Austrian retreat: “The hills are alive with the sound of . .?”

by Betsy Herbert

Hiking in the Austrian Alps, near the town of Irdning

Hiking in the Austrian Alps, near the town of Irdning

In late July, I arrived at the Schloss-Pichlarn Hotel in Irdning, Austria on a fast train, after a scenic two-hour journey from Salzburg. I had a Global Eurail pass, so I traveled first class on this beautiful train through the Alps with no additional fare. When I arrived, a very amiable hotel driver in full uniform was there to meet me.

The imposing entrance to the Schloss-Pichlarn Hotel

The imposing entrance to the Schloss-Pichlarn Hotel

As we drove to the hotel--a renovated castle perched on a hill overlooking the small, picturesque town of Irdning--I felt a little out of my league! The grand hotel entrance, complete with marble balustrades and fountains, was lined all around with shiny, black BMWs, Mercedes, Audis, Porsches, Range Rovers and even a Rolls Royce.

The Schloss-Pichlarn Hotel is primarily a golf and country club, but I went there to relax and enjoy its spa facilities and re-energize after months of traveling. I was attracted by the “Wellness” aspects of the spa, especially its Ayurvedic Institute that offered a wide variety of massages and yoga classes. The hotel also had a beautiful Olympic swimming pool, saunas and jacuzzis. I also took advantage of a very reasonably priced package deal that the hotel had offered.

The scenery around the hotel is idyllic. A spreading, old-growth Linden tree graces the entrance to the hotel. I’m told it’s more than 700 years old, but apparently thriving, with its massive trunk and dense dark green canopy.

An ancient and majestic Linden tree dominates the entrance to the Schloss Pichlarn Hotel

An ancient and majestic Linden tree dominates the entrance to the Schloss Pichlarn Hotel

With the Alps serving as a backdrop, I could imagine myself as Julie Andrews whirling around in her dirndl dress at 8,000 feet singing, “The hills are alive with the sound of music. . .”  

Yet, when I stopped and took a moment to look closely at the hillsides, I could see that they were crisscrossed with logging roads, artfully camouflaged by terraced plantations of evenly sized trees.

The forested hills surrounding the hotel in the Alps are heavily timbered, though you have to look closely to see this from a distance.

The forested hills surrounding the hotel in the Alps are heavily timbered, though you have to look closely to see this from a distance.

The day that I underwent my first spa treatment, an Ayurvedic oil massage, the therapist played a tape of Tibetan chants. But even the deep base tones of throat-singing monks couldn’t block out the whine of multiple chainsaws working away in the nearby forest.

Inside, the country club atmosphere of the hotel felt strangely out of whack with its traditional Ayurvedic health spa treatments. The smoking lounge next to the bar was furnished with red leather chairs and mahogany paneling and the smell of cigarette and cigar smoke permeated the air, even drifting outside the lounge.

Included in my vacation package was a plentiful breakfast buffet every morning, as well as an Ayurvedic lunch. Dinner was not included though, and the dining room was very expensive. So, I generally ate dinner in the bar, which offered two vegetarian dishes at about half the price of the dining room.

The bar where I took most of my evening meals at the Schloss Pichlarn Hotel.

The bar where I took most of my evening meals at the Schloss Pichlarn Hotel.

The bar had an interesting selection of music. The first night I came in, Austrian folk music set the tone. The second night’s theme seemed to be 1950s American tunes, including “Mr. Sandman” and some Perry Como songs. I struck up a conversation with the hotel bartender, who spoke excellent English. We talked about music and after he told me about the very wide selection of music available on the bar’s sound system, I asked him if he would play the Grateful Dead. He obliged, and from that point on, whenever I came into the bar, he played the Dead.

As I dined in the bar with a view of the manicured farmland below, I watched shiny red tractors plow back and forth in straight lines across verdant fields dotted with perfect little houses whose windows were adorned with showy flower boxes.

Meanwhile, a robotic, battery-driven power mower traveled mindlessly back and forth across the lawn at the hotel entrance, keeping the grass perfectly level.

To venture out and explore beyond the tidy hotel grounds and the town of Irdning, you would need a car. For me that wasn’t to be, for I would have had to travel all the way back to Salzburg to rent a car. So, I did as much walking and bicycling as I could. One night I walked into town, bought a pizza and carried it up the steep switchbacks back to the hotel, where I enjoyed the rewards of in my room. Another day, I bicycled to a nearby lake. The hotel furnished a great mountain bike free of charge.

No doubt the best experience I had during my 12-day stay at the hotel was working with their outstanding yoga instructors. One of them, Gernot, created and videotaped a yoga routine for me to take with me on my travels. He also guided me on a 4-hour hike up one of the scenic mountains near the hotel. Though I wore my hiking boots and made full use of my poles, I have to admit that I did feel a little like Julie Andrews when I reached the top!