Tips for an American Grocery Shopping in Tirol

Grocery shopping in Austria is one of the best ways to learn the German language and discover this great culture. First-time shoppers from America will see many similarities in the grocery stores, but there are some differences. Here are some tips to better enjoy grocery shopping.

Bring a Bag
In the U.S., bags are often included as a ‘courtesy’ item when you shop. In Austria, the stores expect you to come prepared with your bags. The locals generally use cloth mesh or fabric bags that are lightweight. If you do not have a bag the store will be happy to sell you one, for a small fee. Most of the paper bags I saw for purchase were 20 cents. If you are traveling and don’t have a bag you can use a daypack. The store does not mind what you use for bagging as long as you quickly make room for the next customer.

Weigh Those Veggies
At most U.S. stores you take the fruits and vegetables to checkout and the checker (from memory) enters a code into the register while the items are weighed. In Austria, you might need to approach a scale, weigh the food, and type in an item code. A sticker emerges from the scale and you attach it to the item or bag. Some pre-packed veggies are already weighed and marked. Be observant, don’t just grab some veggies and rush to the checkout, take a second to look to see if it needs to be weighed or it is already marked.

Bag Your Groceries…Quickly
In the U.S. the checkout person will scan/weigh the food and send it down a small chute where the food queues up and, if we’re lucky, a store employee bags the groceries. In Austria, you or another person in your group needs to be ready to bag the food immediately after it has been rung up. There is generally little space for food to queue and in some cases no area at all – as in a drop-off. If you are slow with this process and food backs up, you might earn a wrathful look from the checkout person or others in line. Best to be ready to bag.

Rent a Shopping CartRent a Shopping Cart
I have seen in a few places in the U.S. where grocery carts are rented using a quarter or a dollar coin as a deposit, but it really has not caught on in the States. However, in Austria, and much of Europe, use of coins are commonplace. When you approach a grocery store you will see the shopping carts are locked together. Have a 50 cent coin or a 1 Euro coin in your pocket. Insert it into a coin area on the cart’s handle and unchain the cart. At the end of shopping, return the cart, re-chain it, and your deposit money is returned.

Tax is Included
In Austria, the food is taxed, but the tax is included in the final price. If something costs you 1 Euro, you do not have to pay additional. As a traveler I find this helpful with budgeting my daily expenses; I do not have to consider an additional 7% -10% on top of the final price. I found this to be the case with many food items in restaurants as well, taxes were included in the price.

BioKnow About Bio
Some food will have the letters B-I-O written on the packaging or signage. This food is generally more expensive than conventionally grown food. This is Bio (pronounced, be-oh), and the closest thing in the U.S. we have to this is the ‘organic’ label. Bio is part of a healthy foods movement and like the organic label has made tremendous strides to improve food quality, but (this my observation) it is possible the label often gets used when possibly it does not meet required standards – or people refer to something a Bio when it is not. I did buy some food (vegetables and walnuts) that were Bio but found it originated from overseas at a location I would question. I asked some locals about the Biolabeling, they were comfortable with buying bioproducts “because it was safe.” When other locals were asked about a recent Bio food scare in Germany involving tainted sprouts, where several people contracted food poisoning and some even died, the response was, that it was a terrible accident, and to be safe, “shop from the local farmer first, then buy Bio, then look at conventional foods.”

Farmers Markets
Farmers markets are alive and well, but you might need to look for them. Innsbruck has a downtown farmers market and on Saturday such markets can be found on certain corners. The corner market near me in Innsbruck is small, with just a few farmers selling items, but they have the standards: fresh greens, fresh bread, some meat products, and honey. Some items are high in price, but the in-season veggies and bread are more reasonable.

Visit at Off Times
If you are uncomfortable speaking German try to visit stores at down times when they are not packed with customers. The staff is more open to helping you find things and are more willing to speak. You might have several conversations in broken English/German with the store staff but it is always good fun.

Check the Hours
In the U.S. there is usually some store in town that is open 24 hours, 7 days a week. In Austria, the stores have more standard hours (like 9 am to 6 pm) and might be closed on Sunday. Plan ahead and take note of when your local store is open to make sure you have the food items you need.

Tips for the American Family Visiting Playgrounds in Tirol

When traveling overseas it is important to observe how local families interact with their kids, it will tell you a great deal about the culture.

The playgrounds in Tirol, Austria, speak volumes.

The playgrounds are nothing like the low-risk, cushioned, gently-sloped, plastic, shredded rubber turf play structures that dot the city parks and schools in the US.

Many of the Tirolean play structures are two to three stories tall, made of solid wood, have pulleys, rope bridges, ramps, water flumes, sand pits, lengthy slides, zip-cords, and … teeter-totters! I cannot remember the last time I saw a teeter-totter in an American playground. One play area even had a small rock climbing wall.

Most interesting is that when playing on private land a parent does not need to sign multiple liability waivers just so the kids can play.

I have seen a variety of playgrounds in Tirol, all have safety designed into the structures, but they are also architected to foster independence, spark creativity, and provide a setting for kids to make decisions – and some decisions on these play structures of have an element of risk.

Of all the play areas I have seen, except one, parents were engaged with their kids and having fun as a family.

Below are some photos of what families can expect playing in Tirol.

A wooden structure built over a gigantic sandlot. Here kids can find pulleys, ropes, and hand-crank conveyor belts. Water from a nearby play area pours in helping to create a fair amount of wet sand.
An area in the woods with water flumes. Now and again you might find a water wheel about three-quarters of a meter in diameter. Here kids can divert the water, dam it up or play with the wheel.
A small play area with swings, a slide, and a teeter-totter. They also have this hammock swing.

A Day Hike Near Mittenwald, Bavaria

I received an invitation from the locals to go on another day trip. This trip was near the Bavarian town of Mittenwald, just over the German border from Austria. Mittenwald is about a 40 minutes car ride from Innsbruck through some breathtaking country. The kids were going today so the hike would be on the easy side. Our ultimate destination was the inland lake called the Lautersee with a possible side hike to a second inland lake called, Ferchensee.

Overlooking MittenwaldWe drove into Mittenwald and parked on a street just out of town. We walked on steep roads and quiet trails until we perceived ourselves to be deep in the woods, but the little side paths that meandered off here and there revealed the town was only just a short distance away. A lot of people, mostly retirees and were out hiking and enjoying the gorgeous setting. The weather that day was just that – gorgeous; not too hot, not too cold, with a radiant sun and low humidity.

We arrived at the Lautersee and walked around the edge. This inland lake was of good size and required thirty-minutes, at an honest pace, to walk its circumference. The water was glassy, clear and it’s depths accented with gradient shades of blue. Tall green trees surrounded the lake creating a textured, natural and living wall. If this was not bewitching enough the entire scene was even more entrancing from the enormous Lauterseesawtoothed mountains that towered aloft.

Several buildings dotted the edge of the lake, but we were headed to a man-made family beach area. This area included slides and an elevated merry-go-round that swung the kids over the water. The area adjacent to the beach was grassy and allowed people to sun. The kids loved playing and the adults swam in the cool waters of the lake. A small cafe sold coffee, beer and fries while a restaurant next door sold more hearty fare.

To many visitors, this setting was heaven; I agree the setting was glorious, but my Family Beach Areaversion of heaven involves more hiking so I took the opportunity to venture to the adjacent lake known as the Ferchensee. In fact, I took several such walks that day.


During one of these walks I noticed an old and sturdy wooden barn stacked with freshly dried green hay. Outside the barn was a large flat-bed trailer being pulled not by a tractor, but an old World War II American Jeep. The jeep appeared to be well-loved and was in fantastic condition. A large white star still emblazoned the hood. After a few minutes a shirtless farmer rounded the side of the barn and jumped in the drivers seat, started it up and whirred off, bouncing all the way, to a patch at the base of a hill he was harvesting.

Farm Using a WWII JeepThe hike to the Ferchensee was very restorative; everything was green, lots of little springs gurgled along the trail, there was an abundance of vegetation, and a variety of toads and insects moved before me on the trail. The abundance of animals suggested the environment here was healthy and vibrant. At one point a small snake, who had been sunning itself on the trail slithered into the grass. Several people came up and studied it with a keen interest then continued on with there hike. Signs in the area thanked people for visiting and reminded them that the farmers and people who lived there (the folks who hung the signs) obtained their livelihood from this land and to respect that fact.

The Ferchensee was exceptionally pretty. A couple of rustic buildings dotted the edge of this gentle looking blue and clear body of water. The perimeter of the lake appeared to be larger than its cousin. The ground around the lake gently sloped and was carpeted with grass. Forests lay at the far end. Most of the people, just a few dozen of them, were laying on the hypotenuse side of this triangular shaped lake in a large green field sunning themselves and having picnics.

FerchenseeThe hike returning to the Lautersee was equally as stunning as the first; this time I had the pleasure of looking upon the tall and jagged sawtoothed mountains that guarded the nearby town of Mittenwald.

Arriving at the family beach area I again felt uncomfortable, it was too crowded.

Then my wife reminded me of the obvious – out of scores of people, of all ages, from various countries, speaking multiple languages that …no one was being rude. Out of that entire day neither of us witnessed any rudeness. She was right. Everyone was courteous, and would say (in German – even those from other countries visiting the area) “please” and “thank you”, or “excuse me” when they accidentally bumped someone or walked by their space. There was zero if any trash laying around, the visitors policed their own items; and when finished with food cartons or rental chairs returned them to the office; there were no loud people – no one was playing a radio or talking offensively. If people wanted to listen to music they used an iPod or similar so others would not be disturbed. Of all of the people at that beach, no one talked arrogantly, nor looked like a gang member, nor did I feel out belongings would be ransacked if we turned our backs or went for a swim. People were calm, sensible, level-headed and courteous. The kids were also well behaved! I was, frankly speaking, stunned. I was stunned from the display of exemplary human behavior, but also that I had not been more observant with my own perceptions.

For the remainder of the day I enjoyed this tiny spot and observed with a fresh mind as though I had woken from a slumber – I saw it anew. As a traveler, that is my ultimate goal, to not be so comfortable with a situation or place that I only see what I want to see; but instead to see things with open eyes, and the sense of awe that makes traveling, well… fun.

Roughing It On Kellerjoch

The morning began with a harrowing drive  –of utmost haste – up to a mountainside. Our driver zipped around hairpin turns, up narrow roads, and past grazing cows who, no doubt, wondered why these humans were in such a rush. Our rapid speed allowed us to gain an elevation of several thousand feet in a short time. The destination that morning was a mountain named Kellerjoch. It was located about a 45 minutes drive outside of Innsbruck, Austria. I was sitting in the side passenger seat, tightly grasping the door handle and beginning to wonder what I had gotten myself into.

The driver was a local and felt very comfortable on the steep mountainous roads. He and several relatives of mine (our guides for the day) were going to take me (the newbie in the group) and my wife on a ‘real’ hike. After forty minutes of a religious-affirming-ride we arrived at our destination, it was an unassuming parking lot on the side of the road. Five people poured out of the tiny car and everyone stretched.

I am not sure how high we were in elevation, but I was starting to feel a slight pressure in my head. The air was crisp yet muggy, trees surrounded us and the temperature was cool. The handful of clouds in the sky appeared like cotton balls illuminated by brilliant sunshine against a blue backdrop.

Up the mountainA nearby trail marker showed our destination; the top of the Kellerjoch mountain and the round trip was only 6 kilometers (3.7 miles). “That is a very easy hike.” I thought and was starting to feel cheated out of an experience. Then I saw the elevation gain was 1000 meters (3000 feet)! “Good heavens, that is steep!” The guides were taking us straight up a mountain… I felt as though the newbie was going to be roughing it that day.

We unloaded our things. I was dressed in layers – the same things I wear in California when on a hike: zip-off pants, an undershirt, a long sleeve shirt so I can roll up the sleeves, hat, day pack etc. The man who had driven us was wearing only shorts, a short-sleeved shirt and a bandana covered his head. The others wore similar clothes and were outfitted with an ultra-small backpack. Everyone was tan and appeared to be in really good shape. As the trunk of the car closed – and the car locked – everyone stopped and smiled at me; there was an awkward pause, then the driver mockingly inquired why I was dressed for winter. “Yep,” I thought, “the newbie will get it today.”

We started up the road and soon crossed to a ski run. Everyone started hiking straight up the slope – at a 35-degree elevation! Ten minutes when by – twenty – thirty. I was breathing hard from the constancy of the ascent, sweating from the high humidity and having a tough time with the altitude. A fit woman in our group was not even breathing hard, and she yawned like she was bored…then slowly looked at me. Yes, I was the slow one in the tribe and would be soon abandoned on the mountain – I could feel it. Minute after minute the group moved further up the ski run. My wife (a native of Austria – bless her, was staying with her husband in this time of trial) continued to be further behind. Finally, the rest of our small group disappeared made insignificant to my eyes by the scale of the mountain and the depth of the forest. The only sounds heard were from cowbells coming deep from within the woods.

The trail finally moved off the ski run and onto side trails. It was still steep but a little easier. A ski lift overhead hummed as chairs were carried up the mountain. At one point a couple of overhead shouted down and (in German) asked us to ‘Have a good hike.’ For a second, it occurred to me that maybe our guides had trampled down the mountain, unknown to us, and taken the ski lift up just so they could taunt the newbie. I looked closer but it was not them on the ski-lift. We continued our march up the mountain.

Our guides did call on our cell phone (known as a ‘handy’) half an hour later to say they had arrived at the Gasthaus (restaurant) half-way up the mountain and were waiting for us and, “Would we belong?”

After a short discussion, they said they would hike to the top, and that “if we were having a tough time” we could wait for them at the restaurant. Grumble. Fifteen minutes later we arrived at the gasthaus – we had actually not been that far behind them on the trail. We collapsed. The elevation was 1900 meters (6,200 feet). This was not a high elevation for a hike, but after several hours of a 35-degree ascent, it sure was! We enjoyed some apple juice and a snack. Then rested. Later we pet a dog, watched the cows walk past and the also watched the tourists eat lunch under shade umbrellas at the gasthaus. Nearby, a man with a giant balsa wood glider placed it on a giant bungee anchored to the ground. He pulled back the bungee a distance and released the glider. The glider shot into the crystal sky. He controlled it remotely and had a wonderful time being a kid. The views were great and we could see miles up the great Inn Valley.

An hour later the handy rang again, it was our guides. They were approaching the top and wondering “if we had reached the gasthaus yet?” We explained we had been there for an hour enjoying the sights, petting a dog, watching cows etc and having a grand old time. They seemed impressed we had been there for so long, possibly they realized we had not been that far behind on the trail after all, or they were being ornery. …My vote is on the ornery part. Anyway, they raised the bet.

Now, a change of plan, they would meet us as another gasthaus – it would take about an hour and a half for everyone to reach, and the hike “should not be hard.”

Refreshed, we were ready for a rough hike that included trauma, pain and heartache. Instead, we found the trail now nurtured us and treated us to the sheer beauty of the Alps: blue mountains in the distance glittered with snow, mountain-sides carpeted with green forests, rippled clouds danced overhead, our path was bordered by bubbling springs, buzzing insects and all manner of small flowers. This place was medicine; all of the aches, pains and grumbles vanished from my body.

The trees began to thin along the mountain near the tree line, and we could see a small barn was in the distance. We approached and heard cowbells coming from the sturdy structure. We walked up quietly and looked through an open window to see a dozen or so light brown colored cows. They turned their heads and peered back ….with such indignation that I felt as though we had just crashed some social event or interrupted a conversation of high political matters! We politely took our leave and continued down the trail.

In this area was a large patch of green grass that stretch a good distance and the path appeared like a ribbon disappearing into the beyond. The wind danced on the grass playing chase with itself and creating wide sheets of movement. The shadows of clouds glided over the mountainside – moving faster than a horse could run. After twenty minutes the trail moved back into the trees. The shade was welcome but we did not feel fatigued from the heat or sun. Above us was the gray peak, a tiny cross dotted the highest point on the mountain.

Descending along the side of the mountains we several tiny dots that appeared to us as ants walking behind each other. The ants slowly became larger and behold – it was our guides!

We met them at a trail junction about fifteen minutes later. They seemed surprised we were so far along the trail. At that moment we had paid some unseen dues, the value of which I am not sure, but I was not a newbie after that.

They looked a little tired and were talking about beer which, I admit, after a long hike, sounded very good. We passed several other people on the trail – one youthful couple was in their eighties at least. The trail connected with a dirt road and led us downhill, which was indented and there with small rivulets of spring water. After half an hour a gasthaus appeared ahead of us on the trail. It was perched near the edge of the valley, surrounded by trees on three sides, with the open edge overlooking the most pleasant views you have gazed upon while enjoying a beer.

Everyone was in good spirits. We enjoyed our beer and some Gulaschsuppe (Goulash Soup) while some of the others enjoyed a Kaiserschmarrn – a decadent dessert – and some Radler, and refreshing mix of soda water and beer. The sun was starting to lower on the horizon, our entire hike had taken about 7 hours and an unknown distance.

We rolled ourselves away from the table and continued down the dirt road to where the car was parked. The remainder of the walk was pleasant and the final hour of our hike passed quickly.

Wilten, A Most Beautiful Basilica

A visitor to Innsbruck, Austria, will see many beautiful churches and shrines. Each place of worship has a unique story sometimes hundreds of years in the making. The Basilica in the Wilten neighborhood of Innsbruck has a great story and is one of the most beautiful structures in the entire city.

Inside Wilten Basilica
Inside Wilten Basilica

A long time ago, as the story goes, a giant named Haymon came to the great Inn valley in the Tirol. Here he saw the people of the valley being harassed by a dragon. He did not like this so he crafted weapons to fight the dragon; it was a terrible battle, but Haymon prevailed. This victory did not sit well with another giant, named Tyrsus, who also lived in the area. He considered Haymon his rival. The rivalry eventually turned to blows and in the commotion, Haymon stabbed Tyrsus – who died. Haymon was overcome with grief! He sought atonement and out of his grief founded a monastery at Wilten. Haymon continued to be a monk at the monastery for the remainder of his life.

Today, the monastery still exits and is adjacent to the beautiful Wilten Basilica.

Visitors to the Basilica will be impressed by the beauty; the soft and gentle colors, the abundant light, hand-carved wooden pews – it is a place you just enjoy.

The Basilica is centuries old, the oldest part being the chalice which dates from 1160.

First, there are the great wooden doors that a person enters – they are massive, yet well balanced and open with a firm push. The main hall has lofty ceilings and walls that are painted with biblical scenes.

After entering the Basilica and admiring it, walk to the center and look back; over the front door is a massive and towering pipe organ which, despite its size, blends well into the surroundings.

On this day the Basilica is quiet. Some people are sitting in pews praying, reflecting on life itself, or just sitting quietly enjoying the ‘presence’ of this place.

A person who had been sitting quietly stands and takes a step – it is heard all the way to the back of the Basilica. The person looks around the church for a second then walks up to the center aisle and exits the Basilica.

Near the front door are some candles, many are lit to remember relatives and friends. To the side is a photo hung on the wall, it is Pope John Paul II during his visit to the Basilica in 1988.

My wife and I have been here before, many years earlier; the Basilica has not changed and there is comfort in that. The stillness and near absolute quiet of this place is most audible. Suddenly, a loud and heavy ‘pop’ is heard as the main door is quickly opened and a group from a tour bus pours inside. The sound echoes through the place. The tourists try to be quiet but are difficult for 40 people who are amazed by the beauty in this place. The tour guide walks to the front and, as quietly and respectfully as she can, points out the various features of the church. The group appears to be from Spain, but they look like a group of retired Americans from Florida – sunglasses, wide-brimmed sun hats, shorts, tennis shoes, and cameras mounted firmly to their bellies. Many of the tourists stop at a table and buy postcards, books, and other items. The leave. A few stragglers stay behind a minute or two and capture some of the returning calm and silence then they hustle outside to catch up with their group.

It is quiet again and enjoyable.

Another tour bus pulls up outside, shortly followed by another.

Inside Wilten Basilica
Inside Wilten Basilica

Finding Hidden Treasures in the Tiroler Volkskunstmuseum

Many visitors to Innsbruck see just the major sights and miss some of the real gems. One gem is the quiet Tiroler Volkskunstmuseum (Tirolean Folk Museum), it helps to tell the story of the Tirolean people who live in this dynamic landscape of high mountains and cultivated valleys.

The museum has amassed a collection of cultural treasures: richly decorated traditional costumes, beautifully carved wooden household utensils, to religious objects that celebrate life, recognize the rhythm of seasons and some items that reflect on the uncertainties – or even some unpleasant questions about life itself.

One section of the museum I enjoyed focused on the Tirolean common rooms, or Stube (pronounced st-oo-beh); these rooms are made of wood and ornately carved from floor to ceiling. It was in this common room where every member of the family gathered to eat, keep warm, worship and share stories. Long benches along the walls provided seating for multiple family members and friends at the tables. Visitors to the museum can explore many of these rooms and walk between the different styles and architecture. The rooms also included a large ceramic tiled wood stove, called a Kachelofen (pronounced kah-kel-ow-fen). Some of the Kachelofen were ornately decorated and beautiful, others had more earthy tones, but all looked like they would keep a house very warm and comfortable. Many modern houses in the Tirol have a Stube with many of these elements built into them: an abundance of wood, furniture pieces that are ornately carved, long benches that seat multiple people, or possibly an ‘L-shaped’ bench built into the wall, and in the corner or somewhere on the wall is a wooden cross. The Kachelofen also continues in some houses, but in more modern forms.

Another item of interest at the museum are the traditional costumes. Each valley in the Tirol has its own style of traditional costumes for holidays and events. One of the more ornate costumes I saw originated from Südtirol (South Tirol) near the town of Meran, here a bearded man is adorned with bird plumes and furs.

The museum offers visitors a chance to see the adjacent Hofkirche from the unique perspective of looking down upon the dark bronze statues and the crypt of Maximilian I. Ask at the desk where the door is located so you don’t miss it.

I found the museum-bound together much of what I was experiencing by visiting the people here; it provided greater depth and history to the modern culture. That personal connection is the real treasure.

The Tiroler Volkskunstmuseum is near the sights of the majestic Hofburg, the Hofgarten and Altstadt (Old Town).

To learn more:
http://www.tiroler-landesmuseum.at/html.php/en/volkskunstmuseum

Inside a Stube
Inside a Stube. Note the Kachelofen at the left, on top is bed space.
A Towel Rack
A Towel Rack. This appears to be carved from wood. One of the more creepy items on display. It is included in a section in the museum that reflects on the uncertainties – or even some unpleasant questions about life itself.
Man from Meran
One of the more ornate costumes I saw originated from Südtirol (South Tirol) near the town of Meran, here a bearded man is adorned with bird plumes and furs.

Walking Insbruck’s Vibrant Maria-Theresien-Straβe (Street)

Maria-Theresien-Straβe (Straβe is pronounced strah-say, translates to ‘Street’) of Innsbruck, Austria, is a vibrant, colorful place. It is the commercial heart of the city with a multitude of modern shops, restaurants and the place to people watch.

The Maria-Theresien-Straβe is partially an extension of Altstadt (Old Town) as pedestrians can freely move from the narrow streets of Altstadt onto the expansive Maria-Theresien-Straβe.

This busy street is actually in two sections: the first is a plaza and absent of traffic, the second section allows automobiles and street trains.

The plaza allows for people to dart from various shops or sit under large umbrellas and enjoy a meal. The plaza is freckled with tourists, locals, jet-setters, backpackers, people walking their dogs, high-fashion-short-skirted women, tour groups, kids entertaining the tourists to try to make a few Euros, an elderly man playing the violin – also trying to make a few extra Euros, and families with baby carriages out for a walk…just to name a few of the folks. An unknown number of languages are heard in the plaza; people are visiting from all over the world. Who is a local, who is a tourist?

Some teenagers walk down the street and dart into a modern shopping mall located on the plaza, they looked American but I soon realize they are local kids wearing the same styles and ‘fashion’ of baggy pants as American teens. The mall is immaculately clean, bright, with music pulsing from the various stores. Many of the stores had photos in their windows of healthy, sexy looking people wearing revealing clothes and styled hair, laughing, and apparently enjoying life (wearing the clothes of the store of course). The mall was a close copy of the one where I live in the States, only smaller. I briefly explored but felt uncomfortable at the sterility and mono-culture offered by the mall. I returned to the plaza area. Note: Bathrooms are at the mall.

Annasäule
Annasäule

Fiakers, horse-drawn carriages, occasionally roll through the plaza; the sound of the horses’ hooves clicking on the street’s cobbled surface as it passes. A taxi driver slowly drives through the crowd and pulls up to a restaurant and picks up a couple. Taxis, delivery vans, and emergency vehicles seem to be some of the few vehicles that are allowed. A bike whizzes by going too fast through the crowd – it dodges in and out missing people before disappearing around a corner. Some people mutter under their breath about that incident.

For all of the people who are here the plaza is surprisingly clean and free of trash.

Near the center of the plaza is a centuries-old column called the Annasäule. It was erected in 1706 on Saint Anne’s day to commemorate the Tiroleans defending their lands against the Bavarian and French troops. The Madonna stands upon the column. Nearby, a modern raised reflecting pool might encourage mental contemplation, but during the day the outside edge of the pool is mostly used by people to sit, talk and contemplate the many people walking past.

The plaza was recently created around 2008. I remember this area from previous visits when the entire street had cars and street trains. Seeing it now with just people, while welcome, felt odd. The new plaza space allows for more open space and movement, but also for more people and tourists. The city gained a great deal by having a bustling place to shop, dine and just hang out; but it lost something important – I am not sure exactly what. I asked a lifetime resident about the new cobbled plaza area and what they thought of it. The response was interesting, “What is good for the tourists is good; it’s not always so good for the people who live here.”

The Triumphal Arch at Night
The Triumphal Arch at night. A view from the opposite side, looking through the arch down the Maria-Theresien-Straβe.

The evening is my favorite time to visit the plaza area. The intensity of the day has diminished and the people visiting seem more relaxed. Some of the restaurants are still open and more locals seem to be out. The noisy bustle of the day has quieted and the street has more of the old feel I remember. In the late evening, the light in the sky can be a cobalt blue as the mountains hide the setting sun and the city looks painted as the lights play gently on the historic churches and buildings in the area.

Moving from the plaza to the second section of the Maria-Theresien-Straβe the street trains and automobiles return. The street continues on in a southward direction but with a slight bend to the west. Here are more restaurants, sidewalk seating and a few other stores like outdoor sports shops. Here you can see to the end of the street; all the way to a large, white-stone, Romanesque style arch over the street that is at least 17 meters high. This is the Triumphal Arch and has graced the city for several centuries. Cars heading south have the pleasure of driving through the arch, while those driving north drive to one side.

Maria-Theresien-Straβe gets its name from the Empress Maria Theresia, she was the only woman ruler during the Habsburg dynasty.

Escape the Crowds at Innsbruck’s Hofgarten

The Hofgarten in Innsbruck, Austria, is a quiet and lovely place to escape the tourists of nearby Altstadt (Old Town). This large public garden was once created for Imperial rulers but today offers a quiet place for everyone to collect their thoughts, relax and enjoy being in this beautiful place.

Fiakers at the HofgartenA fleet of Fiakers (Horse-drawn carriages) were queued under large shade trees at the edge of the park waiting for tourists. On slow days it is common to see nearly a dozen horses queued, while during busy days the Fiakers do not have to wait long for eager tourists to climb aboard.

The driver at the front of the queue tried to politely entice my family (in German) to join him and his horse for a ride around the city but we politely declined as our destination was the park itself. A few minutes later he asked another family about a ride, they clamored aboard and the horse trotted away.

We entered the garden by passing through a tall gate held in place with high and thick perimeter walls. Inside the walls were manicured lawns, lush trees, flower patches, and wide pathways.

Near the center of the park was a large white structure. Some people had gathered, most were middle-aged or elderly. Some of the crowd members stood but most sat on benches. Everyone quietly watched several men standing at the edge of a large chessboard built into the ground. Each playing square on the chessboard was about a third of a meter wide and the largest chess piece was about half a meter tall. A good number of pieces lay at the sides of the chessboard – the battle must have been intense. Just a few pieces remained on the chessboard and the opposing Generals carefully contemplated the strategy and tactics of their remaining chess armies; only moving their pieces once they had calculated all possibilities.

We left the chessboard and explored the rest of the garden passing a small pond. People were courteous and quite – enjoying this peaceful place in the middle of a city.

Above the trees, in the distance, gigantic mountains that stretched into the clouds surrounded this urban park and the city of Innsbruck.

The Power and Beauty of Innsbruck’s Hofburg

The Hofburg (Court Castle) in Innsbruck, Austria, is a majestic sight. The building elegantly conveys beauty while projecting the presence of Imperial power. Originally completed in the year 1500 by Emperor Maximilian I, it underwent refurbishment in the mid seventeen hundreds when it gained many current features. Today, the Hofburg is used for concerts, government social events, and a place for curious travelers to explore.

Inside the Hofburg are a number of rooms featuring the furniture and possessions of Imperial family members who resided here at different times over the centuries. In addition to being an extravagant home, the Hofburg also reinforced the presence and power of the Austrian State. The Giants Room where social and state events would be held is an example of this; it is a large freestanding Renaissance-style room without columns, massive chandeliers hang from the ceiling, multi-colored and interlocking marble designs accent the floor, oversized portraits of the Imperial family members hang on the walls and an impressive almost three-dimensional painting on the ceiling dominates the heavens.

The Hofburg is beautiful, regal and elegant. It showcases how the über-elite lived in extravagant comfort and opulence. It also hints at how servants who worked in the palace lived. In one section a small, cramped and dimly lit room that was scarcely furnished sat adjacent to the larger Imperial ‘bathing’ room. Here the servants waited patiently and quietly until they were summoned.

While the building itself was impressive my ‘take away’ from the Hofburg was that the Imperial family members who lived here, in a way, lived in a microcosm. Actions related to politics, war, the economy, and marriage assisted the goals and ambitions of one Imperial family. Many State decisions were likely made in a comfortable setting, with the warmth of a fire, with an abundance of food and surrounded by servants. While I appreciated the visit I was glad to step out the main door and return to the Republic of modern Austria – and the many rich experiences, choices, and opportunities that can be enjoyed by all individuals. …Oddly, my first thought was to find some ice cream.

One such enjoyment is the free live performances that are held in the evening in the Hofburg’s courtyard. In summer (July) local orchestras, musicians and traditional folk music groups are scheduled every evening to play in the courtyard. The courtyard is surrounded by the elegant Hofburg and the majestic building provides an audiophile’s dream of a clean, elegant and imperial setting for enjoying live music. I greatly enjoyed the presentation by an orchestra one evening – it was truly a treat. Arrive early for better seating.

Another nice treat is the Rennweg, the street that stretches in front of the Hofburg. Here are great opportunities for photos, sightseeing, theater, and seeing one of the many Fiakers (horse-drawn carriages) that meander through Innsbruck’s streets.

Visiting Innsbruck’s Hofkirche (Court Church)

A very curious place to visit in Innsbruck, Austria, is the Hofkirche (Court Church). The Hofkirche houses the tomb built for Emperor Maximilian I and is ringed by 28 ornately crafted bronze statues that stand 2 to 2.5 meters high. These tomb guardians represent the Emperor’s ancestors and his heroes of antiquity, including King Arthur.

Looking upon the HofkircheThese statues were cast with magnificent detail and some have facial expressions with such workmanship that when the light is just right you have to look twice to make sure the statue did not blink.

On top of the cenotaph (the Emperor’s Tomb) in the center of the Hofkirche is a kneeling Emperor Maximilian. He is surrounded by the cardinal virtues of justice, fortitude, temperance, and prudence. Maximilian is kneeling in the direction of the church’s alter. Below are ornately carved wooden pews. It is common to see visitors to the church sitting in the pews, or kneeling in prayer. The church itself is surprisingly bright with lances of natural light shooting in from the windows. The light plays well with the dark statues and alternating black/white diamond pattern inlaid into the floor.

Looking in the direction of the alter along one row of statues.Construction on the tomb began around 1500 and took more than 80 years to be completed – long after the Emperor’s death in 1519. Perhaps the most curious item about this ornate place is that the Emperor is not buried in the tomb. This slight oversight in the original plan does not diminish the artisan craftsmanship, metallurgy, stonemasonry, or stone carving skill that helped to create this amazing place and is considered Innsbruck’s “most notable work of art.” (Innsbruck, the City Guide).

Visitors to the Hofkirche should begin their visit with a short video followed by an immersive presentation that highlights the life and legacy of Emperor Maximilian I.

Amazing detail can be seen on each of the statues.We purchased our tickets and walked into a pleasant courtyard. There a docent-led us into a small room. The wall included a number of paintings featuring the Emperor. The docent selected the language of the program (German, English, Italian, and Spanish that I saw, possibly more are offered) from a small device in the wall then left the room. The lights darkened and a presentation began about Maximilian’s early life and sections of the wall illuminated when being discussed. Then a section of the wall opened and we were beckoned into a dark chamber with a giant globe at its center. This part of the presentation focused on one of Maximilian’s favorite sayings, “He who does not make his monument in his life is not remembered after death and will be forgotten with the toll of the bell.” An unseen booming voice speaks and highlights Maximilian’s work, patronage of the arts, wars, marriages and ultimately his legacy, which shaped European events for centuries. The lighting and sections that open on the globe help to emphasize the words of the disembodied voice. Then another section of the wall opened and we are enticed into a third chamber that is dark and playing calming monastic songs. In the far part of the chamber is a painting showing the dead Emperor, at the edges of the chamber are white linen forms that resemble the shapes of the statues that we will later see. Additional history and story are given by an unseen voice and the program concludes. As it does loud bell tolls… the sound of a latch opens and a door opens and we step into blinding light. I suspect the desired effect was to simulate a ‘going to the light’ experience. Once my eyes readjusted to the light I looked over ten meters or so and the docent was inviting another small group into the first chamber. It was only a few steps to the Hofkirche and to see these ornately crafted bronze statues. The presentation was fun, educational and took about 15 minutes to complete.

When visiting plan thirty minutes to an hour for both the presentation and the visit to the Hofkirche.

A 360 Degree View Over Innsbruck

A must see in Innsbruck’s Altstadt (Old Town) is the Stadtturm (City Tower).

It is great to walk up the 148 steps as they wind along the inside edge of this great tower. At the lower levels, the walls are scrawled with decades of visitors’ comments. Some of the steps are worn looking from thousands of visitors over the years; other steps clang with the sound of footsteps as unseen visitors above return. The stairway is narrow in places and sometimes you have to wait for others to come down or up the stairs.

At the top is a small door and you need to duck your head to the exit, when you raise your eyes you are overlooking all of Innsbruck – at 31 meters over the city it is a magnificent view; below are rooftops, umbrellas from sidewalk restaurants and people moving in all directions.

The Stadtturm was built approximately in 1450 and had a tapered form, but it collapsed in the 16th century. The tower was rebuilt in the 1560s in the ornate Renaissance style we see today.

View from the Stadtturm. Looking down onto the Goldenes Dachl (Golden Roof).
View from the Stadtturm. Looking down onto the Goldenes Dachl (Golden Roof).
Overlooking Part of Innsbruck's  Altstadt (Old Town)
Overlooking Part of Innsbruck’s Altstadt (Old Town)

A Little Known Story About Innsbruck’s Goldenes Dachl (Golden Roof)

Visitors to the Alpine city of Innsbruck, Austria, can expect to see the Goldenes Dachl (The Golden Roof). The Goldenes Dachl is the center of Altstadt (Old Town) and the historic center of Innsbruck.

The name is derived from the 2,657 gilded copper shingles that adorn the top of this structure built around 1500. The effect is radiant when light shines upon the roof; it continues to impress visitors 500 years after being built by Emperor Maximilian I.

I won’t go into the life of Emperor Maximilian I, but here is a little about his legacy; Maximilian greatly expanded the House of Habsburg, through wars and marriage, and helped it become one of the most important royal houses in Europe thus greatly influencing European history for centuries after his death.

Today, most visitors just look at the Goldenes Dachl, take a photo and move on to the next sight. But, the curious should peek inside the Goldenes Dachl Museum (Golden Roof Museum) to learn more about Maximilian I and the 500-year history of the Goldenes Dachl. Inside this museum are some great photos, including photos of Innsbruck during the early 20th century prior to and during World War II (it was here I was reminded about a story I heard back in 1996 during a pervious visit to the city). The story involved the people of Innsbruck encasing this beautiful building in a protective bunker during World War II, yet little is mentioned today about this act of preservation. The story might be known to natives, but it is rarely mentioned to tourists.

During World War II Innsbruck suffered from both occupation by Axis powers and aerial bombing from the Allies. In the mid and late war years, the city was slammed on multiple occasions from Allied bombs which devastated the nearby railroad yards and many surrounding buildings. The Altstadt area also received bomb damage. To protect this treasure, the people of Innsbruck encased the Goldenes Dachl in a thick bunker to protect it from damage. At the War’s end the bunker was removed; amidst the surrounding ruins of war the preserved Goldenes Dachl shown brightly and became a symbol of hope during Innsbruck’s rebuilding.

Shown below is an image taken in 1945 showing bomb damage with two-meter deep rubble piles; the rectangular bunker can be partially seen in the left of the image, note the horrific gouge in the top front. The color photo is from the same vantage point taken in the summer of 2011; it shows the Goldenes Dachl and Altstadt area alive with visitors.

Original 1945 Photo Source: Goldenes Dachl mit Luftchutzmauer, Friedrich Nickel, 1945, schwartz-weiss Negativ, Sammlung Walter Kreutz KR/NE-3486.
Source Book: “zur Stadtgeschichte Innsbrucks,” page 120, Ingrid Bubestinger and Gertraud Zeindl.

Discovering Innsbruck’s Altstadt (Old Town)

If you visit Innsbruck, Austria, you will likely visit the picturesque Altstadt (Old Town). Altstadt is the heart of the city and provides visitors and locals with a collection of medieval buildings, historic hotels, and modern restaurants. The main thoroughfare is cobbled, clean and offers a myriad of respectable side alleys to explore.

The old town is over 500 years old and the buildings that have been constructed throughout the centuries are maintained to retain their beauty and flair. There is great historical significance here and several insightful museums are hidden in various nooks of the old town (more on this in other posts). Altstadt has another purpose – to provide tourists with what they want: a centrally located, safe, colorful and non-intimidating place to visit.

In the time required to eat a very leisurely lunch, enjoying a coffee and just hang out (OK – 3 hours) at a cafe it is possible to see a dozen different tour groups parade by; each group with 30 or 40 participants taking in the sights, snapping pictures and chattering before being rushed off to the next destination bypassing much of Innsbruck itself.

Experiencing Innsbruck’s old town at different times during the day, and over multiple days is a fun way to learn more about the people of Innsbruck. Winter is a wonderful time to visit, but this article will cover visiting in the summer. Here are some discoveries made about the Altstadt over a month during the summer.

Altstadt in the Morning During Summer:
The streets are mostly empty of tourists. The sky is overcast but clearing. The light is soft and colors on the sides of buildings appear to be waking up. Delivery vehicles are parked outside shops to restock supplies before the tourists arrive later in the day. A healthy looking local woman jogs by then is quickly followed by a man on his bike. The sound of tables and chairs being unlocked is heard, then followed by the clank of being quickly placed on the cobbled streets in front of restaurants. Several a-frame-boards on the sidewalk offer breakfast, one entices people to an ‘American style’ breakfast. Some folks are sitting outside enjoying the morning with a coffee. The coffee is served in a ceramic cup on a saucer – never in a paper cup.

Altstadt in the Afternoon During Summer:
The streets are busy and packed with tourists. A woman who is part of a tour breaks away from the group; she is wearing a newly bought Dirndl, a traditional dress, and is staring up at the ornate buildings – she seems curiously out of place. She is so fascinated by the sights and almost bumps into a man who is walking his dog. A number of languages are being spoken by people in the crowd: German, English, Italian, Hindi, Japanese, Spanish, but quickly the voices seem to intertwine and blend together. A group of Scouts (both boys and girls) wearing colorful red shirts walk by. The uniforms were casual, yet pressed and well maintained. Tourists snap photos in front of the Golden Roof, the centerpiece of old town. Several silver-painted humans appear as statues on the street, they are only occasionally moving and surprising unsuspecting tourists. The smell of cigarette smoke is heavy in the air. People look at trinkets displayed outside a shop and dole out money to buy a memento of their trip. The smell of cooking is in the air and people are packed at tables that line the streets eating a variety of items, but mostly pizza. A bike zips in and out of the crowd and whizzes by almost clipping me. An older person says something in German to the rider as he is passed. A baby cries because he is tired and the Mom picks him up. People walk by with shopping bags under their arms. Many tourists are wearing basically the same type of commercial t-shirts, branded tennis shoes and bulky shorts, with the exception of their respective language, it is at times hard to tell who in the crowd is an American and who is European.

Altstadt in the Evening During Summer:
The pavement is wet from late afternoon rain. The sky appears a cobalt blue as the sun has long since set behind the towering mountains that loom overhead. Historic buildings are washed in beams of light and are beautiful to see. Some of the tables from the afternoon seem to have been stored for the night, but most of the tables closer to the Golden Roof are filled with late-night diners. Cigarette smoke is still prevalent but less than in the afternoon. The human statues have disappeared and some of the storefronts appear to be quiet and dark inside. Backpackers walk by heading to some unknown place to stay. People walk a little more slowly, some are arm-in-arm. More locals seem to be on the street. A woman in the topmost story of a building looks down on the crowd and continues to ‘people watch’ for about an hour. Children with dark features dart to and fro playing and some women wearing veils talk quietly among themselves at the side of the street. Occasionally the sounds of Middle Eastern and South-east Asian languages come from the back restaurants as the businesses close down. Some German-speaking teenagers are hanging out, smoking and looking bored, they are dressed as though they just stepped out from an American mall. One comes up carrying a skateboard, saying something dryly, then all walk down to the bus stop.

Innsbruck's Altstadt (Old Town)
Innsbruck’s Altstadt (Old Town)
Innsbruck's Altstadt (Old Town)
Innsbruck’s Altstadt (Old Town)
Innsbruck's Altstadt (Old Town)
Innsbruck’s Altstadt (Old Town)
Some amazing gelato we found in Altstadt
Some amazing gelato we found in Altstadt
The Goldenes Dachl (Golden Roof)
The Goldenes Dachl (Golden Roof) is the centerpiece of Altstadt and probably the most photographed building in Innsbruck. Note the street artists picture on display at the lower right – it is Michael Jackson.

Hiking in the Gleirschtal of Tirol

An American visiting the Tirol of Austria will quickly learn the German word, ‘schön’ (sh-oo-n; the ö is pronounced like the double-o in ‘took’), the word for beautiful.

The Gleirschtal valley of Tirol, Austria, is schön, it is a feast for the senses, it is a place for playing, walking and seeing beautiful expanses of mountains, valleys, and sky.

The visit began with a 40-minute drive from Innsbruck up to the Sellraintal valley to the picturesque town of Sankt Sigmund im Sellrain. From here we could gaze into the adjoining Gleirschtal valley – our destination. We parked in a gravel lot just off the main road and walked a short distance to the Fuchs Spielplatz (the Foxes playground) so the kids could play. The playground offered young explorers tunnels, rope swings and structures for both the children – and parents. After half an hour, everyone continued up the trail, past a small bridge and up a gentle grade of this most picturesque valley.

The trail meandered through open fields and forested hillsides until opening up in a most astounding view; a green, and glacially sculpted valley with cows and horses grazing on the side of one mountain. The scene was punctuated with a gentle and cool wind in our faces and a sky was freckled with clouds.

After an hour’s walk enjoying similar vistas we arrived at an Alm. Outside the Alm were half a dozen tables, each packed with hikers and some families who drove up to the Alm. Most adults were enjoying large half-liter sized glasses wheat beer and having plates of yummy looking food. Cows grazed nearby and one seemed overly curious about our presence and approached the fence, but stayed beyond arm’s length. The kids stayed at the Alm with relatives to play while my wife and I continued up the trail another 30 minutes.

Soon the trail became extremely steep and zig-zagged up the valley. It appeared we were approaching the top as snow-topped peaks were ahead, but the mountains were just playing with us – as we reached the top the peaks were actually many kilometers away. Our thirty minutes were up and we had to return to the Alm.

We stopped to drink in the views; our thirst was quenched beyond expectations. From our vantage point, we saw snow-capped peaks, mountain streams, forests, and carpets of green in the valley below. A cowbell could be heard somewhere far in the distance. In such an immense place a person feels small, yet connected to this land. It is a good place to recognize what is really important in a person’s life.

Walking down the valley was difficult, not because of the terrain, or altitude, but because the valley is astoundingly schön and you are intoxicated by the experience.

We retrieved the kids and returned down the valley. The walk provided an opportunity for all family members to explore the woods and run in the fields.

Experiencing a Thunderstorm Over Innsbruck

Experiencing a thunderstorm in the Austrian Alps is a mixture of angst and awe. One such storm was witnessed in the beautiful Alpine city of Innsbruck, Austria.

The morning was warm and muggy with just a few innocent puffy clouds lounging overhead. Throughout the day a haze of moisture slowly grew on the skyline. Beyond, in the western part of the Inn valley, menacing looking clouds slowly matured. As the sun lowered in the sky the stillness of the day was replaced with a breeze. The breeze quickly became stronger and was punctuated with stiff gusts of wind that pushed against trees and buildings. Lightning appeared in the distance over the mountains. The storm was approaching.

The lightning would rip down to the ground; the effect would envelop the entire sky with a blaze of light and simultaneously create outlines of two or three giant Alpine peaks. Many kilometers away it was obvious that a huge amount of energy had just been released. A few moments later a deep rumbling roar of thunder could be heard.

The storm seemed to race down the ancient Inn valley and approached Innsbruck. The lightning came closer and the wind grew in intensity. Drops of spat rain quickly became a sidewise wall of water forcing most of the onlookers inside. Gusts were so intense that objects on outside porches were blown over. The heart of the storm was close.

Lightning cascaded high in the clouds and illuminated the sky directly over the city. Mountainsides only several kilometers away were punched by great bolts of electricity – immediately followed by a loud boom. The lightning, at times, seemed to appear, disappear for a half-second, and then reappear in the same path as the first.

The intensity of the storm subsided as the lighting moved eastward. The thunder continued but this too diminished. Soon only the steady and peaceful beat of the rain was heard.

The Rare Art of Tirol’s Heumandl – The Man of Hay

When visiting the countryside of Austria’s Tirol keep an eye open for the “Heumandl” or the “Man of Hay.”

At first glance, this two-meter (7 feet) tall shape looks like a person standing in a farm field. When many of these shapes are together they appear like an amassed army ready to march into the village beyond.

But, look closer, these forms are actually stacks of freshly harvested hay.

A Heumandl begins with a skeletal form, called a Hiefler. The ones I saw were made of wood and had a 2-meter tall center staff that supported two sets of four ‘branches.’ Each branch group was about one-quarter and three-quarters of the way up the main staff.

At harvest time when the grass is about half a meter in height, it is cut and stacked on the Hieflers to dry. After the grass has dried it is collected and stored. During the cold wintertime, the cattle and animals can enjoy the bounty of this summer harvest.

The locals mentioned this form of harvesting hay is becoming rare; more and more it is an infrequent sight to see.

This photo was taken in July near the village of St. Sigmund im Sellrain, about 20 km (13 miles) northwest of Innsbruck.

Walking the Alpenzoo, a Zoo in the Alps

A visitor to Innsbruck, in the middle of the Tirolean Alps of Austria, would not immediately think this is a great location for a zoo, but a great zoo does exist. The Alpenzoo, as it is called, is unique in that the zoo focuses solely on the animals that inhabit the Alps.

Visitors can see a variety of Alpine creatures including Moose, Lynx, Golden Eagle, Ibex, Brown Bear, European Bison, European Otters, and Wolves. The zoo accommodates about 3000 animals in all, many of the smaller critters like fish, birds, reptiles, and amphibians. The zoo does an excellent job introducing visitors to the many animals that inhabit this beautiful region of high peaks, deep gorges, rolling hills, and cultivated valleys.

During my visit, while near the Wolf enclosure, the resting pack of wolves suddenly sprang to life and moved with all speed to the lower area of the exhibit. I moved to the same area and found a docent near a door, behind her was a small group of children and their parents. The docent gave the children some instructions and opened the door. The wolves were present and looked at the docent with anticipation – they were only two meters (6 feet) away and at almost the same level as the people. Only some electric wires separated the space. The docent opened a bag and pulled out some large chunks of red meat. After tossing in a few initial chunks she invited the children to have their turn feeding the wolves. The kids had a blast.

Viewing the bear was another treat. An underground viewing area allowed visitors to be up close and look through a large window onto the bear’s enclosure. I found that when most of the other people left you could snap some amazing pictures – provided the bear allowed you to have the pictures. One of mine is shown above.

The Alpenzoo can be reached from downtown Innsbruck by bus, car, a local tram known as the Hungerburgbahn, or even by walking. For a wonderful sightseeing experience walk along the river Inn and up the hill to the zoo.

To learn more about the Alpenzoo visit them online:
http://www.alpenzoo.at/en/

Zürich to Innsbruck by Train

A beautiful train ride is from Zürich, Switzerland to Innsbruck, Austria. This three and a half hour trip treats riders to comfortably sit and gaze from large windows onto blue inland lakes, green pastures, and picturesque mountain passes all set among the backdrop of the grand European Alps.

Our trip began at the enormous Zürich Hauptbahnhof (Zurich’s main train station). We had arrived at the main station on a local train and several levels below ground. The escalator brought us to ground level where a number of trains were queued to leave for their respective destinations. A large train schedule board overhead flipped to life every few minutes to update the departure times.

The station was enormous and busy but well maintained and clean. A flurry of people passed; some briskly walked to work, others sprinted by with shopping bags, some people lugged backpacks. Vendors at stalls sold everything from sandwiches to cigarettes.

We found our ride at track #3 and boarded. The train was immaculate and spacious, which at first seemed curious since we were in the economy section. We found a moderately empty passenger car, stowed our backpacks and sat down at a table. A digital display over the seat stated our seats were reserved at Salzburg but that was long after we were to depart. The WC (bathroom) was very clean, well stocked with supplies and roomy. An attached Bistro car sold beer and sandwiches.

Exactly at 10:40 A.M. the train left the station. For the entire trip, the passenger car gently rocked. There was little if no noise from the tracks.

The passengers on the left of the train enjoyed great views of the Zürichsee, an inland lake that stretches roughly 40 km in length. The shallow waters were blue and emerald and people were seen swimming in several areas. Sailboats were occasionally berthed just offshore. The giant lake ended and soon was replaced by a smaller but equally beautiful Walensee. Here large gray mountains plunged into the steely blue waters. After twenty minutes or so the lake transitioned to gentle fields of green were fat mountain cows grazed.

At the Buchs Station, the train stopped and a small number of people transferred. Several lightly armed border police did a walkthrough of the cars. The train departed and within minutes passed over an emerald mountain river, this was the Rhine, one of Europe’s major rivers. The waters of the Rhine would ultimately empty in the north Atlantic Ocean. At this location, the Rhine marked the border between Switzerland and the small country of Lichtenstein. As we crossed over the river we saw lots of trees but soon there were houses and businesses, this soon gave away to green lush woods. After 6 km (roughly 4 miles) or so we quietly passed into Austria.

A few kilometers into Austria the train stopped at Bludenz and the border police we had seen earlier departed the train. From here the train moved further into Austria and climbed higher in elevation. The streams cascaded down the sides of mountains and the valleys became very steep; the train soon left the valley floor and snaked along the edge of the steep and forested mountain. Occasionally the trees would open and flood the car with light and astounding views of the valley below. The train disappeared into a tunnel and for the next five or so minutes only darkness could be seen outside our well-lighted passenger cars. The water in a bottle sitting on the table in front of me slowly changed from being slightly angled down at the front of my bottle to that of the back and suggested the train’s ascent had now become decent. We had just passed under the continental divide of Europe! From here all of the streams and rivers would flow to the Mediterranean.

Shortly after exiting the tunnel the small trickles of water now tumbled in a different direction. Snow still dotted the high peaks. The train raced down the mountainside and the scenery whizzed past. Here the road and the tracks seemed to dance down the valley sometimes sharing the same side of the river. The barren high peaks turned into forests and the small waters of the neighboring stream became the mighty Inn River, another major river of Europe.

Mountains still bordered both sides of the valley and large green pastures opened up as the valley became wider and more gentle. The valley itself was flanked by peaks that towered 2,427 meters (7400+ feet) overhead. In the distance was Innsbruck. We gathered our belongings as the train pulled into the Innsbruck Hauptbahnhof. We stepped off the train into the historic and beautiful city.

The train is more affordable if you can reserve ahead of time. If you purchase tickets at the Bahnhoff the day of travel the price can double, costing 75 Swiss Franks (or $100 US Dollars). Make reservations online if possible. The trip was from Zürich to Innsbruck was 284 km (176 miles) with only 7 stops. It is a very fast, clean and excellent way to see this amazing countryside.