Skip to Content (Press Enter)

English / Français

I awake draped in blue and gold, stare at the high vaulted ceilings for a while, then force myself out of this kingly king-size bed. I catch my progress in the large gilded mirror as I shuffle across the room. The shutters are massive old oak, and I push to swing them open, like Rapunzel. The light is painful, but as my eyes adjust, I can see the valley and the rooftops of the village below. Birds are chirping and I feel like hell. It is a perfect morning.

Austrian Alps

Left: The courtyard at Schloss Obermayerhofen in Styria. Right: Graf Kottulinsky in the castle breakfast room.

Shoeless, but mostly clothed and clutching an orange, I descend the ancient stone staircase and come upon the Countess in the courtyard. "Guten Tag, Frau Gräfin." It is my only phrase in German ("Good day, Countess"), and then I switch to English: "I am hungover! And I am going to jump in the castle pond!"

"All right, then," says the Countess, who has been this patient and accommodating since my arrival. "But please be careful."

"Ja," I say, then stumble through the archway, over the bridge, through a hedge, around a spitting-lion fountain, and down the hill to the pond. I take off my clothes, peel the orange and wade into the cool water. There is a sunlit spa at the castle, but this right here is old-school treatment, the way the lords used to do it, after getting drunk as lords. Frogs leap, dragonflies buzz, my head throbs. Floating on my back I bite into the orange, slurping the juice as I look at the clouds.

You've got to love it when a plan comes together.

Austrian Alps

Left: The deer antlers are more recent. Right: The topiary is a historical touch.

I am passing through the southeastern Austrian state of Styria –it's a literal hot spring of tourism thanks to historic properties, thermal pools, forested hillsides and volcanic vineyards – on my way from a writers' festival to a drinking festival, which is kind of like leaving a table-tennis match to go to a Ping-Pong game. It is my job these days to drink, even moreso than for other writers. I'm writing the book on hangovers, literally. The working title is Hungover: A History of the Morning After, and One Man's Quest for the Cure. I, for better or worse, am the one man. Since starting my research a year ago, I have gained 25 pounds, been hospitalized twice and also turned 40 (yes, I blame that on the booze, too).

Austrian Alps

Austrian artist Friedensreich Hundertwasser designed the facade of Kunsthaus at Rogner Bad Blumau.

This place I'm staying now, the Obermayerhofen Castle, was built some 850 years ago. At least part of it was. Every lord, duke and knight has added a little something. And the Countess and Count Kottulinsky (whose family has owned this castle since 1777) have spent the past four decades reclaiming furniture and art looted by the Russian Army. It feels like it's worth it. From the elaborate jungle-themed wall paintings of Mozart's time to the massive brick wine cellar, the rooms of the past are preserved and used for all tomorrow's parties. There is also a castle vineyard, the grapes of which make some of the region's finest wines, most of which I tried during last night's dinner — as well as a cold batch of Sturm, meaning storm (the first pouring of fresh, newly fermenting wine). The wine steward of the castle restaurant, Herr Georg, is a young, worldly wine sommelier, and a sensorial connoisseur. When I told him my planned route through the Alps, he made me promise to search out two things: pumpkin-seed oil on vanilla ice cream, and some kind of clapping music called Paschen. I agreed to do so, and we started on the schnapps — which landed me here, floating in the castle pond.

Austrian Alps

Stalagmites made from Dead Sea salt adorn the grotto in the bathing area.

Though pleasant and historical, this morning dip doesn't blast out all the cobwebs. But that's okay, because 10 minutes down the road is the health spa resort Rogner Bad Blumau, where I'm staying for the next two days. In the 1970s, oil companies drilled here and found only water. Then Robert Rogner, a famous, outside-the-box master builder, joined up with eccentric artist Friedensreich Hundertwasser and created one of the most distinctive resorts in Europe. The two visionaries were great believers in the melding of art and nature. These buildings, with no straight lines and a chaos of colour, seem to burst from the earth like the thermal waters that fill the 14 bathing pools, heat the whole complex and even provide one-third of the resort's electricity. The place is another world – as if Dr. Seuss and Jane Jacobs set out to build Utopia together. It is also a good place to detox.

Austrian Alps

Designed around therapeutic hot springs, the resort aims for harmony with nature.

I float in an outdoor pool of volcanic water from three kilometres below the earth. I lie on a recliner in a cavern of white salt brought from the Dead Sea. It has been moulded into stalagmites with crystals in them. There are soft-synth sounds and a pulsing light. I sweat in an infrared sauna, then get a "body-drainage treatment" whereby a woman named Heidi combines massage with a small vacuum cleaner to siphon the toxins out of my body. She doesn't speak much English, but is able to convey to me that I'm the first man who has ever had this treatment, and that she wants to practise her English. We move from glands in my throat down toward my kidneys. At least I think that's where we're heading, but the word means nothing to her. I tell her about kidney beans, rabbit punches, California swimming pools. When she's done she tells me my beans are clean and to make sure I drink a lot.

Austrian Alps

A taxi boat traverses the waters of Lake Grundl.

"Water, not wine," I say.

"Not wine," agrees Heidi. "But beer will be good." I could get used to Austria.

After Rogner Bad Blumau I drive farther into the mountains to test my new liver and do some hangover research at the Altaussee Kirtag, an incarnation of an ancient Alpine beer festival (celebrating a local church) of which there are many legendary tales. I check into the Seehotel in Grundlsee, the next town over. My room is an open concept in layered stages: Jacuzzi to bed, to couches, to large doors opening onto a stunning view of the lake and a castle on the far shore. The spa reaches out on a pier, so you can leap from the saunas right into the cold, clear lake. This and the

I'd like to walk to the festival – for much-needed exercise and no risk of driving home – and the manager says there is a path. He gives me a map and optimistically points the way around the mountain to Altaussee, one lake over. "It is something like two hours," he says. "Or maybe two and one-half…"

Austrian Alps

Left: You don’t have to pay the boatman at Seehotel Grundlsee. Right: Uniformed hotel staff show their colours.

Two and one-half hours later I am deep in the woods, on a steep incline, and have been for a long time, breathing heavily and fatigued. I drag myself up and around one last corner, then stop dead. I am standing a foot from the edge of a cliff. A thousand metres below is Altaussee. I have, apparently, taken a wrong turn – gone up a mountain instead of around it. If only I had something that gave you wings.

Another two and one-half hours later, wild-eyed and drenched in sweat, I finally make it down and out of the forest, on the right side of the mountain. It's past dark, but I'm drawn toward the town by the light and sound across the water – flashes, echoes of a high melodic howl and what seems like rapid drumming.

Five hours after setting out, I stagger through a giant doorway and into another realm: a thousand people, men and women, from ages 19 to 90, all in lederhosen and dirndls, standing on stools, massive tables, singing and crashing their mugs together in time to an oompah orchestra on stage. The air is thick with an intoxicating mix of hops, sweat, hay, bratwurst, honey and pumpkin. It is the biggest beer hall I've ever seen, and it could be a thousand years ago – not a cellphone or sponsor in sight. But tomorrow it'll all be gone, until next year's Kirtag, when the volunteer firefighters build the place again.

The music shifts, the singing slides to a kind of yodel and now the percussion starts: 2,000 hands coming together, rapid-fire and rhythmic, like a mix of flamenco, mariachi and klezmer: Paschen. Herr Georg will be happy. I make my way through the clapping crowd for a long-awaited drink.

Austrian Alps

Left: Log out and relax like a woodsman at Almdorf Seinerzeit, in the Carinthian mountains. Right: Guests soak in herbs and hay during the retreat’s cleansing ritual.

The following day, my body is still rattling from last night's Kirtag. And while I'm not far from Munich now, I'm relieved that Oktoberfest doesn't start for more than a week. So I drive, sleep-deprived and bleary-eyed, into the summits of Carinthia, toward what I've heard is one of the most relaxing and unusual hotel spas in Austria. Again, I'm going over the Alps instead of between them until I finally arrive, white-knuckled and exhausted, at Almdorf Seinerzeit, a small resort of log-cabin chalets where you can live like a well-to-do woodsman: split some kindling for the fire, drink some champagne in a fire-heated hot tub, then wake to a basket of breakfast at your door.

It's here, after a year of searching, that I find one of the strangest and most satisfying hangover treatments yet. Based on some difficult-to-pinpoint, age-old local customs, the Kräuter Heubad, or herbal hay bath, works like this: In a darkened stone-walled cellar lit by candles and a roaring fire, sit two coffin-size wooden bathtubs full of steaming hot water. I undress and climb in. Before me, a giant black cauldron hangs above the fire. Brewing within are 100 different herbs and grasses cut by scythe from the surrounding slopes. A woman scoops near-boiling water from the cauldron into my bath, and I lie there in the glowing dark. After a while, I emerge from the water onto a bed of hay, where I'm covered with a sheet, and then more hay, so that I can feel the weight of it. Following the hay burial comes an intense, full-body massage – until finally, like Lazarus, or a man now rid of his hangover, I rise once more, into the mountain air...

Refreshed from the hay bath on this, my final evening in the Austrian Alps, I enjoy another excellent meal, each course paired with local wine – sparkling rosé, then white, then red. "And for dessert," says the waiter, "we have vanilla ice cream drizzled with pumpkin-seed oil."

"Ja," I say. "And schnapps?"

"And schnapps, of course."

When it comes, I take a breath, a bite, then a sip. And everything is as it should be – at least in this world, high above the clouds.


Austrian Alps

Austrian Sauna Etiquette

Do: Be naked. Austrians take their nakedness very seriously. There will usually be signs and staff reminding you that this is a no-swimsuit zone. If you get a little shy in the buff, you can always use your towel strategically.
Don't: Stare. Staring is rude.

Do: Avail yourself of a towel. Even if you're fine with your own full-frontal, it will help save your butt from some very hot seats.
Don't: Try too hard to engage people in conversation. This is meant to be a tranquil place – social, yes, but quietly so.

Do: Drink a lot of water. Saunas are dehydrating, and a water bottle will give you something to focus on other than all the nakedness.
Don't: Drink a lot of alcohol. Sure, having a drink might help with the getting naked, but it could also put you into the realm of all those don'ts: over-socializing, accidental staring and becoming dehydrated. Have a beer in the pool instead.


Austrian Alps

Travel Essentials

Almdorf Seinerzeit
43-4275-7201,
almdorf.com

Rogner Bad Blumau
43-3383-5100,
blumau.com

Schlosshotel Obermayerhofen
43-3333-2503,
heiraten-im-schloss.info

Seehotel Grundlsee
43-3622-86044,
seehotelgrundlsee.at

Tags

AUSTRIA     FEATURES     HEALTH & WELLNESS     SPAS    

Please leave a comment

HTML tags will be removed
Web addresses starting with http:// will be converted to links