Friday 31 March 2017

Bad For Good: Part 2

Day 3 – Grune Baum to Prossau and back to Bad Gastein

10.00 miles

By now, we were getting the geography of the valley and the transport options a little clearer in our minds. There are lots of ski buses, which walkers aren’t able to use, but also a good service bus timetable, with major routes running along the length of the valley and side services from each of the main towns.

The service buses are half price using the Gastein Card (which is free from hotels) which made most journeys about €1.20 (about £1.00). This is good value: there is a walkers’ pass available covering all buses and ski lifts, but its €89 per person, and unless you intend to use the lifts a minimum of 4 times return, it doesn’t pay off (although it might do in the summer – there looks to be plenty of walking in the area). So, we would recommend pay-as-you-go as the most cost-effective way of paying for transport during the ski season.

Anyway, we caught the 9.15am bus to Bas Gastein and had a quick look around some gear shops before catching a connecting service to Grune Baum at the entrance of the Kotschachtal valley.

Grune Baum

Looking along the Kotschachtal valley

It was immediately clear that it was much quieter here. Once past the stop for the Graukogel lift there is no skiing in the valley, and for the first time we got a real sense of peace and quiet.

Following the track through the valley

We followed a wide track through the steep-sided valley, with wooded slopes to either side and occasional glimpses of the higher summits beyond. Before long, we passed into the Hohe Tauern Nation Park – Austria’s largest National Park, and home to its highest mountain, the Grossglockner, only a few miles away as the crow flies, but hours away by road.

Entering the Hohe Tauern National Park

Rain had been forecast, but pretty much kept off all day. In fact, there was sunshine from time to time, and with the relatively warm temperatures, it felt at times more spring-like than wintery.

Sunshine and snow, a winning combination

Shadow on the snow

After a gentle climb of around an hour and a half, we reached the Alpenhaus Prossau. Rather surprisingly, we found it open. Inside, temptation was put in front of us in the form of a naughty-looking menu and a lovely smell of baking.

Alpenhaus Prossau

We resisted, but only for a few seconds. Then our will-power melted as quickly as the ice cream on two delicious helpings of hot strudel (complete with whipped cream, vanilla sauce and a shot of liqueur for that extra-warming touch). Glorious! Well, it was Shrove Tuesday, and it would have been disrespectful not to celebrate it. In fact, I seem to remember hearing that there’s an EU directive compelling foreign visitors to eat cake/pastries/puddings* on Shrove Tuesday in Europe – it’s the law! (* delight as applicable).

Suitably fortified, we headed back towards Grune Baum on what was now a much busier track. The sun was out and the snow melting as we reached the village. After a brief coffee stop, we picked up the Kaiser-Wilhelm-Promenade back towards Bad Gastein, which offered level walking and good views over the valley and town.

View down the Gastein Valley from the Kaiser-Wilhelm-Promenade

About 100m before the stop we saw a bus pull away. Not to worry, though: they are frequent enough, so we caught the next one and were soon back in Bad Hofgastein.

Waterfall in Bad Gastein

Shrove tide is time for celebration in Austria, and as we made our way back to the hotel we were confronted with the sight of clowns playing brass band music. Not people fooling around with tubas, you understand, but actual big-haired, baggy-trousered, badly-made-up creepy clowns, with all the proper instruments, and trombones.

Sadly, or maybe not so sadly for the Coulrophobics amongst you, we were too stunned and disconcerted to take any pictures of this weird phenomenon.

Day 4 – Around Bad Gastein

9.25 miles

And then this …..

Early morning, March 1st. White Rabbit!

We awoke this morning to find it had snowed overnight. Not much, but it did now look a lot more like the winter wonderland we had hoped for.

Our option was to stay close to Bad Gastein and wander to some of the nearby points, eschewing the need to compete for bus seats and valuable oxygen with the newly excited skiing crowd.

The new snow would only last so long. With the temperature firmly stuck at a balmy “above zero” figure, even as we set off, the trees were beginning to shed lumps of wet snow on our heads.

Bad Hofgastein in the snow

The first part of our plan was to walk from the town centre up the east side of the valley, making our way via paths and minor roads to a vantage point over the town from where great views were to be had.

On the path towards the Cafe Sonnberg 

On reaching the road, we turned south and followed it to an old water-driven flour mill and nearby communal oven. 

What appeared to be a communal oven

Although we could only see inside through the gaps in the wooden walls, it gave a good insight into how the mill operated using variable water flow to adjust the speed of the wheel.

Rauchberg Muhle

Useless, old millstone, plus the thing
that used to turn the wheat into flour

The waterwheel speed could be adjusted
by how much water was directed to it

The road beyond the mill was closed. Had we been able to continue, we could have joined the Gasteiner Hohenweg that runs to Bad Gastein. So we turned back, retracing our steps to the Café Sonnberg and following the road upwards.

Beyond the Annencafe, the road was again closed, so we decided to pop in for a coffee before making our way down to Bad Hofgastein again on largely the same paths as before.

Heading back down into town, with sunshine breaking through

The clock struck midday as we reached level ground again and sauntered through the streets on the north side of town. A quick stop for lunch things at the Hofer supermarket (Aldi equivalent in Austria) proved interesting, then we walked on to cut through some houses and eventually pick up the riverside path.

We stopped for a quick bite. Our current sandwich of choice is cheese and ham, the choice of cheese this time being some of the most >ahem< “robust” we had ever bought! We had to consign the remainder to outside on the balcony.

View from the second lunch stop in Weiden

However, even it couldn’t deter the cold wind that had decided to scythe through the valley at that particular moment, so we hurried on. Doubling back on ourselves, we turned for home through the small village of Wieden, where we stopped for the rest of our lunch – this time, in warm sunshine.

Crossing the Gasteiner Ache on the way back into town

It was then just a half hour or so back to the hotel, taking a slightly roundabout way through town on the way, before settling in for our evening routine.

Thursday 30 March 2017

Bad For Good: Part 1

By late February, Christmas is something of a distant memory – or at least it should be. But if you are anything like us then there may well be some unwelcome reminders of the festivities still lingering – namely, those few extra pounds that the best-of-resolutions has resolutely failed to shift.

And although spring is not far away, the short days and long nights, grey skies and cold make it appear a very long way off. It can be hard to get motivated to even go outside, let alone walk for hours, when it’s pouring with rain or sleeting horizontally, so a break from such seasonal blues is really welcome.

In recent years, we have taken to having a winter holiday in the Alps. Pick the right time, and there are some quite good deals to be had on skiing packages.

Bad Hofgastein

Not that we have any real intention of skiing, mind. It’s just that we get a base in the mountains for a week and a chance to walk, relax, catch up on reading, enjoy some local hospitality and re-charge the batteries for a while – something of a detox prior to the busier spring and summer months, and a chance to boost fitness again.

This year we plumped for Bad Hofgastein, a small town in the Gastein valley that lies roughly due south of Salzburg. It’s quite a well-known skiing area, and there are some good summer paths in the area such as sections of the Salzburger Almenweg and excursions to the adjacent summits.

We had barely crossed the threshold of our chosen accommodation before being asked if we would mind swapping to another hotel – they had overbooked.

“It’s nice”, they said, “a bigger room, with a south-facing balcony”.

“A free upgrade”, we thought? Oh, go on, then …..

Hotel Das Gastein, Bad Hofgastein

Das Gastein is indeed a nice hotel. Having settled in briefly, we went for a quick orientation tour of the town, picking up lunches, maps and timetables as we went – all we needed, in fact, for the next day’s walk. It was a warm, sunny afternoon – great for relaxing, and a good omen, we hoped as we pored over the maps, for the week to come.

Day 1 – Bad Hofgastein to Angertal skistation and on to Bad Gastein

10.50 miles

After a gloriously sunny afternoon yesterday, Sunday morning dawned under a swathe of cloud. Setting off just before 9.00am, we briefly followed the river before setting off across the valley and climbing the hillside towards Angertal.

Weitmoser Schlossl, Hundsdorf

Our aim had been to follow one of the marked winter walking paths described in the leaflet we had collected yesterday. But due to the lack of snow, more paths were available than expected, and we ended up on clear, well-signed but wrong paths out of Hundsdorf.

A plethora of paths, but are we on the right one?

In the words of The Waterboys, we went “too high, too far, too soon”. No matter, though: traversing the hillside, we worked our way into the Angertal, spying a Greater Spotted Woodpecker and a flock of Greenfinches as we did so.

Looking back to Bad Hofgastein

Once the gradient had lessened, the going was easy, and it wasn’t too long before we hit the road on the way in to the Skizentrum Angertal, a hub for downhillers in this high valley, surrounded by a cluster of 2000 meter peaks.

The ski station is typical of its kind – busy, with impersonal canteen-style service and lots of stiff-booted skiers clumping around. We stopped for drinks and contemplated our next move.

Drinks at the Skizentrum Angertal

The instructions in the winter walking leaflet were scant but apparently clear: follow the ski run before turning for Hartlgut. However, we soon found out that didn’t mean the ski run with all the skiers coming down it. No, it meant the other ski run – the one with no skiers. Or ski tracks ....

Not to worry. Having been angered in Angertal for a while, we back-tracked a little way and finally intuited the right route.

A quiet place for lunch in the woods

Shortly afterwards, we found a handy bench for our lunch. Sitting in the quiet of the woods, away from other folks and suitably replete, suddenly all was well with the world again.

The Erzherzog-Johann-Promenade


Continuing downhill, we reached the Jausenstation Hartlgut and picked up the Erzherzog-Johann-Promenade, a contour path that led towards Bad Gastein with some nice glimpses across the valley. After another brief stop for food and drink, we made a final short descent into the town and caught the bus back to Bad Hofgastein.

Main street, Bad Gastein

It wasn’t late – only mid-afternoon, in fact – but part of our holiday plan was to have some time for rest and relaxation, something we both desperately needed. As well as all the usual early-year stuff to contend with, such as a busy work schedule for each of us, we’d sadly lost my father in January.

In what would become our regular afternoon and evening schedule, we read, relaxed, played Scrabble and went for dinner, then took a short stroll round town afterwards to help the meal settle.

Floodlit curling

Day 2 – Bad Hofgastein to Klammstein

10.50 miles

After the nice but slightly off-piste route of yesterday, we decided to tackle something a bit more straightforward today. The skies were a bit clearer, the cloud a shade higher, and the weather promised well, but all we wanted a simple route that was easy to find and obvious to follow, with a re-invigorating source of cake at the half-way point.

So, we set off through town on the riverside path, heading north beside the Gasteiner Ache, essentially just following the valley. Beyond the town, we crossed the main road and continued past the villages of Wieden and Breitenburg on the riverside path. A dipper, defending its territory, chuntered at us as we walked past, but otherwise it was quiet and peaceful as the sun renewed its effort to break through the cloud.

Looking back towards the town and the head of the valley

Re-crossing the main road, we then picked up what must have been the old road through the valley, following beside the main route but much quieter and far less busy. This was gentle walking on clear paths, tracks, lanes and cycle routes – all free of snow at these lower levels. Bad Hofgastein stands at approx. 850m above sea level, so for much of the winter can expect snowy conditions down in the valley. Not this week, though: snow was confined to higher altitudes.

Reedy pond and nature reserve

We stopped briefly to look inside a small chapel in Harbach, then carried on towards Dorfgastein. As we approached the town there was a short nature trail explaining the geology and natural history of the area, and we sat beside a reedy pond for a quick coffee stop.

Skies brightening

Insect hotel

By the time we reached Dorfgastein, we were getting a bit peckish. The town is a nice little place, smaller and less cosmopolitan than the other two towns, with some older buildings on display.

We pottered along the main street until we found the Information centre. Next door, a bakery tempted us inside for kaffe und kuchen (apricot pasty and a blueberry slice) which was a bit unnecessary but very nice!

Moving on, we followed a back road on the west side of the valley towards Klammstein. As with this morning’s walk, the paths and countryside were nothing special, but it was enough to just be outside in the fresh air, clearing the mind and getting a bit of exercise.

Klammstein gorge

Approaching Klammstein, we could see the castle on its steep-sided rocky promontory. The valley here is very narrow and gorge-like, and the castle located thus to guard access to it. It certainly commanded a great view, and would have been easy to defend against unwanted invaders. The castle is open on some days and houses a museum, but was closed today – unwanted invaders now kept at bay by locked gates and entry fees.

Having passed beneath the castle – quite literally, by foot tunnel – we called it a day for walking and caught the 13.52 bus back to Bad Hofgastein in time for another afternoon and evening of R&R.