Did you ever imagine you could attend one of Europe’s finest music festivals and bring the whole family? One of the miracles to be found in the mid-range of the Austrian Alps, is the “Schubertiade,” a festival dedicated to Schubert´s music that has been called the most famous unknown music festival in the world. But another miracle is the wealth of recreational possibilities the region offers to those members of the family who prefer vacations without classical music. In the Bregenzerwald, a true discovery awaits the traveler who likes to go to places few Americans have gone before.
In a lush and fertile high valley, where people have lived for centuries in harmony with the natural world, a rare balance between nature, tradition and high culture has been preserved. The Bregenzerwald, in its secret north-west corner, where Austria, Germany and Switzerland meet, protected by snow-covered mountains, is unknown even to most Austrians. The first time we visited we had come for Schubert, the next year it was also the region itself that drew us back. The region is made up of green, rolling hills, radiant blue skies with decorative cloud formations, mountains lit by thunder and mysterious rays of sunlight. There are pastures in every shape and color dotted by old fruit trees; traditional wood-shingled houses placed in meadows as if by a landscape painter’s sensibility; villages connected to one another by roads that rise and wind across wooden bridges, through dense forests, following mountain streams. Concert visitors are likely to find their aesthetic receptivity and sensibility heightened by the two-fold compositional beauty of landscape and music.
After a morning, afternoon or evening concert, or during intermissions, we would rush outside to catch the landscape in one of its momentous light transformations. Once back inside you are bound to hear Schubert’s “Schöne Müllerin” in a new way, its obsessive concentration on the color green mirrored by the finely differentiated shades of green in the landscape surrounding the concert hall.
German-speaking countries are notorious for spending millions of dollars to subsidize cultural events. Berlin has its four opera houses and every small town proudly hosts its own theater and yearly cultural festival. The one festival that manages without any subsidies is the Schubertiade, located in Schwarzenberg, the oldest and most beautiful village in the area. The 1700 habitants of the village contributed substantially to the building of the Angelika Kaufmann Saal, one of Austria’s three best concert halls. (The other two, according to the German press, are the Mozarteum in Salzburg and the Mozart-Saal of the Wiener Konzerthaus.) The Schubertiade is directed by the commanding aesthetic sensibility of its director, Gert Nachbauer, who has been inspiring and running it since its inception, twenty-eight years ago. With a small team of dedicated workers he brings the world’s crème de la crème of chamber music and Lieder singing together in the festival’s resonant hall.
Hold your breath: in 2004, music lovers will be able to hear Cecilia Bartoli, Ian Bostridge, Angelika Kirschlager, Thomas Hampson, Felicity Lott, Anne Sofie von Otter, Simon Keenlydside, Waltraut Meier and many other opera stars. You can attend concerts by Alfred and Adrian Brendel, the Tokyo Quartet, the Kuss Quartet, Mitsuko Uchida, the Trio Jean Paul, Arcadi Volodos, the Alban Berg Quartet, or the Camarata Salzburg. You are also invited to hear Brigitte Fassbaender read, or to sit in on two master-classes offered by Gundala Janowitz and Fischer-Dieskau. Although Schubert is the prime attraction, there will be music by his precursors, by composers who influenced him, by his contemporaries and by later composers who were in turn influenced by him. As part of the festival, you can visit art exhibits and museums, and browse through a remarkable collection of historical books about Schubert and his music (most of which are for sale). Festival seasons are spread across the year from late spring to early fall. Because of the unique financial independence, the Schubertiade can afford an unusual degree of originality. Here and only here can music lovers draw informed comparisons within a few days between all the greatest interpreters of Schubert in the world, discover exciting new talents, and hear, along with the famous song cycles, some of Schubert’s less frequently performed music. You can experience Ian Bostridge, who used to be today´s most inward, meditative singer, experimenting with unprecedented dramatic intensity, bringing the concert experience much closer to opera and to other forms of German expressionism. A few hours later, you can cherish old masters of the Fischer-Dieskau tradition, like Robert Holl and Peter Schreier, who use minimal effort for optimal effect.
Schubert wrote and regularly performed his music for his friends and musical acquaintances, one of whom named the informal soirée “Schubertiade.” The intimacy of those evenings is still alive today at the festival. The audience has clearly come for Schubert, not for fashion. The dress code is liberal. There are a few evening gowns, some women in their local costume or Tracht, and most people in casual summer dress. The concert hall, with its exquisite acoustic, holds only 600 people, a daring preservation of intimacy at the expense of huge ticket sales, which the sold-out festival could easily accomplish. The understated high quality is also apparent in the simplicity of the festival´s tent-restaurant and in the serviceable espresso bar, serving champagne and soft drinks, excellent coffee, sandwiches and Austrian pastries.
You leave the concert transported by a feeling you imagine only music can give, and yet within a few steps from the hall you are in the center of the most charming village of the entire region. Several of its stately old houses with shingled walls, sculpted beams and cascading flowers have been preserved as National Monuments. Hotel gardens and cafés invite you to sit quietly under their shady canopy of old chestnuts and linden trees, while you enjoy local cheese dishes, regional specialties or a gourmet dinner. The famous musicians of the festival are lodged right here at the hotel-restaurant Hirschen, opposite the village fountain. Across the square, the fine baroque church was decorated by Angelika Kaufmann, one of the few women painters of the baroque, and her father, who lived in the village. Settle in: you have entered a dream world composed of music, landscape, gourmet food, and famous musicians. The beautiful Hotel Hirschen will be happy to receive you, too.
An arresting high-rural aesthetic characterizes the entire region, with its well-preserved traditional houses, its numerous churches and chapels, its exquisite covered wooden bridges (one of them built by Alois Negrelli, who designed the Suez canal). The Bregenzerwald has a history of baroque master builders, who left their mark on the region as well as in the lands to which they traveled when times were tough, to exercise their craft. But even most of the new houses are built in traditional style with shingled walls and intricate details of wood-working. The modern is discreetly placed just outside a village where, from a distance, it settles down unobtrusively into the landscape. The Bregenzerwald was the first democracy in Europe, independent of feudal law by…. Its geographical isolation, in the center of Europe but at none of the crossroads, kept the region in splendid isolation. Its inhabitants who cleared the wild forests to create meadows and open grazing-lands, seem unthreatened by the presence of outsiders. Their hard-won identity offers a unique situation: the Bregenzerwald doesn´t need to bring back its traditions for today´s tourists – they are still fully alive.
If you in your travels had come across a Shangrila or a Brigadoon would you rush home to tell everyone about it? If everyone knew, would that not destroy the very qualities you were eager to share? The inhabitants of the region have looked deeply at the question whether they want their region to be better known. In most travel guides, the Bregenzerwald is barely mentioned or not mentioned at all. At the very center of Europe, this Austrian Shangrila has evaded mass tourism and is still a secret to be discovered. The local people have found a way to offer outsiders an entry into their rural life-style precisely as a way to preserve it from the pressures of modernization. Indeed, tourists are invited to feel that they are helping to preserve the pride of the inhabitants in their local traditions.
If you feel like driving or even walking out a few miles along the country roads that connect the villages, you may find yourself on the famous “Käsestrasse” literally the road the cheese takes from the alpine meadows to the consumer. The “cheese road” is a unique cooperative the local farmers, restaurateurs and cheese makers have developed to keep small-scale farming alive and in the hands of families who tend to own small farms with an average of twelve cows. The Bregenzerwald has managed to keep cheese-making artisanal even now that Austria has joined the European Union. There are twenty-five alpine dairy farms and 200 family-owned businesses on the Cheese Road which produce 4,500 tons of cheese a year from cows that graze exclusively in open pastures. It is said that local connoisseurs can distinguish, from the taste of the cheese, the particular meadows in which the cows have grazed. Over thirty cheeses from cow, sheep, goat and even ewe milk are produced, including fresh green Alpzieger, a curd cheese with herbs, Rässkäs, an award-winning Emmental cheese made of raw milk, a Wälder Mozarella, and Gsig, also known as Wälder Schokolade, a desert cheese that tastes like chocolate.
Whenever you stop on your path through the area, you will be served Sennsuppe, one of the region´s specialties, a soup made from the whey and curds left from cheese-making. The farmers welcoming wanderers to their homes, will also serve them their fresh cheese and drinks like their famous home-made Holundersaft, an alpine elixir of elder-blossoms, water, lemon, sugar and sunlight. Vigorous wanderers can easily set out from Schwarzenberg by foot to enjoy lunch at one of the restaurants that have formed the association MundArt (MouthArt) which refers to both the preparation and presentation of the food. Instead of competing with one another, they fulfill the collective vision of the area and guide customers to the other restaurants in the group – for example, Hotel Hirschen or Gasthof Adler in Schwarzenberg. All of them are part of the Gault-Millau gourmet guide, proudly outnumbering any other gourmet region of Austria.
We had lunch at one of the nine restaurants, s´Schulhus. The owners had bought the old elementary school of the village Krumbach, transformed it into a family residence and in 1974, opened the restaurant. Here, every dish is simple and authentic. The small, unpretentious dining room and outside terrace that overlook the lush neighboring hills and meadows, won´t scare wanderers away (nor will the surprisingly modest prices). Each dish is individually prepared by the chef, who is the mother of the family and who attended that same elementary school as a child.
S´Schulhus specializes in the finest and freshest regional meat and produce. What has been a culinary revolution in California – Alice Water´s concept of locallly and organically grown and freshly harvested produce – is taken for granted by the restaurants of this region. We started with fresh fish from Lake Constance in an olive crust, on a bed of sauteed red pepper, and finished with a new creation by the chef – cold chocolate soup with a ginger-banana sorbet. We asked about the owner´s philosophy. The husband spelled it out for them both, “ Gut und ehrlich gekocht!” – well and honorably prepared food.
The same high quality can be found when it comes to finding a bed for the night. There are hotels in the highest five-star category, including spa and wellness hotels, simple rural inns and private bed-and-breakfasts. The organization “Ferien auf dem Bauernhof” (“Holidays on a Farm”) arranges for families to vacation on a working farm, offering children contact with animals and the experience of baking bread and making cheese. 2000 kilometers of marked and graded hiking paths take you as far up the Alpine slopes as you wish to go. There are “theme hikes,” focused on local myths and legends, on herb or berry gathering, there are sunrise and sunset walks, hikes to dairy farms and for the sports folk, the fashionable nordic walk, a mix between jogging, walking and cross-country skiing. Many miles of biking and mountain biking paths take you through gorgeous scenery, far from any traffic – unless you happen upon the seasonal procession of garlanded cows, marching down from the high pastures in the fall, and returning from their villages in the spring. From river-rafting through bunjee jumping to golf, any sport enthusiast will be well entertained. There are also special classes for children to teach them rock-climbing, horseback riding and fishing.
We found the perfect center from which to enjoy and explore both the music and the pristine landscape, with its amazing architectural and culinary traditions. A five-minute-drive from Schwarzenberg and the Schubertiade, the wellness hotel Bad Reuthe is situated among gentle meadows, mountain slopes, and rushing rivers. With 280 beds, this is the biggest hotel of the area and one of the most gracious. Naturally, it is family-owned. Portraits of the forebears decorate the hall and dining room, but even the young generation works in the family business, faithful to a tradition of four generations: the hotel was first bought by a great-grandmother who worked there as a chamber-maid.
The wellness program includes inside/ outside heated swimming pools with sophisticated massage jets, a pool with mineral-rich water, jaccuzies, mud treatments, every variety of massage, as well as serious medical treatments and less-serious cosmetic care. Movement classes, Yoga and water gymnastic, walking tours (many of them free of charge), are offered together with the free use of bicycles, skis, boots and umbrellas. The hotel restaurant is dedicated to providing light gourmet meals based on fresh local produce. A choice of health and slimness diets is available daily, in addition to a large (all you can eat) salad bar. Breakfast offers a sumptuous buffet and perhaps 15 varieties of home-baked breads, rolls and morning-cakes and at least as many varieties of local cheeses. As we are in Austria, as soon as lunch has been cleared, out come a dozen gorgeous tarts and cakes, accompanied by espresso drinks and home-made ice creams.