Mountains, myths and monsters: exploring the folklore of Austria's dramatic Hochkönig region

Adventures can be adrenalin-fuelled or intimate — after hiking, biking, sliding or caving, relax in Alpine villages, where herbalists and brewers share their elixirs.

Monday, March 9, 2020,
By Adrian Phillips
Photographs By Richard James Taylor
The village of Maria Alm, Hochkönig region

The village of Maria Alm, Hochkönig region

Photograph by Richard James Taylor

The iron door swings slowly open and from inside comes an angry wind, rushing at and around us like a malevolent spirit let loose. The flames of our paraffin lamps go out as one, and the stray end of my scarf flies over my shoulder, straining desperately to escape. “Hold on to your hats and small children!” shouts Martin, our guide, his words faint as they’re whipped from his lips. The wind charges and buffets, doing all it can to turn us back, but we lower our heads and push on into the cavern. Martin heaves the door closed and all is suddenly still — the spirit silenced. 

“Ah, that reminded me of a lovely spring day back home,” says an Irishman in our group, with the wry humour of Indiana Jones after he’s overcome some fiendish obstacle. As Martin relights our lanterns, and shadows shift and flicker, I decide that there is indeed something Indiana Jones-ish about all this. 

We’d followed a gloomy tunnel with dripping walls, ridden a cable-car that shuddered up the mountain, its thin cable drooping away into nothingness, and made a final ascent on a track that zigzagged above the treeline towards this gaping mouth in the rock. The temperature had plummeted as we’d approached, black birds with blood-red feet making ominous churring calls of alarm.  

I’d expected something tamer from a summertime trip to the Austrian Alps — more yodelling and cowbells, perhaps. But here I am, 5,500ft up Hochkogel mountain, in Eisriesenwelt, the world’s largest ice cave, and it’s no place for yodellers. Indeed, for centuries, no one at all set foot inside Eisriesenwelt because it was thought to be a gateway to hell. Then, in 1879, Anton Posselt, a plucky scientist from nearby Salzburg, took the plunge. He managed to traverse only a few hundred feet of the cave’s 26 miles before turning back. A cross scratched into the rock marks the point he reached — an everlasting reminder of his achievement, and of his failure, too. As we pass the cross, I imagine stepping over the skeleton of his dead dream, the nail used to scrape its epitaph still clutched by bony fingers. 

Posselt had battled the climb and bettered the wind, but was beaten by the cave’s fiercest guardian — its ice. Our lamps give blinkered glimpses of it — dancing circles of blueish-white that shine wetly back at us — but these are pin pricks on something vast lurking in the blackness beyond. The air seems frozen stiff. Martin ignites a flare, holding it aloft like a wizard’s wand, and, for a moment, the beast is on show. It fills much of the cave below and alongside us; a gargantuan dragon of ice — steep and wide and deadly slippery — spreads through the bowels of the mountain.  

The ice exists, Martin tells us, because somewhere higher up is another opening, and the flow of wintry air from one entrance to the other cools the limestone, freezing the water that drains into the cave. But we all know that’s an explanation for the unbelievers. Eisriesenwelt means ‘world of the ice giants’, and no earthly science should apply here, because this is a parallel world for knights and adventurers. It’s a place for flights of fancy. As we climb the 700 wooden steps attached to the walls, the icy dragon shapeshifts unseen beside us. In the glare of a second flare, the frosty head of a dog seems to rear from the dragon’s back, barking a soundless warning; a third flare reveals a horn spiralling to the roof; in the light of a fourth flare, a cage with icicle bars appears. There’s a gasp from behind me as a lady slips and bounces down a few steps on her backside, but it’s too late to turn back. 

In 1913, a speleologist called Alexander von Mörk finally succeeded in scaling the dragon’s back and making his way to the heart of the cave. The following year, he was dead — the dragon-slayer slain in the trenches of the First World War — but his legacy as the champion of Eisriesenwelt was secure. Not for him an anonymous scratch in the rock: a huge urn containing his ashes sits in a niche carved in the wall of the cave’s largest chamber, the ultimate trophy of a quest fulfilled.  

After nearly a mile, we come to an underground lake surrounded by an arcade of icy columns and arches. “This is as far as the ice reaches,” Martin announces. “It’s called the Ice Palace.” And, with a practised pause and a flourish of his flare, he steps out onto the lake and tiptoes theatrically across the surface. It’s a trick easily explained, of course: a thin film of water covers ice several metres thick and thousands of years old. 

Touring the Eisriesenwelt ice cave within Hochkogel mountain
Photograph by Richard James Taylor

In search of the supernatural

Back outside, the August air is motionless and warm. All around, bare and craggy peaks give way to ridges of dark-green forest beneath. Far in the distance, among the torrents of rock and pine, are occasional postage stamps of grass, each with a tiny house at its edge and the suggestion of a white picket fence. I wonder at the lives lived out there. The scene could be an illustration for a Hans Christian Andersen fairytale. Here, on the mountainside, I can believe that extraordinary things might happen — that the fence between the real and the imagined has been shaken slightly loose.  

And I’m not alone; the locals believe it, too. Outside my hotel in Alpendorf, a gondola carries visitors up Geisterberg (Ghost Mountain), where a forest trail leads off in search of the supernatural. There’s a snoring gnome in a stump and a mischievous spirit that hides under a bridge and startles people by blowing gusts of air at their legs as they pass overhead. Witches cackle from cabins and a goatish bogeyman called Krampus snarls through his whiskers. Be good, parents warn their children, or Krampus will come to get you. Although it’s a family attraction, adding interest to an afternoon’s hike, these imps and demons are anchored in centuries of folklore, and their stories must seem all too real when night falls on the mountains. 

Elsewhere, legends are more muscular still. Locals will tell you that the nearby Liechtenstein Gorge was cleaved by the Devil after his plans were thwarted and he flew into a foul rage. The Kitzloch Gorge in Taxenbach has viewpoints called Devil’s Canyon and Mary’s Rest, names heavy with the struggle between good and bad. I tackle that ravine, hiking upwards on wooden walkways, wearing an oversized helmet that makes me look like a mushroom. Alongside me, the water surges from fissures and cascades down the rock faces. This is nature possessed, as mad as the wind at Eisriesenwelt. The river below sets upon fallen trees, thrashing them pale and bulldozing them against boulders into ragged nests. Among them, the odd dropped helmet gleams white like a killer’s trophy.  

But as I get higher, the mood changes, the water rippling over stones smooth as sucked toffees. Good has gained the upper hand. Near the top of the gorge is a tunnel cut into the rock, where a hermit called Andreas Pirnbacher lived a solitary existence in the early 1900s, shepherding the occasional traveller and keeping a godly watch over the gorge. A rough-hewn wooden statuette of him now stands inside, a reminder of his battle won, like the urn of Alexander von Mörk. 

That afternoon I visit Hohenwerfen Castle. No self-respecting fairytale is without its fortress, and few are as impressive as 11th-century Hohenwerfen, perched on a hulking rock 2,000ft above the Salzach valley. The weather has turned sinister; rain lashes down and mist gathers around the coned turrets. Inside, hard stone steps lead to cold dungeons where aristocrats and peasants alike were incarcerated over the centuries. I read of one prisoner who avoided making a confession by pretending to be mute for six years. These walls must have countless other stories to tell.  

Among them would be tales of Hollywood hell-raising, because Richard Burton was here in 1968 for the filming of Where Eagles Dare, that very 20th-century fairytale about Second World War commandos on a quest to rescue a captured General from the tower. Former members of the SS were recruited to advise the actors, and they even appeared as extras in the movie wearing their own wartime uniforms. As for Burton, it’s said he worked his way through four bottles of vodka a day during filming, with Clint Eastwood having to take the handlebars during a motorcycle chase because Burton was too drunk to steer.

On a grassed terrace outside the dungeons, a falconer with a feathered hat is putting on a show in the rain. A gyrfalcon plunges past, zipping up into the grey of the sky before swinging back down. As we’re distracted by the falcon, an enormous fish eagle cruises in low from behind, intimidating and majestic like a bomber on a raid. After sending us ducking, it perches on a turret and rocks its head back in a mewing declaration of defiance. Eagles still dare here, it seems to cry. 

 

Master gin- and schnaps-maker Johannes Rainer tastes his award-winning schnaps
Photograph by Richard James Taylor

Lotions and potions

The next day breaks bright and clear as I head a few miles west to the village of Maria Alm, where geraniums bloom pink and red from the Alpine houses’ window boxes. Silhouetted against the mountains is a limestone church with towering steeple. A family gathers outside, the women in embroidered skirts and blouses that billow at the shoulder, and the men wearing traditional hats of green felt.  

At the edge of this picture-perfect village is a dainty farmhouse with a wind chime, and a wooden balcony whose balusters are as flat and neatly shaped as pieces of cut gingerbread. The prettiest garden you’ll ever see wraps around the farmhouse, fragrant and busy with insects. But what catches my attention are the jars. Dozens of them sit in the sun on a raised patio, each carefully labelled and filled with a different coloured concoction. I bend to pick one up. “Marjoram!” comes a call from nowhere, and I straighten up guiltily. “It’s good for sore noses.”

Rosi, the owner of the farmhouse, materialises from behind a planter spilling over with herbs. “Do you have a sore nose?” she asks, and seems a touch disappointed when I shake my head. “The flu?” She points to a jar filled with an orange-red mush of nasturtium leaves. “That will make a litre of drops to cure you from flu aches.” I shake my head again. “Ah, well,” she sighs lightly, before brightening as a thought strikes her. “How about this one? It helps if you’ve lost your voice.” 

Introductions made, Rosi invites me into a cabin containing a pine dresser, a basket of drying herbs and shelf upon shelf of her potions. There are bottles tall and squat, cakes of soap that soften the skin, tubs with balms for noses and creams for hands, and phials of oils and powders every colour of the rainbow. It’s like a witch’s workshop. 

This is Obersteghof, one of 16 so-called ‘herb huts’ along a special hiking route for summer tourists. Hikers receive a sticker when they visit a hut, and if they collect eight stickers they are awarded cloth bags of herbal products. A local lady has even written a fable about each hut; the story of Rosi’s farm is pasted to the wall, illustrated with cartoons of a wolf licking his lips hungrily at a wide-eyed deer.  

“It’s always been my hobby to create things from plants in the garden — and now it’s my job,” smiles Rosi, who sells her remedies and leads wild herb tours. “I make cordials, too. Try this,” she adds, passing me a glass of her latest work-in-progress. “I extracted it from that feathery plant out there, which I call ‘Coke cabbage’.” The liquid is yellow and tastes like nothing I’ve ever drunk before, combining flavours of lavender, lemon and, yes, a hint of cola. It’s deliciously refreshing. 

However, the true master of magical drinks is to be found further along the herb hut hiking route, in the forest above the village of Dienten. Grünegg Alm is another impossibly quaint farmhouse, built 500 years ago, with a turning waterwheel and hens clucking about the yard. Inside, Johannes — who lives here with his parents — stands beside a still; it’s a beautiful thing made of polished copper that glows golden on his cheek. Two cylinders rise 10ft tall, flanking a vat topped with a bulbous cap the shape of a hot-air balloon. Brushed steel pipes chart courses between the three copper containers, and there’s an elegant clutter of dials, taps and tubes. 

He seems young to be a distiller — 21 years old, I learn — but he could pass for even younger with his side parting and Harry Potter glasses. He demonstrates where the fruit goes, how it’s heated and where the alcohol flows, then dutifully runs me through volumes and percentages. But, like the science of the Ice Cave, I know it’s an explanation for the unbelievers, because Johannes has a gift. His pine liqueur won the Goldene Stamperl award when he was just 15, the youngest-ever winner. 

“I started distilling when I was eight,” he reveals, eyes suddenly alight. “But I only sniffed what I made!” he adds hurriedly, reading my expression, and a picture floats before me of Harry Potter nursing a butter beer while all around him grizzled wizards hit the hard stuff. He points to the beginner’s still his father gave him, displayed on a ledge. “It was fun. I caused an explosion once, trying to make beer in it.” 

We move to a low-lit room lined with hundreds of bottles, their contents radiating all the colours of autumn, and Johannes hands me glass after glass. His father and grandfather made schnaps from blueberries or rowanberries — nothing else — but he has never been scared to experiment. There’s a raspberry schnaps, a hazelnut liqueur and a gin laced with lime and local herbs. One schnaps is made from hay, scythe-cut nearby, and has something of the barnyard about it. “This year I’m going to see what I can do with carrots,” Johannes confides, as he pours a liqueur that tastes of the woods.  

At the same time the following day, I’m careering feet-first down a 200ft chute. It’s one of a series of slides buried deep in the forest on Natrun Prince Mountain that visitors can use to travel back down to Maria Alm after they’ve hiked or biked to the summit. And it’s another experience to confound my expectations of the Austrian Alps in summer. 

I’d anticipated gentle trails, rolling pastures and picnic spots dotted with long-horned cattle, and they’re all here; if you want the sound of music you can hear it loud and clear. But you’ll hear too the sounds of witches and sprites, of potions bubbling (and sometimes exploding), of eagles lording and nature rampaging. You’ll hear legends, fables and stories of derring-do, because this is a landscape of imagination and adventure as suited to a questing Indiana Jones or a boozing Richard Burton as a melodious Maria von Trapp. And, yes, you’ll hear my wails as I slide faster and faster, hoping my stomach will catch up. When the chute levels out and I slow to a halt, all is suddenly still. The tourist silenced. I catch my breath and shake my head: an Alpine summer is a hell of a ride.  

Essentials

Getting there & around
Salzburg is 40 miles north of St Johann im Pongau (the nearest town to Alpendorf) and the Hochkönig region. British Airways, EasyJet and Ryanair are among the airlines that offer summer flights to Salzburg from Gatwick and Stansted. Average flight time: 2h. 

When to go
In summer, temperatures average in the low 20Cs, although mountain weather can be unpredictable. April-May and September-October are cooler. 

Where to stay 
Hotel AlpenSchlössl in Alpendorf.
Hotel Gasthof Niederreiter in Maria Alm.

How to do it
Zenith Holidays
offers a six-day hiking trip in the Salzburg region on a B&B basis from £445, excluding flights. Package itineraries can be booked via the St Johann im Pongau and Hochkönig tourist offices from £220 for between three and seven nights. josalzburg.com  hochkoenig.at
 

Published in the April 2020 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)

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