Delicious homemade cheese, the hearty clink of beer mugs, then a life-affirming stroll through gorgeous scenery – the Austrians have it sussed
There was something extremely satisfying – and extremely Austrian – about padding around the public parts of a cosy hotel in bathrobe and slippers, legs tingling and lungs refreshed from a vigorous day in the mountains.
Having left my room for the ‘wellness’ area, I decided against the naked-only sauna (I wasn’t feeling that Austrian) and slid instead into the indoor pool where, on the counter-lap, I was swimming straight into the Alps, thanks to the panoramic windows. After some low-level paddling and a herbal tea it was a quick change before a six-course feast, a glass of local red and an early night with a stack of maps, tracing the route I’d be following the next day.
Hiking’s great: the fresh air, the hills, the justified extra eating. But this was something else. I’d come to Austria, two hours’ drive just south of Salzburg, where – thanks to a network of walker-friendly hotels – you can luxury hike: maps provided, luggage chauffeured ahead, soft beds and pools. And I was loving it.
Leaving Mallnitz the day before, Mrs Alber-Haub, my hostess, had handed me a packed lunch and a pair of snow shoes “just in case”. The sky was gloomy but the larch-covered slopes still looked handsome as I followed the track up.
I was being well led – the path was first hewn by Roman traders and was still doing a good job of wending up to the pass at 2,448m, now marked by an icicle-dripped mountain hut. Along the way, not only had the snow finches and shrieking marmots come out to play, but so had the sun; from the top of the pass I had a sparkling view of an awful lot of snowy Alps, rippling off in multiple directions.
The following descent was just as dazzling, zig-zagging from above the tree line into the green valley below. A few cottages were releasing wisps of woodsmoke and enticing smells; by the time I reached the bus stop for the short ride to Bad Hofgastein it was all too much and I had to stop for a hot chocolate and a pear schnapps – it felt like the proper way to toast the mountains.
After that the Hotel Zum Stern’s panoramic pool was the icing on an already tasty cake. I was being spoilt.
So it was almost justified when the next morning dawned grey and misty.
“Beautiful day!” declared hotelier Hans Schwaiger at breakfast. As his family have lived here for 160 years I was a little disappointed by his inability to assess the weather.
But, of course, Hans was right. Once I started my ascent I emerged from the low bank of fog that had nestled into the valley like transient Polyfilla and found his beautiful day – cloudless, blue, absolutely spectacular.
I could hear woodpeckers hammering on trees and the wing beats of passing ravens; patches of snow were flecked with deer-like prints – their ownership revealed when, after an hour of peaceful, upward walking, I looked down into a side valley and counted 19 chamois.
Following the signs – as clear and efficient as you’d expect Austrian hiking signs to be – I soon reached my day’s highpoint, physically and visually. From the top of the Gamskarkogel (2,467m) I felt I could see every Alp. A wooden cross, common on the country’s peaks, stood encrusted with windswept ice – a dramatic place to commune with the Maker. It being chilly, I decided to commune in the adjacent hut instead.
Bonhomie burst out as I pulled open the door – a comforting fug of warm air, laughter and meaty soup. I bashed the snow off my boots and went inside; my German is poor but I still felt the camaraderie. It was a struggle to leave.
But leave I must, down the opposite hillside, bounding past poisonous iron-hat plants and snuffling marmots. Part walking, part skidding, I skirted a cluster of small lakes and left behind the snow for larch and pine forest, where cranberries grew and lizards basked. A wooden cabin sat in the sunshine; I was going to walk by but a man on the doorstep beckoned me in.
The smell was overwhelming. Shelves stacked with pungent rounds of cheese lined the pantry where the man was now slicing bread and cured meat. I knew that a big dinner would be on the cards that evening – but I couldn’t resist. Soon I was clinking beer glasses with a family of hikers in the dining room next door as we shared a platter of delicious homemade cheese.
When I eventually made it to Grossarl, home of my final hotel, I found my rucksack waiting in my room; there was another pool, another vast meal. Just before turning in, I wandered outside; the air was crisp and I could just make out the church steeple in the moonlight. I could get used to this, I mused. I still wasn’t prepared to get naked in the sauna (especially not after that much cheese) but, with these mountains, the hearty dinners, the comfy beds – I reckoned the Austrians had it pretty much sussed.