Australian House & Garden
Renowned as a winter playground, the Austrian Alps are a breath of fresh air in summer, writes Vanessa Walker.
There is a kind of wholesome magnificence to Austria’s Innsbruck; a medieval city that sits in the Inn Valley, surrounded by some of Europe’s most spectacular alpine ranges. It’s in the atmosphere and imbued in the lifestyle. Wealthy Europeans flock to the local health clinics, which promote the medical benefits of the very air Innsbruckians breathe. And snow sports are a part of daily life – the Norkettenbahn cable rail car whisks officeworkers from the city to the ski slopes in just 20 minutes – time enough for a downhill run at lunchtime.
Innsbruck has so distinguished itself as a winter wonderland that it has twice hosted the winter Olympics. So what is there to offer the visitor during summer?
It’s all about the bobsleigh – and all that’s missing is the snow. What you do get is a 60-second rush to the head as you rocket 1.2 kilometres down the u-shaped concrete Olympic track, whizzing up the sides, flashing through the middle, as your pilot steers you (and three others) in a tiny sleigh. Encouraged by the certificate of accomplishment – and the Innsbruckians love a record of achievement – you might want to follow in my footsteps and have a tilt at the Bergisel Olympic ski jump.
Personally, ski jumping is as appealing as wearing a dirndl, the fitted bodice, full skirt and apron that is the traditional Tyrolean folk dress. The attraction is even less apparent when standing at the top of the 50m-high ramp from where a skier bolts out of the starting block, speeds down the 35-degree slope, reaching a speed of about 92km/hr (controlling direction with minute movements of their toes!) and leaps into the air, folding their body parallel to their skis to lengthen the jump. The view of upturned faces and the Inn Valley spread out before them must be priceless. I make do with gripping the safety rail and occasionally peering over the side.
But I decide to bolster my thrillseeker credentials by having a go on the Seegrube flying fox, and can attest to the pleasure of flinging oneself off a mountain ridge and careening along 1400 metres above the vast cityscape. Sure, it may only reach speeds of 10m/sec but I still look around for a certificate at the end.
If you want to fall in with the average Innsbruckian, it’s imperative to take to the hills. There are more than 1200 kilometres of alpine wilderness trails around Innsbruck and most are reached by cable car. I head to the Patscherkofel mountains for a hike among the ancient stone pines and become enchanted by the spicy aroma of the rhododendrons and the low-lying billowy gentians that flower here during summer.
Because the Innsbruckians are both outdoorsy and urbane, there’s no schlepping along with a heavy backpack, tent and freeze-dried food. You can hike from mountain hut to mountain hut and celebrate a day’s exercise with a feast of cured meats, cheeses and soup followed by a heart-warming tipple of schnapps before you retire to bed. I collect a bronze badge and a stamp in my mountain tour book from my guide for my troubles.
After all this activity, it’s lovely to take a leisurely stroll through the old city, which has been witness to much of the glory, grandeur and power struggles of Austrian history. Lining the cobbled streets are exquisite examples of gothic, renaissance, rococo and baroque architecture.
The Golden Roof is one – a three-storey balcony capped with thousands of gilt shingles. It was constructed in the 16th century as a royal box from which Emperor Maximilian I could watch tournaments. If you do visit Innsbruck, be sure to make your way to the nearby Hotel Goldener Adler and reflect in the magnificence of its guest list (engraved on the front of the building), which includes Mozart, Goethe, Albert Camus and Jean-Paul Sartre. A short walk in the other direction, to the Hofburg Imperial Palace, will reward you with a feast of frescoes and artwork.
From action sports to art, this town has something for everyone, no matter what the season.
When in the Austrian Alps...
WHAT TO DO Take a drive through some of the 25 villages nestled in the mountains above Innsbruck. I expected the locals to start yodelling, so picturesque are their homes, rosy are their cheeks and colourful are their flowerboxes. Wander through the avant-garde crystal installations at Swarovski Crystal Worlds in Wattens. kristallwelten.swarovski.com. Garner some insights into Austrian history with a visit to Ambras castle. www.khm.at/en/ambras-castle.
WHERE TO EAT Indulge in some good old-fashioned Tyrolean fare at a village gasthäuser. They offer hearty food in typically wood-panelled surroundings. For a sophisticated schnapps and cheese break downtown, go to S’Culinarium in Pfarrgasse. If you fancy some romance take the Nordkettenbahn to the Seegrube restaurant, where you can toast life at 2000 metres while gazing down on the city lights below.
WHERE TO STAY For a five-star hotel with an eccentric edge, try the Schlosshotel in Igls (make sure you see room 36; its living area is literally in the turret). www.schlosshotel-igls.com/en/hotel.
HOW TO GET THERE Emirates operates 63 flights per week from Brisbane, Melbourne, Perth and Sydney to Vienna via Dubai. Return economy airfares start from $2033. Call Emirates on 1300 303 777 or go to www.emirates.com/au.
LOCAL TIP Make sure you that on your first night in an Innsbruck hotel, you pick up an Innsbruck Card. This entitles you to free public transport the city and free transport and admission to some of its most significant sites (including Swarovski Crystal Worlds), cable cars rides and entrance to all museums and special-interest sites. On your first night at an Innsbruck hotel, pick up an Innsbruck Card, which costs about $37. This entitles you to free public transport including cable car rides, as well as admission to Innsbruck’s most significant museums and special-interest sites (including Swarovski Crystal Worlds). It’s well worth the money.