How to explore Austria like a local
Discover delightful towns that are unfamiliar to most North American tourists
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.