I know that I have not finished posting our trip to Austria and Switzerland, yet, but I’m here in Spain, now and thought I’d try some live blogging.
I am using my USB connector kit for the iPad for the first time to connect my Fujifilm Finepix S2
After coming down from the Grossglockner Hauptalpenstrasse (in more ways than one), and leaving Austria’s Hohe Tauern national park, we took a smaller highway toward Innsbruck, where we have a reservation. It was already midafternoon, but there was something else we want to see on these northern slopes of the Alps: the Krimml Wasserfall, the highest waterfalls in Europe, at 380 metres.
Along the way, we encountered something truly universal: construction delays on the highway. It’s hard to fault them, though, as Austria’s highways are so beautifully smooth and even, and the construction zones that constrict the highway are quite short, at least compared to Canada’s.
We arrived at the town of Krimml in about an hour, just after the official closing time. I parked in one of the farther parking lots to avoid paying charges, but I needn’t have bothered: the staff had gone. That’s one aspect about Austria that I have noticed in a lot of places: it has a lot of rules, and puts up signs about them, but as long as you’re not bothering anyone or breaking anything, it seems the Austrians don’t enforce them very strictly. They’re so gracious!
You can see the falling water from a long distance, a twisting, foaming, writhing white ribbon down the mountain. The park around the waterfall has a large, family-oriented “Water Wonderworld” interpretive centre. We didn’t bother—we wanted to see the falls themselves. There is an excellent hiking trail all along the way, past Water Wonderworld and several viewing points. There are kitschy stump-carvings, signs explaining the history of the trail, the hydrology of the waterfall and some associated legends, and of course souvenir shops, which were in the process of closing when we got there.
We climbed to the second viewing point that brings you close to the falling water itself. Now, this is no Niagara—it’s a narrow river, but it’s falling from an immense height. The trail will take you right up to the water. The roar washes away the possibility of conversation, and the spray soaks you. I was a little worried about my camera getting wet, so I only took a few pictures, then tucked it under my rain-jacket.
The sight is spectacular, especially from the bottom of one of the major cataracts—it’s really something special to see the water coming down, almost on top of you, from so high.
Nicolas, of course, climbed the rocks until he was almost taking a shower in the waterfall. I climbed only until I could get good pictures. Then I saw the first bit of litter I had seen in all of Austria to that point: a wet, torn paper wrapper from some treat. Again, it was hard to blame anyone for not picking up one bit of dropped paper on the slippery rocks above the rushing water.
Wet and happy, we retreated down the hiking trail as the sun went down behind the Alps. I paused on the way back at some of the signs to read about the legends that surround the waterfall. My favourite was the one about the hunter a couple of centuries back who was poaching in the Hohe Tauern (it seems the park goes way back). He was being pursued by the most relentless park warden I have ever heard of, but the hunter kept the rifle strapped to his back and the dead deer over his shoulders as he ran from mountain to valley, clear from one end of this huge park to the other.
Finally, just as the warden was about to catch up, the hunter arrived at the Krimml waterfall. He leaped into the curtain of falling water and disappeared, and no one ever found him or even his body.
We were fairly dry by the time we walked back to the town of Krimml and had pizza for supper in one of the smaller restaurants in town. We didn’t want to linger, but somehow we ended up ordering three large pizzas! It was way too much for us, so we managed to take away our leftovers.
The road out of Krimml toward Innsbruck led up more spectacular switchbacks. I got this one last look at the waterfall as the full moon rose.
Next post: a nerve-wracking mountainous drive in the dark, and our arrival in Innsbruck, the “city in the mountains.”
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.
Our visit to the world’s largest ice cave took much, much longer than we thought it ever would. Even getting back down the mountain takes time. It’s after 6 by the time we get into the car.
Our destination is Zell am See, a resort town on the Zeller See, or Zeller Lake. By the time we get there, it’s after 7. We choose a restaurant for supper out of one of our guidebooks before we check into the hotel we’ve been looking forward to more than any other. But more on that in a moment.
Our supper was something like a fondu: the waiter brought the cooker to our table, a steel cone with little hooks on its curved surface. The waiter lit the little burner underneath, and we placed strips of chicken, beef and pork on the hooks, then doused them with sauces. It’s a slow process.
Then, to the hotel we had been looking forward to: the Schloss Prielau, once a small castle or minor palace, more recently the country home of Hugo von Hoffmansthal, the co-founder of the Salzburg Festival.
It’s a beautiful place, everything that a castle-hotel should be. It’s situated on its own grounds with its own little beach on the Zeller See. The ground floor has the breakfast room and a lounge, which is the only place where the wireless network connects. (The thick stone walls aren’t really compatible with WiFi.)
We had expected the Gertie Suite, named for Hugo’s wife; but we were upgraded to the Hugo von Hoffmansthal Suite itself, which takes up the entire first (second) floor. It has three bathrooms (more than we needed), a big central lounge with a huge dining table, a library with a small grand piano, four bedrooms, two four-poster beds—it goes on and on. There must be hundreds of heads of deer and chamois on the walls, which adds a macabre touch. Outside is a large, park-like estate with statues of men in Renaissance-era clothing, and a trampoline.
The weird thing is, there was no staff when we arrived. There was a note on the door advising us to call when we arrived, but all the doors, except for the few occupied rooms, are wide open. The staffer is actually in the Michelin-starred restaurant outside the castle, Mayer’s. We check in and luxuriate with a bottle of wine.
What a way to live! I’ll let the pictures fill in the rest of this post.
Next: the Grossglockner Hauptalpenstrasse.
After several days of museums, palaces, cities and concerts, our activities today are the preference of the teenager in our little traveling band. Nicolas likes hiking, climbing and anything outdoors.
Breakfast at the Trumer Stube features home-made pastries, which are excellent. We’re getting spoiled in Austria. I don’t understand why this hotel charges separately for its breakfast, however. Pastries aside, it’s nothing special and certainly not as good or as varied as the Hotel Peter’s.
We spend a couple of hours walking in Salzburg, buying souvenirs. Thankfully, getting the car out of Salzburg is much easier than getting in, but due to the number of one-way and pedestrian-only streets, barricades and lights, it takes us a circuitous half hour to drive from the parking lot to the hotel to pick up our bags. It’s a five-minute walk. Tip: don’t drive in Salzburg! See the previous post.
As we drive south through the Salzkammergut, the Alps rise before us. We drive toward Werfen, about 40 km south of Salzburg and watch the signs for the Eisriesenwelt, the largest ice caves in the world. The guide books and the attractions brochures advise that you can park at the bottom of the mountain, outside Werfen, then take a shuttle to the bottom of the gondola. Or you can hike uphill for two to three hours. We opt for the shuttle (although Nicolas would be happy to hike). But when we arrive at the parking lot, the attendants tell us that there is room in parking lots at the top, so we drive.
This is our first hairy drive in Austria. The road is narrow in spots, but perfectly smooth and maintained. There are lots of tight hairpin turns at the switchbacks; the Austrians have even put convex mirrors at some of the hairpins so you can see what’s coming. We pass wider areas on the mountainside where cars have parked, and ease past hikers walking slowly uphill. We keep going, however, until we can see the entrance to the Eisriesenwelt park, and we find several parking spaces. It’s just after lunch at this point.
We go into the interpretive centre and buy tickets: one to enter the park, and another to take the gondola up to the ice cave. Again, hiking is an option, but it’s a one- to two-hour, difficult climb up. On the other hand, we waited in line for well over an hour, and got on one of the last gondolas scheduled to go up the mountain that day. The cave closes at around 4:30, and the tour of the cave itself is over an hour long. My advice: get to this place early, or go off season. Afternoons in the summer are very crowded in the Eisreisenwelt.
The long wait is worth it, however. At the top of the gondola, though, is another hike, about 20 minutes long, uphill, past switchbacks. The views are spectacular. The Schloss Hohenwerfen (Above Werfen Castle), which seemed to be on a high hill, is a dizzying distance below. The muddy Salzach river and the highways twist like dropped ribbons.
There’s a short tunnel, more switchbacks, steep climbs. The air is noticeably thin. Even Nicolas is slowing down. But finally, there is the entrance to the cave, yawning open to glimmering depths. A crowd gathers and one guide, a handsome university student named George asks for anyone who wants to join the last English-language tour of the day. We push forward. Every fifth person gets an old-fashioned miner’s lamp lit from another lamp. No flash photography is allowed.
At this point, I was disabused of one notion. When I saw the words “ice cave,” I imagined a cave in ice, like a vertical crevasse. However, this is a cave in rock, an opening into the mountain that is filledwith ice. Ice pours out of it, like an underground glacier. And it is spectacular; the ice glimmers dark bluish-green in the dim light. We follow wooden steps that lead us mostly upward, past towering ice stalagmites. One looks to me like a 6-metre wedding gown. Other ice formations are called the “polar bear” and the “elephant,” George explains.
George runs and skids on the ice, and the tourists take short slides and steps on the watery ice, too, when George is not looking that hard. This is symptomatic of the Austrian attitude, it seems. They have lots of rules, like no pictures or no stepping here or there, but don’t seem anxious about enforcing the rules if you don’t make yourself obnoxious. This is in stark contrast to the Greeks, in my experience.
The tour takes you 700 steps in and another 700 out; we see the “cathedral,” a huge empty vault inside the mountain, and an ice wall that George tells us is 25 metres thick! Most of the river of ice that we follow, says George, is at least 8 metres deep. After an hour, we have completed the loop. At the door, the wind blows out from the cave to the outside world. George explains this wind, caused by temperature differentials between the inside and outside of the cave, is what makes, and maintains, the ice—although climate change has shrunk the ice formations.
Now, the long climb back down the mountain. Hohenwerfen castle grows, slowly, but it’s too late to visit it now. This tour has taken most of the day. It’s been worth it.
It’s still raining in the morning. Breakfast at the Hotel Peter is excellent, and the service is even better. This is a family-owned hotel, but it’s one of the most professional operations I’ve ever seen. (Check out my review on TripAdvisor.) It overlooks the Wolfgangsee and our room has a great view of the Alps, even though they’re largely hidden by rain clouds. The room itself is spacious, and Nicolas even has his own, separate bedroom. There’s a big balcony with a table—but the rain, again, will keep us from enjoying it. Oh well. There’s no such thing as a vacation without rain, except in Greece.
We drive through the rain to Salzburg. The tops of the Alps hide behind clouds. If I had known when I planned this trip what I know now, I would have booked the Hotel Peter for two or three nights, and driven into Salzburg for the day. But we’ve confirmed our reservations already.
It takes less than an hour to get from the Wolfgangsee to Salzburg guided by “Sophie,” our car’s built-in GPS navigator. Once there, I adjust Sophie for directions to the main sight, the burg at the top of the mountain in the middle of the city. Sophie leads us to narrower and narrower streets before advising us to turn the wrong way on a one-way street. I guess GPS programmers aren’t perfect.
Frommer says “Driving a car in Salzburg is definitely not recommended.” He’s right. If you can avoid it, do not drive in Salzburg. Stay in a hotel outside the city and take transit in, if you can. It’s a wonderful place to visit, but hell to drive in. We abandon Sophie for the rest of the day, and hunt for a place close to the base of the funicular that takes people up to the ancient castle of the Princes-Archbishops who used to rule Salzburg. However, we run into the first traffic jam we have encountered in Austria. Eventually, we go right around the old city and arrive back at the rushing, muddy Salzach River. We finally park in an underground parking lot near one of the main squares, and go looking for some lunch. It’s taken us that long.
Frommer recommends Fasty’s. It’s a fast-food sandwich pasta place, but the ingredients are fresh and they bring your order to their table. Only two criticisms: the booths are wickedly uncomfortable, and the bathrooms are so tiny, they have to make little cuts into the doors with a jigsaw so they’ll close past some of the fixtures.
We’ve arrived in the midst of the Salzburg Music Festival, which accounts for some of the crowds, but not for the numbers of children. Roxanne thinks the miserable weather has brought into Salzburg families and whiny children who’d rather be in a lake. I’ve never seen so many strollers outside of Disney World. Even Mozart’s house is full of whiny toddlers.
The funicular ride to the castle is expensive. The castle is also overcrowded, and the line-up for the Prince’s Apartments discourages us from seeing that, but we’ve seen that kind of sumptuousness several times already on this trip. We look at the view and take the audio-guided tour of the armaments. This gives us a good sense of the history. The view from the top of the tower would have been spectacular, but the rain is heaviest when we get up there.
The rain lets up by the time we get back down the mountain. The old city is laid out as a series of squares, one leading into the next. There are at least four or five big churches or cathedrals almost abutting each other. In one square, chairs are set up in front of a stage and a big screen for an outdoor concert. There are also long pedestrian galleries that go through what I presume must have been the old city walls. The galleries are lined with restaurants, bars and stores.
When the rain lets up and some of the crowds thin out, walking around Salzburg is great. There’s a lot to see: square after square, narrow medieval and renaissance-era cobbled streets, shops selling local crafts and decorations, lots of good food. There are flowers everywhere, in boxes on balconies and under windows, and in pots on the sidewalks and steps. And of course, it’s extremely clean. None of us sees so much as a cigarette butt on the street. One of the most memorable sights is an Asian tourist who has gone all out and bought himself a traditional Austrian costume: lederhosen, embroidered shirt, wide-brimmed hat with a feather, buckled shoes. He is a walking incongruity.
Our hotel, the Trumer Stube, is across the river from the old town, but it’s in an old area itself. If you drive here, be careful: there are lots of one-way and pedestrian-only streets. If you miss your turn, you could be in for a long way around. The hotel is not nearly as nice as the Hotel Peter. It’s very small, and we have to put our luggage into the lift, then send it up and take the stairs to meet it.
The hostess, Marianne, is quite nice. She makes us restaurant reservations and gets us tickets to a chamber recital at the Mirabell Palace, which is only about two blocks away. It’s getting late, and we only have time for a quick meal. Marianne sends us to the “Monkey,” which serves traditional Austrian fare. The maitre-d’, upon hearing our need for speed, says “Oh, that Marianne.” But he seats us at a big table that is occupied by a family from Germany. The daughter is getting married the next day at the Mirabell. We share cheery conversation, then scramble out just in time for the concert featuring Salzburg’s own Luz Leskowitz on violin, Irina Smirnova on cello and Michell Ahn on piano.
The Mirabell is a wonderful place for a concert. Its pink marble, relief sculptures of the Prince-Archbishop Raitenau’s favourite mistress (who bore him many children) and cherubs everywhere (even sculpted into the banisters on the magnificent central staircase) transport us back to the 18th century.
After the concert, we wander back across the bridge, through one of the pedestrian galleries to the Residenzplatz—or is it the Domplatz? They all link together around the Dom and Residenz—to the washed-out concert. At the back of the square, a corporation has set up a tent with tables. We endure someone smoking a cigar to drink another glass of wine while watching the end of a filmed Magic Flute projected onto the immense screen.
Despite the rain and the stress of the traffic, the day has worked out very pleasantly. Tomorrow, a review of breakfast at the Trumer Stube, shopping in Salzburg and our journey through the world’s largest ice-cave.
August 7, 2011
This morning, we took a more leisurely breakfast on the Gartenhotel Pfeffel’s terrace overlooking the Danube. This is supposed to be a vacation, after all. After checking out, we double back a bit to the town of Durnstein. Don’t blink or you might miss it! We pay for parking just outside the old town, across from a vineyard (weingut). A short tour of the medieval town brings us back in time, except for the electronics stores and refrigerators in the bakeries.
Once again, we’re struck by how clean everything is—even the road and the parking lot.
We find a mistake in Frommer’s and Lonely Planet’s guidebooks: “apricot” in Austrian German is not “apricose,” but “marillen.” There are marillen brandy, schnapps, jam and preserves available everywhere. Comparison shop, though, to get the best price.
The hotel Richard Lowenherz (Richard the Lionheart) is in the middle of the village—actually, there’s only one street—right next to Sanger Blondel hotel. That’s fitting. On his way back from the Crusades in the 11th century, Richard was imprisoned in Austria by Duke Leopold. No one knew where he was. Blondel, Richard’s “close friend,” so the story goes, searched for him. Blondel would sing or whistle one of Richard’s favourite songs as he went. When Blondel sang below the Burg Durnstein, Richard sang back. Blondel had found him, and reported back to England, which eventually paid a huge ransom.
The Burg is now the “Burgruine Durnstein,” on top of the hill above the town and the blue-painted monastery. It’s a tiring climb up a path, especially with the hot sun beating down. But it’s well worth the climb. The ruin has towers and loopholes, even a room with a cage-door. It can’t be the same bars that held Richard a thousand years ago—the iron is in better shape than the remains of the stone! But it’s fun to fantasize about the Lionheart in there.
From the ruins, you can also see the hiking paths that follow the high ground. You can hike from hut to hut in Austria, so you don’t have to lug a tent or campstove.
Back down in Durnstein, we go down to the river and dip our feet in the Danube.
We drive back upriver to Krems, another medieval town with modern appendages. We have a very nice lunch just outside the old walls and take a look at the towers. Since it’s Sunday, though, the shops are closed.
We then head upriver for the monastery of Melk. One of our guidebooks described it as “cherubs run amok.” This is an immense abbey at the top of a hill that commands the town and the river, as well. Just in terms of real estate, it’s amazing. It shows how much wealth you can accumulate by making and selling wine. The monks apparently had quite a vineyard, as well as a dairy and a complete farm.
The architecture achieves the heights of baroque decoration verging on the rococo. There are pink or marble cherubs everywhere, and every inch of every ceiling and wall is sculpted or painted. Gold is not in short supply here.
Melk’s church has one of the most bizarre displays I’ve ever seen: along the shrines in the little alcoves along the sides of the church are displays of skeletons dressed in medieval armour and honourary clothing, inside glass coffins. Signs explain that the skeletons came from catacombs and were donated by Empress Maria Theresia in the 18thcentury. That doesn’t explain anything.
The library is very interesting, too, so don’t miss it. There’s an old globe, and record books of noble families going back a millennium.
The sky is getting lower as we leave Melk for a drive through the lake country as it rises toward the Alps. We arrive in St. Wolfgang on the Wolfgangsee to the best value of all hotels we’ve stayed at so far: the Hotel Peter. If you come, make sure you say hello to Maurice, the hotel’s cat.