During the holiday season, the Wolfgangsee turns into a paradise for lovers of all things Advent.
With the Christmas season starting earlier each year, it was no surprise that by early December last year my friends and I were already feeling burned out by the conspicuous consumption and forced cheer of the capital. So for St. Nicholas Day or December 6th, we decided to get away by spending the weekend in the Salzkammergut. Nestled between Salzburg and the Dachstein massif, the region is home to many alpine lakes, including the tranquil Wolfgangsee, whose ferry services the villages of St. Wolfgang, St. Gilgen, and Strobl. With each village decorated from head to toe, Punsch and gift stand around every corner, the concept of “Christmas market hopping” is taken to a whole new level. Only four hours away by train, Wolfgangsee is an idyllic escape during the holiday season.
We parked our car at Strobl, the first of the three small towns hugging the shore. A popular escape for the Viennese elite throughout the ages, Strobl’s guest book includes the iconic writer and Salzburg Festival co-founder Hugo von Hofmannsthal. The market was just opening up as we took the 11:45 boat to St. Wolfgang, bracing against the wind on the top deck, enjoying the view but grateful we had bundled up for our yuletide adventure.
In St. Wolfgang, the steep and winding streets were teeming with people, the picturesque alpine houses reaching all the way to the shore. We stopped by the church town’s namesake, which is a pilgrimage site. Its modest facade contrasted starkly with the elaborate interior, with a late Gothic altar by Michael Pacher. Definitely worth a visit, especially for art history buffs.
Then it was time to find some food. Markets line the streets of St. Wolfgang, going past the famous Hotel Weißes Rössl (named after the beloved operetta), along with several other accommodations and spas. In the icy December chill, warming up with a nice massage or sauna sounded really tempting.
Bonfires and fairs
Standing around a bonfire lit by the village for its guests, we all decided to tuck into some hearty fare; I had some savory Käsespätzle on a paper plate. As unceremonious as that sounds, it was some of the tastiest cheesy noodles I’ve ever had, thanks to the atmosphere and the appetite I had worked up by walking around.
As the afternoon wore on, we took the ferry and pressed on to St. Gilgen, the last stop on our journey. This time, we warmed up inside the lower deck as the sunset and the large, brightly lit Advent candle floating on the lake began to glow. The surrounding hills took on a blue hue to match the cold, making St. Gilgen all the more magical as we disembarked and caught our first glimpse of a winter wonderland come to life. On the main square, a band played Christmas carols around several fire pits. The quality of the wares on sale was impressive, and I managed to check several people off my Christmas shopping list.
Punsch with a Demon
As we stood around the fire enjoying our Punsch, we told stories of St. Nicolas and his helper, the fiendish devil Krampus. According to tradition, on this day Nikolo would visit local towns with an entire host of bell-wearing, whip-wielding Krampusse, with the saint rewarding good children – and his demonic helpers punishing the naughty.
My friend reassured me though that Krampusse is not allowed to run through the Christmas market anymore, as it’s “all very regulated these days.” Everyone donning the infamous horned mask and animal pelts have to wear a number – much like a license plate – so you know who to report if someone gets too enthusiastic in their duties.
But soon… we heard the telltale tinkling of bells. Some of the Krampusse on their way to the official parade ominously but calmly strode through the market, sending a few younger children crying behind their mothers. One costumed performer noticed my trepidation, walked over, and let out a low growl that only I could hear. With his gruesome face so close to my own, it took all I could muster to keep my Punsch from not spilling onto my gloves. After the staring contest, the Krampus turned and left, satisfied to have scared another city slicker.
Later in January, it’s the good guys’ turn, and the Glöckler (bellringers) come out for their own parade, ringing in the spring and warding off evil spirits like Krampusse. The Glöckerlauf takes place annually around Rauhnacht (Twelfth Night), with local bachelors sporting all-white garb and bells on their belts, carrying enormous, elaborate star-shaped lanterns on their heads.
Once we finished our warm drinks and nervously laughed off our demonic run-in, we headed back to catch one of the last boats to Strobl, our warm hut beckoning us across, as the candle on the water reflected brightly on the still, dark Wolfgangsee lake. After experiencing the holiday spirit done right, we were definitely cured of our Christmas fatigue.