A sure-fire way of getting away from the masses of tourists who congregate around Europe's marquee attractions is to take a drive in the country. For this, Austria is unsurpassed.
We refer to roads by color: gold for Autobahn, red for federal roads, and yellow and grey for the most rural routes because that's how they are shown on the large scale (1:200,000 or 1:150,000) maps we recommend for off-Autobahn European driving.
It is the 'yellow' and 'gray' roads that take one deep into the quiet countryside where traffic is light, the scenery most appealing, and where a country's true character reveals itself. A sedate spin down these byways is a most satisfying travel experience.
For beautiful auto trips through remote, sparsely-populated countryside where traffic ranges from light to nonexistent, it's hard to beat Austria. Unlike Germany and Switzerland, where there seems to be a village or town every few kilometers, and all too often traffic consists of long lines of cars behind slow moving trucks, there are portions of Austria, particularly in Styria, where one is reminded of the deserted back roads of Oregon and Washington.
Heavily trafficked country roads are not, of course, unknown in Austria. Just take a ride over the fantastic Grossglockner some summer day, or, on a winter weekend, try Red Road #315 south from Landeck to the Italian and Swiss borders. Though slowdowns and tie-ups can occur virtually anywhere, most of the following suggested routes are over less traveled highways.
Salzburg Grossglockner via Badgastein
Map: Österreich Die Generalkarte #6 & #7 scale 1:200,000.
The longest and most diverse of the three drives suggested in this issue, this one begins in Salzburg and ends in Bruck or Zell am See. We suggest a stopover at Badgastein or Bad Hofgastein and then over the Grossglockner the following day.
The first portion is for those who enjoy climbing steep, narrow roads into the mountains and don't mind dodging the occasional truck in order to enjoy breathtaking mountain vistas and lovely, flower-covered houses. The second part puts you on one of Europe's great mountain highways, the highway over the Grossglockner. Out of Salzburg, take any road to Bad Reichenhall. From there, follow the little yellow road past Thumsee and pick up #21 to the Austrian border. Then take #312 past Unken in the direction of Lofer. (If you are coming from Munich, take the Traunstein exit, head south through Inzell on #305, and then turn toward Lofer where the road intersects #21.)
At Lofer, take Red Road #311 along the Saalach river southeast to Saalfelden. This valley is enclosed on either side by several 2000-meter peaks rising steeply from the valley floor and is perhaps a mile across at its widest. At its southern entry is the Brandlhof golf course, an 18-hole layout popular with German tourists.
This road between Lofer and Saalfelden, through the Saalach Valley, not only offers mountain views but along the way there are caves open for tours. There are also places to stop for a wander through wooded gorges.
The Rathausplatz at Saalfelden is stunning, with a view of the 2,500 meter Breithorn framed by perfect Austrian architecture.
From here, turn toward Maria Alm and begin the ascent to Dienten, which is a ski resort and an exceptionally pretty town. In between, Maria Alm is a picturesque little village with many hotels and restaurants, and an abundance of flowers decorating the buildings.
The road from there to Dienten is interesting, particularly that portion past Hintertal. But from there on it is narrow, seldom more than a car and a half wide, and climbs to the summit shortly before reaching Dienten.
At this point you can either go straight south to Red Road #311 or continue on to Mühlbach. The road south, to the main highway between Bruck and St. Johann, is very narrow in most places wide enough for only one car (too narrow for a yellow line in the middle). There are turnouts, of course, but traffic is light and there are few trucks. The road is curvy and most of the way is downhill. Soon you cross #311 and continue south, entering the beautiful Gasteiner Valley leading to Bad Hofgastein and Badgastein.
You can also choose at Dienten to continue east to Mühlbach and on to Bischofshofen by way of the Hoch Königstrasse. Though this is a lesser track even than a yellow road (the map shows it in white with gray borders) it is paved and well marked. It, too, is a lovely drive. Just before Mühlbach is an astounding view of the Hochknig, a 3000-meter peak. Despite its rugged and foreboding appearance, it is accessible by footpath. The hardy walker can even overnight on the mountain at the Franz Eduard-Matras Haus.
Between Dienten and Mühlbach are many places to park and hike up a few hundred meters through the meadows for a midday repast in the shadow of the mountains. Carry picnic supplies and plan such outings for summer our late April drive found some spots still with three to four feet of snow.
At Bischofshofen be sure to follow the Zell am See signs or you'll end up on the freeway to Salzburg or Graz. Once back on Red Road #311 heading west toward Zell am See, you'll soon see signs for the road south to Badgastein.
However one gets to the Gasteiner Valley, the overnight choices are the more up-to-date town of Bad Hofgastein on the valley floor, or venerable Badgastein, arranged in a horseshoe shape on the slope at the valley's end. It was once one of Europe's great spas and has many massive turn-of-the-century buildings.
When you wish to continue south, proceed on to the rail station at Böckstein, just above Badgastein. There you and your car take the train through the Tauern Tunnel to Mallnitz.
At Obervellach, turn west on Red Road #106, then north at Winklern and over the Grossglockner, #107. The toll is about $25 per car. Continue north to #311 and you have almost come full circle.
Erzherzog Johann Strasse
Maps: Österreich Die Generalkarte #4 & #6 -scale 1:200,000.
This fabulous little drive is not for the faint of heart.
Through the green, sparsely-settled province of Styria the route is named for the beloved Archduke Johann grandson of the Empress Maria Theresa who enjoyed traveling this region in the company of naturalists and archaeologists.
From Salzburg, take Red Road #158 to St. Gilgen and then Bad Ischl. Then go south on pretty #145 past Bad Goisern and Bad Ausee. About 25 kilometers beyond Bad Ausee, turn right (west) on Red Road #308 toward Schladming. Leave this road near Gröbming and go south on the yellow road toward Großsölk, descending a steep grade as you cross the Enns river. You are now driving the Erzherzog Johannstrasse (Archduke Johann Road).
Your destination is Schöder, about 35 kilometers south, and Red Road #96, a few kilometers beyond. This may not seem a great distance, but leave plenty of time, both to enjoy the scenery and to navigate this relatively treacherous track.
The road, which is marked "limitation for cars," is for those who like a little excitement with their driving. Much of it is single lane, particularly through the mountain passes such as the Sölkpass, the drives highest point at some 5,900 feet. Little traffic is encountered, which is fortunate, because for the most part the road has no shoulders or guard rails. Along the way are many chapels and small churches, not necessarily located in the few villages and towns. Our theory is the first people to navigate parts of the road needed some place to pray.
After Großsölk, the road follows a stream, the Großsölkbach, for a few kilometers before continuing its climb toward the summit. Just before the peak, you will climb a steep grade and then make a hard right turn. Approximately one kilometer later, at a hard left turn, is a lovely view over the surrounding mountains. The descent takes you off the yellow road for a final few kilometers on a grey road to Schöder at an elevation of about 2,900 feet.
Although you may be relieved to see relatively flat ground and roads with lane markers, the drive is actually not that frightening. It's just a beautiful drive, one definitely worth seeking out.
On #96, turn back west. At Tamsweg, where south of the town the pilgrim's church of St. Leonard and its fortifications guard the Mur river, bear right onto #95 toward Mauterndorf, which has a 12th century castle. Continue north to Radstadt via the Radstatter Tauernpass and the villages of Obertauern and Untertauern. From there it's only a few kilometers west to the A10 north to Salzburg.
The Erzherzog Johann Strasse is usually closed in winter, so plan your trip accordingly and watch the weather if you are traveling in spring or fall conditions on this road could go from thrilling to truly dangerous in a short time.
Mariazell to Hieflau
Maps: Österreich Die Generalkarte #2-scale 1:200,000.
From the pilgrimage town of Mariazell (about 65 km south of the Vienna-Salzburg Autobahn, exit St. Pölten), along the Salza river southwest to Hieflau, this peaceful drive is through Austria's least populated region.
The countryside is quietly spectacular. The road runs beneath limestone cliffs eroded into extraordinary formations and the ravine slopes are covered with green conifers and deciduous foliage that make this drive especially attractive in the fall. In places where the valley widens, the farms and grazing cattle seem like set pieces, perfectly placed on the broad meadow. The river runs so clear that, if you look closely, you will be able to see fish swimming from your moving car.
The few villages that comprise civilization along this road, such Weischelboden, Wildalpen, Palfau and Grossreifling are tiny and very quiet.
Though the drive is not at all difficult or dangerous, it is still a good idea to depart with a full fuel tank. And, as there are few restaurants along the way, but several lovely spots for picnics, you might also want to take your own food. With stops for sight-seeing and the picnic, figure on about three hours.
Mariazell, where you may wish to overnight, is where a Benedictine priory was founded in 1157 and Pope John Paul II said Mass on September 13, 1983. Inside the Basilica see the striking Chapel of Miracles and the Schatzkammer (Treasury) with its collection of the votive offerings of hundreds of years of pilgrims, from simple drawings by children to heirlooms of great value.
Recommended Hotels for your Austrian Drives
- Landhaus Hubertushof, Puchen 86, A-8992, Altaussee/Steiermark, +43/06152/71280. $$$
- Grüner Baum, Kotschachtal, A-5640, Badgastein, +43/06434/2516-0, fax 25 16 25. $$$$
- Haus Hirt, An der Kaiser Promenade, Badgastein, A-5640, +43/06434/2797, fax 279748. $$$
- Landhaus Gletschermühle, Gletschermühlestrasse 7, A-5640, Badgastein, +43/06434/20 970, fax 23 80 30. $
- Hotel-Café Austria, D-5630, Bad Hofgastein, +43/06432/6223. $
- Hotel Norica, D-5630, Bad Hofgastein, +43/06432/8391-0, fax 8391-500. $$$
- Gasthof Römerhof, Fusch an der Grossglocknerstrasse 77, A-5672, +43/06546/218-0, fax 21 816. $
- Gasthof Zum Alten Brauhaus, 5 Wiener Strasse, A-8630, Mariazell, +43/03882/2523. $
- Schloss Haunsperg, A-5411, Obralm Bei Hallein, +43/06245/80 662, fax 85680. $$$
- Trumer Stube, Bergstrasse 6, A-5020, Salzburg, +43/0662/874776, fax 874 326. $$
- Pension Wolf, Kaigasse 7, Salzburg, A-5020, +43/0662/84 34 530, fax 84 24 23. $$
- Hotel Berner, Nikolaus-Gassner-Promenade 1, A-5700, Zell am See, +43/06542/779, fax 7797. $$
Price Code: $=inexpensive, $$=moderate, $$$=moderate-expensive, $$$$=expensive