How delectable it is to wake up and have a whole day stretching before us with no set itinerary. We eat a leisurely breakfast, stand on our patio overlooking Wolfgansee (Lake Wolfgang) in western Austria, and rejigger the plan we made last night. The morning is misty and cool, so we decide to postpone a hike and instead drive to a nearby town.
Not just any nearby town. Hallstatt, Austria, is a place that has grown so famous and so congested that some experienced travelers refuse to go there, and we are very close to skipping it ourselves. Even our hosts in St Wolfgang have warned us away, saying that people the world over were so obsessed with Hallstatt that the Chinese decided to build an exact replica of the town so that couples could take their engagement photos, wedding pictures, anniversary and birthday snaps, and unimaginable numbers of everyday selfies there without leaving Asia. In spite of the negative reviews, we figure it’s early in the day and not particularly nice out yet, so we spurn the naysayers and jump in the car for the forty-minute drive.
With this less-than-auspicious introduction, we are hesitant, but we arrive and park before the hordes descend, and to our delight, we have the shores of the lake to ourselves, except for a few swans, as we approach the village. Like overrun tourist attractions everywhere, there is a good reason for the throngs. Our first lakeside views take in a diaphanous scene of mirror-smooth gray-blue water, a mini-castle on the far shore, and the spit of the town itself, an impossibly perfect little concoction of spires, rooflines, docks, summer flowers, and wooden boats, all perched on the limpid lake. A ribbon of morning mist threads in and out of an inlet, adding an ethereal touch to the panorama.
By the time the streets start to fill up with the first of the day’s visitors, we are climbing high above the town. Small, tasteful signs ask walkers to refrain from photographing the private homes along the route, and we whisper softly as we pass doorways and gardens. A little later, we come back down and scoot out of town just as the sun begins to peek out from the fog and the multitudes start to arrive.
Back in St. Wolfgang, the day has blossomed into a cool and sunny brilliance. We grab our backpacks and set off for Schwarzensee, a lake high up in the mountains above our little resort town. The trail is alternately steep and flattish, with views of the vaporous Lake Wolfgang off to the right though portholes of evergreens and deciduous trees.
It’s a woodsy walk, with birch and evergreen trunks rising high above the needled brown paths. I trudge behind J, who is always the pace keeper, and get lost in my own thoughts for long stretches. We are nearly alone; on rare occasions, we pass a couple or two, and on the way down, we smile at a rowdy little family of parents and young kids cavorting up the hill.
Schwarzensee appears before we know it. After our long and difficult climb in the High Tatras of Slovakia a week earlier, today’s ascent goes fast. We are now starving; it’s after 2 pm and we’ve been gone since early morning. Lucky for us, these mountain trails often have some sort of refuge up high, always with beer and better food in the middle of nowhere than even a busy roadside stop in the U.S. We order a couple of dark brews, salads, and bread, and spend some time sitting in the sun at a picnic table, batting away bees and appreciating our mid-hike good fortune. We bounce with a slight buzz back down the trail and arrive at our lodging in record speed, sated and tired in a most satisfying way, ready for our next Alpine adventure.
The Julian Alps stretch along the border of northwestern Slovenia and Austria. They are an impressive but accessible range, and on the Slovenian side, they provide the snowcapped backdrop for the fairytale setting of Lake Bled and its island church. Here, on another quiet morning, we walk briskly around the 4-mile lake trail, viewing that idyllic little clump of land from every vantage point. You can pay to paddle out there on a tour boat, but I’ve eschewed that outing twice, preferring to see the water- and tree-ringed bell tower with its mountainous backdrop.
This time, we also forgo the medieval castle looming above the lake, instead making a number of stops on the stroll, perusing the Olympic rowing facilities, checking out one of Tito’s many summer villas, and stopping at the Park Hotel on the way back to the car for a slice of their famous cream cake.
There are higher summits, rougher peaks, scarier climbs, and more exotic mountain cultures around the world, but for my money, the Alps are the torch carrier for highland hiking day in and day out, the winner of the prize for “Most Well-Rounded” of mountain ranges, if you will. The countries that are caretakers of this range, and the people who make these slopes and meadows their home, have created a system of paths and services that are hard to beat. From our post-college backpacking days, to our first serious experience hiking the Mont Blanc circuit a decade ago, to the day hikes we sprinkle into our European trips, we have returned time and again to these green hills full of cows, streams, trees, and fields. It’s always a good day for an amble in the Alps.