Swan around the lakes of Austria: a trip to Carinthia

The lake was still perfect, larch trees reflected in their glassy surface, rolling hills in the distance. I thought about swimming across it – a distance of about 1km – but when I was immersed in the cool, calm water, crawling through it with my head down it lost its appeal. This was a moment to stop and take in the beauty of my surroundings.

On the border with Italy and Slovenia, Carinthia is the southernmost region of Austria, a sparsely populated country with noble mountain peaks – the Nockberge. But its biggest claim to fame is its 1,200 lakes, 200 of which are swimmable. Each has its own highlights: Wörthersee – of which the regional capital, Klagenfurt, is the largest, at 10 miles long, and famous for the 100m high Pyramidenkogel viewing platform; Klopeiner See is one of the warmest lakes in Europe; Faaker See is Austria’s answer to the Everglades, thanks to the reeds visitors can pass through on Canadian canoes. But they all have one thing in common – pure, clean water that’s clean enough to drink. This alone is worth the trip if you live in the UK, a land of polluted rivers, lakes and seas, where even the tap water can make you sick.

It is surprising that the cult of cold water swimming that has taken hold in the United Kingdom does not hold as much in Carinthia.

Most Austrians stick to July and August, when the water temperature can reach 25C – or take the shortest dips to cool off after a sauna. Thanks to its thermal waters, Carinthia became a hotspot for bathhouses in the late 19th century when the railways brought tourists from Vienna. Today there are several bathhouses in the region, with saunas, steam rooms, pools and treatments, and many hotels with similar facilities.

Sauna master Claudio played lively music while throwing ice balls on the coals with a dramatic boom

Ours, the Brennseehof, had three saunas, including the Seekino (lake cinema), so called because of the floor-to-ceiling windows that offer a view of Brennsee, one of the region’s smaller lakes. The sauna was huge, but for most guests the highlight of the Seekino was the “infusion” sessions where sauna master Claudio played lively music while waving a towel around to disperse the 90C air, or throwing balls ice on the coals with a significant boom. . During my first session I had to stifle my giggles as Claudio’s towel wave became more theatrical. But no one else was laughing; They sat with closed eyes, lost in the moment. After 12 minutes of intense heat, we stepped out onto the deck and down the steps into the water – only about 18C at the end of May.

I was worried that my 14-year-old son might be too old for the Brennseehof, a kindly named hotel aimed at young families, but within hours of his arrival some kids his own age had found him with spending time with them every evening. During the day we were not short of something to do: as well as two swimming pools (five pools if you count the children) and 12 tennis courts, the sports center on site offers e-bikes, mountain bikes, windsurfing and sailing lessons, paddleboards and kayaks. All this meant that even if I couldn’t keep him away from the scary smartphone completely, there were at least long gaps between his deep dives into Depop and TikTok.

Outside the hotel there was a huge selection of activities. A ride on the Brunnach cable car took us up into thick cloud, leaving us reliant on map displays to show us what was missing. If it was clear we would have a view of the highest peak of the Nockberge in Carinthia – Rosennock at 2,440 meters – and its dome-like summits.

My son took one look at the naked men and women relaxing in the fitness lounge and said it was his ‘hell idea’.

Instead, we trained our eyes on the small mountain flowers along the Brunnachhöhe path, an accessible path that opened last year, before taking shelter in the Nock In, where my son ordered what appeared to be the world’s largest schnitzel and I tried the “giant donut”. ” – like a giant yorkshire pudding, covered in salmon and cream cheese.

The next day our plans to drive the Nockalm curve road through the Nockberge biosphere reserve got rained out, so we opted for the Badehaus in Millstatt, the main town on Millstätter See. We changed into our robes but my son took one look at the naked men and women relaxing on red velvet sofas in the fitness lounge, and declared it was his “idea of ​​hell”. In retrospect, the more family-friendly Spa Therme St Kathrein in the nearby town of Bad Kleinkirchheim would have been better.

I abandoned it by forcing some culture on it in the shape of beautiful St. Oswald’s, a small medieval town with a church dating back to the 1300s standing in a cluster of wooden buildings that seem frozen in time, including a 500-year-old school age. a house.

Lunch on the bathhouse terrace restores its balance. We entered casnudeln, a Carinthian dish of cheesy dumplings, while taking in a view of the lake and an impressive 10-metre high diving platform from the 1930s, which he said he was going to jump off after lunch. Thank God it was closed.

But I couldn’t avoid high-adrenaline pursuits altogether. In Bad Kleinkirchheim, I was persuaded to try the Kaiserburg Bob – an alpine rollercoaster – then regretted it as I screamed all the way down, undermining my claims earlier in the week that I was a adventurous mother. Still, my son got his kicks without holding me back when we e-biked up the hill behind the Brennseehof. At 1,500 meters we stopped at the Jausenstation Wegerhütte, where we had reindling (cinnamon pastes), and a core of mountain herbs and spring water, before heading back down, my son hurtling ahead of me as I slowly kept the brakes on – just as it started to rain again.

The changeable weather is always a risk in the mountains, but I would happily choose fresh air and the risk of showers over the suffocating heat of southern Europe. And with the increase in tourists looking for alternatives to the Med in the summer, it won’t be long before more Brits notice Carinthia, which has remained under our radar until now, in the shadow of its more famous neighbor to the west . – the Tyrol.

And we got some sun. When we drove up to the Sternenbalkon (balcony of the stars) – a wooden platform overlooking Millstätter See – we were treated to a glorious view of the lake and the tree-covered slopes, like a painting in every shade of green and blue. From the balcony you can follow a number of walking paths, including the slow track at the foot of the Mirnock. According to the story, this mountain is home to the giant Mirnock who created Brennsee and his sister, Afritzer See, who was equally beautiful when he threw down the top of the mountain in a rage, making only two lakes.

In total there are 20 slow trails – signposted trails that are less than 10km and no more than 300 meters, allowing anyone who doesn’t want a big hike to take in the landscape at a leisurely pace.

Standing on the shore of the Brennsee on my last day, I once again considered swimming across it. But again, a few strokes in, the motivation waned. The sauna was so close; Claudio was about to wave his towel and, well, when he was in Carinthia…

Visit Carinthia provided the tour. Rooms at Hotel Brennseehof from €115 pp, full program (reduced rates for children), including access to sports facilities as well as free childcare, children’s activities and tours. More information: austria.info and seeundberg.at

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