The Austria trip — Part III: Journey to the top of the world

24 JUNE 2018 — “How long would it take?” was the frequently-asked question. I checked the guidebook and calculated the distance several times. The detour seemed feasible although the goal was ambitious. Independently, Katherine, my mother and I expressed interest in seeing the allegedly magnificent Hohe Tauern National Park, magnifying each other’s desire to go there. Lee was curious but skeptical about the time we would have to spend in the car. Four hours? Six? And so the question was asked again at breakfast, just to be sure it was a wise thing to do.

Our brief time in Salzburg came to an end. While Katherine and I regretted not making it up to the castle, we were excited for the day ahead. The breakfast buffet was not as magical as the day before, but delicious nonetheless. Everyone overslept and we had to rush my mom in order to be on the road by 10:30am. We weren’t until 11. Lee decided to stick with her son’s family instead, in favor of a little more leisure time in Salzburg before a two-hour drive west. Although we only had to get to Innsbruck, alpine fever had us craving mountains.

Gorgeous scenery welcomed us as we drove south through Hallein (the other side of the salt mountain) then curved west to Bruck. Dramatic cloud cover mixed with bursts of summer sun. The turn-off for the Großglocknerstraße came quicker than expected. Unsure of what to expect inside the park, we attempted to stock up with picnic fixings. If Hohe Tauern was anything like an American national park, food options would be few and far between. Unfortunately, it was Sunday and everything was closed—literally every place of business minus a handful of eat-in restaurants. Off the highway and headed down a narrow alpine valley, we stopped at an open petrol station in the little village of Fusch to fill the tank and raid the tiny market. The options were few but precisely what we needed: cheese, fresh semmel (kaiser) rolls, chips, and drinks. It also had the most impeccably clean restroom I’ve ever seen at a gas station. The friendly husband-and-wife owners helped us assemble our madcap picnic, even lending a knife to precut the sandwich fixings. The language barrier prevented them from inquiring why we were being so melodramatic about food.

To infinity and beyond.

To infinity and beyond.

We continued on our way as a gang of motorcyclists swarmed the place (always more amicable than they look in their bad-ass leather). The sky grew overcast as massive mountains closed in on us. The large gatehouse signaled that the Grossglockner Road would now lift us into the sky. It was very reminiscent of Glacier National Park’s Going to the Sun Road, with hairpin turns and steep drop-offs at the edge of the road, and impossible to resist pulling over every few kilometers to inhale the view and snap photos. It helped that the road wasn’t congested and we could move at our desired pace. Clouds played peekaboo with the snow-covered peaks, the highest of which was the distant namesake Grossglockner, 3,800 meters above sea level. Unlike anything seen at an American park, cows freely roamed the slopes, gentle bells dangling from their necks. The land was not merely protected, but utilized. Unsure of where we would stop to eat, we began rationing our snacks.

A twisted way to the top.

A twisted way to the top.

A sort of castle awaited us at the top of some intense switchbacks, reaching the clouds and chilly air. Cuddly beaver-like marmots foraged the rocky, low-lying vegetation, blasé about the breathtaking views that surrounded their habitat. The question was if we should turn around or see what else lay ahead; we hadn’t even reached the road’s namesake glacier. Optimistic about time and addicted to the scenery, we carried forth, down a ridge and through a tunnel that looked as if it was going to eject us over the edge of a cliff. Instead, the road made a sharp descent into a green valley where a distant church steeple was miniaturized by its surroundings. The winding road elevated us again and soon there was snow and a dead end. We parked in a giant, new, nearly empty concrete garage and walked out to see the Grossglockner Glacier. It was massive and still a distance away, but also a visibly shrunken version of its former self. A blue lake below looked partially dried up, and its surface seemed close until we noticed little specks walking beside it—people a few hundred meters below. 

Insert coin to see a global warning.

Insert coin to see a global warning.

Distant planet.

Distant planet.

Despite the bright sun, the altitude was frigid. The visitor center’s big gift shop and second-story cafeteria kept us warm. An array of hot food rendered the remains of our makeshift picnic unnecessary. Katherine discovered a hearty regional dish known as gröstl: a sautéed platter of potatoes, onion, and ham. Black-and-white photo displays showed workers carving the roads decades ago, a prime example of Austrian ingenuity. Every visible attempt to civilize Hohe Tauern was impressive, from the perfectly-maintained roads to magnificently crafted stonework in the midst of remote and treacherous terrain. We gazed at the shriveled glacier then reversed course. My estimates had us arriving in Innsbruck far later than expected.

If we were lucky, we might arrive before dark.

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The view was as mesmerizing from the opposite direction. Atop Edelweiss Spitze, not far from the “castle”, we took in the high altitude views one last time. Icy rain gently pelted our windbreakers. The need to keep moving became imperative. We descended the way we came in, retracing switchbacks and awesome views and making a final pit stop at a large restaurant near the entry gates before we said “tschüss” to this amazing fragment of the world. 

The sun bathed the valley in beautiful afternoon light as the clouds clung to the mountain peaks. Outside Mittersill, we agreed that it was now or never for Sunday dinner, so we stopped at a pleasant hillside gasthof. Delicious regional fare filled our plates, but we were pestered by persistent flies and regretted not sitting on the outside patio amongst the smokers. The host said it was unusual to have so many this time of year, but was otherwise powerless to do anything about them. Instead, he told us briefly of visiting New York City in the 80s when he was young and working on a cruise ship, nostalgic for his untethered days. He was fortunate to be living in one of the most beautiful and civilized places on earth.

Twilight consumed the sky as we resigned ourselves to arriving at our new destination in the dark. No matter how much extra speed I put on the accelerator, the ETA on the GPS was fixed. In our hearts, the day-trip was worth it.

It was pouring rain when we exited the highway for Telfes im Stubai, a little mountain town southwest of Innsbruck. Signs were impossible to read in the dark downpour and the GPS was useless in pinpointing our destination—all the houses were tightly clustered together and the roads were convoluted and narrow. At one point I drove halfway onto a train platform, unable to see what was what. My sister was no help on the phone, annoyed by our late arrival and unwilling to help. “We had the same problem,” she said and went back to her card game with the kids. Finally we found the house, but pleasant moods were fouled. 

A triumphant day ended awkwardly. No longer were we in the luxury of hotel living. The old farmhouse was brightly lit, its eclectic stairwells and corridors unfamiliar, the air a little stifling. We had no choice but to put the day out of its sudden disappointment and get some sleep.

[More photos can be seen on my Flickr site.]