It's unlikely, had I not had the opportunity of four free nights at a lovely four star hotel, that the beautiful little town of Bad Mitterndorf in Austria's southern Salzkammergut would have hit my radar. Situated about halfway between Salzburg and Graz the town is a popular winter sports resort in the foothills of Grimming and nestling just below the Tauplitz plateau which is a favourite destination of 'pasture skiers'. In summer the hikers and cyclists come and the beautiful lakes are a perfect temperature for bathing.
As neither my partner nor I drive I had to check whether we'd even be able to get there without a car. The town is on a mainline between Salzburg and Stainach (from where you can change for a train to Graz). We had travelled down from Salzburg having arrived there from Prague but the airports of Graz, Salzburg and even Linz are all realistic options for accessing this part of Austria; you could even try Klagenfurt in the south of the country.
The permanent population of Bad Mitterndorf is around three thousand but there are lots of hotel rooms and also numerous holiday homes and apartments in the locality. It's the sort of place that has mostly just house numbers rather than street names and it doesn't take more than a couple of minutes to do a tour of the centre to get your bearings. It's a very pretty place and quite typically Alpine with lots of wooden chalet type houses (no two are alike) with colourful flowers spilling over the carved balconies.
A small but charming church is the chief feature of Bad Mitterndorf but the higgledy piggeledy arrangement of the streets and lanes gives it lots of character. The shops are quite touristy but upmarket with lots of stores selling outdoor gear and traditional Austrian dress; if you want to team up a dirndl with Gortex then Bad Mitterndorf is the place to shop. A fair sized Interspar supermarket on the edge of the town is ideal for those self-catering though there are more traditional butchers, bakers and fruit and greengrocers stores in the town centre.
Most of the hotels have restaurants, some of which are open to non-residents but there are enough places in the village to keep you going a few nights. I'm guessing some of the pubs are open either at weekend only or just during the main ski season as some didn't open at all while we were there (Sunday to Wednesday in September). There are a couple of coffee shops that also sell delicious looking cream cakes and gateaux (known in German as a 'Konditorei') and one of these opens well into the evening giving you a good reason for a stroll after dinner in your hotel or apartment.
As pretty as Bad Mitterndorf is, it's a useful base rather than a destination in its own right. There are no 'attractions' as such (unless you count 'Heimatmuseum Strick' a private home museum comprising a collection that can only be described as eclectic), though, of course, the fabulous scenery is enough to please many visitors. We did jump on the bus one day to visit the salt mines at Hallstatt but only because the weather was pretty bad and we wanted to do something that was mostly indoors. Had the weather been better we'd have simply set out on foot from our hotel each morning to see where the paths led us.
Cross country skiing and Nordic walking are very popular in this area and there are lots of sign-posted trails. On a damp Tuesday in late September we met loads of people out walking, and who can blame them? This is glorious country and whether you are strolling around the picturesque villages or taking to the hills there is so much to look at. Now and then there is the hollow sound of a cow bell but otherwise there's silence. Even the motorway that runs outside the town, just visible but far enough away not to intrude, seems maintain a respectful silence.
The weather had changed suddenly over our first night in Bad Mitterndorf. Shortly after arriving we went out to explore the centre and when the rain started to fall more heavily we found shelter in the Post Hotel. We sat at the bar where we were soon joined by an elderly couple who sat in companionable silence until another man came into the bar; they chatted about the weather and the newcomer said that snow was forecast at six hundred metres (not far above us) that night. I was not convinced and thought I must have misunderstood but the next morning we stood on our balcony and looked out on a good covering of snow on Grimming.
The rest of the day passed in a fine drizzle and the following day was much the same though there were a few drier spells. We took a bus to the neighbouring village, Obersdorf and walked back along the old road, a pretty route that affords excellent views of the snow capped mountains. We'd planned to have lunch back in Bad Mitterndorf but changed our plans when we came across a 'Hutte' and ate there instead. Originally built as basic accommodation for walkers in the mountains many of the Hutte in this area are now just restaurants that serve (mainly) traditional meals. They are numerous in this region and their locations and specialities are advertised on a notice-board in Bad Mitterndorf centre, but they are also well signposted on walking routes.
Bad Mitterndorf is very much a destination for people who like an active holiday. In the immediate vicinity there are 35 kilometres of downhill pistes and 120 kilometres of cross country trails. There are seven ski lifts to serve these ski grounds and, although they are rarely needed, there are seventy four ski cannon to add more snow if necessary. The ski grounds are open between November and April and are regarded as most suitable for intermediate skiers. There is some snowboarding but these grounds are better for skiing. There are opportunities for climbing in the area but should the conditions not allow it, you could always try 'Boulderbox' an indoor climbing facility in Bad Mitterndorf which has not a conventional climbing wall, but one that has been constructed to resemble a cave. According to the tourist literature they alter the walls frequently to keep things fresh and they have a 'boulder of the month' was a prize for those who can conquer it.
Of course, we didn't ski when we visited but that doesn't mean we didn't get to enjoy some après-ski. As the name suggests Bad Mitterndorf is a spa destination and even the smallest hotels have at least a sauna on the premises. Our hotel had a 'wellness centre' in the basement comprising a Finnish sauna, infrared sauna and a steam room as well as all the trappings that go with a traditional sauna experience such as torturous buckets of cold water to climb into or stand under in between blasts in the sauna cabins. According to the tourism website Bad Mitterndorf was the 'first village of Austria to be distinguished by three healing factors: Healing thermal spa, healing moor and healing climate'. If you want to experience the whole range of spa activities you can buy day passes for the Helibrunn Moor and Thermal Spa which has the full range of saunas and steam rooms, two indoor pools and even an outdoor thermal pool heated to 28 degrees in winter. You can also drink the spa waters from their fountain but it's the thermal mud that distinguishes Heilbrunn from other spas in Austria.
Whether you've come by car or are reliant on public transport, Bad Mitterndorf is ideally situated to give access to a host of attractions, natural and manmade. As well as the salt mines at Hallstatt there are more just outside the bustling little town of Bad Aussee. Not far away there are the magnificent ice caves at Dachstein, something we really wanted to visit but decided to skip on this trip because the weather was so bad we feared the cable car would be suspended. The handsome town of Bad Ischl is a short drive away and there are a number of monasteries in the area that can be visited by appointment. Should the museum displaying a collection of vintage sewing machines not float your boat, you could always stop by one of the many workshops in the area that use herbs and other natural products to make cosmetics.
Personally I could happily have spent much longer in Bad Mitterndorf and not have felt the need to stray too far from the village. There are so many walks and such wonderful views that so called 'attractions' are unimportant here. I'd have liked to have visited in finer weather (and, indeed, the sun came out on the day we left) to have been able to do some cycling but I was happy just to walk given the conditions. The rest of the time I didn't feel compelled to do much at all which is quite unusual for me. After a long walk and a sauna I was happy to sit out on our balcony and look out over Grimming and not feel at all as if I should be doing something or seeing something. As Himself pointed out, Bad Mitterndorf proved that I am capable of doing nothing at all.
I can't recommend this destination highly enough. Bad Mitterndorf has something to offer everyone and is particularly good, I feel for families. It's not a big place but visitors are well catered for with restaurants, shops and a range of accommodation. A car is useful but not essential as public transport will get you to many attractions in the wider region (though you should get an early start as it does not operate after early evening). We found everyone we met - whether that be people directly involved in the tourist industry or simply walkers in the countryside or other customers in pubs and restaurants - to be very friendly and helpful, even young kids whizzing by on their bikes would say hi as they passed us.
Without those free nights in the hotel I wouldn't have known about Bad Mitterndorf but I'm so pleased I found it. It's a beautiful place and one I look forward to re-visiting.