I am very fond of Austria and have visited many times. It has the clean air of Switzerland but you don’t have to hike over the Alps to get to it and as I found on this trip there are some hidden gems off the radar that deserve to be visited.
With the warm welcome I receive from Joseph the owner of gastro haven Der Greil Hotel in Söll I felt like a special guest already. My large room had a wide balcony, which looked down the village to the pretty rococo church of St. Peter and St. Paul that was built in 1765. Deceptively simple on the outside it’s a riot of decoration and murals inside. The soft grey contours of the mountains looming in the distance.
Söll is closely associated with the skiing season but it would be a mistake to overlook it as a summer destination. Sitting below the Wilder Kaiser, the first of the Tyrol Mountains. It offers the largest e-bike region in the world, fantastic trekking and as I was about to find out some brilliant culinary distractions.
The hotel offers half board accommodation that has a slight formality about it (regular meal times, same table each day etc.) but the relaxed atmosphere and friendly staff (it’s a family business) makes it feel more relaxed. The food is splendid with four or five courses each evening if you can manage it.
The owners are seriously into wine as well as food and have a multitude of glasses to suit all the wines and spirits they serve. It’s worth taking a simple tutorial from the sommelier to illustrate the differences in taste and nose that a certain glass can create.
The hotel is a good size with just 30 rooms but that didn’t stop Joseph and his family installing a small pool and spa, his parents who are now retired built the hotel 50 years ago. It’s very family and dog friendly. Joseph is in the bar most nights chatting to guests and generally making the evenings go with a swing.
The valley that Söll lies in is the sort of place where they have open air concerts in the summer with gospel singers and where you might also try out the latest ice cream shop that had a long queue all night (they must be doing something right). It’s a gentle place that is perfect for getting fresh air at your own pace.
Helmut Hochfilzer is something of a local celebrity. He is a chef of extraordinary talent and has made a name for himself at his hotel in the village by BBQ-ing nearly everything he serves. Now you might think that isn’t so unusual but when I tell you that he serves BBQ flavour ice cream, soufflés, cakes as well as all the meat, I expect you might change your mind, his signature dish is goose. The food is superb and he uses the fantastic backdrop of the mountains to run a cooking school (often outside) from the Genussland Hotel. On my visit he cooked me smoked venison (on the BBQ of course) and a pancake with apple and cinnamon both of which were brilliant in their flavour and freshness. The interior has a soft quiet vibe with modern bright décor, very relaxing.
Hexenwasser or Witches Water is a water theme park half way up the local mountain cable car. As well as all things ‘witch’ there are hikes and trails with plenty of restaurants along the way. You can even experience a ‘barefoot’ trail where you can immerse your feet into all kinds of sensory experiences. The views are spectacular and there’s a dairy, distillery and even a petting zoo for younger visitors.
Another fun option for dinner in the village is Das Schulhaus or The School House. Unsurprisingly this trendy bar and restaurant is in an old school house with plenty of space outside as well as in. The theme here if there is a theme, is that things change a lot. Hannes Ager owner and ‘creator’ of the concept has spent years travelling the globe looking for culinary inspiration, made films about it and has themed evening at the restaurant where diners can see his film then eat the food they’ve just watched being cooked. The interiors would not be out of place in Hoxton or Shoreditch with old typewriters and church chairs dotted around. He has an eye for the quirky and interesting. It’s a cool place to hang out and the food is good too. The menus are in German so “you have to learn, you’re at school” says Hannes. It’s all good fun and not taken too seriously.
Söll has of course the mountains as it’s main attraction but if you find time use it as a base in the summer you’ll find over 70km of trails, 70 three-thousanders (mountains over 3,000m high). There are 400km of mountain bike routes, 13 lifts and almost unlimited options for paragliders, what better way to see such a beautiful part of Austria (when it’s not covered in snow).
Neil Hennessy-Vass is a widely-published globetrotting food and travel writer and photographer and one of our regular writers.
Photographs by Neil Hennessy-Vass