Austria At Its Most Authentic
Wanderlust Travel Magazine|November/December 2021
A land of lakes, peaks, hikes, heartfelt songs and naked saunas, Salzburgerland dishes up classic Austria at its most authentic
Stuart Forster

Gruss Gott!” exclaimed a cheery hiker as he crunched purposefully past me on a broad mountain path strewn with pebbles. This traditional greeting - frequently used for brief encounters across the Salzburgerland translates literally as “greet God', but originates from a phrase meaning ‘may God bless you'. As I looked around, sun blazing down on the Alpine peaks, I thought: surely it's hard not to feel blessed here.

The hiker was lithe and tanned, effortlessly swinging his walking poles and carrying his mid-sized pack; his gait suggested an ability to cover significant distances with ease. As we passed on the slopes of the Schmittenhöhe, a mountain that peaks at 1,965m, I wondered if he might be about to complete the Hohe Tauern Panorama Trail, a ten-day, 152km hike through Hohe Tauern National Park, opened in May 2021, which ends (or begins) at the lakeside town of Zell am See, just down below. I doubted I'd be moving as freely on my tenth consecutive day of trekking here. But the beauty of these mountains is that they have trails for walkers of all abilities, including intermediates like me.

Indeed, this part of Austria has drawn me back repeatedly since childhood. I love the walking, the language, the culture, the cuisine; it's among my happy places. So I'd returned for a few days exploring around Zell am See and Kaprun to reacquaint myself with a region where spending time outdoors comes all-too-easy after what felt like way too long indoors in recent times.

WALKING ON AIR

Perhaps I'd try the Panorama Trail another time. For now, I satisfied myself with a number of other pleasurable walks amid the Salzburgerland mountains. The infrastructure here - from well-waymarked routes and handy cable cars to mountain huts serving up snacks, beer and hearty meals - means it's easy to explore.

The 2.8km circular trail around tree-hemmed Klammsee proved the easiest; I hiked beside the little jade-coloured lake and clomped along the wooden boardwalk through Sigmund Thun Gorge, peering up towards a spraying cascade and down towards narrow rock walls worn smooth by millennia of gushing meltwater.

Then there was the 9.1km trail to the Pinzgau Hut, which lies in a forest clearing 1,700m up on the Schmittenhöhe. Before setting out, I paused in one of Zell am See's minimarkets to pick up picnic supplies: reasonably priced deer sausage, a doorstop-sized wedge of pale-yellow cheese and a quarter of wholemeal Bauernbrot, a circular farmer's bread made with rye. After riding the Schmittenhöhebahn cable car I descended the steepest section of an otherwise easy on the knees and eyes circular route. On wooden seating thoughtfully positioned to showcase the Salzach Valley I munched my late lunch, then sat and nursed a beer on the chalet-style hut's terrace, gazing over the fir trees in the valley below.

A handful of the walks in the area require serious knowledge about the potentially difficult terrain. Despite glorious late-summer weather, a local lady with obvious concerns about my lack of equipment advised me against setting out alone on the trail up from Mooserboden Reservoir via the Heinrich-Schwaiger-Haus hut to the Grosse Weisbach glacier; the 3,564m ascent, she explained, should only be undertaken in the company of a mountain guide.

So, keen to cross the 3,000m threshold, I instead boarded one of the cable cars that sway from Kaprun up towards the Kitzsteinhorn's lofty 3,203m summit. It wasn't completely plain sailing. As the car clunked, juddered and then lurched upward, us passengers gave a collective gasp, followed by embarrassed giggles and an exchange of sheepish glances before the journey smoothed and we recomposed ourselves, returning our attention to the snow and ice trapped in fissures up ahead.

We disembarked at Gipfelwelt 3000 -aka, 'Summit World'. This mountain station houses Salzburgerland's highest restaurant and a wide-screen cinema showing a short nature documentary filmed in Hohe Tauern National Park. But I made a beeline for the Top of Salzburg observation platform.

Late morning proved an optimal time to stride out onto the wooden balcony, teetering 3,029m above sea level. Sunshine blazed from behind my left shoulder onto concertinaed ridges and a jagged band of snowy summits - including the Birnhorn, Hundstod and neighbouring Watzmann - that poked more than 2,500m into a clear blue sky.The chill, zipping wind made me pull on my jacket but, for an all-too-brief a moment, I was in Alpine bliss, mindfully inhaling deep breaths of fresh air, relishing the sensation of the cold flowing through my nostrils while peering towards some of Austria's highest mountains.

NAKED NOSTALGIA

Back in Zell am See, having stripped off my outer layer, I strolled around to get my bearings again. This spot, on Lake Zell's western shore, has been inhabited since Roman times, with a village founded here by monks in the eighth century. However, it was the arrival of the railway in 1875 that really put the place on the map. It's been popular with visitors, both summer and winter, ever since. Out on the water, a group of stand up paddleboarders propelled themselves gracefully away from the promenade.

The paved, triangular Stadtplatz is the de facto town centre. In its middle a fountain trickles. On the north side is the pale-grey Vogtturm, a thick-walled medieval tower with tiny windows whose origins have been forgotten over time; inside there's a small, interactive museum introducing Zell am See's history and displaying paintings of the area. Diagonally opposite is the gabled clocktower of the town's oldest place of worship, St Hippolyte's church, a Romanesque limestone building with a light, white interior.

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