Austrian Alps

Great Escape to the Austrian Alps

This feature for Lonely Planet Traveller involved a grand tour around the Austrian Alps, from the grand old city of Innsbruck to the trails of the Zillertal valley, a legendary name for generations of climbers and hikers.

The story also involved a road-trip along the Grossglockner High Alpine Road and a tour around the natural wonders of Salzburgerland. including the amazing Eisreisenwelt, the largest ice cave in Austria.

It finished in the Austrian Lake District, once a favourite holiday spot for Austria’s royal family.

Innsbruck

A waypoint across the Alps since ancient times, the stately city of Innsbruck is steeped in imperial history

Morning shadows are slanting over Innsbruck’s cobbles as the town shakes off its slumber and wakes up for another day. At the Altstadt’s pavement cafés, locals are gathering for their morning constitutional – a cup of black coffee and a slice of apple strüdel, baked this morning and served piping-hot from the oven. As they tuck into breakfast, sunlight creeps along the pavements and onto the town’s facades, painted in pastel pinks, mustard yellows and duck-egg blues. Pigeons wheel overhead, and north of the old town, cable-cars buzz up the hillsides, ferrying walkers to an early-morning start amongst the spiked summits of the Nordkette range.

300 miles west of the Austrian capital of Vienna, Innsbruck is a city where life is framed by the mountains. Hedged north and south by peaks, the town sits along one of the most ancient trading routes over the Alps, the Brenner Pass. For centuries, pilgrims, pedlars, traders and troopers have travelled through here on their way across the mountains, using Innsbruck’s namesake bridge to cross the Inn River en route to Italy and the Mediterranean beyond.

The city grew rich by controlling the flow of trans-mountain traffic. Until the mid-16th century, Innsbruck served as capital for the independent duchy of Tyrol, as well as the eastern seat of power for the Habsburg dynasty. Even now, long after its imperial star has waned, the town still cheekily bills itself as the ‘Capital of the Alps’.

The Habsburg’s influence dominates Innsbruck’s elegant old town. Grand boulevards lined by mansions and merchant’s townhouses radiate out from the city’s heart. Many of the buildings are richly decorated, a sign of the city’s prestige: swashes, scrolls and curlicues embellish their baroque facades, like flourishes on a wedding cake. Often, the architecture contains echoes of old imperial glories: the double-headed eagle, the Habsburg’s coat-of-arms, is a common motif around Innsbruck, adorning everything from shop signs to door-knockers.

Inevitably, it’s the city’s royal buildings that impress most. Inside the Hofburg Palace, the hallways are lined with Old Master paintings and objets d’art, and the ceilings are emblazoned with frescoes that play games with the eye – conjuring curves where none exist, or seeming to open out into the heavens. Nearby, on the main street of Herzog-Friedrich-Straße stands the Goldenes Dachl, or Golden Roof, built by Emperor Maximillian I in 1500 as a wedding gift to his new wife, Bianca Maria Sforza. Emblazoned with 2,738 copper tiles that flash and shimmer like fish scales in the sunlight, it’s the city’s most celebrated building, and an impressive reminder of Innsbruck’s imperial past.

One man who has an unusual insight into the city’s history is Peter Grassmayr, whose family owns Austria’s oldest bell foundry, just south of the city centre. Founded in 1599, Grassmayr bells have been chiming out from the city’s church-towers for four centuries, and are now shipped to temples, mosques, chapels and sanctuaries across the globe.

“We make bells for eight different religions and fifty countries,” Peter explains, as he strolls around the foundry’s bell garden, where a collection of the company’s historic bells now reside in hushed retirement, including one dating from 1454. “We might be in the middle of the mountains, but our bells can be heard as far away as Jerusalem, Australia and Japan!”

For all its architectural pomp, these days Innsbruck is a place that’s more popular for its outdoor pursuits than its imperial past. Along with St Moritz and Lake Placid, it’s one of only three places in the world which has hosted the Winter Olympics twice – in 1964 and 1976 – and few cities have such a main line to the mountains. In twenty minutes, Innsbruck’s futuristic funicular, designed by star architect Zaha Hadid, whisks hikers, skiers and snowboarders from the Altstadt’s squares into the heart of the Nordkette range at more than 2000m.

At the top, a viewing platform overlooks the city’s rooftops, a sea of spires, domes and terracotta tiles, backed by black peaks. But the view has its drawbacks: as the funicular glides to a halt and its doors whoosh open, a blast of wind whips up from the valley below, sending hats and gloves flying as it howls across the summits.

Fortunately, most people are prepared, tightening hoods and zipping up fleeces as they begin the trek back down towards the city. From here, the curves of the Inn River seem far distant, but in an hour or two, most walkers will be rewarding themselves with mugs of hot chocolate and slices of strüdel in one of the Altstadt’s old-world cafés. It’s one of the things that makes Innsbruck special: for all its elegance, wildness is just a cable-car ride away.

Zillertal

Generations of climbers and hikers have tested their mettle around these valleys, where mountain traditions remain strong – from alpine hospitality to after-dinner yodelling

“Take up the slack,” shouts Matthias Schiestl, as he dangles by one arm from a sheer granite face, clips his rope into a carabiner and dips his hand into a bag of chalk hanging from his belt. Thirty feet below, his girlfriend Nina braces her legs against the rock and leans backwards so the rope tightens against the piton, providing a belay in case Matthias’s grip should slip.

It’s an unnecessary precaution. In a sequence of graceful steps and lunges using clefts and ledges in the rock, Matthias ascends the last twenty feet of the face without as much as a missed step. At the top, he takes a break and surveys the green meadows of the Ewige Jagdgründe. Groups of other climbers are tackling pitches around the valley, and Matthias watches them with an experienced eye, assessing lines, critiquing routes, evaluating moves for style and panache. Having caught his breath, he scrambles back down onto the rock face and abseils to the bottom, where Nina is waiting with a flask of coffee and a chocolate bar.

Now 27, Matthias is one of Austria’s most promising young climbers. Born and bred in the Zillertal, he’s been exploring the mountains since he began climbing as a teenager. Now a senior member of the climbing Austrian team, he’s competed all over the globe – but for him, there’s nowhere to climb quite like home.

“I’ve completed most of the main routes in the Zillertal, but there’s always a new place or a better line to find. That’s what keeps me exploring.” Matthias says, slinging his ropes over his shoulder and setting off in search of the next spot. Meadows hatch either side of the trail, fringed by patches of pine forest and boulders, and a few cows munch lazily on the grass beside the path, barely looking up as Matthias strides past. Cascades tumble like threads of silver along the valley walls, the remnants of this morning’s rain, and the loamy scent of earth and tree sap hangs in the air.

Before long, Matthias has found his spot: a slab of granite, leaning out at an oblique angle above a clattering brook. A line of chalk marks the route taken by previous climbers, and Matthias is keen to get started. Within a few minutes, he’s donned his harness, hooked up his rope and taken his first hold on the rock.

Though famous for its climbing culture, the Zillertal has much to offer the less agile, too. It’s Austria’s hiking heartland, criss-crossed by trails that traverse some of the wildest scenery in the Austrian Alps: lakes, plateaus, ridges and pastures awash with wildflowers. Cable-cars allows easy access to the trailheads, and on longer routes, mountain huts provide hikers with a place to stay overnight and a hot meal provided by the warden. These refuges are a cornerstone of life in the mountains, continuing an age-old tradition for Alpine hospitality: most have retained their rustic atmosphere, with wooden furniture, pot-bellied stoves, gingham tablecloths and ibex horns on the walls.

One of the oldest of these old-fashioned hostelries is the Klauselm, a timber-framed cabin where guests dine on long wooden tables loaded with mountain specialities: cheese soup, dried sausage, crusty bread and meaty stew. As they eat, owner Karl Geisler emerges from the kitchen and swaps his apron for an accordion, trilling and parping his way an old mountain folk song. Everyone links arms and joins in for the chorus, but it’s Karl’s impeccable yodelling display that steals the after-dinner show.

After lunch, a band of hikers straps on their boots and heads up into the wild Oberböden, a web of valleys that zig-zags its way into the mountains to the southwest of the main town of Mayrhofen. Like most of the Zillertal’s outer reaches, it’s remote and sparsley populated, deserted save for a few farmhouses and tumbledown barns. They climb steeply for a couple of hours through the forest, picking their way along a clattering stream, and by late afternoon, they’ve reached their goal: a junction between two of the Oberböden’s intersecting valleys, sharp and sheer as a pair of crossed swords, carved out long ago by the mighty glaciers that once sliced through the landscape of the Zillertal.

They stop for a breather on a rocky knoll, and take a few minutes to admire the view. On the valley’s far side, fissures in the cloud are raining sunlight onto the mountainsides, and the air seems charged with electricity. There’s a crack, then a rumble: raindrops splash, and in seconds, drizzle has turned into a downpour, sending the hikers scurrying for cover under the overhanging pines.

It’s a reminder that, though its pitches have been climbed and its paths mapped, the Zillertal is still a corner of the Alps where nature still holds the upper hand.

The Grossglockner Road

Buckle up for an unforgettable ride along this sky-top mountain road – just watch out for the marmots and mountain goats  

From France’s corkscrew Corniches to Amalfi’s clifftop roads, Europe has its share of iconic drives, but none can match the Grossglockner Road for sheer mountain splendour. Winding for 30 miles between the villages of Brück and Heiligenblut through the Hohe Tauern National Park, it’s Austria’s highest, wildest, most hair-raising drive.

In many ways, it’s more rollercoaster than road. It veers and dips, curls and swerves. It swings round switchbacks and plunges through tunnels. Fog, rockfalls and belligerent mountain goats are routine hazards. Between October and May, the road is closed as it sits under several metres of snow. Even in summer, the weather is unpredictable: the road’s altitude means one section can be swathed in cloud while another basks in sunshine.

For most people, it’s a once-in-a-lifetime drive, but for park ranger Konrad Mariacher, it’s his daily commute. He lives in Heiligenblut, an old gold-mining town near the road’s southern gate. He’s driven the Grossglockner in all weathers, but even he can sometimes be caught by surprise.

“The road has a mind of its own,” he says, parking his truck at a viewpoint overlooking the Pasterze Glacier, Austria’s longest ice-flow at nearly 5 miles long. Below the turn-off, a plain of shattered rock and grey ice extends along the valley, and black gouges in the rock-face mark the historic extent of the retreating ice.

“When the cloud rolls in, one curve looks exactly like another, so you have to take care. But the real danger here is the scenery. Every year, many cars come off the road because the driver is paying more attention to the view than to the asphalt.”

He looks up to the top of the mountain, where the road loops through long, arcing curves towards the Hochtor, the ancient mountain pass that’s been in use since Celtic times. From here, it spirals up to the highpoint of the Edelweißspitze – at 2751m the highest point navigable by road in the Alps. From the top, the panorama encompasses seven peaks over 3000m – including the mighty Grossglockner itself, Austria’s highest mountain at 3798m, and the summit after which the road is named.

The road itself was the brainchild of a group of Austrian entrepreneurs who wanted to capitalise on the new-fangled pastime of motor-touring in the early 1930s by building a scenic road through the heart of the Alps. At a cost of more than 25 million Austrian schillings – roughly €55 million today – it seemed a madcap project, but ultimately proved lucrative: today, 900,000 people pass through the Grossglockner’s toll-gates every year, earning its shareholders a handsome dividend.

Unfortunately, on this morning’s ascent toward the Edelweißspitze, the prospect for views doesn’t look too promising. A shroud of cloud hangs over the mountain, obscuring everything but the next bend in the road and the headlights of the car in front. It’s like driving blindfold through a blizzard.

True to its unpredictable nature, however, the Grossglockner gloom doesn’t last long. As the road weaves upwards into the veil of cloud, the weather unexpectedly breaks. The mist thins and dissipates. Streaks of sky appear overhead. Yellow pastures appear by the roadside. On the far side of the Hochtor tunnel, it climbs over a final ridge and a chain of peaks looms along the horizon, like a phalanx of soldiers standing to attention along a castle’s battlements, and the summit of the Grossglockner itself appears, an icy spike towering above a sea of silver cloud.

Suddenly, the boom of engines cracks the silence like cannon fire, and a phalanx of leather-clad bikers races up and over the pass, horns tooting and motors roaring as they thunder past. They’re the first drivers of the day on the Grossglockner, but they won’t be the last.

INFO The standard toll on the Grossglockner is £25 per vehicle per day; it costs £8 extra for re-entry the following day. There are no petrol stations, so make sure you fuel up before arrival. Route maps are available from the Grossglockner’s website (grossglockner.at).

Salzburgerland

From mighty waterfalls to ice caves, nature puts on a grand show in the mountains south of Salzburg

Deep inside the Hochkegel mountain, cave guide Siggi Kahl is getting ready for his next tour. Using a flaming taper, he lights old-fashioned carbide lamps, and hands them one-by-one to his guests. “These are the only lights allowed in the cave, so please, no torches or mobile phones. Also, it’s quite cold – I hope you have all brought a warm coat!” He takes a headcount, then heaves open a cast-iron door bolted into the rock and steps into the inky blackness.

Inside, the reason for Siggi’s warning becomes obvious. Within a few steps of the cave’s entrance, the temperature plummets within a sliver of freezing. Breath steams and fingers chill. Ahead, a staircase disappears into the gloom, and high above, a line of lights from another group bobs and sways like fireflies in the darkness. “Now I am afraid we must do some climbing,” Siggi says, placing one foot on the staircase and rubbing his hands together for warmth.

After a few minutes, Siggi stops and takes a strip of magnesium from his pocket. Touching it to his lamp, it catches light with an electric-blue flash, sending shadows dancing onto the cave’s walls. “This is where you see why we call this the Eisriesenwelt,” Siggi says, holding the sparking magnesium aloft. “Welcome to the World of the Ice Giants.”

The group lets out a gasp. From the gloom, a great column of blue-white ice materialises beside the staircase, its surface gleaming and glinting like crystal in the lamp-light. It’s hundreds of feet high – although it’s hard to be precise, as its upper reaches are lost in the darkness. From inside, there’s the faint trickle of water as the ice melts – the same process that’s carved out the cave over millions of years.

“This is the largest ice formation we have here,” Siggi says, lighting another magnesium strip as the first sputters and dies. “And it’s still growing. It’s added more than a metre this season,” he adds. He pauses to allow everyone to take in the spectacle, then trudges onward up the staircase, each footstep echoing with a dull metallic clank.

The Eisriesenwelt is one of many ice-caves in this part of the Austrian Alps. They’re caused by a geological peculiarity; their chimney-like shape draws in cold air in winter but prevents the ingress of warm air in summer, meaning the water inside freezes but never thaws. Gradually, the ice builds up inch by inch, foot by foot, and over millennia accumulates into huge formations.

Though many of its structures are ancient, the ice itself is dynamic, changing with every passing year. Pillars grow and dwindle. Tunnels appear and vanish. Stalagmites and stalactites intertwine before melting into nothingness. “The cave is closed for winter as it’s too cold inside,” Siggi says, as he passes a huge serac of ice, like a wave frozen in mid-motion. “When we reopen in spring, it’s amazing how much has changed. Often we have to move the path because the ice has changed shape or moved. It’s almost like it’s alive.”

Geology has wrought its magic in many ways around the limestone mountains of Salzburgerland. Over the millennia, the area has been subjected to the full force of nature’s fury: gouged by rivers, pummelled by rock-falls, pounded by waterfalls, fractured by earthquakes.

For Siggi, it’s an area where it’s impossible not to be awed by nature’s power. “The cave guides here have a joke,” he says, catching a few rays of sunshine between tours. “We have the best office in the world, but the central heating needs some work.”

He grins and picks up his carbide lamp, stuffing extra rolls of magnesium into his pockets, then heads back into the icy underworld.

The Austrian Lake District

Near the town of Luoyang in China’s Guangdong Province, there’s a village by a lake. It has flower-covered houses and bubbling fountains. The squares are swept and the roofs are topped with tiles, and a pointy church rises by the lakeshore, whitewashed and crowned by a Gothic spire. The village is called Hallstatt, and it looks too pretty to be true, as though it’s been picked up from the pages of a European fairytale.

In a way, it has. In fact, it’s an inch-perfect copy of a much older Hallstatt – only this one can be found on the edge of the Hallstatter See about 50 miles southeast of Salzburg. The story goes that in the early 2000s, some Chinese developers went in search of the picture-perfect Austrian village – and apparently, they liked Hallstatt so much, they decided to build their own version on the opposite side of the world.

It’s not hard to see what captured their imaginations. With its cobbled squares, lakeside boathouses and timber-framed cottages, the real Hallstatt looks like it’s been designed from scratch to grace the cover of a tourist brochure. There’s been a village here since ancient times, when prehistoric settlers mined the surrounding mountains for salt – a valuable commodity in the days before refrigeration, and an industry that continued right up until the 20th century.

Salt was also the industry that made the wider Salzkammergut region rich. Stretching from the imperial city of Salzburg eastwards into the Dachstein mountains, this whole corner of the Alps was once the private property of the Habsburgs, governed by its own regional administration known as the Imperial Salt Chamber, who oversaw the running of the salt mines and the vast wealth they generated.

Later, the Habsburgs found a different reason to fall in love with the Salzkammergut, and that was the newly-fashionable pastime of sommerfrische – literally, summer refreshment, otherwise known as taking a summer holiday. With its rolling hills and crystal-clear lakes – 76 in all – the area became one of Emperor Franz Joseph’s favourite holiday haunts. Throughout his entire reign between 1848 and 1916, he returned to the Salzkammergut nearly every year with his wife Elisabeth to boat on the lakes, stroll along the shoreline and hopefully bag an ibex or two while hiking in the surrounding mountains. It sparked a tourist boom that still endures in the Salzkammergut to this day.

Today, Halstatt still seems pickled in time. It’s been protected as a World Heritage Site by Unesco since 1997, and its buildings are as perfectly preserved as museum exhibits. Balconies teeter over the village’s stone streets, festooned with wisteria and geraniums. Smoke puffs from chimneys leaning at improbable angles. Rowboats bob beside the lake, and reflections of peaks shimmer in the lake’s glassy surface.

Alexander Scheck grew up near the Hallstattersee. He’s one of only two fishermen permitted to catch the lake’s native whitefish, the reinanke, a relative of the Arctic char – once a delicacy reserved for emperors, but now a common sight on menus. Every morning, Alexander chugs his barge across the lake before dawn, gathering in his nets by hand before heading back to sell his catch at the village fish shop. It’s a practice unchanged in centuries, and one which Alexander practises with pride. “We still use the old techniques to fish here,” he says, heaving in his net and extracting each fish by hand, giving each its final coup de grace against the boat’s gunwale. “Hallstatt is a place where nothing ever changes much.”

Today, the Salzkammergut region remains one of Austria’s summer holiday hot-spots, and people flock here to immerse themselves in nature and indulge in sommerfrische for themselves. Some lakes have become glitzy weekend playgrounds for wealthy cityfolk from Salzburg and Vienna, while others have clung on to their traditional character, with cosy inns and waterfront cottages dotted along the shorelines.

Manuela Kiesenhofer works for a sailing school based on Traunsee, one of the largest of the Salzkammergut’s lakes at eight miles from end-to-end. During summer, she spends every day out on the water, teaching her students the sailing basics: tacking, jibing, how to use the wind and when to trim a sail. With her sun-bleached red hair, wraparound sunglasses and face full of freckles, she clearly feels at home in the great outdoors.

“I could never sit in an office all day,” she says, leaning out from the yacht’s starboard side as she hauls on a rope to make the mainsail snap taut. “I’d miss the feel of the wind on my face too much!”

She swings behind the helm and plots a course for the lakeside town of Gmunden. It’s late afternoon, and the sun is sinking behind the tooth-shaped mountain of Traunstein, tinting the town’s lakefront houses in ginger, ochre, yellow and auburn. It’s almost exactly the same view Emperor Franz Joseph would have enjoyed, and the very essence of sommerfrische.