2018-04-05 Giv'atayim, Israel
2018-04-05 Vienna, Austria
2018-04-05 St. Gallen, Austria
2018-04-06 Bad Goisern, Austria
2018-04-07 Hallstat, Austria
2018-04-07 Salzburg, Austria
2018-04-09 Berchtesgaden National Park, Germany
2018-04-09 Zell am See, Austria
2018-04-10 Kitzsteinhorn, Austria
2018-04-10 Wels, Austria
2018-04-11 Vienna, Austria
2018-04-12 Tel Aviv, Israel
2018-04-12 Giva'atayim, Israel

Overview

My Switzerland trip in November 2017 put me in an "Alpine mood", so at the end of March 2018 I said to myself "hey, Austria!\", and bought myself travel tickets to Vienna. As with the aforementioned trip, I only made arrangements for the first two nights, and planned to improvise a route in real time.

I was uncertain as to what kind of weather to expect in the Alps at this time of year. On some aspects, it turned out to be a wonderful time to travel, as the weather was very clear and the mountains were still covered by beautiful thick snow. On the other hand, the national parks and preserves of Austria were all out of season, so visitor centers and many hiking trails were closed. This did not prevent me from seeing incredible Alpine scenery, with a lot of green landscapes, clear blue lakes and rugged mountains.

Unfortunately, it seems that the "HDR" setting was enabled on my phone's camera without me noticing, and most of the pictures turned out awful.

Single-Guest Castle in the Woods

The flight out to Austria went out without a hitch, and with only a handful of passengers in the entire plane. Every passenger basically had an entire section of the plane for themselves. After landing in the Vienna Airport in the morning and picking up a rental car, I immediately started driving west, entirely skipping Vienna. I was already there for a few hours in 2017 with friends, and wasn't sure if I wanted to spend any time in the city anyway. I figured I'd have time at the end of the trip if I wanted. My target for the first day was the "Naturhotel Schloss Kassegg", a castle-turned-hotel in the woods near Sankt Gallen, and not far from the Gesäuse National Park. For some reason, my phone's GPS signal was not working, so I couldn't be using any navigation apps. Fortunately, I had the offline maps.me app, with which at least I could calculate the route I had to take. I drove for a few hours, first west in the fast-but-featureless Autobahn, and then south into the mountains, next to many rivers and some snow-capped mountains. Every once in a while I stopped to verify that I was still on the correct route. When I noticed the hotel/castle's fortifications among the woods, I was actually surprised I managed to get there without much problems.

It was a bit cold when I got there, and after checking in I went for a short walk in the woods behind the hotel. There wasn't much in the vicinity of the hotel. Sankt Gallen, the closest town, is a few minutes away by car. I was super-tired as I didn't catch any sleep the previous night, so after the short walk I drove to Sankt Gallen for some groceries, and went back to rest in the hotel. At some point I noticed that I haven't seen any guests in the hotel, only employees, and I started to suspect it was only me there. This suspicion was verified the next morning, as I stepped down to the restaurant to eat breakfast. The buffet was empty, and the tables were all not set. All except one, that was set up with various plates of meats, cheeses, vegetables and breads, and a little card with my name on it. As I sat down to eat, the hotel's cook also offered me a hot breakfast.

On the second day I drove to Gesäuse National Park. There were very little people and again, the visitor center and most of the trails were closed. I randomly hiked the first open trail I found, so I have no idea which trail it was. On the plus side, the weather was great and the views were wonderful.

A Song of Beer and Burgers

After visiting the national park, I drove towards Bad Goisern, where I booked myself a night back home. I don't really remember why I chose that location, but I'm glad I did. The drive there was pretty beautiful, with many small villages and wide green fields at the feet of the mountains. On some occasions the roads ascended high enough to see snow at the sides. I made a short detour to see the Grundlsee lake before arriving at Bad Goisern.

The town itself was pretty cool, so I walked around for a while before returning to the hotel for dinner. I entered the hotel's small bar/restaurant, where I noticed the bartender was also the receptionist who checked me in earlier. I sat at the only free seat out of the bar's four or five seats. Behind me a few more people were seated at the tables. On one of those tables, three men in traditional Bavarian clothing were sitting with musical instruments in their laps - a guitar, a trumpet and an accordion. On their table were several plates of food and tall steins of beer. The band suddenly started playing what I can only assume was a traditional Austrian song, since the other patrons joined in singing enthusiastically. Once the song was over, the band went back to grabbing a few bites of food and swigging a few gulps of beer, then launched into another song. This went on for quite a while. Probably one of the weirdest things I've ever seen in a hotel, and a wonderful surprise I simply could not expect.

The next morning in breakfast, the same receptionist/bartender/probably hotel owner seated me at one of the tables and asked me what I wanted him to prepare for me. I asked for a pastrami omelette, and he immediately pulled out a cast iron pan and started cooking. I was surprised yet again.

After breakfast I drove a short distance to a hiking trail climbing through the Dachstein mountain, heading to a cabin high up in the mountain. It was a warm day, but the trail was still very snowy. In the first 30 or 60 minutes, the path was more ice than snow, which made it quite difficult to traverse. Starting out in the woods, the path suddenly emerged into a clearing where several closed cabins were located, and a small stream was flowing strongly. I attempted to continue via the original path, but the snow was so deep I could hardly move. Instead I turned into a different path that led to the same endpoint according to the maps and appeared much more passable. It quickly reached another lonely cabin, and then started a series of switchbacks while ascending up the mountain. Eventually I reached a location where the view down towards the village and the mountains all around was simply magnificent. Unfortunately, after that this path too became difficult to tread, and I was forced to turn back before reaching the endpoint. Still, I really enjoyed the hike.

The day was still pretty young when I returned to the car, so I drove to the ridiculously beautiful village of Hallstat, yet another location I discovered via Reddit. The village is famous for its lake and the houses at its banks. I walked along the lake for a while, and then took a cable car up into the mountains. There, an old salt mine is located, along with a restaurant offering impressive views. I grabbed myself a beer there and enjoyed the view for a while, until I was ready to head back down to the village.

Once back in Hallstat, I walked along the town's very nice promenade, full of great shops, coffee houses and restaurants. The promenade is where many tourists crowd at a particular spot to take pictures of the village's houses on the banks of the lake. The internet is full of pictures taken from the exact same spot by many photographers. At the promenade, I sat at a bar for a late lunch, where I was quickly joined by a local gentleman walking his dog. Turned out he and his family were guests in Israel 15 years earlier, as a thank you for the help the family provided to Jews during the second world war.

The Friars Club

After finishing lunch and saying goodbye to my new short-term friend, I got back on the road and drove north-west to Salzburg, again through large green fields and clear blue lakes. In Salzburg, I checked in to the hotel Frauenschuh, located south of downtown. I really liked the hotel room and the location, so I extended my stay by another night, and took the bus downtown to see the city.

The next day I joined a guided tour of the city, after which I continued to travel on my own, and took the cable car up to the Salzburg Castle, a huge castle with terrific views of the city, the river Salzach and the mountains. I ate lunch in the castle, then left and walked across the river to some gardens. After that I decided to just sit for a while at the banks of the river and rest.

Later that day I drove to the Salzburg casino, itself located inside an old castle with well-kept gardens and water fountains. I don't really have any elegant clothing when I'm doing these solo trips, so I was wearing travel pants and a T-shirt. I was informed that am not properly dressed for the casino, and directed to a blazer rental booth. I put on the blazer and suddenly felt just like Jerry Seinfeld in the "Friars Club" episode, where Jerry is forced to wear a blazer at a member-only restaurant, which he forgets to return upon leaving. Like Jerry, I kinda liked it too.

I began playing Blackjack, and won close to 200 Euro within about 40 minutes. I usually like to sit at the tables for several hours, but I figured I should probably get out before I lose those earnings. I left the casino, making sure I was returning the blazer, and even received a gift of some wine cans, chocolates and a card deck.

A Quick Hop to Germany

Before reaching Salzburg, I thought I might be able to continue west and reach Munich. Eventually I realized it would not leave me enough time for the journey back to Vienna, so instead I decided to drive to Germany's Berchtesgaden National Park, very close to the Austrian border. It is Germany's only national park in the Alps, and home to the "Eagle's Nest" (Kehlsteinhaus), an official building of the Nazi party erected at the top of a mountain in 1938. The park was also conveniently located, such that if I drive south-west through it I'll actually cross back into Austria and be able to reach Zell am See, which I also wanted to check out.

On April 9 I drove to Berchtesgaden, not the park, the town close to it. I was impressed with how beautiful the town was. The park's visitor center is also located there, so I stopped there to get some hiking recommendations. I was advised to drive to the northern tip of Konigssee lake, a large lake in the heart of the park. A very small touristic village is located there, with a few hotels, restaurants and souvenir stores. The Eagle's Nest was easily recognizable from there, far up in the mountains, and telescopes were also available for closer looks.

From Konigssee I boarded a ferry headed to a point on the western side of the lake, where St Bartholomew's Church is located, and where I could find a nice hiking trail. Aboard the ferry a German-speaking guide was making everybody but me laugh. In the middle of sailing, the ferry suddenly stopped, and the guide took out a trumpet, opened the boat's loading door and started playing a tune, possibly the German anthem. The sounds of the trumpet echoed loudly off the walls of the encircling mountains.

After dismounting at the church, I started hiking the nice trail that lead through the woods, next to the Eisgraben river, up towards the Watzmann mountain. As the altitude increased, so did the amount of snow on and near the trail, which ended at a viewpoint of the mountain. There the amount of snow increased considerably, and a sign informed visitors that an unmaintained trail can lead even further into the mountains, but caution should be exercised. I have good hiking boots, so I decided to continue. It was quite a contrast from the official trail, as now it was nothing but the white of the snow. I walked for as far as I could before turning back, as I also had to catch the ferry back. Still, I took a detour on the way back in order to have a walk at the banks of the lake as well.

Once back in the Konigssee village, I purchased some gifts in the souvenir stores, ate lunch, and started driving north out of the park. I then turned south-west towards Austria, and eventually reached Zell am See, another lake-sitting city. It was a bit dreary there, and the number of tourists was very small, so many places were closed. I found a nice pizzeria for dinner, where the waiter was very proficient in the fine art of pouring a proper stein of beer. That was my kind of a pizzeria.

Timing and the Sport of Skiing

On April 10 I drove to Kaprun, right next to Zell am See. My destination: the Kitzsteinhorn mountain, located within the borders of Austria's largest national park - Hohe Tauren. Kitzsteinhorn is a ski resort, and I was hoping to finally give skiing a try. In the parking lot, I was directed by several parking attendants to a free sport. The lots were full of cars, all bearing license plates from various European countries. There were more cars from the Czech Republic, Belgium, Switzerland and Germany than there were cars from Austria.

I purchased tickets to the site and boarded one of several cable cars that take you up to the resort. From the parking lot, you can only see the first of several peaks. As the cable car made its way up and reached that peak, everything turned white and I realized there is still a long way up. The resort itself is made up of three levels, at altitudes of 1500, 2500 and 3000 meters, respectively. Separate sets of cable cars travel between each two levels.

As I reached the first level, I was quite amazed. First of all, I have seen snow before, even a lot of snow, but I've never been to a Ski resort, where snow is actively packed and maintained, and where you don't have to worry about where you're pressing your feet down. I was also quite amazed to see hundreds and hundreds of people skiing down the slopes one after another. There were just so many people I couldn't believe it. I really didn't expect so many people in the resort so late in the season. Turns out a ski championship of some sort was starting just that day, ruining any real chances of me quickly getting a guide for an ultra-beginner ski lesson.

Regardless, it was just beautiful up there. I took the cable car to the second level, which was even more breathtaking, especially with the view of the other mountains in the distance. I had two problems when I reached the second level: first, the high altitude started giving me a headache; second, the snow was absolutely blinding. I quickly bought the cheapest ski goggles in the sporting goods store, and sat down with some water until I was acclimated to the altitude. It was very cold at that level, mostly due to the wind.

Eventually I took the car to the third level, located just below the tip of the mountain. A platform there provides gorgeous views, and there's also a tunnel inside the mountain walls with various displays. As I climbed back down to the second level, the wind suddenly vanished and it actually became pretty hot. I walked around the mountain then, until I was satisfied enough to take the cable car back to ground level and leave.

From Kitzsteinhorn, I drove north and then East, again crossing into and out of Germany. I was now making my way back to Vienna. I stopped for the night in Wels, in the Ploberger hotel, which probably had the best fitness center I've ever seen in a hotel. Not only did the gym have a very reasonable selection of free weights, it even had a barbell, which is rare, and a kitchenette stocked with complimentary whey protein, sports bars and more. I was impressed.

On April 11 I reached Vienna, and checked in to "the Guesthouse Vienna", a fairly upscale hotel in the center of town. I think what I liked the most about the hotel was the punk rock photographs handing on its walls. I spent this and the entire next day walking randomly through the city, visiting various gardens, castles, and of course the main touristic section downtown (not sure how it's called). Late in the evening of the second day, April 12, I boarded a plane back home to Israel and concluded yet another great trip.