Visit the land and hotel above the clouds

If you’re looking for an extraordinary experience on a trip to Europe, make your way to the shores of the pristine Wolfgangsee lake, in the Austrian Alps.

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Overshadowing the picture-postcard alpine town of Sant Wolfgang am Wolfgangsee is Schafberg Mountain, a towering peak in the Salzkammergut Range.

Schafberg Mountain is rather special because, since 1893, it has been the site of one of the steepest steam-powered cog-railways anywhere in Europe.

Schafbergbahn railway carries visitors to the summit of the mountain 1,783 metres above the surrounding countryside. 

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This is truly one of the world’s great travel experiences: memories of which will live with you forever.

The railway winds out of the quaint village; passes through the treeline; disappears into the clouds; and emerges in the snow zone.  

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Once at the summit, it feels like you are on the top of the world.

Visitors are greeted by incomparable 360 degree views across the majesty of the Alps and their many glacial lakes. 

If you want to soak up more of the views and watch the sun set between rugged mountain peaks, the summit boasts a hotel called Schafbergspitze – commonly known as the ‘hotel in the clouds’ – which has operated through the summer months since 1862.

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Here you can sip wine and watch one of nature’s most stunning shows – the sun setting through the alpine mountain peaks.

Rays of golden light bounce from one snow-capped Alp to another, glinting off the lakes far below and highlighting the birds gliding well down the slopes.

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Hotel  Schafbergspitz boasts a a bar perched high on an adjoining mountaintop and, at the very peak of the area, a wooden cross stands as a reminder of the dangers of venturing too close to the edge.

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Schafberg Mountain with its steam train and hotel is located at Wolfgangsee lake in the Austrian Alps. It is about an hour’s drive from the city of Salzberg.

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There is also ample accommodation in Sant Wolfgang am Wolfgangsee or you can do as we did: stay in another of the small nearby villages, to truly experience Austrian alpine culture and communities.

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Regardless of how you do it, the Schafberg Mountain is an experience of a lifetime that you will never forget or regret.

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Review: Hotel Schloss Fernsteinsee

It was a misty October afternoon in the Tyrolean Alps of western Austria.

Light rain was falling as we moved along the motorway that had carried us from Italy, headed for Hamburg in northern Germany.

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Daylight had started to fade as we passed the city of Innsbruck and our good friend and trusty driver, Gert, was looking for somewhere to pull in for the night.

“Ah ha”, he said as we rounded a curve, crossed an arched bridge over a lake and stopped beneath a sight that could only have been described as extraordinary.

Peering at us through the mist and low cloud was a stunning castle that dominated the hillside like something from a fairytale.

“Our hotel” said Gert with a smile, as we gazed in amazement at the scene before us.

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Fernstein Castle has guarded the road to Bavaria since at least 1288.

At the foot of the Fernpass, the castle rises from alpine forest overlooking two clear-water lakes only a few kilometers from the glaciers of the Zugspitze, Germany’s highest mountain.

The location is simply incredible – on a trade route that has been important since Roman times; ringed by knife-edged Alps; and leading to the Mieming Plateau, an area beloved by hikers.

We discovered later that Fernstein Castle is actually alongside the Claudia Augusta Road, an historic Roman route that was built in 15 BC and is still visible today.

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Originally a military installation, many of the oldest parts of the castle are in ruins, but the site is now the Hotel Schloss Fernsteinsee – a grand step back in time with a combination of opulence, history, majesty and modern conveniences.

The hotel is the centre of a 280,000 square metre nature reserve, with modern alpine-style units scattered among the forest, running streams and emerald-green Fernsteinsee.

Our two-bedroom unit was in the Villa Lorea annex building and was bright, roomy and modern, with free wifi; a kitchenette; en-suite bathroom; minibar; and flat-screen TV.

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Everything was accessible; we were able to drive right to the front door, there were minimal stairs; an easy-to-use door lock and level floors.

Breakfast was included in the room rate, giving us the opportunity of sampling one of the most stunning dining areas imaginable – with superb antique furnishings, lighting, fittings and awesome artworks on the walls.

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The food was tasty and ranged from international delicacies to products from the castle’s own farm.

There were also plenty of homemade Austrian pastries and ice cream.

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Photo courtesy Hotel Schloss Fernsteinsee

Although we didn’t use the facilities, the Hotel Schloss Fernsteinsee is apparently well known for its Wellness centre, that includes a Finnish sauna and massage service.

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Steady rain prevented us from exploring much of the nature reserve, but we took a quick look at the Fernsteinsee and the stables which, at one stage, were apparently able to hold between 30 and 70 horses.

Age-Friendly rating

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8/10: From our experience, the Hotel Schloss Fernsteinsee is suitable for guests of all ages. There was a short walk between the dining area and our annex. However, it was possible to drive almost to the door.

The hotel itself is located only metres from the motorway.

The Fernsteinsee is quite close to the hotel, but visibility appeared good along much of the shoreline.

The balcony in our unit was solid, with level flooring, high wooden rails and a secure lock on the door.

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Austria has quite a few superb castles and we’ve been fortunate to see some awesome ones, including Schloss Schonbrunn; the Hofburg Imperial Palace and the Hohensalzburg.

However, as impressive as each of those are, none have the striking forest and mountain location of the Fernstein Castle.

Hotel Schloss Fernsteinsee and its castle are at Nassereith in western Austria, in the Tyrolean Alps about 53 kilometres from Innsbruck.

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It offers a truly remarkable experience

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Incredible story of the white stallions

The Spanish Riding School in Vienna, Austria is well known internationally, but only recently did we realise the incredible story behind the Lipizzaner horses.

Travelling in Slovenia, we visited the Lipizzaner Stud at Lipica, said to be the world’s oldest continuously operating facility of its type with a foundation date of 1580.

slovenia-305986__340Apparently, the Lipizzaner’s ancestors can be traced to 800AD – a cross between local Karst breeds beloved by the Romans for chariot racing and Berber horses from Spain.

As we watched these magnificent animals running in the paddocks at Lipica, we were told that the stud and its horses had, in fact, been evacuated in 1796, 1805 and 1809, when it was threatened by Napoleon’s armies

In World War I, the Lipizzaners were moved to a site near Vienna – and during the Second World War the Nazis took them to Germany and then on to a Wehrmacht-controlled stud farm near Hostau in Czechslovakia

From there, the story becomes almost unbelievable.

As the war wound to a close, American troops, apparently with the knowledge of the surrendering Germans, undertook an astonishing mission to secure the horses ahead of the advancing Soviet forces.

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According to some accounts, 350 horses – about 100 of the best Arabs in Europe, top thoroughbred racehorses and trotters, hundreds of Russian Cossack horses, and some 250 Lipizzaners – were rounded up by the Americans and moved 130 miles along roads to Mannsbach in central Germany.

This exercise, apparently named ‘Operation Cowboy’ later became the basis of a Disney movie ‘Miracle of the White Stallions’.

Later, a number of Lipizzaners were transported to the Austrian State Stud at Piber for use in the Spanish Riding Schooll.

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Eventually, about 11 horses were given back to Yugoslavia and the stud at Lipica, on the Karst Plateau, began the task of rebuilding its stock.

The breeding farm was renovated; a riding and training school opened; and in the 1960’s the legendary home of the Lipizzaners was opened to visitors.

Lipizzaner foals are always born dark colored, and gradually, with each change of coat, go lighter, until by the age of 4-10 years, they are pure white.

However about one in 200 remain brown or black.

Featured attractions Lipica Slovenia

Review: Hotel Gasthof zum Kirchenwirt, Puch, Austria

‘High on a hill was a lonely goatherd
Lay ee odl lay ee odl lay hee hoo’

If you want to explore the Salzberg district of Austria, why not also add a village experience where lush meadows meet stunning snow-capped Alps.

We spent a few days in the quaint village of Puch bei Hallein, using both train and bus to easily travel the 10 kilometres to and from Salzberg city.

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And, as part of the village experience, we stayed at the traditional Gasthof zum Kirchenwirt, a beautiful hotel complete with balconies and eye-catching flowerboxes.

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Here’s our ‘Age-Friendly’ rating of the Gasthof zum Kirchenwirt:

Q: Does The Gasthof zum Kirchenwirt have street appeal?

A: Does it ever! The hotel is centrally located in the small village – and it’s impossible to miss, with a traditional Bavarian look and a blur of colourful flowers on each balcony. The position is perfect for coach-travellers, as buses to and from Salzberg pass the building and the train station is only a short walk.

Q: How did check-in go?

A: Without a hitch. Reception staff at the Gasthof zum Kirchenwirt were friendly, spoke perfect English and were professional in appearance and manner. We were made to feel welcome.

Q: How about accessibility?

A: We arrived by train and were easily able to wheel our bags the short distance to the hotel entrance. There were no steps to the entrance and, once inside, there was a lift operating between all floors. The lifts had adequate space, the corridors were wide enough and the room keys were easy to use. There were free parking spaces at the front of the hotel. The hotel also offers an airport shuttle for an additional charge.

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Q: How was the room?

A: We had a room with a stunning mountain view and a nice balcony. It was lightly snowing on the mountains and the changing view was fascinating. The room was spacious, with a bed, ensuite bathroom, lounge, desk and ample wardrobe space. Everything was spotlessly clean and was serviced each morning.

There was also complimentary high speed wifi that worked well from our room.

Q: Was the bed comfortable?

A: The bed was the two-mattresses-on-one-frame style expected in much of Europe, but the village is relatively peaceful and the hotel is soundproof, so we slept soundly.

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Q: Were other facilities adequate?

A: Although we didn’t use it, there was a flat-screen TV and a hairdryer.

The hotel also boasts a wellness centre, including a spa, steamroom, hot
tub, solarium and sauna.

Q: Did the room have adequate charging points?

A: The Gasthof zum Kirchenwirt room boasted plenty of charging points, capable of handling our seven electronic devices.

Q: Was the bathroom to the expected standard?

A: There was a good-sized en-suite bathroom with a modern shower, fluffy towels daily and luxury toiletries.

Q: Did you get breakfast?

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A: Breakfast was included in the room rate. The breakfast room was easy to find and the range of tasty food included a standard buffet selection of cereals, fresh fruits, yoghurt, bacon and sausage meat, scrambled or hard boiled eggs, bread and tea/coffee.

Q: Were there any problems with the hotel?

A: No. The Gasthof zum Kirchenwirt provides comfortable accommodation at an attractive price with an endearing old world charm. The location – in a quiet village with awe-inspiring mountain views – makes this hotel an ideal base for visiting Salzberg and the many attractions of the area.

Age-Friendliness Rating

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9/10. From our experience, the Gasthof zum Kirchenwirt is accessible for people of all ages. The hotel is simple to find with both bus and train access. There are level, secure and free car parking areas.

In review, it’s a simple matter to use use the reception, rooms and facilities. The staff are particularly welcoming, friendly and go out of their way to be as helpful as possible.There are lifts to all floors and hotel corridors are large; the room door locks simple to use; our room was spacious; and the bathroom was accessible to all. The breakfast room was clearly marked and the floor was level throughout.

The Gasthof zum Kirchenwirt also boasts a quality restaurant and, while enjoying a tasty dinner, we were seranaded by a pianoaccordion player – a nice touch indeed.

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Culture and coffee in romantic Vienna

If you enter the words “elegance” and “romance” into Google, there’s a good chance the answer will be “Vienna”.

Throw in sophistication, culture, history and coffee houses and you’re getting close to the charm of the Austrian capital on the Danube.

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A cityscape characterised by magnificent baroque buildings has something for everyone – from outstanding museums and galleries; striking palaces; a famous opera house; and the gothic Stephansdom, or St Stephen’s Cathedral.

Culture oozes from the cobblestones  walked at times by the likes of Beethoven, Strauss, Mozart and Haydn.

Today, the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra  is world famous, as is the Vienna Boys Choir.

Stunning Schoenbrunn Palace – with its Gloriette monument, maze; Palm House and zoo –  is recognised instantly, as is the eye-opening Hofburg Imperial Palace.

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And tucked between the famous buildings is the quaint Vienna beloved by the locals, with coffee houses, tea rooms and wine taverns standing side-by-side with modern restaurants and shops.

Whatever your taste, Vienna is a feel-good city.  The uniquely Viennese charm is the perfect medicine for whatever ails you.

You lose your breath at the beauty of Italy; you marvel at the grandeur of London; you glow at the romance of Paris; and you sway to the beat of New York City.

In Vienna,  you feel a better person just for visiting.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Romance Vienna

Favourite operas hit a high note

Whether they’ve ever been to the opera or not, most people have marvelled at an opera house or two.

Throughout the world, opera houses are among the most gorgeous and significant buildings imaginable.

These are eight European masterpieces we’ve had the fortune to visit – and recommend:

Teatro Alla Scala (Milan, Italy)

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Photo: courtesy: Flickr O2ma

Empress Maria Theresa of Austria founded Milan’s legendary opera house in 1778.

It is an awesome building, perfectly in keeping with Milan’s reputation for class, quality and refinement.

Palais Garnier (Paris, France)

Paris Opera House

Probably the most famous opera house in the world, in no small part because of its setting for the novel and musical, Phantom of the Opera, this opulent building was a key part of the Paris of the Grand Boulevards, designed under Emperor Napoleon III.

It is now used mainly for ballet. We have been fortunate to visit several times. Don’t miss this one if you are visiting beautiful Paris.

Royal Opera House (London, England)

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Photo: courtesy Wikimedia Silktalk

An opera house has stood on the present location at Covent Garden since the early 18th century.

Designed in the English Baroque architectural style, the building’s façade, foyer, and auditorium date from 1858.

Wiener Staatsoper (Vienna, Austria)

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Located in the centre of Vienna, this stately building was originally called the Court Opera.

In 1920, with the replacement of the Habsburg Monarchy by the First Republic of Austria, it was renamed the Vienna State Opera.

Members of the world famous Vienna Philharmonic are recruited from its orchestra. A tour of Wiener Staatsoper is a traditional highlight of a visit to Vienna.

Operaen (Copenhagen, Denmark)

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Copyright: Memorable Destination

Copenhagen Opera House is the national opera house of Denmark and among the most modern in the world.

It is said to have cost more than US$500 million and sits on the island of Holmen in central Copenhagen.

Staatsoper Unter den Linden (Berlin, Germany)

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Copyright: Memorable Destination

Located on the Unter den Linden boulevard in the Mitte district of Berlin, this opera house originally dates to 1741.

Destroyed by bombing in World War II, it reopened in baroque style in 1955.

Teatro La Fenice (Venice, Italy)

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Photo: courtesy Wikimedia Remi Mathis

One of the most famous and renowned landmarks in the history of opera, this striking building marks the site of Venetian theatres that date back to the 1730’s.

In the 19th century especially, La Fenice became the site of many famous operatic premieres. It is one of the best known buildings in the beautiful city of Venice.

Státní opera (Prague, Czech Republic)

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Photo: courtesy Wikimedia AndreasPraefcke

Opened in 1888 as the New German Theatre, this building is now officially known as   the Prague State Opera.

About 300 performances are staged here each year.

Others

Other notable European opera houses that we haven’t visited include the Bolshoi in Moscow, Russia (shown below this paragraph); the Teatro Di San Carlo in Naples, Italy; the Opera Royal de Versailles in France; and the Hungarian State Opera House in Budapest.

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Photo: courtesy Wikimedia Dmitry Guryanov

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Take a sneak peek at Weiner Staatsoper

If you are visiting Vienna, make sure you find time to visit the city’s grand opera house, which hosts  one of Europe’s most glittering social events each year.

In February, the internationally-renowned Vienna Opera Ball is  staged – an event that attracts visitors from around the world, notably prominent names in business, show-business and politics.

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The red carpet event, which is deemed the epitome of Ball culture, is more than years old.

However, you don’t need to attend the annual Ball to appreciate the magnificent Weiner Staatsoper, a 146-year-old building located on Vienna’s Ringstrasse Boulevard.

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We toured the building on our last visit – and were enthralled by the stately stone exterior and the neo-renaissance style inside.

A highlight of the interior is an area known as the Tea Salon, which was formerly the Emperor’s Salon.

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The ceiling and walls of the former Imperial Box are decorated with 22 carat gold leaf.

We were also shown sculptures, magnificent wall embroideries from the Giani studio, and tapestries bearing the initials of former Emperor Franz Joseph I.

The 120-metre intermission halls are also particularly striking and connect to frame the sweeping main staircase.

Originally called the Weiner Hofopen or Vienna Court Opera, the building was renamed in 1920 when the Hapsburg Monarchy gave way to the First Republic of Austria.

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Damaged by World War II bombing, the Staatsoper was rebuilt to its former glory by 1955.

We were told that the opera house is one of the busiest in the world, producing about 300 performances a year – broken down into 50 to 60 operas and 10 ballet shows.

The main performance hall holds 2,100 and there is a giant screen on an outside wall designed to bring opera to the masses outside. Weiner Staatsoper is also known for its emphasis on providing music theatre and training for children.

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Naturally, such a prestigious opera house has featured many big named, including appearances by Maria Callas, Christa Ludwig, Placido Domingo, Jose Carreras and Luciano Pavarotti.

Vienna Vienna Opera House