Salzburgland at this time of year offers a delightful mix of everything from glacier skiing and hiking in the sunny valleys to singing along with the Von Trapps on a bus tour. Andrew Eames visits this remarkable region in Austria From the top of the black run, everything looked white. In fact it was so white, such a pure brilliant white, that dark glasses were essential in order to see any bumps in the terrain. Around us, a tablecloth of dazzling cleanliness was draped over the shoulders of the Kitzsteinhorn mountain, and below us it looked as if the table under that cloth had been carefully laid with vertical cutlery. Except, of course, some of the knives and forks were moving in stately fashion, and between them were lots of tiny teaspoons, whizzing downhill with toothpicks strapped to their feet. Meanwhile, downhill farther still, beyond the salt and pepper pots of the lift stations, spread another layer of white, this time of a different, fluffier consistency. At 2,900 metres we were up above the clouds.
All in all it was a normal winter ski scene in the Alps, you might say. But not quite. The day was far too warm for winter, and we'd already discarded some of the normal skiing gear. We also knew something that the eye couldn't see: that down below cloud level it was a completely different world from the usual dowdy and drab scenes that surround winter skiing. On the contrary, down there was a world of spring flowers, of brilliant greens, of sprouting geraniums in window boxes and of cattle in meadows, as the whole orderly life of Austria emerged from winter. So when the snow got slushy up on the mountain, as it inevitably would under such unrelenting sunshine, there were a whole lot of other things for us to do.
There's usually a stark choice to be made with the Alps. It is either winter time, in which case you ski in frenzied fashion during limited daylight hours, go home when its dark, party a bit and rest up ready to attack the slopes again the next morning. Or else it's summer time, when you hike the mountains, walk in the meadows, go boating on the lakes and sit in the city squares eating ice cream. But we were in a place where you could combine both, in Salzburgerland. It is a region with all the lakes, meadows, mountains, and city-based culture of summertime Austria - but it also has all-year-round skiing on the glacier above the lakeside resort of Zell am See.
Glacier skiing doesn't mean difficult skiing on treacherous ice - far from it. In fact, only a trained eye would be able to spot the glacier, covered as the landscape was with recent snow. Draped between the peaks, it produced a telltale, far smoother, terrain than in normal more scrunched-up ski domains, and as such its pistes were less demanding. Expert skiers would probably become quickly frustrated with the lack of variety, but we were no experts, and there was more than enough for us here for a couple of days of fun.
In fact, although the Kitzsteinhorn glacier is covered in snow for most of the year, many of the summer visitors don't come here for the skiing at all. A large proportion are from more arid and hotter parts of the world, where snow is unknown, so they come up on the cable cars from the village of Kaprun to simply luxuriate in the unfamiliar world of whiteness and to gaze at what the guidebooks declare is the best view in Austria, with 30 peaks over 3,000m. To welcome them, the "Coolest Mountain in Salzburg" (according to its advertising) has deck chairs, restaurants, special events, and even an ice camp where a giant igloo, complete with dining room and cocktail bar, has been sculpted out of the glacier. And if you suddenly decide you want to ski, there are equipment-hire places right on site.
Down below, Zell am See itself is an elegant overgrown village of handsome Austrian houses, some of them frescoed and most of them balconied, rising up the slopes away from the pewter-coloured lake. When we were there, fisherman were out on the water and a tour boat was doing the rounds, sliding past the Grand Hotel as it came to the town jetty. It was still early season, but the locals were wearing hats and shorts and the shops in the pedestrianised centre were selling sunglasses and bikinis. During the daytime it was relaxed and calm, with most of the visitors out and about in the hills or on the golf courses, and in the evening it filled gently with tourists in search of schnitzel or a slice of apple strudel, preferably with vanilla sauce.
For us, once we'd done enough skiing and strudel-eating, it was time for a change of scene. The railway line in Zell am See runs along the edge of the lake and makes a spectacular ride for most of the way back to the city of Salzburg, about 90 minutes away. Austria's most romantic city turned out to be an old-fashioned jewel-box of a place, with palaces and gardens, cobbles and cathedrals, cloisters, colonnades and luxurious cake shops. Mozart was born here, and the stones echo with his music, with at least a concert a day somewhere in the city, mostly performed by very talented students from the Mozarteum, Salzburg's specialist music university.
It's a city of towers and belfries, which you soon realise as you walk up the hill towards the Hohensalzburg fortress, a massive white-painted stronghold which has occupied the top of the giant lump of rock since the 11th century. The prince-bishops who ruled Salzburg for hundreds of years (it was only assimilated into Austria in 1815) used to retreat up here when they felt threatened, and there are still a handful of permanent residents up behind the thick walls.
Much of the heart of downtown is pedestrian-only, and most visitors browse along the ever-popular Getreidegasse, where you can find everything from handmade umbrellas and liqueurs to flowers made of silk and specially tailored dirndl, the Austrian national dress. Then there's the option of coffee and sachertorte in the grand, old-fashioned Sacher Hotel by the riverside, where everyone from Tom Hanks to the Dalai Lama have stayed. Or else at the Hotel Bristol, across the way, where the actor Christopher Plummer holed up during the filming of the The Sound of Music, and where he used to entertain the other guests with late-night piano-playing in the hotel bar.
In fact, TheSound of Music is just as important to the city as Mozart is, attracting some 300,000 visitors a year. Many of them choose to go on a Sound of Music bus tour, as we did, because not only does it tell the story of the film's making, back in 1965, but it also provides an excursion into the sumptuous Salzburgerland countryside all around and comes complete with film gossip and singalong soundtracks.
The bus started by circling the city, with the guide telling the inside story of what Maria was actually like, how the Captain was far from being the stern character he was portrayed as in the film, and how the filmmakers cut corners in sewing scenes together. We saw the front view of the Von Trapp villa, its back garden (actually another villa altogether), the lake where the rowing boat overturned, and the pretty gazebo where Liesl sings, "I am sixteen".
And then we made our way into the mountains, passing meadows and alpine valleys, while the film's soundtrack played in the background. "If you feel like singing, let it all out," we were told. "Remember, you'll never see these people again." Some people did break into song - a Turkish lady who could speak hardly any English gave a word-perfect rendition of My Favourite Things. The main stops included the stunning Wolfgangsee Lake and Mondsee, a small town famous for the beautiful baroque church where Maria and the Captain were married.
And then it was time to return, and for the final massed voices rendition of Edelweiss as we re-entered Salzburg. The trip ended with the tour guide telling us some of his cheesiest Sound of Music jokes. "Why did it take so long to make the film? Because in those days you couldn't get a Plummer on Saturdays." Andrew Eames in the author of Blue River, Black Sea (Transworld).