Friday 28 October 2016

Travel: Climbing the Alps in Austria


Published 04/07/2016 | 02:30

Alpine chalets in the picturesque spa town of Bad Ischl, which sits on the River Traun in Upper Austria.
Alpine chalets in the picturesque spa town of Bad Ischl, which sits on the River Traun in Upper Austria.
The Austrian Alps sweep down to the shores of the Hallstatter Lake.
Anna on one of the guided walks during her stay in Upper Austria .

I'm walking in the Alps in Austria because I need to get out more. I've travelled with Travel Department - their active holiday brand is TDactive - on an Austrian Lake District Walking Holiday, during which there'll be five guided walks. I've got new walking gear because, while I walk in and out of work, I rarely go up a mountain.

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I've asked the girl in the specialist outdoor clothing shop if my new hat is okay. I've never had a walking hat before. I've always thought it would be too ambitious, on at least two levels. But she says I look grand.

Our base for the week of walking is Bad Ischl, a quaint spa town in Upper Austria and which sits on the River Traun and is surrounded by the Alps. There are women dressed in the traditional Alpine costume; a dirndl skirt with apron and a close-fitting bodice. When you add these dresses to the pretty wooden chalets we've passed on the sides of striking mountains which sweep down to stunning lakes on our drive from Munich airport, across the border and on to the Austrian lakeland, well, then there's no doubting that we are in the land of The Sound of Music.

Later in the week I'll visit Salzburg and see Nonnberg Abbey, the Benedictine monastery where the real Maria von Trapp was a postulant after World War I, and before she had a complete career change and married a widowed naval commander called Georg von Trapp, who had seven children.

We're staying in the four-star Hotel Goldenes Schiff for seven nights on a half-board basis, which is slap bang in the heart of Bad Ischl and right on the river - there are tables and chairs where you can sit and watch the water whirl past, the strong current possibly to do with the mountainous location.

Hotel Goldenes Schiff is also a couple of minutes' walk from the two best cafes in Bad Ischl: the atmospheric Café Sissy with its pretty murals on its ceiling and sparkly chandeliers and marble columns, and which heaves with locals with expressive faces who look like they're putting the world to rights, and the Grand Café Zauner, which does marvellous cake.

But back to the walking and the beautiful Alps which surround Bad Ischl. I love walking but am not an experienced hillwalker and admit to being a bit nervous. My understanding is that you can't get halfway up a mountain and then have a change of heart.

This walking holiday is aimed at moderately experienced walkers, with the average walking distance being between 10 to 12km.

My fellow walkers are an immensely friendly bunch, and are in general experienced walkers. Some have travelled as couples, others as single walkers, and the atmosphere among the group is amiable, and the conversation over dinner in the evenings is convivial as people recall the walk of the day and discuss the walk planned for the following day. Walks are split into two kinds: comfortable and challenging. I choose to go on a comfortable walk on the first morning, and with my new walking buddies I head up a hill close by to Bad Ischl which is called Siriuskogl. On top is the Franz-Josef tower, built in 1885, a viewing platform from which you can look down on the town and the surrounding area.

It's beautiful at the top. You're right up a mountain looking down on the beautiful chalets of Bad Ischl and surrounded by the majestic Alps. You feel transported to a whole new world. It's drizzling rain yet it doesn't matter, as everyone has wet gear- during the week I spent walking in May the weather went from drizzling and cool to dazzling sunshine and temperatures up in the late twenties.

I found the walk stretched my calves and got my heart muscle pumping, so the following morning I opted to leave the challenging walks to the die-hards, and join the group going to Lake Fuschlsee. The lake water here is so utterly crystal clear that from a not-inconsiderable height above the lake, we're able to see the fish swimming about lazily on the lake bed, like they haven't a worry in the world.

The water is so deliciously pure in this part of the world that we are encouraged to drink it from the bathroom taps in the hotel. It seems nobody buys bottled water in this part of Austria. Lake Fuschlsee, with its lush green hills, is also where Red Bull has its international headquarters, housed in a impressively-designed glass building close to the walk.

Half the time we're walking on the flat around the lake and admiring the lakeside houses, and the other half we're ascending a mountain track, looking down on the lake through rows and rows of Alpine trees, which look like the biggest Christmas trees ever. The mood on the mountain is one of calm and stillness.

That evening, we meet up with our more intrepid walkers for our nightly meal in the Hotel Goldenes Schiff, a dinner which consists of soup to start, a salad bar, and mains which include trout, silverside of beef and veal, and very tasty desserts. Wine is optional and extra and is enjoyed with gusto, and a glass of full-bodied Austrian cuvee schwarz red will set you back around €4.

They're equally satisfied with their day up the Alps. The guide draws up a map of their day's walking , which is eagerly photographed by the walkers so they can relive their ascent and descent in exact detail when they get back home.

Recently, I've been indoors a lot, with work and winter. So it feels good to be setting off on another walk, this time around Lake Wolfgangsee. The lake turns out to be the bluest of blues, down to which lush green valleys glide. The lake is surrounded by picture-postcard-perfect Austrian villages and lavish summer homes. It's true, some of the most amazing views in life are to be seen from the side of a mountain.

We have our picnic - a packed lunch is provided on the walks - near a church which is on the side of a mountain, and to which groups of pilgrims saying prayers out loud make their way. They go inside the church and sing hymns in German which float out on the mountain air. The lake is named after Saint Wolfgang of Regensburg, who built a church on this very spot in the late 10th Century.

In an act of spontaneity, a small group of us on this walk decide to break from our schedule, and to take a boat trip on Lake Wolfgangsee. It's magical. Sunshine shimmers on the lake, and the Alps look spectacular. The Wolfgangsee Schifffahrt fleet of boats has been in operation since 1873, when Emperor Franz Joseph's decision to summer in Bad Ischl brought his royal followers in their droves to the lake district. A trip which passes seven picturesque towns takes an hour and a quarter, and cost less than €20;

I do three full-day walks out of five full-day walks offered during the week's holiday. This is fine with the walking guides, Axel and Christina, who simply want everyone to have a good time. They're happy if anyone opts out of a walk to go sightseeing and get a flavour of their surroundings.

I visit Kaiservilla, the summer home of Emperor Franz Joseph which is located on the outskirts of Bad Ischl. It's a stunning imperial villa which was given to the Emperor by his mother, Archduchess Sophie, on the occasion of his marriage to the love of his life, Empress Elizabeth. It's surrounded by wild gardens, and has rooms which have gorgeous views, making it easy to understand why the royal couple loved to escape the rigid protocol of the imperial court in Vienna by staying here. You can get an insight into how the privileged and powerful lived by going on a tour of the house, and looking at the table laid out with exquisite vintage china, and at a display of a delicate dress which was worn by Elizabeth during the ball season in Vienna. And at the antique desk where the Emperor sat down and signed the Austro-Hungarian declaration of war on Serbia on July 28 1914, which kick-started the First World War.

There is an actual free day in the middle of the walking week, and this is when the stalwart walkers head off sightseeing or to go to the nearby thermal spas for which Bad Ischl is famous. A bunch of us decide to head to Salzburg, a bus trip of about an hour and 20 minutes from Bad Ischl.

We take a Hop On/Hop Off bus around Salzburg, which is the fourth-largest city in Austria, and is renowned for its baroque architecture. With a fortress, churches and palaces, it has been listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1997. It's a very pretty city, and we get to see the house where composer Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart was born, and several locations which were used in the filming of The Sound of Music.

We have a choice of two soundtracks on our bus tour, and can either listen to music from Mozart or The Sound of Music. I spend ages deciding, going from one to the other.

There are also women dressed in Maria von Trapp-esque Alpine costumes of a dirndl skirt with an apron in Salzburg. And not just women working in the hospitality area. Apparently, it's considered a pretty costume by locals, who even wear it to work.

We flew home out of Munich, but unfortunately it was lashing rain when the time came to take our three-hour tour of this city. So when walking the streets of the largest city of the German state of Bavaria got too wet and miserable, I was happy to stumble on the Dallmayr gourmet cafe, a sumptuous delicatessen and cafe at Dienerstrasse 14-15. It has extravagant displays of all types of foods, and the seafood stands are cinematic. I had tea in the opulent café, and out of the rain; Later, I discover Alois Dallmayr, abbreviated to Dallmayr, is the largest delicatessen business in Europe, and one of the best-known German coffee brands. Over 2.8 million tourists visit its original café in Munich each year.

I thoroughly enjoyed getting out of my comfort zone on this well-organised and well-executed walking trip in the Alps. I'm happy with my new hat too, which keeps the water off when it's pouring rain and the sun off when it's blindingly hot. I can only hope my fellow walkers feel my three day-long walks prove that I've some substance to go along with my impressive head gear.

Getting there

Based in the quaint town of Bad Ischl for a week, TDactive Holidays’ Austrian Lake District Walking Holiday takes in the picturesque surroundings of Lake Wolfgangsee, Lake Fuschlsee, Lake Hallstatter See and Lake Gosausee.

With five walking days at an average walking distance of 10-12km, this trip is ideal for moderately experienced walkers. Departing on September 19, 2016 from €999pp, this holiday iincludes return flights from Dublin, transfers, seven nights’ half board accommodation in a four-star hotel, and the expertise of an experienced local guide. TDactive Holidays is a collection of activity holidays from Travel Department, with activities ranging from walking to yoga and photography to motorsport events. Walking holidays to Croatia, Tuscany and the Camino de Santiago are also available to accommodate a range of walking levels. Visit for more information

Take three: Top attractions


The Austrian Alps are popular for skiing holidays, but when spring and summer has sprung, the meadows are carpeted in buttercups, daisies and dandelions. Butterflies fly about too, adding to the pastoral beauty. In this instance, the Butterfly Effect made me lie down on the grass and look up at the blue sky and tree-covered Alps, and the cows and pretty chalets which adorn the mountainsides. Beautiful.

Hallstatt village

Situated at the edge of Hallstatter Lake and at the bottom of the towering Dachstein mountains, is Austria’s oldest and possibly most-photographed village, Hallstatt.  Such is its charm, people talk about how enchanted they are by it for hours after they return from a visit — and hatch plans to return. Built to house workers from the world’s oldest salt mines, it has beautiful baroque (17th Century) architecture.

Katrin cable car

Katrin cable car is located a few minutes’ bus journey from Bad Ischl. A trip in one of the gondolas takes just over 10 minutes, and will leave you at the top of Katrinalm, one of the biggest mountains in Bad Ischl. If you can tolerate the vertigo-inducing ride, the view is altogether gorgeous, and includes seven lakes, three valleys and a host of villages. There is also a restaurant at the top of the mountain;

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