Photography by Yuri Krasov
I’ve always known that vacationing in the mountains was for the athletic, physically well-adjusted, and fearless people who don’t mind long hikes, sharp air temperature changes, and heavy backpacks…
Just like the absolute majority of vacationers, I’ve always preferred seaside and leisure to snowy peaks and incessant hiking. However, my recent personal discovery of Tirol region in Austria made me rethink my vacation persuasion.
Our lucky adventure started with the Lufthansa non-stop flight San Francisco- Munich. From there, it was an easy ride with a car-and-driver transportation service, Four Seasons Travel – their office located right at the airport. Soon my husband and I were in Austria; warmly greeted at a charming Hotel Alte Post in a beautiful little town of St. Anton am Arlberg – one of the 12 “Best of the Alps” most traditional Alpine resorts in Europe.
Besides excellent service, based on decades of hospitality culture, Hotel Alte Post boasts a large wellness facility with sauna, steam room, swimming pool, and hot tubs, and a high-class restaurant that serves full breakfast and dinner.
Through the windows of our spacious, clad in warm pinewood hotel room, I observed an idyllic picture of hilly green pastures with flocks of sheep whose faint bleating and tinkling bells could be heard in the clean mountainous air.
Our first order of business was to get to the top of Valluga (2811m) where from a 360-degree sightseeing platform one could enjoy the view of the Alps in four different countries – Austria, Germany, Switzerland, and Italy.
State-of-the-art Galzigbahn, constructed in 2006, took us on a fast and breathtaking trip above the clouds. Back in 1937, the Galzig cable car was one of the first gondolas in the region, serving 210 persons an hour. The new contemporary lift is based on the technology of a Ferris wheel, making it possible for the passengers to embark and exit at ground level. The unique glass construction of the gondola station looks like a giant crystal, lit up at night.
A local museum, dedicated to the history of St. Anton and located in a 1912 “Villa Trier” tells a story of Hannes Schneider – the Arlberg ski pioneer. The father of downhill skiing as we know it began his career as a ski instructor in 1907 and founded the world’s first ski school in winter of 1920-21, teaching the guests of the Hotel Alte Post how to shift their weight, and adjust speed and balance on uneven terrain. In his St. Anton ski school, which still exists today, Schneider trained groups of students according to their individual abilities. He introduced the “Arlberg technique” to the international audiences, and then traveled to Japan with a series of lectures and seminars affirming his motherland’s leading role in the development of winter sports.
He also performed as an actor in a number of highly popular ski movies, like Der Weisse Rausch (The White Thrill) directed by Arnold Fanck and shot in St. Anton in the winter of 1930-31.
In 1938 Schneider was imprisoned by the Nazis for repeatedly speaking up against the Nazi regime and supporting Jewish friends. Thanks to international pressure, he was soon released, and in 1939 immigrated to the USA, where he established a famous ski school in New Hampshire, and died in 1955.
We boarded a train of the Arlberg railway, inaugurated by the Emperor Franz Joseph in 1884 – a masterpiece of alpine engineering still in an excellent working condition today – and headed to Innsbruck, the capital of Tirol.
In Innsbruck, the mountains come up closer to the city – cold, severe, with snow-covered tops. Here, we ascended to the wind-swept heights of Seegrube (1905 м) and Hafelekar (2300 м) in a funicular and two cable cars, just to get a quick look at the endless mountainous country, and the lush emerald greenery of the city below, traversed by the jade-colored river Inn.
Chilled to the bone from a close encounter with the North Chain mountain range, I indulged in a warm delicious Kasspatzl’n mit Roestzwiebln (cheese spaetzle with roasted onions) at the oldest city restaurant, Weisses Roessl, founded in 1590. This slow-food restaurant serves all the farm-to-table traditional specialties stemming from Austrian, Hungarian, and Bohemian culinary roots.
After lunch we explored the Old Town and its historical landmarks – Goldener Dachl, a golden roof built for Emperor Maximilian I (1459-1519) over a balcony from which he liked to observe the knights’ tournaments; St. Anne’s column, commemorating a 1703 Tyrolean victory over Bavarian troops; and a contemporary outdoor artwork of orange banners listing the names of Austria’s courageous citizens who raised their voices against the Nazi regime during WWII.
For a relatively small city of about 125 000 population, Innsbruck has an impressive wealth of museums and other cultural institutions. Kaiserliche Hofburg – the imperial court palace, built as residence of the Tyrolean provincial rulers under Archduke Sigmund the Rich, was then extended by Emperor Maximilian I, and later rebuilt in the Viennese baroque style by Maria Theresa (1717-1780). At the Hofkirche (the court church) there is Emperor Maximilian I’s enormous tomb adorned with marble reliefs and surrounded by 28 larger-than-life bronze statues of the Emperor’s ancestors and heroes of antiquity, with three figures designed by Albrecht Durer.
An outstanding collection of arms, arts, and wonders of nature was composed at Schloss Ambras by Archduke Ferdinand II (1529-1595). An extensive Habsburg Portrait Gallery displays masterful depictions of the royal family members from Albrecht III to Franz Joseph I.
Tiroler Landesmuseen contains a series of permanent art exhibitions, and also includes a solid square kilometer of Das Tirol Panorama – a massive and magnificently realistic painting. It’s dedicated to the formation of Tyrolean identity at the battle of Bergisel Hill under a peasant leader Andreas Hofer against the Bavarian and French occupiers during the Tyrolean Was of Independence in 1809.
Late in the evening we settled in our cozy room in a recently renovated Grand Hotel Europa in the city center. A hearty multi-course dinner at the hotel restaurant, Europa Stueberl consisted of regional and seasonal specialties, like beef broth with liver dumpling, boiled beef with spinach and potatoes, and Tyrolean dessert of knoedle (dumplings filled with plum jam).
Restored and rejuvenated after a good night sleep, we headed for the Swarovski Kristallwelten – a lavish display of all things shiny from the world’s leading manufacturer of cut crystal. Coming from Bohemia in the 1880s, the Swarovski brothers found an ideal place for their sparkling product at the foothills of the Austrian Alps. With a major breakthrough – the invention of the machine to substitute hand-cutting – Daniel Swarovski started a trend that continues to dazzle our stage, screen, and party life for over a century.
The company produces zirconia – an artificial diamond with different colors of crystals coming from different metal oxides used in the process, and clear stones with diamond cut. Artists from Salvador Dali to Andy Warhol used Swarovski crystals in their art, and their remarkable artwork is on display today, as well as a number of site-specific exhibitions that change every several months.
We were in a hurry trying to get to Kufstein – by the Kaiser mountain range, surrounded by meadows, woods, and lakes – in time for the annual cattle drive. Tyrolean cows, which spend all summer in the green mountainous pastures, hardly have any natural enemies, but they might parish in a thunderstorm, or fall down from a steep hillside. When all the cows are safe and sound at the end of the summer season, their homecoming turns into a grandiose celebration in the Tyrolean villages.
We arrived just in time for the festivities. Along the main drag of Kufstein the bands were playing, the shepherds in lederhosen and Tyrolean hats were performing a rhythmical dance with whips, and krapfen pastries were prepared right there, in multiple street stalls.
Soon a herd of well-fed brown-and-white cows appeared at the end of the street. Adorned with headdresses made of flowers and ribbons, like Las Vegas showgirls, the cows proceeded down the street past the cheering and applauding crowd. Long after the last of them returned home to their owners, the people continued to celebrate with song and dance, schnapps and sausages from the local makers.
We checked in at the new, well-appointed and exceedingly comfortable Hotel Stadt Kufstein, with wonderfully fluffy snow-white beds in spacious nicely decorated rooms; state-of-the-art wellness facility; beautiful restaurant serving buffet breakfast, a chic bar, and above all – excellent service.
From the large windows of our room we could see the round white tower of Festung Kufstein (Kufstein fortress) – a landmark dating from 1205 – that soars over the neat and clean little town. It contains a museum of the fortress that used to be a military base, an arena of many battles, especially during the war between Bavaria and Tirol, and a prison in the dark times of religious persecutions and “witch” trials. There is also a history museum, and the largest open-air organ in the world, “Heldenorgel,” which can still be heard all over town every day at noon. A lift “Kaiser Maximilian” with a panoramic view takes visitors to the fortress.
Rows of beautiful and well-kempt historical buildings along the main street Roemerhofgasse in the old town center surround a pedestrian zone, studded with souvenir shops and quaint little restaurants.
We had enough time only for two of the Kufstein restaurants, but both were truly remarkable.
A restaurant at the Hotel Andreas Hofer serves seasonal fare, including wild mountain goat (chamoia) and venison during the hunting season. The game is nicely complimented by the traditional vegetables – red cabbage, carrots, and mashed potatoes.
I was blown away by the dessert. Blueberry pancakes Tyrolean style looked dark blue, since they contained more berries than dough, and were simply addictive. After I finished my plate of pancakes, my lips and tongue appeared blue from the abundance of blueberries, but I was in a good company – the majority of the diners at the restaurant were beaming with similar blue-colored smiles.
The oldest restaurant in town, Auracher Loechl, with the “olden days” décor, and very popular with the tourists and locals alike, serves all the Tyrolean specialties, and a remarkable desert, Kaiserschmarrn. The legend has it that once upon a time an imperial chef accidentally cut up a pancake which he was supposed to serve to the Emperor Franz Joseph. He masked his mistake with rum, raisins, and powdered sugar, and since then the dish has acquired notoriety and popularity.
Our last stop before heading home was at the world-famous Riedel Glass factory in Kufstein. From a second-floor gallery, the visitors can observe a team of skilled glass-blowers in white shirts and sunglasses noiselessly moving in front of the red-hot ovens, transporting bubbles of flaming liquid from one work station to another. They create delicate pieces of glass art – wine glasses that presumably enhance the taste of wines, whimsical decanters, and flower vases – with an ancient mouth-blowing method, and apply time-honored complicated techniques to produce one of a kind handcrafted Riedel glass, cherished throughout the world for its incomparable beauty.