Living life, Alpine style - Vienna and Semmering, Austria

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I think this has been an Austrian-special year for me. I had two unplanned weekend travel trips and both of them were in Austria. One was to Ebbs and Kufstein and the second was a weekend spent in Vienna and two days in a small alpine ski village called Semmering. It was again a trip with no bookings made in advance and no previous planning on what to do. And it turned out to be absolutely amazing. I went on a few local trails which were quite scenic. And the whole relaxed vibe to the trip made it one of the most memorable vacations I've had in a long time.

The trip started with a scare though. I was about to miss my flight to Vienna as there was a lot of traffic to Heathrow. Somehow I made it though, checking-in 1 min before the security gates closed. It was an early morning flight and so I slept all the way in the flight, to be ready for the action packed day ahead.

Once in Vienna, I took the airport city express to go to the city centre which takes just 15 mins to get you there. The weather was already warm and sunny by then, making the city look very bright. While waiting for my friends, I walked to the nearby mall and noticed a lot of vintage cars standing outside for some show of some sort. And the area was full of tourists, all out in the sun. It was quite hot and I wanted to stay outside rather than be in the mall. So I walked to the nearest green area in Google Maps which turned out to be a park all along the almost drying river Wien. And it was so hot, just sitting in the green shade felt heavenly.

Our plan for the day was to visit a few eating places but not to hurry anywhere. So our first stop was lunch at Reinthaler's Beisl restaurant, located in the city centre. The area was quite active and lively during noon time, filled with tourists walking around just admiring the city, eating and shopping. The food there though was not to my liking. I am not a fan of Austrian food given how heavy it is on meat. And so I had to pick something just about passable to eat.

Our next stop was a local food market near the Opera House, called the Naschmarkt. It was a long street lined with small stalls on both sides, selling all kinds of food stuff and some handicrafts. It was quite a cultural mix with people selling all kinds of food from Turkish to Indian to Chinese to Austrian to ice cream which felt just perfect for the hot weather. We walked around for a bit, stopped for ice creams and cold drinks and were so tired by the end of it, that we came back to our b&b for a quick power nap.

Our b&b was a small studio near the Opera house. It was well done up, convenient and even had an AC which felt very welcome at this time. It was located very close to all the key locations and hence easier to come back to for breaks in between.

After the break, we left for our evening set of 3 food stops. We walked to all these places and got to see a lot of the city up close. Most of Vienna felt like grand old stone buildings in light brown shades, with lot of small paintings and sculptures everywhere, lending it an old world charm. There were loads of museums everywhere to interest tourists. Most of the streets were wide and felt well spaced out. And this time of the year, there were enough locals and tourists around to make it feel lively and alive everywhere. At the same time, it also felt very slow paced and relaxed, and easy to walk anywhere, even in the middle of the city.

Our first stop of the day was a rooftop bar on top of a hotel called Dachboden. It was famous for the stunning 360 degrees views it offers of the city. The sun was also setting by this time and shone yellow light on a lot of the buildings which made it all very enchanting, just like a painting. We spent an hour or so till sunset and then were off to our next stop, our dinner restaurant - Ulrich. We wanted to sit outside but there was no space, so sat inside which was well done up too. And it had much better food than what I had eaten till then.

The last food stop of the day was Cafe Sacher - to eat the famous Cake Sachertorte of Austria. It is a chocolate cake which was created accidentally by Sacher for the King of Austria and has now become world famous but its recipe still remains a secret. It is only baked in 2-3 specific locations in Austria, the ones which have the original recipe. So we went to the original location owned by the original creator, Cafe Sacher and were met with a long queue of people waiting outside even at 10 at night! We also waited for half an hour to get in, but once inside realised that the queue was artificially created as there was still space inside. Also, the cake felt like any ordinary good chocolate cake, so I felt it was a bit of a letdown. But still always good to have a good desert.

During the walk back to our airb&b, we again walked a lot and saw a few late night concerts happening outside some of the museums and other buildings. We also walked past the Maria Theresien Platz Square which has a statue of one of the best known Austrian monarchs, Maria Theresa. The statue is in a garden with grand buildings all around, and has a magnificent view all around. Vienna felt quite safe and lively even when we were walking back at night. Anyways after the long day out in the sun, all the walking had made us tired and we called it an early night.

Day 2 - Schonbrunn Palace in Vienna and first view of Semmering

The next day we had only one stop on our itinerary in Vienna - the Schonbrunn palace. So we started the day with a lazy breakfast at Cafe Museum right outside our b&b which was a healthy start to the day. And then we took a cab to the Schonbrunn palace, which was 15 mins away, spending a couple of hours there. You can either go in the palace or just walk around in its grand gardens which are free to enter.

I spent most of my time in the gardens which are located all around the palace. There are green hedges all around, and lot of flower beds. And the gardens behind the palace extend to the Neptune fountain and all the way up a hill. And in the sun, they looked spectacular. The flowers were all in full bloom, the grass was bright green and the palace provided an imposing background. I walked around through the gardens and the fountain all the way up the hill to the Gloriette.

From up in the Gloriette, you can get panoramic views of the palace and beyond. And this is where you realise that the palace is right in the middle of the city, which is what you forget otherwise as it feels so removed.

After getting a lot of Vitamin D in the garden, we were off to our last food stop in Vienna - lunch in the city centre at Phil. It did not have a good vegetarian range but I am used to that in Austria by now. The temperature was also so hot by now, the open restaurant didn't help much as being anywhere without an AC felt like a pain. We had lunch there and then were ready to go to our next stop (btw we had a lot of focus on food on this trip because my friends are foodies. Else I would never have written about food and food places so much ???? )

My friends then left back for London and I proceeded to my next destination. Again my weekend destination selection had an interesting background. I was earlier looking to take a train to Salzburg to spend the weekend in the mountains but then decided to get off at any beautiful town or village on the train route which looked picturesque in Google images. So I zoned in on Semmering which was a small skiing village on the route and booked an inexpensive Sportshotel for my stay, which looked like a no-frills ski hotel.

The train I took from Vienna started in the plains and then got into the mountains passing through many breath taking views, chugging along the mountain sides through bridges and narrow ledges before reaching Semmering. The views of the mountains, the valleys and the rivers were all very magnificent, shining in green in the bright sun. The Semmering railway construction was not easy, especially given the tough landscape. The station was also located in a narrow gap in the mountains, and felt very simple.

Once there, I caught sight of the Semmering village with its colourfully painted houses all along the hill and picturesque views of the valley below. The Sportshotel I was staying in was on one of the hills and a 20 mins walk away. But the whole walk was uphill and there were no taxi options available given the village was in the middle of nothing. So I walked up with my suitcase in tow through the village to the hotel.

And I was pleasantly surprised by what I found. Given how inexpensive the hotel was, I wasn't expecting a lot. But it clearly surpassed my expectations. It felt like a place right in heaven. The rooms were cosy and comfortable with impressive views of the valley below. It also had a sauna and an indoor swimming pool. And the hotel had a huge open terrace with outside sitting right next to the its restaurant.

The terrace had many sofas and a swing to sit and enjoy the view down below till miles around - of mountains all around, surrounding valleys in between, with roads and bridges spanning them and many small villages visible everywhere. I sat outside for some time, had dinner in the restaurant and just enjoyed the view, doing nothing but staring outside and taking in the fresh air. I also saw the sunset behind one of the mountains, during which the sky turned all hues of orange and yellow, shining in beautiful colours and throwing bright coloured lights and shadows on the mountains around. It was all so magnificent, I can never forget that scene and time.

Day 3 - Sonnwendstein trek in Semmering

The next two days in Semmering were mostly spent lounging in the hotel and exploring the local trails nearby. Each day started with a tasty breakfast in the hotel terrace, enjoying the scenery around. And that delayed me every day as I would end up staying longer to just sit and admire the view outside. Somehow, I still managed to do one moderate treks each of the days.

The first day I did an 11 kms, round trail up the Sonnwendstein mountain. The trail started going up the mountain from the hotel itself, went up and down a few mountains and then through Polleres-hutte to a church on the peak. It was supposed to take 4 hours to cover the whole trail but I of course took longer, getting lost a bit but also stopping very regularly and walking leisurely most of the way. The trail wasn't too well marked and at times I had to just guess which way I wanted to go up the mountain, even using google maps to orient myself. Sometimes the path went up, sometimes down. Sometimes it was like a broad road kind of way, and sometimes a narrow rocky trail. And it was an adventure trying to figure out the right way as some patches of the trail did not seem much used.

But all in all, it was an adventurous trek with lot of different views along the way. It initially started with great views of the Semmering town, and then there were jungle paths through dense vegetation, opening up to vast meadows with cows grazing away lazily, and their bells adding music to the silence all around. There were also some bluebells on some of them mountain sides, adding colour to the green around.

I reached the Polleres-hutte in about 3 hours and made a stop there. The Polleres-hutte has a cafe from where you could see all the way to the plains, on the other side of the mountain. I also had my lunch there which was terrible, but at least the view was good ????. I had asked a few of the hikers going down if they had been to the church but they just mentioned that they had only stopped at the Polleres-hutte. My trek description had a mention of a church and it is good that I went looking for it rather than turn around.

It was a 15 mins walk up the peak to reach the church on top of the Sonnwendstein mountain and it is something that should not have been missed in any situation. The church was simple and very old. But the best part of the trek was there - a 270 degrees view of the Alps around. It was one of the best views I have ever seen. You could see the plains, the bridges, the valleys, the rivers, the villages and so on. I loved it so much, I stayed up there for an hour, even though it was getting a bit dark.

While I was up there, another trekker reached the peak and he mentioned that he was on a trail of Austria from one end to the other, from the Hungarian border to the other. Everyday he was walking among the mountains on various trails, getting closer to the other side of the border. He had no plan other than a detailed map and was staying at whichever village he made it to. It sounded such a cool thing to do, maybe one day...

The way back down to the village was through a straight path which felt more like a road than a trail. It had some views similar to the ones while going up but mostly the path was through forests on both sides, covered by green trees in patches. While I was about to reach the bottom, it started raining and I stopped at a nice restaurant located next to a small lake. Its surprising, how any turn in these parts of the world can turn out to be picturesque and worth a photo.

Once back in the hotel around 7 pm, I went to the the sauna and the swimming pool. It felt very relaxing after all the walking around. The hotel had a lot of such options, including a solarium - I guess all of it is to keep guests busy during skiing season after the skiing is done. The rest of the evening, I spent time sitting outside again, reading a book in the swing and just enjoying the calmness and serenity all around. I loved the day and being close to nature made me feel very happy and elated. I so miss the mountains always! And the weekend was turning out to be pure bliss, as I had never expected it to be this spectacular!

Day 4 - Maria Schultz trek in Semmering and back to London

The next day, again after an amazing breakfast siting outside with this view, I went on a shorter trail to the village of Maria Schultz. It was supposed to be an 8 kms, 2.5 hours trek but took me more than 4 hours I think! Maria Schultz is a nearby village, even visible from Semmering and the path I took was the local interconnecting path. The way there was fun, through small green jungles and narrow paths covered with trees everywhere. It was hot and I welcomed the shade all the way down. Though the trail again was not so well marked but you could get there by guessing how to reach the village down the mountain.

Once there, the village looked like any other typical Austrian village, with a few coloured wooden houses and a nice alpine church. Surprisingly, there were loads of people visiting the village which surprised me. Walking back from there to Semmering turned out to be an interesting walk though. I either got the directions wrong or they were the wrong directions, I landed up walking on the main road, with cars passing by in both directions. It was a bit of a not so fun walk given it was uphill and so hot.

On the way, I was greeted with more Yash Chopra locations - green meadows and forests dotted with beautiful houses. Towards the end, I did hitch a ride from a passing biker for part of the walk which was interesting, right out of DDLJ again (I will never be able to separate out Europe and Alps from DDLJ, definitely not in this lifetime!).

I made it safely back to the hotel, enjoyed the terrace view for a bit longer and then soon, it was time to go back to London. Its always so tough leaving a place after you have a nice time there. I walked back to the station, which was a bit easier as it was downhill and I found myself thinking how this small station in a narrow gap in the mountains reminded me of Koyasan from my Japan trip. A small place nestled in the hills, with a narrow station to reach it. And as if stuck in its own time...

The trains came on time and I was easily able to reach the Vienna airport much before time. And so another such unplanned Austrian weekend came to an end. Austria a great place to go always. The locals speak English. It has the Alps. And is not expensive as Switzerland. Plus there is an air of laid back nature there which makes it the perfect weekend getaway place from London. And so again, I came back to London totally energised and ready to take on the city challenges. And can see myself being back there quite regularly in the future.