Feldkirche to Innsbruck

On The Road Travel Essays

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Feldkirche to Innsbruck

The Vorarlberg Province  Half of our journey to Innsbruck will be through the smallest of Austria's federal states or provinces, Vorarlberg. (Vienna, which forms a state by itself and covers only 160 square miles, usually isn't counted.) Vorarlberg measures slightly over 1000 square miles, about the same as Rhode Island. The name means "before the Arlberg (Alps)," although when traveling through the province we'll feel in, not "before" them.

Mountains swallow up any attempt made to domesticate them: towns are few and far between. There's only one main road, and we're on it. It isn't the best land for farming, and many other resources are lacking. But it is rich in resources of another kind: a hardy and hard-working population, which has learned to adapt itself to the most rugged conditions.

Austria or Switzerland? The people of Vorarlberg and their neighbors in eastern Switzerland are descendants of a Germanic tribe which settled in the area in the waning days of the Roman Empire. Many of the virtues of courage and self-discipline that one associates with the Swiss can also be attributed to the people of Vorarlberg. It was this feeling of affinity with Switzerland which prompted the people of Vorarlberg, in 1919, to consider seceding from Austria in order to become a Swiss canton. But the province remained a part of Austria, and it has contributed more than its share to revitalizing Austria's postwar economic life. Cattle raising, chemical plants, and gigantic hydroelectric works add to Austria's prosperity, while the popularity of Vorarlberg's ski and scenic resorts is responsible for much tourist income.

Feldkirche  This is the traditional capital of the Vorarlberg province. But it hardly looks like capital; it seems to resemble a mountain retreat. Its population of 17,000 is employed mainly in tourist and commercial activity, although modest industrial works are beginning to sprout up.

Schattenburg Castle: This stronghold was built by nobles who controlled these Alpine passes centuries ago. It's the major landmark of Feldkirche.

The older quarter of the town is centered around the Marktplatz, which is flanked by those wonderfully tall, arcaded houses which visitors always associate with Alpine towns. Some of the sops still hang out wrought-iron emblems bearing coats-of-arms from the Middle Ages.

Klostertall  The "Cloister Valley", which we enter at the town of Bludenz, is named for a cloister built by a medieval religious order. The cloister used to offer food and shelter to weary travelers. One of the towns through which we'll pass somewhat later, called Klosterle, is named for this cloister, which once stood there.

Langen  This is where the mammoth entrance to the Arlberg railroad tunnel stands. The tunnel was opened in 1884, and it extends for over six miles. The road we take, however, continues zigzagging up the mountainside, which becomes ever steeper. This is the part of the road most threatened by avalanches in the winter. Notice the protective walls and concrete blocks from time to time. One whole town—Stuben—lies huddled behind such anti-avalanche defenses. About this name Stuben: the word means "room" in German. It comes from a mountain inn where wayfarers once warmed their hands at the fire and swilled down a few tankards of ale before resuming their journey.

Arlberg Pass  About the word Arl: it's from the local dialect, meaning "pine," which is, after all, the predominating feature of the landscape.

As soon as we emerge from the short tunnel, at the very crest of the pass, we'll be at an elevation of 6000 feet. Look due south (to the right), and you'll see the snow-capped peak of Patteriol, which reaches 10,000 feet and is one of the major mountains of the Arlberg range.

Ski Country  By now, we're out of Vorarlberg and into the western part of the Tyrol province. Its capital, Innsbruck, still lies some 50 miles ahead of us. As we descend, we'll be following the valley of the Stanzertal. The first town is St. Christoph, virtually a mecca for skiers in the wintertime. It was here, in these mountains, that skiing became an organized sport for the first time. The founding of the Arlberg Ski Club in 1901 marks the beginning of serious skiing. New and daring techniques have been tried out over the years, then taught at local ski schools. The techniques were designed to exploit the unique terrain of the Arlberg, which didn't lend itself to skiing traditions established elsewhere. The pioneers of this "Arlberg School" of skiing were the two sportsmen Hannes Schneider and the British skiing professional Sir Arnold Lunn. The town of St. Christoph itself is named for the saint who gave help and encouragement to travelers making their way over the pass.

St. Anton: Along with St. Christoph, this is the skiing center of the Arlberg mountains. It's a winter resort that attracts the wealth and royalty of Europe every season. The Dutch royal family in particular are devotees of St. Anton, not to mention the growing clientele of oil-rich sheiks and European film stars.

Landeck  By this time, the most rugged of the mountains are behind us. But notice the castles perched on peaks around the town. This shows the strategic importance the town once had as the gateway to the Arlberg Alps.

Inn River Valley  From Landeck to Innsbruck, we'll be following the broad and lazy valley of the River Inn. As you can see, the Alpine activity doesn't cease altogether: it's simply at a greater distance.

To the right are the Otztal Alps, which extend to the south, then cross the border into Italy.

To the left are the Northern Limestone Alps, crossing the border into Germany. Austria is quite narrow at this point: most of the people dwell in small towns along the river valley. Outside this valley, there's nothing but cliffs and precipices — a virtual no-man's land.

Beyond Silz, and visible up the mountain to the right, is the Abbey of Stams, dating from the year 1273. In the 17th century, the building was enlarged, and two immense towers were added to the abbey church. The style of that time was Baroque, and the Cistercian monks who occupied the abbey spared no effort to make their building the largest and most extravagant of the country abbeys in the Tyrol province.

Approaching Innsbruck  About two or three miles beyond Zirl, the road circles around a huge, protruding bulge in the mountainside to the left. This portion of the mountain is known as the Martinswand (St. Martin's Wall). According to legend, the popular Emperor Maximilian, who ruled Austria at about the time Columbus discovered America, had a mishap here which turned out well in the end. "Emperor Max," as he was affectionately called by his subjects, loved to hunt in this area, claiming that it was an important way of getting to know his humbler subjects out in the woods and country towns. One day, when he was hunting up on the Martinswand, his horse lost its step and hurled him to the ground. He began to roll down the mountainside, but as he approached the cliff, an angel appeared in the form of a peasant, and caught hold of him just before he disappeared over the edge of the precipice. The kindness he had shown his subjects hadn't been forgotten.


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