At first glance, the landscape in the Vienna Alps looks idyllic.
But the expert’s eye realizes immediately that something is missing here: a railroad!
Because how are the people supposed to enjoy the picturesque landscape if they can’t get there from Vienna main train station? This discontent about the lack of public transport boiled over into the revolution of 1848. Emperor Ferdinand I, himself a railway fanatic, was happy to heed the calls and initiated an engineering competition. The lucky ticket was drawn by Carl von Ghega, of Albanian descent, born in Venice, graduated with a doctorate degree at age 17 and thus a typically multicultural Austrian with the required academic title in front of the name. The only problem was, he had never built a railway. But more on that later.
As an avid train traveler, I could of course enjoy the way from the luxury and comfort of the train, but for people who are fit and have time all day long, there is a better option: a hiking trail along the railway line. If you are thinking,”what a stupid idea, walking along the railroad embankment all day and getting run over in the end”, I hope that this report will convince you of the opposite.
I start the hike in Semmering, the village that lent its name to the project and which is surprisingly small for its importance. But I guess there used to be more activity, as the overdimensioned hotels in Magic Mountain style suggest. Now, they are being used as retirement homes or not at all.
At Semmering railway station, trains are leaving to Mürzzuschlag, Payerbach, Graz, Vienna, Ljubljana and Prague. For a village with just over 500 people, train connections to three European capital cities are quite good.
But the heyday of tourism seems to have left Semmering with a one-way ticket, because as I approach Kurhaus Semmering, I notice that it is deserted and uninhabited.
In the lounge, neither hot chocolate nor Almdudler is served. Only a few mice scurry away.
The railway, on the other hand, is shaped by progress. The old trains have long been replaced by modern ones and are only left by the side of the tracks for their museum value.
As if to confirm that the ambitious timetable is no chimera, the first hyper-modern train whizzes past just as I am leaving Semmering, having taken a last gulp from the water fountain.
Soon, I learn that the hiking trail does not simply run parallel to the railway tracks. In quick succession, I find myself walking below the tracks, on the other side of the valley, and then I look down on the railway from a mountain or a panoramic lookout, just like Peter Rosegger in his story Als ich das erste Mal auf dem Dampfwagen saß:
We walked across the Stuhleck Mountains to make sure to avoid the valley, in which, as people said, the devil’s carriage was going up and down. But when we were high up on the mountain and looked down to Spitalerboden, we saw a worm creeping along a sharp line, smoking tobacco.
I have already lost any sense of orientation, because the Semmering Railway runs like a knotted ball of wool. The reason lies in the chief planner’s aforementioned lack of railway experience. Ghega didn’t know that railway lines are best built in a straight line or at least in wide curves that allow the engine to maintain a high speed. He was fascinated by the landscape and wanted to integrate the tracks into it, creating an artwork on a grand scale. His declared goal was to build the first railway to be recognized by UNESCO as a world heritage site.
Thus, the Semmering Railway extends over 42 km, although the linear distance between start and end point is only 21 km. The line covers 14 tunnels, 16 viaducts and more than 100 bridges. Some curves are as narrow as hairpin bends on an Alpine pass. The combination of slopes and narrow arc radii was deemed to be insurmountable by most engineers at the time.
But it looks beautiful.
Construction work began in 1848 and finished in 1854. That’s only six years, which is an impressive speed for such a grand project. It’s an even more impressive feat once you consider that sleepy Alfred Nobel only invented dynamite in 1866 and thus far too late for the Semmering Railway. (Because of the lost bet with Ghega, he had to donate the Nobel Prize.) The tunnels were still blown into the rock with gunpowder. The resulting rock debris was then used to build bridges, viaducts, train stations and tobacconist shops. That way, Ghega not only invented recycling, but by constructing the buildings along the railway with material won from the immediate surroundings, he reinforced the interaction between nature and design. (This would have been worthy of a Nobel Prize for architecture, but Nobel was mean enough not to set up a prize for that discipline.)
One of these residences for signalmen now houses the Ghega Museum, but sadly, I have planned such a long hike that I don’t have enough time for a visit.
The hike is very beautiful and varied, but also quite a challenge. Without any steam engine, I go up the mountains, down the mountains, up the mountains, down the mountains. Each stop is a temptation, because I could simply take the next train back to Vienna. On the other hand, I am worried about missing spectacular views. Through the trees or on the other side of the valley, I keep spotting cute little houses.
Ok, maybe more than cute little houses in most cases. The location on the trade route between Venice and Vienna seems to have paid off for the robber knights residing in the valley. Just like the people collecting the highway toll nowadays.
Speaking of traffic, I would have expected to see only a few local trains all day, but every 15 minutes, a train is passing by. Passenger and freight trains non-stop. We all know that we need to move more traffic onto rails, here it is already fully in progress.
At the 20-schilling lookout, I meet a gentleman from Nippon who bought every photographic equipment that Nikon produces. He came here all the way from Salzburg, just to take this shot. To say something different from what I am really thinking, which is that I find his long journey for a photo a bit over the top, I mention: “There are quite a lot of trains passing by, aren’t there?” Unimpressed, he retorts: “You think so?” Well, when you are from Tokyo, you probably have different expectations.
The place is called the 20-schilling lookout because the view from here was proudly displayed on the banknote of that denomination. When Austria adopted the euro, it was so sad to lose this banknote, it insisted that henceforth all euro banknotes need to show images of bridges.
20 Alpine dollars also happens to be the price for a return ticket to Vienna, which I would of course like to save. And topography is my friend. Because the hiking trail runs above the railway tracks from time to time and because the trains have to slow down in the narrow bends, I should be able to jump onto a freight train, just like Jack London.
Hopping a train would be easiest during a stop, but the freight trains all rush through from the Austrian Adriatic port in Trieste to Vienna. If I jump down onto the moving train from a bridge, I have to time it really well because I don’t want to land right between two wagons and get crushed to death. I need to hit the roof or the bed of the carriage.
I have no experience doing this, but I did have physics in high school. Education really makes life so much easier. From Galilei, Brecht and Newton, I remember that objects fall at the same speed irrespective of their weight, given the same aerodynamic drag. So I collect a few stones and let them drop from a bridge onto the moving train. That way, I am trying to ascertain where exactly the carriage needs to be when I jump off, making sure that the stone or I safely land in the center of the wagon.
Because I am even smarter than a physicist, I also calculate that I have a similar air resistance to a stone, but a higher mental resistance. So there will be a longer delay in my jump, increasing the danger that I won’t land exactly in a wagon full of cozy mattresses or Slovenian Christmas trees.
And then the train is gone.
I guess I am more of a theoretical person, after all. So I walk the last kilometers to Gloggnitz quite conventionally, where I law-abidingly purchase a ticket to Vienna, having waved goodbye to my audacious plan. “But one day, I am going to jump onto a freight train and ride across Mexico, I swear,” I am still thinking, as I fall into my bed at home, exhausted from real and imaginary adventures.
- The railway trail from Semmering to Gloggnitz is signposted quite well, and there are plenty of interesting boards with information along the way (both in German and in English).
- There is an alternative route from Semmering to Payerbach or in the other direction from Semmering to Mürzzuschlag. Naturally, all places can be reached by train. Even between these places, you could cut the hike short and catch a train at the closest village.
- Here you find the essential information (in German only) and a map. If you read German, there is also a guidebook.
- The walk from Semmering to Gloggnitz (23 km) took me 9 hours, but with plenty and long breaks. If you want a shorter hike, I recommend to walk only to Klamm, which is 15 km from Semmering. That way, you would cover the most beautiful part of the hike, because after Klamm, there is really not much more spectacular scenery.
- There are only a few places offering food and drinks, so you better take enough with you. If you come by the Blunzenwirt in Breitenstein, only get something to drink. The food there was the worst I have ever tasted in Austria. (And I have cooked myself here.)
- More articles about trains.
- And more about Austria.
- Austrian Economics dictates that there are competing railway lines in the country, but as far I have seen, the ride to Semmering is only offered by ÖBB.
- UNESCO’s declaration about the Semmering Railway becoming a world heritage site.
- The Ghega Museum.
- The YouTube channel of Ilya Bondarev has impressive videos of rides on freight trains. You can learn a lot there. Almost like on my YouTube channel.
- Zur deutschen Fassung dieses Artikels. Dort finden sich auch viele weiterführende Literaturhinweise.