Österreich: Der Salzkammergut

The second part of my trip was a 3-day visit to the Salzkammergut region of Austria. It’s basically a chain of mountains and valleys dotted with lakes and forests and such. I had never heard of it before I planned this trip, but after googling pictures of it I decided I had to see it. I thought I would be burned out of museums and big-city life after Salzburg, so a quiet retreat to a small mountain town for some hiking would be appreciated.
That turned out to be partially accurate. I chose to stay in a small town of about 1,400 people called Bad Ischl, because it was relatively close to Salzburg, centrally located in the region, and a friend of mine from UMN had lived and taught English there for a year. The town was actually quite nice and very quaint, but staying there taught me a lot about my own limits and preferences when it comes to traveling. I would like to preface this article by saying that I’m going to make it sound like it was a bad trip, or that I didn’t have any fun, or that the people and sights sucked. It wasn’t a bad trip, I did have plenty of fun, and there were good people and things to do, but I don’t have nearly as much to say about the good things in this area as I do about the bad things.

The town and surrounding area sure are pretty, I’ll give it that.

For starters, my trip was very poorly planned. My train from Salzburg to Bad Ischl arrived at about 11am on a Sunday; around church-going time. This was a problem for me because the hostel I booked – the only one in Bad Ischl – only has check-in from 5pm to 7pm on weekends. Additionally, almost everything in the Germanic world closes on Sundays, with the exception of restaurants, cafes, and tourist destinations. However, I didn’t really come to Bad Ischl for touristic sightseeing, I came to hike and to explore a few small towns in the area. So I was now stuck for 6 hours in a small town where everything is closed, carrying a heavy backpack fit to bursting and a heavy jacket when the weather has recently turned very sunny and warm.
The thing that kills me about this is, I could have used those 6 hours quite well if I had known where everything was and how to go about doing it. But I didn’t at the time, so I spent much time just wandering, retracing my steps unnecessarily, and looking for information. I didn’t want to do any hiking carrying the burdens I carried, but when I later did a hiking trail I found it quite easy and relaxing, with plenty of resting opportunities; I could have easily done it with that stuff in tow.
I did pretty much the only touristy thing in town immediately, which was to tour the Kaiservilla museum. This is the manor where Emperor Franz Joseph I and Empress Elisabeth of Austria lived in summer, and where Joseph declared war on Serbia, which basically started World War 1. It was a cool place and not a bad tour, that was really let down by two big things. Firstly, there was no photography allowed, which really sucked because it was a €13 ticket and there were plenty of things I would have liked to use for drawing reference later.

Didn’t say anything about the outside, though.

Secondly, the tour guide there gave me probably the worst interpersonal experience of my studies abroad thus far. I tried to buy a ticket in German, and the lady at the front desk was obviously not impressed and repeatedly switched to English. The tour guide, who was standing probably 6 feet away at the time, comes to me right before the tour begins and asks me (entirely too) sweetly, “Where do you come from?” So I tell her “the US.” She gives me this very restrained look that tells me she wants to spit in my face, but is professionally obligated to not react at all. Then, in a condescending voice, she hands me a laminated sheet and tells me “This is the English translation of our tour,” before turning around to the other people waiting for the tour to begin and addresses them with, “Alle andere spricht Deutsch?” (“Does everyone else speak German?”) Yeah. I legitimately would have just left right then had I not already paid €13 for my ticket. What an awful thing to do – to a paying customer, no less.
This is something I noticed very strongly about Austria in general, both in Bad Ischl and in Salzburg. Germans are quick to switch to English if they see you struggling in German, or if you make mistakes, but in Austria they are so much quicker and more insistent, as if it’s not about efficiently communicating but making sure you don’t butcher their language any further. This is exacerbated by the fact that, in Austria, they speak a dialect of German with an accent. It’s still intelligible, but everything is harder to understand than it would be back in Freiburg. I had an exchange with a kebab cook in Salzburg that was rather comical because neither one of us could understand the other despite both speaking German. At least he was friendly about it, though.
And that’s another thing: in Freiburg, no one really seems to care when I say that I’m American. They might even think it’s cool, because they don’t meet many Americans and are eager to learn things (or practice their English…). Although they near-universally disagree with our current administration or our government’s actions of the last 20 years or so, almost everyone seems to separate the actions of the government from the people and basically just judges you as an individual. In Austria, there was obvious tension in the air every time I told someone I came from the US (both in Salzburg and Bad Ischl). No one else was as bad to me as the tour guide above, but it was honestly a very discouraging and sad experience to have everything defining you as a person ignored and be reduced to a caricature of the place you were born. Definitely very eye-opening.
There were plenty of friendly people in Bad Ischl, though, and many that appreciated that I at least tried to speak German with them. It had some very nice eateries, including a hamburger stand. There was a schnitzel restaurant that I wanted to visit, but it was closed for most of my stay and I never got around to it. The town itself is absolutely gorgeous; the city center is like any famous European city you can think of, only smaller and more distilled. I feel like I use the word “idyllic” too much on this blog, but it really is the best single word to describe Bad Ischl.

The sun and warmth suits Bad Ischl much better than it does Salzburg.

I can’t write this article without discussing the dress of the people. I arrived around church-going time on Sunday morning, and I was not prepared for the sheer number of people wearing Dirndls and Lederhosen. Young, old, dignified, casual – probably up to a quarter of the people I saw were wearing them! They must be the “Sunday Best” garb in Bad Ischl, because the number severely dropped off the following day but I did still see them, and I saw many stores advertise them in the windows.

And then there was the hostel. I was spoiled rotten by the Yoho hostel in Salzburg, because this place was twice the price for half the quality. For starters, the operating hours of the front desk were insane; 8am-1pm and 5pm-7pm on weekdays, and only 5pm-7pm on weekends. The lady who works the front desk is very nice, but the other employee that I saw, a man who works the kitchens, was so stern and unfriendly it honestly made me a bit uncomfortable. I didn’t feel unsafe, but I have never felt so intimidated by another human being before, and he never spoke a word to me.
It’s common for hostels to supply lockers but require you to bring your own padlock, for liability reasons. So I brought a padlock with me. The problem was that there was nothing to affix it to, so every time I left the room I had to bring everything of value with me; I only left my clothes and toiletries behind. Other things are annoying, but that is inexcusable, in my opinion. Other than that, though, it did include a breakfast buffet in the price, which was actually very tasty with fresh ingredients.
One thing I have to say, though, is that the hostel at night was terrifying. It was on the edge of Bad Ischl, so there were no lights or sounds coming from outside, and the hallways and stairwells were lit only by motion sensors. Since I was there during the off-season, everything was dark and it honestly looked like the set of a horror movie. I took no pictures of this, but I wish I would have.
Outside the town are a number of hiking trails. I took an easier one that circumvents a nearby mountain; it was very peaceful and I was glad I did it. I also saw some absolutely gorgeous vistas.

I will never tire of mountains.

The last thing I did was take a train to explore Ebensee, a nearby town overlooking a lake. This was a big reason I chose to stay so long in such a small town; I wanted to explore the surrounding area as well, taking about one full day per town. There is a Holocaust memorial museum in Ebensee, since the town used to be the site of a Nazi labor camp (actually the one with the highest recorded mortality rate, despite its relatively small size). However, upon reaching Ebensee, I realized that I had screwed myself over with poor planning once again, by marooning myself in a distant part of the town with not much to see or do (my train ticket was not valid to take me any further, and I didn’t want to risk it). Not only that, but the museum was closed on that day of the week. I walked around, took some photos, ate some kebab, and returned to Bad Ischl feeling rather defeated.

This was the sort of view I came to the Salzkammergut for, though.

All the above culminated in my being rather sulky upon returning to my hostel on the second night, and after mulling it over I decided to charter a bus home to Freiburg a day and a half early. I had run out of things to do in Bad Ischl, and clearly was not prepared enough to explore the surrounding area to my satisfaction. On top of that, I was already tired and worn out from Salzburg and was missing the familiarity of Freiburg. I had overbooked myself, and ended up about €50 in the hole because of it.
But despite all of that, did I regret planning this leg of the journey? Did I have a terrible time in Bad Ischl? Did it stain an otherwise great vacation? No, none of those things. I learned a lot about myself and how to plan trips better in the future, and I did see and experience some things that were amazing and unique. I’m glad I saw Bad Ischl, because I had never seen such a small European town with such personality before. I do think it’s a much better place to live and work in than it is to visit, though. There’s enough stuff here to keep you happily occupied for about one full day, not three. Maybe if you did your research better than me you could stretch that further by exploring the area better, but it just didn’t happen to me this time.
Ah well. The road goes ever on.

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