The Hills are Alive!

Gunter performed a graceful plié as he remarked on the airiness of his trachten, Austria’s traditional dress. ‘Not too cold and not too hot’, he said, grinning with his hands in his pockets and a gentle bend of his knees. Mozart stood in bronze behind, a displeased face looking down on our guide, though somewhat hypocritical: whilst one of the world’s most gifted composers he was by all accounts hyperactive, cheeky and troublesome.

Salzburg’s welcome was melodic and charming, from the peaks ‘alive with the sound of music’ rising high out of view as we landed, to the merry locals who’s musical chatter softly filled the air like cinnamon at Christmas. Ironically, few Austrians know the phenomena that is The Sound of Music, few aside that is from the Aicher family who have grown a business from daily performances of the hit show and film (www.marionetten.at). 50 puppets and one disproportionately large nun (the only human on-stage actor) perform this bizarrely realistic shortened version. Initially pessimistic, by act two the strings faded into the background and the nun seemed somewhat smaller, as I found myself engrossed.

The puppets were the most energetic distraction in Salzburg. Walking through Residence Square – a magnificent forecourt between the two residential palaces of the archbishops of Salzburg – leisurely coffees were enjoyed as horse and carts used the central fountain to change course; a social dance performed to the harmonies of the Mozart-in-Residenz performers warming up their strings. Boarding a steep funicular we were hauled up the side of Hohensalzburg Fortress, Europe’s largest completely preserved fort, to a 360-degree view of the city – and one not to be missed. Eerie Alpine ranges surrounded expanses of lush flatland, and modern day Salzburg from above was reduced to small village clusters, quaint cobbled streets and relaxed squares majestically paraded by daily life. (accommodation: [eafl id=”1682″ name=”Slazburg Hotel” text=”Hotel Elefant”])

The view from Salzburg's fort

Graz

The next stop was the orange roofed city and gastronomic heartland, Graz. The four-hour journey by train sweeps by, as rolling passes and pine-cloaked mountains lurch out from the tracks. The glory of rail travel strikes most I feel when you cover large scenic distances without seeing a single road. Gratification and unapologetic smugness can be drawn from the fact that your mode of transport was by far the most rewarding. Still to the west of Austria, we were in ski country. Wooden lodges dotted the landscape with swooping pistes interjecting. It was the middle of June so the season was over. Previously defined edges were now bursting with new plant life and overflowing forest, creating a picture of a hundred shades of greens, blues and yellows.

After checking into the urban-funky [eafl id=”1683″ name=”Hotel Daniel Graz” text=”Hotel Daniel”] , we headed to the best viewpoint in Graz, atop Schlossberg hill. If you survive the 260 steps you’re rewarded with an incredible panoramic view of the skyline. Thousands of clay tiles create an almost floating canopy above the city, and the small narrow architecture of the older buildings and streets become most apparent. The Aiola restaurant here is a must visit (www.aiola.at)  – serving some of the best Austrian dishes – and ready to refill the calories lost en-route! If steps aren’t for you there is a lift. Having been used as an air raid shelter during WWII the hill is virtually hollow, and €1 will take you right through the middle!

I only had the pleasure of Graz for 24 hours, narrowly missing out on a visit to the much talked about farmers market (every Saturday). But my last stop, Vienna, wouldn’t wait and clear blue skies lit our path along the Semmering railway line, the oldest mountain line in Europe. Built between 1848 and 1854 it didn’t follow the highway or any logical ‘easy’ surface, instead, it carved its way through undulating mountains and across high stone bridges stilted over deep valleys and gorges. The scenery was dramatic, and one for which the cloudy plumes of a chugging steam locomotive a century ago could only have enhanced.

Graz rooftops

Vienna

Located along the banks of the River Danube, Vienna, once the heart of the sprawling Habsburg empire, has retained its rich artistic and regal charm. High ornate buildings shine in this clean and fresh city, with St Stephen’s Cathedral and its intricate detail standing tall above the rooftops. Regal and romantic, this city is worthy of at least three days to fully explore…but, let me tell you about the gin!

Sadly there was nothing Austrian about it, but having asked for a G&T, with the waiter replying ‘Would you like a pink one?’, the answer had to be yes. “Not too sweet, not too sour, just too… pink!” – the line from that musical goes! It was a new one for me but was absolutely delicious, and far too drinkable. However, the star here was really the food, and the acclaimed Huth Stadtkrug restaurant (www.huth-stadtkrug.at). A Viennese original with almost a century of history, the cuisine is authentic with a modern twist. Thick and creamy pumpkin soup preceded succulent braised knuckle of lamb, with vegetables and polenta – a delicious cornmeal based source. Austria isn’t about big bold spices or whacky combinations, it’s about good traditional food, sourced locally and cooked to perfection – an ethos that tastes as good as it sounds.

After devouring a cake stand heaving with Austrian desserts, it was time to head back to the hotel. My time in Austria had come to an end. A little quicker than I had hoped, but, without wanting to quote another famous Austrian export – “I’ll be back”.

Veinna


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Accommodation

Salzburg: My accommodation here was down a small little side straight in the beautiful 14th century [eafl id=”1682″ name=”Slazburg Hotel” text=”Hotel Elefant”]. Small and independent feel, very centrally located (near the main square) and an Irish bar around the corner!

Graz: With Vespa Motorcycles parked up and a weird looking ‘honeymoon pod’ perched on the rooftop, [eafl id=”1683″ name=”Hotel Daniel Graz” text=”Hotel Daniel”] is quite proudly alternative – and I embraced it. From £63 per room per night, it’s comfortable, a little different, and well located for your stay in Graz.

Vienna: Vienna was a real highlight when it came to accommodation. Courtesy of the Austrian Tourism board I stayed in the [eafl id=”1684″ name=”Grand Hotel Vienna” text=”Grand Hotel Wien”] . Frequented by pop stars, celebrities, and politicians alike, my suite was true five-star luxury! Not what I would book myself out of choice but if you’re looking for something exceptionally extra special – check it out!

For more information about Austria go to http://www.austria.info/uk

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