Walking and trekking
Think of the quintessential Alpine country and chances are you the reality of your image is closer to Austria than, say, Switzerland. It’s a country of almost inexpressible mountainous beauty, located centrally between Germany, Italy, the Czech Republic, Hungary and Slovenia (which are no slackers when it comes to mountain ranges – Austria is the central nucleus the hilliest bits of these countries point towards) and its good-at-everything climate consequently makes it one of Europe’s most popular all-year destinations. Enjoying Austria from an outdoor point of view is, aside from being the ideal walking pleasure, also one of the most rewarding ways to see Austria as you dodge the expense and crowds of the big cities. Around 62% of this bulky country is mountainous.
The best walking for those who like the high mountains is in the west, where the stamped-on tadpole shape of Austria narrows to a corridor of Alps which slides between Italy and Germany, with predictably vertical results. These are the regions of the Vorarlberg and the Austrian portion of the Tyrol, shared with northern Italy.
It’s here that the legendary resort of Innsbruck caters for the downtime ambitions of outdoors types, and it does this job exceedingly well. Sitting just on the nib of the eastern Tyrol lies Austria’s highest peak, the impressive Grossglockner. It’s an incredible looking mountain, a slice of sharp-looking Himalayesque menace sharkfinned above the surrounding massif with extraordinary presence. It is ranked the second most prominent peak in the Alps – which means the massif sticks out from its surroundings further than most. It’s a hard climb, too – one of the Alps’ more technical highest peaks. It’s a paradise for ice climbers, and the easiest ascent - over glacier and ice banked to over 50 degrees in places – is given an Alpine grade of PD, making just about anyone who attempts it an honorary ice climber. The normal route ascends from the Erzherzog-Johann-hut, and if you want a great photo of it, the place to aim for is Lucknerhaus. Those with loftier ambitions might want to lug their camera to Franz-Josefhaus, where the mountain’s legendarily prickly north face begins to unfold. It is truly one of the alps most awe-inspiring visages. If you want to climb it and are unfamiliar with alpine climbing to PD (tricky scrambling covered in ice by British standards), hire a guide – and if you are uncomfortable with the mountain as a whole, there are many others which are more accommodating, and the enviable network of mountain huts all over Austria’s alps make it one of the best places in Europe for hut-to-hut walks. The Zillertal Alps, on the border with Italy, make for a stunning place to do this; Cicerone produces a book dedicated to just this. (www.cicerone.co.uk)
Further down into the valleys, there is much in the way of green-blue -white Alpine colour spectrum,, where you can walk amongst meadows and gaze at the mountains beyond. Salzkammergut is a lake-based resort in northern Austria which was granted UNESCO World Heritage status given its magnificent, verdant beauty, and there are many marked walking trails for those who want to explore an almost painfully pretty, villa-dotted, cowbell-tinkly area which is less vertically inclined. But worthy of special mention is the Tirol’s flagship long distance path – the Adlerweg, or Eagle’s Walk, a route which stretches in the rough shape of an eagle across the Tirol. This walk takes in a breathtaking range of scenery, from high mountains, steep gorges, pretty traditional villages, cool woodland, flower-filled meadows and stunning, natural river valleys. The trail also provides good insight into the culture, traditions and history of Tirol. You can do as little or as much as you want, as although the route is hundreds of miles long, it is broken into easily digestable chunks. Happily, the head of the eagle is Innsbruck.
As well as mountains, the other thing Austria does achingly well is cities, which are at their best cavernous mixtures of baroque, gothic and sympathetically modern design concealing many establishments designed for you to sit and be very, very civilised – even when alcohol is involved. Austria is big on beer and food, so you really must take one for the team and sample both to suitably reverent levels. One of the best places to do this is the Augustiner Braustubl in Salzburg , a brewery of great heritage, having been founded by Augustine monks in 1621 and perfectly encapsulating everything rich and flavourful about Austrian alpine culture. Which means it tastes great and will make you smile with silly contentment. (www.augustinerbier.at) Vienna is a city which is culturally essential on any travellers list, architecturally magnificent as it is and historically entwined with the likes of Freud and Mozart.
Salzberg fortress is also a must, as is the Imperial Palace in Hofburg. Watersports are popular on Austria’s lakes, but where Austria excels (again) is in its winter sports. The resorts of Innsbruck, Obertauern, St Anton and Solden are legendary: think big fores, knitted jumpers, steins, plush wood – the works.
Austria’s tourism ambassadors are penguins. TRUE. Joe and Sally are the Austrian penguins, designed to demonstrate the diversity of what Austria has to offer. The reason is worth explaining at length:
“Joe and Sally are inquisitive and experienced holidaymakers having already extensively travelled the world. Finally, Joe and Sally arrive in Austria. Their gestures and poses convey a deep sense of well-being, happiness and satisfaction from their being in Austria. This is all depicted in images which are part of out marketing activities" says the Austrian Tourist Office in Germany.
Must see and do
- Grossglockner – Austria’s highest mountain is a mountain you must at least see, if not climb.
- Salzburg - Salzburg is known as the "Rome of the North" because of the sheer number of churches it possesses. A compact city, it is packed full of attractions, and should be an essential part of any visit to Austria.
- Salzkammergut – UNESCO approved resort which captures all of the dripping beauty of the Austrian Alps in one place.
- Austria Tourist Board – excellent official tourism portal for Austra.
- Innsbruck – rich guide to Austria’s undisputed outdoor capital.
- Menu guide – Austrian food is great, but there are a few unpleasant surprises for the conservative gourmet. Here’s a translation of a few common dishes.
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