Gosau, Austria: The secret to happy travels

Sometimes the best of travel lies in recognising that you won’t see it all. Brian Johnston slows down and soaks up the idle pleasures of Austria’s alpine Salzkammergut region.

Never has such a glorious place been given names so ugly-sounding to the English speaker. I'm deep in the heart of the Salzkammergut, which sounds like a stomach complaint, and where many of the villages have names like unfortunate diseases: Bad Goisern, Anger and the scratchy rash of Bad Ischl. But beyond the windscreen, the passing scenery is ridiculously pretty. Narnia-like villages are draped in petunias, rivers tumble in a pale blue froth, lakes mirror mountains. It's the happy landscape you see in kindergarten drawings: tall steeples, triangular peaks, perfect pine trees, sunflowers tall as people. 

The Salzkammergut is the name given to an alpine holiday region east and south-east of Salzburg in the heart of Austria. With numerous valleys, 80-odd lakes and historic towns all with their particular charms and activities, it could induce an ailment for which German-speakers have a word, freizeitstress. On my first day here, I feel a bit of 'free-time stress' myself as gobsmacking gorgeousness unfolds around me. Should I be seeing more? Am I making the most of my time? And ought I call in at Handwerk Haus in Bad Goisern, which showcases regional handicrafts and the latest in dirndl fashions?

Quickly I dismiss my nagging insecurities. Now that I'm older and possibly wiser, I accept that I'll never see everything, despite my eternal greed for travel. The secret now lies in the slow appreciation of just some things. And so I lift my foot of the pedal of my rental car and my eyes up to the hills, where purple rock meets eternal snow. My week of holiday time is a geological inconsequence.

Whenever I'm among mountains, my spirit soars. They make my life feel trivial, but in the best of calming ways. That evening, with a disregarding slash of my pencil, I cross out notable lakes and baroque churches and must-see villages and decide on a week in the slow lane instead. I'll do a simple loop on a drive along roads 145, 320 and 166 from Bad Goisern to Hallstatt. I'll only see some of the Salzkammergut's highlights, but allow them to percolate into my soul. After all, what's a holiday unless it makes you feel better?

Next morning I drive up the Loser Panoramic Way, which has another unfortunate name but is actually pronounced loh-ser in German. Gear-crunching hairpin bends take me up a pine-scented mountainside where I'm delighted to find nothing to do. I sit on the terrace of the Loser Alm restaurant and order an improbable Austrian coffee smothered in cream and topped with a maraschino cherry. I watch hang-gliding enthusiasts trundle down a wooden ramp and soar into the alpine void. Their fragile wings are green and red dragonflies against the sun, ephemeral and lovely. Beyond, the valley plunges and mighty snow peaks rear.

Next morning I drive up the Loser Panoramic Way, which has another unfortunate name but is actually pronounced loh-ser in German.

Altaussee is a dizzying downward drive. Its flower-decked chalets huddle among fruit trees and cowbell-clanked meadows at the foot of limestone cliffs veined with salt. It's this salt that gives the Salzkammergut its name and provided the region's wealth for over a thousand years until aristocratic tourists – and later their bourgeois imitators – took over with a newfound 19th-century enthusiasm for the Alps. Altaussee Lake, thrown out beyond the village like a silken rug, once inspired Germanic painters and poets. Now overweight Germans in too-skimpy European cossies lie on the tiny, pebbly beach, soaking up cool-edged rays of summer sun.

The village is all there is on the lake. The rest is wildly beautiful, cupped in a ring of limestone cliffs and lidded in blue scribbled over by the white vapour trails of airplanes. The youthful me would have snapped a few photos and hurried on. But now I have the whole afternoon with nothing planned. I decide on heading out into the lake on a Platte, a flat-bottomed alpine boat oared from a standing position at the rear. Heinz, the Austrian equivalent of a gondolier, wears lederhosen blackened with age (lederhosen are never washed, only hung out to air) and a battered straw hat.

Heinz is a taciturn bloke, which suits me fine. Motorised craft are banned on the lake, and the only sound is his plopping oar and the honk of swans. The water is clear as vodka and shallow enough to admire glacier-rounded pebbles and flitting fish. For an hour, it's what I've chased in travel for decades: a moment of utter peace and beauty. The lake colours change from blue to purple and the mountains turn to cardboard cut-outs against a dimming sky. Heinz must be a thousand; you could live for ever on this mountain air and scenery.

Next day I'm fully into soporific holiday mode. I meander through fields that are Impressionist blurs of yellow buttercups and adrift with feathery dandelion spores. The valley beyond Bad Aussee is a lush region of fat cows and apple orchards. An hour later, as I corkscrew in the car above Ramsau, mountains are sharp, dramatic peaks of shattered grey granite, frozen year-round in mantles of snow. 

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A jaunty yellow cable-car takes me on a single pylon-free glide up the vertiginous Dachstein. As we approach the top, the cable car almost scrapes against the cliff face, sending passengers into a murmur of admiration and anxiety. Outside, open mesh provides dramatic if unnerving walkways. But the real drama is a platform of reinforced glass thrust beyond the edge of the mountainside. Chalets are small as Lego and cows are dots beneath my feet. A little band plays jazz music in the thin air, and restaurant patrons sit at trestle tables in the sun swilling from giant tankards of beer. Jagged glacier ice glints, and the Austrian Alps are white-fanged against a blue sky.

I'm tempted to linger for a beer and Frisbee-sized schnitzels on the mountaintop, but I'm saving myself. The Salzkammergut has the knack of providing rustic alpine pleasures yet sophistication too. For lunch, I've earmarked Hubertus restaurant in Filzmoos, which is conveniently located on the looped drive to which I've dedicated myself. Its chef Joanna Maier has bagged Michelin stars and was the first woman to receive four chef's hats from influential French restaurant guide Gault Millau. 

I needn't have anticipated formality or fuss. I find myself sitting on a sunny terrace in my shirtsleeves, surrounded by giggling Austrian families and cheerful colours: red glasses, orange tablecloths, yellow flowers. My Waldmeister cocktail is radioactive green, carried out by a cheerful waiter who speaks English with a Texan drawl. He dishes up an amuse-bouche of lake fish, followed by veal deep-fried with Dijon mustard sauce, and goose-liver terrine as soft as marshmallow. In my slow-down mode, I've chosen the degustation menu. Let the afternoon drift past. I'm happy as Heidi, and who cares if it's three o'clock before I'm tucking into my venison with cranberry dumplings?

In the late afternoon, feeling seriously content, I finally arrive at Gosau. Nineteenth-century tourists thought this the most beautiful place in Austria, but how could they possibly decide? I follow a walking trail from tourist office to church and up over meadows to Vorderer Gosau Lake, a little sliver of blue, kaleidoscopic with reflected clouds. A snowy mountain sits framed between cliffs. 

The sky is still light when I arrive at my hotel in Hallstatt, and might this not be the most beautiful place in Austria too? A full moon is already floating above the mountains, and the village sits on another glassy lake like a calendar-designer's dream.

Maybe, when I go home, friends will ask me what I did in Austria. "Not much," I might reply. "I just had lunch and looked at a mountain." But god is in the detail and in the peaks, and surely I couldn't have spent my time a better way. 

The writer travelled courtesy of the Austrian National Tourist Office.

FAST FACTS

MORE INFORMATION 

austria.info/au.

GETTING THERE

Etihad flies to Abu Dhabi and Munich, a scenic two-hour drive from Salzkammergut region. Return economy fare from $1596 from Melbourne and $1976 from Sydney including taxes. Phone 1300 532 215, see etihad.com.

GETTING AROUND

DriveAway Holidays offers car hire at Munich airport from around $300 per week. Phone 1300 723 972, see driveaway.com.au

STAYING THERE

Heritage Hotel Hallstatt links three historic houses with considerable flair. No two rooms are the same; some have lake views. Rooms for two from $240 including service and taxes. Long-stay offers from $217 per night. Phone +43 6134 20036, see hotel-hallstatt.com.

EATING THERE

Hubertus Restaurant in Filzmoos has degustation menus for $125 and $185;  see johannamaier.at. Goldenes Schiff in Bad Ischl was awarded a Gault Millau toque last year for its regional food. Its riverside terrace is perfect for sunny afternoons;  see goldenes-schiff.at. You'll have to hike along the lake at Altaussee to Jagdhaus Seewiese for hearty Austrian meals and glorious views. Phone +41 6642 80 9017.

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