Travel: Discover Austria’sstunning Lake District

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MPMC Austria travel
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“Please try and stay together as I only want to go as fast as the slowest walker,” said our group’s leader as we headed up a mountain track high above the pretty alpine village of Altaussee, writes Alan Wooding.

I recently visited Austria’s Lake District with Adagio, Ramblers Worldwide Holidays’ partner company which organises somewhat gentler and less energetic walking holidays to some of the world’s most beautiful regions… and Styria’s Salzkammergut is certainly one of those!

Enjoying a drink on the Seevilla’s terrace with moonlight glistening on Altaussee lake, the sound of a lullaby being played on the hotel’s grand piano set the scene where 150 years earlier that same tranquil setting inspired one of Germany’s most famous composers.

Johannes Brahms was a regular visitor to the pretty village of Altaussee and in 1882 he played two newly-composed symphonies at the Seevilla residence, the summer home of wealthy Hungarian musician, Professor Lazlo Wagner.

Many years later and having falling into disrepair, the large house was demolished and in its place a new hotel was constructed in the traditional Alpine style by its present owners, the Gulewicz family.

Creating a 30-room hotel – which was later extended to 50 – today the four-star Hotel Seevilla has all the facilities that you would expect from a superior establishment and it is now run by Alexander Gulewicz and his wife Ines who maintain a very high standard. The hotel also retains its links with composer Brahms thanks to a comfortable saloon bar which is kept exclusively for the enjoyment of its guests.

Located on the shores of the beautiful Lake Altaussee, the hotel’s rooms are superbly furnished with all the usual trappings (flat-screen tv, wi-fi, etc). Meanwhile guests can enjoy the magnificent indoor pool with its panoramic views across the tranquil lake and the surrounding mountains, the highest in the area being Loser at 1,837 metres.

There is a huge basement spa and wellness centre where you can enjoy all manner of treatments along with a steam bath and sauna. Many guests also took the opportunity to swim in the sun-warmed waters of the shallow lake or to simply enjoy the sunshine on the hotel’s own beach or its large grassy lawns.

Seevilla, or the Romantik Hotel Seevilla to give it its proper title, is also said to produce the finest food in the whole Salzkammergut region and as it serves a nightly seven-course nouveau cuisine-style dinner, I can certainly vouch for that!

Fish dishes are extremely popular as both brown and rainbow trout, plus numerous Arctic char, populate the high Alpine lakes. But when you spot ‘Pink Cow Back’ on the evening menu, you try and guess what the chef is trying to say… it actually translated as medium rare steak!

However it was the walking that myself and 12 fellow guests came to enjoy under the guidance of Adagio leader David Pace and his charming wife Di. A fit and healthy 70-year-old retired British Airways Boeing 747 pilot from Chippenham in Wiltshire, David also spent many years in the RAF and, with a huge passion for the outdoor life, he has been a Ramblers Worldwide Holiday leader for the past 12 years.

On our first day we enjoyed a gentle stroll around Altaussee village to get our bearings and to locate the tourist office, supermarket and popular backerei where many of us purchased our picnic lunches. We then walked the five and a half miles around the lake which, incidentally, is the only one in the Salzkammergut region (it means ‘Estate of the Salt Chamber’) that you can walk all the way round.

En route it was quite odd to see camels, llamas and many other animals standing in open covered pens close to the lakeside tennis courts… but as the Berlin Touring Circus often uses Altaussee as it’s summer base, two days later they were gone.

We stopped after around three miles for refreshments – that’s Austrian speak for a beer and an apple strudel – at Seewiese’s wooden cabin. It’s located at the far end of the lake beneath the towering rock face of Trisselwand (1,754 metres).

Once revitalised, we continued on around the lake to our hotel for more refreshments – and that meant sampling a huge range of wonderful cakes and pastries put out mid-afternoon in the Brahms Salon for the guests to enjoy!

For more than 900 years, the small village of Altaussee has produced salt on an industrial scale from its mine deep inside Mount Sandling, while during the Second World War it became the hiding place for more than 7,000 irreplaceable works of art.

Masterpieces by the likes of Rembrandt van Rijn, Peter Paul Rubens, Albrecht Durer, Johannes Vermeer and even Leonardo’s Mona Lisa sat alongside a Madonna sculpture by Michelangelo and the Ghent Altarpiece by the Van Eyck brothers. Also buried in the mine’s vast tunnel system were many rare collections of coins and jewellery. However these treasures were later discovered by the Nazis and Hitler quickly deemed that all the paintings and artifacts would be destined to grace his planned Führermuseum which was to be constructed in Linz.

We were instructed to put on canvas-like protective trouser and a shirt more reminiscent of a Nazi concentration camp uniform and, after first watching a short and rather comical video, we then trooped off single file deep into Austria’s largest mine having first received the official miner’s blessing: ‘Glück Auf’.

Walking for around a mile along narrow dimly-lit passages deep inside the mine, we were surprised by the beauty of ‘The Chamber of Flowing Light’ and ‘St Barbara’s Chapel’ while the experience continued as we went much deeper courtesy of two wooden miner’s slides which delivered us into a subterranean world where we enjoyed a visual musical video show projected across a huge saline lake.

Earlier this year, the story of Altaussee’s Salt Mine was retold by film actor/director George Clooney in his Hollywood blockbuster ‘The Monuments Men’, a story about a dedicated team of American soldiers who salvage all the artwork, despite Hitler having ordered it to be destroyed.

Bombs were placed in wooden crates just before the Third Reich collapsed, but thankfully the Führer’s instruction to destroy everything was ignored by high ranking Gestapo officer, Ernst Kaltenbrunner. With Hitler now losing his mind, his orders seemed ridiculous, so Kaltenbrunner instructed Alois Raudaschl and Hermann König to remove the bombs from their special crates which were marked ‘Marble, Do Not Drop’.

Kaltenbrunner then ordered the mine’s entrance to be blown up, although by then local miners had already moved the masterpieces deeper into the galleries and that clearly saved the day. Amazingly it took until 1964 for the final sets of valuables to be retrieved.

Sadly for the mine’s current female staff, who had hoped to meet George Clooney in person, they remained disappointed as the Monuments Men film was shot in a different location … and that was in Germany!

Taking the local Postbuses to the nearby town of Bad Aussee, we ate more cakes and drank coffee at the famous Cafe Lewandowski. That was ahead of our planned walk to three different lakes – Grundlsee (the area’s largest), Toplitzsee (the deepest) and Kammersee (the smallest).

We also climbed aboard an Austrian ‘Platten’, a canoe-like craft with a high prow which allows it to be grounded on the lake’s bankside, thus enabling easy access and egress.

Toplitz lake was a dumping ground for the Nazis who disposed of thousands of documents during the Second World War, although many of were still readable after they floated to the surface several years later!

Also dumped in the deepest part of Toplitzsee were millions of counterfeit British and US banknotes which, had Hitler’s armies managed to invade our shores, his plan to flood the market would have destabilised the currency. Needless to say, the Austrian authorities were forced to close Toplitzsee for more than 20 years until it had been completely cleaned up!

A visit to Dachstein and its famous ice caves proved to be a real tester for some of the Adagio guests. Having risen several thousand feet in a cable car, we made the steep accent (some of our party staggering!) up to the mouth of the freezing cave system accompanied by several parties of excited schoolchildren.

While the youngsters were very well behaved, with such a huge party passing through, some of the slower walkers found themselves left in the dark as the cave’s lighting system appeared to be on a timer switch. It certainly caused problems, although these were soon forgotten as we emerged into the daylight several hundred feet above where we had originally entered the cave around 90 minutes earlier.

But the vIews over the nearby glacier were magnificent as were those over the pretty distant village of Hallstatt and its shimmering lake. Had we had time, we might have taken two additional cable cars which would have lifted us to the ‘five fingers’, the high level observation platforms closer to the glacier at around 7,000 feet.

What was once a true Alpine jewel, sadly Hallstatt is now very commercialised and with rain beginning to fall, we headed for St Michael’s Chapel high above the town to view the tiny beautifully kept graveyard, although it was the Charnel House in which 2,104 skulls and bones are kept that was our real destination.

More than 600 of the skulls have been painted with the names and dates of birth (and death) of the deceased, their remains having to be dug up after so many years simply to make way for the latest ‘residents’!

During the spring, millions of fragrant white narcissus flowers bloom in the rich pastures of the Ausseerland while in May it’s the region’s annual Narcissus Festival when a huge motorcade passes around the area from Grundlsee to Altaussee.

A ‘Narcissus Queen’ is accompanied by two princesses in much the same way that the Bedfordshire villages of Ickwell and Elstow still have May Queens at their respective May Day Festivals. Remnants of the festival could still be seen around the area as tall poles had been erected while the dying flowers were still attached.

Our final two trips took us into the pretty Alpine meadows and the lush pastures of Tauplitzalm and the magnificent Loser (it’s pronounced ‘Low-zer’) which casts a shadow high above Altaussee.

From that high vantage point we watched as dozens of hang-gliders and paragliders headed off into the skies above us before circling around the mountain and then making their descent to land in a grassy field close to Hotel Seevilla.

Lunch at Tauplitzalm was taken at the Grazerhütte high up among the ski lifts while closer to Altaussee is Blaa Alm, a popular watering hole for hikers and cyclists alike who make their descent on a steep scenic hairpin road from Loser’s summit.

Following a huge (yet inexpensive) lunch, we then made the five mile hike back to Altaussee and our hotel via wild flower-covered meadows, the meandering track tracing our passage alongside a babbling stream.

The one thing that really stands out about Ramblers Worldwide Holidays (and Adagio which is only its second year of operation) is its customer loyalty.

Originally founded back in 1946, Ramblers customers certainly keep coming back for more as John, a keen walker from St Albans, can testify. “I’ve been away with Ramblers 28 times over the years and while this was my first trip with Adagio, I’ve thoroughly enjoyed it,” he said, adding that he intends to book another holiday when he returned home.

That sentiment was echoed by Veronica from Farnborough who had already enjoyed three Adagio holidays prior to the Austrian trip. “I’ve been away with Ramblers Worldwide Holidays 13 times and this is my fourth holiday with Adagio since it started last year,” she said, while already looking forward to another Adagio holiday later this year!

And it was the same story for Derek and Corrine from Guildford who had previously enjoyed 14 trips with Ramblers. They loved the Austrian Lake District holiday with Adagio so much that they have already vowed to go back again in 2015, a year which will mark the 50th anniversary of the 1965 Oscar-winning film, The Sound Of Music.

Starring Julie Andrews and Christopher Plummer, it was filmed in and around Salzburg and the Salzkammergut region, reliving the real life story of the Von Trapp family. The film also remains one of the three most repeatedly screened films in history, with more than a billion people having seen it.

And as another bit of trivia... after Bing Crosby ́s ́White Christmas’, the song ‘Edelweiss’ is the most commercially successful single recording in musical history!

Incidentally there are two more Austrian Lake District trips planned for this year by Adagio, the first commencing on Sunday, August 31 and the second a week later on Sunday, September 7.

Fact Flle – Austria

The holiday to Altaussee in the Austrian Lake District was organised by Adagio whose headquarters are shared with Ramblers Worldwide Holidays at Lemsford Mill, Lemsford Village, Welwyn Garden City, AL8 7TR. Check out their website at www.adagio.com or for bookings, call 01707 386700 or email info@adagio.co.uk

Flying direct from London Gatwick to Salzburg with British Airways, we stayed at the superior four-star Romantik Hotel Seevilla – www.seevilla.at – owned by the Gulewicz family and located on the banks of Lake Altaussee in Austria’s Salzkammaergut.

Many thanks to Tony Maniscalco and all at Adagio, to tour leader David and Di Pace and to all our fellow guests for helping make our seven day holiday such a memorable one.