Austria Day 7: A full day mountain exploration of Dachstein Krippenstein

Today I woke up and went downstairs for breakfast, which to me just meant some coffee as I don’t generally eat until around dinnertime. Larry (the owner of Haus Hepi) made me a French Press, which was a nice alternative to the standard espressos that I’ve had thus far on this trip. I just sat in the breakfast nook looking outside at the beautiful mountain landscape. I think that I could have spent most of the day doing just that, and been perfectly satisfied. However, we have too much fun planned for the day to just sit around! 🙂

After breakfast, we left for Dachstein Krippenstein, which is basically up the mountain from Obertraun, and has a bunch of fun activities. We purchased the all-encompassing ticket so that we didn’t have to pay for individual attractions or funicular passes. We started by going to the Mammoth Cave, which doesn’t have anything to do with the prehistoric gigantic animal, but rather simply refers to the size of the cave system there. After that, Deb was patient enough to let me set up for tons of beautiful photos of the mountain and surrounding areas. I’m really hopeful that I’ll be able to perfect them and have some lovely memories. I’m no fool, though, and realise that it’s absolutely impossible to capture the sheer grandeur and magnificence of natural wonders like these.

Hallstatt / Obertraun - Dachstein Krippenstein - illuminated pathway in the Mammoth Cave
Hallstatt / Obertraun – Dachstein Krippenstein – illuminated pathway in the Mammoth Cave

Hallstatt / Obertraun - Dachstein Krippenstein - majestic mountain face near Mammoth Cave
Hallstatt / Obertraun – Dachstein Krippenstein – majestic mountain face near Mammoth Cave

After the Mammoth Cave tour, we ascended to the mountain summit (because we just weren’t up high enough beforehand). We walked along a beautiful path that lead us to the 5 Fingers lookout. We didn’t take the path all the way due to time constraints, but instead just sat and looked over Lake Hallstatt below. At one point, we even got to see a lady take off parasailing from the summit! It looked like a lot of fun, but I know my limitations and my fear of open heights would have left me permanently planted to the mountainside. 😛 What we did get to experience, though, were some breathtaking views of both Hallstatt to the northwest and another mountain to the south.

Hallstatt / Obertraun - Dachstein Krippenstein - summit facing northeast overlooking Hallstatt
Hallstatt / Obertraun – Dachstein Krippenstein – summit facing northwest overlooking Hallstatt

Hallstatt / Obertraun - Dachstein Krippenstein - summit facing south
Hallstatt / Obertraun – Dachstein Krippenstein – summit facing south

After our wonderful day in the mountains taking in some truly incredible vantages, we came back down the mountain and drove north of Hallstatt to to the town of Bad Ischl. Our main reason for going was that Larry (the owner of Haus Hepi) said that it was worth the drive to have some of the best pastries in the area. Unfortunately, since they had the street closed off, we didn’t make it in before their closing time, so we may have to try again tomorrow. We made the 25km drive back to Obertraun and went to the Koppenrast restaurant for dinner (again at Larry’s recommendation). We started with this dish of roasted pumpkin, potato gnocchi and tomatoes. I ended up liking it so much that I ordered it as my main.

Hallstatt / Obertraun - Gasthaus Koppenrast - Gnocchi with pumpkin and tomatoes
Hallstatt / Obertraun – Gasthaus Koppenrast – Gnocchi with pumpkin and tomatoes

Debbie, though hesitant, went with my suggestion of the venison with sugar snap pees, puréed pumpkin, and pickled plums. She seemed to enjoy it, with the exception of the purée. The reason that so many dishes have had pumpkin and / or mushrooms is that those ingredients are both in season during autumn, and I’ve noticed that many Austrian restaurants like to source local produce that’s available at the time. I certainly didn’t mind that Deb disliked the purée, and being a good friend, I helped her out with it. 😛

Hallstatt / Obertraun - Gasthaus Koppenrast - venison with pumpkin purée
Hallstatt / Obertraun РGasthaus Koppenrast Рvenison with pumpkin pur̩e

We decided to share a dessert that seemed a bit unusual. We ordered the semolina balls (hard to describe, but shaped like a doughnut hole and with the texture of a buckwheat muffin) with vanilla ice cream and a coulis of elderberry. The texture was really pleasing, I thought, and the combination of the ice cream and fresh berries made it both extremely refreshing and decadent!

Hallstatt / Obertraun - Gasthaus Koppenrast - dessert of semolina balls
Hallstatt / Obertraun – Gasthaus Koppenrast – dessert of semolina balls

Like many of our evenings on this trip, we planned on very little besides wine and relaxation after dinner. I had the 2013 Schloss Gobelsburg Pinot Noir (a back vintage of my wine from the night before), and Deb went with the 2017 Schloss Gobelsburg Lamm (single vineyard) Grüner Veltliner. She said that she liked it, but not quite as much as the Heiligenstein Riesling from last night (which was her favourite of the trip so far). Another very nice day in Austria, and undoubtedly some of the most awe-inspiring surroundings I’ve experienced!

Austria Day 6: Hallstatt, Obertraun, and Gosau See

As I said, we unfortunately only had one full day in the Wachau region, and this morning we got up to depart for Hallstatt and Obertraun. The drive was about 3 hours or so, but there were some periods of road construction so it took a little longer than anticipated. We stopped outside of Hallstatt at a café for some coffee and tea. They had this amazing looking fruit tart that was rolled up like a taco. We didn’t get one, but it surely looked delicious and had some more interesting fruits like blackberries and red currants in it.

We arrived at Haus Hepi, which isn’t in Hallstatt, but rather in the neighbouring town of Obertraun to the east of Lake Hallstatt. I originally thought that we would be disappointed by not being in the centre of Hallstatt, but it turned out that Obertraun was a much nicer alternative. It was outside of the hustle and bustle of the touristy area, but close enough that it was only a quick drive (just slightly too far to be a comfortable walk).

Hallstatt / Obertraun - Haus Hepi bed and breakfast
Hallstatt / Obertraun – Haus Hepi bed and breakfast

Our room was on the second floor (which was the top floor of the house), and had a great country cottage feel about it. The room was slightly small, but provided more than enough space for the two of us to move around comfortably (even with our luggage). There was even a desk, a wardrobe, and a television in the room, which all added to the comfort.

Hallstatt / Obertraun - Haus Hepi - guest room on top floor
Hallstatt / Obertraun – Haus Hepi – guest room on top floor

Another reason that I thought we might be disappointed with staying in Obertraun instead of in the centre of Hallstatt was that we wouldn’t have a direct view of the lake. Again, though, I was pleasantly surprised and realised that I don’t mind at all that it’s not on the lake. The view of the mountains to the south ended up being nicer than I could have possibly imagined!

Hallstatt / Obertraun - Haus Hepi - stunning view from our balcony
Hallstatt / Obertraun – Haus Hepi – stunning view from our balcony

Larry (the owner of the house) mentioned that “cash is king” here, so we stopped by the local bank to get some more Euros from the ATM. We also went to the little supermarket to get a few things like beverages and snacks for the room. We then headed out to Lake Gosausee just to take some photos and such before nightfall. I spent some time setting up my camera for HDR photo sets, and hopefully one day I’ll have the time to process them.

Instead of eating at the restaurant right there on Lake Gosausee (which we were told had great views, but mediocre food), we drove over to Rathlucken Hütte. The road to the restaurant was incredibly steep and winding. Several times along the way I thought that we were going to be hit by oncoming cars. The food there was essentially pub food, but it was all nicely prepared. Our waiter, who I would imagine was the owner, was kind enough to translate every single dish for us. Seeing as the menu was only available in German, we were certainly grateful for his generosity! Deb had the wiener schnitzel with roasted potatoes, and I had essentially the same thing but instead of meat, mine was pumpkin. It came with a tartar sauce that ended up being the first tartar that I’ve ever enjoyed. Overall, a nice meal that was something different than either of us is used to (we very seldom eat at pub-style restaurants when home).

Back in our lovely cottage room at Haus Hepi, we enjoyed some wines for the evening and watched this pop music channel on the TV (it was one of the only channels in English). Deb had her 2017 Schloss Gobelsburg Riesling Ried Heiligenstein (single vineyard), which she said has been her favourite of the trip thus far. I had my 2015 Schloss Gobelsburg Pinot Noir, and it had lovely fruit notes with a great minimalistic mouthfeel. I can’t wait to try the 2013 vintage of the same wine tomorrow night! One of my main reasons for wanting to visit Schloss Gobelsburg and try their Pinot Noir was a comment from Karen MacNeil in her venerable tome The Wine Bible (2015) where she claimed:

“before I first tasted this wine, I would have said that Austrian and German pinot noir had a long way to go before they’d be put in the same company with Burgundy. This wine opened my eyes. It’s as delicate, layered, precise, and filigreed as pinot noir can be, with long ribbons of spiciness and earthiness and a core of rich raspberry/cranberry fruit. The silky/creamy texture is sublime (for Burgundy lovers, it will seem like a page out of the Chambolle-Musigny playbook).” (p. 608)

MacNeil, K. (2015). The Wine Bible (2nd ed.). New York, NY: Workman Publishing Co., Inc.

Austria Day 5: Durnstein and the stunning Domane Wachau

Today we got up for what is, sadly, our only full day in the Wachau valley. It was a relatively leisurely morning around the flat, but then we were off to the neighbouring town of Dürnstein for a tour of the town’s church (Stift Dürnstein). We parked the car in a public car park next to town and walked to the church. As we were going through town, we came across a team of people filming for an advertisement for a new bag. It happened to be a sling camera bag, and it was definitely a neat idea for those photographers who don’t want to carry a lot of lenses (AKA, not the obsessive-compulsive “must have everything with me” type like me). Anyway, we arrived in the courtyard of the church and were greeted by our tour guide. He took us through the whole church, explaining the immense amount of symbolism and the many theological references along the way. Some of the amazing themes were the numbers 3, 4, and 7 throughout (such as representations of the four seasons, the four elements, and the seven signs of revelation). As the church was renovated based on monies that a priest earned from selling wine and cereals, those themes were also manifested throughout.

Stift Dürnstein's inner courtyard
Stift Dürnstein’s inner courtyard

One other interesting element of the church was the innovative architectural components of the main altar. Our guide explained to us that the main piece in the centre of the altar was not only three-dimensional, but that it actually could be rotated within its setting. I found that to be a truly remarkable accomplishment given the age of the church and materials used in the altar.

Stift Dürnstein - Our guide at the altar with a 3D sphere
Stift Dürnstein – Our guide at the altar with a 3D sphere

The terrace of the church was extremely beautiful and overlooked the Danube. We spent some time out there just soaking up some of the warm sunlight, but then headed upstairs to the organ room. It was much smaller than most church organs, but very lovely to see up close partly due to the age of it. The cabinet of the organ was quite rustic and that rusticity further contributed to its sense of time and place (and thus, its beauty). Before we finished our tour, our guide mentioned that he had to go take care of his final harvest today. We chatted about his vineyards and winemaking, and he even invited us to come with him to pick! Unfortunately we didn’t have time in our schedule, but it would have been an absolutely outstanding experience, I’m sure! The gesture alone was enough.

Stift Dürnstein's balcony overlooking the Danube
Stift Dürnstein’s balcony overlooking the Danube

After our tour, we just looked around the town, and stopped in for a coffee and tea at Bäckerei Schmidl. There were some fantastic looking breads and pastries there, so I asked how late they were open. Since they were open until 18:00, I thought that we might go back after our next activity to pick up some snacks for the evening. Further down the main road, we found one of those typical souvenir shops, but this one had something funny that I wanted to purchase. It was a sign that had a silhouette of a kangaroo on it, and it said “No kangaroos in Austria”. I thought it was too funny and clever to leave there without it. 🙂

Dürnstein - Bäckerei Schmidl café
Dürnstein – Bäckerei Schmidl café

We then made our way to Domäne Wachau for our tour, and our guide introduced herself as Lena. She is primarily in charge of exports but her expertise in so many facets of the vineyards and winery made her an impeccable tour guide! She showed us some of the newer experiments of the winery (such as the orange wines, and using granite and marble for fermentation / holding tanks). Her focus on the history of the estate was greatly appreciated given the many centuries of production there.

Domäne Wachau - Barrel from 791
Domäne Wachau – Barrel from 791!

She even took notice to the wines that I talked about the most, and brought those in as additional samples for our tasting. As she was originally from Germany, we talked about how great German Spätburgunder (Pinot Noir) can be. I knew that I loved Domäne Wachau’s white wine offerings (especially the single-vineyard Kellerberg Riesling), but I found out that their Pinot Noir was absolutely magnificent! It was ethereal and elegant like some of the village-level wines from Chambolle-Musigny yet still had its own distinct (slightly underripe and tangy) character that gave it a true sense of place. We bought several bottles for the remainder of our trip (including some back-vintage 1995 Kellerberg Rieslings as special bottles), and I even purchased two bottles of Pinot Noir to take home with me (since it isn’t available in the United States). Hey, Lena is responsible for exports though, so maybe I can convince her to start distributing it to the US. 🙂 What an absolutely amazing winery experience; possibly one of the best I’ve had in years!

Domäne Wachau - Zach & Lena enjoying the phenomenal Pinot Noir
Domäne Wachau – Zach & Lena enjoying the phenomenal Pinot Noir

At the very end of our tour, Lena told us that the Wachau valley and surrounding areas are known for four things: 1) Wine; 2) Apricots; 3) Granite; 4) Marble. So, it makes sense that they are experimenting with granite and marble as vessels for fermentation and ageing. After our tour, we just walked the area’s vineyards and through neighbouring town of Dürnstein taking photos. Deb was kind enough and patient enough to let me just take my time getting some nice shots.

Domäne Wachau - Beautiful eastern vineyards
Domäne Wachau – Beautiful eastern vineyards

Before leaving town, we stopped back into the bakery for some snacks. We ended up with three rolls and these beautifully simple sugar cookies. We then left for dinner at Zum Kaiser von Österrich. The restaurant was very small (only about 6 or so tables), but came very highly rated. Boy was it ever worthy of those high praises! The owners are a husband and wife team, with him in the kitchen and her serving as the hostess and waitress.

The Wachau - Kaiser von Österreich restaurant - Bread starter
The Wachau – Kaiser von Österreich restaurant – Bread starter

Our meal started with a tray of complimentary breads, meats, and some extremely fresh garden vegetables. One of the breads had olives baked into it, and they provided both some saltiness but also some wonderful fruity aromas and tastes as well. We then received a small plate of beetroot, horseradish, and a grilled fish bite as compliments of the chef. Two dishes that we didn’t anticipate and they were an excellent start to the meal. Then came our appetiser of sautéed Porcini mushrooms and roasted potatoes. As with the other dishes that we had, they were perfectly prepared. Nothing, however, could brace me for the absolutely astonishing mains that we had. We each ordered the roasted chicken, which came on a bed of noodles, Porcini mushrooms and broccoli (all local and fresh)! Though we had nice desserts (a cheese tart with walnut ice cream and elderberry sauce as well as a pear omelette with rum foam), I can barely remember them because I was still blown away by the mains. I can’t commend the food highly enough because it may well be one of the best meals that I’ve ever had!

The Wachau - Kaiser von Österreich restaurant - chicken with noodles, mushrooms, and broccoli
The Wachau – Kaiser von Österreich restaurant – chicken with noodles, mushrooms, and broccoli

After such a satisfying meal, would it even be possible to have wines that could compare? Well, back in our room we indulged in two wines from Schloss Gobelsburg: the current vintages of their Merlot and Renner Grüner Veltliner. Both were very nice… but yes, I’m still thinking about that amazing dining experience! 🙂