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Exploring Austria like a local in delightful towns unfamiliar to most American tourists

By: Carol Sottili The Washington Post
May 14, 2017 Updated: May 14, 2017 at 6:48 am
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The Mooserboden reservoir is one of two in Kaprun, Austria, created by dam construction that began in the 1930s. MUST CREDIT: Photo by Carol Sottili for The Washington Post.

Vienna has its cafes, opulent palaces and venues for its legendary classical music scene. Salzburg attracts a crowd with all those churches and castles. But within striking distance of both are delightful corners of Austria where English speakers are rare, crowds are thinner and the gemuetlichkeit is pervasive.

My explorations of the country's lesser-known delights have been led by my Austrian-born mother and cousins who have lived in Upper Austria since birth. During my stays, they've squired me on day trips to a multitude of spots unfamiliar to most U.S. tourists but well-loved among Austrians. By the end of my most recent visit, I had come up with a top three list: The spa village of Bad Schallerbach, the Lake District town of Gmunden and the Alpine village of Kaprun.

Springs attract visitors

On a balmy Friday night in September, I threw open the oversize windows in my street-front hotel to the captivating sounds of traditional Austrian folk music. Bad Schallerbach locals sat at the outdoor cafe drinking steins of beer, laughing and talking as an accordion played in the background. The scene was the very definition of the difficult-to-translate gemuetlichkeit, an Austrian state of being that conveys friendliness, good cheer and relaxation.

The town of about 4,000 consists of only a few blocks of shops and restaurants, yet is visited by more than 400,000 each year, almost all Austrian, German and Czech.

Some come for the concerts: For more than 20 years, it has hosted a series of live shows (70 are scheduled for 2017) showcasing genres as disparate as klezmer and classical. But most make the trip for the waters. Since 1918, the town's sulfur springs have attracted those in search of a cure. Most recently, with an infusion of public dollars, it has morphed into EurothermenResort, a massive spa-themed facility.

Anchored by a luxurious 150-room hotel connected to the spa via a covered walkway, the resort is a series of indoor and outdoor pools, hot springs, waterslides and lounging areas so extensive that a first-timer can get lost.

On an early fall afternoon, one end of the resort, called Tropicana, hosted a group of young adults bellied up to the pool bar with Caribbean-style drinks in hand. Off to the side, a few lounged in smaller specialty pools infused with salt, iodine, selenium and sulfur. Covered with a towering retractable glass roof and dominated by an indoor-outdoor pool, Tropicana also sports a 5,000-gallon tropical fish aquarium and sandy beaches.

At the resort's other end, several blocks away, families with squealing children occupied Aquapulco, a pirate-themed water park with five slides and an array of sprays, buckets and fountains. Between Tropicana and Aquapulco were more pools. In one, called Colorama, visitors swam laps beneath a 16-yard-wide movie screen while listening to an underwater music system. Another large pool was populated by those who prefer swimming in the buff.

Those who like dry heat headed to an area called AusZeit das Sauna-Bergdorf (Break at the Sauna Mountain Village), which has more than 40 sauna-related facilities.

Mountains are the stars

We piled into two cars at my cousin's home in the tiny village of Krenglbach for the 40-minute drive to Gmunden, one of many scenic lakeside towns that grace Austria's Salzkammergut region. We're not strangers to this historic resort town that sits on the northern end of crystal-clear Traunsee (Lake Traun). Repeat visits never get old with the promise of a long hike along postcard-perfect trails punctuated with a lovely piece of pastry at a waterfront cafe.

On a warm October day, sailboats drifted past Schloss Ort, an island castle founded in 1080 and connected to the mainland via wooden bridge. The Gisela, a 145-year-old restored paddle steamboat, ferried sightseers along the lake. A backdrop of blue sky and towering mountains dominated by the distinctive 5,500-foot Traunstein transformed the view into something from "The Sound of Music."

After drinking in the fanciful scene during a walk along the quiet eastern edge of the town's waterfront, we headed for its newest attraction, the Grunberg Mountain cable cars, which started operating in summer 2014.

Backpack-equipped hikers gathered at the bottom of the 3,300-foot mountain while we took the easy way up via one of the two 60-person cable cars. During our ascent, a sweeping view of Upper Austria unfolded, eventually giving us far-off looks at the cities of Linz and Wels. Immediately below us, glamorous lakefront homes turned into dollhouses.

Atop the mountain, children zoomed down a red slide that starts at a lodge-style restaurant and ends at a playground. As their parents sipped sturdy beers and tucked into plates of schnitzel, the kids raced along the playground's zip wire and rope walk.

A few yards away, adventurers lined up to ride the Gruenberg Flitzer, a toboggan-on-a-rail that heads down for nearly a mile before returning via a roped ski lift.

But these man-made amenities play second fiddle to the star of the show, the surrounding mountains. Dozens of hikers, including a few wearing traditional lederhosen, traversed the miles of hiking paths that connect Grunberg Mountain to Laudachsee (Lake Laudach).

Sated by a hearty lunch of wursts and beer, we again took the easy way off the mountain via cable car.

A dark history

Fifty miles southwest of Salzburg, in the heart of the Austrian Alps, the adjacent towns of Zell am See and Kaprun draw more than 500,000 tourists annually. The ski network, offering more than 81 miles of runs, draws enthusiasts of winter sports from around the globe. In summer, visitors come to hike, bike and boat.

But my mother yearned to visit a nearby, far-less-known site that had captured her imagination decades earlier - the Kaprun dams and mountain reservoirs. While designed to provide electricity to the region, construction of Austria's version of the Hoover Dam had an unintended consequence: It created easy access to an area brimming with natural beauty.

The two dams and adjoining reservoirs - Mooserboden and Wasserfallboden - have a dark history. Started by the Nazis in 1938, the initial stages were built by thousands of prisoners of war and enslaved workers under horrible conditions; the official worker death tally is 120, but many more might have perished.

On a blue-sky day, we took the drive to Kaprun. Pulling into a parking garage after more than two hours and then walking a few yards to catch a bus outside a gift shop, I was underwhelmed. But several minutes into the first bus ride, I started to get it.

On a narrow road through rough-strewn rock tunnels, some so narrow I could have touched the walls through an open window, we were dropped off at the area's base camp. From there, we lined up for a standing spot on the open platform of the Larchwand, Europe's longest diagonal outdoor elevator.

And once released from that, we entered yet another bus, which went through more tunnels and past towering mountains, the almost artificially blue Wasserfallboden and steep hills dotted with goats, horses and cows.

When we arrived at the top dam, which sits at 6,700 feet, the panorama unfolded. Snow-capped mountains, fields of wildflowers, a lone boat plying the virescent Mooserboden reservoir and a group of schoolchildren hiking in the distance all combined to create an unreal backdrop of beauty.

We walked along the dam before heading to the mountaintop restaurant for more wursts with a view. My mother reminisced about her childhood in pre-World War II Austria. Threadbare clothes were handed down; bales of hay served as beds; and there was never a time when she wasn't hungry.

But she doesn't recall her childhood as being particularly sad. She was always surrounded by beautiful scenery and Austrian gemuetlichkeit.

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