Andy Mossack, a British travel writer and the creator and presenter of BBC Radio’s “Where in the World is Andy” travelogue series, introduces us to Austria’s Vorarlberg province in this latest installment from his travel exploits.
Austria’s Vorarlberg province takes jaw dropping beauty to another level and offers a crowd-free summer vacation.
Bregenz is Vorarlberg’s capital. It is a delightful baroque city built on two levels. The historic medieval upper town, with its 13th-century architecture and serene cobbled streets towers over the busier but still quaint lower town, which, in turn, is flanked by the stunning Lake Constance on one side and a backdrop of dramatic alpine peaks on the other.
With its restaurants, cafés, museums, galleries, baroque architecture, and of course the waterborne pleasures of the lake, it’s the perfect base for exploring Vorarlberg’s other hidden alpine treasures.
Bregenz itself is a city steeped in culture. After all, it’s the venue for the world famous Bregenzer Festspiele, the annual summer performing arts festival with events taking place all over the city. But, undoubtedly, the centerpiece has to be the floating stage on the shore of Lake Constance. It’s an extraordinary open air structure with seating for 7,000 people and has hosted everything from productions of West Side Story and Tosca to an Elton John concert. The vast freshwater lake itself is a triumph. Touching Germany, Lichtenstein and Switzerland, it inspires a romantic cruise (from the island village of Lindau to the flower island of Mainau), a lazy walk along the promenade, a faster tour by bike or a Segway scooter, or simply an hour or two of watching the birdlife on the lake.
Bregenz is a very walkable city, and the architectural delights of St. Martin’s Tower, the gothic parish church of St. Gall or the more modern Kunsthaus Bregenz art gallery are all within easy reach.
Talking of easy reaches, I adored taking the cable car from the center of town up 1024 meters to the top of Bregenz’s local mountain, The Pfaender. In just six minutes, you can gaze across the 240 peaks of the Alps and see the whole lake in all its glory. While you’re up there, there’s an eagle sanctuary and a free alpine wildlife park to visit, together with some excellent walking trails. You could try and walk up of course, and after the hour and a half climb, you can fall into the welcoming arms of the Berghaus Pfaender restaurant to ease those tired legs.
The delights of Bregenz, engaging as they are, were just the first brush strokes of this spectacular canvas, because exploring the majestic mountains and meadows of the Bregenzerwald – just an hour or so drive up from the capital – is the full glorious portrait. This is genuine alpine country; the mountain villages here have been developed using traditional wooden chalet-style architecture that, combined with the stunning mountain vistas, turns the landscape into a real-life picture postcard. The effect is nothing short of breathtaking. Each bend in the road brings forward another gasp as the scenery unfolds with one dramatic valley following another.
At the very heart of all of this beauty lies the expertise and craftsmanship of the locals to cultivate the land and cattle to produce the aromatic milk, which in turn creates world-class dairy products. This is the KaseStrasse or so called “cheese street” of the Bregenzerwald where a cooperative of dairy farmers and cheese producers make some outstanding local alpine cheeses. Bergkaserei’s cheese cellar in Schoppernau is a particularly fine example. Here the cheeses are washed and turned daily for up to 12 months. The result is some magnificent cheeses that would delight any fine cheeseboard, and the hotels throughout the Bregenzerwald make full use of the delicacies created right on their doorstep.
The village of Warth am Arlberg is also worthy of a stop. It is a flourishing and lively ski resort during the winter months but, in summer, it is a serene haven of tranquil beauty dwarfed by the huge surrounding alpine slopes.
An hour’s drive from Warth, is the valley of Montafon which, for a short time before he was famous, was the winter home of Ernest Hemingway. This is another excellent winter venue that offers exciting summer activities for outdoor enthusiasts. Montafon is surrounded by the three mighty ranges. A once infamous route for smugglers from Switzerland, today it offers over 800 km of well-marked biking and hiking trails to suit both families and experienced bikers and hikers alike.
One of the most impressive structures here, however, is manmade: the Europatreppe. A by-product of the building of the Silvretta reservoir, its 4,000 steps rise up 700 meters on a gradient of 86%. And if that is not enough to worry about, time clocks at the start and finish ensure that your brave, impressive or wretched attempts are preserved for all time!
It’s a testament to Montafon’s impressive outdoor facilities that professional sports teams regularly visit here to train, including the Spanish international football squad in readiness for the 2010 World Cup finals. With alpine golf, rock climbing, horse riding, mountain biking and walking in abundance, Montafon really is a summer haven for outdoor enthusiasts.
The last, but by no means least, stop on the Vorarlberg tour is the distinctive and heritage-protected village of Schwarzenberg. Tucked away in the lower slopes of the Bregenzerwald, it is protected because of its clapboard houses – many of which date back hundreds of years. It was also the home of Angelica Kauffmann, one of the most famous female painters of the 18th century, and it’s the venue for the annual Schubert music festival, the Schubertiade, when a glittering array of famous artists perform in the village concert hall.
So, you may think, with all this glorious history and tradition behind it, that Schwarzenberg might exploit its celebrity image through commercial trappings and Hollywood type behavior. The truth is quite the opposite. The village feels like time has stood still – to a time when village life was all about community spirit and working the land. The tiny square hasn’t changed in hundreds of years, and I wouldn’t have been at all surprised to see a horse and cart come trotting down the lane.
Schwarzenberg however is not just about quaint village life and world-class hoteliers; it has spectacular scenery that provides outstanding walking trails up to and around the local peaks. I became very fond of Schwarzenberg, and I’m looking forward to visiting there again. Its charm lies in the fact that it is accessible, highly traditional and non-commercial – and in many respects, I want Vorarlberg to remain a hidden treasure.
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