The Salzkammergut

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The Salzkammergut

The lake district of the Salzkammergut is one of the most scenic areas in the Alps. Emperor Franz-Josef called it an earthly paradise. There are 76 lakes, and mountains reaching 8,500 feet. There are popular and stylish health resorts and picture-postcard villages. In winter the Salzkammergut has 21 ski lifts and cable cars. In summer, it comes into its own as a hiking and water sports centre. All year round, the visual impact is wonderful. It comes within the province of Oberösterreich. The Salzkammergut divides fairly easily into two halves: north of Bad Ischl where the biggest of the lakes are and south of it where the highest mountains are. This excursion takes the northern route. The roads can be narrow and winding.

The word "Salzkammergut" is difficult to translate but means something like "Salt Stronghold" or "Salt Treasury." Today salt mining is only a minor activity here but it used to be the key to the whole region and, more importantly, to the city of Salzburg itself. Salzburg grew rich on the profits of salt because the area of the Salzkammergut belonged to the prince-archbishopric so all taxation passed into the coffers of the city. In fact, in this region salt was so plentiful and easily extracted and thereby so potentially profitable that the authorities had the Salzkammergut closed to visitors and settlers to prevent any salt being smuggled out untaxed. It remained in this quarantined state until the early C19. Then, when people started to become interested both in the curative properties of the saline waters of the lakes and in the region's scenic beauty, the Salzkammergut began to assume its new identity as a holiday paradise. (For more information about salt, see Berchtesgaden notes).

Mondsee  This is the entrance to the Salzkammergut. It presents a beautiful picture as you approach it from the motorway. In the town, also called Mondsee, the parish church with the big baroque facade is where Maria and Captain von Trapp get married in the film. The name Mondsee means "moon lake" - the lake is shaped more or less like a crescent moon. The waters are fairly warm so it is popular for swimming and water sports.

There is a local legend about the creation of the lake and the town. Originally there was no lake, just a fertile valley in the centre of which was a huge castle. The local farmers and villagers were God-fearing people but the prince was cruel and exploitative and irreligious. One night the Virgin Mary appeared to the local priest urging him to tell the locals to get away quickly if they wanted to survive the divine judgment on the prince. They ran to the shore where the town of Mondsee stands now. The prince stayed, mocking their superstition. And then a storm came and a terrible flood, and the castle was swallowed up in the waters. Even today, it seems, you can sometimes see the old church steeple beneath the water and hear the screams of the drowning prince.

Follow the Mondsee all the way along its eastern side to Au and then right towards St. Gilgen. The Schafberg mountain (6,000 feet) borders the lake to the south. The low pass before St. Gilgen gives beautiful views on to St. Wolfgangsee.

St. Wolfgangsee  This is one of the loveliest lakes in the Salzkammergut with deep blue waters. The mountain on its north side is the Schafberg again with a hotel and restaurant 6,000 feet up on the summit. On the south side is the slightly smaller Zw√∂lferhorn. St. Gilgen, like Strobl at the far end of the lake, is a pleasant resort town. Mozart's mother was born here. On the opposite shore is the gorgeous old pilgrimage town of St. Wolfgang. This is where the rack railway leaves for the Schafberg summit. Paddle steamers cross the lake to reach the town.

The story of St. Wolfgang is very appealing. He came to this spot seeking peace and tranquillity. He soon gained a reputation for good works among the locals. Consequently he upset the devil who tried to kill him by tearing bits off the mountains and hurling them at him. But the devil failed a number of times and eventually gave up on killing Wolfgang, offering instead to help him build a church on the condition that he could have the soul of the first pilgrim who came to the church. Wolfgang agreed and the church was completed within a day. The devil waited patiently but nobody turned up. And then evening came and a large wolf ambled up and walked through the door. Wolfgang fulfilled his promise and the devil, furious, disappeared forever. You can clearly see the tall, white tower of the pilgrim church dominating the little town.

On the shores of the Wolfgangsee are the green mountain slopes where Maria and the kids frolic and gambol in the opening scene of The Sound of Music.

Bad Ischl  13,000 inhabitants, the heart of the Salzkammergut, at the junction of the rivers Ischl and Traun. It is still a very popular resort. Its glory days, though, were the C19. In 1828 Princess Sophie came here to take the waters in an attempt to cure her infertility. One year later she had a son, the future Emperor Franz-Josef. As an adult Franz-Josef came back here every year in the summer on a sort of pilgrimage and made Bad Ischl one of the most fashionable resorts in Europe. Where the Emperor went, everybody who mattered in Austrian society followed. They came for the views, for the salt cures, the entertainment, the hunting and the high society. Remnants of this C19 imperial grandeur are still abundant in the town: the Kaiserpark and Kaiservilla, the Kaisertherme and the Trinkhalle and the Kurhaus, the Esplanade and its continuation the Pfarrgasse with sedate and stylish shops and cafes.

From Bad Ischl you follow the valley of the river Traun north to the Traunsee and then skirt the lake to Gmunden at the north end before rejoining the Salzburg-Vienna motorway. The river valley is known as the Traun Corridor since it forms a natural passage through the mountains. It used to be one of the major salt routes. The range to the left is the Hollengebirge, Hell Mountains, and to the right the Totesgebirge, Death Mountains.

Traunsee  This is the last of the lakes on this excursion. It is the deepest lake in Austria at 630 feet. All along the eastern shore are rocky mountain crags averaging about 5,000 feet. The corniche between Ebensee and Traunkirchen is stunningly dramatic. Beyond Traunkirchen the landscape is much softer and more gentle. At the southern end of the lake the town of Ebensee is partly industrial, with saltworks and chemical factories. Traunkirchen is tiny and lovely. Altmunster is where Wagner wrote Tristan and Isolde.

Gmunden  The largest town on the lake with 13,000 inhabitants. This is an old town with connections to the salt trade stretching back to the middle ages. The view from the esplanade is superb, taking in the beach, the mountain bizarrely known as "Die Schlafende Griechin" (the sleeping Greek woman) and the picturesque castle in two parts: its Landschloss on the mainland and Seeschloss with the chapel on an island in the lake. This castle was bought in 1878 by a nephew of Emperor Franz-Josef who lived here under the pseudonym of Johann Ort. Years later he claimed to know the truth of what happened at Mayerling to Archduke Rudolf and Maria (see Vienna Woods Excursion) but he disappeared in unexplained circumstances on a cruise in South America without ever having told anybody.

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