I left the hotel early next morning to take the first train to the mountain station thinking that as it was the middle of the week, there would be no reason to reserve a place and, equally, I’d beat the crowds. But first I needed to organise lunch. Like my compare over in the Cottage (the Cottageviertel straddles Vienna’s 18th and 19th districts) I am a pro. So on the way to the station, I make a short detour to the resident supermarket and buy two rolls with ham from the deli counter, all for the princely sum of two Euros fifty.
Provisions acquired, I skirted around the picturesque gardens of Puchberg and entered the ticket hall, only to be confronted by a snaking queue of people dressed in colourful checked shirts and, even by my standards, some exceptional hats. Something clearly wasn’t right even without the fashion. A quick scour of the screens above the ticket desk and my fears were confirmed. Yes, the next available seat was at midday. Cursing humanity, I am temporarily distracted by a young man with three small children having a marvellous ding-dong (in English) with the staff:
“But there is no information on the website. We have travelled two hours from Hungary and now you tell me we have to wait three hours for a seat? What am I supposed to do?” (He had a point, this was Puchberg.)
“I’m sorry, sir, but you should have reserved in advance.”
“But there is no information on the website. No information. And you expect to make money from tourism?” (Evidently, a pro at point making.)
This carried on for a few magnificent minutes. And as I stood there watching this fellow parent get increasingly exasperated and stressed, I understood his pain: a combination of frustration, hassle and a small child suddenly needing a toilet. Only another parent can truly appreciate such an organisational pickle and my sympathies ran deep. Although not so deep as to ignore the more burning question of what the fuck I was supposed to do till lunchtime. Fortunately, another look at the screens and salvation presented itself. Suddenly there were two free places on the first shuttle. So, with a deftness of foot usually reserved for a man in tights with a bulging codpiece, I approached the desk and enquired:
“Are those two seats still free?”
“Then saddle me up Madam. I’m a-going to the mountain top!”
I handed over twenty-seven Euro for a single ticket (return trip thirty-seven Euro) as my plan, if it could be called a plan, was to hike to the peak from the mountain station and then take a circuitous route back down to the hotel. This I calculated would take anything between four and five hours but as I mused on the logistics, the gates were opened and with my fellow adventurers, including a rather restless toddler with the penetrating shrill of mountain train slamming on its brakes at high speed, we were directed towards the waiting “Salamander”.
Grabbing a place next to the window in the first of the two carriages I was joined by another family with three small children all demanding a seat with a better view. So, as genially as I could muster, I gave up my berth with a sympathetic smile and a shrug. And with the places exchanged, we were off. Blessed are the kind my primary school teacher had once told me and so my reward for exercising seat-based altruism was a fifteen minute running commentary seen through the eyes of a five year old:
“Oh look, a cow. Oh look, a flower. Oh look, a tree. Oh look, a man throwing himself off the train.”
To take my mind off the incessant babble sitting next to me, I sought diversion in the booklet provided at the station which provided a bit of history. The Schneebergbahn is what is known in such circles as a cog railway. Construction began in 1896, overseen by a certain Leo Arnoldi, a German railway builder and the first section, as far as the Baumgartner stop, opened about 18 months later. Today the narrow gauge track is just a touch under ten kilometres long taking you from the centre of Puchberg (577 metres) to the Schneeberg mountain station high above (1800 metres) in about forty minutes. Indeed, as the tourist bumf proclaims:
“Its combination of nostalgia and modern engineering, culture and epicurean delights at an altitude of 1800 metres is unique”.
This seemed marvellous, more so that I had learned a new word (epicurean) whilst squeezed next to the pre-school version of David Attenborough. But they might be right, something you begin to realise as you sit there on seats designed for hobbits, chugging up the track, gazing in wonder at the beautiful scenery and the cows, flowers and many trees as the air cools around you. More so because I was able to put aside my usual prejudices against the Germans (ok, one German living next door) and admit it was a wonderful piece of engineering.
About half-way up we took a short break at the Baumgartner stop where we were encouraged to disembark and buy Buchteln, a regional sweet speciality. I think they look and taste a little like jam doughnuts but the main difference is they are baked in an oven and not fried in fat. Resolutely I stayed in my seat and people returned a few minutes later with bags of the stuff. Several people started to eat them on the train as the journey continued and I wondered if Buchteln are banned on Vienna’s underground line six along with kebabs, pizza and Leberkäse.
Forty minutes after we had set off, and greeted by a quite spectacular view, we were at Hochschneeburg mountain railway station adjacent to the Berghaus. The Berghaus was built as a hotel in 1898 as the track was extended under the guise of the k.k. österreichische Staatsbahnen for the Austro-Hungarian Empire, which in Austria ultimately became the ÖBB (the current Austrian State Railway). Emperor Franz Joseph (he of Tafelspitz fame) stayed here in 1902, an association which made the area even more fashionable amongst the elites and social-climbing middle-classes (it took me a little longer to get there because I only became middle-class after the Brexit vote in 2016).
As the hoards off-loaded I took the executive decision to pop into the Berghaus for a coffee to let the crowds disperse. It’s a fascinating place with a huge dining room seating over three hundred. It reminded me of a Bavarian beer hall so I found a place amongst the 320 available chairs, studied my map and plotted the route. First to the Klosterwappen at the peak (the highest point in Lower Austria at 2075 metres) and then over the ridge heading north (I think) back down to the mountain station of the Schneeberg chairlift, and then from here a meandering route through the hills and forests back to Puchberg itself (a total journey of about 15 kilometres).
On the way to the top, I overtook several of my fellow passengers clearly weighed down by too many jam-based snacks. The last bit was quite steep as I clambered up over a rocky path and one needs a certain amount of fitness to do it, although it is possible to go the other way via the Fischerhütte which is more generous to the less “trained”. At the top it was windy and now quite chilly with clouds billowing around, temporarily shutting out the sun only for it to suddenly return with the next gust. On reaching the fork in the paths a little way along the ridge, I noticed a sign: “Expert only”. I respect nature and I am not the kind of idiot to go mountain walking in sandals and a t-shirt but what did “expert” mean? Dress like Edmund Hilary? Take a jagged ice-axe? Time to wear some of those fabulous blizzard goggles?
As I stood there, a fellow walker approached from my intended direction and I asked him about the expert thing. A much older chap than me, breathing heavily and sweating under his hat, he explained it was a bit of a challenge. Not exactly steep but you more or less have to clamber over rocks along a narrowish path. Could I do it I ask? Probably he replied but I wouldn’t risk it wearing those (he pointed at my feet).
A quick aside: on that day I was wearing trainers as my walking boots had vexingly started rubbing the day before. Given the journey up and the climb to the top I knew sports shoes would be fine. But with the clouds moving in and an unknown path to the valley, I couldn’t be sure they would be ideal for the descent, especially if it started to rain. I may be many things but one of them is not an outdoor Wappla.
So we spoke a bit more, he asked me where I was from, why I could speak such good German (the air was thin up there) and then we bade farewell. I took refuge at the Kaiserstein and thought about what to do whilst imbibing the beautiful scenery and munching on a ham roll. In the end, I decided to head back towards the mountain station and then take the other route which more or less shadowed the railway track. Near the top it is quite steep and narrow in places – although never dangerous – as you first pass through some thick bushes and onwards to the treeline. On the descent there were a few people walking up, a feat which takes some endurance. But walking downhill also has its challenges. It is not so aerobically demanding but it puts a lot of strain on your knees and legs as you shuffle in little steps mindful of your footing.
About halfway from the Kaiserstein, at the Buchterl stop, I cut down through a steep path into the woods to avoid the more well-trodden train route. Here in, for nearly two hours, I saw and heard nobody as I trekked through the trees and then past some sleepy villages, farms, a riding centre and a couple of Gasthause (all closed). With the Schneeberg as a backdrop, I was back in the heat, feeling the fatigue and with the soles of my feet throbbing (which is why you should invest in a proper pair of walking shoes or boots).
In the evening I ate in a restaurant and then found the local Tschocherl (authentic somewhat seedy bar) in the square where I observed Puchberg at play (two teenage boys repeatedly whizzing around the one-way system on a wheezy motorbike). In the morning I would say goodbye to Scheeburg and return to the Vienna of summer – humid, baking and breathless. And with it an issue that had been vexing me all year, an issue that had put life quality straight back on the agenda, an issue that was – in motoring terms – metaphorically shitting outside my door to the world every single bastard day. And this meant it was time again to speak to a certain Bezirksvorsteher (council leader and party comrade) about traffic.
Ps – the Salamander will run every weekend till the end of November although only as far as the Baumgartner station. Then it is a winter break apart from a special on Christmas Eve if you are mad enough to want to go. Normal service to the mountain top will resume on the 27th April 2019.
© 2018 RJ Barratt