How to ex­plore Aus­tria like a lo­cal

Dis­cover de­light­ful towns that are un­fa­mil­iar to most North Amer­i­can tourists

The Hamilton Spectator - - TRAVEL - CAROL SOTTILI

Vi­enna has its tra­di­tional cafés, op­u­lent palaces and venues for its leg­endary clas­si­cal­mu­sic scene.

Salzburg at­tracts a crowd with all those churches and cas­tles.

But within easy strik­ing dis­tance of both big-name tick­ets are de­light­ful cor­ners of Aus­tria where English-speak­ers are rare, crowds are thin­ner and the gemuetlichkeit is per­va­sive. I have an in­side track. My ex­plo­rations of the coun­try’s lesser­known de­lights have been led by my Aus­trian-born mother and cousins who have 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 North Amer­i­can tourists but well-loved among Aus­tri­ans.

By the end of my most re­cent visit, I had come up with a top-three list: The spa vil­lage of Bad Schaller­bach, the Lake District town of Gmunden and the Alpine vil­lage of Kaprun.

On a balmy Fri­day night in late Septem­ber, I threw open the over­size win­dows in my street-front ho­tel to the cap­ti­vat­ing sounds of tra­di­tional Aus­trian folk mu­sic. Bad Schaller­bach lo­cals sat at the out­door café drink­ing steins of beer, laugh­ing and talk­ing as an ac­cor­dion played in the back­ground.

The scene was the very def­i­ni­tion of the dif­fi­cult-to-trans­late gemuetlichkeit, an Aus­trian state of be­ing that con­veys friend­li­ness, good cheer and re­lax­ation.

The town of about 4,000 res­i­dents con­sists of just a few blocks of shops and restau­rants, yet it is vis­ited by more than 400,000 peo­ple each year, al­most all Aus­trian, Ger­man and Czech.

Some come for the con­certs: For more than 20 years, it has hosted a se­ries of live shows (70 are sched­uled for 2017) show­cas­ing gen­res as dis­parate as klezmer and clas­si­cal.

But most make the trip for the waters. Since 1918, the town’s nat­u­ral sul­phur springs have at­tracted those in search of a cure. Most re­cently, with an in­fu­sion of pub­lic dol­lars, it has mor­phed into Eurother­menRe­sort, a mas­sive spa-themed fa­cil­ity in the midst of a 22-acre botan­i­cal gar­den along the Trat­tnach River.

An­chored by a lux­u­ri­ous 150-room ho­tel con­nected to the spa via a cov­ered walk­way, the re­sort is a se­ries of in­door and out­door pools, hot springs, wa­ter­slides and loung­ing ar­eas so ex­ten­sive that a first-timer eas­ily can get lost.

On a Tues­day af­ter­noon in early au­tumn, one end of the re­sort, called Trop­i­cana, hosted a group mostly of young adults bel­lied up to the pool bar with Caribbean-style drinks in hand.

Off to the side, a few peo­ple lounged in smaller spe­cialty pools in­fused with salt, io­dine, se­le­nium and sul­phur.

Cov­ered with a tow­er­ing re­tractable glass roof and dom­i­nated by an in­door-out­door pool, Trop­i­cana also sports a 5,000-gal­lon trop­i­cal fish aquar­ium, sandy beaches and huge plas­tic palm trees that, if you squint, could pass for the real thing.

At the re­sort’s other end, sev­eral blocks away, fam­i­lies with squeal­ing chil­dren oc­cu­pied Aqua­pulco, a pi­rate-themed wa­ter park with five slides and an ar­ray of sprays, buck­ets and foun­tains.

We piled into two cars at my cousin’s home in the tiny vil­lage of Krenglbach for the 40-minute drive to Gmunden, one of many scenic lake­side towns that grace Aus­tria’s Salzkam­mergut re­gion.

We’re not strangers to this his­toric re­sort town that sits on the north­ern end of crys­tal­clear Traun­see (Lake Traun). Re­peat vis­its never get old with the prom­ise of a long hike along post­card-per­fect trails punc­tu­ated with a lovely piece of pastry at a water­front café.

On a re­cent un­sea­son­ably warm day in early Oc­to­ber, sail­boats drifted past Schloss Ort, an is­land cas­tle founded in 1080 and con­nected to the main­land via wooden bridge. The Gisela, a 145-year-old re­stored pad­dle steam­boat, fer­ried sight­seers along the lake.

A back­drop of corn­flower-blue sky and tow­er­ing moun­tains dom­i­nated by the distinc­tive and boul­der­like 5,500-foot Traun­stein trans­formed the view into some­thing straight out of “The Sound of Mu­sic.”

Af­ter drink­ing in the fan­ci­ful scene dur­ing a walk along the quiet eastern edge of the town’s water­front, we headed for its new­est at­trac­tion, the Grun­berg Moun­tain ca­ble cars, which started op­er­at­ing in sum­mer 2014.

Back­pack-equipped hik­ers gath­ered at the bot­tom of the 3,300-foot moun­tain while we took the easy way up via one of the two 60-per­son ca­ble cars.

Dur­ing our as­cent, a sweep­ing view of Up­per Aus­tria un­folded, even­tu­ally giv­ing us far-off looks at the cities of Linz and Wels. Im­me­di­ately be­low us, glam­orous lake­front homes turned into doll­houses.

Atop the moun­tain, chil­dren zoomed down a long, red slide that starts at a lodgestyle restau­rant and ends at a play­ground. As their par­ents sipped sturdy beers and tucked into plates of schnitzel, the kids raced along the play­ground’s zip wire and rope walk. A few yards away, in­trepid ad­ven­tur­ers lined up to ride the Gru­en­berg Fl­itzer, a to­bog­gan-on-a-rail that heads straight down for nearly a mile be­fore re­turn­ing via a roped ski lift.

But these man-made ameni­ties play sec­ond fid­dle to the star of the show, the sur­round­ing moun­tains. Dozens of walk­ing­stick-equipped hik­ers, in­clud­ing a few wear­ing tra­di­tional leder­ho­sen, tra­versed the miles of hik­ing paths that con­nect Grun­berg Moun­tain to Lau­dachsee (Lake Lau­dach).

Sated by a hearty lunch of wursts and beer, we again took the easy way off the moun­tain via ca­ble car. A hike down would have earned us an­other hour or two of idle gemuetlichkeit over strudel and cof­fee at one of the town’s cafés. Next time, we’ll walk.

Fifty miles south­west of Salzburg, in the heart of the Aus­trian Alps, the ad­ja­cent towns of Zell am See and Kaprun draw more than 500,000 tourists an­nu­ally.

The ex­ten­sive ski net­work, of­fer­ing more than 81 miles of runs, draws en­thu­si­asts of win­ter sports from around the globe. In sum­mer, vis­i­tors come to hike, bike and boat.

But my mother yearned to once again visit a nearby, far-less-known sight that had cap­tured her imag­i­na­tion decades ear­lier — the Kaprun dams and moun­tain reser­voirs. While de­signed to pro­vide elec­tric­ity to the Salzburg re­gion, con­struc­tion of Aus­tria’s ver­sion of the Hoover Dam had an un­in­tended con­se­quence: It cre­ated easy ac­cess to an area that is brim­ming with nat­u­ral beauty.

The two dams and ad­join­ing reser­voirs — Mooser­bo­den and Wasser­fall­bo­den — have a dark his­tory. Started by the Nazis in 1938, the ini­tial stages were built by thou­sands of pris­on­ers of war and en­slaved work­ers un­der hor­ri­ble con­di­tions; the of­fi­cial worker death tally is 120, but many more may have per­ished.

Af­ter the war, the dams were com­pleted, first by Ger­man and Aus­trian POWs, then by work­ers in­clud­ing my un­cle. Her­alded as a per­fect ex­am­ple of post­war re­con­struc­tion, it wasn’t un­til years later that the role 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 then walk­ing a few yards to catch a bus out­side a gift shop, I was un­der­whelmed. What could my mother be go­ing on about? Sev­eral min­utes into the first bus ride, I started to get it.

When we fi­nally ar­rived at the top 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, a lone boat ply­ing the vires­cent Mooser­bo­den reser­voir, a group of school­child­ren hik­ing in the dis­tance all com­bined to cre­ate an un­real back­drop of beauty.


The Mooser­bo­den reser­voir is one of two in Kaprun, Aus­tria, cre­ated by dam con­struc­tion that be­gan in the 1930s.

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