When one generally thinks about Austria and the Tyrol region, one generally thinks of snow. Tyrol is undoubtedly most famous for its winter sports, lying as it does in the heartland of the Alps. However, I was lucky enough to experience the region in the throws of its glorious Alpine Summer.
I took advantage of the Alpine Summer by visiting the historical town of Kirchberg, the perfect base for mountainous activities, and Innsbruck, a little-known foodies’ destination for a cosmopolitan city break.
Alas, after landing in Innsbruck, the short transfer to Kirchberg was not undertaken to the backdrop of sunshine reflecting on the majestic Alps. Instead, the low clouds that had wrapped themselves around the mountains brought to mind the hunched outline of a steaming rugby scrum – grizzly and a bit cold, but unquestionably dramatic.
Upon arrival, we were greeted warmly and professionally at the five-star Relais & Chateaux Rosengarten in Kirchberg, where both the décor and staff had an unmistakable northern European style. Modern, clean lines mixed with the warm embrace of wood and leather and gave our accommodation a contemporary feel, but in no way cold or sterile. Just my kind of place.
My suite was of a similar nature, comparable with the style and design of the foyer, and featuring a very large and luxurious bed with an excellent bathroom, which included an accommodatingly cavernous shower – perfect for someone of my generous dimensions. The room’s balcony gave a stunning view of the hills.
The Rosengarten is owned and run by Mr Simon Taxacher, reputedly Austria’s top chef, and his wife, Simone. Restaurant Simon Taxacher is at the heart of the hotel’s business, Taxacher himself having been awarded two Michelin stars in 2009 at the age of just 33. In 2011 he was designated Grand Chef du Monde, one of just 160 such recognised chefs worldwide, and the restaurant was welcomed into the elite circle of Les Grandes Tables du Monde in October 2013, and awarded the four toque rating by Gault Millau.
Gastronomic achievements aside, my stomach would have to wait. I had the gumption to plan ahead and book a tour guide and subsequently my itinerary for the day detailed an ‘E-Biking’ tour through Kirchberg.
For the uninitiated, an e-bike is, rather unsurprisingly, an electric bike – the newest and apparently best way to explore a city, and from experience, I can thoroughly recommend a bike that comes with its own propulsion. My own ‘personal best’ experience of self-propelled city exploration was in Paris, around midnight, after an evening in the company of la fée verte – a challenging journey to say the least, and we shall leave it at that.
The e-bike experience in Austria was obviously on a different par and here I shall quote from the official literature: “E-bikes make light work of those uphill tracks. If you’d love to go on a cycling holiday, but fitness levels within your party vary, the e-bike is the perfect solution. Riders can coast downhill at their leisure, then use the battery to ride up the other side.” Sounds leisurely? It was, and I would thoroughly recommend it if you ever get the opportunity to have a go for yourself.
Following this – and because one could only assume that I had shown myself to be the rugged, outdoors type – my friendly and adaptable tour guide, Bettina, decided the next best activity for us to partake in would be bogenschießen.
Kirchberg is known as ‘The Archery Village of Tyrol’, indeed Bettina told me the town “lives and breathes archery”. Well, new knowledge is a wonderful thing, and, having never tried my hand at bogenschießen (bow shooting), I was somewhat dubious as we entered the Bogensport Gigl Archery Centre, a large indoor shooting course encompassing some 700m² of open floor space.
Despite my reservations (or perhaps subconscious delaying tactics), I was struck by the beautiful craftsmanship of the handmade bows. The sculpted curves and grain of the wood are something to be appreciated when held in one’s hands.
The inside of the archery centre itself was comprised of raised, mounted dioramas with three-dimensional targets and a variety of shooting distances from beginner up to professional. Put simply, it was a menagerie of life-sized rubber animals: bears, boars, badgers, birds and rodents.
As someone who has never had much of a penchant for hunting, I was surprised at how much fun one can have impaling a rubber eagle from 20 yards. It must be said that it is also quite a strenuous activity; the repetitive action of drawing the bow over the course of an hour or so certainly makes you feel like you have had a good shoulder workout. And, as such, I was ready to eat.
Heading into the mountains we arrived at Staudachstube, belonging to the ‘Brixentaler Kochart’, a collection of local farmers and restaurants, whose focus is on using quality local products. Special emphasis is placed on ‘almost forgotten’ regional specialities as a way to rediscover and promote Austrian cuisine – so, it only seemed right that this is where I should be enjoying my first schnitzel, Austria’s national dish of pounded, breaded meat (typically veal). This quaint and peaceful property in the Austrian hills was the perfect place to unwind and compose oneself after an energetic day of biking and archery, and, after getting suitably relaxed, it was almost a chore to saddle-up again and mosey on back to the Rosengarten Hotel – where, it must be said, a luxury spa awaited.
That evening, the Rosengarten’s restaurant was light, yet intimate and the food, despite its contemporary stylings, definitely paid homage to the heartiness and comfort I had come to expect from Austrian cuisine. The parsnip soup was a particular highlight, a seemingly simple dish elevated to new heights. Light and frothy but deliciously balanced between sweet and salty, it was the undoubted hit of the meal. Appetite sated, I was pleased to retire early and ready myself for the alpine hike scheduled for the morning.
After a hearty, fluffy, traditional Tyrollian omelette, stuffed with peppers, onions and mushrooms, my mountain guide met me in the lobby and briefed me on the adventure that lay ahead – instantly making me glad of the substantial breakfast.
What had initially started as a not completely arduous, but slightly gloomy stomp, transformed into an immensely pleasurable and rather awe-inspiring hike. The vistas across the valley were breathtaking. With sun-soaked hills and snow-capped mountains in all directions, it was the epitome of dramatic scenery – and one quite forgot about the exertion of the hike up the long-worn mountain paths trod by generations of Austrians before.
At the end of our hike lay the historic Gschnitz Mill Village, offering a fascinating look at how life was lived in the rural Tyrol region hundreds of years ago. The white spray of the beautiful Sandes Waterfall at the southern end of the village served as a cool reward to those who had trekked to this amazing spectacle.
Another highlight of the hike was the famous Kasplatzl. At this Alpine dairy show we got an exclusive look at Alpine cheese and milk production, and, although I am no maître fromager, I know a good cheese when I taste it!
That afternoon, and leaving the relative tranquillity of Kirchberg behind, the second part of my Austrian adventure welcomed me to Innsbruck and an overnight stay at the city’s newest (and tallest) five-star property, the aDLERS Hotel. Contemporary with a fashionable boutique feel, the real highlight of this hotel was the top-floor restaurant, bar, lounge and sun terrace, which offered unobstructed, panoramic views of the city and its majestic mountains.
Outside of Austria, Innsbruck is arguably most famous for its sporting pedigree, having hosted the Winter Olympics on two occasions, in 1964 and 1976. The Olympic heritage is ever-present in the town, not least in the form of the famous ski-jump, which overlooks the entire city to the north with the Innsbrucker Nordkettenbahnen cable-car, which runs up and down the Nordketten mountain, to the south.
My Innsbruck trip concluded with a visit to the famous Swarowski World, currently celebrating the 20th anniversary of Swarowski Crystal. The Crystal World Experience lies somewhere in between an art exhibition and a theme park and to be honest I was far from enthused at the thought of visiting what I expected to be an overly-ostentatious trinket shop. However, I could not have been more wrong. It turned out to be a contemporary, incredibly creative and inspiring exhibition, that was a real celebration of the senses.
That was to be the final highlight of my short trip. In the Alpine summer months, Tyrol truly offers the best of both worlds for the active traveller and the food connoisseur; you can enjoy a cultural city break, five-star food and some wonderful hiking and biking opportunities. Who needs snow?