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Austria: Behind the Mountains

From RoadRUNNER Magazine - January/February 2018 Issue

Text & Photography: Uwe Krauss

It’s slightly decadent. Plenty of fur jackets and expensive purses and a poodle wearing a blue-and-white striped “vest.” If a chic crowd fits in anywhere, it’s here, in the oldest of Austria’s coffeehouses, the Café Tomaselli, in Salzburg. And I’m enjoying it. Not because of the fur jackets, not even because of the coffee, as warm and welcoming as its Italian name suggests. The unique ambience of a real Austrian coffeehouse justifies spending six dollars for a cup of coffee—so many chandeliers, mirrors, and gold—but no, it’s not the dazzling décor either. I’m enjoying it mainly because of all the characters about, starting with the waiters. Every single movement is a display of practiced perfection, and each of their faces bear the same amusing expression of disdain. At a neighboring table, a man with John Lennon glasses and a Ché Guevara cap is writing his memoirs (at least that’s my suspicion). He seems a fixture, like he’s been writing in that spot for the last 40 years. And at the window table, three elderly ladies with glaring red lip gloss bend together like conspirators to mock the poodle’s haircut.

Sophisticated Salzburg is definitely worth a visit. Even more so when combined with a down-to-earth tour of the mountains that rise steeply behind the city limits. Through the Lammer Gorge (Lammerklamm), I approach Lake Hallstatt. Alexander von Humboldt, the noted explorer and polymath, once described the village of Hallstatt as the most beautiful location on a lake in the world; and after coming around the last corner of the coastal road, carved into the vertical rock face looming over it, I’m inclined to believe him.

“Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery”

The steep Dachstein Mountains behind the town left little room for habitation beside the turquoise waters. Still, there are some lovely houses covering that narrow slope, and others that rest on pilings sunk into the lake. Before 1875, when a road was carved out of the rock, Hallstatt could only be reached by water or over the ice in the winter. More recently, Hallstatt so impressed Chinese investors that a complete, full-sized replica of the village was built in 2012. Hallstatt #2 is now a suburb of Huizhou in the Chinese province of Guangdong. Many Chinese people still want to see the original, however, and the village clearly benefits from their tourism.

The entrance to Hallstatt was exciting, but the exit is even better. A 23-degree climb takes me up to the municipality of Gröbming and on to the top of the mountain Stoderzinken: eight miles of single-lane road which covers a 3,500-foot change in elevation in the most spectacular manner. During that very technical ride I just don’t have the time to enjoy the view of the surrounding ranges. I have to wait for that until I get up to the top where the Steinerwirt restaurant offers some of the best views in Austria—and probably some of the best cheese dumpling soup anywhere.

The Witches Castle

On the downhill ride, I take it easy. It’s just a warm-up for the Sölk Pass, a very little traveled crossing of the Lower Tauern range that begins with an easy winding road in the valley before it climbs via half a dozen hairpins above the treeline and then down the other side in the same way. Passage through the immaculate villages at the bottom is but a short interlude before a challenging 15-mile ascent to an alpine lake, the Prebersee. Suddenly the fir forest opens onto an extensive view of its black water. And it wouldn’t be Austria if there wasn’t a small establishment perfectly located to take advantage of the sight (in this case, the Ludlalm restaurant). Only threatening skies could chase me from this heavenly place and they do no sooner than I’m sitting down with a cappuccino I’d wanted to savor. Hurriedly I drain my cup and pay the bill, and then the race is on to my hotel, the Grizzly Resort, as the dark fall storm closes in behind. It’s no contest for the KTM and soon, with the day almost done, I’m relaxing in a cedar-wood sauna, looking out on a wide view of the rain arriving in the Lungau Valley, and feeling that a touch of Salzburg decadence is sometimes deserved in the mountains too.

Moosham Castle, on the other side of the valley, is also known as The Witches Castle, a name it acquired during the Salzburg Witch Trials, when thousands of people were rounded up and held there between 1675 and 1690. Over 100, the majority men, were executed at the castle, and many more were tortured and imprisoned behind its gloomy walls. Understandably, the place is said to be haunted, and today it’s open to the public as a museum displaying 2,000 exhibition pieces, most notably those antique tools of pain and disfigurement.

Steep Grades and Roasted Pork with Dumplings

The alpine valley of the Lungau drains into the Mur, and the road I’m on runs beside the river’s lively course until I turn for the Turracher Höhe Pass. The densely forested route, about 13 miles, opens out at the top of the pass to reveal a picturesque ski resort with a number of runs branching off above Lake Turrach. Down the other side a sign seems to command engagement of first gear. Maybe for snowy conditions, I think, smiling conceitedly—and then so quickly, caught out in surprise and near panic, I’m no longer smiling after surviving (thank you, ABS) the slick descent. It’s certainly one for the memory banks, and it’s best to remember: When Austrians post a warning about the steepness of a grade, they clearly mean it!

The open pastoral landscape one encounters after the pass, in the province of Kärnten, is a calming antidote. But now that my blood pressure is under control, I’m here for the mountain roads and the next one, the Nockalm Road, is among the finest in the world. Fifty-two switchbacks spread along 20 miles constitute the most perfect motorcycle parcours imaginable. Not just a road, it’s a race course hotly curving into the mountains of the Nockberge National Park. And above the treeline, at Nockalm’s highest point (6,700 feet), the views of Austria’s highest mountain, the snow-covered Grossglockner, are amazing.

Several restaurants at the top look inviting, but taking a tip from another motorcyclist, I head instead for the rustic and beautiful setting of the Priesshütte, a wooden hut where the chef cooks over an open wood fire. The drinks are chilled in the creek running through the property, and though the pork roast with dumplings is the only hot meal offered, the absence of other choices is soon forgotten after that first incredible bite.

The First Porsche 356 was Produced Here

The perfect asphalt of the Nockalm Road spoils me, and it saddens me when it’s over, as I ride up on road-construction equipment partially blocking my way in Innerkrems. They have a lot of work ahead of them and the broken surface of the single lane is bad enough to challenge the KTM’s suspension. But only for a couple of miles. When I reach the province of Salzburg, it’s relatively smooth again, although I can’t travel much faster. The road is still just wider than a car and intermittently sharing patches of that space with free-roaming cattle complicates matters a bit.

Back in the Lungau Valley, Katschberg Pass leads me across the Tauern Range. The downhill side is really steep again, but this time I’m prepared, and the 23-degree slope doesn’t trip me up. I roll down as far as Gmünd, one the oldest towns in Austria, which has a distinctly Mediterranean vibe to it. There are galleries and artist studios in the narrow alleys, and an impressive hilltop castle where you’ll find an interesting private car museum close by. It’s hard to imagine, but here in this isolated spot, the first Porsche car was produced. In 1944, fleeing Stuttgart during the war, the company relocated in these mountains. At first, they built lumbering agricultural machines; however, in March 1948 the first Porsche 356 was constructed and then tested on Katschberg Pass. Back then, the grade was even more severe, sloping 32-degrees, and it ranked as one of the steepest roads in Europe. No wonder sports cars come with decent brakes.

Gmünd, sitting at the entrance of the Malta Valley, features a little traveled dead-end road leading to Austria’s largest dam (700 feet high and 2,000 feet wide). I give it a try and wind up breathing the alpine air at 6,000 feet and enjoying a fantastic view of Ankogel (10,700 feet), the second-highest peak in the High Tauern range.

After my ride through the huge Möll River valley, Grossglockner, the king of all Austrian mountains waits to be conquered. The highest, most famous road in the country, the Grossglockner Hochalpenstrasse goes right past it. A side road near the toll-booth entrance to the national park takes me to a viewpoint of the Pasterze Glacier. I was here 20 years ago and much has changed. The amount of glacial retreat is astonishing. And sadly, the only thing that has grown is the parking lot. Fortunately, the Grossglockner peak still towers above at an altitude of 12,460 feet. Climbers who make it to the top, about 5,000 a year, are amply rewarded on sunny days with views that extend all the way north to Germany and south to the plains of Italy. And for riders turning off the Hochalpenstrasse toward the Edelweissspitze, the highest point in Austria that can be reached on a motorcycle, there’s a comparable adrenaline rush. After climbing a mile over six cobblestone switchbacks, I’m treated to a 360-degree view of magnificent surroundings: 37 peaks soaring above 10,000 feet. When the road was built in 1934, 19 glaciers could be seen; today, only a couple remain.

Naturally, a small restaurant waits for anyone wishing to prolong the excitement, and the coffee is almost as good as the brew Café Tomaselli serves in Salzburg—although the scenery here is infinitely better.

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