Austrian atmosphere is just a short hop away

FROM the festive enchantment of the Christkindl markets and the exhilarating delights of first-rate ski resorts, to the historic majesty of some of Europe’s most spectacular buildings and the beautiful vistas of the Alpine terrain, there’s something on offer all year round just a short flight away in Austria.

Hopping on an easyJet flight from Luton to Salzburg takes just over an hour, and the airport’s proximity to the city centre is minimal. We stayed at the Crowne Plaza Hotel, offering very contemporary accommodation in the heart of Salzburg, and within walking distance of the shopping district.

One of the most magical times to visit Salzburg is unquestionably in the run-up to Christmas, when the old town is transformed by the first dustings of snow and the arrival of the festive markets. With a striking combination of medieval and baroque architecture, it’s no wonder the town has been classified as a world cultural heritage site by UNESCO.

The dry cold is a complete contrast to the wet mugginess of the UK, and doesn’t get into your bones in the same way, meaning you can get by with just a decent hat, scarf, and warm coat, rather than smothering yourself in layers of thick jumpers. Of course, a few mugs of spicy gluhwein or rum-laced hot chocolate do wonders for keeping out the chill and bringing some colour to your cheeks.

We were treated to a whirlwind tour of the old town with guide Heid Hochriesser, whose insightful knowledge and passion for Salzburg’s convoluted history brings the past to life with every footstep. In a short time we took in the gardens of the Mirabell Palace, the breathtaking baroque cathedral, Europe’s oldest restaurant (the St Peter Stiftskeller, dating to 803) and Mozart’s birthplace, now unfortunately located above a Spa delicatessen!

Afterwards we enjoyed a stroll around the main Christkindl, where tree ornaments, nativity figurines, toys, gingerbread and crafts are on sale alongside mulled wine, bratwurst and roasted chestnuts. The sound of carols and Advent bells ringing in the crisp winter air ensure visitors and locals alike cannot fail to be swayed by the seasonal atmosphere.

You can’t visit Austria without sampling the local delicacies, and top of the menu is undoubtedly schnitzel, escalopes of breadcrumb-coated pork or veal, served with potatoes and rich redcurrant sauce. We ate at the K&K restaurant, which specialises in traditional Austrian food, and washed it down with some fine red wine.

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It’s a personal mission of mine to sample at least one pint of the local beer wherever I go, especially in Europe where they seem to be able to produce something which is chilled and fizzy but also has a decent taste, unlike our American cousins. The Stiegl did not disappoint, and went down a treat! Now if only I can track some down in the UK…

But if you’re not tempted by the thought of this winter wonderland, then why not visit during the warmer months, when the temperatures reach an average of 19C in July, and the world-renowned Salzburg Festival showcases the best in opera, drama and classical music.

The next day we headed via train to Innsbruck, just a couple of hours away but no trouble at all on the high-speed rail route which links the two sites, as we enjoyed coffee and croissant whilst taking in the breathtaking beauty of the snow-dappled countryside we were hurtling through.

One of the key features of Innsbruck is the airport’s proximity to the slopes, and it’s said you can arrive in the morning and be skiing within an hour or so, which is pretty impressive going, but with nine ski resorts comprising almost 300km of pistes, you can see why it’s become a mecca for skiers, snowboarders and snow-lovers alike.

Arriving at the Hilton Hotel just before lunch, where our room had a spectacular view of the mountains, we were soon heading out for a traditional Tyrolean lunch buffet at the Grand Hotel Europa, the only five-star hotel in the city, and home to a baroque ballroom designed by the same Italian architects behind the renowned Neuschwanstein Castle in Germany (famously known as the “Disney Castle”).

Not one to say no to more schnitzel, I made sure I had my fill, complemented by various local delicacies, and followed up by Kasepatzle and Kaiserschmarrn, a famous Austrian dessert made up of thick pieces of pancake, which is pretty hard going but delicious all the same.

Today’s tour was conducted by the sprightly Elisabeth, who despite being of advancing years had the energy of a teenager, and sprinted us through a tour which took in the famous Golden Roof overlooking the marketplace, and the tomb of Habsburg Emperor Maximilian, once the largest of its kind in continental Europe, which was surrounded by life-size metal statues of his family, each one crafted to perfectly capture their features and style of dress.

We also headed up one of the neighbouring mountains by cable car, where we were greeted with a stunning vista of the snow-capped city while skiers made their way down the slopes in front of us. Quite spectacular.

Having had our fill of Austrian history, my wife and I decided not to continue our tour with Frau Elizabeth, and instead enjoyed the splendid Christmas market, which was on a much bigger scale than its equivalent in Salzburg, before heading back to our hotel to prepare for the evening.

For our last night we went to the Goldener Adler hotel for a farewell meal, a family-run establishment where we were given our own private room, and treated to further Tyrolean treats from the extensive menu.

There’s plenty to do in Innsbruck throughout the year, whether it’s a traditional evening of folk music, dancing, shoe slapping and yodelling or a gentle stroll through one of the oldest towns in Europe. Again, things warm up nicely in the summer, with an average temperature of 18C for July.

* easyJet fly to Innsbruck daily from London Gatwick with fares starting from �22.99 (one-way, including taxes).

* easyJet fly to Salzburg twice weekly from London Luton with fares starting from �28.99 (one-way, including taxes).