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Alpine Escape: Castles in the sky in Salzburg

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12 Sep 2018
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Words Mark Bailey Photography Joe McGorty

Salzburg may be one of the smaller regions of Austria but with its soaring limestone peaks, dark forests, thermal springs, and wealth of castles, fortresses and palaces it is an ideal destination for cyclists hunting scenic expeditions in theatrical mountain terrain.

Located in the heart of Austria, the Salzburg region is blessed with over 2,000km of cycling paths, which guide riders on quiet trails through the enchanting land of Mozart, mountains and Maria von Trapp, past deep ravines, thundering waterfalls, and mist-wreathed pyramids of rock.

I’m here to sample a segment of the Alpe Adria bike route, a classic 416km journey from the Italian shores of the Adriatic Sea to the city of Salzburg itself – birthplace of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart.

As I have only one day available, I start my ride further north in the Belle Époque town of Bad Gastein, from where I can weave 100km, through sweeping valleys and forest-cloaked mountains, to Salzburg.

Thanks to this regional bike path network it is possible to cross the Alps without enduring leg-buckling climbs, allowing riders to swap painful vertical ascents for longer, stamina-testing days in the saddle.

But road cyclists who crave mountainous challenges can easily tack on some arduous ascents along the way. Deliciously tempting climbs rise up from the bike path at intervals, and the ominous Grossglockner, Austria’s highest peak at 3,798m, lurks just a few kilometres west of the start of the route.

If you have the time, it‘s worth taking an extra day to attack the famous ribbon of road which lures you through high mountain pastures and the Hochtor tunnel at 2,506m.

After meeting local ride partners Hannes Rieser, who lives in nearby St Johann im Pongau, and Raimund Gruber, who has just returned from a cycling trip to Switzerland, we pedal through the steaming streets of Bad Gastein in the early morning fog.

This old spa town is an elegant cluster of steep gorges, fast-moving rivers, pastel-coloured hilltop hotels and chocolate shops. Thermal water bubbles up from pools and fountains throughout the town.

We ride over an old stone bridge and pass by the beautiful Gasteiner waterfall. This huge cascade of water descends for 341m at exhilarating speeds not even Vincenzo Nibali could dare to match.

The bike path dances through the Gastein valley which, at almost 40km in length, is the longest of the region’s valleys. In winter the area boasts over 200km of slopes.

The valley is watched over by the dramatic mountains of the Hohe Tauern, a land of 3,000m peaks, sparkling glaciers and emerald lakes.

We continue north to St. Johann-Alpendorf, a charming settlement of wood-panelled chalets and artisanal shops in the Salzach Valley. Riders can take a detour to see the dramatic 300m-high walls of the Liechtenstein Gorge just south of this ancient copper mining town, which extend for 4km.

As we ride along we spy cosy Alpine inns, seething waterfalls and the green baize of mountain meadows. Continuing further north we arrive at Werfen, a historic town overlooked by the 11th century Hohenwerfen Castle.

The fortress is built on a 623m-high rocky precipice, and is surrounded by the spectacular Berchtesgaden Alps and Tennen mountains.

With its white walls and pointed roofs, this Disney-esque castle is a popular setting for movies and TV shows, most notably The Sound of Music.

My map shows multiple slithering white roads veering off the bike path and into the surrounding hills. It’s that time of the day when ‘Der Berg ruft’ (the mountain calls) so we decide to test a few out.

We ride through a forest of beech, larches and pine trees as gangly as Chris Froome’s legs, and up to the meadow of Gschwandtanger, from where we can see the castle erupting majestically out of the mist.

There are dozens of wriggling climbs like this all the way from Bad Gastein to Werfen, so riders can easily crank up the altitude gain with a few blasts uphill to scenic viewpoints and mountain villages.

Werfen is also the home of Eisriesenwelt – the largest ice cave network in the world. I am not wearing enough base layers to wander around an underground ice cave, however, so we pause for lunch instead.

At the Werfenerhof restaurant we devour roast venison with beetroot, orange and spatzle (macaroni-esque lumps of soft egg noodles, the name of which translates as ‘little sparrows’).

Because it’s our photographer Joe’s birthday we finish with a luxurious dessert of cream-filled pancakes. His dish arrives with a sparkling flare bright enough to guide lost ships home in a storm.

Refreshed and refuelled, we head further north through the Salzach Valley. This part of the bike path involves a memorable dash between dark mountains covered in polished black rock and slivers of snow.

We pass a track where local equestrians are racing horses and traps, watch bright red trains chug through the valley, and slice past rivers of inky water and the Golling waterfall, which plunges 75m down two giant steps into the valley below, and on to Kuchl, where the landscape begins to soften into a green oasis of rounded hills, agricultural meadows and fertile river valleys.

Our odyssey ends among the aesthetically pleasing jumble of domes, spires, stone alleyways, coffee houses and music halls of Salzburg, the music of Mozart wafting through open café doors.

Although Salzburg is a busy city, there are over 180km of bike paths available to keep you away from the traffic.

We ride to the dazzling 17th century Hellbrunn Palace, which is painted the same bright yellow as the Tour’s maillot jaune, and glide past a pavilion used in The Sound of Music (the von Trapps really do haunt every corner of Salzburg) before heading into the centre of the city to observe the striking white Hohensalzburg fortress, which dates back to the 11th century.

This 106km ride has showcased the very best of the Salzburg region, from rugged mountain scenery to welcoming valley towns, so it feels only right to end our pan-Alpine adventure in the traditional local style – with a plate of hot sausages and some frothy steins of beer. 

The route: A true classic

Take inspiration from Mozart's birthplace

To download this route go to cyclist.co.uk/alpine6. This scenic section of the Alpe Adria bike route (alpe-adria-radweg.com) heads north from Bad Gastein to St Johann im Pongau and Werfen before continuing through Golling and Kuchl to Salzburg. The route is around 106km.

For some extra climbs along the way, choose from the dozens of up-and-down ascents leading off the bike path on the stretch from Bad Gastein to Werfen, which lead to secret viewpoints, mountain villages and alpine meadows.

How to get there

Travel

Salzburg is a direct two-hour flight from the UK. EasyJet has flights from Bristol, Luton, Liverpool and London Gatwick; Jet 2 flies here from Edinburgh, Leeds, Manchester and Stansted; BA flights are available from Gatwick and Heathrow; Eurowings flies from Heathrow and Stansted, and Ryanair from Stansted.

Where to stay

We stayed at the beautiful Villa Solitude Hotel (villasolitude.com) in Bad Gastein, which features wood-panelled bedrooms, hallways decorated with suits of armour and antique furniture, and an on-site restaurant with a spectacular terrace overlooking the waterfall.

The sound of chef Werner Thanner pounding the veal shortly after we placed our order for wiener schnitzels only added to the venue’s charm.

In Salzburg we stayed at the comfortable and eco-friendly Das Grune Hotel zur Post (hotelzurpost.info) which is popular with cyclists and hikers.

More info

Information on the cycling paths in the Salzburg region and ideas for routes and places to visit can be found on the regional tourism site at salzburgerland.com.

A detailed breakdown of the Alpe Adria bike path is also available at alpe-adria-radweg.com.