My Austria: A few of Ben Fogle’s favourite things...
With or without the sound of music in the air, the Austrian Alps provide the perfect setting for families to enjoy the outdoor life
Saturday 11 September 2010
Austria had never really appeared on my geographical map. It was neither a country I knew much about nor a place I had a great desire to visit. A friend once joked that it was the destination for dyslexic travellers bound for Australia; I thought it was famous for long-dead composers, the ex-racing driver and airline boss Niki Lauda and not much else.
But all that changed five years ago after a lucky encounter with a pretty blonde in London's Hyde Park. Marina – a half-Austrian – and I met, fell in love and became husband and wife. Suddenly, I became a fully paid-up lederhosen-wearing, yodelling honorary Austrian with a new – and genuine – affection for the country.
Each year we pack the car with dogs (Inca and Maggi), bikes and, most recently, a baby (nine-month-old Ludo) and wend under the Channel and across Europe for a summer of hiking, swimming and eating. My wife's family come from Salzburg, the birthplace of Mozart and a breathtakingly beautiful city of Unesco-listed spires, churches and cobbled streets. It is dominated by the Salzach River and the Mönchsberg, a castle straddling a vast rock in the middle of the city. But most visitors come to Salzburg for The Sound of Music.
There are Sound of Music tours, where film fans can visit the Nonnberg Nunnery where the nuns sang "Maria" and the Mirabell Castle, where the Von Trapp children sang "Do-Re-Mi". The YoHo backpackers' hostel belies its guests' cool personas and shows the film every day at 10.30am. Visitors can stay in a Sound of Music hotel, the Villa Trapp, which was the family home in the film and is now run as a B&B. There is even a Sound of Music TV channel on offer in some Austrian hotels, showing the film on a 24-hour loop.
I grew up with two sisters, so was exposed to endless reruns of the von Trapp family singing about hills and flowers on our old Betamax video player. I can still remember every song and every word and could probably give Connie Fisher a run for her money. (Andrew Lloyd Webber take note.) But little did I realise when I fell in love with Marina that I was marrying a real-life Julie Andrews as we became the von Fogles.
My mother-in-law Monika has a wardrobe of Dirndls dating from the 1950s. The traditional dresses historically worn by Alpine peasant farmers' wives are now part of the national costume. Much to the delight of the men, every female visitor to my mother-in-law's gets issued with a bodice, blouse, skirt and apron. Marina spends the summer in hers. (I can, incidentally, confirm that Kate Humble looks quite splendid in a Dirndl. I have tried unsuccessfully to persuade her to wear one for Autumn Watch.)
The placement of the knot on the apron is an indicator of the woman's marital status. A knot tied on the woman's left hand side means she is single, a knot on the right means she is married and a knot at the back means she is widowed.
The Salzkammergut region in which Salzburg falls is often described as the Austrian Lake District, with dozens of turquoise lakes surrounded by green Alpine peaks. On a sunny day, there are few places in the world to beat these deep, clear waters.
Fuschlsee is one such lake, surrounded by steep forested slopes. At one end is the majestic Schloss Fuschl, a fairy-tale castle and hunting lodge from the 15th-century, which is now a luxurious lakeside resort. The small village of Fuschl fits snugly into the hillside at the other end. No motorboats are allowed on the lake, but several companies rent out pedalos and electric boats by the hour. Along the shoreline are dozens of small beaches where you can take picnics, swim and sunbathe; in the winter the lake freezes over and the pedalos are replaced by ice skates.
Marina, Ludo, the two dogs and I all managed to squeeze on a single pedalo and edged out on to the calm waters. You forget how noisy some lakes are until you visit ones where speedboats and jet skis have been banned. A few fishermen drifted along in their small rowing boats while all five of us dipped into the chilly water. Ludo loved it; Maggi dived for stones. Small warning lights around the lake are the only reminder that we are in the Alps and at the whim of nature. The lights start flashing furiously as a warning for sailors to return to shore, as lightning storms occur frequently.
The water may be bracing but it is also clean enough to drink. We spent hours pedalling around it, then returned in time for lunch at one of the shore-side restaurants where we ate Wienerschnitzel and apfelstrudel as the sun set on water.
Aside from my mother-in-law's house, there's plenty in the region to explore. First stop for us this summer was the Weissen Rössl ("White Horse"), which has graced the shores of Wolfgangsee lake at St Wolfgang for nearly a century and was the setting for the 1897 opera The White Horse Inn by Ralph Benatzky. A family-run business, the hotel has plenty of old-school charm, with a traditional Austrian exterior festooned with colourful flower boxes and ornate painting, but the interior has been updated for a slightly more modern feel.
The Wolfgangsee is stunning: over 10km long, it offers everything from windsurfing to diving and waterskiing, but it is also the location each year for the unbelievable Red Bull Cliff Diving event and the Scalaria Air-Challenge, in which seaplanes complete incredible acrobatics.
The cliff diving is one of the most terrifying things I have ever seen. Divers apparently reach speeds of 60mph as they plunge 90 feet into the lake. There are many things I would like to have a go at, but this isn't one of them. I prefer a relaxing swim, and the Weissen Rössl is the perfect place for that.
A spa town, St Wolfgang has been a place of pilgrimage since a church was built in 1183, and the resort later became known for attracting German film stars, who would arrive by seaplane. A swimming pool has been sunken into a floating pontoon on the lake itself. Its metallic base makes it breathtakingly beautiful – and it also benefits from being heated.
Our room had a balcony with magical views over the sparkling waters below. By craning my neck I could watch sailing boats glide past from my bubble bath, while Marina relaxed with a "beautifying" salt steam bath using local brine. V C Behind the hotel runs the Schafbergbahn, a cog steam train that takes visitors to the top of the mountain for a lunch overlooking the lake.
The walking and hiking in Austria must surely rate as among the best in Europe. Well-marked trails run almost everywhere – and walking across wild-flower-carpeted meadows to the sound of cowbells while dressed in lederhosen, with Ludo strapped into my rucksack was heavenly. The Austrian Alps are strewn with small mountain pubs called alms, which are perfect for a drink, lunch or a quick nappy change.
One of The Sound of Music's best-known songs is, of course, "Edelweiss", named after the white flower found in the high Alps. This exquisite flower is protected in Austria and can be found around the rocky limestone above 7,000 feet. Many of the winter ski-lifts and cable cars still operate in the summer months, which gives walkers access to some of these higher, wilder peaks.
And while the mountains provide great ski slopes in the winter, the industrious Austrians have invented an action-packed summer alternative known as sommerrodelbahn, which roughly translates as "summer tobogganing". A small toboggan with wheels and a handbrake descends a long slide, often over a mile long, built into the mountainside at speeds of up to 25mph. It is certainly an exhilarating, if somewhat sore, way to descend a mountain, as I discovered when I first came off on a tight bend. The bruises seemed to impress our Austrian friends.
One of my biggest surprises when I first visited Austria was its food. The fact that my wife fitted our London kitchen with a meat slicer and stocked our fridge with dry-cured speck should have given me a hint of what to expect. Best-known for its wienerschnitzel, Austrian cuisine has influences from Italy, Hungary and Germany. My favourite tradition is the jause, or afternoon tea, served after 4pm. No cucumber sandwiches nor Earl Grey tea here. Instead, take your fill from large wooden boards of cheeses, dried speck, pork crackling, chutneys and breads. And my ideal place for jause is a rather inconspicuous barn at the head of Lake Mondsee, hidden among apple trees.
Many farmers in Austria supplement their income by opening small restaurants on their farms. An Austrian law stipulates that farmers do not need to pay any tax on their food and drink as long as they grow, cure, brew and create it all themselves. Many of these alms open only at weekends as the farmers are busy harvesting the land and looking after livestock during the week.
Holzinger, which is open on Saturdays and Sundays from 4pm, is probably my favourite restaurant in the world. A number of old wooden tables are set around the apple orchard and the food is delivered on huge wooden platters several feet long. The dozens of cheeses and dried meats on offer create an explosion of flavours in the mouth. It is not unknown for an afternoon jause to go on into the small hours.
For a meal in a more conventional setting, head for Herzl in the centre of Salzburg. The restaurant for the acclaimed Goldener Hirsch hotel, it makes the best Wienerschnitzel and sauerkraut in town. Traditionally decorated and full of Dirndl-clad Salzburg Festival-goers during the summer months, it also has a fine selection of surprisingly good Austrian wines.
This year was Ludo's first visit to Austria, but he already has several pairs of weathered leather lederhosen handed down from previous generations, or bought by Austrian friends. He is yet to endure Julie Andrews in The Sound of Music, but there's no rush, because he's got Austria: the real thing.
* Salzburg is served by British Airways (0844 493 0787; ba.com) from Gatwick, Ryanair (0871 246 0000; ryanair.com) from Stansted and FlyBe (0871 700 2000; flybe.com) from Southampton. Trains (08448 484 064; raileurope.co.uk) run via Paris and Munich.
* Villa Trapp, Salzburg (00 43 662 630 860; wartbichler.net/ vt). B&B from €99.
* Schloss Fuschl, Salzburg (00 43 622 922 530; schlossfuschl salzburg.com). B&B from €340.
* Weissen Rössl, St Wolfgang (00 43 613 823 060; weisses roessl.at). Doubles from €125, room only.
Eating & drinking there
* Cafe Tomaselli, Salzburg (00 43 662 844 488; tomaselli.at).
* Holzinger, Mondsee (00 43 623 23841).
* Herzl, Salzburg (00 43 662 80840; goldenerhirschsalzburg.com/herzl).
* Sound of Music tours are operated by Salzburg Panorama Tours, Gray Line Tours and Fraulein Maria's Bicycle Tours (00 43 662 889870; salzburg.info).
* Austrian Tourist Office: 0845 101 1818; austria.info
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