Sitting at home by the fireplace on a chilly day, doors open to nature outside and doing my best to quarantine on a holiday weekend, the sounds of a neighbor’s wind chimes took my imagination on a journey back in time.
In my mind, I set down, like a paraglider landing, on a soft, sun-splashed hilly pasture nestled in the Austrian Alps among cows grazing, their cowbells clanging and gonging as they moved along. All around me, breathtaking vistas of rich green mountain valleys seemed endless, and above me, the shimmering white snow caps framed an incredibly deep blue sky. I felt the air…and the excitement of being there.
Any time of year, Salzburg and its hinterland municipalities in Salzburgerland and the Salzkammergut, are collectively a destination like none other. To quote Julie Andrews from her memorable hilltop moment in the 1960’s film “The Sound of Music,” “the hills are alive…” and indeed they are. And not just with Mozart but also art and architecture, ancient history and Celtic ruins and, of course, what vacations are made for: skiing, golfing, hiking, biking, dining, spa-ing, and quiet places for just plain relaxing! And what’s even more amazing is that these pristine places have not been diminished by the last 50+ years of “progress” since she sang those words.
My family’s first trip there was over Presidents’ Day weekend of 1966. My dad’s job transfer brought us all overseas to an Air Force base along the Rhine River in Germany in winter of ’65, also not a bad place to live and vacation!! When our big American car and dad’s pride and joy, a 1964 golden anniversary edition Dodge Polara 500, finally arrived by boat from the States, it was time for a road trip. Another family stationed along with us joined us in tandem caravan with their newly arrived burgundy and white 1965 Ford Galaxy 500. By the looks and stares, you would’ve thought we were from outer space. That’s when American cars were the gold standard!
By European road standards, these cars were huge. But cruising the Autobahns gave the Mercedes drivers a chance to match their muscle and sometimes pass us by. We ventured on to the mountain highways and then into the narrower, winding roads past Salzburg and along the Salzach River to our destination, high atop a sunny plateau in the winter snow: the town of St. Veit im Pongau.
As we wound our way up the sharp twists and turns of the narrow cobblestone street, above us we began to see the steeple of the church, the oldest in the region and one that people had made pilgrimages to for over 1,000 years from all corners of the Alps.
With one final twist and turn we suddenly arrived onto the town plaza, our cars seemingly filling the entire village center. Our Dads pulled up, side by side, in front of the church and parked. As we spilled out of our cars, out from the church courtyard gate and down the terraced stairway, a large St. Bernard, complete with brandy keg around its neck, came running to greet us. And not far behind, townspeople came from all around to see who the heck we were in these two foreign space ships! And then, from a little attic window over the town’s volunteer fire department station, a beautiful and traditional alpine chalet, a voice rang down in English, “I’ll be right there!”
A young, charismatic Siegi Baumgartner, the town’s most handsome and eligible bachelor, and not to mention Olympic medalist on the Austrian ski instructor team, presented himself as the man who would set us up in lodging and provide us all with our beginner ski lessons. After introductions, he told us he had just the place, a brand new “Pension” (now BnBs) where we would be their first guests, and instructed us to follow him. Out from the firehouse garage doors, he emerged in his 1959 red Porsche, complete with record player in his glove compartment playing the latest American tunes, and off we went to start our weekend ski adventure. It was a magical vacation for our entire family.
In winter of 2018, I decided to return to that place that held such fondness and memory for me. They say “you can never go home again,” but this trip came pretty darn close for me! After my flight into Salzburg and the 30-minute train ride to the station in the town below, memories filled my head as I stepped out of the taxi in the plaza. I looked around. Our big “Ami” cars, as the locals called them, weren’t there, and neither was the St. Bernard rushing up to greet me. But everything else looked exactly the same, timeless and beautiful.
A couple of things had changed. The old firehouse is now a bank, and Siegi no longer lives in the attic, but instead now has a resort chalet of his own up on the sunny foothill slopes overlooking the village. He also now has one of the biggest tour companies in the region, Siegitours. He operates with his wife, daughter and son in law and a network of affiliates, offering summer and winter activities for all ages and interests. They cater specifically to American and other English speaking tourists. He’d always been eager to build a ski industry in and around his home town. He helped put the region, known as Ski Amadé, named after Amadeus Mozart, on the map. Now, with a network of 28 ski areas and towns that, combined, they made up the second largest ski area in all of Europe!
For you ski buffs, further facts include a regional lift capacity of 375,000 passengers per hour. One ski pass gives you access to 270 lifts and over 750 km of Blue, Red and Black slopes totaling over 350 runs! They also have a 3-D mobile app and friend tracker tools included so you and your ski companions can keep track of where you are.
For golfers, Siegi offers a selection of courses amidst the panoramic mountain landscape, from 18-hole championship courses to 9-hole short courses for beginners. One pass allows you to play unlimited on up to 135 well-groomed fairways per day.
For those of you like me, who like to immerse yourself into the local life, culture and dining experiences, or just relax on a bench in the landscape and soak up the sun, there is plenty to take in.
Siegi’s son in law, “Michi”, offered to take me on a tour of the region, including Royal Horse stables that date back hundreds of years, and a large monastery run by nuns who produce wine within the grounds of its hilltop fortress.
Other highlights included the salt and copper mines that go hand in hand with the history of the region’s power and wealth, and distilleries of spirits native to the region using a berry only found in these valleys. Plus there are traces of the Ancient Kingdom of the Celts in the ruins that are hidden among the majesty of the landscape.
Coming back to the family chalet, the Landhaus Rustica, I was in for another surprise. Deep below the main floor, Siegi had dug out a huge network of grottos where they have created a rustic tavern nightclub and restaurant.
It was there that I ended the last day of my trip, eating a fine meal his wife Irene had prepared, drinking from his vast collection of spirits and wine. We listened to old 33 LP’s on his elaborate DJ record player system, a far cry from the one he’d had in that Porsche glove compartment, and toasted to the days of old and the ones yet to come.
Put St. Veit im Pongau in Austria on your must-see list!