The dams above Kaprun, Zell am See, Austria
The beauty of nature… and man. Normally when we humans need to build things for industry and progress, it’s the environment that suffers. Sometimes a construction can be done tastefully and it might complement the landscape. I think of the Zollverein Mine in Germany, for example, where architecture of beauty was a priority. It’s rare when a development actually improves the scenery. But that’s exactly what I think has been achieved with the Limberg and Mooser dams in Austria.
The dams are near the city of Zell am See, above a town called Kaprun. High in the mountains, they are hidden away from those who don’t make an effort to find them. Plenty do, though. Isn’t it interesting how people will go out of their way to see this manmade interruption of a natural landscape? I, admittedly, am one of them and I set off early in the morning from Zell am See to see what all the fuss is about.
The journey up to the top is an adventure in itself and I’ll come to that shortly. But first let me tell you about the star attraction of the whole experience – the Mooser Dam – and why it’s here.
The dam is enormous and, not only that, it is 2000 metres above sea level. The wall curves for a total length of 494 metres and is 107 metres tall. It creates an imposing wall between the green slopes on either side.
Construction started on the dam in 1938 on the orders of the Nazis. It is part of a hydroelectric power scheme that went online in 1944 and has been operational ever since. Any basic knowledge of history will tell you that this whole period of building was during the Second World War and much of the labour used for the project was unfortunately slave labour.
But the end result was magnificent and still is today – a power plant that now (with a lot of additions using legitimate workers over the subsequent years) produces 700 GWh a year, which is a considerable percentage of Austria’s electricity. Austria acknowledges the inauspicious origin of the project but prefers to focus on the later improvements to the scheme, including more dams, which show a mastering of man over mountain.
From the visitor centre at the bottom, it’s a three stage process to get up to the dam. First a bus to a lift, then the ride up the lift itself, then another bus. At first I think the price for a return is a bit steep (pun intended) at €19.90 but it makes a bit more sense when I see the lift. It’s huge – large enough to hold a bus (which it sometimes does) – that races up hundreds of metres in minutes.
At the top, the Mooserboden Reservoir stretches behind the dam, filling the space between the walls of mountain on every other side. You would be forgiven for thinking it was a natural lake if you didn’t know better. The lower parts of the mountains are a vibrant green now in the summer days but the tips are still white with snow.
From here, you have a lot of choices of what to do. There are tours of the dam that go inside to see how it was built and it works; there’s a small (free) museum telling the history; there are viewpoints; and there are hikes. High up one of the mountains I can see a small hut. Some people go on multi day walks and stay in huts like these overnight. I decide on a shorter and easier one that will take me downhill.
As I walk along the route, I look back up at the dam that I had been standing atop of not too long ago. The power of the size, felt when I was touching it, has gone but the scale is just as impressive now that I can see it in perspective with the mountains.
I enjoy the views as I wander – blue sky, green grass, white snow. I also just enjoy the air, which is so fresh and healthy up here. I can see why some locals I talk to tell me that one of their favourite hobbies is hiking. I think I would go walking all the time if I lived here.
Eventually I arrive at a restaurant and beer garden on one of the hills, with farm animals around it. It’s called Fürthermoar-Alm and the owner, Anton Aberger, has been here for decades with his family.
He sits down with me for a while and shows me a book with photos of his story – rowing sheep across the reservoir in a boat, dragging them through snow when winter hits suddenly, and the fields with cows that produce the milk he uses to make his own cheese and butter. In fact, almost all of the food he serves is made organically and locally.
From the restaurant, you can jump on the bus that takes you back down to the lift, completing a full circle adventure.
Anton’s restaurant is a wonderful final stop – not just for the excellent food and beer – but for the atmosphere. Everything feels so healthy and alive. It’s crisp but welcoming, radiant yet grounded. Like everything up here. It’s the blend of human engineering with natural creations that makes the dams above Kaprun such a special part of Austria.
For accommodation, I highly recommend the Hotel Tirolerhof in Zell Am See.