By Rachel How
I love the Alps for their sheer grandeur – always have done and always will do. I can't help feeling a real tingle walking in such majestic scenery. The Salzkammergut region just east of Salzburg really is special – so dramatic and traditional-feeling. High mountains plunge into glittering lakes, creating almost fjord-like scenery. Words just don't do it justice. The whole area has been designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site. And the real beauty of the Lakes and Mountains walk is that you don't have to be a keen walker – although the routes take you into the heart of the mountains, they are gentle, with only slight ascents.
We started in St Agatha, at the Agathawirt Hotel. It's very typically Austrian, with wooden furniture and a lovely traditional feel that befits such a historic hotel – it first opened its doors in 1517. The Schenner family hasn't owned it since the very beginning, but has been running it for several generations now. There is a small covered pool in the garden, but my favourite feature of the hotel is the lovely outdoor terrace – we headed straight there once we had unpacked our cases and enjoyed an aperitif while we contemplated the week ahead.
The first day's circular walk set the tone for the rest of the week – a gentle walk that was rewarded with spectacular views of the mountains. Our target was the restaurant at Hütteneckalm, which we reached after ascending gradually through lush meadows for a couple of hours, accompanied by the clang of cowbells. The restaurant overlooks the Bad Ischl area where the emperors holidayed in the 19th century. No picnics are provided on the holiday because of the abundance of mountain 'huts' (in actual fact very convivial cafés and restaurants), so we headed inside and treated ourselves to Kaiserschmarr'n – chopped pancake sprinkled with icing sugar and served with a fruit compote. Having digested and admired the views some more, we headed back down towards St Agatha across more alpine pastures.
Looking back, the walk from St Agatha was definitely one of my favourites because of the dramatic fusion of mountain and lake. We followed the Ostuferweg, an easy path that leads alongside the edge of Hallstättersee, at the very foot of the mountains. At points where the mountain plunges sheer into the lake, wooden walkways lead over the water. After three hours on this delightful path, we reached Obertraun, where we caught the regular boat across the lake to Hallstatt. All the guidebooks say that this is the best way to arrive at Hallstatt and I must say that I can see why. As we approached, we could appreciate how the houses clamber up the mountainside from the water's edge – from a distance it looks like they are piled one on top of the other. Space is so precious in the town that it was decided some time ago that the cemetery could expand no further, so nowadays coffins are allowed to rest in the cemetery for just a few years before being moved to a graveyard outside the town. Not surprisingly given that it is quite accurately described as the 'jewel of the region', Hallstatt is something of a tourist trap, but by the time we had checked into the Grüner Baum, showered and changed, the streets were virtually empty again, the day trippers having gone home, so we were able to explore, admiring the pretty houses with their wooden gables and colourful window boxes.
The Grüner Baum, a former salt merchant's house, occupies what must be one of the best sites in the town – the front of the hotel faces onto the market square, while the rear of the building backs onto the lake, with a lovely terrace by the water's edge. Like the Agathawirt, it has an olde worlde feel and a welcoming atmosphere. Breakfast only is included as there are several lovely restaurants in Hallstatt, but we decided to eat at the hotel on the first night – by choosing to eat à la carte we were able to sit out on the terrace and contemplate the views over the water as we enjoyed delicious lake fish.
With two nights at Hallstatt, we had a free day to explore. As we'd strolled around the town before dinner the previous day, we decided to return to Obertraun and from there we took the cable car high into the mountains. Even though we were at about 2,000 metres above sea level, there were still mountains towering above us as we enjoyed a circular walk through more mountain pastures, astonished by the fact that there could exist such a flat, easy path this high up. We were tempted to visit the caves while we were up in the mountains (there are superb ice formations to be seen, and remains of mammoths were found there), but instead we decided to return to Hallstatt and take the cable car up to the salt mines above the town. The town owes its prosperity to the salt mines ('hall' is a Celtic word meaning 'salt') and in fact, at the height of religious turbulence across Europe, the emperor guaranteed the town's Protestant population protection in return for salt.
After breakfast the following morning, we were collected by taxi for the journey to our next base, Gosau. At first, the road leads through a narrow valley, but then the landscape opens up and we were suddenly greeted with amazing views of the Dachstein Mountains. We had caught glimpses of the jagged peaks earlier in the week, but to be confronted with them so dramatically was breathtaking. We quickly dropped our luggage off at the Gosauerhof, then continued by taxi to Vorderer (Lower) Gosauersee, where a lovely path leads along the water's edge to the neighbouring lake, at the far end of which is a restaurant, excellently placed for lunch! Framed by wooded slopes, the blue-green lakes are beautiful, and it really is a very scenic walk. Having already indulged in too much Apfelstrudel and Kaiserschmarr'n over the first part of the week (it would have been rude to refuse!), we decided to walk all the way to the hotel, though it is possible to catch a bus back from the lake.
It didn't take me long to fall in love with the Gosauerhof. Anni and Brigitte Laserer are wonderfully friendly, and we later discovered for ourselves why the hotel restaurant draws such a loyal local following, but what really sets the hotel apart are the views up the valley to Dachstein Mountains.
There are plenty of walking opportunities from Gosau, and on our last two days we enjoyed exploring the mountains further. I particularly liked the circular walk from the top of the cable car above Gosauersee – we caught the bus to the lake then took the cable car up to the top of the ridge and from there gradually descended to Gosau, looking back every so often to admire the views of the Dachstein Mountains and stopping at one of the several mountain 'huts' for lunch.
On our last evening, we sat out on the terrace after dinner and drank schnapps as we watched the setting sun turn the mountains pink. A relaxed end to a relaxed week of walking in nevertheless dramatic scenery.