It is still early in the day when I walk towards a grey tower on the edge of the river Inn on a Sunday morning. I have learned of the restaurant in this old tower as part of reading of medieval Innsbruck. Well there I find a quiet establishment with a heavy door. Inside, stairs run upwards but there is no noise or clinking of glasses or cutlery. Instead, upstairs a waitress greets me and I can spot some kitchen staff behind her walking between the dining room and the kitchen as they are getting ready for the day. Somewhere the humming of a fan makes it all very apparent just how quiet it is today. I am led to be seated and in the dining room, a dim light shines through the windows and the scent of wood reminds me of the setting.
This Sunday just after the restaurant opened its doors, I have the dining room to myself and I am surrounded by wooden details, on the roof, tables, and chairs. If it was not for the waitress’s words, melodic swinging umlauts of the Austrian German as she hands me the menu, my gaze would be turning as if my head was on a swivel, constantly marveling at the wood ornaments carved into the roof.
A defense tower turned into a restaurant
My mind begins to wander and my choice of lunch has to take a backseat as questions are forming. From the waitress, I learn that this solitary tower was part of the entrance to the medieval town of Innsbruck. Today this tower is a restaurant, but in the past it was part of the city fortifications. It stands a mere forty meters from the bridge Innbrücke that connects the city to the other side of the river bank. In the medieval past, there would be stories of protecting the town from assaults. In our present time, the building tells the stories of lunch and dinner guests.
Ottoburg and the castle that once was
Where I am sitting, I cannot see the window shutters outside, grasping at the tower walls. They are painted in red and white, boasting silently of their medieval past and the heritage the building carries. For Ottoburg, the story begins in 1180 when the House of Andechs and its German princes acquired Innsbruck, a feudal line that would last circa two hundred years. So for us in modern times that feudal line can be regarded as an interlude of the Austria that was yet to be. But then, during the High Middle Ages, the Holy Roman Empire ruled what is today France, Germany, the Czech Republic, and far south into Italy.
Ottoburg was originally built as part of the castle that once stood in Innsbruck. Over the centuries it stood there until it was rebuilt in 1494-1495 and also grew in size the following century. This tower with polygonal walls has rugged and eye-catching edges, with one sharp edge of the building jutting into the street Herzog-Friedrich-Straße. These are also telltale signs that one side of the building was connected to the inner gate of the castle. But today, this quiet Sunday morning, when I am here and still have to select my appetizer and main course, the building only gives away few secrets inside. Outside, the more than 80 wooden shutters in red-white-red color patterns. In medieval times, it was very much about kingdoms in Europe when maps were drawn. The Renaissance period which would transition Europe from medieval times to Renaissance and later modern times would not see daylight for another quarter of a millennium.
Local delicacies in a place that is a feast for the eyes
Having been snapped back into attention by the waitress, my choice for an appetizer was a bowl of bouillon with pancake stripes and young onions, a savory treat to warm me up from the drizzle outside. The piquant treat is called Fritatensuppen and arrives accompanied by a warm smile. The humming fan is drowning in the sounds of my spoon striking the bowl of soup, remarkably loud in an empty dining room.
Meanwhile, the waitress is quietly setting tables and preparing for the day. But then as I finish my bowl of soup, I am joined by an Austrian family. They announce their arrival with the creaking of the wooden floor as they make their way up the stairs.
Today just before the official lunch hour, I am in the presence of locals. The soft elongated vowels of the waitress and new begin to to mix, Austrian words fly back and forth as the new guests take their seats. Bouillon with pancake strips turns out to be a helping companion when I try to picture the medieval walled city of Innsbruck.
To assist my visualisation I have the image of a watercolor painting from 1496, “Innsbruck Seen from the north” by Albrecht Dürer. In that painting, the castle walls are visible, albeit somewhat unclear. That was not the original castle, however, the original fortification was destroyed in 1133. My mind races through the years, a fact here, a mental image of a painting there. Make no mistake, this is not the workings of a scientific mindset at the time being, because I am hungry, as well as curious about this building. And the joy of food just takes priority. But still, questions form and thoughts huddle together, seemingly connected by associated numbers or timelines of people and historical events.
Hirschragout – Venison Ragu with beautiful distractions
With the kind advice of the waitress, I settled on Hirschragout, venison ragu with mashed potatoes for my main course. As the dish was placed before me, I am lost in a turmoil of savory flavors, combined with the sweetness of jam. Forget history but for a moment, I think, let’s eat and snap back into the present.
Then suddenly I am brought back to the present by hushed Austrian words which are uttered by the family behind me. It seems they have realized I am not from the city. My German is at best below basic, school German that I resisted learning properly when still in high school. But the words are familiar to others with Germanic origin, and I can hear the questions they ask themselves. The same subdued hum of the fan is no more, and occasional clinking of cutlery pulls me to attention.
Time does not stop, but it slows
As we all shuffle in our seats while eating the wood panel creak and every second is noticeable, time does not stop, but it slows. And as time slows, I recall that Innsbruck is by the natural border, the Alps, which was a barrier between central Europe and Italy and the Balkans to the south and south-east, and what we know today as the French Riviera to the south-west. If one was to look for cities placed conveniently where cultures and trade routes meet in Europe, then Innsbruck is a treasure.
The Hirschragout with jam and potato mash does its trick well, but my mind is crowded with questions and after some back-and-forth dialogue with the waitress, who find all my questions quite detailed and possibly requiring more time to answer, decides to bring over the friendly owner.
First lunch and now a chance to pour out all my questions in the curiosity of Ottoburg, what a Sunday treat, oh joy! We begin to discuss how when the building was renovated the building, the open fireplace had stories to tell of its own, judging by the remains there. This may be a trivial detail, but it goes to show that in a building such as Ottoburg, there is history in every little corner. He mentions how although many of the decorations, such as medieval weaponry, were added in recent times for effect. To this I can only applaud the effort as it does add that little extra charm. But the original construction of the tower remains the same and there are details from centuries past left, for instance the battlements on the second floor which were part of the original plans. My lunch is over and I am taken for a little tour around the building. As we wander up and down the stairs, one piece of wall art that peeks out from the wall, has a motif that is still undetermined. It shows two figures who are looking out from above a staircase, are they laughing or are they upset?
Then my gaze lands on scratches in a wooden panel. They seem accidental. I wonder who made those and how. Were they excited, was something amiss? Who were they, a family, a couple, friends, or maybe a group of soldiers passing through Innsbruck in one of the wars of the past century? But of course, the owner cannot answer such questions of an imagination running wild. The fact is that the scratches were made by people who were here and they existed.
Leaving room for others
Afternoon is here and Innsbruck begins to awaken on this Sunday. Ottoburg presents a picture with several levels of sensory input, from the visual to the audible and of course, the scent of food from the kitchen. I have more questions than when I arrived. Sounds and voices increase in the restaurant. The morning peace is gone and lunch guests arriving. As I make my way down the creaking wooden stairs, each step lets people downstairs below know that a table is free above. As I am leaving, I glance at the old stone wall in the stairwell and I wonder whose hands sought support on these walls when walking down over the past centuries. I let that thought stay with me as a way of quietly saying Auf Wiederschauen.
Paul-Christian Markovski is a writer and a photographer.