What immediately springs to mind when you think of Austria?
The elegant and baroque capital city, Vienna? Mozart and Julie Andrews’s Salzburg? Tyrol’s “fun in the winter sun” capital, Innsbruck? Sipping wine and riding bikes in the Wachau valley? All amazing Austrian experiences. Without a doubt. However, my special corner of Austria was a little different.
I had the opportunity to wander away from the beaten path (argh, I hate that term, sorry) in Austria. Tourist trails are fun, sometimes; however exclusively stopping at the “famous” cities and towns never appealed to me. I mentioned in my Sisterhood of the World Nomination that I have a soft spot for authentic experiences – especially in Europe, which is overrun with organized groups and tour leaders with umbrellas.
On Busabout’s Hop-On Hop-Off network, I had a fantastic two night stay in Grunau im Almtal, away from the “Sound of Music” crowds.
Don’t worry. I never heard of Grunau either until I researched my summer trip.
When booking with Busabout, I decided to visit all the optional stops instead of zipping from one end of Europe to the other.
I’m not a speedy traveler. I would rather immerse myself in a single region or country than check off a list of touristy sights. No shade to people who do the “go go go” thing, but whirlwind travel simply isn’t my style. It never was.
As it turned out, spending my travel time in Central Europe worked out great, because it meant I had time to spare in beautiful, less touristy gems like Grunau im Almtal.
Upon arrival at The Treehouse Backpacker Hostel, we were offered an affordable lasagna lunch, which was delicious and the size of my head. A lot of calories? Yeah, sure, but it was worth each cheesy bite.
Afterward I dumped my purple backpack in luggage storage and decided to take a walk to soak in the Austrian countryside. The road into town was quiet, only occasionally dominated by hardworking locals and European vacationers on bikes.
I’m not a bike rider. Seriously, I rode a mountain bike on the Aran Islands in Ireland, and the hills nearly murdered me.
Regardless I knew I had to experience this place on four wheels rather than two feet.
The next day, another traveler and I decided to go on a bike ride to Almsee.
Also known as Alm Lake, Almsee promised clear mountain waters and views of Austria’s peaks. My Europe-Obsessed Travel Brain had never heard of Almsee so I was hoping for a true local experience. Besides, if Western Canada taught me anything, it’s that I’m a sucker for crystal clear lakes and soaring mountains.
I brought my NOOK and quick-drying towel and large water bottle, expecting a simple and lazy ride. At this point, I had been traveling for more than four weeks and wanted an opportunity to unwind. I think I had sandy beaches firmly lodged into my head. Missing the Jersey Shore, perhaps?
But a “simple” ride? HA, YEAH RIGHT.
Grunau taught me that I need to get into better shape. I’m the stereotypical American when it comes to physical activity and it’s not cute.
The entire bike ride totaled 12 km (~7.4) one way, but was slightly up hill for most of the journey to Almsee. 12 km may not seem like a lot to you, but for me, it was a pretty intense bike ride, especially in the August heat.
My travel buddy and I occasionally stopped not only to look at the scenery, but to catch our ragged breath and gulp from our water bottles. I was relieved we were on similar fitness levels, but nonetheless, the zippy European bike riders put me to shame that afternoon, good grief.
However, the physical pain in my thighs was so. very. worth. it.
After taking a cat nap on a bench next to the lake, we wandered around the water’s perimeter and ogled at the spectacular mountains, reflected in Almsee’s crystal clear waters. There were no sandy beaches, but neither of us cared much. Who needs beaches when you have views of mother nature’s mightiness?
As I suspected, we didn’t encounter any gigantic bus tours. We came across hiking families and couples, all who said “hello” and seemed utterly pleased at their decisions to break away from their hectic lives and enjoy a slice of the countryside.
My decision to visit Grunau and Almsee was one of the best choices I made on my summer adventures. It’s challenging to summarize in words the effect beautiful landscapes has on me. I suspect it’s a unique experience for everyone.
As a person who struggles with her place in life, simply appreciating natural beauty reminds me that everything – no matter if the challenge is big or small – will eventually work out.
What are your FAVORITE small European towns? Why do you love them so much? Share your responses in the comments. As always, thanks for reading Blond Wayfarer. Remember to subscribe to my email list for more updates.