The winter wonderland walking destination you can reach by sleeper train

The chamois and I locked gazes, her kid poised warily behind. Framed by a stone archway in Wartenfels Castle, she tilted her head curiously, fixing me with a quizzical stare from behind her stylish black mask. Might you not prefer to be elsewhere, her look seemed to hint. This patch is taken.

We studied each other for a minute or two before she danced off languidly into the icing-sugar-dusted firs, Junior hopping at her heels. Transfixed in the snow-muffled silence, my eyes swept across the haunting ruins of the 13th-century fortress guarding the Fuschlsee in Austria’s Salzkammergut region of peaks and 67 lakes.

FUschl Winter 2015 Fuschl am See Austria Inntravel Image via ccollier@inntravel.co.uk
There were very few human footprints, but plenty belonging to other animals (Photo: Inntravel)

In mid-December, the snow lay round about, deep and crisp, though far from even – following a heavy dump the previous week, a mild spell had already greened patches at lower altitudes.

Where it drifted still, prints pocked the powder: the dainty twinned lip-smacks of chamois, plus smaller paws – squirrel and hare, perhaps. Much rarer were the bootmarks of humans – only those of my wife and me, in fact.

In summer, the laughter and splashes of bathing holidaymakers ring across the eye-popping jade waters of the Fuschlsee, harmonising with the calls of swans, mallards, coots and great crested grebes. But come snow season, when Alpine ski resorts are thronged, Fuschl am See – and its 50km of winter walking trails – is blissfully serene.

Those in the know savour the chance to roam this spectacular region now – particularly clients of Inntravel, the self-guided walking company for whom Fuschl’s Hotel Seerose has become a non-ski snow bestseller.

Fuschl am See Austria Inntravel Image via ccollier@inntravel.co.uk
Hotel Seerose has become a best-seller (Photo: Inntravel)

It’s easy to see why: it’s the epitome of the family-run Alpine retreat, small enough to reflect the smiling warmth of the Schocher clan, large enough to command culinary heft, spa rooms and a pool seemingly merging with the lake.

It’s also just half an hour from the fortress, cathedral, museums and Mozart schtick of Salzburg’s Altstadt, along with its airport and - handily for us, having arrived on the Nightjet sleeper service – train station.

Frequent buses link that city with appealing towns and villages, including Fuschl, and nearby centres offering activities such as cross-country skiing, guided snowshoeing and stand-up paddleboarding.

We were here to walk, however. That afternoon, mist snagged on treetops and wreathed the peaks - including Wartenfels’ rocky perch – leaking mizzle on us as we ambled the easy 11km circumambulation of the Fuschlsee.

Shore-front chalets – the most imposing reputedly owned by Roman Abramovich – added to a festive feel, though by late afternoon I was happy to retreat to the Seerose for a sauna and feast.

And feast it was. Five courses showcased the best local fare: venison, schnitzels, dumplings and sauerkraut, naturally, but also wild mushrooms and smoked trout from the fishery of Schloss Fuschl, another medieval lakeside castle built as a hunting lodge for Salzburg’s Prince-Archbishops.

Fuschl am See Austria Inntravel Image via ccollier@inntravel.co.uk
In summer, the lake is a favourite among holidaymakers (Photo: Inntravel)

More regal rambling beckoned to the east, in the spa town of Bad Ischl made modish by the Habsburg monarchs. Its heyday arrived in 1854 when Emperor Franz Joseph and his new bride Elisabeth - known as Sisi – were gifted the Kaiservilla. Each summer for the next six decades, this egg-yolk-yellow Neoclassical mini-palace became the nerve centre of the Austro-Hungarian empire.

When not out decimating the chamois population (his 2,000th bag is displayed stuffed, along with thousands of antlers), Franz Joseph received dignitaries such as Edward VII and Ulysses S Grant; this was where he signed the 1914 declaration of hostilities with Serbia that sparked the First World War.

Visitors to Bad Ischl nowadays can savour imperial-approved confections at Café Zauner, dishing up patisserie and its opulent chocolate-and-hazelnut Zaunerstollen since 1832, and the programme of events and exhibitions planned for this year’s European co-Capital of Culture.

Next morning, the rising sun sparkled on the Fuschlsee, tempting us back to the trails. On local advice we ventured off-piste, ascending the forest track to Eibensee, an ice-fringed tarn cupped amid frost-capped crags.

We had the paths to ourselves. As we climbed, the reason became clear: on loftier stretches we plunged knee-deep in glittering drifts – a small price for such magical loneliness. Another couple of hours tramping brought us to the Mozartblick, a dramatic eyrie yielding vistas across the neighbouring Wolfgangsee.

Below, in the charming village of St Gilgen, scarf-swaddled locals quaffed Glühwein (made with a healthier helping of Wein than insipid British imitations) at the advent market. Up here, we lingered alone.

Relishing the stillness, I recalled how Empress Sisi, ­wearying of court pressures and intrigues, sought peace roaming the wild mountains. Solitude is hard to find these days – except, it seems, in pockets of imperial isolation on the trails of off-season Austria.

How to get there
The writer travelled with Inntravel, which offers a week’s winter walking in Fuschl am See from £1,035pp including flights/return sleeper train travel from London, seven nights’ half-board at Hotel Seerose, walk suggestions and area information; available December–March, inntravel.co.uk

More information
austria.info