Hazel Southam - Journalist

Austria by rail

If you want to see the ‘high hills’ or ‘lonely goatherds’ of Austria, Hazel Southam discovers there’s no better way than taking the train

This year marks the 50th anniversary of The Sound of Music and if you’re of a certain age, you’ll have spent the last 50 Christmases singing along to Julie Andrews, weeping as the Mother Superior calls on her to ‘Climb every mountain’ and fearing that the Nazis will get the family Von Trapp before they have the chance to escape.

Having spent too much time sitting on the floor on commuter trains to London, Austria’s rail experience, with or without lonely goatherds, comes as a pleasant surprise. With OBB, Austria’s main rail company, you get things that you can only dream of if you’re used to the commuter drill in the UK: leg room, comfortable seats, trains that run on time, plug sockets under the table and an integral bin in your table. It’s also quiet. I spent 6.5 hours on Austria’s trains and at no time did anyone bellow into their phone, ‘Yes, hello, I’m on the train.’

Then there’s the view. Mile upon mile of forests line the mountains that rise up steeply beside the track in some places, and are more distant in others, for instance, as you approach Vienna.

Some of the most dramatic scenery, however, lies on the stretch of track that runs from Graz (considered Austria’s food capital) and the political capital, Vienna. The track rises steeply up into the Alps, with the valley floor and small villages far beneath. Mountains are topped with churches, monasteries and castles. Sycamore, beech and rowan trees line the route. In five days on and off Austria’s trains I didn’t see a lonely goatherd, but that certainly didn’t spoil the journey.

Austria has around 140,000 small farms dotted across the landscape. Where animals are kept, meadows are abundant to provide food for the cattle over the winter. So the view from Salzburg to Graz is dotted with meadows – 97 per cent of which have been wiped out in Britain through large-scale farming. Meadow sweet grows in billowing waves along the train track beneath an over-storey of elder. Occasionally you’ll see a handful of sheep tackling steep mountainsides, or a horse or two grazing at unlikely angles. But you’re most likely to see small herds of Bavarian Fleckvieh cows and a few people on bicycles.

And that really is about it. For four hours. Austria has a population of eight million people – less than the population of London – so what you’re seeing on a rail tour is the unspoilt nature of the countryside. Blink and you won’t miss it, you’ll just see something else, probably equally lovely.

Only one million Britons have caught on to the idea of holidaying in Austria so far. But as The Sound of Music marks its half-century this could start to grow. Salzburg is the destination of choice for SOM fanatics. You can visit the arbour where Liesl and Rolf sing ‘Sixteen going on seventeen’ at Hellbrunn Park and much of the filming was done in and around Salzburg. You can take guided tours of some of the filming sites, including the Mirabell Gardens, Nonnberg Abbey and Leopoldskron Palace.

And of course, it’s worth stopping off at the Salzburger Marionetten Theater for a puppet performance of The Sound of Music itself. Even the most hard-hearted cynic can’t fail to be won over by ten people performing the story with marionettes.

Railbookers offers tailor made holidays by rail to Europe and beyond. Its five-night holiday costs £649 per person and includes flights between London Stanstead and Salzburg and London Gatwick and Vienna as well as train fares connecting the cities. For more information call: call 020 3780 2253 or visit www.railbookers.com/highlightsofaustria.

Individual fares work out incredibly cheap. The 166-mile, 4-hour train journey from Salzburg to Graz (both of which are UNESCO World Heritage sites) costs around £54 if you’re travelling independently.

To visit the Salzburger Marionetten Theater go to www.marionetten.at.

Hellbrunn Park is open daily, though the Palace is only open between April and October www.hellbrunn.at.


About Hazel

Hazel Southam is an award-winning journalist who reports on religious affairs, international development and the environment. She has covered four G8 Summits.

She wrote for The Sunday and Daily Telegraph for 10 years. Her work has also appeared in The Guardian, The Independent, The Independent on Sunday, The Daily Mail and The Evening Standard.

Reporting assignments have taken her to places including Bosnia, Zimbabwe, Mongolia, Albania, Nagorno-Karabakh, Senegal and the Arctic Circle.

In the UK, she has also delivered media training to the MOD and leading businesses.

Contact Hazel