that I might have touched the walls through an open window, we were first dropped off at the area’s base camp, near to the 4,000-foot mark. From there, we lined up for a standing spot on the open platform of the Larchwand, Europe’s longest diagonal outside elevator.
And when launched from that, we got in yet another bus, which went through more tunnels and previous imposing mountains, the practically artificially blue Wasserfallboden and steep hills dotted with goats, horses and cows.
When we lastly arrived at the leading dam, which sits at 6,700 feet, the panorama unfolded. Snow-capped mountains above the tree line, lower conifer-covered rolling hills, fields of wildflowers, an only boat plying the virescent Mooserboden reservoir, a group of schoolchildren hiking in the distance all integrated to create an unreal background of beauty.
We walked along the dam before visiting the mountaintop restaurant for more wursts with a view, investing a leisurely afternoon recollecting with my 92-year-old mother about her childhood in pre-World War II Austria. Threadbare clothing were bide far from sis to sister; bales of hay were their beds; the outhouse appeared miles away throughout ice-cold winter seasons; and there was never ever a time when they weren’t hungry.
But she doesn’t remember her childhood as being particularly sad. They were constantly surrounded by beautiful landscapes and Austrian gemuetlichkeit.
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