The water cascades down a steep rocky path with a roaring sound and disappears under a stone bridge, it forms a near vertical waterfall on the other side, before finally reaching the valley floor some few hundred meters lower. The surrounding Belle Époquestyle village of Bad Gastein is built on a steep mountain face that is covered by old-growth Alpine spruce. The massive yellow and white Hotel De L`Europe brings to mind Wes Anderson´s The Grand Budapest Hotel.
It´s a majestic scenery and the visitors that came here during the golden era of the area´s spa tourism during the 19thcentury reflected that: the Habsburg royal family of Austria, Sigmund Freud and the German chancellor Otto Von Bismarck were regulars here among other European nobilities. After the world wars the Habsburgs, as well as many other members of the European nobility lost their privileges and the rich and famous found new places to visit that were more á la mode.
A walk around town reveals abandoned hotels with broken windows, some of which are covered with a chipboard. The signs posted on the walls with a developer´s name hint of a coming change. However, many of the local development projects have been going on for decades, which has fed rumors among the locals. According to one rumor, an Austrian developer who bought several properties here in the 60´s, was Jewish and left the buildings undeveloped to revenge the fact that the Nazis used the spas here during WW2.
Some projects have been more successful and many of the previously deserted hotels have already been renovated by their new owners. The visitor numbers are on the rise again and the town is trying to strike a balance between it´s former glory and modern tourism.
It is a mid-July morning and the streets are filled up with predominantly Swedish-speaking hikers, who clad in the latest technical wear, are lining up for the buses that will take them to the starting points of their hikes in the nearby villages. Traditionally hiking has been the activity that Bad Gastein has marketed itself with to lure in visitors during the summer, but in 2017 the local tourism office started a project to develop mountain biking services and tourism in the area. The other members of the Bike-AG, (AG stands for Arbeitsgruppe – work group), include local bike shop owners, a cable car company and the chairman of the local bike club.
One of those bike shops is Bike Gastein in the neighboring village of Bad Hofgasteinin. I meet it´s second-generation owner Andrea Eckschlagerearly in the morning at the shop. We have coffee and Andrea tells me about her past as a snowboard racer and a mountain bike guide in a company that organizes Trans-Alps bike tours, and how she took over the shop four years ago from her dad who found and ran it for 41 years.
According to Andrea there is a big local community of nature-loving cross-country riders who enjoy a weekly ride together in the mountains surrounding the Gastein Valley. Despite the current lack of man-made trails, there is also a small, but growing group of local enduro riders who know where the best spots are. “If you ask nicely, they might disclose some of their secrets”, Andrea says.
Compared to the 600 km network of hiking trails the Gastein Valley has relatively limited offering of mountain biking trails: the tourism office´s website suggests 12 routes with a combined distance of roughly 250 km. The strong traditions in hiking and the somewhat conservative culture in Austria have favored hiking and according to Andrea some local landowners have seen mountain biking as a possible threat: “one of the problems is the legislation in Austria: when someone hurts himself riding on your forest road, you as the landowner could be held liable for the injuries.”
Andrea sees communication as the main challenge in the Bike-AG project: “if people are not convinced about the benefits, why should they invest in the sport?” The project goal is to improve the existing trail infrastructure and to open up more official bike trails, but also to have a more centralized marketing approach: “we have a lot of great trails already, but to enjoy those you need to know where you go”, Andrea says.
After the talks and a couple of coffees I feel like I am ready to get a first-hand experience of the local trails. Since Andrea is pregnant the guiding duties will be handled by Gaston Gruber, a 23- year old local who is financing his physics and sports studies in Innsbruck by guiding hiking and mountain biking in the summers. It´s a sunny morning and we start by cruising through Bad Hofgastein on our way towards Bad Gastein. On the outskirts of the village Gaston shows me his parents´ house where he grew up and tells me that he was taught how to ski when he was just three years old. Unlike some of his friends who dropped the sport after reaching their puberties, Gaston has continued skiing and ski touring on the surrounding mountains. He has worked as a ski instructor for the past six winters and started guiding hiking and mountain biking in the summers two years ago. According to Gaston mountain biking is popular among the local kids, especially after the E-bikes came to the market: “the trails in Gastein are pretty steep, so the E-bikes make the sport a lot more interesting for the locals.”
After arriving to Bad Gastein we head for the Stubnerkogel gondola lift. There are no bike racks so the bikes have to be put inside, meaning we both get our own separate gondola. It´s rainy and the fog gets thicker the higher we get. Halfway up the mountain the visibility is limited to narrow patches, through which I can spot large brown-and-white cows grazing the grassy mountainside. You can also make out sections of gravel roads that look suitable for fast biking and are probably used as traverse routes from one slope to another during the ski season.
At the top, on 2228 meters, the visibility is close to zero and we decide to have lunch in the Gipfel restaurant, hoping that the weather would clear in the meanwhile. We have no such luck and have to start our ride in a cold and foggy drizzle. We start our slow descend in the fog, following the rocky ridgeline. Gaston decides to skip the hike part of the Hike & Bike Tour as the rocky climb might be dangerous in the wet conditions.
Instead we lift our bikes over a barbed wire fence to reach the top of a ski slope where we start our descend, following a single track that winds its way down through the green-grassed ski slope. The slope is really wet and we even cross a couple of small streams. After a minute or two the weather finally clears, revealing a beautiful Alpine panorama in front of us.
My riding gets more confident with the improved visibility and warming muscles and we start to descend faster. The last section of the slope is relatively flat and I don´t have to touch my brakes much. Soon we arrive on a hiking route crossing and take the route towards Schattbachalm Hütte. The Hüttes or mountain refuges are a quintessential experience when hiking or mountain biking in Austria. Besides acting as a shelter and resting place they often serve tasty local produce, like Jause, which consists of different kinds of cheeses and meats with bread, at an affordable price. The Schattbachalm Hütte is surrounded by a stunning scenery. Gaston makes regular stops here with his clients and knows the family who runs it. He tells me, that in the summers he has one day per week reserved for guided mountain biking tours, but sometimes there just aren´t enough customers for the tour. “I think that the Gastein Tourism is not advertising much for mountain bikers”, Gaston adds.
The scale of the ride is completely different than what I am used to; we have only descended to 1683 meters and have another 800 meters to go before reaching the valley. After the coffee and cake Gaston leads us to a singletrack that goes through a spruce forest and is littered with rocks and roots, that on a wet day like today make riding more challenging. We cross the hiking road that we used earlier to climb up to the hütte and continue descending in the woods. The trail has a good flow and is a pleasure to ride, only a couple of slippery rocky sections get us off-beat.
We take a turn towards Bad Gastein around the Hartlgut Hütte and climb up a short section towards the Bertahof trail, which is one of the only official easily accessible flow trails in the Gastein Valley. When we reach it´s upper section we meet a group of local enduro riders, who are attaching their kneepads before the descent. Roberto Cervera, who has a biker beard and baggy shorts turns out to be a trail expert: he works in a company that builds mountain bike trails in Leogang, roughly an hour´s drive from here. Next to him is his girlfriend Simone Lahaije, who works in the Leogang bike park. According to the couple the reason why there are no man-made trails in the Gastein Valley is because the the local lift companies have not been interested in investing in mountain biking.
It´s an interesting discussion, but it´s time for our final run of the day. There are a couple of very steep corners in the beginning before the trail dives into the woods and straightens out, raising the speed so much that you automatically get air off rocks and small drops. The speed feels a bit intimating since I have no idea where the trail goes after a corner or a drop. Soon we pop out off the woods and pass the Bertahof Hütte, from where we continue our way, following the Gasteiner Ache river towards Bad Hofgastein. I feel tired, but happy.
I hope that Andrea and the rest of the project team in the Bike-AG will be successful in their attempt to develop the mountain biking culture and tourism in the area. There is already some great riding: the surrounding mountains reaching up to 3000 meters provide a stunning Alpine playground with a variety of different level trails. It can sometimes take a gruelling uphill ride to reach the goods, but with more official trails connecting the two cable cars currently allowing bikes on board, you would have a truly spectacular mountain biking destination.
How to get there:
Nearest airport city: Salzburg
Train connection from Salzburg: ÖBB
Where to stay:
Accommodation info for Gastein Valley:
Bike rental and guiding:
An edited version of this story was published in the Easter edition of the Edge Ski Magazine