“You set your heart too much on things, Anne. I’m afraid there’ll be a great many disappointments in store for you through life,” said Marilla. “Oh Marilla,” exclaimed Anne, “Looking forward to things is half the pleasure of them. I think it’s worse to expect nothing than be disappointed.”
Anne of Green Gables by Lucy Montgomery
Like the child Anne, I have the bad habit of setting my heart too much on things. On a trip, it is making someplace THE focal point, THE obsession. And like the child, it’s frequently something that might not get realised and hence lead to deep disappointment. This year, the obsession was the Grossglockner Hochalpenstrasse (High Alpine Road), which was a silly obsession as it conventionally opens in early to mid May and we were there on 3rd May. This high altitude road is closed from November to April because it is totally snowed in. The unusual prolonged winter in March 2018 reduced the chances of its opening while we were there. The fear wasn’t allayed by my trip planner Yogesh, who urged me to plan something else on that day.
The purpose of visiting Zell am see was to drive the Grossglockner High Alpine Road
I had so many alternate plans lined up that it became imperative for the road to open on time! The obsession build up as our trip grew closer, to the extent that I had downloaded the Grossglockner app on my mobile and was checking it twice a day, sometimes three times. And till we left, it kept saying, “opening shortly.” And I kept telling myself, “Be still, my beating heart.”
The flight to Frankfurt and the subsequent travel naturally distracted me adequately, so I only checked the app the day we reached Würzburg (still closed) and then directly on the day we left the lovely Rothenburg ob der Tauber, when it suddenly said, “open”.
“Joy hath no bounds,” was my state, till the eventful fall of the hubby on the Nördlingen tower the same day (Germany Austria May 2018-The unromantic Romantic Road with the very romantic towns), when I was not sure whether he’d be able to do such a strenuous drive with such a severe injury. But I had underestimated his resolve (and interest) for he kept staring at the webcam the previous evening at Zell am see and chalking out the route.
Finally, the next morning arrived. With great excitement (and staring at the webcam), we finally set off after a hearty breakfast at our lovely hotel Traube. My friends Neha Sisodiya and Yogesh Shenoy joined us for this drive at our hotel and we set off, hoping for clear skies. (Warning: There is a ridiculous number of images in this post)
It’s not easy to plot the Grossglockner drive on Maps, but the website has an inbuilt route planner that we followed. We were driving it from North (the Salzburg end) to South (the Corinthia end, where one can drive into Italy). The drive to Bruck, the starting point for the high Alpine road, was scenic as could be and set the ball rolling for the day to come. The day was beautiful, with blue skies and fluffy white clouds, no hint of the rain that was predicted. Happy I was. As we drove through the beautiful alpine scenery, we turned off into a road with pretty meadows with wooden chalet like houses.
There were very few boards on the way, so naturally the hubby was a tad concerned about being on the right route, but we had to be on the right road with these mountains looming up.
Of course, we were on the right path when the toll booth came up, but surprisingly, the rate was less than that on the website. I was worried, would we travel only half the road? The man at the booth handed us a map of the best viewing points and the two offshoots to the highest motorable areas and we set off.
The Grossglockner High Alpine Road is a 48km long toll road that drives through Austria’s Hohe Tauern National Park with stunning views of tall mountains including Austria’s tallest peak, the Grossglockner.
“This is it,” I thought, “The Grossglockner Road itself. Buckle up, sit back and enjoy the ride.” And then I found myself being pushed backwards into the seat as someone had found the accelerator and was going for it gung-ho.
The initial part of the drive was a steep ascent from the bottom of the valley into the mountains. This portion hugged the side of the mountain, so there were sharp curves and we could see ourselves getting higher and higher very swiftly.
The gorgeous Austrian Alps beside us as we ascend
There were waterfalls all around, one so huge and close to us that we were tempted to get off and stop. We didn’t stop as we wanted to reach the top before the predicted rain, and thought we would see it on the way back. Bad move.
We had decided not to stop on the way, but it was irresistible. The road had multiple viewing bays, that were simply too tempting to get off at, and we did give in to temptation. After all, what’s a road trip without the view?
Neha Sisodiya and Yogesh Shenoy at our first stop, already 1850 meters ASL
So many photographers!
We continued to ascend, turn after steep turn and resisted all temptation to stop every two minutes, because that’s how breath taking it really was.
Even though it was not raining, there was a fair amount of cloud cover, which hung about as blobs of cotton on the mountains beside us. Now, the surroundings began to change, the leaves grew sparser and bits of dirty snow dotted the sides.
First sighting of snow on the road
We were surprised to see cyclists on this route. “They must be bonkers,” I thought, “and super fit.” Not only were they super fit, they were super fast too. In fact the same cyclist crossed us twice while we were busy stopping for photographs!
The wheels for the trip, our trusted Volkswagon Golf
The man of the trip, just as trustworthy
A lot of the viewing bays had signboards about elevation, peaks seen and fauna, but we didn’t waste a moment looking at them, we were just so blown away by the views. At this point, maybe midway to the top, we had our first marmot sighting (that I coudn’t see) and saw a treehouse with a view to kill (that we couldn’t climb).
It was great fun having Neha and Yogesh with us. The kid was totally charmed by Neha and found a new friend. Now I can’t speak to Neha without her butting in!
As we drove higher, the entire scenery changed. The trees and the greenery reduced and were replaced by huge masses of snow.
We were level with the clouds now.
Soon, we drove right through them. “I wanna take the clouds home,” said the kid. So did I.
This bit was scary, but the hubby maneuvered expertly as we ascended higher. Just a little ahead, we stopped at the Haus Alpine Nature Exhibition where we thought marmots could be petted. Marmots are cute large squirrels for whom the European Alps are home. Unfortunately, there were only wild (non-pettable) marmots here, but we had a great time playing in the thick carpet of snow while Yogesh photographed the marmots.
The mean machines that keep the road motorable
At this point, we could see the huge mountains looming ahead and dense snow all around us. After all, we were already 2260 meters above sea level. But the hubby was looking terribly distressed. “Houston, we have a problem,” he said. We were dangerously low on fuel. I was surprised as we had checked the fuel gauge the previous night and the morning of the drive and there was enough. He thought the indicator might be erroneous because we were on a slope, so we parked on level land and checked again. There wasn’t enough fuel to even complete the journey. “Possibly, the steep ascent used more fuel than we thought,” he said. This was terrible. The only petrol pumps on this road were at the two ends. I had visions of 4 adults pushing the car and the kid steering.
There was just one option, to head back down the way we came and get to the petrol pump before the toll booth. Hopefully being downhill would consume less fuel. We apologised to Neha and Yogesh for being so dumb (we’ve been driving for years and couldn’t even estimate the amount of gas needed) and headed back down.
One of the 36 switchbacks on the road
The drive down was very different from the drive up. I talked even more than usual because I was so stressed and the kid naturally had to match up. Neha and Yogesh’s eardrums were in for a really rough time! We made it down and out in good time but it was a really long drive to the gas station. “Please make it, please make it,” I prayed desperately till we reached and I think we all were relieved by the refuelling.
Once the “longest pitstop ever” was done, and we were back in buoyant spirits, we continued driving up, this time non stop beyond the point where we’d turned back.
The road is a true engineering marvel
Even though thunderstorms had been predicted by this hour of the noon, they hadn’t yet started. We were now ascending even above the layer of clouds. We drove through a series of switchbacks, but unlike those at Sikkim, these weren’t terribly tight or steep and the road itself was implacable, making this one of the best drives of my life. Suddenly, a very sad voice piped up, “Mommy I’m feeling sick.” “Oh no,” I thought, “the motion sickness is acting up despite all the medication.” We tried distracting her with all sorts of stories when the solution suddenly struck. “You need food,” I cried. in all my excitement, I’d forgotten that she needed to keep being fed on road trips to control the nausea. There was no restaurant for a long while, so we stopped at the nearest parking bay to get food from the boot and my jaw just dropped open. Splayed out beneath us were the switchbacks we had just climbed, like a huge brown anaconda amidst the pure white snow.
We let the kid keep hogging while we all jumped out and took scores of pictures. A big thank you to the kid and her vestibular apparatus for helping us find this place.
Now, we ascended towards the lookout post seen in the picture above, Fuscher Torl, at 2428 meters above sea level. It was all too gorgeous for words. The snow was all around us now. Soon we came upon a large parking lot from where 2 roads diverged. One went to the right and one to the left and curved steeply upwards.
The road that leads to the Fuscher Torl and towards the main mountain passes
We were perplexed by the 2 roads. “It certainly goes onto the right,” said the hubby, “all the cars are going there.” “Then who’s going there?” I asked him, pointing to the road to the left where I could see a few cars descending. “Let’s go and see,” said the enthusiastic hubby.
What a road! We had unknowingly stumbled onto the narrow cobblestone road that led to the highest viewing point of the drive, the Edelweissspitze at 2571m. The road till there was narrow, just enough for one car, very steep with very tight corners. No wonder very few cars were going there. But the brilliant hubby took us up there. Outstanding bit of motoring that was.
Once we reached the very top, we ran about the panoramic viewing platform like little kids. We were amazed to see cyclists at this elevation too.
The marmot point we had turned back from for fuel was a tiny speck with the 200mm lens
We saw crazy people sitting on the railing and clicking selfies. I tried explaining the hazards to the kid while suddenly, we both got pelted hard by snowballs. We turned around but could see no one. Splat blotch bang, some more made their way. That’s when we looked up. The naughty hubby had gone up onto the terrace of the exhibition gallery and was busy pelting us.
The kid rushed to get there to pay him back and splash, ran straight into a puddle and got all soaked and I had to rush back to the car to change her socks and shoes while the hubby clicked away from his vantage point.
More than thirty 3000m peaks can be seen from this panorama point, many of which were partly hidden by the clouds. Even more stunning was the series of switchbacks that we’d driven on the way up.
Contrast this with the same view taken exactly 20 days later by my brother-in-law on a bright and sunny day.
Picture courtesy Ravi Thapar, taken 20 days later
Sated by the views, we drove down that scary narrow road, again with excellent maneuvering by the hubby, on past the Fuscher Torl, where a memorial was built to commemorate those workers who died during the construction of this masterpiece of a road, built over 5 years from 1930 to 1934, in order to generate revenues for a cash stripped Austria. Brilliant foresight and engineering!
We drove down towards the Fuscher Lake, opposite the Mankei inn where tame marmots are kept by the innkeeper.
The lake was almost completely frozen when we went, and I have included my brother-in-law’s pictures simply to point out the difference over just 20 days.
Us approaching the Fuscher Lake
Pic courtesy Ravi Thapar, taken 20 days later. You can see the walking path across the lake that was covered by snow on our trip
The lake itself was barely recognizable as a lake to us when we went.
The almost completely frozen lake when we went
Pic courtesy Ravi Thapar; the barely frozen lake 20 days later
Hunger finally overcame our excitement and we were pleased to get a meal at the Mankei inn. The marmots were still hibernating, so there was no chance for the kid to play with them.
Camera gear for the trip!
We drove on towards the two tunnels that go through the mountains. We crossed the first and came out at a winter wonderland (in May).
We drove on to cross the Hochtor pass, which at 2504m, was the second highest point on the drive. In olden years, it was the most dangerous part of the road, but now, as safe as any other point.
Snow ploughs start clearing the road in the end of April from both ends and meet at this summit. Once all the snow is cleared, the road is declared open.
The kid and the hubby scribbled their names on the tall walls of snow.
Neha and Yogesh found a viewpoint from where the tallest mountain of Austria, the Glossglockner (3798m) could be seen on a clear day.
Both the kid and Neha wanted to build a snowman, so that had to be done. We saw a flat glacier like area and got out.
Neha and the kid had a blast throwing snowballs at each other. Then the hubby joined them and the two adults pelted the kid bigtime!
While Yogesh and I were busy taking pictures, Neha had a go at us!
What a gorgeous place this was and what views!
Happy with the playing, Neha and the kid got down to the serious business of constructing a snowman. They made a small mound of snow for the body and Neha started shaping into a body and a head and the kid promptly flattened it out.
The process repeated itself till Neha made a separate head and placed it on top. Yogesh rummaged about in the bracken and retrieved pebbles for the eyes and made arms out of sticks, and voila, we had a snowman.
Having had our fill of snow, we drove onwards towards the next offshoot, the Kaiser-Franz-Josefs-Hohe point, named after the emperor of Habsburg, who had climbed to this height in the late 19th century, with great views over the glacier.
We drove through these tall walls, shovelled aside by the snow ploughs as we descended. Unfortunately, the road to the viewpoint was closed because of risk of avalanche, so we continued to drive downwards.
As we descended, the snow reduced and the greenery started reappearing.
By now, the large clouds that we had been seeing for long, rolled in further. It looked as though snow was flying off from the higher parts of the road we had come down from. There didn’t seem to be much point in continuing downwards and we thought we’d seen all that we could of the Grossglockner Hochalpenstrasse so we took a U-turn.
The Grossglockner Road continues southwards to the village of Heiligenblut
Of course, the road had more surprises to give us. We weren’t a minute too soon in turning back. Black clouds covered the sky. We sped up and swiftly reached the Hochtor tunnel when snow started falling.
All the places that we’d stopped at were barely visible now. We could barely merge out the outline of the Fuscher Torl restaurant at the bottom of the curve leaving to the highest point the Edelweissspitze. The highest road leading to it was totally shrouded in clouds.
Soon visibility dropped to a couple of meters.
It was actually scary now. We had to be extra careful as the road was slippery and we had to conserve the brakes on the steep descent. But I must say, the hubby drove exceptionally well.
The rain fell in full force now. It started raining like it rains in Mumbai. We drove down through the rain and the clouds, each turn scarier than the previous one.
The valley couldn’t be seen at all
The rain continued in full force till we reached our hotel. Neha and Yogesh caught a bus to Kaprun and the hubby, exhausted by now, drove us to the hotel. We had an early dinner (pizza and pasta for the kid’s daily pizza need) and retired early after a wonderful day. The Grossglockner Hochalpenstrasse was one of the best drives I have even been on, and this day, one of the best of my days. And I think all 5 of us would agree on that.
I must acknowledge a lot of people for this wonderful day. Firstly, the great team at Grossglockner who cleared out the snow on time for us to see it. Secondly, the kid, for conquering her motion sickness enough to manage such a drive. Third, and very importantly, Neha and Yogesh, for telling us about the drive,coming with us and making our day much more special. We had a great time with you both and hope to meet up again.
But most of all, to the man himself, the Schumi Thapar, for agreeing to rent the car despite his reservations and driving so fabulously despite his injury.
Oh! How could I forget! To dreams!