The two best-known features of the Austrian landscape are the Alps and the Danube River. The Danube has its source in southwestern Germany and flows through Austria before emptying into the Black Sea. It is the only major European river that flows eastward, and its importance as an inland waterway has been enhanced by the completion in 1992 of the Rhine-Main-Danube Canal in Bavaria, which connects the Rhine and Main rivers with the Danube and makes possible barge traffic from the North Sea to the Black Sea.
The major rivers north of the watershed of the Austrian Alps (the Inn in Tirol, the Salzach in Salzburg, and the Enns in Styria and Upper Austria) are direct tributaries of the Danube and flow north into the Danube Valley, whereas the rivers south of the watershed in central and eastern Austria (the Gail and Drau rivers in Carinthia and the Mürz and Mur rivers in Styria) flow south into the drainage system of the Drau, which eventually empties into the Danube in Serbia. Consequently, central and eastern Austria are geographically oriented away from the watershed of the Alps: the provinces of Upper Austria and Lower Austria toward the Danube and the provinces of Carinthia and Styria toward the Drau.
The Alps cover 62 percent of the country's total area. Three major Alpine ranges--the Northern Alps, Central Alps, and Southern Alps--run west to east through Austria. The Central Alps, which consist largely of a granite base, are the largest and highest ranges in Austria. The Central Alps run from Tirol to approximately the Styria-Lower Austria border and include areas that are permanently glaciated in the Ötzal Alps on the TiroleanItalian border and the High Tauern in eastern Tirol and Carinthia. The Northern Alps, which run from Vorarlberg through Tirol into Salzburg along the German border and through Upper Austria and Lower Austria toward Vienna, and the Southern Alps, on the Carinthia-Slovenia border, are predominantly limestone and dolomite. At 3,797 meters, Grossglockner in Carinthia is the highest mountain in Austria. As a general rule, the farther east the Northern Alps and Central Alps run, the lower they become. The altitude of the mountains also drops north and south of the central ranges.
As a geographic feature, the Alps literally overshadow other landform regions. Just over 28 percent of Austria is moderately hilly or flat: the Northern Alpine Foreland, which includes the Danube Valley; the lowlands and hilly regions in northeastern and eastern Austria, which include the Danube Basin; and the rolling hills and lowlands of the Southeastern Alpine Foreland. The parts of Austria that are most suitable for settlement--that is, arable and climatically favorable--run north of the Alps through the provinces of Upper Austria and Lower Austria in the Danube Valley and then curve east and south of the Alps through Lower Austria, Vienna, Burgenland, and Styria. Austria's least mountainous landscape is southeast of the low Leitha Range, which forms the southern lip of the Viennese Basin, where the steppe of the Hungarian Plain begins. The Bohemian Granite Massif, a low mountain range with bare and windswept plateaus and a harsh climate, is located north of the Danube Valley and covers the remaining 10 percent of Austria's area.
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