The wild swimming trend is booming, but sewage discharges into Britain’s rivers and seas are making many of our natural beauty spots unappealing. Even Mediterranean shores are not immune, with resorts on Spain’s Costa Blanca and popular coves in Ibiza closing their beaches temporarily because of sewage spills and high levels of bacteria this summer.
Compare this sorry situation then to Wolfgangsee, in the Austrian region of Salzkammergut – the lake’s water is so clean, thanks to strict rules, that you can not only swim in it, theoretically, you could also drink it (the European Commission has rated the water quality as “excellent”). A short distance north-west, Fuschlsee’s water is rated “good”.
In the village of St Wolfgang, you’re never more than a few minutes away from a ladder into Wolfgangsee, the lake stretching for 6.5 miles, and you are always surrounded by brooding mountains.
The architecture of St Wolfgang is similarly striking: huge, pitched-roof houses dot the lush green hills behind the town centre. On the lakeside, the village – whose history spans more than 1,000 years – is pristine and beautifully preserved. Café Konditorei Wallner’s painted exterior dates to 1520. The church of St Wolfgang contains an unmissable piece of 15th-century gothic art, a winged altar.
Typically, we brought the English weather on our visit at the end of August. Undeterred in our mission to assess the water for ourselves, we walked a few minutes from our apartment to reach the lake. It was worth the chill. Cold water swimming proved much more energising than my usual method of mainlining coffee.
Swim complete and now in search of lunch with a view, we headed up to Schafberg mountain, towering over the water at 1,950 yards. The easiest hiking route takes four hours, with an option to take a shiny red train back down. We took the easier route, making the ascent via the SchafbergBahn, Austria’s steepest cog railway.
Within minutes of the steep incline, we had stomach-flipping views over the precipice of the mountains surrounding us and the lakes below. When we reached the summit, the temperature had dropped to a bracing 4.5°C thanks to a thick layer of fog. High up in the mountains, the panoramic views we’d been anticipating eluded us. Then, as quick as the fog had arrived, it parted, and the views of the water below and surrounding peaks emerged, magnificent.
At €47.60 (£40) for the return journey, it’s not cheap, but you can make a day of it. Disembark early and hike the last hour, then head to the hut at the mountain’s edge, order slices of apfelstrudel and cremeschnitte – a deliciously sweet custard cream cake – and sit by a window to watch as the fog appears and disappears, revealing new parts of the landscape. Keep your eyes peeled for the waterfall on the way down.
That evening we took a leisurely stroll to the elegant Landhaus zu Appesbach hotel, where we enjoyed pickled char, a fish local to the region and a delicious dish of dumplings and chanterelle mushrooms which grow in abundance here.
Another local flavour is gingerbread, which has been baked by the Wallner family at Café Konditorei Wallner since the 17th century, for pilgrims visiting the village church. We enjoyed breakfasts of salmon with Austrian horseradish, yoghurt, eggs, fruit and bread for €10.
Keen to see more of Salzkammergut’s liquid assets, we hired electric bikes (€33 per day) to navigate some of the steeper hills on the 31-mile round trip to Fuschl am See, St Wolfgang’s sleepy sister.
On arrival, Fuschl felt almost disconcertingly quiet, but soon we found the Gauchos Del Gusto street food truck, and with it some of the tastiest food of our stay. My companion raved about the quality of his steak sandwich, while I chose the veggie version, a welcome mash-up of potato rosti, bell peppers, salad, chimichurri, barbecue sauce and pickles – all homemade – stuffed into a ciabatta.
Lunch wolfed down, we cycled in search of the perfect swimming spot, stopping at the Parkplatz Gamsjaga. The water here is shallower and ideal for less confident swimmers. There is also a free changing room and toilet.
Public beaches are dotted along Lake Fuschl’s 2.6-mile shores, while a range of hiking trails rings the waterside.
We stayed at the Style Apartments, conveniently directly above Mieze Schindler, a deli and bar serving antipasto platters with an Austrian twist. Its cured meats, homemade bacon marmalades and cheeses proved a great and cost-effective option for lunch by the lake.
Back in St Wolfgang, at Genussschmied we couldn’t get enough of the salmon trout tacos – the trout freshly caught from the lake – and patatas bravas, washed down with Radler beer.
But what really impressed me was the pride everyone seems to have in the place: a passion for the environment and quality of their produce. With historic houses and families who have lived in the village for generations, you will be hard pressed to find a chain hotel, restaurant or pub in St Wolfgang.
And the beauty of Wolfgangsee is how much you can do here without spending a penny – hike, swim, marvel at gothic art, lean back on deck chairs around the lake and just enjoy the view.
On our last day we rose early and took a sleepy walk to a different swimming spot. The sky was still overcast and it felt chilly without the sun, but submerging ourselves into the cold water was thrillingly invigorating.
Just a few hours later, we were paddle boarding on the lake at the Sportcamp Raudaschl watersports centre. The lake was still, the sun was at last beaming down, and the colour of the water locals had repeatedly promised finally appeared: a vibrant, shimmering aquamarine.
And yes, it looked good enough to drink.
How to get there
Salzburg is served by British Airways, easyJet and Ryanair. It can be reached by train from London via Paris and Stuttgart.
What to see
You can buy a Sommer Card (costing €3.90 [£3.34]) for up to 25 per cent discount on bike rentals, the ferry around the lake, museums, adventure sports, and the Schafberg train via wolfgangsee.salzkammergut.at.
The Zwölferhorn Cable Car in nearby St Gilgen is the best way to absorb the view of the Alps, with a ticket costing €29 for a return journey.
Café Konditorei Wallner: cafe-wallner.at
Gauchos Del Gusto food truck, Fuschl: gauchosdelgusto.com
Landhaus zu Appesbach, St Wolfgang appesbach.com/de
Scalaria event resort, Wolfgangsee: scalaria.com
Where to stay
Style Apartments by Mieze Schindler, from €140 per apartment per night, ilovestwolfgang.at
Seevilla has doubles from €275 B&B, seevilla-wolfgangsee.at/en