Where Hiking is King, and the Sound of Music is Never Heard
By Max Hartshorne
Vorarlberg is Austria’s westernmost state, with a sparse population of around 370,000 and an abundance of Alps all around. Bordered by Switzerland and Germany, it’s not a well-known destination, but certainly inspires travelers–like me!
It’s a dramatically beautiful area– you pass by gorgeous vistas of mountains and pristine lakes, and in the distance, more white-capped Alps.
The green grass of the mountain hillsides are dotted with cows, and their bells tinkle as the beasts gorge on grass until they’re brought back down off the mountains in September.
Everyone I met in Vorarlberg was very happy to be living there right now, I had to agree, it’s a pretty good life.
With a booming economy, plenty of jobs, and an unspoiled environment,
residents can enjoy the national pastimes of hiking mountain peaks, climbing steep slopes, and riding e-bikes up and down the scenic mountain roads of the region.
The Village of Schwarzenberg
Our trip began in the small village of Schwarzenberg, population 1790. My lodgings were the oldest hotel in town, the Hotel Gastof Hirschen Schwarzenberg. This is a classic old Austrian lodge, and I was lucky on one of the nights I visited to sit down with the man who ran the inn for decades until his son Peter took over the top job.
Franz Fetz was born in one of the rooms of the Gasthof. From 1975 until 2017, he was the ninth generation of the family to run the establishment, that began in 1755. I asked him what had changed since his early days of running the Inn.
“People used to drink a whole lot more than they do now!” he said. “They used to drink bottle after bottle, and go drive. Today, it’s much different with just a few glasses and no one driving home drunk!”
This part of Austria was beginning to be discovered about ten years ago, and now people are amazed when they visit, Fetz added.
Vorarlberg’s location near the borders of Switzerland, and Germany bring many of those citizens over…however, more than 60 percent of the tourist visits here come from Germany.
Franz said he’s not fast enough for this generation of being a hotel owner, and he’s glad to be retired. “In Austria, we have a good life,” he said. “People are satisfied with their quality of life here, and they are more prosperous now than five years ago.”
Chef’s Surprise a Good Choice
Franz’ son Peter is a devoted chef, and at dinner, I gave him free reign by ordering the Chef Surprise–four courses that I left for him to choose. I was not disappointed with the delicious food that came out–tasty bone marrow, salmon/trout, chicory with ricotta and a lemon sorrel dessert.
In my first few hours in the village, I walked around the very scenic roads and off in the distance I saw paragliders soaring from a nearby peak. We would be at the top of that mountain tomorrow, though I didn’t know it yet.
The houses are uniformly neat and tidy, many with wood stacked up tucked into every nook and cranny, geraniums giving the window boxes a proper color and summer cheer. In a bakery, I scooped up some local pastries as I walked in a circle over the up and down streets.
Angelika Kauffmann Museum
Up a little higher on the main mountain road leading to Schwarzenberg is the Angelika Kauffmann Museum, dedicated to a very famous woman artist from Switzerland who became a world-famous neoclassical painter.
Kauffmann spent some time as a child living in the village and the former barn turned museum presents a good selection of her portraits on the first floor and many artifacts about life in the mid-1800s on the second floor.
Museums and Culture
My guide Helga Radler grew up in the town of Egg, home of Egger Beer, and one of the villages in Bregenzerwald, the largest region in Vorarlberg.
The catchphrase of Bregenzerwald is ‘the elegance of simplicity,’ and it’s called the region for connoisseurs who love the good things in life, like mountain cheese and elegant architecture.
You can see it in many ways here, simple things that elevate the mundane to the magnificent.
An example of this is Bus Stop Krumbach, that brought seven world-famous architects to design bus shelters in the village of Krumbach.
Skilled local craftsman from the region built these quirky different bus shelters using the designs.
Not only did the architects engage in a dialogue with the local people, landscape, and culture, but they chose striking designs and elevated the lowly bus shelters into true usable works of art!
Art is important here, and that’s what keeps the Werkraum Bregenzerwald busy with craftspeople and visitors throughout the year. The Werkraum is filled with projects in process, and downstairs is full of hand-crafted furniture made by 85 participating local companies, woodworkers, and artists.
The light-filled building is a testament to how important art is to both the town of Andelsbuch and to all Austrians.
In Hittisau, a museum was built to honor women, called the Frauenmuseum Hittisau. Founded in 2000, it’s the only museum of its kind in the country, located in the Bregenzerwald.
Thirteen women of different ages from the village personally accompany visitors through the exhibitions–particular importance is given to meditation about the women-oriented topics.
A Common Love of Hiking
One thing that nearly everyone in Austria has in common is a love of hiking and skiing. You just can’t live in a country with this many hills and not yearn to hike and climb these peaks!
We boarded a tramway to get to the top of Niedere, a 1600-meter peak that’s popular with parasailers.
It was clear to me how popular hiking is in Austria, watching many of the riders get off the tram at the halfway mark just so they can hike the rest of the way up the mountain!
On the day we visited, there were dozens of paraglider flyers, bringing their huge backpacks up the mountain to run and leap off the edge, where the air currents would guarantee them a lot of soaring and floating time.
Up here too, there are cows, and their milk is used to create the famous Mountain Cheese, called Bergkase.
More than 60 percent of all milk here is used for cheese and the most popular Austrian dishes like Kasspatzle is made with lots of it.
As with nearly any mountain in this part of the world, up top, there’s always a nice restaurant serving hearty dishes for hikers. Radler is a popular beer that’s half lemonade, perfect for a hiker’s lunch.
That’s truly one of the best things about Vorarlberg–you never have to sacrifice top enjoying top quality food, even at 1600 meters!
Sorry No Sound of Music
Vorarlberg isn’t Salzberg, and you won’t see people talking about the Sound of Music movie here. It’s a place with a far longer history than this iconic American film that everyone associates with Austria. It’s time to widen the lens and discover the parts of the country like Vorarlberg, that also deserves a look but might not be on your travel radar yet.
This story was written with assistance from the Vorarlberg Tourism office, but the opinions are the author’s own.