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Zell am See: Alpine Wonderland

In the shadow of a soaring Austrian peak, Clive Nicholls samples the alpine pleasures of Zell am See and witnesses a spectacular lakeside light show

The Mountains are hauntingly beautiful, the lake is deep and serene and the town is pretty as a picture. I’m in Zell am See on the shores of Lake Zell and in the shadow of Austria’s Kitzbuhel Alps, with mountains so high that even in the summer the peaks are topped with snow. It’s a special place.

Dating back to Roman times, the town retains some fine examples of its history. St Hippolyte’s Church charts the town’s development with many modifications, revamps and extensions in the past 500 years – the 118ft-high tower is still a focal point in the town centre.

I make a plan to spend the evening in the town but for now it’s time to take to the mountains.

Zell am See has its own ‘local’ mountain, the 6500ft Schmittenhöhe. I catch a bus up the valley to the cable car station. Amazingly, it cost just one euro and it’s easy to spot when to get off; it’s the last stop, with the mountain rearing up in front of the bus.

Even the cable car is a bit flash with Porsche-designed gondolas (Ferdinand Porsche moved to Zell am See at the start of the Second World War) and within minutes I’m at the summit. We are below the snow line here but all around I can see snowcaps on the higher mountains.

Apparently from where I’m standing I should be able to see 30 peaks of more than 3000 metres (nearly 10,000ft): I lose count but I certainly don’t dispute that figure.

Paragliders are launching themselves off the mountain – I’ve never tried it but maybe one day I’ll sign up for a tandem flight. The views must be amazing but with my feet firmly on the ground my view is pretty special, too.

The Elisabeth Chapel stands out against the distant alpine peaks. In 1885 Empress Elisabeth (Sisi) visited Zell am See and, spurning the horse-drawn cart to the summit, walked up in an amazing time of just two hours 16 minutes. On the tenth anniversary of her death in 1908, the Archbishop consecrated the mountain-top chapel which was planned by Carl and Emilie Haschke and constructed by local builders. It’s still a beautiful place for quiet reflection.

I marvel at the views, I’m tempted by the mountain-top café, but for me it’s time to head down. My hotel, the sumptuous Tirolerhof, hosts afternoon tea at 4pm, how wonderful is that? Dainty sandwiches, fantastic pastries and tea in bone china; I’m not going to miss out!

I’ve planned my evening; a stroll in the town centre, a glass of wine in a local bar then the ‘Magic Lake Show’. Every Tuesday, Thursday and Sunday between May and October this water, sound, light and laser spectacular takes place at the lakeside Elisabeth Park in Zell am See. Totally free of charge, courtesy of Zell am See-Kaprun, it’s an event not to be missed. I take a seat at the water’s edge alongside the locals, about ten minutes before the 9pm start (10pm up to August).

It’s a warm evening, the atmosphere convivial, someone is passing round a bag of sweets, the lake is still. Even if nothing was going to happen it’s a great way of spending an evening – but something is happening… big time. The sound system kicks in, the fountains fire up and the skies light up as the lights and lasers join the party; ‘Magic Lake Show’ undersells it. I really enjoy the event, lasting 20 minutes, and make a plan to come back on Thursday for the second of the three shows – don’t miss it.

Up bright and early in the morning, and after a dip in the pool before breakfast, I’m bike riding today. I borrow an e-bike from the Tirolerhof. These are the bikes with an electric motor that make you feel like Lance Armstrong (only without the drugs). The battery will last all day and with the extra push from the motor you can cover a lot of ground.

My route will keep me on cycle tracks for most of the way and, map in hand, I set off south along the shores of the lake. I take a wrong turn and find myself in Bruck, where I’m meant to be on my return leg. After a quick chat with the postman, I’m soon back on course for Kaprun, a beautiful town in the mountain valley (it’s still at an altitude of 2500ft).

I get a coffee in the centre and then continue up the valley to the Sigmund-Thun Gorge

The gorge was formed in the Ice Age 14,000 years ago, and today the River Ache still carves its way through the calcareous schist rocks in spectacular style. A wooden walkway makes it easy for visitors to share the gorge with the tumbling waters.

Heading north, I skirt Kaprun and follow the cycle tracks through Bruck (again) and then follow the east shore of the lake to Thumersbach and complete the circuit of the lake back to Zell am See. It’s with reluctance that I park the bike in the hotel’s garage. I’m really tempted to ask them to charge the battery and set out again in the morning – it’s been a grand day but my plan takes me back to the mountains in the morning.

The mighty Kitzsteinhorn at 10,000ft is one of the snow-capped mountains I had seen earlier from the Schmittenhöhe; now t I’m on the way up by cable car. This is mountaineering the easy way. The cable car drops me off at Gipfelwelt 3000, an amazing viewing platform at 3029m with views over the glacier and mountains. It’s billed as the ‘Top of Salzburg’, and you really can’t argue with that.

As I look out from the platform, the scene is constantly changing; clouds drift across the summit, the sun fights back Rays of sunlight bounce back from the snow in front of me; sometimes the neighbouring peaks touch the sky, often they are lost in the cloud. It’s a touch chilly up here, but I can put up with that! It’s a wonderful experience and I really don’t want to go down.

Commonsense takes over and, by way of consolation, if I catch the next cable car I can make afternoon tea at the Trolerhof and catch the lakeside light show for my second performance.

In the morning time is tight for my flight home from Salzburg, but by setting my alarm I can take in sunrise over the lake before I have to leave. I meet a local couple with the same idea and together we watch dawn break over Zell am See – magical!

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