From alpine lakes to Europe’s highest waterfalls
The tiny red and white trains of the narrow-gauge Pinzgaubahn make their way slowly through Austria’s Pinzgau Valley for 53 km. Villages and picturesque churches dot the landscape as you head towards one of the highlights at either end of the line – the Zeller See and the famous Krimml Waterfalls, the highest in central Europe.
“Nächster Halt bei Bedarf” – “Next stop on demand” – rings out every couple of minutes, reminding passengers that to get off at one of the 38 stations they must press a button to inform the driver. Many of the stations, some nothing more than a wooden cabin, are set against such idyllic backdrops that you just want to leap out and start your next adventure. I fight the urge to press the button at every stop. Slow travel has this powerful effect on you: it makes you want to visit every place, every sight, you see.
The Pinzgaubahn opened in 1898. Back then, the trains not only transported passengers but also timber and other agricultural products. Today, there is an hourly service between Zell am See and Krimml, with a 30-minute service on some parts of the track. The one-and-a-half-hour ride runs mostly along the scenic Salzach River, transporting commuters, students and of course tourists.
The latter often take the train to reach the starting point of hiking routes in the Pinzgau area, the Hohe Tauern National Park and the Kitzbühel Alps. In summer, cyclists take their bikes up in specially-attached bike carriages to get to the starting point of the Tauern Bike Path. On board, you can tell right away the laidback railway staff have a passion for their job. “We only travel on this one route, but it never gets old,” the conductor tells me with a grin.
If you’re waiting at a station, don’t forget to press the ‘Request’ button in the silver box on the platform. This informs the driver that they need to stop. You may just get lucky though, as happened to one gentleman I saw using a walking stick. Moments after our train set off, a conductor called out “Wollen Sie mitfahren?” – “Do you want to get on?” – to which the man nodded. The train then stopped and waited for him while the staff helped him on.
This relaxed pace of life and display of humanity – too hard to come by in our busy urban lives – is what slow travel is all about. No pressure, no time constraints, just a normal day on the Pinzgaubahn…
Zell am See
With crystal-clear water and a mountain backdrop, the Zeller See is a quintessential postcard setting. The town’s station is also one of the most scenic I know of, offering direct access to the lake. You can jump straight from the train into the water. The Schmittenhöhe Bahn (a 15-min walk) takes you up the Schmittenhöhe mountain with 360° alpine views featuring all of Austria’s highest summits.
On the left after passing the lake, you can see Burg Kaprun perched atop a distant hill. In the background is the famous Kitzsteinhorn, which offers year-round skiing as well as plenty of trails for hikers and cyclists.
A 10-min walk from Mittersill station is the Hohe Tauern National Park Centre, where you can learn about Austria’s highest mountain – the Großglockner – as well as 266 other 3000-metre peaks, 342 glaciers and the Krimml Waterfalls. There’s also an eagle’s eye panorama which allows you to soar across valleys and mountaintops.
On your left (direction Krimml), you can see the majestic Großvenediger, Austria’s fourth highest mountain at 3657 m. The origin of its name (in English, the ‘Great Venetian’) is still debated. Some believe it comes from Venetian merchants who crossed the mountain passes in times past, but others say that on clear days you can see Venice from its summit.
From Krimml station, it’s a beautiful 50-min hike or 6-min bus ride to the Krimml Waterfalls, Europe’s tallest waterfall. From a height of 380 m, the waters of the Krimmler Ache, a glacial creek, plunge down in three stages before reaching the Salzach River. A waterfall trail brings you to top of the falls, passing several impressive viewpoints on the way.