Saturday 25 November 2017

Austria: Top times in terrific Tirol

Short breaks in Europe

Gemma in Lermoos, Austria, in the shadow of the mighty Zugspitze, one of the spectacular peaks in the Zugspitz Arena, which is a vast grassy plateau carved out of the glacial valley
Gemma in Lermoos, Austria, in the shadow of the mighty Zugspitze, one of the spectacular peaks in the Zugspitz Arena, which is a vast grassy plateau carved out of the glacial valley
Linderhof
The ceiling fresco by Baptist Zimmermann in the Pilgrimage Church of the Scourged Saviour
Lermoos

Gemma Fullam

When I was six, my parents went on a European jaunt. Two traditional Austrian dresses were among the booty brought home: my dirndl was pink; my sister's was green, and both came with puff-sleeved white blouses and matching aprons. Years later, my own daughter wore my much-loved dirndl, which was so beautifully crafted, it looked as new and pretty as it had decades earlier.

And now, here we were, my daughter and I, in Austria, where the traditional dress is still worn with pride, and considerable panache. Phoebe now lives abroad; we had chosen Austria as a convenient rendezvous spot for a few days together.

Lermoos, our alpine destination, is a picturesque village in the Zugspitz Arena area of the Austrian Tirol; it's a ski-lovers paradise in winter, but perfect for hiking and cycling in autumn. It's easy to get to from several airports, but at this time of year, Munich is handiest, and suited both of us as a meet-up point. Good old Aer Lingus got me there on time to meet Phoebe's incoming flight from Brussels, and from there we hopped on a Deutsche Bahn train, changing once, and sat back to savour the chocolate-box scenery en route.

Our base for the duration was the perfectly located Haus Montana, a delightful chalet-style edifice comprising 10 self-catering units, owned and run by the ebullient, ultra-stylish Erika Mott, whose warm welcome made us feel instantly at home. Haus Montana is self-catering, but thoughtful Erika provides a fresh-bread service from Gurgltalbrot, a local bakery. We settled on a handsemmel (a white bread roll) and a luscious schokocroissant each. (They were waiting for us in a cute felt bag, hung on our door handle next morning; Erika has all orders bagged and delivered by 7am. The perfectly appointed units all have Nespresso machines, so it's not even necessary to shop for breakfast!)

Having settled into our gorgeous accommodation, we made our way, on Erika's recommendation, to nearly Golfino Restaurant, where, on the terrace, before a panorama of peaks, we lunched on delicious salads, and caught up on all the news. On our leisurely stroll back, we popped into the village's Baroque church of St Catherine, the humble exterior of which belies the rococo gorgeousness within. We lit candles and lingered awhile, lost in our own thoughts and prayers.

Back at Haus Montana, so called because of its splendid aspect in the shadow of the mighty Zugspitze, Germany's highest mountain, it was time to get party-ready, as Erika had organised tickets for us to a summer soiree being thrown by 180° restaurant (it has a 180-degree alpine view), part of Pure Apart-Hotel, a new venture in the village.

Linderhof
Linderhof

The 180° Sommerfest was held in the open-walled basement of the Pure Apart-Hotel building. It was dotted with braziers burning aromatic beechwood, and the gaily dressed Bounties were belting out Walking On Sunshine as we arrived. There were food and drink stalls galore, and we indulged in veggie noodles (for me) and ribs (for Phoebe) washed down with gorgeous gruner veltliner (for both of us). Refreshed and renewed by the quality grape and grub, we bopped the night away to the Bounties' Euro-pop beat.

Next morning, we shook off the cobwebs with a trip up the nearby Grubigstein. You can walk, but feeling lazy, we decided to ascend by cable car and descend on foot. Erika had provided us with a Z-Ticket, a superb value summer-activities pass, which entitles the holder to discounted or free use of utilities in the region, including the fab outdoor pool, various cable cars, buses, roller bikes, museums, rafting, boat trips, golf, and tennis courts. A return trip up the Zugspitze costs €43.50 (or €41.50 with the local guest card) so even if you just use it for that and a couple of other things, you're quids in.

Our 15-minute cable car journey up the mountain skirted over rock pines, and larch trees on the turn to golden. At the summit, we popped into Gipfelhaus Grubigstein for an Almdudler, the second most popular soft drink in Austria, which tastes a bit like herbal tea. Quite delicious. At the mountain's peak, as at all of Austria's summits, is a cross, and a box containing a book in which you can write your name and the date of your ascent. We'd cheated, so we didn't, and set off on shank's mare down the winding alpine track to lovely Lermoos, passing, on our way, a house belonging to one of the Swarovski family; Swarovski Crystal World is in nearby Innsbruck.

Kaffe und kuchen (coffee and cake) is a tradition in this part of Europe, and in 180°, we followed a light lunch of pancake soup with punchkugeln, a pink-sprinkle-covered chocolate ball; and Mozart cake, a choc and pistachio confection. Neither dainty registered high on the sweet scale; methinks Austrians have the sugar-moderation thing sussed.

The ceiling fresco by Baptist Zimmermann in the Pilgrimage Church of the Scourged Saviour
The ceiling fresco by Baptist Zimmermann in the Pilgrimage Church of the Scourged Saviour

The weather had turned wet, but Lermoos is not short on things to do, rain or shine. On Erika's advice, we toddled down the road to the four-star family-run centuries-old Hotel Post, where we were greeted by owner Angelika Dengg, who furnished us with towelling robes and slippers, and pointed us spa-ward. The spa is an opulent delight, with myriad sauna and steam experiences and an incredible indoor-outdoor pool with a prime view of the nearby snow-capped peaks. We sat in the outdoor Jacuzzi, surrounded by beauty, feeling this surely was the A-list life.

All that lazing about gave us quite the appetite, so we decamped to the Post's restaurant: think white tablecloths, roses, silver cutlery, and excellent value. The food so far had been fab; Hotel Post took it to stellar heights. We opted for the five-course menu, which yielded one delight after another, not least a golden-hued tomato soup, and a cheese board boasting over 30 varieties. We were in hog heaven, not least because all this deliciousness was so unexpected. "And we're wearing tracksuits!" Phoebe said, highlighting the incongruity between our garb and surroundings. We both burst into giggles, bringing a broad grin to the face of our lovely waiter, Rakhim from far-flung Samarkand.

Next morning, we headed up the mighty mountain. The 2,963m Zugspitze (Zug means ghost) straddles Austria and Germany; it once had a border patrol at the top, and skiers had to produce their passports to access certain pistes. The first cable car on the Austrian side opened in 1926, and there's now a veritable village at the summit, including a museum, a beer hall, and a restaurant. It was minus two at the top, with zero visibilty and snow underfoot, but by the time we'd indulged in some restorative kuchen, the fog had lifted, revealing splendid views of the surrounding peaks. You could easily spend the day at the summit (climbing enthusiasts can ascend via a fixed rope) and not be finished exploring all it has to offer, but we had a busy day of sightseeing ahead.

Neuschwanstein Castle in nearby Bavaria is instantly recognisable as the Chitty Chitty Bang Bang castle; it was also the template for Disneyland Resort's Sleeping Beauty Castle. Neuschwanstein (long on my bucket list) was built by Ludwig II, otherwise known as the Swan King, or Mad King Ludwig. It's likely the handsome introverted aesthete wasn't mad at all, but was declared so by his ministers, who could see no other way to stem his uncontrolled spending on lavish castles and patronage of musicians, including Richard Wagner. Directly after being declared insane, Ludwig died in mysterious circumstances; but despite concern over his profligacy during his lifetime, today his castles and palaces are Bavaria's premier tourist attractions, with Neuschwanstein alone attracting in excess of a million visitors a year. Perhaps he wasn't so mad, after all. Both it and nearby Castle Hohenschwangau (Ludwig's childhood home) are incredibly beautiful, and we concluded our dreamy visit with a lakeside meal in Alpenrose am See, where we were served by a busty, dirndl-clad fraulein (Bavarian dirndl is quite sexy, while the Austrian version is cute).

Lermoos
Lermoos

There are myriad gems in the area, all within easy reach by train, bus or car (you can hire a car for the day in Lermoos). Our route included Oberammergau, home of the Passion Play which has been performed regularly since 1634, when villagers were spared the bubonic plague; Linderhof Palace, another of King Ludwig's exquisite creations, worth a day's exploration in itself; and the Pilgrimage Church of the Scourged Saviour, located in the Pfaffenwinkel (land of monasteries) region of Bavaria. Its rococo interior, considered the finest in the world, is an awe-inspiring melange of elaborate frescoes, marble and stucco, with gold leaf on everything. Unmissable.

All too soon, it was time to head back to Munich and go our separate ways. We bade farewell to our wonderful host, Erika, who pressed a bag of chocolate croissants into our hands. As we took our leave, I spotted, for the first time, the edelweiss flanking Haus Montana's entrance. The mountain flower, immortalised in song in 1965's The Sound of Music, illustrated how, though the Von Trapps had to flee, Austria would live forever in their hearts. As, indeed, it would in ours.

Getting  there

Gemma stayed at Haus Montana, Lermoos, in the Tiroler Zugspitz area (zugspite.at) of Austria. Prices at Haus Montana start at €52 per night for a studio self-catering apartment up to November 1; and start at €70 per night during the ski season (December 8 to Easter).

Haus Montana has a special offer for October Walking Weeks. For those who stay for one week, the local area Z-Card will be provided free of charge for all bookings. To book/check availability, email Erika Mott, info@hausmontana.at, or tel: 00 43 5673 3220.

Getting to Lermoos from Munich. Train: Deutsche Bahn from Munich Airport €19 one-way direct to Lermoos from Central Station; Google Deutsche Bahn Werdenfehls Ticket to book online. Bus: see flixbus.com; €15 each way to Garmisch. Free bus transfer to Lermoos. Or car hire.

Aer Lingus, Ireland's only 4-star airline, operates twice-daily flights from Dublin to Munich, from €39.99 each way; and two flights per week from Cork to Munich, from €49.99 each way. For more, see aerlingus.com

TAKE TWO: Top attractions

The great outdoors

Lermoos is a paradise for outdoor pursuits, with 300km of walking trails, 100km of biking routes and 130 climbing routes. Autumn brings bright, clear days and blue skies, perfect for getting out and about.

Linderhof Palace

Mad King Ludwig’s Linderhof Palace is a joy — but the gardens at the Versailles-inspired palace are the real star, with architectural flights of fancy, such as the Venus Grotto and Moorish Kiosk. schlosslinderhof.de

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