“I lift up my eyes to the mountains: from whence comes my help?” Psalm 121:1
“Look deep into nature, and then you will understand everything better.” Albert Einstein
Imagine a place that is so silent you can hear your heart beat and mind think.
And Israel-loving to boot? It might be paradise.
But it’s actually St. Martin, one of 14 Austrian towns and villages of the stunning Tennengau Alpine mountain range.
“You are part of the family, you’re not a stranger here,” Mayor Johannes Schlager, donned in traditional lederhosen (leather pants), told a group of visiting Israelis recently.
“St. Martin opens its heart, city and homes to Israelis. We live a healthy life. Nothing compares to the fresh alpine air, the hikes, biking and rafting. No noise, no pollution. We know each other by name. No need for Facebook to express our likes to each other.
We celebrate, dance and enjoy life together. Last year we hosted 700 Israelis.”
The face and sounds of St. Martin are very different from the yellow and gray landscape, and the cacaphony of noise usually before us as dwellers in the Holy Land.
Visually, audibly, topographically, this area is quite different from Israel.
Dazzling white mountains stand out against the blue skies; deep, dark forests contrast with bright green meadows down the hillsides gorgeously arrayed with wild flowers in the spring and summer.
Valleys separate the ranges, and groups of mountains, some a mere cleft in the bare rock, some wider, and reach to the shores of wide lakes of ever-changing color – purple, blue, green; and into the lakes pour foaming white rivers.
Nearly all the valleys have leaping and dancing streams; from high up the rivers are rushing.
“Compared to Switzerland, St. Martin much cheaper,” Ingrid Schilchegger, co-director of the St. Martin Tourism Office observes.
“In a big city, you live in a big building with 50 other families, you have no space, no green around the house, no peace. Here it is the opposite. There is virtually no danger of terrorism. In fact we have no crime.”
All of St. Martin’s 1,600 residents, incredibly, will happily rent you an extra bed or two in their guest room or house. From farmhouses with cows, horses, pigs, cats, dogs, and more, airy mountaintop huts with saunas, to private houses and 3-room apartments that cost €80 to €100 per day for 4-6 people, or private rooms from €30 to €40, inns and hotels, there’s a wide variety of accommodations for families of all sizes and needs.
Handed down for three generations, the 16-room “mom and pop” Barbara Pension situated on the edge of town makes me feel perfectly at home (www.pension-barbara.at/en). I enjoy a light breakfast with proprietors Andreas and Martina Hyden.
When the conversation lulls, I notice outside the open window the cool mountain breeze rustling across the treetops of the forest in the Fritz valley at the foot of the Tennen Mountains. The grey clouds in front turned crimson, and pale-blue shadows flood every hollow on the valley plane.
“St. Martin is a place where the sound of wind in spring is different than it is in winter,” said Horst White, St. Martin tourist chairman and owner of local sporting venture, Sportmax Sports.
“If you are peaceful, then things will be peaceful. It’s peaceful here. It’s a small paradise. We have the highest quality of nature, clean air, river water you can drink. We have all seasons. You see the snow in the mountain and it’s summer. There’s a lot of sports for your health.”
Alpine life isn’t just about skiing.
It’s about family, friends and community. Ice castles, salt mines, spooky satanic torture chambers, falcons and flying foxes. Peace and quiet.
A great vacation thrills your senses; it’s something you feel long after coming home. The peace and calm it gives you last.
That’s how I’ll think of St. Martin.
I’m too awestruck about how gorgeous the ice castle is. The serenity of the crystal-clear water with the bluest of stark sky, the white snowcaps and rolling green meadows,the Tennen mountains – it inspires the mind and body inside and out.
I feel recharged, reenergized, like I can take on the world.
After four days I could stay for 40 more. Highs and lows. I never knew what to expect. I’m so happy I could cry. An opportunity like this is why I’m alive.
Maybe you should try it too? Travel tips The easiest way to travel is via Istanbul. There are two Turkish Airlines daily flights to Salzburg’s W.A. Mozart Airport. Rent a car from Avis, and head south on the A10, the Tauernautobahn motorway for about an hour, to Exit 56.
Holiday packages for a family of three, including flights, a car, a three-room flat and a discount Salzburgerland Card average about €780 per person.
The Salzburgerland Card The thinly populated alpine mountain villages of the Tennengau are thickly graced with one natural wonder after another.
Efficiently, the best way to cram it all in is to get a Salzburgerland Card. There’s nothing like a free pass right? 190 sights in a radius of 80 km., some with free entry and discounts, all for a flat fee. The most beneficial option costs €78 for use during a 12-day period. All attractions below are included.
www.salzburgerland.com/en/salzburgerlandcard/ index.html The Eisrisensenvelt Ice Cave I scamper up the ever-narrowing mountain pass to the entrance of the world’s largest ice cave, the Eisrisensenvelt Cave, 1641m., located five kilometers from the town of Werfen. I can hardly see my hand in front of my face as the weather quickly turns from freezing rain to pelting sleet and falling snow.
Be prepared for the northern climate. It’s chilly, with temperatures averaging 0° C (32° F).
During the 75-minute tour, you’ll climb 134m. – 700 steps up to the top, and then back down another 700 steps. That’s approximately equivalent to a 38-story building.
At the crest of the steps, sparkles of light swirl over the walls and ceiling, as our guide Ovid ignites a magnesium charge, illuminating the massive sheets of clear glacier ice crystals. Surrounded by a sky of little twinkling starlights magically dancing around me, with glowing cheeks and sparking eyes, I descend half worn out from the climb, dreaming of ice palaces in the clouds. www.eisriesenwelt.
at/en Hallein Salt Mines Located on the Dürrnberg plateau above Hallein, the Hallein Salt Mine, or formally the Salzbergwerk Dürrnberg, helped ensure nearby Salzburg would become a powerful trading community by its endless supply of “white gold.”
With winding streets and dim scintillating alleys, the oldest salt mine in the world is like an underworld city of mystery and intrigue in the rocks. Pillared churches, diamond and ruby staircases, shrines, cathedrals, statues, monuments, and a thousand other wonders all rough-hewn in the hard, sparkling rock-salt crystals which, lit by electric lights, pine torches, magnesium flashes, or thousands of candles, fairly blaze like a world of precious stones.
The galleries and tunnels have been hewn out since ancient Celtic times. There is a great underground salt city, with lifts and staircases, streets and railway stations, salt lakes and rivers.
Outside, beside the parking lot, check out Friedrich Vogt, selling minerals and rocks. A lover of Israel from way back, Israeli tourists set his loving heart aflame.
“I went to Israel in the 70s. I love Israel and Israelis. I would love to have a big chunk of your Israeli national stone, the King Solomon Stone, or Eilat stone. I’ll swap anything you want. Will someone bring me one please?” www.salzwelten.at Erlenbisburg Hofenwerfen Castle The grounds are abuzz with dashing knights in tights at the 11th century Erlenbisburg-Hofenwerfen Castle, of Werfen. Larger-than-life falcons, eagles and vultures swoop overhead, flying straight toward me, eye-to-eye, so close I could touch them.
Medieval torture chambers and dungeons beat on the imagination like the beat of a whip, calling up nightmare visions of primeval darkness, unfathomable misery, dreadful slavery. No other word has quite that power, no other symbol stands more vividly for the horrors and horrible cruelties.
The stench of decaying flesh oozes from the fissures in the castle’s torture room. The sense of pain is palpable. Wrinkling her forehead, our guide Anna points to dreadful torture mechanisms, as she sadly describes the castle’s painful history.
“You can’t know everything about a castle. Over the centuries it was used as a prison. We don’t know how many people were tortured here and died here. It’s not like the romantic castle with princes and princesses. It’s a little different. It has a very dark side.”
The castle was the location for the film Where Eagles Dare as well as The Sound of Music.
www.salzburg-burgen.al/en/werfen Flying Fox A seemingly death-defying adventure is the Flying Fox. It is located literally off the side of the highway in a hollow so deep in the midst of its surrounding mountain that there is no exit from the depression for the crevasses other than to rappel a 90-degree barefaced rock cliff, then hang on for dear life to the zip-line for a phenomenal flight across a bottomless pit of raging waters, steep descents and sharp overhanging boulders.
Talk about a vertical mountain trek up. I couldn’t scramble up even the first foothill of Bishops Hat Mountain. Hats off to my colleagues who trekked upward and onward. I took a little nap curled up on a mossy timber lying beside the creek running along the rocky path. I quickly dozed off into a peaceful slumber listening to the babbling spring water.
Sadly awoken, and then ecstatic, we took a short ride down the road to confront my inner fear of heights with Outdoor Unlimited and Teamworks, an experimental educational group that builds confidence and esteem through various physically demanding exercises involving teamwork and leadership.
Although I didn’t muster the courage to balance standing on one foot on top of a 37-meter telephone pole, nor tightrope in midair without a safety net, supported only by trustworthy friends holding on to your lifeline nylon ropes, I did take home a handful of free samples of a really nice bandage, called Compeed, especially designed for serious heel blisters.
www. o u t d o o r- u n l i m i t e d .com www.team-works.eu www.
wagrain-kleinarl.com Winterstellgut The cock crows. The cows that have been gazing during the daytime out of the lush meadows are milked before sunrise. At Winterstellut the day begins early with a paradise of organic alpine mountain cheese – the pickled garlic cheese, and the rare beer cheese, various forms of pumpkin seed cottage cheese, roulades and cheese in oil, chives, chili peppers, and the list goes on and on.
This area is known for breeding Golden Chestnut Haflinger horses, and these noble steeds gambol to their hearts’ content on the green mountain pasture, galloping joyfully amongst their herd with the wind blowing through their silky mane and the sun making their coats glisten like gold.
www.winterstellgut.at/en Romantic Hotel Gmachl Lovingly, hoteliers Fritz and Michaela Hirnbock wave goodbye as if I’m a long lost friend, as I drive away from their traditional 16th century Romantic Hotel Gmachl, five miles north of Salzburg. 17th century paintings of Michaela’s Gmachl ancestors adorn the walls.
The wellness package, including massage, beauty treatment, pool, separate women’s sauna with an ultra-violet light room, provides a perfect happy ending. www.gmachl.com/en
The reporter was a guest of Turkish Airlines, Avis, St. Martin Tourism, Hotel Gmachl and Neue Holidays Ltd. Neue Holidays has travel packages like those described here. For details: www.noyaholidays.com