An Afternoon for Railways, History and Adventure in Lower Austria
Routes around the Semmeringbahn offer enthusiasts more than an average Alpine hike.
Having yearned to visit the pristine mountains of the Austrian Alps after bingeing on countless travel and lifestyle documentaries on the country, I was blessed with an opportunity to immerse myself in a hike like no other. For the train enthusiasts who also value their hiking boots as their most prized item of clothing, the trails which loop over, under, and through the Semmeringbahn railways provide a niche experience that can be completed in a day (with plenty of time to treat yourself to bier and apfelstrudel).
Hike Through History
Located in the Lower Austrian Alps and a mere 120 km from the capital city of Vienna, the Semmeringbahn hike offers a chance to sample the finest of Austrian ecology while providing a glimpse into the history of the modern state. The hike follows the train track of the historic Semmeringbahn railway as it crisscrosses through the jagged rock faces and coniferous trees characteristic of the Alps. For novice transport engineering enthusiasts, the acclaim of the railway line lies in the people and environment which brought this modern marvel to life.
The brainchild of Carl von Ghega, the Semmeringbahn railway was constructed to provide transport lines for cargo and passengers through the mountains defending Vienna between 1848 and 1854. While the looming viaducts and tunnels may not seem dissimilar to the contemporary railway infrastructure of Alpine states like Switzerland, the Semmeringbahn’s fascinating history is palpable to this day.
Prior to the construction of the railway line, those who ventured through the dense mountains were equipped with nothing more than their horses or carts. The railway lines which displaced the arduous manual tracks of the region were a welcome change but they did not come easy. During the mid-19th century, construction relied predominantly on manual labour and seemingly rudimentary machinery. Armed with steel tools, the 20,000-strong labour force set about digging through the imposing Alps to provide Austria, and indeed Europe, with a feat of engineering on which railways continue to run to this day. It is then unsurprising that the Semmeringbahn was bestowed with the honour of a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1998, the first railway line to be celebrated in this fashion.
Lost Among the Tracks and Forest
The hike itself pays homage to Ghega’s legacy, the spoils of industrialisation, and the beauty of the Austrian alps with signboards in English and Deutsch that detail the transformation of the region. It can even be said that, besides improving infrastructure for Austria, the Semmeringbahn brought the Alpine tourism of the region to life.
In a country devoted to adventure and the appreciation of nature, hiking trails in Austria are, in my opinion, incomparable. Most of the starting points for each trail in Semmering Bahnhof (the town railway station) are well marked with distances and directions to guide both new and seasoned hikers, and smaller information boards sprinkled around the route provide an insight into the native ecology. For additional comfort, I recommend downloading route-tracking apps like Komoot - these offer personalisation features and an offline interface.
My chosen route kicked off just behind the Semmering Bahnhof and weaved through the forested expanse. You can spot the viaducts from various angles as you hike to the unmissable 20-Schilling Blick Viewpoint. Although the Schilling has long been replaced with the Euro, the 360-degree viewpoint offers a sprawling view of nature in combination with the distant hum of a train chugging through. Hard as it can be to depart from the captivating beauty of this spot, the route then snakes deep into the mountains and passes many lesser viaducts before arriving at the imposing Kalte-Rinne Viaduct.
Only a few segments of the many trails coincide with the road or villages, almost as if to remind one of the lucky few who reside in these magnificent mountains. The route which circles behind the Fleischmann viaduct, on the way to Breitenstein, is a perfect spot for a break. On a small section of land right next to the train track, I was able to snack, read and catch a quick nap under the refreshing sun of an otherwise gloomy February. At this point, the rumble of trains almost seems one with nature.
Opting to turn off my trusty hiking app for numerous rounds of ‘which path would inspire Robert Frost?’, I found myself detoxing from all the material worries of the world. Catering to any time frame, a number of circular routes from the town of Semmering can be completed between 3-9 hours (depending on your proclivity for gawking and photographing every clearing in the tree line which provides a secret view of the tracks).
The beauty of Austria is in the seemingly unending flurry of adventures the country offers. Those visiting the region in the winter months can even go skiing and snowboarding around Semmering. Or maybe, after the long hike, one can rest in the many hotels overnight for a chance to glimpse a breathtaking sunrise. Limited by the pandemic, I was still lucky to have experienced the Alps even if just for a day.
As a student with no access to a car, or a budget that unsurprisingly dries before the end of the month, the pricey €40 cost for two trains was well worth every cent. Trains take about an hour and a half from Vienna. Even if you’ve got a trusty automobile, skip it for the magic you can witness through the windows of the train. After all, the hike is centred around those very train tracks. Don’t forget to keep aside a few extra Euros for a couple of pints and hearty fruit-filled pastries as a treat!