By Claudia Fischer & Roger Holliday

This "tale of two spas" combines a scenic train ride with a walk between two towns through some of Austria's loveliest countryside.

Salzburg is a five-star Gemütlichkeit destination at any time of the year. A spectacular setting. Enough culture, history and old-town flavor to keep even the most jaded traveler occupied for several days. And when all that fails, there's always superb shopping and dining within easy walking distance from wherever you happen to be holed up.

We invariably drop our bags at the Hotel Struber, a family-run affair with just 20 bedrooms that stands literally in the shadow of Hohensalzburg Castle. The Illmer family looks after us with tender loving care and has done since we first happened on this neighborhood jewel some 10 years ago. Public rooms and guest rooms are all done in pine. There are bowls of flowers everywhere. And the breakfast buffet of juice and fresh fruit, various meats and cheeses and eggs cooked to order is all about rosy cheeks and long life.

Last September, however, after two days of incessant and unnaturally heavy rain, we wanted out. A break from a soaked city. From puddle jumping. And umbrella spikes. And dripping, morose tourists.

Our standard antidote to any such claustrophobia is to scan the guide books for some neat, accessible place that we've never been before...and go visit.

So when our Frommer's guide said that Badgastein was Austria's premiere spa town, had a gorgeous setting in one of the most beautiful spots in all of Austria and was just 90 minutes away by train, we pulled out our European East Flexipasses (10 days for $299) and jumped on the 11:08 Intercity, direction Innsbruck, for the 62-mile ride.

The journey through the Salzach Valley was simply stunning and probably worth the trip itself. Past classic fairy tale Austrian villages with their onion-topped churches. Alongside green meadows filled with grazing sheep and cows. Through forests thick with aspen and pine. Hey, this was the Sound of Music, Heidi and Ricola all rolled up in one convenient package!

At Scharzach the train headed south and started a breathtaking climb that launched us into the clouds and the trees on the north slope of the Tauern massif until suddenly at 3,500 ft. we were like two hovering hawks peering down on our destination...the Michelin two-star town of Badgastein.

As we left the station and turned left in search of a center, the town appeared to be all about ski lifts, Sesselbahnen and snow plows. But the tourist office at the bottom of Kaiser Franz Josef Strasse began to give us the flavor of what was to come. For, besides the accommodations brochures (in case we needed to stay) and winter sports info, there was a useful little booklet to get us in the right mood called the Scientific Principles of the Health and Treatments of Badgastein!

A couple of minutes later we also discovered why all the guidebooks were breathing so heavily about this place.

A mountainside covered with dramatically perched homes and hotels. A main square dissected and undermined by a roaring waterfall and a 360 degree vista of some of the finest scenery we've ever witnessed.

This waterfall, the Gasteiner Ache, is the real clue to Badgastein's success and the reason royalty and aristocrats have been journeying to this spot for centuries.

It appears that a certain Frederick, Duke of Styria, started the craze back in the 15th century when he came to Badgastein looking for treatment for a gangrenous injury. The waters of the Ache healed the wound. The Duke was deliriously happy. And the world has been beating a path there ever since. For curing. And touring. And skiing. And such.

After admiring the frothing Ache - just looking at these waters makes you feel better - studying the plaques celebrating visits by such cultural biggies as Mozart, Schiller, Goethe and the like, and poking our noses into the charming but now disused 15th century St. Nicholas Church, we found ourselves quite serendipitously at the start of the Kaiser Wilhelm Promenade...a beautifully prepared and manicured hiking path through a forest of pines, punctuated by bird boxes, squirrel crossings, viewing decks...and as always sensational vistas. This was a path made for walking.

It was no lonesome trail, however. Striders of all ages and outfits marched along and there was much nodding and Grüss Gott-ing (hi, there). But walking in Austria is a pretty serious business and our sneakers, jeans and jackets were pretty poor substitutes for the Lederhosen, hiking boots, Alpen Stock and knapsacks of our co-walkers.

After some 30 minutes of Kaiser Wilhelm Promenading, we reached a small village anchored by a hotel and a few shops and faced a critical decision. Should we retrace our steps to Badgastein and eat, drink and sight-see before taking a train back to Salzburg...or was there still enough time to take the trail to Bad Hofgastein, a one-star Michelin site some seven miles away.

Hikers and locals questioned about the state of the trail and the time needed to walk it differed wildly. And the threatening sky and a 4:30 appointment with a return train had us in a serious quandary. In the end, the sights, the sounds and splendid mountain scenery won out and we set off for Bad Hofgastein with one eye on the weather and the other on our watches.

The Gasteiner Hohenweg, for this was the official name of our new trail, turned out to be simply world-class. Fabelhaft. Wunderbar. Ausgezeichnet. Take your pick.

It was a trail too, that anyone in reasonable shape could quite easily navigate.

There were, to begin with, very few ascents or descents, always important criteria for our kind of hiking. And it was well marked throughout its length.

In the course of the three hours it took to reach Bad Hofgastein, we traversed fields and woods. Hugged hillsides grazed by sheep, cows, goats and deer. Passed pretty little Gasthöfe advertising luncheons of goulash and venison. Walked under waterfalls. Through isolated farmsteads. And clambered over stiles.

There were fellow hikers to nod or Grüss Gott to. Benches or tree trunks to relax on. And even the occasional porta-john.

It was therefore with a bit of sadness (tinged with relief that the weather had cooperated) that we reached the trail's end and turned down into the pretty little city of Bad Hofgastein.

With no time to explore and having missed the bus to the station we managed to find a spare taxi and caught the train to Salzburg with only seconds to spare.

This was a day to remember, however. A super train ride. A visit to two great spa towns. And a hike through some of Austria's most remarkable scenery.

Excursion Notes

Holliday/Fischer recommend allowing about five hours for the seven to eight mile walk in order to spend more quality time in the spa towns, to relax at a farm or Gasthof along the trail - and above all, to enjoy the splendid views.

Trains leave Salzburg station for Badgastein at 07:57, 09:08. and 11:08 and return to Salzburg at 15:40 and 17:40.

Salzburg Hotel

Hotel Trumer Stube, Bergstrasse 6, A-5020 Salzburg, phone 0662/87 47 68, fax 0662/87 43 26, doubles about $95-$175.

For further information about Badgastein, including hotel recommendations, we refer you to the March, 1993, issue of Gemütlichkeit.

January 1996