Our route from Bled to the Austrian border wound through the Alps and had us traverse a plethora of tunnels, one an incredible seven kilometers long.
Upon arriving in Austria, we approached a mountain range that put our Slovenian viewpoints to shame. Here a smooth four lane highway paved the way through a perfectly manicured mountainside full of evergreen trees and grazing grasslands. The houses here were the classical definition of an alpine lodge: wooden frames with colored window shutters and triangular roofs perched high up in the mountainside.
The evening sun backlit a dramatic set of peaks, adding an element of wonder as we curved our way into the lakeside town of Zell am See, our base for the next three nights. In an effort to ensure we wouldn’t have to set up camp in the complete darkness, Tim and Joe graciously came to our campsite first before we all went into town. Their eyes couldn’t believe what they encountered: this was one of Europe’s largest campsites.
A hotel the size and style of a ski resort marked the entrance, but behind was a heated pool, a massive trampoline park, an entire lake for swimming, and a full service spa. No less than 500 trailers were on the premises, most of them larger than my modest one bedroom apartment.
Although Stefje was initially perturbed to find that the clientele was primarily Dutch families with tents and camper vans, we quickly settled into this new lavish lifestyle and set up our comparatively tiny tent.
Thoroughly pooped from a full day of driving, Stefje and I opted to take the next day to chill in Zell am See while Tim and Joe set off on another expedition to explore a nearby gorge. We indulged in all of our traveling passions: posting up for a picnic in the park, taking a long stroll around town to observe the curiosities of both locals and tourists, and then finding a cozy coffee shop to wait out a rainstorm and dive into a pair of novels.
We found Zell am See to be an intriguing, if overly crowded, case study in tourist diversity. Very few English speakers strolled the streets; instead German and Dutch were the most prominent languages, followed closely by Arabic. Due to some creative and effective marketing from the Zell am See tourist board, many Muslim travelers find their way to this town because it’s lake, forests, and snowcapped peaks directly resemble the Qur'an's depiction of heaven.
As the afternoon wore on and the drizzle abided enough for some blue sky to peek through the clouds, Stefje suggested we get our legs moving and I gladly obliged. After some trial and error we discovered a steep yet gorgeous hike right behind town. The way up was a clinic in the microbiology of the region.
Mushrooms sprouted out of the newly moist soil, the low din of cars from the city was replaced with birds chirping and leaves rustling, and the trunks of fallen trees proved to be a perfect blooming ground for the next layer of the forest’s evolution.
Just thirty minutes after beginning we arrived at our destination and the reward far outweighed the tiny work we had put in. Perched in the hillside amongst a dense grove of trees was the perfect Austrian bar. As we reclined outside to soak in the spectacular panorama of the lake, music, shouts, and singing erupted from the packed interior. Inside the bar people had clearly been drinking since early in the day, providing a welcoming and engaging atmosphere that enchanted Stefje and me.
In the evening the guys returned and Tim and I decided to kill some time by sweating out our sins in the campsite sauna while we got some laundry done. By the time we had wrapped up and downed a beer with dinner, it was time to turn in for a deep slumber.
Sunday morning brought with it slightly better views, but a layer of clouds still obstructed the highest peaks and that’s exactly where we were headed. On the way out of town we zigzagged through a ridiculously thin and steep valley, approaching a solid rock wall. A gondola took us over the wall and upwards towards the clouds, leaving our car looking like a tiny speck on the ground.
A series of three cable cars blazes the path to the observation deck; we opted for the rougher route by hiking between the first and second. The rocky trail wound back and forth, exposing us to green mossy rocks and cliffs that seemed sheared straight off with a sharp knife.
Above us the clouds never gave way for that clear view of the glaciers above us, but by walking backwards I was treated to postcard perfect views of Zell Am See and its fertile surroundings.
Further along the trail veered off and escalated along a dangerous ridge. The climbing got significantly tougher but by peering over the rocky edge we were treated to broad sweeping views of a tremendous valley accompanied by one of the imposing tongues of the Kitzsteinhorn glacier.
Waterfalls sprouted forth from the ice, carving their way into ravines and slowly chipping away at the rocky facade. A tough rock scramble capped the hike as we ascended towards the next cable car station.
Here the clouds began to encroach. We boarded the final of three cars and within a few seconds were immersed in a world of white. On three sides a thick layer of clouds brought visibility down to almost nothing, while below us the glacier took hold of the mountain's surface.
By the time we reached the platform it was finally necessary to confront our attire: all three guys were wearing shorts and Tim was somehow surviving in just a t-shirt. The fog shrouded our views and gripped us with an intense cold while we snapped a few pictures of what would have otherwise been one of Austria's most spectacular destinations.
Undeterred, we funnelled deeper into the mountain down a steep and icy tunnel. Our reward for losing feeling in our fingers was the chance to gain another view of the spectacular mountain, this time with slightly better views.
Thoroughly frostbitten, we retired to the cafe for a warm meal before finding refuge in the comparatively balmy temperatures of lower elevations.
That afternoon we found one of the town's only stand up paddle boarding operations to try our hand at some paddling on lake Zell. Quickly we found a whole new perspective on the region. A light breeze brought choppy waters to the lake's surface, but we persisted by straining with backs, shoulders and legs until firmly positioned in the middle of the huge body of water.
From here, a scene like a painting unfolded before my eyes. Verdant green hillsides were dotted with ski lodges, farms, and lakeside vacation houses; each one offered downright incredible views of the lake. In almost all 360 degrees, mountains shot upwards into the sky to dominate our views.
Far away from the hustle of town and the crowds of other tourist destinations, we had truly found a destination that we could fully experience with utter relaxation.
Deep feelings of joy and calmness were further enhanced by some dockside sunshine, beers, and slack lining.
We began the following morning with a wonderful trip out into the mountainous wilderness. Our sights were set on the infamous Grossglockner pass, one of the world's most beautiful roads by any account. Populated by a surprising number of bicyclists experiencing various levels of fatigure, the road climbed across 36 hairpin turns deep into the wild backwoods of the Alps.
Along the first stretch we were treated to increasingly ridiculous views of splended mountain vistas. A long line of black scraggly peaks contrasted against the perfectly blue sky, their tops interrupted by a set of pristine white glaciers.
My eyes panned downwards, uncovering an untold number of treasures along the way. There were stupendous waterfalls that deposited directly into winding streams, flush forests, and plenty of guesthouses and wooden cabins that served as the only reminders of humanity.
Onwards and upwards we drove, pushing beyond the tree line and encountering rock formations that felt teleported from an alien world. We crossed the road's highest point and then descended through two impressive tunnels bored directly through the thick rocks. On and one the road wove, leaving us craning out the window to grab a glimpse of the second impressive valley.
The road culminated in one of the trip's highlights: the Josef Franz glacier. At first, the sight of the deep blue icy and its calving front face had me giddy with excitement; it was a gorgeous example of nature's boundless beauty.
But soon Stefje spotted a trail of hikers approaching the front face and my jaw dropped in awe. These humans appeared as tiny specks of life on the surface of some distant world, indicating that I had severely underestimated the size of this glacier from our far off viewpoint.
This spot ended up being the ultimate cap to our road trip. Just a few minutes later we were speeding back to ensure Joe and Tim caught their train onwards to Prague.