Sunday, March 7, 2010

Car-free holiday -- almost

For the past several winters, we've gone on family ski vacations somewhere in Italy or Austria and this has always been one of the rare weeks out of the year where we abandon our car-free ideals for the sake of speed and convenience. This year, however, we went some way toward rectifying the situation.

In Europe, it's actually quite possible to do a car-free ski trip. There are train and/or long-distance bus connections to virually all resorts and everywhere I've skied, I've always noticed local buses ferrying skiers up and down the mountain. However, at large ski areas, it's often the case that the only affordable accommodations are quite removed from the main roads. And while a half-kilometre walk to a bus stop wouldn't put me off in normal circumstances, it seems like a slog when I'm freighted down with gear and hobbling in ski boots.

This year, though, we went to a smallish resort in Carinthia a couple hundred kilometres south of Salzburg called Mallnitz. We found a decent, affordable pension in the middle of the village that was within a 5-10 minute walk of everything we needed: grocery store, restaurants, ski shop and even a swimming complex with sauna and jacuzzi. A free-of-charge ski bus left every 20 minutes in mornings and afternoons, offering a 10-minute connection to the closest alpine slopes. For those of us on a cross-country regimen, a nicely groomed circuit lied less than five minutes from our rooms in the village.

Our friends who drove us to Mallnitz from Budapest managed to go the whole week without using their car. Among other things, this meant they could have some wine or beer with lunch without worrying about European zero-tolerance drunk driving rules. But probably the nicest thing about Mallnitz was just being in the kind of place where a car is absolutely unnecessary -- a village that you can negotiate by sidewalk, checking out restaurant menus, shop windows and sale prices until something caught your eye.

As it turned out, we hadn't even needed the car to get to Mallnitz. We'd investigated rail options before our holiday, but made the mistake of consulting only the site for the Hungarian Rail Company, MÁV: there we could find only some really difficult connections. As we learned after our arrival in Mallnitz, there is more comprehensive information on the portal for the Austrian rail servoce, ÖBB. This shows daily trips in both directions lasting about eight hours -- almost on par with the car trip if you include rest and meal stops.

So as an experiment, my 5-year-old boy and I took the train for the return trip to Budpest. The train from Mallnitz to Salzburg was completely packed with vacationers, and became more so as we stopped at one ski resort after another up the Gastein Valley. We had an hour stop in Salzburg, and then boarded a brand-new, high-speed Austrian train called the Railjet. This is a fantastic way to travel, comfortable, quiet and clean ... and cruising along at 200 kph (127 mph) on countryside stretches. Aside from the aforementioned advantage of being able to drink -- an essential ingredient to any vacation in my opinion -- the Railjet also included a little "kinderkorner" with a TV showing and endless loop of Disney cartoons. The whole trip from Mallnitz to Budapest wast just EUR 60, including the free-of-charge ticket for my boy.

It seems the longer I go without regularly using cars, the less I like them -- the tight space, the lack of air, the fact you're moving so fast with nothing but flimsy metal panels and tempered glass between you and disaster. This last trip opened my eyes to an excellent holiday option that doesn't require a car. We were so psyched about the trip that we're already planning a return in summer -- and this time bringing our bikes.


Anonymous said...

Sounds like great holidays - congratulations! And it's clear: the more people go on holidays without their cars, the better the car-free infrastructure gets.

A few days I found a travel guide called "Italien autofrei" (Italy, car-free), see

It's in German, but I think this shows that there already is some demand for car-free holidays. And I think it's great that there are already some books about it.

Best wishes,


Anonymous said...

By the way, Mallnitz is member of the "Alpine pearls". These villages want to promote "soft mobility" and environmentally friendly holidays.

You can see the whole list here:

Probably the other villages are also worth a visit.


Greg Spencer said...

Thanks for the info, Vicious! Something to consider for our hiking holiday this summer.


anna said...

That sounds like very relaxing holidays. There's even a completely car-free skiing resort in Zermatt, Switzerland. The only thing they have are electric buses and taxis, no combustion engines and no private cars.
I agree that the railjet is a very nice and comfortable train. However, it has one huge drawback that becomes worse as the ÖBB slowly replaces their old fast trains by the railjet -- it's not possible and not allowed to transport bikes on the train (as they simply ignored EU standards). There's the fear that in the future bike-transport is only possible on the slow and short-distance regional connections. I hope it just won't be that bad.
Nevertheless I enjoy traveling by train myself a lot.

Jelica said...

I haven't tried the railjet but the train ride I had from Graz to Klagenfurt was cool, and the landscape was so much more interesting than what you normally see while driving on the highway. I wish the trains south of Hungary were that fast, clean and comfortable (and on time) because then we really would not need a car to go on our Balkan pilgrimages. But after spending 10 hours on a train ride to Belgrade (from BP) recently, I'm afraid I'd go for the car if I had the choice (luckily I don't since I can't drive :)))