This day we were to drive from Germany into Austria. We had already spent a wonderful morning hiking the Leutasch gorge (Germany Austria 2018: The dizzying spirit gorge of Leutaschklamm) and were now safely on our way, surprised though by the lack of any border or passport control between the two countries. This was something I saw time and again on our trip.
The drive from Mittenwald to Zell am see was the most beautiful drives of our trip. Tall mountains, covered with green conifers or capped by snow were our constant companions. Small towns filled the valleys and extended till the base of the mountains.
There were places on the drive that had very steep slopes. But at one point there was a board that read, “Drive slow, steep gradient ahead.” And naturally, our undaunted Schumi took the curve and the slope at a “not slow at all” rate, and then came to a grinding halt as there was a huge traffic jam ahead. That’s when we realised that the board meant a 16 degree downhill gradient.
What was even more amazing was that the long line of vehicles in the jam waited patiently behind each other, no honking, no overtaking, no getting on to the opposite side of the road (so unlike India). Once we were on level land, everyone just sped off. Soon we merged onto the highway and the fun began. Despite the speed limit of 100 kmph, the heavy vehicles were at 100 and all cars were overtaking them, so we did the same. So much for speed limits.
It was a little scary too, as roads kept merging onto the high-speed highway and cars joined our road at great speeds. The hubby had a blast driving, and I had a blast taking pictures.
Shortly, we turned off the main 4 lane highway onto a smaller 2 lane one and then a single carriageway road.
This portion of the road wound through small towns and green meadows and was as charming as could be. Austria is simply designed for road trips. Every turn made us happier.
The sun was out in all its glory by now and the grey clouds of the morning were gone. There were places where we were totally surrounded by the mountains.
In the small towns along the way, spring had surely arrived and flowers filled the front yards and window sills of all the houses.
As we got approached our destination, the Alps loomed up again, surrounding us. It was mesmerising.
The first view of the lake as we drove by was gorgeous. We never saw this pretty shade of water again though.
Zell am see is an alpine lake town built along 2 ends of lake Zell. Pleasant weather exists year round, and the proximity to Kitzsteinhorn with year-round skiing, the Grossglockner high alpine road, along with plenty of cable cars, hiking treks and summer luges make this a very popular destination. Perhaps this and my best friend Archana’s strong recommendations hyped up Zell am see for me.
We drove into the pedestrian only town center where our hotel was located (great find by Yogesh again, thanks!) and really struggled with the narrow entry to the hotel and getting to the parking lot. But the room and the views were totally worth it.
There was a hall with cupboards and a small storage space for suitcases, with a large bedroom and bathroom. It was very spacious and well decorated. Huge windows dominated the rooms, looking out towards the lake, the old town and the church.
Hungry as we were, we rushed to find lunch. Zell am see is very popular in the Middle East, so there are plenty of Turkish/ Lebanese restaurants and the kid was desperate to find hummus and pita bread, which we got 5 minutes from our hotel.
After a very satisfying lunch, we had a good afternoon rest and set off in the evening to see the much acclaimed town of Zell am see. A small map in hand, we walked out to see the old town and church that were just behind us.
There was a large square with some important looking buildings but surprisingly it was totally deserted. The cafes were empty and everything seemed shut. We thought it might be because of the late hour, but found the same the next day.
There were a series of fancy shops and souvenir stores around our hotel, but all of these were closed too. The shop windows were very alluring however.
Maybe it was good that they were shut. I had lots of free time in this town and would most definitely have shopped. From here, we walked till the tiny but cute railway station with lots of empty restaurants and cafes and this board.
“Damn, they have Maggi here, I needn’t have carried it,” I thought. We had so much Maggi on the trip that I haven’t been able to eat any even three months after getting back. From here, we walked back towards the main town along the lakeside and the railway tracks. The train runs through the town of Zell, providing great scenery and connectivity, but was quite a fright to me at the thought of crossing the tracks. It was a little disconcerting at first, soon it became quite exciting for the kid and me to hop back and forth.
We made our way down to the lake itself to see a swan and some ducks preening themselves in the water.
The lake itself was very beautiful, surrounded by snow-capped mountains, with a large walking track around it. It was very cool by now and the hubby and I were enjoying our time together when we saw the kid tottering at the edge of the water, calling out to the swan.
No wonder this was what followed!
This was the only time in Zell am see that we saw any other people. Whether it was because all the cable cars in the vicinity and the cruises on the lake were closed for maintenance, or because we had landed up at a time when Zell am see was in between the end of skiing season and the start of the summer season, Zell am see was a ghost town. That’s probably why we just didn’t enjoy it. There was nothing to do here. Yet, in retrospect, it gave us the much-needed chill time on our otherwise packed trip.
We walked along the promenade, admiring the distant mountain peaks, up to the Grand hotel, the grandest hotel of Zell am see. Beautiful carvings surrounded the windows and the kid promptly asked me why we weren’t staying here.
We walked amidst the hotel gardens, admiring the spring flowers.
We walked on almost past this side of town, where lots of boats were anchored in the lake and birds flocked about.
The kid’s great pals, the ducks, waddled along us, fearless of any humans, till she started running after them. Then they squawked and flew off.
We crossed a park that the kid would have loved if she were younger and she was saddened to realise that all the playthings were too small for her now. So she contented herself with skipping along the little walking track right at the edge of the lake.
We turned back at this point and crossed over the tracks towards the residential part of the town, where all the apartments were, and where we could see the mountains behind the town, where skiing was the big attraction.
The houses were very pretty indeed, but the lack of people was disconcerting.
Walking back towards the main center, we stopped by the only open stores in the area, all owned by migrants from Syria to pick up groceries. It was like walking into a small shop in Dubai. Hungry by now, we stopped for cake at a fancy coffee shop, but sadly chose a chocolate cake with apricot jam that destroyed the taste for us. Deeply disappointed, we peered into more shop windows to salve our souls.
Admired some more flora.
Saw a few pretty buildings.
We retired early that day, for want of better things to do, and because the Grossglockner drive was up the next day. We spent our evening looking at webcam images of the road and fell asleep hoping for clear skies.
All in all, we found Zell am see to be quite a dud. Maybe we were there at the wrong time. My brother-in-law visited in mid May and pretty much loved the place.
Our last morning at Zell am see saw a very different lake. Gray clouds had moved in, a mist rose from the lake and the gorgeous mountains were totally obscured. The lake was much stiller this morning and the surroundings reflected off it beautifully. Somehow, I preferred this more than the bright clear days.
Sadly, Zell am see didn’t live up to my expectations. Yet, I am very glad I went there becasue it was the base for our Grossglockner high alpine drive, that turned out to be THE best drive of the trip. We were joined on the drive by two good friends, Neha Sisodiya and Yogesh Shenoy, whose presence made the day even so much better for us. But that’s a new story, for a brand new day. So, stay tuned.