Maestro of the mountains

Gustav Mahler's favourite country retreat has changed its name since he stayed there, but retained a charm he would still recognise today
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The Independent Culture
From the train, Gustav Mahler noticed a wooden house just outside Toblach - the famous town where the Kaiser took the waters. That was in 1908. The wooden house was set against the high hill, next to a farmhouse and woodland. Painted on the white stucco, in Gothic lettering, was the name "Trenkerhof".

The spot was conveniently near the railway station on the Franzensfeste- Linz-Wien line; Mahler needed his pianos to compose, and they could be sent by train. After the death of one of his daughters, the composer persuaded his wife to spend their holidays there. Not many summers remained, however; he died in 1911, but nevertheless managed to compose at Dobbiaco the Ninth Symphony, part of the 10th - which was unfinished (composers should steer away from Ninth Symphonies, because they have a tendency to be left unfinished and spell death) and Das Lied von der Erde, which is perhaps his masterpiece. Alma continued to stay at Trenkerhof even after the composer's death.

Nowadays the grand station which linked the railway line to a Marienbad- like spa hotel, is in disarray. The Wildbad hotel which housed many steaming aristocratic bodies, is undergoing badly needed repairs. The Tyrol is now called Alto Adige, the valley of Hochustertal is Val Pusteria, Toblach is Dobbiaco and Innichen, San Candida. Only the Trenkerhof has remained exactly as it was, but for the restaurant which now bears the unappetising title of "Mahler Restaurant". Even Herr Trenker, a tall young man surrounded by his blond children, looks like his grandfather who used to go to the station and collect first the 's three grand pianos which were sent from Vienna, and then the Mahlers.

"The maestro and Frau Mahler took two rooms upstairs," Trenker explains, "with the use of the veranda overlooking the valley. My grandmother cooked for him and my grandfather had to build a wooden hut which the maestro needed in order to compose. He could not bear noise. When birds made too much noise, he would try and silence them." He looks at the room, which is as it was 80 years ago, and adds: "People here called him spinner, matto ... cuckoo."

One can still visit Mahler's hut (the Hutte as they call it here). After being visited by a few roe deer, Mahler asked for a wooden fence 112 metres high. "My grandfather built that, too. Herr Mahler would rise very early, and by 6am he was already in the hut where he expected to find a tray with hot coffee, milk and honey; he would then light the stove and cook his own breakfast, toasting his bread, cooking eggs and poultry before starting work on his piano."

One day a vulture in pursuit of a crow flew inside Mahler's wooden hut. Furious, Herr Director went to see Trenker, who laughed in his face. On another occasion the maestro furiously shouted at Trenker: "How can we teach that cockerel not to sing in the morning?" "It's simple," the farmer- innkeeper answered, "we can wring its neck."

The grand piano is no longer in its place but a smaller one, teeth missing from its black mouth rather like an elderly schnapps drinker, still stands in the room in which the Mahlers would entertain or relax. The ceiling was decorated in pale fresco colours. Some of the Jugenstill furniture still stands where it was when the Mahlers occupied the house. Gustav loved it; Alma was bored to tears. "In the evenings she went off with the local boys," adds Herr Trenker.

Finishing Das Lied von der Erde at the end of summer 1908, Mahler wrote to Bruno Walter: "... I have worked hard (and you can thus come to the conclusion that I have by now become used to these surroundings pretty successfully). I cannot tell even myself what kind of name I could give to what I have just composed. I have had the chance of a happy spell and I think that this is the most personal thing I have ever written."

The son of poor Jewish parents Mahler grew up in Moravia and, by the time he was in Dobbiaco he had resigned from the post of conductor in Vienna. He had shaped that orchestra into the fine instrument it became under his baton. Mahler's presence spelt a kind of magic. Around that time, poor though they were, Webern, Berg and Schoenberg travelled a long way to hear Mahler conduct the first performance of his Eighth Symphony . "In that audience sat Thomas Mann who then cast the hero of Death in Venice in the physical mould of Mahler," wrote Peter Heyworth. By the time he was in Dobbiaco, Mahler was obliged to conduct in New York and had time to compose only during his holidays. He was ill and tired, his journeys to the United States must have exhausted him further and his marriage to Alma, the daughter of the distinguished Viennese painter, Emil-Jacob Schindler and stepdaughter of Carl Moll, was at a new low.

"They were isolated here," Herr Trenker continued describing the strange couple, relating what his grand-parents had told him. "Unless they had visitors, Frau Mahler became lonely, took the train and left him. She dressed very elegantly."

Besides German patois, today people in this part of the world speak Italian. They drink schnapps but they also sip cappuccino. Italian skiers flock to this valley (Dobbiaco is 1212 metres high), one of the most beautiful in the Dolomites; the three Lavaredo mountains are a wonderful prospect. In winter, skiers can admire their fragile beauty while in summer, wild gentians and edelweiss cover the meadows around them.

Mahler used to walk to the high peaks. Below, the woods around Dobbiaco are famously full of chanterelle and ceps. Local cooking and wines are excellent; as is the Mahler restaurant where Frau Sigrid Trenker, all blonde tresses and blue eyes, stands by the stove, expert at preparing all different knodel, from specknodel to kaseknodel and leberknodel. Venison, home-made speck, strudel and schlutzkrapfen are all served in the restaurant, as are some Hungarian goulash soups to remind one that the Austro-Hungarian Empire is never far away both historically and geographically.

Dobbiaco is not all that easy to reach which is why the area is still perhaps a discovery. The easiest way to get there is to fly to Innsbruck and then take the train direct to the same station that Mahler used. But it is maybe more fun to fly to Venice and then take a train from Mestre to Calalzo. At Calalzo the Dolomite bus meets the train daily and takes you to Cortina and at the weekend it goes to Dobbiaco direct.

It is interesting to arrive by train, though, because the little station at Dobbiaco was the scene of the famous encounter between Freud and Mahler, an event celebrated in a contemporary cartoon. Mahler suffered from deep depressions and having heard from his wife about the famous Doctor Freud, he asked to meet him. But the doctor was extremely busy and wrote that he could only meet Herr Mahler between trains at Toblach. On the agreed date Mahler went to meet Sigmund Freud, introduced himself and accompanied him to the waiting room where he started pouring out his tormented soul. Then Herr Doctor suddenly got up. "You seem to be very disturbed," he apparently said, "but it's time for me to catch the next train." He left and they never met again. Walking and composing seemed to make the maestro slightly less desperate. "It is wonderful here, it settles soul and body," Mahler wrote to Arnold Berliner in June 1909. It still is wonderful.

Trenkerhof is about 20 minutes walk from the centre of Dobbiaco, five minutes by bus or car. A nearby mill house can be leased whenever le Baron de la Grange, Mahler's foremost French scholar and biographer, in not in residence himself. In the centre of the old town there is a lovely pale turquoise cathedral reminiscent of Bavarian Baroque, in the nearby San Candido only five kilometres from Dobbiaco, a very fine Romanesque cathedral next to another splendid Baroque church. Not far from the San Candido Cathedral, there is a hat maker who turns out magnificent felt hats for men and dainty ladies' slippers in a factory surrounded by ancient painted furniture and enviable curved wooden shelves. Facing the hat factory is a wonderful fromagerie. Back in Dobbiaco the Trenkers' cousins have a superb Bakerei, making all types of Tyrolese bread; scented with dill, unleavened, black and brown.

Eight kilometres from the Austrian frontier, San Candido is the ancient Intica or Intiha,that provided the Roman castra Littamum with hot thermal waters. The Romans even came as far as from Aquileia and later Benedictine monks took over the administration of the spa; that is why there are so many fine historic buildings in the area. Inniken would have been too difficult a name for the Italians to pronounce so, in 1919, after the end of the World War I and the disintegration of the Austrian Hungarian Empire, it took the name of the local martyr San Candido while the Kaiserwasser became Acqua Minerale Lavaredo. The abundance of healthy mineral water was a bonus for Gustav Mahler, who suspected that he was close to dying. He wrote from Trenkerhof to his wife Alma, in June 1909: "The house and the sight are more than delightful, apart for the, noise which disturbs me incessantly. Peasants murmur amongst themselves and the window panes rumble, or they tiptoe and the walls of the house tremble ..."

The following year, writing to Carl Moll, the painter, he invited him to stay and extolled the beauty of Toblach. "I am certain that a painter too will be able to get something out of such beauty. I am well enough. As you know I bear solitude like a drinker takes wine."

The Trenkerhof and Hutte are open by appointment. Further information: Associazione Turistica Dobbiaco, Via Dolomiti 5, 39034 Dobbiaco (0039 474 972132, fax 972730) or Consorzio Turistico Alta Pusteria, Piazza del Magistrato 1, 39038 San Candido (0039 474 913156, fax 914361).