Austrian Alps and Tirol – my holiday report

The German name for Austria, Österreich, means “Eastern realm”, it derives from the word Ostarrîchi, which first appears in the “Ostarrîchi document” of 996 but I  don’t mean to bore you with historical details. It will be just about my personal experience. During eight days (plus two days spent going there and back) I visited two cities (Vienna, Salzburg), some small towns like Innsbruck and Hallstatt and a bit of Tirol, mainly the Alps and more precisely the High Tauern near Grossglockner along the High Alpine Road.

Vienna

It is the capital of Austria – a big, multinational city full of tourist prime spots, historical or otherwise. Everybody knows Vienna so there is no need to write anything more. Yes, I saw the Danube, no, it wasn’t blue at all. Apart from that famous river I wanted to visit the National Austrian Library located in the Hofburg Palace but it was closed due to some kind of renovation (not a brilliant idea, renovating a building right in the middle of the holiday season but what could be done). Still I was able to glance at some interesting buildings – the seat of Musikverein ( photo number two) and a very unusual tenement house designed by Hundertwasser (photo number one) among them. I must return there one day – I didn’t see Schönbrunn and plenty of museums, not to mention that library of course…

 

Salzburg

It’s all about Mozart here, not necessarily in a good way. Not that I don’t like Mozart music but here you get Mozart sweets and Mozart airport, Mozart house and Mozart gift shops full of ugly Mozart dolls, Mozart key fobs and Mozart mugs. Tacky t-shirts with an ugly Mozart. Do you want something to drink? Do not forget about Mozart – they won’t let you anyway. A Mozart here, a Mozart there, you will have a Mozart everywhere…after a while you can almost get sick seeing another Mozart-related monstrosity but you can’t escape. Not in Salzburg.

This city is hugely popular among tourists so it also a bit more expensive than Innsbruck and even Vienna – all because of Mozart of course. I visited the Hohe Salzburg (a kind of fortress on a hill with great vistas and some museums inside) and the Natural History Museum (I am a big fan of those places and I couldn’t visit the bigger one in Vienna because we lacked time) where I could forget about Mr. M for the time being. Unfortunately I was also tempted to get inside the Mozart birth house It wasn’t worth the bother. Just white walls with family portraits, three or four tiled stoves, some letters and one harpsichord. Oh and a lot of fuss. It’s all about money…er… Mozart, right?

 
Hohe Salzburg fortress
Untersberg
If you are tired of Salzburg (easily done, believe me) it is the nearest place where you can relax. Untersberg is a mountain massif of the Berchtesgaden Alps that straddles the border between Berchtesgaden, Germany and Salzburg.
 
 
It is easily accessible – it’s enough to take a public transport bus (the ride from Salzburg lasts roughly 30 minutes) and a cable car (10 minutes if there are no queues) to be transported straight into the peace and quiet of one of the Alpine mountains. I really needed that after the Mozart folly and two hours were enough to recharge batteries and prepare for more urban sightseeing. The views were great, there were not so many fellow tourists and the sound of silence was simply priceless. Oh and there is a nice legend connected with that place – allegedly Emperor Frederick Barbarossa (of the Holy Roman Empire) is asleep inside Untersberg, taken care of by the “Untersberger Mandln”, small dwarf-like creatures. His beard is said to be growing longer and longer around a round table and to have grown round two times. Myth says that when the beard has grown three times around the table the end of world has come. Right – I can hardly wait.
Innsbruck
A nice holiday resort in the middle of the Alps – small but very cute, especially the town hall and the old tenements around it. Painted in pastel colors of green, yellow, pink and blue, the buildings reminded me of cupcakes, and the white fluffy decorations made the icing on the cake. 
 
 
It really had that medieval atmosphere so difficult to copy. If you have some time to kill and you are nearby it is worth checking out. Its landmark is the Golden Roof – a three-story balcony on the central plaza at the heart of the Old Town. It was constructed for Emperor Maximilian I to serve as a royal box where he could sit in state and enjoy tournaments in the square below and the roof is covered by real golden tiles.
Krimml waterfalls
with a total height of 380 metres (1,247 feet) it is the highest waterfall in Austria. The falls are formed from the Krimmler Ache river and are located near the village of Krimml in the High Tauern National Park in Salzburgerland. The waterfall begins at the Krimmler Ache at the top of the Krimmler Achendal, and plunges downward in three stages. The upper stage has a drop of 140 metres, the middle of 100 metres, and the lowest a drop of 140 metres. 
 
 
 
It is a really scenic and refreshing experience, especially when the weather is nice. The paths are so comfortable that I saw even people with prams and very small children, not to mention those brave elderly ladies with walking sticks. Of course nobody forces you to go to the very top but let me tell you, you will want to anyway. Still be warned – in the summer, especially during the weekends, the path is rather crowded.
Hellbrunn
An early Baroque villa of palatial size, near Morzg, a southern district of the city of Salzburg. It was built in 1613-19 by Markus Sittikus von Hohenems, Prince-Archbishop of Salzburg, and named for the “clear spring” that supplied its water gardens. Hellbrunn was only meant for use as a day residence in summer, as the Archbishop usually returned to Salzburg in the evening. Still that fact didn’t prevent him from splashing money around like water – literally.
 
 
 The villa is  famous for its jeux d’eau (“watergames”) in the grounds, which are a popular tourist attraction in the summer months. These games were conceived by Markus Sittikus himself; apparently he was a man with a keen sense of humour and he liked to perform a series of practical jokes on guests. Notable features include stone seats around a stone dining table through which a water conduit sprays water into the seat of the guests when the mechanism is activated, and hidden fountains that surprise guests while they take part on the tour. 
 
 
Other features are a mechanical, water-operated and music-playing theatre built in 1750 showing various professions at work, a grotto and a crown being pushed up and down by a jet of water, symbolizing the rise and fall of power. At all of these games there is always a spot which is never wet: that where the Archbishop stood or sat, to which there is no water conduit and which is today occupied by the tour guide. As the weather was sunny and warm, spraying was a lot of fun; however you should protect your camera. Near the villa there is also the Zoo so both children and adults can spend there the whole day without ever getting bored. I liked Hellbrunn very much – history and amusement was balanced there in such a way that it made everybody happy.
Lichtenstein gorge
A wonderful place and one of the deepest gorges in the world (the fifth deepest if I remember correctly). Perfect for a stroll with the whole family – even elderly people or/and kids will manage. Just don’t forget your camera and wear good shoes as the wooden pathway can be pretty slippery and wet. The rock formations, carved by water, are incredible (see the photo).
Hallein salt mine
I expected something different and I was disappointed. The main attractions of this mine are: a rather smallish artificial lake and wooden rails on which you can slide down. I’ve visited far more interesting salt mines in my own country. What’s more the movie, which was supposed to present its history, was embarrassingly stupid (the ‘famous’ German sense of humour, eh).
Hallstatt
A very small town squeezed between a lake and a mountain and famous because of a salt mine (yes, another one) near which there were prehistoric artifacts found. The market municipality was already inhabited in the 1st millenium before Christ: during this period – the iron age – the civilization apparently flourished there. When I  visited it was brimming with Asian tourists so it was difficult to enjoy it; however the weather was fine and the views – breathtaking so I managed to take some photos nevertheless.
 
 
Why so many tourists from Asia, you might ask…well, not without a reason. Imagine yourself that a Chinese corporation designed an exact copy of this town that was built in the north of Hong Kong and now plenty of Chinese want to see the original as well; I bet they want to spot the differences or lack thereof. You can find out more about it all over the Internet, for example here:  
High Alpine Road
If you want to see the Austrian Alps in full comfort, admiring them from the window of your car or your coach it is the perfect place . The views are really breathtaking, you can make a few stops (there are special parking bays along the road) to get outside and take a picture or two and you won’t even break out into a sweat, quite the opposite in fact – even in the summer don’t forget about  some warmer clothes. I was there in August and it was like 9 degrees Centigrade despite the fact that the weather was nice and sunny. I must admit, though, that it felt weird. I am not a fan of sightseeing the mountains while only looking through the window, I felt like a cheat. There is nothing like trekking especially if you can meet some lovely Alpine cows.
Ice caves in Werfen near Salzburg (Eisriesenwelt Werfen)
The caves are impressive – big, cold and icy ( only plus 3 degrees Centigrade inside). A guided tour is possible only during the warmer part of the year, I was told that in the winter the trail leading to them is too dangerous and inside there is only -15 degrees. Imagine spending an hour or so in such a temperature while moving slowly along a rather narrow flight of wooden, slippery stairs. In the summer, though, they are certainly worth visiting providing that you arrive early to avoid horrible queues to the cable car. One more tip – you can’t take photos inside the caves.
 
 
Hohenwerfen castle
 
 
It used to be a typical medieval defence construction – made of local stone on a hill, rather small, inaccessible, uncomfortable to live in. Nowadays the bastion, enlarged and renovated several times over the centuries, functions as an ‘adventure’ fortress. There are guided tours showing its weapons collection, the falconry museum as well as a stylish fortress tavern (expensive but what can be done, it is so stylish you must visit it). The historic Falconry Centre offers daily flight demonstrations by various birds of prey. They last about 45 minutes and are really impressive – even merely admiring the various birds like falcons, eagles and buzzards so close would be a great experience, watching them in action was simply awesome. Literally everybody was awed, adults, kids, even some dogs ;p. 
 
 
 
 
One naughty female eagle put on a real show – she didn’t want to return to her handler for quite a while and sat perched on one of the turrets looking very pleased with herself. Only a huge chunk of a chicken leg persuaded her to listen to the commands, the trainers got truly impatient with her. It was obvious it hadn’t been premeditated but it was fun to watch. Nobody will tell a big, bad eagle what to do… unless you carry a tasty morsel of flesh in your gloved hand.
Bad Ischl and Kaiservilla
This little spa town, situated in the southern part of the Upper Austria is famous mainly because Franz Joseph and his wife, Elizabeth of Bavaria (Sissi), owned a villa here – it was a wedding present from the Archduchess Sophia, the mother of Franz. They got engaged there and the Kaiser liked spending his free time among those walls whenever he could.
Franz Joseph described it as “Heaven on Earth”. He granted a nearby mansion to his ‘official’ mistress, Katharina Schratt, so her house could be easily reached via a hidden footpath. The grounds and parts of the residence are now open to the public although it remains in the hands of the Habsburg family so it is private. As I’ve written three essays about the last Habsburgs (Be careful what you wish for…especially if you wish you were a king. Requiem for an Empress and her son, the Crown Prince Riders on the Storm) I wanted to visit the villa very badly. I wasn’t disappointed although the numerous antlers on the walls in practically every room made me squirm – Franz Joseph loved hunting and he murdered a lot of innocent animals living nearby for sport. He even had some of them stuffed and put inside glass cabinets. I am really not fond of that man.

The villa itself is an elegant building with nice, original interiors. Inside, you can admire a copy of one of Sissi’s dresses (the pic below, showing it, is also from Google, you can’t take photos in the villa), plenty of oil paintings, furniture and other imperial souvenirs. By the way, all the rooms are connecting so you come from one straight into another, there are no corridors – a characterisitc trait of older buildings.
 
 
I would like to return to Austria one day. Now I know what to avoid and what I would like to see for the second time – more Alps, more museums, less Mozart-pimping. 😉
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