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Adventures on the water in Salzburgerland

The lakes and gorges of Salzburgerland are calming on the eye — but hold potential for adventure too

By Ben Lerwill
Published 8 Apr 2019, 23:42 BST, Updated 15 Jul 2021, 16:06 BST
Lake Zell

Lake Zell

Photograph by Getty Images

It's an hour before midday on Lake Fuschl. A bright blue damselfly comes to rest on the wooden gunwale of the boat I'm in. The morning is hot and still, a day for running your hand in the water and watching sunlight shimmer on the surface. The lake is 2.5 miles long and 500 metres wide, but ours is one of just three boats astir. Both the others have solo occupants — local fishermen, waiting for trout. They're sitting back, feet up. They don't look especially hassled.

The lake itself is an improbable shade of aquamarine, a by-product of the plankton that inhabit the water. It creates a colour scheme more redolent of Antigua than Austria, although when you look up, the heavy pine woods and soft, hawk-flown hills are European through and through. The boat's skipper points to a distant, sandy section of the shoreline. "Our naturists' beach," he says, matter-of-factly, sipping a coffee. I can make out five or six people at the water's edge. They don't look especially hassled either.

For all its adrenalin-kick potential, the Salzburgerland region is ostensibly somewhere deeply calming. This is partly to do with its rippled green carpet of peaks and crests — a landscape that could have been designed from on high purely to look good in brochures — but also down to an abundance of water.

Water is everywhere you look here. Lakes and rivers, gorges and waterfalls, streams and fountains. Most of the locals you meet have lived here all their lives, and their houses and villages are congregated close to water, where nature's gifts are fresh and the sense of space is that much greater. The mountaintops might hog the billboards, but life here is lived around the lakes.

Windsurfing, Lake Zell

They say the water in all the lakes around here is drinkable. After two hours spent windsurfing — or at least trying to — on Lake Zell, I can confirm the claim is conclusively true of this particular body of water. Over the course of 120 minutes, I fine-tune the art of falling in to the point where I'm only swallowing a mouthful on each entry, rather than a full litre. Still, if you're going to inadvertently over-hydrate, you may as well do it in the kind of swelling natural amphitheatre that Salzburgerland serves up for fun.

Lake Zell is a stunner; a freshwater bowl surrounded by the slopes and summits of the Austrian Alps. High up, snow-filled crevices, craggy ridges and tumbling glaciers. Lower down are dense evergreen woods, and a scattering of waterside towns cocooned from the clamour of the outside world. Gazing out from the western shore is the ice-white Grand Hotel Zell am See, a 19th-century property that enticed royalty in the latter days of the Austrian Empire. It's that kind of lake.

Heinz Seidl, my windsurfing tutor for the day, is wearing Ray-Bans, a baggy T-shirt and a smile. When I meet him at the watersports centre on the lake's southern edge, he talks me through a display of his photos on the outside noticeboard. The majority of the pictures show him windsurfing and surfing on waves large enough to terrify mere mortals. If this little photo montage is to prove his credentials, it works. When he begins his coaching advice — helpfully pointing out that there won't be any waves on the lake — I'm all ears.

"First you need this," he says, handing me a wetsuit. "Then you need this." He points to the board and sail lying in wait by the lake. I've never windsurfed before, and as Heinz explains the relevant components of the sail — rig, boom, mast — and the difference between tacking and jibbing, I wonder if it might be trickier than it looks. As it turns out, windsurfing is a blast — even if staying on the board isn't my forte.

The breeze, which had seemed docile on land, stiffens once we're on the water. We sail alongside each other — Heinz still in his T-shirt and shorts, taking occasional calls on his mobile, me in a wetsuit trying to remember 20 things at once. How far back do I lean? Where does my left foot go again? "Open your profile more," advises Heinz patiently. Our sails billow out and zip us along at what feels like a fast lick. It's thrilling. Then we alter our course, and I fall in. Again.

But I notice something odd about tumbling into the lake so often. Each time, I'm scrambling back onto it and re-hoisting the sail with more urgency than I did the previous time. Being barrelled along by the wind is addictive. I want more. When the gusts drop — which from time to time they do, occasionally fizzling out completely — it feels like being cheated. When they pick up again, the buzz returns.

Heinz eventually leaves me to it, satisfied that I understand the basics. In a way, I think I do. Don't overcomplicate things, rely as far as possible on instinct, and when you're on Lake Zell on a sunny day, surrounded by mammoth mountainscapes, make sure you enjoy the submersions as much as the windsurfing.

Stand-up paddleboarding, Lake Fuschl

Local hiker Gundi opens her flask and pours me a coffee. We've just walked up the 4,356ft-high Schober to watch the sun break over the mountains. The whole region is spread out before us, and as the hazy light spills out from the horizon, the darkened contours of the landscape gradually become more distinct. Soon, each lake and mountain can be picked out, silent mega-tableaus of water and rock in every direction. The coffee tastes good.

There are 67 lakes in the Salzkammergut. At the foot of the Schober lies one of the loveliest: the aforementioned Lake Fuschl, a long, peak-surrounded swathe of pale blue which, even at this early hour, frames a mirror image of the slopes above it. Gundi directs my eyes further afield and points out the distant snow-capped massif of Germany's Bavarian Alps. "Impressive, no?" she says, before bringing my gaze back to the lake. "But this is home."

As homes go, it has a lot going for it. Three hours later, I'm at the shore, about to step onto a stand-up paddleboard. There are no motor boats allowed on the lake, a ruling that keeps water traffic down to a handful of electric vessels. It compounds the sense of being somewhere hushed and hill-hidden. The lake's surface is as calm as a mill pond, and as I launch my board onto the water, a group of baby coots — little black fluffballs with reddish heads faithfully following their mum — swim past me the other way, without so much as a chirp of alarm.

Stand-up paddleboarding must surely be one of the easiest watersports to master, particularly on the sheltered stillness of a highland lake. Within a minute or two I'm well away from the shoreline and listening only to the splish-pause-splish of my paddling. The lake's lengthy northern and southern banks are heavy with oak woods, with occasional clearings for expensive-looking houses. One still belongs to Roman Abramovich, the Russian billionaire and owner of Chelsea Football Club, who holidayed here and was so taken with the views that he bought his own waterside residence.

I paddle on, the occasional fish shivering past my board. The narrower ends of the lake are more built-up — this being a relative assessment. At one end are the grounds of Schloss Fuschl, once a hunting lodge for the Archbishops of Salzburg, now an exclusive hotel with a long list of Austrian wines. At the other end is the low-slung village of Fuschl am See, where robust-looking wellness tourists combine facials, food and fitness. If golf's your thing, it's possible to play nine holes on one side of the lake, catch an electric boat to the other side and play another nine.

I stick with the paddleboard. In fact, I enjoy my self-propelled tour of the lake so much — the delicious quietude of being in the middle of a body of water where my smartphone isn't — that I do it again in the afternoon. In between times, I settle down to lunch in the village at the tradition-heavy spa resort Hotel Ebner's Waldhof, where the female staff wear dirndls, the pilsners come with frothy heads and the trout fillets are sourced from, well, you can probably guess.

"The lake's still a bit of a secret for some people," says Veronika Ebner, a chatty German lady who fell in love here twice, first marrying into the family that runs the hotel, then losing her heart to the landscapes. "Most of our visitors are either Austrian or Bavarian; a few Swiss too, and some British people who are in the know."

The next morning I catch the electric boat along the lake to the Schloss, then make the hour-long walk back along the northern shore. It's a fine stroll, crossing clear streams and wandering through squirrelly woodland but, I decide, less fun than being out on the water with a paddle in your hand, and nothing to dwell on except how far to go and which way to let your thoughts drift.

Canyoning, Almbach Gorge

All is calm in Almbach Gorge. One wall of the ravine is in shade, the other is washed in warm sunshine; flutes of birdsong are drifting from the pine woods. The trees are tall but utterly dwarfed by the canyon, which looms high and wild over everything. Meanwhile, somewhere in its depths, four of us are peering down from a rock ledge onto a natural pool. The water is around 30ft below us, though this distance looks and feels further. "OK," says Max Obermayr, rubbing his hands together. "Who's first?"

Max is a son of Salzburgerland. Bearded and burly with a jet-black earring, he grew up in the family-owned hotel where he now works himself: Hotel Obermayr, a traditional guest house of wooden beams and flower boxes on the fringe of the forest, about 20 minutes southwest of Salzburg. A few years ago he decided to tap into a growing trend for adrenalin sports by offering canyoning tours through the towering local gorges. They went down well. And judging from his mood today, his relish for leaping into water from disconcerting heights hasn't dimmed.

Canyoning is a rush. The process of jumping off a rock, pushing any fears away and free-falling through the air until you torpedo into the water is a kick. When people return to the surface after a canyoning jump, it's a safe bet that they'll be beaming. Over the course of the tour, which takes in plenty of scrambling, 10 jumps, some swimming and a couple of natural water-slides for good measure, I see a lot of beaming.

We move along the gorge slowly, squeezing past rocks, clambering along narrow paths, climbing here, leaping there. The jumps themselves come in various shapes and sizes. Some are relative tiddlers, involving little more than a 10ft drop. Some are slightly bigger, requiring a momentary psych-up before you step off the edge. And others still are downright daunting, necessitating, in my case at least, a period of convincing yourself that propelling yourself off a limestone perch into cold water far below is a good idea. Which, of course, it is. The split-second of entry — the shock of impact and the sudden, cool embrace of the water itself — is a wallop of pure pleasure.

Max runs a proficient operation. We wear wetsuits and helmets for the duration, and he knows when to persuade people to jump ("don't overthink it, just do it") and when to accept that it's not going to happen (there are alternatives to the bigger jumps for more jittery participants). But being the only four people in a vast gorge also brings an element of freedom, and it takes little time before exploring it via a series of nerve-wracking leaps of faith seems like the most natural thing in the world.

There are two canyoning tours on offer; this option in the echoing Almbach Gorge and a longer jaunt in the nearby Strubklamm. I'm saving the Strubklamm for my next visit, when I foresee I'll be striding off 30ft-high boulders without pause for thought. Probably.

Follow @benlerwill

Published in the Salzburgerland guide distributed with the December 2018 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)

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