The Grossglockner Hauptalpenstrass
Wednesday, August 10:
We woke up in the gorgeous suite in the Schloss Prielau. It’s hard to believe what we see: the four-poster bed, the intricate woodwork of the ceiling, the size of the suite. We each have our own marble-finished bathroom.
Breakfast is very good, and we finally meet the staff. I have a chat with the manager, Angela Mayer, wife of Austria’s star chef at Mayer’s restaurant, the next building on the property.
Our plan for the day is a drive along the Grossglockner Hauptalpenstrasse—the longest alpine highway in Europe, renowned for breathtaking views and twisting switchbacks. Traffic through Zell am See is choked by that universal plague, road construction. We lose a half-hour, but then we’re driving up a typically perfect Austrian road through the town of Bruck and a narrowing valley.
As we get closer to the Alps we can see glimpses of blue skies behind them. At the entrance to the Hohe Tauern national park, (the entrance fee, 19 euros per car—includes a guide book), we park for a break and to look at the wild goats and cattle, indigenous to the park, grazing calmly behind a fence.
Just inside the park, the road starts to climb with a series of sharp switchbacks. Each switch-back is numbered, so you can keep track of how close you are to the bottom as you come back down, I guess.
Try not to get stuck behind a camper-van. Those things can only climb the switchbacks very slowly, and passing it is hairy. But getting passed by car after car is even more annoying.
I found what I thought was a good spot to pass, but ran out of road before the next hairpin turn. As I result, I was roaring past a camper as I turned 180 degrees uphill while a motorcycle on the way down played chicken with me.
The Austrians have made plenty of places to stop and admire the view, and well pull over at least three or four times on the way up. The temperature quickly drops as we get higher, and before long there is snow on the ground. Cattle and flocks of sheep roam the mountainsides. We pause at the Fuscher Lacke, because one of our guide-books raves about its beauty; but it’s really just a large pond, with almost no vegetation around it. It makes for some interesting pictures, though. “It’s like winter,” Nic observes. A family has gathered around a picnic table on which someone has built a snowman. Nic throw a snowball at me. I experiment with using the iPad2 as a camera some more.
At the highest point, there is a restaurant—of course. We park and climb around, slipping on the snow. Don’t try to walk here in deck shoes. Nic has good hiking shoes. He’s a better adventurer than I am.
Outside the restaurant is a man-sized carving of the mascot of the Hohe Tauern, a marmot. The Austrians seem to love their marmots, but even though all the park literature points out how numerous they are, we don’t see one.
At this point, the road starts going down. If anything, the switchbacks are even scarier than when climbing up. The skies clear on the south side of the Alps and it’s getting very warm. We stop for lunch at a place that seems nice. The food is pretty good, and they have some very good Austrian wines. The sunshine is actually hot on the terrace!
After lunch, we continue roughly southward and down the mountains until we reach a branching road, the Franz-Josef Hohe. This leads up, past more hairpin turns and some spectacular waterfalls and mountain lakes, to a ledge on the Franz-Josef Mountain, where there’s a large belvedere to look at the Grossglockner itself, as well as the Johannesberg and, below, the Pasterze glacier, the largest glacier in the eastern Alps. There is a large parking garage, free of charge, food and a funicular to get down to the glacier, and paths to hike to look for ibex. I park beside the road; there is a sign there that I don’t understand, but a friendly taxi driver assures me that I can park anywhere.
That’s really the most striking thing about Austria: everyone seems so relaxed, polite and cheerful.
The line-up for the funicular is very long, so we decline. It’s enough to look down on the longest glacier in the eastern Alps. Nic says that the Pasterze glacier from Johannesberg looks like a tongue—he’s right. And the Grossglockner mountain does look like a gigantic bell.
We spend nearly an hour admiring the view, the mountains and the glacier, and trying to spot ibex or marmots. No luck. Just people. Reluctantly, we get back in the car to reverse the journey and then head for Innsbruck.
The experience is also in reverse. The skies are sunny on the south side of the Alps, and almost at the peak, they become cloudy again.
I have to admit, zooming down the switchbacks in a BMW is thrilling.
We finally get to the bottom and stop in the little town of Bruck (bridge) for an ATM. But our day is not yet over: on the way to Innsbruck, we plan to see the highest waterfall in the region. But I’ll save that for the next post.