AUSTRIAN LAKE DISTRICT – SALZKAMMERGUT

Alpine and subalpine lakes, picturesque valleys, rolling hills and 3000 meters high rugged mountain ranges of the Austrian Alps – all form a spectacular picture of the Salzkammergut.

Flower filled valleys with blue lakes, gigantic mountains with fluffy clouds atop and majestic castles reflecting in water, conjure up an exquisite picture reminding us of the opening scene of the movie, The Sound of Music, and rightly so, as those scenes were filmed right here, in the fabled Salzkammergut region of Austria.

Salzkammergut (‘salt estates’) is the centre region of the Lake District of Upper Austria. The soaring mountains and its peaks, verdant valleys, its Rehe (roe deer) population (remember Bambi?) and the turquoise lakes forming a beautiful necklace, present spectacular sights.

The serene waters in the remote wilderness present memorable boating opportunities, swimming, fishing or just sitting on the shore indulging in more sedentary activities like throwing stones in water.

The mountains acted as a buffer cutting off the Lake District from busier sections of the country thus helping in preserving the awesome unspoilt lakes like the Hallstätter See. The salt mines that date back to the Celtic era, is another reason for the remoteness of this region. Salt was once a luxury item that was mined under government monopoly. Salzkammergut was hence closed to the common people. Only when Emperor Franz Josef made Bad Ischl (Bad is a German word meaning spa), which was one of the popular spa towns, his official summer residence in 1854, did the area open up for public.

The most popular region of Austria, the Salzkammergut area has the maximum visitors during summer, who come to enjoy the scenic splendour of its towns, lakes and mountains. It is not a federal province as it is normally mistaken. Salzkammergut is a part of Austria that has a distinct culture and a salt mining and salt trading tradition. It spans sections of Salzburg, upper Austria and Styria.

Austrians are passionate about das Wandern or hiking. There are hundreds of kilometres of hiking trails in Bad Ischl and many more marked trails throughout the Lake District and the mountains in the Hallstatt area. Cycling is also popular among the locals, offering panoramic views of the spectacular landscape at a healthy as well as a quicker pace.

Visitors to this region have a wide variety of options to stay including in ancient historic hotels, known as Schloss hotels or at modern villas converted into bed and breakfasts or modern hotels, and choose from a wide variety of restaurants offering from home cooked Austrian fare to fine dining, and several shops selling linens, ceramics, woodcarvings and painted glass of the region.

WHEN TO VISIT SALZKAMMERGUT

Even though the Lake District is a yearlong destination, many sights and establishments are closed or operate on a restricted schedule during late fall as it would be quite rainy and cold. During other seasons, travellers flock to the Lake District, the best time being July and September. Families on school holidays and music lovers of the Salzburg Music festival gather throughout the countryside in August. Emperor Franz Josef’s birthday is still celebrated in Bad Ischl on August 18. The annual procession taken across the lake in Hallstatt on Corpus Christi day (around the last weekend of May or the Sunday after, if weather permits), is another attraction. Small picturesque markets of Wolfgangsee and other villages, and the concerts of Adventsingen (singing in churches during Advent) in churches during December are experiences one should try not to miss if one is traveling around that time of the year.

July to early September is an ideal time for swimming in the mountain lakes, which would be chilly during the other months. The warmest lakes are the Wolfgangsee and Mondsee. Spring and autumn are the shoulder season when the weather is unpredictable. In midsummer, sudden short showers are common. The Dachstein mountains offer good skiing experience once the snow settles, from December to March.

HOW TO REACH

By Air

The Salzburg airport is 53 km from Bad Ischl, heart of the Salzkammergut, and the Linz airport is 75 km away. The Lake District is closer to Salzburg than Linz.

By Train and Bus

The geography of the area only allows rail lines, which run in the north – south direction. Major rail routes are from Salzburg or Linz. There is a change at Attnang-Puchheim onto the regional north – south railway line. If coming from Styria, you will have to change at Stainach-Irdning.

Buses reach areas where trains don’t. Given enough time, you can cover all areas by public transportation.

The main bus routes:
• From Bad Ischl to Gosau, Hallstatt, Salzburg and St. Wolfgang.
• From Mondsee to St. Gilgen and Salzburg
• From St. Gilgen to Mondsee
• From Salzburg to Bad Ischl, Mondsee, St. Gilgen and Strobl

GETTING AROUND IN SALZKAMMERGUT

By Train

On a north – south route, regional trains cross Salzkammergut through
• Attnang-Puchheim on the Salzburg–Linz line
• Stainach-Irdning on the Bischofshofen–Graz line
• Trains reach Attersee too.

The journey is made in 2 ½ hours by trains at one hour frequencies. There are no staff in small stations. If in an unbesetzter Bahnhof (unattended train station), use a platform ticket vending machine or pay on the train.

By Bus

There are regular services connecting almost all towns and villages in the Lake District though during weekends the services are skeletal. Every hour, buses leave Salzburg to various other towns, including Bad Ischl, Mondsee and St. Wolfgang. Check www.busbanbim.at , for services from Styria.

Boats

There are boats that ply between Attersee, Traunsee, Mondsee, Hallstätter See and Wolfgangsee and could be a pleasant if not a very fast way to travel throughout the Lake District.

TOP PLACES TO VISIT

The top places to visit in Salzkammergut are –

Hallstatt
Bad ischl
St. Wolfgang
St. Gilgen & Strobl
Gosau am Dachstein
Mondsee & The Mondseeland
Fuschlsee

HALLSTATT

Hallstatt gives an illusion as if the small town is rising up from the swan lake, the reflections of its pastel-coloured houses and the towering mountains around it shimmering in the waters, presenting a truly spectacular view that will definitely take the breath of the beholder. It is the piece de la resistance of the Salzkammergut and the epicentre of the Lake District and fulcrum of the tourism industry associated with this region.

Described as the ‘world’s prettiest lakeside village’ on innumerable postcards, the town appears perched precariously on a small area of land, almost a toehold, on the shore of the lake that would tumble down anytime into the dark waters of the Hallstättersee.

It is situated on the narrow stretch of land between the mountain and the shore and one needs a boat to cross the serene waters as you arrive from the train station, which is on the opposite side of the river. The area occupied by the village is so small that its annual Corpus Christi festival takes place on small boats on the lake due to lack of space on land.

From the top of the mountains, the powerful waterfall, the Mühlbach, captures your attention immediately, and is a majestic sight that you would not let go of for a long time. Hallstatt was the village where the emperor Franz Josef took his fiancé, Elisabeth on an excursion on the day of their engagement, and since those days, the town has been attracting tourists like a magnet. This does mean that the village could be a bit more modern than expected and oriented towards the tourist circuit, which is surprising given that Hallstatt is the oldest community in Austria.

The hills above the town is where salt was mined for centuries. The early Iron Age in Europe is known as the Hallstatt period (800 – 400 BC), which is named after the village which had early settlers of the Iron and Age and the Celts who worked the mines. Over 1000 graves of prehistoric men were found here that has since been a source of important relics of the Celtic period and the age is hence known as the Hallstatt epoch.

The Hallstatt Market is the centre of activity here. On the edge of the town near the funicular to the Salzbergwerk is Hallstatt Lahn where is the bus station and across the lake from Hallstatt is the train station. A ferry from the train station will take you into town.
Mount Dachstein is visible from the lakeside. This mountain and the huge Sechserkogel range makes us aware of that we are right in the middle of pristine alpine landscape. A train journey to Hallstatt will present a stunning view of the cliffs, the mountains are so close to the water that there is only a tiny strip of land on which the town has come up, not leaving space even for a railway track. The station is hence on the opposite shore from where visitors are taken to the town by ferry. Hallstatt has no place for any sort of transportation that cannot be supported by boats.

WHAT TO SEE IN HALLSTATT

Salzbergwerk

For over 4500 years, this area has been mined for salt. The Hallstatt mines of the Salzberg (not ‘burg’) mountain are the oldest in the world. These mines in the Salzbergtal valley are accessed either by the path near the village cemetery paths or via the funicular railway from the southern end of the village. A small-scale miner’s train that heads to the mountain can be reached within a 10-minute walk from the railway station. The wooden chutes once used by the miners are still preserved well, in which you can slide down to an artificial subterranean lake that was once used to dissolve rock salt. An Iron Age cemetery and a 21st Century restaurant is at the entrance of the mines. A combo ticket to Salzerlebnis (Salt Adventure), from OBB (Austrian Railway) offers an all-inclusive fare to, from and within Hallstatt and the salt mine.

Dachstein Ice Caves

The most attractive sights of the eastern Alps – the Dachstein Ice caves are vast ice caverns that have been formed many hundreds of years ago. It shines with ice stalactites and stalagmites that are illuminated by an eerie light. The Rieseneishöhle (giant ice cave) and Mammuthöhle (mammoth cave) are the most renowned. There are also other caves and frozen waterfalls. Situated about 6500 feet high, the entrance to the cave can be accessed via cable-car and a short little hike up, though it is possible to hike all the way up. The Dachstein peak is farther south, at 9750 feet. If you visit in August, you could enjoy the weekly Ice Sounds concert series under the Parsifal dome of the Dachstein cave. Your combo ticket for these special events would include a cave tour and dinner at the Erlebnisrestaurant. Warm weatherproof clothing and good shoes are recommended as it is very cold inside the caves and chilling winds blow down the slopes. Time your visit before 2 pm to see both the caves.

Michaelerkirche (St. Michael’s)

Colourful 16th century houses and an equally picturesque 16th century gothic church dots the now pedestrian area of the Hallstatt market square. The church with its spectacular winged altar with its nine 15th century paintings is a beautiful place indeed. The nearby Karner (charnel house), though morbid, is also a visited by tourists regularly.

Over the centuries, when there arose a space constraint to bury the dead, the locals developed a custom of digging up the bodies 12 or 15 years after the burial, piling up the bones in the sun and painting the skulls and storing the one upon the other. Ivy and oak leaf wreaths were used for men and alpine flowers for women and meticulously documented their names, dates and cause of death. These skulls are on display in the charnel house, also known as the ‘Beinhaus’ (bone house), behind the cemetery.

At the end of May every year, the summer season begins with Fronleichnahm (Corpus Christi) procession. The festivities conclude with people in hundreds of boats celebrating on the lake, and is a very popular event on the calendar for locals and tourists alike.

Schifffahrt Boat Trips
There are boat tours around the lake via Obertraun to the south (50 minutes) or Obersee to the north (80 minutes), which are run by the same company that ferries train passengers across the lake to Hallstatt. Tourists also have an option of inter-spreading boat trips with hiking along the shore.

Weltkulturerbe Museum

The museum covers the region’s Iron Age, Celtic history and salt mining industry and also displays Roman excavations in a shop below. Some of these excavations can also be seen in the shop opposite the tourist office or near the Salzbergwerk, where there is an exhibition grave. All explanations in the museum are in German and English.

BAD ISCHL

With Bad Ischl, a wonderful spa town on its own right, and the former summer retreat of Emperor Franz Josef, as your base, you can easily cover the five main lakes of the region.
The famous Zauner’s pastry shop is located in Bad Ischl. Connoisseurs flock the place for its coffee and lemon sponge cake, Guglhupf, topped with raisins and nuts. The community still symbolizes the spirit of old Austria including impressive balls, waltzes and operettas that continue to be a big draw for people in search high culture.

Located on a peninsula between River Traun and River Ischl, the town is laid out beautifully on the peninsula. The shaded Esplanade provides a charming ambience for a stroll. This is where the elite of the 19th century used to frequent, usually after a quick stop at the spa, Trinkhalle, which still stands in mid-town Ferdinand-Auböck-Platz.

When the Hapsburg princess, Sophie, was miraculously cured of her infertility after she took treatment in this spa town in 1828, its reputation grew manifold. Within two years, she gave birth to Emperor Franz Josef I and later to two more sons, who were nicknamed the Salzprinzen (Salt Princes). Franz Josef took it upon himself to make an annual pilgrimage to Bad Ischl, like a salmon that returns to its birth place and he made it his summer home for the next 60 years, thus drawing much of the European aristocracy to this region. This is where he met and fell in love with this future empress, Sisi.

Unfortunately, Bad Ischl also witnessed his signing the war declaration on the kingdom of Serbia, which sparked off WWI

WHAT TO SEE IN BAD ISCHL

Kaiservilla

Bad Ischl offers a quick time travel back to the 1880s in Kaiservilla residence. Painted in imperial yellow signifying wealth and power, the residence looks like a miniature Schönbrunn Palace of Vienna, the ground floor of which forms an ‘E’ to honour the empress Elisabeth. Princess Sophie bought Kaiservilla as an engagement present for her son Emperor Franz Josef and Princess Elisabeth of Bavaria. Elisabeth hardly spent much time there as she loathed the place as she did her husband. Despite this, the emperor loved the palace and made it his summer residence for more than 60 years. The emperor’s mistress, Katharina Schratt, lived nearby in a house, ironically, which was chosen by the empress.

The great grandson of Franz Josef, Archduke Markus Salvator von Habsburg-Lothringen still lives here. The other parts of the building can be seen on the tour including the ornate reception rooms and surprisingly modest residential quarters. You could be even lucky if the archduke himself conducts the tour, as he does some times.

It was at this villa that the emperor signed the war declaration against Serbia. Habsburg artefacts and sometimes tragic family mementos fill the villa, like the cushion on which the head of Empress Elisabeth rested after she was stabbed by an Italian assassin in 1898.


Museum Der Stadt Bad Ischl

This museum is located in the current Hotel Austria, which was actually the favourite summer residence of Archduke Franz Karl and wife Sophie. The young Franz Josef got engaged to Elisabeth here in 1853. The various exhibits dealing with the region’s salt mining, royal and folk histories, the gardens and the Brahms monument in it can be explored. The display of national folk costumes used by the emperor for hunting is particularly impressive. The museum displays the famous Kalss Krippe, an enormous mechanical Christmas crèche, from December to early February. It has about 300 figures and dates from 1838. The Christmas cribs made by the townsfolk of Ischl is very famous. Many private houses open their doors to visitors on tour from after Christmas until January 6.
Photo Museum

Built near Kaiservilla, the small ‘marble palace’ is very elegant. Empress Elisabeth used it as a teahouse. It now houses a photography museum, a permanent collection that offers an overview of the history of analog photography, with a tribute to the empress Elisabeth. The marriage between Franz Josef and Elisabeth was not a happy one, evidence of which can be found in the names of many houses in Bad Ischl that are named after many of the emperor’s lady friends, like the Villa Schratt, which was given to the “official” mistress of the emperor, Katharina Schratt. An entrance ticket to the museum lets you into the park grounds too.

ST. WOLFGANG

A beautiful town located on the steep banks of the Wolfgangsee, St. Wolfgang, has its streets choked with tourists during the day, but as it turns evening, we see an ebb in the flow and is ideally the best time for a serene stroll along the lake with its heavily wooded shores and old boat houses.

Pilgrimage was the town’s main reason to fame and so it is even today, as its 14th century pilgrimage church is still visited by throngs of pilgrims and tourists.

Be it hiking or swimming in summer, or cross-country skiing in winter, nature’s beauty is everywhere for you to savour. It was the Weisses Rössl inn, built in 1878, right next to the landing stage, that made St. Wolfgang famous because Ralph Benatzky’s 1930 operetta was the main fixture in this inn.

WHAT TO SEE IN ST WOLFGANG

Schafberg

Enjoy a wonderful view of the countryside from the ‘belvedere of the Salzkammergut lakes’ on a historic steam train trip from St. Wolfgang to an altitude of 5800 feet onto the peak of Schafberg! A one-way train ticket takes you to this hiker’s paradise. There are two inns on the peak. A clear day lets you take in the sight as far as the Lattengebirge mountain range west of Salzburg. Early birds get the best view by their window seat. The ticket office can reserve your spot at your preferred departure time.

Schafbergbahn – The historic steam train dates back to 1893, and doesn’t run in bad weather. Tickets can be purchased on the train. At least half a day is required for this outing.The train runs from end of April to mid-October and during Advent weekends (Advent begins four Sundays before Christmas and ends on Christmas Eve), weather permitting.


Wallfahrtskirche St. Wolfgang (pilgrimage church)

Michael Pacher’s altarpiece in the 15th century Wallfahrtskirche is something that art lovers should never miss. It is one of the finest example of late Gothic woodcarving. With its religious art and the amazing altar, a profuse pulpit, an excellent organ and many statues and paintings, Wallfahrtskirche is simply quite spectacular. The winged high altar exhibits the most impressive piece de la resistance – a 36-foot masterpiece by Michael Pacher, created 1471 – 1481, which is a perfect example of German Gothic architecture, made more impressive with the Renaissance Italy’s technical advancements.

The carvings and paintings found on this altar were used as an Armenbibel (a Bible for the poor). On a sunny day, the interior of the church will offer a beautiful sight of sunlight reflected off the lake that dances on the ceiling through the stained-glass windows.

ST. GILGEN & STROBL

St. Gilgen together with St. Wolfgang are very popular among domestic tourists. Considered to be a classic Salzkammergut town, which is exemplified in almost everything, right from the town hall, to its church, villas with wooden balconies, lakeside promenade and the mountainous locale. You can get an excellent introduction of both St. Gilgen and the Wolfgangsee region from the town museum ‘Heimatkundliches Museum’, which has been in existence since 1655.

The popular Christmas market is held around the main market square every December. The baroque houses present a perfect picture for the venue.

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s mother was born in St. Gilgen. A memorial site dedicated to Mozart (Mozart Gedenkstätte) is open to visitors in Bezirksgericht, the country court. His sister Nannerl also came to St. Gilgen at the later part of her life, when she married a local civil servant.
The beauty of St. Gilgen is best enjoyed during a leisurely walk covering the promenade and lakeside. The local mountains offer opportunities for hiking, which could be a bit strenuous though.

Alternatively, you can take a cable car up the Zwölferhorn Mountain. Swimming in the serene lake and other water sports can be enjoyed in the tranquillity of the village, Strobl. This region can be used as a base for hiking trips. You can also ride the popular summer tobogganing rail (Sommerrodelbahn) near Strobl.

GOSAU AM DACHSTEIN

The scenic beauty of Gosau am Dachstein is legendary. To nature lovers, a tour to the Austrian Lake District is not complete without visiting this place. It is one of Austria’s most beautiful place to visit, and was very popular with the travellers of the 19th century, but surprisingly it is now off the tourist tracks for apparently no reason, which is actually a blessing in disguise for those looking for off the beaten track experiences.

To have a good all round experience of the area, take a walk that would take no more than 2 ½ hours. It is a better option than driving around the area. Start your walk from the tourist information office that is near the crossroads known as the Gosaumühle. The road goes over the meadows and passes by the churches. It is a romantic trail, from Gosauschmied Café onwards through the forest to Vorderer Gosausee, the first Gosau lake. This lake is located 8 km south of the village and is its crown jewel. The majestic Dachstein massif is reflected beautifully in the lake’s water that forms a fjord like basin.

There are no man-made structures other than a restaurant and a gamekeeper’s hut. The view is excellent a little before 2:30 p.m., when the withdrawing sun plays its rays on the steep mountain slopes. A further two hour hike would take you to the other two lakes that would rank below this lake, in terms of beauty. The third one is used by the local electric power station and hence is not full of water always, but is the closest place to get a spectacular view of the Dachstein glacier. Taking a cable car to the Gablonzer Hütte on the the Swieselalm or taking a three hour hike up the summit of the Grosser Donnerkogel are other options. Skiing on the Gosau glacier is an option for the adventurer in you.

Many Gasthöfes (guesthouses) offer a peaceful night’s stay in the Gosau village. Reserving ahead is recommended. You can also choose to stay in Privatzimer accommodations. A dinner of fried Schwarzrenterl, a delicious lake fish delicacy, would definitely make your day.

MONDSEE & THE MONDSEELAND

The most pretty and hence, the touristiest place in Upper Austria is the Mondsee. From Salzburgand, it is an easy ride by car. It is a popular destination for a day trips. It is a spacious town that can fortunately absorb the milling crowds during the main season.

The scenic lakeside promenade is a common yet charming feature of the Lake District area. Yachting and other water sports are available. The stunning Mondsee lake in an alpine setting on the bare rock of Drachenwand (dragon wall) cliffs is a magnificent sight. The market square is resplendent with its former monastery and the church.

FUSCHLSEE

The trolling motor is the maximum power of the boats allowed on the clear waters of the lake Fuschl. . The lake and its surroundings paint a beautiful picture with the emperor’s Schloss Fuschl overlooking vintage wooden rowboats, swan couples, and wooden chalets all combining together to form a beautiful scenery. The energy drink Red Bull is headquartered here. It sponsors athletes and pilots, who practice in the area. Salzburgers visit here often for hike in the woods and a refreshing swim later.

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