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  • Merrilee MacLean

Austria – An Old Friend

Austrian countryside
The glorious Austrian countryside

People often ask which country is my favorite – there is no good way to answer that question because countries are all so different and represent varying kinds of experiences. That said, often in the back of my mind I am thinking Austria. But why? Austria is not showy like Norway or the Greek Islands or Switzerland. It is more like an “old friend” in the spirit of Simon and Garfunkel. It is predictable and dependable, courteous and welcoming, comfortable and above all, easy. It is like coming home to a home you would love to live in.

Austria doesn’t seem to be in a hurry to become something else, or worried that it is not the leader of the world. Yes, it may have peaked during the Hapsburg empire (from the 1400’s to the end of WWI), and the world may have passed it by, but Austrians don’t seem to care. They live in absolutely gorgeous physical surroundings, with mountains and lakes and green, green fields. Their houses are neat and tidy and festooned with flowers; even the cows look content. Riding on the trains through the Austrian countryside, there is an ease and comfort that is different from the breathtaking scenery of neighboring Switzerland. It is more rounded at the edges, not demanding of attention, but just comfortable in its low-keyed splendor. It is pastures and barns and tended fields interrupted by neat forests; even industrial sites are uncluttered and well-kept. There is the occasional solar panel, but it is mostly small villages centered around a church with a tall steeple. Austrian people give the impression of being hard working; friendly, but not effusive. In small towns, locals greet strangers by saying Gruess Gott as they pass in the street. Leaving a shop you still say danke and auf wiedersehen.

There is a comfort level in visiting Austria you don’t find in other countries. The main parts of the cities most people visit are essentially unchanged over the past forty years (my first visits were in 1973). Some of the train stations and airports have been upgraded, and cities have expanded out to suburbs, but a visit to the center of the towns will feel familiar – the fortress overlooking Salzburg, the golden roof in Innsbruck, the Hofburg and other imperial buildings in Vienna, all remain unchanged. Even Hallstatt, the wonderful mountain village that has recently been getting a lot of attention because of the influx of Asian visitors, still has the center square and the iconic view of the town with the mountain behind it (though the church is currently encased in scaffolding for repair).

Vienna's Sisi Museum and horse drawn carriages
The Sisi Museum, in Vienna, with horse drawn carriages

In Switzerland I recommended the smaller towns and villages over Zurich and Geneva. No reason to do that in Austria. Everyone going to Austria should see Vienna. There really is no place like it. The imperial grandeur of a bygone era is on full display, with the Hofburg, the Spanish Riding School, the Opera House, the Sisi Museum , all within easy walking distance of each other. A little farther afield, but easily reachable, are the Belvedere and Schonbrunn Palaces , with lovely gardens and statuary. Churches like St. Stephens Cathedral and St. Peter’s Church, in the center of Vienna, are both houses of worship and venues for concerts. Public transport is doable with street cars and an underground that is easy to understand, but it is a very walkable city, with broad boulevards, numerous parks, and ever present sidewalk cafes to sit and watch the world go by.

Salzburg, Mirabel gardens and Hohensalzburg Fortress
Salzburg's Mirabel gardens with Hohensalzburg Fortress overlooking the city

Salzburg , known best for its location for The Sound of Music, has changed little as well. Locations for the movie, filmed in the 1960’s, are still easy to find, and the Sound of Music tours are still best sellers. And why would you want to change anything anyway? The lake, the Mirabell gardens with the flowers, staircase where Julie Andrews hits that high C, and the little gnomish statues are a short walk from the center of town. The Hohensalzburg Fortress continues to look over the old town, and the house where Mozart was born is still tourable. Residents still dress more formally in Salzburg, and you see men in the boiled wool jackets that are seen only in Austria – indeed, they look so normal tourists buy them and then get back home wondering where in the world they will wear them. The train station has seen major improvements and upgrades after many years of construction, and as a train traveler, I think they have their priorities straight – fix up the train stations, leave the old towns and historic cities the way they were.

Innsbruck is another town that is worth a visit. Having hosted two Olympic Games (in 1964 and 1976), it has a good public transit system, but the town for tourists is so small, you can get pretty much everywhere simply walking. The old town, with its Golden Roof, has buildings going back to the 1400’s and even notes where Mozart performed as a child. The nearby Hofkirche has a wonderful collection of statues built to protect the body of Maximilian (though Maximilian is not actually buried there – he died in 1519, almost 40 years before his tomb was finished, and never made it back to Innsbruck). You will often find a group of men observing (and commenting on) a man-sized chess game in the nearby park. On a clear day, the best thing to do in Innsbruck is take the cable car up to the top of Nordkettenbahnen, over 7,000 feet straight up, for a wonderful view of the city, the Inn River, and the surrounding mountains. I remember my first trip up there, hiking away from the restaurant area for a private picnic and hearing only the bells on the mountain goats, and the wind whistling through the wings of a glider flying above us. Truly magical.

Hallstatt and boat from train station arriving in center of town
Hallstatt, with boat from train station arriving in town center

Hallstatt, a wonderful village on the shores of a mountain lake in the Salzkammergut area of Austria, has suffered the most from tourism recently, as acknowledged in a recent Washington Port article. It has long been the iconic vision of Austria. Back when posters were published for a country, Hallstatt was pictured on the Austria poster, with its small village centered around a tall steepled church, on a lake in the mountains. It was special because it allowed essentially no cars on the single street running through the town – traffic was routed through a tunnel in the mountain behind the town. My first visit was in the 80's and tourists were accepted with grace, and a Gruess Gott as you passed them on the street. Entering shops you would repeat the greeting and always say “auf wiedersehen” as you left. Alas, that small town feel is now gone, as thousands of tourists from Asia (it is estimated that there are a million tourists a year) are flocking to this town of 754 year round residents, and frankly overwhelming it during the day. But at night or early in the morning, you can still get a glimpse of what the town was like, and if you travel by train, there is no better introduction to a town than in Hallstatt. The train line runs on the other side of the lake, so when you get off the train at the Hallstatt station, there is only a small building, and a path down to the water, where you board a boat (now costing 3 Euros) to motor across the lake and arrive at a dock near the church in the center of town. Visitors to Hallstatt can visit the salt mine, rent an electric boat to cruise the lake, and investigate the church and surrounding graveyard up the hill from the center. Just look past all those tourists. Be aware, however, that many of the shops and cafes close in the late afternoon, when most of the tour buses have left.

Zell am See, looking across the lake
Zell am See, looking across the lake

Zell am See doesn’t get the attention that the other Austrian towns gets, but should. Situated in the mountains east of Innsbruck and south of Salzburg, it is a small resort town of just under 10,000 residents located on a stunning lake. A center for water sports in the summer and snow sports in the winter, it is a lovely quiet town that literally closes up shop on Sundays. On a recent gorgeous sunny Sunday afternoon in late September, we joined a number of people walking the quiet streets of the town and along the lake, with the only distractions being restaurants and ice cream shops. Even the grocery stores are closed. In today’s world of 24/7, it is a refreshing change of pace to be forced to relax a bit and just enjoy the calm of a small alpine town.

Austria is made for touring by train. The trains are all, for the most part, modern and run on time. They have computer monitors (in both German and English) on the trains identifying all the upcoming stops and when that will happen, including if the train is running late. As you arrive at a stop the monitor (and a conductor in both German and English) will announce connecting trains and which platforms those trains will be leaving from. There are monitors showing where the trains will arrive along the platform, and where first and second class cars are located. The trains have electrical outlets and there is reliable, easy to access wifi on almost all routes. If one train is running a bit late, anticipated connecting trains will generally wait on the adjoining platform to make the transition easy. And it is all done with an ease that simply doesn’t exist in other countries. Most of the stations, particularly the larger ones, are quite modern, with all the facilities one would want, including grocery stores, pharmacies, fast food outlets, and information booths. For those traveling first class, the larger stations have separate waiting rooms that are like an airline club, with a concierge, drinks, snacks, comfy seating, private bathrooms and electric outlets for charging devices. Having traveled on the trains of pretty much every country in Europe, Austrian trains are simply the best.

So, if you want an enjoyable, worry free vacation, surrounded by beautiful countryside and lovely people, keep Austria on your list. You won’t regret it.


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