The town that tired of life in the shadows

Overshadowed by the Alps, the Austrian town of Rattenberg receives no direct sunlight. Now villagers hope giant mirrors will end their eternal gloom
Click to follow

Shivering slightly in the dark shadow that envelopes her bakery from sunrise to sunset, Britta Zelger points an accusing finger at the brooding mountain covered with mist-shrouded pines that looms over her home village. It is midday in the west Austrian village of Rattenberg and bright blue skies tower overhead, but Mrs Zelger and her customers are still squinting in an unworldly twilight.

Shivering slightly in the dark shadow that envelopes her bakery from sunrise to sunset, Britta Zelger points an accusing finger at the brooding mountain covered with mist-shrouded pines that looms over her home village. It is midday in the west Austrian village of Rattenberg and bright blue skies tower overhead, but Mrs Zelger and her customers are still squinting in an unworldly twilight.

The flame-haired baker said: "There it is, the dark mountain. For a quarter of our year it causes sadness in this place. We feel depressed and in shadow. This mountain steals our light." An elderly woman buying bread nods her head in silent agreement.

With its fine 17th-century merchants' houses, a wealthy population sipping coffee in cafés and a 900-year history that brings monied tourists flocking, there is at first glance little in this handsome Alpine village to provoke such poetic melancholy.

Nestling beside the fast-flowing Inn river in a dramatic setting at the heart of the Alps, near Innsbruck, the community has more jobs than working inhabitants and glows with civic pride at its Renaissance buildings and pristine streets.

But amid the hubbub of the Easter crowds queuing yesterday in the Konditorei, cake shop, for rich chocolate cakes, Rattenberg and its 455 inhabitants are in the grip of a primeval yearning to improve their lives - sunlight. From mid-November to mid-February the village sits permanently in shadow, casting its maze-like streets and myriad medieval court yards into half-light at the height of the day.

The result is an all-pervading seasonal gloom that Rattenberg's leaders argue strikes down its citizens with winter depression and threatens their economic future by driving inhabitants and tourists away.

Franz Wurzenrainer, Rattenberg's avuncular mayor, said: "The sun taunts us in winter. Just across the river, a matter of 500 metres , we can see it shining in its full glory. But here in the village during these months we get no direct sunshine and it takes the pleasure out of life for many people. Some have left and others do not want to come. Let me assure you, it does not feel nice to live in the shadows at the coldest time of the year in the mountains."

The cause is the Stadtberg - literally "mountain of the city" - a 2,650ft limestone mountain covered in dense pine forest that stands to the immediate south of the village and completely blocks the low winter sun as it tracks from east to west along the length of the village. Dawn in January is described by one inhabitant as "purple, then red, then grey, grey, grey, grey - a permanent disappointment".

Even on a Good Friday at the end of March, the effects of the Stadtberg's shadow can still be felt, casting parts of the village, including Britta Zelger's bakery, into lingering half-light. But just as the obstacle that blights Rattenberg is a force of nature, so too is the solution which, after nine centuries of shadow, the village has chosen: to harness the power of the sun to create one of its very own. For 370 years, Rattenberg has built its reputation and much of its wealth on the production of crystal glass. The village motto is: "Glass is the fortune and the pride of the earth." Now it is hoped another type of glass will banish forever the winter twilight and once more revive Rattenberg's pride and fortune - mirrors.

To be precise, 30 computer-controlled 8ft-square reflectors, or "heliostats", which will be placed half a mile to the north of the village in the sun-kissed neighbouring commune of Kramsach. The hi-tech mirrors, precision engineered to ensure they are completely flat and thus reflect light accurately, will then bounce the sun rays back to another array of reflectors fixed to the remains of a 17th-century fort overlooking Rattenberg from the slopes of the Stadtberg.

This second set of mirrors will direct the sunshine down into the village at a dozen strategic points, bathing benighted courtyards and magnificent façades in winter sunshine for the first time since it started life as a silver and copper mine in the 1100s.

It is a shackling of celestial forces with its roots placed equally in the sun worshipping temples of the Aztecs and the annals of science fiction. But the inventors of the €2m (£1.4m) project insist with perhaps unaccustomed Teutonic excitement that it is at heart a simple means to literally cast new light on Austria's smallest "city" - a title relating to its medieval status as a strategic outpost of the duchy of Bavaria.

Helmar Zangerl, the joint managing director of the Bartenbach Light Laboratory, a private academy specialising in illumination allied to the University of Innsbruck, can barely contain his fervour for his brainchild. He said: "The principle is very simple - to take the sunshine from where it is plentiful into a place where it is not using a material we have had for millennia.

"Of course, the practice is more difficult, but this project will have a massive psychological benefit by giving people sunshine when they have learnt not to expect it.

"At the moment, people are moving away from Rattenberg because they can no longer stand the winter shadow. They complain of depressive illness and the tourists do not want to come in winter.

"This project has the potential to change all that. I can see bus loads of Japanese tourists queuing to see the sun in the city where there is no sun." The scheme was drawn up after Rattenberg's leaders conducted a survey in 2003 asking what improvements could be made to village life.

But rather than expected tally of municipal grumbles about rubbish collection or local taxation, the predominant issue, placed top by nearly 60 per cent of the population, was the lack of winter sun. One in five of Rattenberg's inhabitants suffers from seasonal affective disorder (SAD), the syndrome created by a shortage of sunlight that provokes anything from a bad mood to full-blown depression. Opinion on the Sudtiroler Strasse, Rattenberg's impressive main street dominated by five-storey mercantile houses, yesterday confirmed the pervading sense of solar deprivation. Manfred Kohler, 47, who has two children and works in one of the crystal glass studios, said: "I think it is a brilliant idea. It is ironic that we rely on this magic of light and glass for our living but we spend a large part of the year longing to see sunlight. Now we can use this same magic to solve that problem."

According to Mr Wurzenrainer and his officials, the need to overcome the sunshine problem and reinvigorate the economic life of the village is increasingly urgent. While up to 3,000 tourists a day flow through Rattenberg in high season, the number falls to almost zero during the winter, creating a knock-on effect for the shops reliant on their thirst for crystal knick-knacks.

The permanent population has fallen by 10 per cent in recent years with people moving to neighbouring communes in search of the sun. As a result, many of the palatial apartments on the upper floors of the village's buildings lie empty. At present there are 5,000 square metres (1.25 acres) of vacant accommodation, equivalent to 50 homes.

With an ageing population and a birth rate of just five babies a year, the authorities are desperate to attract young families.

Josef Wurzer, Rattenberg's head of planning, said: "Of course you can say that Rattenberg has lived with this shadow for many centuries, so what is the urgency? The problem is that as well as bringing tourists we also need to maintain the permanent population, which is not happening.

"So, if we have the opportunity to solve what our people tell is us the main problem with living here and at the same time create a reason for people to visit in winter, then we should make it happen."

While most are overwhelmingly in favour of the idea, the citizens of Rattenberg are not quite so enthusiastic about thought of financing their glittering dream. The €2m cost of the mirrors is equivalent to the village's entire annual budget and the additional financial burden would push it into bankruptcy. Instead, the village and Bartenbach have formed a partnership with Italian scientists and a German manufacturer to qualify for European Union funding aimed at scientific research.

The scientists at Bartenbach, who hitherto have specialised in using hi-tech mirrors to maximise natural light in buildings, expect to install the first prototype heliostats by the end of this year. If all goes to plan, the full scheme should be in place for 2007.

But the people of Rattenberg are already learning that all is not sunshine and light when it comes to creating their own solar centrepiece. Concerns have been raised that the glare from the powerful mirrors, which will be turned away from the sun in the spring and summer months, will blind motorists travelling along the motorway standing between the reflectors and Rattenberg, as well as dazzling villagers.

The designers reject the concerns, insisting the effect of looking at the mirrors would be no more than looking at the winter sun itself and naturally averting the eyes.

There is also controversy about the effect of placing the large bank of secondary mirrors on the sides of the fort, a historic monument. But perhaps the greatest difficulties are technical. The scientists have been at pains to underline that their heliostats, which will be moved by computer-controlled motors to track the sun and maximise the capture of rays, will by no means bathe the entire village in light. To do so would require mirrors covering a space four times the size of Rattenberg, forcing the designers to select strategic "pinpoints" to light up. Mr Zangerl admitted his team could still not be sure it will work. He said: "No one has tried to do this before. We dreamt up all sorts of outlandish ideas - using a satellite or raising a balloon with mirrors but we settled on this idea.

"In order to make a difference, the intensity of light has to be two or three times that already existing in the winter in Rattenberg and we have to send that over a distance of 700 metres. We believe we can do it but the mirrors will have to be engineered to an extremely high specification." Others suggest that the village itself may have been dazzled by the grandiose notion of touching the sun.

Dr Peter Erhard, Rattenberg's GP, said that while he deals with patients suffering from SAD, he believes the rate is no higher than in Austria's major cities. He said: "Of course it would be nice to have a little more light in our city - it has a lot of dark corners. People complain of the lack of sun but I cannot see the justification for the project on medical grounds." The doctor added that other issues, such as a plan to shut down a regional court house, which provides 50 jobs, were likely to have a more detrimental effect on Rattenberg's sense of well being. "There is nothing wrong with this dream of mirrors. But there are other problems here we need to deal with. It feels like a continuation of an old joke that if we wanted to get more sunshine, all we have to do is move the mountain."

Back amid the courtyards and glassblowing workshops, however, the sense of excitement that the Austrian Alps will soon be adding its own star to the cosmos is palpable. In one cake shop, staff had created a pastry spiegel or mirror which they said had been outselling Easter eggs.

Mr Wurzenrainer said: "It has captured our imagination and that of a lot of people elsewhere. I have had calls from Australia to Canada. It might sound very technical but this is really about making a romantic idea real. After all, how many places on earth can claim to have their own second sun?"