High and mighty in Austria
One of my lasting memories of an Inter-rail trip I took 15 years ago is a stunning view of the Austrian landscape. Green hills, lakes, mountains, big blue skies; a sort of idyllic haven that I had ever only seen in movies like The Sound of Music; a favourite of my mother's (a music teacher) who played it for us many times as children.
Perhaps it was something in that childhood association which made it all the more captivating as I watched this view from the window of our speeding train.
We never stopped in Austria on that trip, we only passed through (probably on the way to Amsterdam, again), but I swore to myself I would go back one day and experience it fully.
That day turned out to be October of this year when an opportunity came up to go on a walking holiday in the Austrian lake region of Salzkammergut.
I jumped at the chance. I would be flying solo on this one but I didn't mind that at all, if anything, it made it more of an adventure. And I would be part of a group anyway, so I assumed I would make friends along the way.
The beautiful spa town of Bad Ischl, about an hour east of Salzburg, and known as something of a gateway to the Alpine lakes and mountains of the Salzkammergut region, would be our base. We would make our way to a different scenic location each day by coach and trek for between three and six hours, stopping for lunches, coffees and photo ops along the way. Perfect!
I didn't give it much thought before going as everything was included and taken care of as part of the package with TD Active.
The tour guide would meet us at the airport, accompany us to the hotel, give us a briefing on our itinerary for the week and be there with us as our guide on the daily walks. The hotel was also providing our morning and evening meals along with a packed lunch for our treks so there really wasn't much to consider prior to setting off.
We landed in Munich and our group assembled as planned. There was about 30 of us in total, mostly a mature group and a nice mix of couples, friends, solo travellers, and mothers and daughters, etc.
Following a pleasant scenic drive through the German and Austrian countryside, passing through beautiful historic towns such as Salzburg, we arrived in the small Alpine town of Bad Ischl.
Hotel Goldenes Schiff was our accommodation for the week. Situated on the Traun river and backing out on to one of the main streets of Bad Ischl, it was ideally located.
We checked in and had a chance to get used to our new surroundings before meeting up with our guides to go through the itinerary for the week. My room was very comfortable and modern with a bath that I took great advantage of over the week.
The restaurant in the hotel ran like clockwork, producing mouthwatering meals every night for our group of 30 hungry hikers.
The choice of meals during the week was very good, offering a diverse mix of options each day.
I had the salmon darne one evening, deliciously prepared with fresh green vegetables in a foil pocket to seal in the flavours.
I also tried venison for the first time, which was so tender it practically melted off the fork. Pork, beef and the vegetarian option were also among those I tried, and all very well deserving of the hotel's four-star rating.
A recurring topic of conversation among the group was how surprisingly good the food was in the hotel, and I agreed.
Bad Ischl itself is a town fit for an emperor, quite literally. Emperor Franz Joseph and his wife 'Sisi' spent many summers holidaying in Bad Ischl during their long reign, with their presence felt still as strongly 100 years on in portraits, statues and even cafes dedicated to the royal couple.
There is a proud, traditional atmosphere in Bad Ischl which is comforting and reassuring in a way that immediately made me feel at home.
We woke up on the first morning to a parade in the streets, a harvest festival specific to this small community with farmers and locals all dressed in their traditional Alpine attire. Those celebrating zero birthdays that year (such as 70, 80, 90) hold a special place in the festivities along with marching bands, decorative horses and stalls selling traditional biscuits.
By the time we were leaving the hotel at 9.15am to get the coach for our first walk, the parade was all over. We joked about how likely it would be that anyone would show up to a St Patrick's Day parade in Ireland at 8am.
Our main guides for the week, Gabor, a Hungarian native, and Christina, a local, were nothing short of exceptional in every regard.
Conscientious, friendly and so passionate about their work, it was a joy to listen to them talk about the history and natural aspects of the areas we visited each day.
Going above and beyond was par for the course with Gabor, as he regularly offered everyone the opportunity to join him on post-dinner walks around Bad Ischl, a hilltop sunrise walk on one of the mornings and even a final video on our last day of highlights from the trip.
The walks themselves were set up for all levels of ability, which was a nice touch as it meant you had the option each day of an easy or challenging walk, depending on how energetic you were feeling.
There was also the option to just skip the walk altogether if you didn't feel up to it or simply wanted to do some more independent exploring on a given day.
Being the youngest in the group, I felt obliged to go on the more challenging walk on day one, even though I wasn't sure if I was up to it. Thankfully I was - although I may have been bringing up the rear for most of it.
"Unreal", "magical", "spectacular", and "breathtaking" were the most commonly used adjectives among the group to describe the sights we encountered on our walks throughout the week.
The landscape is nothing short of majestic in every direction.
It's hard to describe just how awe-inspiring it is, from the crystal-clear blue lakes and towering forests, to the dramatic snow-kissed mountain peaks and glaciers.
Walking in the Salzkammergut region was moving in a way that I hadn't felt since being on the Inca trail in Peru 12 years ago.
Coming from Ireland and its relatively low mountains, the sheer scale of everything around you is hard to comprehend, as is the cleanliness. There is no litter. None. And you will know all about it if you try to introduce the concept. It was impressive to say the least, and certainly something we could do with more of here.
The stunning scenery was just one reason why this trip was so enjoyable though.
The company and craic among the group was immense. Within no time, we were all chatting and laughing together like old friends. I had forgotten the kind of camaraderie that exists among Irish walkers. My mother had taken us on many An Oige hikes around Ireland when we were little, and those memories remain some of my fondest to this day.
I was both surprised and delighted to be reminded of those times on this trip.
There's a wonderful togetherness and warmth, a feeling of family almost, and a brand of fun that you just don't get in any other group of people.
I would highly recommend this trip to anyone looking for a fun and different way to spend a holiday, whatever your age.
I will certainly be back for more. I'm even thinking snow shoes next time!
Take Two: Top attractions
The Eurothermen Resort in Bad Ischl is a great way to relax after a day of walking and is just five minutes from Hotel Goldenes Schiff. There you can float gently down the lazy river or avail of a massage.
Just an hour’s coach ride from Bad Ischl is the city of Salzburg. Most popular with tourists for its medieval and baroque buildings and architecture in the Aldstadt (Old City), it is well worth a visit.
This Austrian Lake District Walking Holiday from TDactive Holidays, specialists in small group adventure holidays, starts from €1,269pp. Departing 30 September 2019, the trip includes return flights, all transfers, seven nights’ half-board hotel accommodation, five walking days with an expert local guide, packed lunches, and a Munich city tour.
This holiday is ideal for moderately experienced walkers, with an average daily walking distance of between 10 and 12 kilometres. For TDactive Holidays’ full range of walking holidays to suit all experience levels, see www.tdactiveholidays.ie or call 016371633