A ski-free family trip to Schladming in the Austrian Alps holds a wealth of treasures
Why on earth would you go to the Austrian Alps out of season?
I admit, there were times when I wondered why I had not waited the extra couple of months for the ski-lifts to open. But what a phenomenal adventure we had in Schladming.
When the credit card is a little less flexible than it was, and the same scale of family holiday is required, the region of north-west Styria provided one of our most versatile vacations. From great castles to film sets, from horse-drawn carriages in Mozart's home-town to traversing gorges on rope bridges, a variety of activities was within acceptable driving distance.
Schladming, a small town an hour from Salzburg or three from Munich airport, was readying itself for the winter ski season. It is not purely a purpose-built resort, so there were enough shops and cafes to entertain the locals and rare tourists in the Autumn, most notably with their enormous portions of strudel.
The Alpine Club hotel is among the handful that stays open when the snow melts away. It has three stars and gives the impression of being functional rather than stylish. But our two-bedroom suite had the most spectacular views, was extremely comfortable and we wanted for nothing. Add to that the warm 24-hour welcome and the range of facilities, particularly the pool and spa, we could easily have remained ensconced all week. The in-house restaurant Amadeus is adequate and reasonably priced. There is a shop, a bar and a nightclub in addition to all the necessities for a traditional winter holiday, such as ski lockers.
Yet even with the appeal of relaxation amid the persistent rain outside, there was an adventure begging to be had. Our day trip to Salzburg was action-packed. Festung Hohensalzburg, or the High Salzburg fortress, dominates the landscape and at 250m by 150m, it is one of the largest medieval castles in Europe. The hike up from the centre of the city takes about 40 minutes, although there is a funicular. It is not for the faint-hearted, however, as it is a very fast, almost vertical ride, but the preservation of the castle, explained by multi-lingual guides, and the panoramic views make the heart-stopping ascent worthwhile.
Taking a horse-drawn carriage tour around the beautiful city of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s birth is a must and not ridiculously over-priced, considering Salzburg is a relatively expensive place to visit.
For those with a penchant for war films, Hohenwerfen fortress captures the imagination. The 900-year-old castle doubled as Schloss Adler in Where Eagles Dare and looms over the valley from its rocky perch above the Salzach Valley.
The falconry display is something to behold, while the free guided tour accesses all the areas that are otherwise closed off to the public. Again, it is possible to walk up, but there is a sedate funicular to the top, for which there is a small charge. As with Hohensalzburg, the restaurant at Hohenwerfen is exceptional.
With a hire car it is also possible to take in Graz or head over the border into Germany and stroll around Munich.
Outings with very little expenditure came closer to the hotel. The alpine pastures supply all degrees of trails and footpaths to explore and we warmed up with the tame Fairytale and Mushroom Paths which were full of activities and fun.
Taking the intensity up a little, we took a short drive to Untertal to try the Waterfall walk. It has become the outstanding memory of the trip. It is a challenging climb that takes approximately three hours to complete, from Seeleiten car-park at the base, through the misty spray of the waterfalls, to the deep green Lake Riesachsee nestled among the mountains at the top, before the final amble back down the forest road.
The steep ascent takes in countless metal steps and ladders, well secured to the rock but still daunting. None more so than the rope suspension bridge which you first spy about 100 feet below. It spans 35m over the Talbach stream and there is a sign at the point of no return, which warns hikers of what is to come and states its unsuitability for children under eight. Having scrambled all the way up, once at the threshold of the bridge it is sacrilege not to cross it, but it is petrifying nonetheless.
Proof that one can obtain an alpine adrenaline rush even without skis.