Apart from all the money and groupies, being Lionel Richie must be pretty hard. No matter how many new songs you write and perform, everyone still just wants to hear Dancing On The Ceiling. In a very roundabout way one could view Austria in a similar vein; regardless of how beautiful, creative or exciting most of the places are, people mainly associate you with either The Sound of Music or skiing.
After a full four days in the town of St Wolfgang, and the surrounding settlements located in and around the lakes in the north of the country, that association is quite clearly ignorant. Just like Lionel Richie, Austria has a lot more to offer. Consider this our attempt to convince you to ditch thoughts of Bodrum, abandon Ibiza, and instead head to Central Europe for your summer shits and giggles.
Arriving at Salzburg Airport, St Wolfgang is a swift 40 minute drive away, a journey that takes in some truly astounding scenery and views. Straddling the huge Wolfgangsee Lake, the town features the kind of quiet, windy roads you would expect to find a couple of A-Listers walking down in some romcom or other; lanes littered with lovely cafes, beautiful boutique shops, and serene restaurants. After the promises, then, here’s the proof behind our point.
In terms of what you are going to see, it’s safe to say this corner of Austria truly is one hell of a jaw-dropping region. As you would expect, with crystal clear lake in the middle of a mountain range, the views both from below and above are truly awe-inspiring, and pictures really can’t do them any justice at all. Still, we tried.
Dominating the various peaks and hills overlooking St Wolfgang is the Schafberg, the highest in the area, and probably the best place to enjoy those vistas. To get to the top you take a ride on the Schafbergbahn – Austria’s steepest cog railway which manages to chug its way up the side of the mountain in 35 minutes. Which isn’t bad, considering that’s an ascent of 1,363m.
Once at the summit you can see a full 360-degree panorama of the area, with the Austrian Alps stretching off into the seemingly-endless distance. With the Hotel Schafbergspitze and the Himmelspforte Refuge Hut up there providing an excuse to enjoy a seat and beer, whilst soaking up the experience, a few hours spent staring aimlessly here definitely won’t feel wasted.
If you want a different angle of the lake, and a closer inspection of the Alps, head to Zwolfer Horn, just on the outskirts of St. Gilgen – a town on the north west end of Wolfgangsee. Once home to Mozart’s sister – a really impressive claim to fame – it remains a quiet, picturesque spot where you will find a rather rickety old cable car offering a lift up the mountain.
You will fear for your life on the ageing contraption, although the cars are due to be replaced by 21st Century ones which have passed numerous EU tests, alongside the obligatory ‘rowdy teenage boy’ challenge that all cable cars must endure. Once again, what you see from atop the Horn is phenomenal, and a real testament to the area in general. No matter where you look there is great scenery to take your breath away.
Austria has enjoyed a long, illustrious history; most recently dominated by the Habsburg dynasty, who were like the Windsors are now, but without the Las Vegas stripping and big ears. For a quick lesson in all things Habsburg head to Bad Ischl – a small town around 20km East of St Wolfgang. Famed throughout the land for its spa status, and as a summer residence of various Emperors and Empresses, throughout the years monarchs have claimed the warm, salty waters heal everything from gout to nightmarish, err, paper cuts, making people flock to the area, which has been popular ever since.
One of the main draws of this charming place is the Summer Palace, or Kaiservilla, where Habsburg royalty spent their summers; most recently Emperor Franz Joseph right up until 1918. The palace, it must be said, should not be visited if you are offended by dead animals – the place has enough antlers and stuffed Disney characters on the walls to make Ace Ventura have an aneurism.
An informative exploration of the residence ends on Emperor Franz Joseph’s personal study, and his desk; the exact place where he signed the declaration of war against Serbia in 1914, beginning a chain of catastrophic events that started Word War I. The historical significance of the act and indeed the room cannot be understated, and just being stood so close to the place where the world was irreversibly changed forever certainly feels odd.
One of the highlights of the whole area, Hallstatt, is a wonderful little village on a lake overlooked by the Hallstatt Salt Mine – a truly gargantuan project and still one of the biggest salt mines in the world. Although we often shy from attractions, especially those geared towards tourists, this place is a must-see. After a quick, and somewhat surreal look at some painted skulls in the Beinhaus (Bone House), where macabre photo opportunities abound, head up the funicular to the mine itself.
You’ll need to don some rather fetching overalls, and recover from the walk to the entrance, before entering the mines-proper. Walking single file 300m into a mountain probably isn’t on many bucket lists, but once through the initial panic stage the experience is unarguably exciting. Venturing deep into the subterranean complex, you’ll begin to realise the history and importance of salt to the area. It’s all very informative, but the real selling points are the slides. Obviously.
Yep, the miners used slides to move about, meaning visitors now get the chance to propel themselves down a massive plank of polished wood into the darkness below. The tour also ends with a trip on a train that the workers would use at the end of each of day – again great fun.
Top Quality Food & Sleep
Slap bang in the centre of St Wolfgang, Im Weissen Rossl am Wolfgangsee (The White Horse Inn) is a collection of three houses that were combined in 1878 to create a luxurious den of elegance. Taking time to appreciate the hotel and the facilities it offers is essential, and it’s clear that the owners are proud of their heritage and tradition.
Rooms are decked out in some impressive antique furniture, including a wardrobe which we tried to fit in our hand luggage, but failed. Stepping out onto the balcony is also a delight; most rooms have a view overlooking the lake, and there’s nothing better than sitting on those verandas with a beer in hand.
If relaxation is your bag, then the spa is on hand with a terrific terrace on the lake, complete with heated pool, sun loungers, and the lake to dip your toes in if things get too toasty.
When it comes to food and drink, Austria doesn’t disappoint either. Top nods must go to the gorgeous veal schnitzel at Hotel Gasthof zur Post, right in the centre of St. Gilgen (which has some amazing rooms too), as well as the schweinsbraten at Strandhotel Margaretha. A dish consisting of roast pork with crackling, potatoes and sauerkraut, it’s best enjoyed on the massive terrace whilst owner Clemens Volger jumps on the piano to serenade diners.
For sweet teeth, Konditorei Zauner, located in Bad Ischl, is famed throughout Austria for dishing up the best cakes and pastries – and we can’t really argue with them. On particular offering, which looks a little bit like a vanilla slice, only with more layers and more almonds, was stunning. The sheer selection of things to try is staggering – so perhaps not the place for people obsessed calorie counts.
Our favourite dish can be found at Jausenstation Dornerhof, though, and is called Brettljause. Basically a pile of cured meats, cheese, bread and veggies, it’s served on a huge platter, and is ideal for sharing whilst sitting on yet another beautifully positioned terrace. There are few better ways to spend a day in the sun.
With such a wealth of activities on offer, some truly interesting attractions and history, and quite possibly some of the best scenery and views we have encountered, the Austrian lakes are perfect for a week or two in the summer sun, far removed from the overcrowded beaches you’ll find elsewhere in Europe. A place where you can truly relax, and soak up the beauty of the place and the warmth of the people, perhaps it might be time to rethink those holiday plans, or at least start making some different ones for next year.
Thomson Lakes & Mountains (www.thomsonlakes.co.uk – 020 8939 0740) offers a week’s half board at the five-star Hotel Im Weissen Rössl in St Wolfgang from £903 per person (based on two sharing) including flights from Manchester and transfers departing in September.