Cares unravel in the pristine alpine stillness of Upper Austria’s Grünau im Almtal
Cascades of snowflakes thick as the Milky Way tumbled down the ski slope, erasing the trails made by the few other skiers. We had the piste, framed by snow-clad conifers, all to ourselves.
At the end of a blissful Thursday – unencumbered by ski-lift queues, inept snowboarders or long lunchtime
waits – we took the blue run back down to our hostel in the valley. Snaking through dark, dense woods, it was simply enchanting, but never predictable.
Small is beautiful
Near Gmunden in the Salzkammergut, the Kasberg ski resort (620-1600m) is nestled above the Schindlbach valley. Although hardly above the tree line, it usually has plenty of snow – two meters is not uncommon – helped along by 110 cannons firing off artificial snow.
Forty kilometers of trails offer something for every skill level. “This mountain is small, but you can use it as you like,” said Frantzeskos Papaioannou, a Greek cook at a gourmet restaurant in Vienna and a passionate
snowboarder. He also valued the “great quality” of the food in the tiny lodges – no concrete mega-
restaurants here. Thanks to the 8-person gondola added in 2003, in high season up to 4,000 people – many local families with young children, along with some Bavarians and Dutch – can enjoy the Kasberg slopes. We found that weekdays in January and early February are the best times to go: good snow and no waiting.
The Treehouse Hotel, a few minutes’ walk from the base station, is a typical mountain guesthouse: sturdy,
rustic and welcoming. At the breakfast buffet, we munched on some delicious fresh Zwieballen, a regional
specialty of wheat and rye bread made by the proprietor Gerhard Bammer, the son of a local baker.
How do people manage to make a living in this quiet, rural valley, I wondered? Most, he told me, commute to Wels or Linz. Otherwise it’s construction and, of course, tourism. Summer activities include rock climbing, canyoning or rafting on the Traun river; as well as hiking, horse-back riding or mountain-biking on well-marked trails. Kids can learn archery at the Kinderland Leisure Center in Schindlbach. The Renaissance castle Schloss Scharnstein and its Kriminalmuseum are open from May through mid-October. In Scharnstein there is even an international Buddhist meditation center: Ragjung Yeshe Gomde. Apart from standard winter sports, there is also ice-climbing for the more adventurous
at Hinterer Rinnbach.
Where time stands still
Another time, we upgraded to a more tastefully decorated resort, Hochberghaus, high above the valley
on a ski piste and near hiking trails. The area around Grünau is sparsely populated. The dense local woodland has been protected for centuries. Here, nature is in its pristine state, with deer, chamois and foxes roaming the valleys. Numerous birds, including birds of prey, either breed in the Almtal or use it as a migration corridor. Since the 1850s, the Kasberg area has been described as an El Dorado for botanists.
We explored Grünau’s main valley, the Almtal. Cumberland Wildpark, a nature reserve – with lynxes, wolves and brown bears – is opened throughout the year to all except dogs, which are strictly forbidden.
Just past the Wildpark, the Almtal forks to the left, it becomes the Inner Hetzau valley, open to the public only between May 1 and September 15, after which hunting season sets in before the area is closed for winter.
Continuing straight on leads to the Almsee, a picturesque alpine lake in summer and natural ice-skating spot in cold winters. “Here silence is sustained,” 19th century Austrian writer and painter Adalbert Stifter wrote. Thanks to its relative remoteness, the valley has retained a serenity rare even for Austria.
A very private valley
Hochberghaus, a haven of tranquility, is equipped with a spacious, well-ventilated sauna overlooking the forest. I quickly became addicted to the chocolate-carrot cake and my companion couldn’t get enough of the Zirbenschnaps, an Arolla pine liquor distilled by Wolfgang Rohrauer, the lodge’s amiable young manager.
Conversation quickly turned to the “neighbors.” Two mighty landowners control the rich forestry, fishing and hunting ground around Grünau. One of the earliest monastic foundations in Austria, the Stift Kremsmünster abbey (founded in 777) has owned some 98 square kilometers in the Almtal since the Middle Ages. The Cumberland-Stiftung Forsthaus Unterschwiebl, a foundation, goes back to the 1860s, when the last crown prince of Hannover exiled himself to Upper Austria, built a castle in Gmunden and bought vast acreage in Grünau. The current head of the family, Duke Ernst August, descended from the English King George III, is married to Princess Caroline of Monaco.
Historically, local game has been much prized, and international hunting parties included Princess Viktoria Louise, daughter of the last German Emperor, who first came in 1913. Predictably, such visitors set great value on their privacy and, in the early years of the twentieth century, access for hikers to Upper Austria’s highest summit (Großer Priel, 2515m) was the subject of lengthy negotiations with these landowners.
Old money still rules
Once a well-established summer resort, today Grünau’s charms have faded somewhat and the town is anything but lively. An American resident, Heidi (no kidding) Geishuettner, regrets that “Grünau hasn’t really changed much” since her first visit in 1993 — rich hunters and older farming families “are against most anything that encourages tourism. The little town is slowly dying,” she lamented.
Indeed quasi-feudal land rights favor logging and hunting at the expense of tourism. Stift Kremsmünster rents much of its land to hunters, an exclusive business that is very lucrative. At the southern end of the Almtal, the Hetzau hunting ground covers some 30 square kilometers of forest and high mountain tracts. Its traditional Hohe Jagd (alpine game hunting) includes red deer, roe deer, chamois and roe buck.
Yet the Treehouse Hotel’s Gerhard Bammer told me some ideas have been floated: a hotel at the foot of the station; more slopes; floodlights for night skiing, etc. Will après-ski kitsch destroy Grünau’s secluded beauty? Unlikely. Grünau is one of 20 designated Bergsteigerdörfer (mountain-climber villages) and strict criteria must be fulfilled to earn this Alpine club label – untouched mountain landscape, a wide range of alpine activities and sustainable development. Here, the feudal system may well be an asset.
Anyway, as the young Greek cook Frantzeskos Papaioannou pointed out, “you can party all you like in Vienna” but nothing beats Kasberg for “relaxing and snowboarding.”
WHERE TO STAY
In the Kasberg hotels we tried out, you will be treated as a person, not a number.
The more upmarket, family-friendly Hotel Hochberghaus (1132m) is only accessible by cable car and hotel skidoo in winter.