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Tuesday 11 March 2014
The many joys of Austria as a winter destination are well documented. Here is a mountain-framed country where fabled snow-bound resorts such as Kitzbühel, St Anton, Mayrhofen and Ischgl offer some of the planet's finest slopes; where skiers of all ages enjoy wonderful downhill days; where frosted peaks are set gloriously against a blue sky.
And yet, the charm of Austria as a holiday destination does not fade out in May when the skis are packed away for another six months. Far from it. As spring edges out winter and summer dances into view, Austria casts off its iconic icy appearance and turns gorgeously green – its mountains and valleys becoming the perfect playground for sunny adventures.
Hikers, cyclists, kayakers and climbers, couples and families, senior travellers, the young and intrepid – all can find a break to suit them in these leafy, craggy surroundings. And food and culture also have their moments as Austria settles into the hottest of the seasons.
Take Vorarlberg, for example. The westernmost of Austria's nine states is something of a hidden gem. Here, you can wander rocky trails as the ski resort of Lech Zürs am Arlberg switches to summer mode, passing shining bodies of water like the Speichersee (which can be reached on the 5.5-mile 'Green Ring' route). You can explore little villages dotted about the Bregenz Forest – such as Bezau, Alberschwende, Mellau, Egg and Andelsbuch – and try local delicacies like Bregenzerwalder Bergkäse, the cheese for which the area is renowned. You can also take in opera, classical music and theatre at the annual summer festival in the state capital Bregenz (23 July to 25 August 2014; bregenzerfestspiele.com).
Carinthia, the southernmost Austrian state, has a similar appeal. Winter-sports fans flock to ski hub Klagenfurt in the cold months, but summer draws in walkers keen to tackle the Alpe-Adria-Trail – a splendid up-and-down 470-mile hiking route that slices through the state as it heads towards Slovenia. Visitors do not have to attempt the whole thing, of course, but should certainly amble the lovely section around the clear Millstättersee lake.
Northerly Salzburgerland, meanwhile, hails the summer in Zell am See-Kaprun – another popular ski zone which embraces the change of season. Water-sports – boating, kayaking, swimming – are all possible on Lake Zell, while those who love life on two wheels can test themselves against the three mountain-biking trails on the 3203m Kitzsteinhorn peak. Elsewhere, in the Raurisertal valley, there are descents of a different kind – as enormous birds of prey come swooping out of the heavens. The area – part of Hohe Tauern National Park – is home to a large population of vultures. Fans of wide-winged wildlife can grab a closer glimpse by riding the Rauriser Hochalmbahn cable-car to its top station at 1800m.
Then there is Tyrol, a winter icon due to the likes of Kitzbϋhel and St Anton – but also a summer hotspot thanks to splendid enclaves such as the Zillertal valley. Here – with the ski resort of Mayrhofen at its heart – is a place where you can hike along sun-dappled pathways. These include the Berliner Höhenweg (Berlin High Trail), which flits along elevated portions of the Zillertal Alps (but is accessible to tourists of all energy levels), and the tougher 35-mile Peter Habeler Route – a rugged option named after the feted Austrian mountaineer. Then there is the Wild Kaiser region, where you can stroll through idyllic villages such as Going, Scheffau, Söll and Ellmau (and also play golf in the latter).
Of course, summer in Austria is not just about the mountains and the high country. It is also about the cities. Tyrol is also proof of this. Its capital, Innsbruck, is an urban jewel amid Alpine splendour. Visitors can stride the grand boulevards of Maria-Theresien-Strasse and Herzog-Friedrich-Strasse, spend an afternoon among the sighing trees of the Hofgarten park, or hit the heights via the Patscherkofelbahn – which, in rising to the 2246m summit of the Patscherkofel peak, offers spectacular views of the valley around it.
Elsewhere, in the north of Austria, Linz – the capital of the state of Oberӧsterreich (Upper Austria) – is a waterside haven, where the noble River Danube flows through the centre. Here is one of Europe's most underrated cities, home to first-class museums – including the science and technology of the Ars Electronica Center, and the striking modern art of the Lentos Kunstmuseum – and giddy amusements in the shape of the Pflasterspektakel festival, a yearly bonanza of street performance (17-19 July 2014; pflasterspektakel.at). Alternatively, you can treat yourself to the city's patisserie gift to the world – the sugary Linzer Torte – as you relax next to the Danube on the riverside grass of the Donaupark.
Graz, the capital of south-easterly Styria, belongs to that part of Austria where the Alps start to recede behind, and a softer Mediterranean ambience makes itself felt. A day here might be spent sipping coffee on the Murinsel (a quirky metallic island built into the middle of the River Mur), perusing thought-provoking photography at the city's excellent Kunsthaus gallery, or heading to the top of the Schlossberg – the lone crag of rock which once supported Graz's (now ruined) castle – for lunch at one of several al-fresco eateries.
And what of Salzburg? A city that is indelibly connected to the story of Mozart will stage its Salzburg Festival (18 July to 31 August; salzburgerfestspiele.at) of classical music and opera this year with a focus on... Richard Strauss, the 19th century German composer who 'reaches' his 150th birthday in 2014. Summertime Austria has endless capacity to surprise.
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