Story and photos by Corinna Lothar
ride up the mountain on the cable car is worthy of a James Bond thriller.
It takes your breath away, and you feel just a tiny jolt of adrenalin.
The city of Innsbruck ("Bridge over the Inn") sparkles in the morning
sun below as we rise through the pine forest. Above us the mountain
soars a craggy 7,700 feet, crowned in dazzling snow. Far away to the
south, veiled in haze, lies the Brenner Pass over the Alps, and the
road to Italy. The Inn River ambles like a giant friendly snake through
the valley below.
The chair lift up the ski slope to the top of Nordkette
as seen from the end station of the cable car
We are on the Nordkette, one of Innsbruck's premier
ski areas, which rises straight up from the city. The funicular starts
its ascent from the center of Innsbruck's old town. Halfway up, the
transfer is made to a cable car that glides almost to the top, which
skiers reach with a chair lift. Whether you are a skier or a snowbunny
come to watch and enjoy the sun from the terrace of the mountain-top
restaurant, it's a delight not to be missed.
At the second station of the funicular is the alpine
zoo where visitors can see an unusual collection of alpine birds, animals
and fish, the only themed zoo of its kind in the world.
There are ski areas in Innsbruck's southern mountains
as well, and for summer skiers, the Stubai Glacier is about 25 miles
Innsbruck is no Vienna, although it was the seat of
the Habsburgs for a time. There's an abundance of coffee houses and
churches, but this is an old and conservative Tyrolean town, perched
between Italy and Austria. It's a favorite weekend excursion for the
Milanese and other Italians of the north. Shopkeepers speak Italian
as well as German. English is the third language here, spoken by nearly
Western Tyrol is the narrow arm of Austria surrounded
by Switzerland, Germany and Austria, with Innsbruck in the center, halfway
between Germany and Italy. Because of its strategic location on the
ancient trade route between Verona and Augsburg via the Brenner, the
easiest path across the Alps, Innsbruck has always been an important
center of commerce, beginning in the Bronze Age when the area was settled
by Illyrian tribes. The Romans arrived in 15 B.C. and built an army
By the end of the 12th century, Innsbruck had become
a rich walled city with four gates. The Habsburgs acquired control in
1363; the 15th and 16th centuries were the city's golden years. During
the Napoleonic Wars, Innsbruck was ceded to Bavaria, an ally of the
French, but was returned to Austrian rule after the Congress of Vienna
View from the starting gate of the Bergisel ski
jump with the cemetery and the city in the background
The opening of the railway through the Brenner Pass
in 1884 made Innsbruck the axis of the European transport network. In
1938, Austria welcomed its annexation to Germany. (The Innsbruck-Reichenau
concentration camp was located in Innsbruck.) Because of its importance
as railway junction, the city was bombed heavily during World War II,
and occupied by the British after the war.
Innsbruck's easy access from neighboring countries and
natural beauty makes it a hub for summer and winter tourism, especially
for its superb ski slopes.
Innsbruck was the site of the winter Olympic Games in
1964 and 1976. In 2002, Innsbruck inaugurated Bergisel, a new ski jumping
stadium in the outskirts of the city on Bergisel Hill, the site of the
1809 battles fought by Tyrolean peasants, led by Andreas Hofer, against
the French and Bavarians. Designed by Zaha Hadid, the ski jump soars
with grace and elegance. There's a restaurant on the concrete and glass
observation platform. From the start of the jump, one can see the city
below, and just beyond the multi-colored stands of the stadium surrounding
the jump slope lies the city cemetery - a warning perhaps to all who
dare fly through the air on skis.
Innsbruck's old town is a charming jumble of stone arcaded
streets and narrow alleys, lined with three and four story houses, which
are decorated with huge fairy-tale characters during the Christmas market
The Golden Roof of Emperor Maximilian I
The old town's most famous landmark is the Golden Roof
(Goldenes Dachl). On the occasion of his second marriage to Bianca Maria
Sforza of Milan in 1500, the Holy Roman Emperor Maximilian I built a
covered balcony onto his early 15th century mansion. The roof covering
the balcony contains more than 2600 gilded copper tiles. Of the original
Renaissance structure, only the balcony and its golden roof are still
intact. Inside the building is a small museum dedicated to memorabilia
and paintings from the life of Maximilian I, father of Philip II of
Nearby in the old town is the 15th century City Tower - once used as
a prison - and St. Jacob's cathedral. Over the altar of the cathedral
is an exquisite painting of the Madonna and Child by Lucas Cranach,
There's no shortage of museums: art museums, a Museum of Tyrolean Folk
Art, the City Archive Museum devoted to Tyrolean art and the history
of Innsbruck, the Royal Palace and Court Church (where folk hero Andreas
Hofer is buried) with its cenotaph of the Emperor Maximilian, a pharmacy
museum, and a bell museum.
Casting a bell in the Grassmayr foundry
The unusual bell museum is part of the bell foundry of the Grassmayr
family. For fourteen generations, since 1599, the Grassmayr family has
been casting bells; the oldest still ringing was cast in 1636. Grassmayr
makes every type of bell imaginable, from cowbells to cathedral bells
and supplies customers all over the world. Visitors can watch the casting
and decoration of the large bells in the foundry next to the museum.
Elisabeth Grassmayr, wife of the current director of
the company, explains that the secret of the bells lies in their unique
construction, for the large bells are actually musical instruments whose
complex structure produces as many as 50 different musical notes. Today's
art of the bell consists of calculating the precise tones of a bell.
Decoration is up to the purchaser.
The oldest bells come from China, where gongs were hammered out of
copper as early as 3000 B.C., but other bells were developed in distant
time in Egypt and Mesopotamia. The Romans used bells in temples and
in the baths. Irish and Scottish monks took the bell to central Europe
in the 6th century. Modern bells are made of bronze - 78 percent copper
and 22 percent tin.
The largest bell in the world was cast in 1732 in Moscow, weighing
214 tons. The oldest bell in the little museum is 1,000 years old. The
numerous materials used in the production of a bell are on exhibit in
the museum, and each step of bell manufacture is explained. The highlight
of the museum tour is the "sound chamber," where visitors
can experience, among other bells, the water bell: by striking the bell,
vibrations are produced which are transferred to the water in the form
A few miles outside Innsbruck in Watten is the "world of Swarovski"
- the plant, showroom and museum of the company famous for its precision
cut crystal. The company, founded in 1895 by Daniel Swarovski, has expanded
from manufacturing crystal studded ribbons to glass reflectors, precision
optical instruments, decorative crystalline objects and figurines, jewelry,
accessories, chandeliers and fabric studded with countless tiny crystals.
The factory and workshops are not open to the public, but the museum,
entered through a grass-covered "giant," highlights the extraordinary
work of the company. The large showroom is a shopper's delight.
In 1995, the company opened its Chamber of Wonders, redeveloped a decade
later by Andre Heller, a multimedia artist, into a fairytale landscape
of 14 tableaux, some animated, some with sound, but all - whether paintings,
sculptures or installations - glittering with the magic of the crystals.
The new Chambers include such diverse attractions as British artist
Jim Whiting's Mechanical Theatre, a surreal landscape of flying fashions
that dance about a mysterious walking woman (all made in the company's
technical department); Austrian designer Susanne Schmoegner's fantasy
kingdom full of gleaming crystals; Jessye Norman on a huge screen singing
the final aria from Handel's Dido and Aeneas; or the Crystal Forest
of Fabrizio Piessi where fire, water and crystal encounter one another
in a scene of flickering, sparkling oscillation. The humor, brilliance
and imagination exhibited in this wondrous Crystal World enchants all
who visit Swarovski.
Part of the magical crystal design of the Crystal Theatre
in the Swarovski Chamber of Wonders
Innsbruck offers a visitor a wealth of art, culture
and sports. There are good restaurants in town and in the surrounding
villages, such as in Igls, where traditional Austrian cuisine is enlivened
with an accordian player and a guitarist. A guide gets in the mood by
making music by blowing into plastic bags.
Dinner at Aegidihof in the village of Igls, accompanied
by accordion and guitar
There's no shortage of good hotels. Theatre, dance,
music are all available, including such off-beat musical entertainment
as a concert by the Tiroler Kaiserjaeger. The brass band keeps the traditions
of the Emperor's favorite regiment, known for its love and loyalty to
Austria, and performs Austrian favorites for a dirndle clad audience.
"We are a rich town," Elizabeth Grossmayr says as she guides
visitors through the Old Town. She's right. Innsbruck will ring a bell
for any visitor.
IF YOU GO
The closest nonstop destinations from the U.S. are Munich, Vienna and
Zurich. From there, it's a short hop to Innsbruck's airport, or a pleasant
short train journey from all three cities.
Innsbruck's old, elegant five star hotel is the Grand
Hotel Europa located across the street from the railway station
and a few blocks from the Old Town. It's an old-fashioned hotel, furnished
in Tyrolean style, although many of the rooms are being modernized.
Rooms have large bathrooms. The hotel has a first class restaurant;
service is excellent.
The Penz is a highly
recommended contemporary style hotel on the edge of the Old Town. It's
geared for business travelers as well as tourists. The hotel doesn't
have a restaurant but breakfast is included in the rates and the breakfast
buffet located on the top floor of the hotel - with terraces offering
a magnificent view of the Alps - is sumptuous.
Der Riese Haymon (Haymon the
Giant) is a cozy restaurant serving typically Austrian specialties in
the center of town. The restaurant is named for the giant who slew another
giant and then, filled with remorse for his deed, became a Christian
and a dragonslayer.
Hotel Goldener Adler, where Mozart is said to have stayed, is
located in the center of the Old Town in an historic building. The restaurant
is elegantly appointed and has excellent Austrian and international
Pferdesportranch is a horse
farm on the south side of Innsbruck, near the village of Axams and near
the southern ski areas. Sleigh rides are part of the fun when visiting
the farm. Food is simple, served family style.
For general information on Innsbruck, see www.innsbruck.info.