Having taken organised tours on previous trips (Sound of Music x 2 and the Bavarian Lakes & Mountains), I decided on a trip for Mrs Wilbur & I under our own steam (so to speak) this time.
The Salzburg to Zell am See Train
Trains run about every thirty minutes from Salzburg Hauptbahnhof, taking 90-minutes to reach the lakeside ski resort of Zell and costing €34 each advance return from the ÖBB website.
As you would probably expect in Austria, the scenery is pretty lovely as soon as you depart the main station.
Think soaring snow-capped mountains, a fast-moving meandering river, evergreen coniferous forests, colourful homesteads with happily smoking chimney stacks and small towns, each with a single stone church complete with pencil sharp steeple.
We switched back and forth over bridges spanning the winding river, that seemed to change from turquoise to azure at regular intervals.
Unsurprisingly there was the odd dam along the way, giving the natural waters a canal like appearance.
As is the norm on such journeys, I leapt back & forth in the sparsely populated carriage to take blurry photos & videos that I will probably never watch. “Why”, I hear you wonder. No idea actually!
Zell am See, Austria
We arrived smack on time and after departing out the rear of the station to take in the picturesque lake, we returned through the station underpass to find the town and a much needed coffee.
We settled on a strange little bar/cafe for our caffeine hit. We shared the spot with locals also enjoying a coffee, but unusually in their case with a beer chaser on the side.
We also witnessed perhaps the worst darts players I had ever seen. On average 1 dart in every 6 was a scoring shot, with the carpet seeing more action than the board.
The game was still going on when we left as both men aimed for double one in order to claim a marathon victory. They are probably still at it now!
We were headed for the snow-capped mountains for some promised spectacular views. Unfortunately the prices were also spectacular – €13 for a 1 km taxi ride to the cable car station and a wince evoking €31.50 each for an up and down ride in the gondoler.
Schmittenhohe Mountain, Austrian Alps
The single car of the Schmittenhohebahn left every half hour to the 2,000 metre high summit. We were joined by skiers & fellow day-trippers as we ascended high above the lake to the top in 2-3 minutes.
The snowy peak in the Eastern Alps was massed with skiers taking lunch/beer after their morning exertions.
As they munched, swilled and gyrated to Village People’s famed YMCA blasting out of the PA system, we took in the wonderful views of the lake & surrounding peaks.
Dancing Queen, We Will Rock You & Big in Japan came and went as trays of frothing beers were rapidly consumed by the ruddy-faced snow revellers, making me wonder whether piste or pissed would be more apt for the afternoon downhill runs.
It was only 2pm yet boisterous young females were already dancing on tables wearing their designer wrap around shades, salopettes unfastened off the shoulder and untamed long hair billowing wildly in the icy wind, much appreciated it has to be said by crowds of predominantly male on-lookers.
Clearly midi-ski has replaced après-ski since I last partook in the ’90s, however I do have my doubts as to whether some of the good time lasses would have lasted for the after part.
After a bowl of goulash soup and a quick visit to the on-site exhibition recounting the construction of the cable car, we returned once more to lake-level, gladly taking the waiting bus 71 to the centre at €3.70 a pop this time.
I had spent around €100 without blinking since we had alighted from the train, leading me to tweet about certain bankruptcy if I stayed much longer!
Zell am See Town
The small town is well geared up to receive the skiing fraternity.
Shops specialising in all things related to having fun and staying warm on snow, bars & restaurants with expansive outdoor seating & table dancing facilities and gabled 4-star hotels with angular pitched roofs, ski racks and wooden shutters.
There is also a striking stone church that chimed in the hour a couple of times whilst we were there.
There were also a couple of Christmas markets starting to get into full gluhwein & bratwurst swing as we ambled past the striking church and into the main square.
I was persuaded to part with another €20 for some coffees & apple strudels, before we traipsed back to the station for the train to Salzburg.
We were joined on the platform by some would be Krampus already wearing hairy trousers and carrying birches & rope whips.
Presumably their large holdalls contained hirsute upper garments, grotesque masks & clanking cowbells. They really do transform into something quite alarming for unaware visitors to these parts during Yuletide.
We returned to Salzburg in pitch darkness, giving me ample time to read more of Ian Packham’s enjoyable book ‘Into Adventure & Sunshine,’ telling the tale of him retracing the WWII tracks of his great uncle through the hostile territory of North Africa & Mussolini’s Italy.