This little-know village 30 minutes south of Salzburg has a fine castle and one of the country's best restaurants.
By Mark Honan
Something of an undiscovered secret, this village lies 30 miles south of Salzburg, along the road and rail route to Zell am See and Badgastein.
Rail travelers barely have time to register that there's a sublimely situated castle glowering on a hillock above a cluster of traditional houses, before the train whisks them away down the valley. Even car drivers, who would find it much easier to break their trip for a couple of hours to stroll down the main street and grab a few snapshots, will only scratch the surface of what the village has to offer. To see the best of Werfen, you need to schedule an overnight stop or two.
There's the 16th-century castle itself, Hohenwerfen, a twenty minute hike uphill from the main street, Markt. Its crenelated walls and concave spires soar above a swathe of verdant conifers. Regular tours take visitors through the dingy dungeons, displays of arcane torture equipment and weaponry, the chapel, and the wooden belfry. If you can't follow the German commentary, an audio handset will tell you all you need to know in English. Afterwards, you can move at your own pace through the castles museum collections, which include temporary displays and a permanent falconry exhibit.
The latter should whet your appetite for the falconry show which takes place twice a day in a grassy open-air enclosure within the castle walls. A series of successively larger and larger birds of prey are put through their paces, soaring high into the air or swooping low over the heads of the startled audience. The spectacle is made all the more exciting and dramatic by the stupendous backdrop of the 8,000-foot-high mountain ranges on either side. I won't forget in a hurry the final pass made by the eagle owl, the largest European owl. Its huge orange eyes bored into mine as it dived within inches of my scalp, its beating wings close enough send air currents shivering down the raised hairs on the back of my neck.
The fortress is open from late March until early November, daily except for Mondays in April; closing times range from 4:30pm in spring/fall up to 6pm in July and August. Admission costs $9 for adults.
Even better is Eisriesenwelt, the giant ice caves set high in the Tennengebirge mountain range and an adventure in itself to reach. First, there's a car or minibus trip up an impossibly steep, winding road that claws its way up the mountainside for some four miles. After that, the increasingly precipitous gradient makes road transport impossible. So the next stage is a 15-minute walk up a switchback footpath, before a cable car will whisk you over the stark grey cliffs above the tree line. Then there's a further 15-minute walk to the cave entrance.
Its a long trip, but your perseverance will be highly rewarded. Indeed, you will already have received some of your payback from the magnificent views down to Werfen and across the valley.
The caves are well named. Giant is no exaggeration, for these are the largest accessible ice caves in the world, some 26 miles of passages that open onto huge caverns and elaborate ice sculptures. You'll see shapes that conjure up frozen waterfalls, monstrous prehistoric beasts, and gigantic oriental veils. Your imagination will be prompted in a certain direction when the guide informs you of the names of the structures: ice chapel, ice organ, ice palace, and so on. (Strangely, there's no ice cream!) Yet despite the impression of the presence of a designing hand, all the shapes are entirely naturally formed. To light up the offerings, the guide sets off powerful magnesium flares. The intense but short-lived explosion of illumination greatly adds to the sense of drama and occasion, though it does make impossible detailed appreciation of the structures.
Some words of warning if you plan to visit. Though the sun may be blazing outside, it's usually cold and damp inside, so wear warm clothes and make sure your shoes have a decent grip on their soles. Also, you have to negotiate long stairways inside, and this can be exhausting at an altitude of 5,380 feet. I saw at least two elderly couples, already tired by the long walk to the mouth of the cave, give up and turn back within the first few minutes of the tour.
A visit, including travel time, takes about four hours round trip. If you need to take the minibus, it departs from the car park at the train station (8/$9 round trip). The caves are open from 1st May until 26th October, and tours are daily between 9:30am and 3.30pm (until 4:30pm in July and August). The combined entrance fee for the caves and the cable car is 16 ($18) for adults or 8 ($9) for children. The extremely fit and extremely determined can hike up to the Eisriesenwelt from Werfen in about four hours. But for most people, especially those who have excess Strudels to burn off, I'd recommend instead taking one of the many alternative, less strenuous, but equally rewarding hikes that radiate across the valley from in and around Werfen (the tourist office can supply maps).
Back down in the village, there are also a couple of churches worth peeking inside. The best is the Parish Church in honor of apostle James the Elder, near the tourist office. Built in the mid-17th century, it features a classic Baroque high altar and two early Baroque side altars.
In addition to its own attractions, Werfen is a suitable base from which to visit a number of other sights, not least the myriad top-line draws of Salzburg. Hallein, over halfway towards Salzburg and easy to visit via a 20-minute train ride, is a well-preserved market town with a long history. The biggest attraction here is the salt mines above the town, situated in Bad Dürrnberg. You can reach them via cable car, a bus ride, or even a stiff 40-minute hike up narrow footpaths.
For centuries, salt was crucial to the development and prosperity of the Salzburg region. The mine at Bad Dürrnberg began yielding up its so-called white gold as early as 600 BC. However, in 1989 the mines owners realized that conducting tours of the caverns was even more lucrative than extracting sodium chloride (aka salt). If you take the tour you'll don miners overalls, take a mini train trip, get ferried across a subterranean lake, and view films about the salt extracting process. Best of all, for those who prefer their erudition mixed with a smattering of fairground adrenaline, are the long slides down dark chutes into lower caverns. Riding on your behind on polished wooden banisters, you'll feel a tug of nervousness as you launch yourself into the semi-darkness, though you do reach the bottom before your increasing momentum gets too frightening. The mines are open daily all year, from 11am to 3pm during winter and 9am to 5pm the rest of the year. Admission for adults costs 15.50 ($17). See the website: salzwelten.at/en/.
If your thirst for salt-related matters is not sated by the salt mine, the town reveals more of its secrets at the Keltenmuseum (Celtic Museum), at Pflegerplatz 5, open daily from April to October. At the end of June, Hallein village takes on a carnival air, thanks to the open-air theatre, music and processions that constitute its Stadtfestwoche festival.
Midway between Hallein and Salzburg, the Untersberg mountain is well worth ascending. It's easy to get to the top via cable car, and the elevation of 6,080 feet affords an excellent panorama of the taller Alpine giants in Tyrol and Salzburg province.
In addition to the choices mentioned below, Werfen offers rooms in simple guesthouses or even in private homes. The tourist office (tel. +43/06468/5388) can outline the options.
Formerly known as Gasthof Lebzelter, this stylish place is run by two brothers. Karl Obauer does front of the house duties, while Rudolf reigns supreme in the kitchen. As you'd expect from four-stars, all fixtures and fittings are of high quality. The 10 rooms are variable in proportion and in decor. Their modern and elegant ambiance belies the old fashioned, somewhat nondescript exterior of this gabled building. Within the rooms, touches of elegance are manifested in the most surprising places, such as in decorative light fittings hand-crafted by Karl Obauer senior. Rooms have shower or bath, toilet, cable TV and usually a balcony. I enjoyed having a radio in the bathroom, so that I could wallow in the bath to some musical accompaniment.
Daily Rates: Singles $70-128, doubles $128-195; add $55 per person for four-course dinner.
Rating: Quality 16/20, Value 13/20
Run by the sister of the Obauer brothers, and just a few doors from their place, you'll find this attractive B&B, a cheaper yet similarly stylish option. Approaching the comfort and elegance of its sibling, Erzherzog-Eugen has 11 modern rooms graced by subtle lighting, warm colors, and striking design flourishes. The rooms also have the usual four-star trappings of bathroom, TV, mini bar, safe and direct-dial telephone. Additionally, most rooms have a balcony providing views of the surrounding mountain ranges. The house was built in 1961, though with its traditional chalet design, flower boxes and dark brown window shutters, it slots comfortably alongside the much older buildings on the street. An enjoyable feature is the rear garden, equipped with a sundeck and sun loungers.
Daily Rates: Singles $48-88, doubles $88
Contact: Hotel-Garni Erzherzog-Eugen, Markt 38, Werfen, A-5450, tel. +43/6468/5210, fax 75523.
Rating: Quality 15/20, Value 15/20
This three-star hotel boasts several famous former guests, including Clint Eastwood and Richard Burton they even hosted Margaret Thatchers security men when she stayed in the region (though not the former British Prime Minister herself). It's a large, three-story chalet run by the hospitable Gschwandtner family, and has been so for three generations since 1935. Rooms vary in facilities and size if you get one of the better, more expensive rooms you'll have private shower, toilet, satellite TV and balcony. Multi-bed rooms are available for people with families in all, 50 beds are on offer. Rooms have standard Austrian-style fixtures and fittings, and are perfectly adequate if somewhat uninspired. If possible, go for one of the rooms facing the back of the building or in the rear annex, as those facing the front can be noisy from traffic on the main road. Another reason for locating yourself round the back is the proximity to the relaxing guest garden, with its terrace overlooking lush lawns and shady trees. The hotel offers plenty of parking places, including a garage for bicyclists and motorcyclists they get a few of those dropping in, as the Tauern cycle path runs past the building. Though it's two kilometers south of the center, you don't have to drive or hike into town to get your meals, as they have a satisfying restaurant serving up home cooked Austrian food on the premises.
Daily Rates: With shared shower/WC: singles $26, doubles $42. With private shower/WC: singles $35, doubles $58
Rating: Quality 12/20, Value 14/20
Restaurant zur Stiege (mit Zim)
Though mostly lauded as a restaurant, this place offers a handful of reasonably comfortable rooms. From the outside, the 16th century, chalet-style building makes an immediate impression. Colorful window boxes vie for the attention, alongside the front façades relief designs and elaborate central mural. The front door is reached via a few steps up a double-approach stairway which has inspired the name of the restaurant. Within this setting, the four rooms on offer are a slight let down. They're simple and uncluttered, with white walls and dark-wood furniture the standard sort of two-star rooms you'll see all over Austria. They would almost be austere, but for the colorful curtains and the occasional painting (depicting mountain scenes and the like) breaking up the bare walls. On the plus side, the beds are comfortable, the rooms are a reasonable size (though all the four rooms have different dimensions), and all are equipped with cable TV, en suite toilet and WC. Two rooms face the quiet main street, and two overlook the rear garden.
Daily Rates: Singles $36, doubles $58
Contact: Restaurant zur Stiege, Markt 10, Werfen, A-5450, tel. +43/06468/5256-0, fax 5256-4.
Rating: Quality 11/20, Value 13/20
Though Werfen is little more than a one-street village, it has two excellent restaurants. For simpler fare, it's easy to explore the main street, Markt, and dive in to somewhere that takes your fancy there's a pizzeria and a couple of typical Gaststätten.
The real jewel here and, some would say, in the whole of Austria is this restaurant, serving up creative gastronomic transformations of standard Austrian dishes. Meals can be taken either in the shaded garden or in one of several connected interior spaces. Wherever you eat, you'll get attention to detail, top service (I lost count of the number of times I was asked if I was enjoying my meal), and best of all, fabulous food.
The brothers have traveled widely, and have absorbed ideas and cooking methods from all over the world, but particularly from Asia. They take their food very seriously, but are open to a bit of humor too: the brothers comically elongated chefs hats have inspired the logo for the restaurant.
Main courses cost $24-36, or you can opt for a multi-course menu (choice of several, for around $32-55, as I did. The brothers have a knack for combining unusual elements but making it work. Trout, for example, is not often presented as a strudel, but here it is. Served with a mushroom puree, it's both light and flavorsome. Stuffed duck is an array of taste experiences, with sweet, sour and savory ingredients complementing rather than battling. Desserts, like most of the other dishes, are a work of art on the plate. It seems a shame to tuck into them and spoil the symmetry, but I didn't spot anybody hanging back from doing so.
My one small criticism is that they can over-elaborate. The following morning, still replete from my rich and varied feast the night before, I requested a breakfast of scrambled eggs. I expected and wanted a simple dish to cleanse my palate, but what I got was another surfeit of strong flavors, my eggs arriving mixed with an overpowering accompaniment of chives, other pungent herbs and assorted greenery. I felt that was a bit much for breakfast. I suppose, though, that when you have so many good culinary ideas bubbling over in your minds and saucepans, it's difficult to reign in your creativity. Even for scrambled eggs.
Rating: Quality 18/20, Value 14/20
Restaurant Zur Stiege
This restaurant turns out prime Austrian and regional fare. The recipient of favorable reviews in the Austrian press, as well as a 16 out of 20 Gault Millau rating, you can expect to be served up nouvelle cuisine built upon traditional Austrian culinary values. The restaurant decor beneath the dark-wood ceiling includes a pleasing combination of green upholstery and salmon-colored curtains and tablecloths. At the center of the eating area is a drinks board groaning with an intoxicating array of spirits, including two dozen types of Schnapps. In the summer, you also have the option of eating in the pleasant garden.
Herbert Ranstl has been in charge in the kitchen since 1998. Set menus are in the $26-49 range, while a la carte main courses come in around the $11-23 mark. Cheaper options include standard fare such as scallop of pork or breast of chicken, while the higher prices include choice cuts such as rabbit fillet or saddle of lamb. Among the seafood choices was an adventurous presentation of pike-perch ($22). Served on a bed of potatoes and shallots, the fillet of pike-perch came with an exquisite crust combining eggplant and courgettes. Dessert was equally distinctive and equally good: white cheese soufflé with brandy sorbet and a pineapple-raspberry ragout ($8). The wine list includes some 150 varieties, strongly favoring Austrian and European growers and priced from $26 to $80 per bottle. Or, instead, an extensive exploration of the Schnapps table might just prove too tempting.
Contact: Restaurant zur Stiege, Markt 10, Werfen, A-5450, tel. +43/06468/5256-0, fax 5256-4.
Rating: Quality 15/20, Value 13/20
If you spend the day in Hallein, you can find a number of inexpensive restaurants at which to linger over lunch or dinner. Located in the town center on the western edge of the pedestrian zone, Gästehaus Unterholzerbräu is a place to visit for a smattering of local color and a plateful of reliable Austrian food. With its pale walls, dark wood furnishings and predominantly local clientèle, this is a typical no-frills Gasthof. The menu is not at all daring, offering the usual standbys of Schnitzel, grills, fish and Knudels, but the portions are well cooked and substantial. Main courses are in the range $6-15.
In the evenings, the restaurant takes on more of a bar atmosphere, with locals chatting, playing cards or sipping draught beer.
Contact: Oberhofgasse 4, 8010 Hallein, tel. +43/06245/81203, open 9am-midnight Tuesday-Saturday, 9am-2:30pm Sunday; closed Mondays
Rating: Quality 11/20, Value 14/20
Prices current as of September 2003