Zell am See - that picture off a Belle-epoque postcard

by Vassilissa Phillips-Pohil

Imagine an idyllic mountain lake surrounded by towering green hills, the highest of which are covered with a trickling white snow cap, like a vanilla ice-cream on a hot day. As you look down, you see that the lake is surrounded by sharp-roofed traditional houses. People are rowing boats all over the lake dazzling in the sunshine. Behind you a train has just arrived from the nearest big town. People have come to take a stroll around and have an iced coffee on the terrasse of the Grand Hotel. They are laughing and taking photographs as the sun gradually sinks into the mountains.

Have you pictured that? Now open your eyes.

The old town of Zell am See, situated in the heart of the Austrian Alps, dates back to the 8th century AD. Founded by monks, the village gradually grew into a market town and then, finally, into a key settlement in the Pinzgau area, which later became a hotspot for tourists. The name of the town, which literally means “Zell on the lake” in German, is related to the word “Cella”, or monastery cell.

Shall we enter?

On your way you will probably pass many old buildings. White-washed houses with pictures of birds, mountains and people in traditional costumes, a real museum in the open air, will guide you on into town.

But examples of beautiful architecture are by far not the only sites that will catch your eye in Zell am See. First of all, the biggest tourist attraction would probably be the lake. There is a walk all around it, which allows you to both take a promenade in town and, as you leave Zell am See, also experience the nature and take a minute in peace. On sunny summer days the banks of the lake, especially on the side opposite to town, are crowded with tourists and locals, who bathe in the sun and even swim! However, this might not be the best idea. By late morning the recreation areas will be so crowded that you will hardly find a place to relax!

A better way of relaxing at the lake is by hiring a boat. As you approach the lake Zell from the centre and walk along the promenade, you will probably spot a little hut standing almost on the water. Here you can rent a boat for thirty minutes or an hour. You will be able to choose between a rowing boat (not recommended, as they are mostly in bad condition), a paddle boat, which often even has a small waterslide, and, most frequently, a motor boat. Unless you want to burn some calories before your afternoon ice-cream, taking the motor-boat would probably be the best option. Without much effort you will be able to glide around the lake like one of the swans living there.

As you approach the centre of the lake, switch off the motor and feast your eyes on the stunning view of the Alps. If you have walked up some of the mountains, it will be fun to try to spot them! You will be able to truly experience every aspect of Zell am See: the mostly crowded streets of the old town nestling at the feet of Schmittenhöhe, the majestically wild rock mountains that look just like from an old vintage postcard, and, of course the beautiful glimmering lake itself.

If you would like to spend a more active time in Zell am See, shopping will get you going! You will be able to find anything you desire, from bookshops and fashion boutiques to souvenir shops. One place you must not miss, however, is “Charisma” on the main square. This four-storey building will bring souvenir-hunting to a new level. Apart from typical souvenirs, like snow-globes and postcards, the shop offers an enormous choice of handcrafted presents, such as elegant glass candleholders, a variety of pottery designed with typical Alpine ornaments, and even a big selection of Schwarzwald cuckoo-clocks!

Zell am See can be equally enjoyed in both summer and winter. During the Christmas season this town turns into a true winter wonderland with a Christmas market, fairy lights and Christmas decorations. Although the valley has not always been lucky with snow in the past few years, you will always find it if you take the “zellamseeXpress” up to Schmittenhöhe. The journey will altogether take no more than forty minutes, and what a site will meet your eyes! Before you will be a 365 degrees view of snow-white mountains, mountains on end, expanding much further than the valley where Zell am See lies, and you will even spot the Grossglockner, the highest mountain in Austria. Whether snow or shine, you will always have the possibility to ski or snowboard. With access to cable-cars, chair lifts and t-bar lifts, you will have the opportunity to explore 138 km of ski piste! All the slopes are in a very good condition, with an impressive number of ski workers and ski teachers. The pistes are checked a few times a day and, if the snow condition is bad, artificial snow will be spread overnight. The rumours are true: nothing is better than taking an early morning ski ride on smooth untouched snow, with the slope almost empty and the mountains around you shining in the sunlight! However, you would have to start off early for that, as by 11 am the piste is very crowded!

Now let’s return to Zell am See. Whether in summer or in winter, with whatever budget, you will definitely find a place to eat and sleep here. One place that you must visit is the magnificent Grand Hotel standing right at Zell lake. This stunning whitewashed hotel built in 1876, with luxurious rooms and a lakeside terrasse surrounded by rose bushes will make you feel like in a Belle Epoque oasis. However, you don’t have to live there to experience the hotel’s magic. Simply stroll into the hotel’s open-air café, take a seat at one of the small white tables and, whilst onlooking the lake and the mountains, sip your coffee or take your time eating an enormous ice-cream!

A very atmospheric place to stay in winter is the Salzburgerhof. It looks just like an ordinary big Austrian house on the outside, but inside it turns into an authentic mansion with hints of both “old money” and Alpine design - and with an exquisite cuisine. However, again, you don’t have to stay there to experience its Christmas atmosphere. After a long walk or ski in the snow, go to the hotel’s indoor café. Have a hot chocolate and some homemade cake in the little wooden room with embroidered sofas, colourful pillows and heavy curtains. Watch the hotel guests hide presents under the Christmas tree for their children. Christmas mood is guaranteed!

Zell am See is about everything. It’s about nature, it’s about sport, it’s about relaxing. Everyone will find something in this jewel hidden in the heart of the Alps. And if you are only planning to travel there for the first time- well, I’d say I’m jealous of you.