The following article was written by BikeTours.com founder and president Jim Johnson after his first tour along the Tauern Bike Path. It originally appeared in The Los Angeles Times.
The Tauernradweg (Tauern bike path) in Austria is a bicyclist’s dream come true. It cuts across some of the world’s most mountainous terrain, yet it’s almost all downhill. It passes through dozens of picturesque towns and villages, but stays almost totally clear of the traffic of daily life and commerce–meandering instead through Alpine meadows and woodland, and along the banks of the Salzach River. And it’s clearly marked, with signs at every turn, for worry-free riding.
The path starts in Krimml, a mountain village at 3,400 feet in central Austria, and ends 100 miles and 2,000 vertical feet later in Salzburg. While some fanatics ride the route in reverse, I preferred to pack my rental bike, a hybrid–a cross between a mountain bike and a street bike–and gear and take the train from Salzburg to Krimml, a three-hour trip to the west. From there I would let gravity take over for the four-day return.
Although several companies transport luggage and offer guide services to cyclists (such as ours at BikeTours.com), I toted saddlebags and invested $10 in a route map and book. I’d booked my hotels in advance, allowing for about 25 miles of bicycling a day. (I carried none of the usual spare tire or repair kit since there were repair services in gas stations, inns, and restaurants along the route.)
Arrival and adjustment
When I arrived in Krimml, I realized I had underestimated the impact of altitude (and, perhaps, jet lag) on endurance. Even a test ride around the village left me winded. A 90-minute walk midway up the 1,000-foot Krimml waterfall, the highest in central Europe, almost did me in. After dinner–a local seasonal specialty of fried wild mushrooms–at the Hotel Post, I sat at my window and watched the lights in the valley fade, one after another. I was exhausted.
Undaunted–and with no other choice–I took off the next morning, pushing off from the “Start” sign at the base of the waterfall along the path, which, at this point, was paved. A light mist washed over me as I looked out past the steeple of the 13th-century parish church into the cloud-filled valley below.
Within seconds, and without pedaling, I was hitting 15, then 20, then 25 m.p.h., as the village disappeared behind me. I braked as I came alongside the bank of the Salzach, whose waters would guide me toward Salzburg for the next four days. As the clouds burned off, snow-topped mountain peaks came into view. From both river banks, meadows stretched to the base of the mountains, becoming nearly vertical as soil hit rock. My fatigue vanished.
The Tauernradweg runs along the northern boundary of Hohe Tauern National Park, Europe’s largest, complete with 246 glaciers and 304 mountains over 9,000 feet. Ibex and other Alpine creatures run wild.
Waterfalls and village life
I paused again and could hear the wind in the trees, the birds, small brooks, and distant waterfalls. The scents of fresh-cut hay and moist moss hung in the air. Overhead lay the first of several ruins I’d spot along the way, the stony outcroppings of the ancient Friedburg castle. I’d found paradise.
The sounds of cowbells jolted me from my reverie, as I made way for a dozen bovines crowding down the path. A bull with menacing horns glared at my bright red jersey, then thought the better of it.
The path carried me through tiny hamlets, some no more than a few farmhouses and a chapel. In larger villages, such as Bramberg, life centered around a small market square bordered by a medieval parish church, several shops, and an inn.
Most of the time, however, the path wound through farms and fields. At one point a sign even asked cyclists to close the gate behind them to keep the cows in.
It was September harvest time, and I passed whole families toiling with scythes and rakes, cutting and stacking hay. Husbands and wives worked side by side, the women in puffy peasant blouses and skirts, the men in green-trimmed leather pants and work shirts.
In front of most homes, trees brimmed with apples, pears, and plums, and I stopped to see if I could buy some from an elderly farmer. He returned with a small sack and filled it with ripe fruit. He refused money, pushing it back with leathery hands. After I rode another 50 yards, I stopped and looked back. His wife had joined him, and the two waved as if bidding farewell to an old friend.
Around the bend, a neighbor displayed similar hospitality with a sign offering “Fresh Water for Cyclists.” I filled my bottle with ice-cold water flowing from the mouth of a wood-carved knight. Behind it, a wooden home lay bathed with waves of impatiens and petunias. A few minutes later, I entered Hollersbach, nicknamed “the blossoming village” both for its proud floral displays and for its botanical garden with more than 500 different kinds of flowers and herbs.
A stop in Mittersill
After three hours, 21 miles, and a vertical drop of nearly 1,000 feet, I arrived in Mittersill, the first sizable town along the route. I locked my bike in the market square, entered the Meilinger Tavern and enjoyed a lunch of soup with dumplings, spaetzle (a kind of dense noodle) with native cheese and, for dessert, strips of crepe mixed with blueberries and powdered sugar. That’s another benefit of riding: gorging without guilt.
From the 14th to 16th centuries, Mittersill lay at the crossroad of two major trade routes. From Italy came wine, olive oil, fruit, and silk. In return, Austria sent salt, mined nearby and known for centuries as “white gold.” Celts and Romans followed the same route, and I passed a Roman mile-marker later in the day. A medieval watchtower still stands, serving today as a museum marking a millennium of commerce and local history.
See more in Zell am See
Later that afternoon I arrived at my first day’s destination, Zell am See, an idyllic lakeside town encircled by mountains. My itinerary called for a one night’s stay in Zell, but I wished I’d planned several. Zell is a year-round tourist resort, and I soon found out why. First, due to strict pollution controls and restrictions against gasoline boat engines, the lake itself is known as the cleanest bathing lake in Europe. Others may be cleaner–but far too cold for bathing. As I walked my bike along the promenade, I saw windsurfers, sailboats, and paddle boats. Families fished from docks, and teen-agers water-skied behind electric-powered motorboats.
Zell am See and neighboring Kaprun also draw thousands of hikers weekly, from casual day-trippers to more dedicated climbers who spend their nights in mountain huts.
A local cycling map and brochure described nearly 40 routes, ranging from seven miles along the lake to 60 miles winding over nearby mountains.
I awoke the following morning to the sound of rain splashing on my window. After a breakfast of fresh fruit and muesli in my hotel, the Sporthotel Alpin, I retrieved my bike from the hotel garage, loaded my packs, put on my rain gear and headed out. Luckily, as the waters of the Salzach widened, most of the hard-packed dirt route was sheltered beneath a leafy canopy. The rain splattered on the leaves and misted downward in a symphony of sounds and scents.
As the symphony reached a downpour crescendo, however, I took refuge in a small restaurant in the village of Taxenbach. Even my mother’s chicken soup had never tasted better–or warmer.
After lunch, the rain stopped, and I took one of several hillier side options, climbing nearly 600 feet to a ledge overlooking the river. It was exhausting, but rewarding. At the top, I shared the view with a pair of weary Dutch cyclists who noted, with some understatement, that their country offers flatter cycling. Clouds puffed like cotton through the valley. I slept well that night, just outside the town of St. Johann.
Until now, the route had run due east. The next morning, the Salzach and I turned north toward Salzburg. By midmorning, the powerful Hohenwerfen castle came into view in the distance. The route passes by the base of the castle, and I walked up the steep path through a series of mighty walls. Built in 1077 and rebuilt over the centuries, the fortress today stands a peaceful watch over the river. Its dungeons are closed, the guns just for show.
Just north of Werfen, two mountain ranges come together, and the Salzach roars through the narrow chasm, kicking up 15-foot standing waves. Cars and trains can take a tunnel through the mountains. Bicyclists, however, must climb through the Lueg Pass, which the river has carved between two sheer cliff walls. As I approached the pass, the walls seemed to merge. To the right, mountain. To the left, the surging Salzach and more mountain. Ahead, a sign warning of falling rocks. I pedaled faster. It was great.
After the only real climb of the main route, I coasted downhill into the town of Golling, a manicured medieval town lined with outdoor cafes. I detoured along a path into the deeply wooded Bluntau Valley, sharing the way with families, young couples walking hand in hand and more cows.
I doubled back and passed St. Nikolaus’, a small Gothic pilgrimage church set atop a craggy outcropping, where a wedding was just ending. I got off the bike and walked 10 minutes to the 250-foot Golling waterfall. Even after the 1,000-foot Krimml waterfall, I stood in awe of its power and beauty.
Within an hour I was standing in Hallein, a town of nearly 20,000 residents and the final overnight stop of my journey. Hallein had been the center of the millennia-old salt industry until the mines closed in 1989, and the streets were lined with the pastel-painted high facades of affluent merchant homes. Medieval alleyways ran in every direction, and I parked my bike to explore. In the distance I saw the entrance to the old mines, a popular attraction where visitors tour the caverns by whooshing down giant wooden slides, walking on ramps across underground lakes and riding in a small miners train.
I eventually passed through the marketplace to the 12th-Century Romanesque Dekanats Church, where “Silent Night” composer Franz Gruber once served as choir director. His grave lay outside the door, his home just beyond. After a dinner that ended with Salzburger Nockerl, a souffle-like specialty, I took a final walk around town and went to bed.
The sounds of Salzburg
My final day of riding carried the anticipation of seeing the famous Hohensalzburg fortress that dominates the Salzburg skyline. Only nine miles lay ahead.
The bike path ran through dense forest, and I heard Salzburg before I saw it. It was Sunday morning, and the city’s church bells rang in chorus. Finally, through a break in the trees, I saw the fortress towering over the baroque spires of the city. I’d made it.
During the week, cars clog the city’s narrow streets. On Sundays, pedestrians and cyclists rule. I rode along the Getreidegasse, Salzburg’s most famous medieval alley. I slowly made my way past the palatial Residenz, former home of the ruling archbishops, now a museum, to the cathedral, where street musicians played their guitars and artists drew chalk Madonnas on the sidewalk.
I parked the bike and climbed up to the fortress. On previous visits to Salzburg, I’d spent hours there looking out over the city. This time, I looked instead to the south, where I could see the bicycle path along the Salzach disappear gradually into the mountains. Memories of the past four days came in a flood, buffeted by the bells of the city calling the faithful to Mass. Despite the glorious view below, however, the feeling that lingered was somewhat bittersweet; on a bicycle tour, after all, getting here is all the fun.