For a tiny, mountainous, landlocked country with a population just half the size of Florida’s, Austria has produced more brains and brawn than just about any place on earth.
From Sigmund Freud to Arnold Schwarzenegger, from Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart to Johnny Weissmuller (Yes, Tarzan!), Austrians hold their own both in the arts and in the Alps, and their country is the ultimate feast for the mind and the body. Bored with the book you’re reading? Go climb a mountain.
So with that in mind, I thought the best way to honor this stunning land was to indulge all my senses, all at the same time. There’s no better place to do that than in Innsbruck.
The drive from Innsbruck’s main train station to the Hotel Innsbruck is just 10 minutes. In no time at all, I was sitting in the heart of the Old Town, on the bank of the Inns River. I grabbed a typically American breakfast of bacon and eggs, yes, but with some pastry and cake as a nod to my surroundings. I needed to load up on the carbs for my hike the next day in the Alps. (Let me say that again: my hike the next day in the Alps!) Just thinking about it, I ordered more cake.
As a pre-hike warmup, I took a five-minute walk to the emperor’s cenotaph in the Hofkirche Court Church, Tyrol, the region’s most important monument. Emperor Maximilian I is interred here. Deeply religious, his strict instructions detailed his head be shaven after death, all his teeth be removed, and his body covered in lime then wrapped in linen, because he wanted to appear before his maker in the manner in which he was born. From the courtyard to the Gothic Hall, I marveled both at the structure’s grandeur but its longevity as well.
Continuing my warmup, I head across the street to the Imperial Palace, first constructed in 1460. Today, it’s a multi-themed museum focused on more than four centuries of Habsburg rule. After a short perusal of the section entitled Empress Elisabeth’s 19th Century, I head back outside and continue the theme of imperial women, strolling to Innsbruck’s signature piece of architecture, the Golden Roof, a covering of 2,738 gold-colored, fire-gilded copper tiles commissioned by Maximilian I in celebration of his wedding to Bianca Maria Sforza.
I continued my walking tour to the funicular, the Hungerburgbahn, that will take me up a mountain. What is a funicular you may ask? Basically, it’s a train, or perhaps a cable car, that moves up the side of a mountain. Ropes once pulled these trains. For over a century, it was the main way Austrians got up and down these mountains.
In 2007, the old system was retired and replaced with a stunning state-of-the art funicular designed by the acclaimed architect Zaha Hadid. If the mountains and people aren’t enough to get you to Innsbruck, this incredible device and its cutting-edge, futuristic design draws students from around the world who just want to look at and sit on the thing.
You travel on it between four main stations: Congress, Löwenhaus, Alpenzoo and Hungerburg. Each train carries just 130 people, and the ride lasts less than 10 minutes. Yes, that doesn’t sound like much, but the views and feel of this thing are awe-inspiring. Think Star Trek on the Alps.
The concept of this transport system’s credo is “technical innovation in perfect harmony with the nature surrounding it.” That begins to immediately reveal itself in the shape of the bottom station’s roof and overhang that mimics the shape and protection of the mountains that bracket Innsbruck.
I scan my ticket and step aboard a car for the inclined portion of the day, moving from ground level, about 700 feet, to 7,400 feet in 20 minutes. Innsbruck’s stunning tree line and incredible urban accomplishments all recede, and now I’m just a few hundred feet short of a summit in the Nordkette Range.
The first thing I notice is the expected drop in temperature and the increase in wind. A few hundred feet to my left I can actually see the clouds moving up the slope. It’s a dizzying culmination of mind-boggling natural forces acting with a magnificent blend of indifference and relentlessness, and in their own sweet time, to shape this region of a planet.
To my right lies Tyrol’s largest protected area, the Karwendel Nature Park, a natural alpine landscape that is a result of a great sensitivity to the way things ought to be near the top of the world. Straight ahead, several miles across the valley, I see the range to the south of Innsbruck, where I’ll be going on a hike of medium difficulty tomorrow morning.
On both sides of Innsbruck, hikers engage in the full range of their discipline, moving from fairly short, flat walks along obvious trails to steep, days-long, vertigo-inducing challenges that take guests from one alpine hut to the next on overnight hikes. I have decided to sightsee here in the north, and walk tomorrow on the range to the south.
But first, it’s a bit of lunch with a view up here before heading down to the Alpine Zoo. A few hundred feet above Innsbruck, the zoo is an ideal place to take a decompression stop during which I can look down at the city and up at the mountains in front and behind me. The facility houses 150 typical Alpine species, the world’s only zoo to specialize in such a collection.
Back in my room, I run a quick check of email at the wonderful, comfortably modern Hotel Innsbruck. Wi-Fi is available in rooms and common areas and it’s speedy and robust. Whether you’re skiing in winter or hiking in summer, this family-managed, four-star location, built on what was once the city’s perimeter wall, accommodates a range of needs, from single rooms to suites. It really is in a perfect location, but my swim in their indoor pool will have to wait as I am heading back to the Imperial Palace’s courtyard for dinner and an orchestral concert. Tonight Francesco Angelico is conducting Innsbruck’s Tylolian Symphony Orchestra in their performance of a variety of well-known motion picture music.
My reserved table is at Café Sacher, a chain famous throughout Austria. The Sacher family invented the chocolate cake that is loved by so many it’s copied by hotels, restaurants and cafes nationwide. I’m lucky to have reserved this table via the hotel’s concierge as tonight is opening night for a month-long series of nightly concerts, in the courtyard, with different groups playing different selections each weeknight. The event kicks off the 22nd year of such free performances.
The weather is perfect, the house, or should I say courtyard, is packed. I am enjoying some weiner schnitzel (after all, when in Rome) to the accompaniment of “Love Theme” from The Godfather. I finish my dessert of the café’s famous chocolate cake to the theme music from Star Wars. The dark dessert is a fitting tribute to that Dark Lord of the Sith, Vader.
With ears and stomach fully indulged by Austrian performances, I head back to the hotel. Have I mentioned it’s a five minute walk? I keep reminding myself that because tomorrow is the real deal, when I find out just how much Austrian I have in me. Innsbruck’s official website says no experience is required, so I am a perfect candidate.
After a solid night’s sleep, I grab my Camelbak with just the right amount of water as there’s no use in dragging 10 gallons around on my back when I only need a quart. I pack my rain gear and emergency food, an apple, and I head down for breakfast at 8:45 a.m. so I’ll be on time to meet my guide at 9 a.m. in the lobby.
Again, the concierge has hooked me up, advising me on all the Innsbruck card’s benefits. This card gave me free roundtrip passage on the funicular yesterday, and it gets me a trained escort on today’s hike in the heart of the Alps.
I meet Kaschka, who not surprisingly was there early, and he leads me to the bus terminal where we’ll grab our ride out of town so we can begin the 2.5 hour walk. As we leave, I am struck by the wealth of options, urban (museums, shops, restaurants, attractions and shopping) and natural alpine (sunrise, sunset, or nighttime hikes of every difficulty level) on offer. While I could spend a few days here doing either one or the other, I opt to do both, I want to see the mountains from the city and the city from the mountains.
Kaschka tells me his story. He grew up in town and works as guide here in summer. The program, run by the Innsbruck Tourism Authority even lends guests hiking footwear, waterproof packs, jackets and pants if necessary. It operates 7 days a week from May 26 thru September 28, then on weekdays from September 29 thru October 27 on treks of all levels, day or night, rain or shine.
After about a 20-minute bus ride, we arrive in to Tulfes, gateway to the alpine ski events where in 1964 and 1976 the Olympics were held. But today is a summer day and we are heading for the Zirbenweg hike on Patscherkofel Mountain.
As we ascend, we pass several groups of differing sizes and ages of school kids with lots of pep in their step. Kaschka explains they are visibly happy because this is their last week of school. I press on, as happy as the school kids are, and we transition from high alpine meadows to the rocky altitudes above the tree line, moving along sections of trail so wide and flat a car could have passed us. At other times, the footing was wet earth and barely wide enough for two people to pass heading in opposite ways.
After about 90 minutes, we stop at the restaurant atop the ridge for juice and lunch, before heading off on the second half of the trip. We then trek down into the forested mountainside to the cable car that will take me to the return bus station.
I take in the vista and reflect on my time here. I can appreciate how this place evolved as so many of Europe’s cities did—as a defensive fort and supply depot for the Brenner Pass, which dates back to Roman times as one of the principal transit passes of the Eastern Alpine range. In the 18th century, a carriage road was laid out at the behest of Empress Maria Theresa, which in turn became a rail line and the first trans-Alpine rail route without a major tunnel.
Innsbruck’s name translates as “Inn bridge” and that’s what you need to keep in mind. This beautiful place is a bridge, a crossroads, a way station, a transit hub that once tied together empires but now ties together ideas, peoples, cultures—everything that makes life in the 21st century so awe-inspiring. From its historic downtown, small enough to traverse on foot, to its amazing arts and culture scene, to those beautiful mountains, you need to think of every street, eatery, hotel, landmark and funicular stop as an intellectual mountain pass to another state of mind.
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