Even though they are ninety kilometres to the south, on a clear day, which is every day in the number one city, it is possible to the see the Schneeberg and Rax from parts of Vienna. Part of me wonders how much this visual reminder contributes to the current Viennese relationship with nature and, to some extent its, history, as a place of early “health” tourism and its connection with Freud. It is a difficult association to pin down but it has always puzzled me that there is only one street dedicated to one of these mountains in the capital, the Raxstrasse in the 10th district. More so that when you examine the current geography of the the “Rax Street” from one end to the other, you find it only takes you from Laxenburgerstrasse in the east, to Triesterstrasse in the west. Based on some quick calculations, this is still ninety kilometres from the mountain.
Cartographical considerations aside, what is clear, especially on a clear day, both are serious mountains. Making up part of what is known as the “Wiener Alpen” (a dubious choice of name suggesting those wily Viennese simply decided to claim them for themselves) the limestone Vienna Alps started to form during something called the Alpine orogeny, around 65 million years before the invention of the smartphone. The “Raxalpe” peaks at 2007 metres whilst the Schneeburg, boasting Lower Austria’s highest point, whacks out at a notable 2075.
In the global mountain top-ten, this is tiddly. But just for comparison to anyone with a feeling for Austria and its hills which doesn’t include songs about them being alive, the Rax and Schneeburg are higher than the much more famous “Planai” (1907 metres) above Schladming in Styria, location of the annual world cup night-slalom and its fifty thousand inebriated bobble-hat wearers. Or even Kitzbühl, home of the celebrated Hahnenkahm (1700 metres) Austria’s most illustrious downhill skiing race and – perhaps – alpine location if the international jet-set and their abominable manners are your thing. My point being is that puzzlingly I have never known Bernie Eccelstone to be a regular guest in this less celebrated part of the Austrian Alps (The Wiener Alpen) monstrous fur coat or otherwise.
In spite of its proximity to Vienna, we travelled to the Rax for the first time this year and on arrival were ferried to its famous plateau by Austria’s oldest passenger Seilbahn (the cable car opened in 1926). Whenever I travel in such modes of transport, my thoughts are inevitably consumed by a James Bond baddie with silver teeth who is about to climb through the hatch in the roof and then after a spectacular tussle, be thrown off to land in a pine tree. Naturally, this does nothing to take the edge off the fact that one is dangling in the air held up by a steel cable, but we all have our demons. Fortunately, the ride is pretty swift and soon you are 1500 metres above sea level where a well-trodden route will take you to the historic Otto Haus in about thirty minutes. Beyond that, if you are feeling sprightly and in need of more sustenance or a desire to escape the crowds, there are various paths which bring you to different alpine “huts”: the Karl-Ludwig Haus (1800 metres) open to the end of October and then depending on the weather; or the Habsburghaus (1785 metres) generally open only from June till the end of September.
Just one word on tickets for the cable car: in general you have to reserve at peak times including for the descent. This takes the spontaneity out of your walk a touch especially if you are held up on the way back when your kids get blisters and you miss your allocation. So organisation, plasters and perhaps a fold-away stretcher should be in your kitbag.
In contrast, I travelled to the Schneeberg alone. I had no meetings in the first few days of August (not unusual), the junior Barratts were busy elsewhere (highly recommended in the nine week summer school holidays) and Mrs Barratt had to work. More pressingly, I saw it as the perfect opportunity to escape the city heat. So a day before I announced my grand plans, I searched for a room. Normally, I don’t use any booking platforms but Baron Google von Gutenstein* took me straight to booking.com which offered a four-star hotel in Puchberg am Schneeberg for a tantalisingly baragainesque seventy Euros per night. But I better be quick the AI screamed as there were only “two” rooms left. Seventy Euros for bed and breakfast in a four-star hotel seemed too good an offer to ignore, so away I swiped and within minutes had reserved my berth.
You can reach the Schneeburg by car from where I live in 45 minutes, but I decided to take the scenic route and avoid the motorway and instead headed across country via Mödling, Baden and Bad Vöslau. This brought me to the Triesing Valley which I knew reasonably well having spent my first working year teaching English in a clutch of hidden industrial companies. After passing the factory of Berndorf where it all began, I plotted a course which would bring me out at the Hohe Wand (another nature park and mountain in Lower Austria). I had never been here, too, and the Schneeburg seemed right next door. So my plan was to drive up, across the top and down the other side into Puchberg. All I can report is that it is beautiful up there, the road up and down will make you agree to change your brake fluid the next time you go for a service but, and this is important, you can’t drive over the top.
Doubling back, I arrived in Puchberg in the early afternoon to be greeted by a perfectly reasonable hotel with an interior that looked like an East German sitcom from the 1970s. During check-in I am offered the choice of a three-course dinner which by decree of the Austrian Hotel Ordnance of 1967, had to be eaten between 6pm and 7.30 pm. Unperturbed, I noticed their speciality was “trout” (fresh from their pond) so, I told them I would think about it and let them know later in the restaurant. After dumping my stuff in my room, a room reached by a corridor boasting all the ascetic hallmarks of the dying days of the first republic, it was time to get up the mountain. So I returned to the desk and asked if they had a hiking map. They gave me a flimsy brochure with some illegible scribbles on it. “Great!” I thanked them (British to the end) and off I strode in search of mountain trails and anything that didn’t look, smell or remind me of Vienna.
There wasn’t time to visit the peak that sunny and very hot afternoon so I decided to take a walk up to one of the mountain huts along a path which flanked the famous Schneebergbahn (more about that later). Part of the reason for leaving Vienna was to escape the August heat. But it wasn’t much better in Puchberg that day – certainly in the valley – and the path I eventually took was baked by sunlight for the entire climb. Worse I had applied sun-cream which consistently and stingingly seeped into my eyes as I shuffled up the hill, sweating as I did so like a Saunameister on overdrive (but without one those little Tarzan loincloths they wear to cover up the extremities of the male physique).
After more than an hour of this self-induced torture, I reached the Hengsthütte (1012 metres) and, in a break with my normal tradition, decided I needed a beer in the middle of a walk. My eyes felt like they had been pepper-sprayed by an over-zealous copper, but it was a Tuesday afternoon, the sun was shining there were no other guests, I was sitting halfway up a mountain miles from the sun-baked number one city and its summer madness, and I was drinking a Stiegl. It’s a wonder I ever got married and had children.
That evening, once I had descended the hill in a more agreeable mood and checked out the wellness facilities (always suspicious when you are a single man on your own), I had a beer on the “terrace” before dinner. Yes, a German beer. German beers are some of the worlds finest but we were in Austria. No matter, I had my mind on fish. So I settled in the restaurant and ordered the trout and a glass of wine served with the finesse of a circus clown and the linguistic dexterity of a corrupted speech recognition programme. At least the wine was well chilled, if your idea of chilled is somewhere between tepid and the ambient temperature of the Dead Sea.
As soon as that piece of fish was placed in front of me, I gave profound and sincere thought into becoming a vegetarian. That trout had lived and died so that it could be grilled by a chef with the skill of a prison cook whose previous role was sitting in a corner of the recreation room smacking his fist into his heavily tattooed open palm. It deserved, at the very least, a much more noble and honourable send off. And certainly not seared to an inch of its very existence, only to be drenched in garlic butter and accompanied by a single, lifeless piece of lettuce, two halves of a pallid cherry tomato and some diced potatoes, cold and slightly under-cooked. This was, in a word, abysmal.
As a distraction from the charred, half-eaten carcass on my plate, I gazed about the room taking in the tired and outdated furniture, populated by tired and outdated other guests. Predominately old couples eating in silence although stirred into action by the tiniest of little interventions or events, the opening of the ice-cream fridge by the waiter, the clatter of a knife on the floor, a Brit wincing at the wine. But there was also a young family, consisting of three children and the mother and grandmother who looked about the same age and some singletons like me although I was the only one not engrossed in the blue glow of a screen. But as I surveyed the restaurant it slowly dawned on me. Half those tables were empty (it was the same at breakfast) and this could only mean one thing: yes, the booking.com algorithm had lied, the unethical bastard.
Forgoing the invitation to play bingo after dinner with the other guests, I ordered a bottle of wine and headed back to the terrace to think about Puchberg. With my arrival on that sunny afternoon, my first impression was a compact little town in a beautiful location, going about its business, supporting several hotels and the usual sprinkling of cafes, shops (even two butchers) and some restaurants. But a walk round after dinner in an attempt to forget dinner gave me a much more nuanced look. The “for rent” signs in closed shops, the closed “Pension” or two, the general air of neglect, the lack of people on the streets. It didn’t take me long but as someone who more or less grew up in a British coastal town, I realised it had much the same vibe. One that had seen its heyday disappear into the mist, never to return, consigned to the tourist hotpots of yesteryear.
This explained, in part, the hotel. It was probably once a wonderful place to stay but you could see it was struggling. I don’t blame them and it makes no sense to name it given that such hotels and many like it try their hardest to sustain an ageing structure and ideals of what constitutes service and quality in an ever shrinking more demanding market. They try to mitigate this decline with some gradually added modern accoutrements they have probably seen in a magazine but tourism can be an unpredictable and sometimes an unforgiving business. And sadly, I can always see through the pretence.
One thing about Puchberg, though, is that it is not really that close to the Schneeberg itself. Fortunately, it is the starting point for the Schneenberg railway (or “Salamander cog railway”) which takes you on a forty minute, ten kilometre ride to an altitude of 1800 metres. Which is where we will pick up the story in part three as I rise very early the next day only to be the last at breakfast. An astonishing spread of a Frühstück consisting of undrinkable coffee, the usual cuts of ham and cheese, some orange juice sourced from the producer who used to supply the Hungarian army prior to 1989 and, yes, eggs, lots of hard boiled eggs.
*The Rax and Schneeburg are part of what is also known as the Gutenstein Alps.
© 2018 RJ Barratt