A roll in the Tyrol
When actor Mark Williams and his brother, a wheelchair user, fancied a holiday, they chose to explore some of Austria's precipitous peaks. It proved to be an access-all-areas trip to remember
Saturday 02 February 2008
My brother Simon can't walk. He started suffering from fatigue in his mid-20s and his balance wasn't right. Cerebellar ataxia is a degenerative condition and, to be honest, I don't know how he copes. So when I got the chance to take him on a holiday, I did. Also joining us was a mutual friend called Mr Wilson, who prefers his anonymity, but was available to help if the going got tough access-wise, because we weren't going to take no for an answer.
The good thing about travelling with your brother in a wheelchair is that it slows you down. First on the aircraft, last off. None of that springing up to the chorus of snapping seat belt buckles when the pilot pulls the handbrake, then standing with your neck bent under the overhead lockers, sweating gently into your big coat, as you work out how to get the voice-messages off your awakened, and now suddenly insistent, mobile.
It depends on your mood, of course. I once had a duel with a lovely bloke at a departure gate in Italy, with both of us trying to be last to board an easyJet flight. The two of us were determined to show our lack of concern about which seat we got. That was just bloody-mindedness (which is what men seem to be designed for and used to practise unselfconsciously), but the Disabled Traveller has no such choice.
They do make a song-and-dance about getting wheelchair users on to planes, though. Half the problem is that by the time you get to the check-in, all the smart-arses have booked their seats online and we get bumped down the aircraft: "Row 13? He can't walk!" Anybody with any latent authority issues loves a bit of drama, of course. How we ever managed without these people in our grey daily lives, I don't know. But I cavil.
We were travelling to Austria. Specifically, we were going to the Austrian Tyrol, which is Austria's westernmost province (unless you count Vorarlberg, which is tiny and wants to be Swiss, but unfortunately is the wrong side of Lake Constance).
None of us had been to Austria before, but you can tell a lot about a place on the drive from the airport. It's like looking at a country's underpants: not what they want you to see at all. After skimming over pristine peaks, it's all slush and mud in the Tyrol valley bottoms. What I noticed immediately is that, in terms of land usage, the valleys have to lie back and think of Austria. Everything is levered into the gap between riverbank and mountain. Pylons, roads, railways, cash-and-carrys, houses and bauxite-smelting plants. It's no good complaining about the wood-burning power station next door to your bungalow, madam. There's nowhere else for it to go.
Tourist isn't a good image lately. Very few people will cheerfully admit to being one as they clutch their bullfighting poster: it went out with knotted hankies on heads. People want to be travellers, explorers or connoisseurs. But the three of us are heading into the mountains with no thought of going on piste. We may watch them going down their special hills, but we won't be joining them. We have come to look. We are tourists.
My brother can't drive any more, but as cars have always been his passion he is allowed to indulge in road-rage by proxy. He is also entitled, when being pushed in his wheelchair, to road-rage by proxy by proxy. Sadly, the Austrian drivers provide little opportunity for British bile. Herbert, our driver, stops at a service station and the lady on the till wishes us a happy Sunday, which gives me a lovely, but at the same time curious, sense of being suddenly in a Ladybird book illustration from the Fifties. The toilets are free of hysterical yellow foldy plastic signs warning you not to slip on imaginary water. All in all, it's a relaxing journey. I notice a lack of British health-and-safety panic. The road signs aren't Mrs Doubtfire-sized; you don't feel you are constantly treated as a potential litigant.
Bio-Hotel Stanglwirt is unlike any hotel I have ever stayed in. It's a spa/ski hotel with serious eco-aspirations. Apparently even the paint on the walls is environmentally sensitive. It's a vast Twin-Peaks-y Alpine chalet built from timber, with a spa and farm attached.
The staff are very welcoming and very friendly. The ladies wear the Austrian national costume, the dirndl, which consists of a long, aproned skirt and a front-buttoned tight white bodice with small puff sleeves: "It's our national costume, it's our sort-of hotel uniform, and it's comfortable," they might well say. Not with those shoes, surely?
I manage to stun them momentarily with my Seventies German (courtesy of Brian Dear, North Bromsgrove High School. Thanks Brian, it stuck) and we're in. Charming as we are, Simon, Mr Wilson and I are nevertheless slightly surprised that we've been allowed into such a pristine establishment – and we're jubilant when we see our rooms.
There is wood everywhere. There are wood-burning stoves like mini-pizza ovens, wooden beds, ceilings, light fittings, beams, guttering, and even wooden telephone hand-sets (which are pleasantly warm on the ear). Cords of firewood are tucked into every idle niche and under every shelf and eave. Winter is obviously taken seriously in Austria, but the wood offers a marvellous decoration motif. After a while in the Tyrol, you notice wood piles with house names attached, and wood piles as car park delineation. Hold on a minute, lads: I thought the wood-chopping business was a matter of life and death. If you tried that sort of thing around where we live, somebody would have it away for the purpose of domestic heating, "as you're not using it".
It's a very relaxing environment indeed. I love wooden buildings. The best thing that concrete-and-brick buildings smell of is paint. Wooden buildings smell of forests.
In the bar, Mr Wilson and I were offered the option of a gesund, or "healthy" beer. Our excitement was immense: what a fantastic combination – alcohol and health. Tragically, it smelled of eggy farts, but we persevered anyway.
My brother doesn't drink, so it fell to him to make the miraculous discovery of Almdudler. Ever heard of it? Thought not. It's an elderflower pop unique to Austria. It comes in a bottle decorated with a picture of an Alpine dude kissing an Alpine maid. I happened to notice that he was standing on one of her feet (very deliberately, I thought), but let's not go into that. If you can imagine a sort of rural equivalent to Irn Bru, you've got the general idea. It's their national carbonated drink and it even gives Coca-Cola a run for its money (once again, a bit like Irn Bru). We loved it and immediately invented Almdudlershandy.
We settled down with our drinks in armchairs in front of the windows overlooking the indoor Spanish riding school, which isn't something we're used to in my local. It's all part of the hotel's resourcefulness: dressage lessons with an audience.
Equestrian ballet on white horses is another one of those curiously Austrian singularities, like Almdudler and waltzing. What is it with the Lipizzaners? It's something to do with training an imperial show-off cavalry in the past, I suppose, but it's curious how they've held on and nurtured such a rarefied sport. Mind you, we should probably ask for tossing the caber and the Eton wall game to be taken into consideration.
Austria still has an empire, of course. As it's governed by an Austrian, California is surely a colony – and there's a picture of Maria Hauser, the Stanglwirt's hotel manager, with Herr Schwarzenegger in the bar, so that proves it. If he takes his orders from her, then California must be a very clean, polite and well-run state.
If the view from the Stanglwirt's bar is engaging, then the view from the à la carte restaurant is staggeringly honest: cattle. It was a bit of a palaver getting there. The hotel has been extended piecemeal, which means there are a lot of level changes, so we had to go outside and round. It was a bit tricky given the mountainous terrain, adverse weather and the fact that, despite what he may think, my brother no longer weighs just 9st 10lb.
Once de-rigged and settled, we could admire the view. You get to see the cows dropping off to sleep in their dark byre because you're eating in the old farm, which once housed the family and their animals. Kith and kin upstairs, cows downstairs. Being watched by beef on the hoof, as it chews the cud while you have dinner, does focus the mind on one's choice of main course. I had pike. I wonder what cud tastes like?
Soup was a big favourite everywhere we ate in the Tyrol. I'd never been a big fan myself, but a delicious bowl of this comfort food became the natural choice to begin a meal. I had lunch with Mr Wilson the other day and he's still addicted. However, the best thing about German-speaking countries is the breakfast: rye bread, yoghurt and platters of meat arranged by chefs who have been on ham-folding courses. The Tyrolean breakfast also features lots of flavoured and spiced cream cheese, which none of us were man enough to try. The rest of the dairy produce was delicious, though, especially the butter. The cows probably just eat edelweiss all day.
As we were staying at a spa hotel, we thought we had better spa off some fat. There is a whole plucking, massaging and anointing menu, but the sauna complex was the thing to sample: not just one pine-lined box but a whole series of different caves and grottos and cabins at different temperatures with u o different mineral and plant flavours. Sadly, Simon couldn't come – there were too many steps and uneven slippery surfaces – but he'd have loved all that heat. His feet get so bloody cold and it's no good telling him to stamp them to get the circulation going.
Sweating. The Romans loved a hot room but, to me, the idea is tied to snow, forests, and fire in the North. It's a mad antidote to cold: "I've got an idea. Let's make it so ridiculously hot that we have to take all our clothes off and sweat loads. We can invent a reason why it's good for you later." Naked? OK.
Lots of guests wandered around the hotel in bathrobes, so that was cool: on with the Terry-towelling in the room and off we went. After a delicious swim in the pool – which has a brilliant James Bond-like rock-lined tunnel to an outdoor lagoon – we headed for the sauna. The signs read, "The sauna is a naked area, please be understanding", but in this huge Jurassic Park of a spa nobody has actually got their kit off. When does a chap slip out of his Speedos? What's the etiquette? Mr Wilson and I chose the 60C Saltgrotto and made our entrance stark bollock naked. There were half-a-dozen people inside, all with towels draped over the hormonally sensitive areas. We exited, got our towels and made our debuts elsewhere. Spas are a glorious way to spend time: bathe, take hot showers, get cool again, shower, swim, lie down, read, then repeat.
After not skiing at the Bio-Hotel Stanglwirt, we went to not ski in the city of Innsbruck, the capital of the Tyrol. Little Innsbruck has a population of 130,000 and is the number-one destination in Austria for Chinese tourists. Apparently they come to shop, so that they can avoid import tax on luxury goods. If that's the case, then wealthy Chinese people presumably don't visit Munich, they visit the BMW factory; they don't go to Geneva, they go to Rolex – and the reason they come to Innsbruck is Swarovski.
The firm was started by expatriate Czech glass makers about five generations ago and they are now the biggest producers of cats-eyes for road marking in the world. But from a tourist's point of view, it's probably more important that they also make crystal jewellery. It's a brilliant idea. All previous makers of fake diamonds (and that's the look we're after, darling) made them diamond-sized – but not the Swarovski company. They make them out of crystal glass (glass with a high lead content) and they make them as big as you like. Like 300,000 carats. That one's in Swarovski Kristallwelten, a museum and retail experience on the outskirts of town, but it's not for us. We do visit the Swarovski shop in town, however. I'm tempted by a crystal parrot, but only for a moment. After all, we are on a mission.
We are here to go on the brand spanking new funicular railway. The stations were designed by the architect Zaha Hadid, whose confidence with form and structural engineering makes it look like she had particular fun fitting these complicated structures onto vertiginous inclines. The station canopies are made of moulded glass and look like partially melted icebergs. Lit from inside, they look even more glacial at night. The interlocking glass panels were made in China, which only goes to show what a crazy mixed-up global economy we all work for.
The railway starts in the centre of town, opposite the opera house, and with our Innsbruck Cards (which also gave us access to all museums and transport) we got all the way to the top of the Seegrube (1,905m). What's more, the funicular was very wheelchair-friendly – probably because it opened only two months and one day ago. It's all Victorian technology, though. The motive power is supplied by a continuous steel cable that runs over pulleys between the tracks. Attach a train to it and away you go. To cope with the changes of gradient (this is the clever modern bit), the passenger cabins are suspended inside the carriage framework so that they can pivot individually to keep level as the train climbs. Easy.
Cable cars are even better fun – and we needed to take one in order to get higher. I still find them thrilling. We didn't have them in Bromsgrove, or Birmingham for that matter. I love it when you look up and see the ladder attached to the little escape hatch in the roof of the gondola. It immediately makes me think of Where Eagles Dare. Not to worry, though. This is all modern machinery made by a local firm called Leitner, which makes most of the region's people-moving-up-ridiculous-slopes equipment. Simon gets pole position and enjoys the best view from the back of the bubble, as the city falls away into the wispy clouds.
Even if you don't ski, the access to the mountains around Innsbruck is a joy. When we got to the top we had a massive lunch. Sausages and beer, since you ask – and very nice, too. We also watched a paraglider arrive on the cable-car with his chute in an enormous rucksack. He unpacked it and launched himself into the valley. We watched him drift down towards the city and then followed him down the way we had come up. Arriving back in Innsbruck city centre, we saw him on the station platform with his chute re-packed waiting to go back up top and do it again. Lucky lad.
My brother Simon can't walk, but he has the last word: "Usually, if I get outside, I'm always in a car or just a little way away from the car. In Austria, I was still sitting in my wheelchair, but it was me sitting in my wheelchair on top of a mountain."
Innsbruck is served by easyJet (0905 821 0905; www.easyjet.com) from Gatwick, Liverpool, Manchester and Bristol.
To reduce the impact on the environment, you can buy an "offset" through Abta's Reduce my Footprint initiative (020-7637 2444; www.reducemyfootprint.travel).
The Hungerburg Funicular (www.nordpark.com) departs every 15 minutes between Congress Innsbruck and Hungerburg from 7am-7.30pm on weekdays and from 8am at weekends. A return ticket costs €5.60 (£4.30).
Bio-Hotel Stanglwirt, 6353 Going am Wilden Kaiser, Kaiserweg 1, Tyrol (00 43 53 58 2000; www.stanglwirt.com). Double rooms start at €256 (£197), half board.
Hotel Grauer Bär, Universitätsstrasse 5-7, Innsbruck, Tyrol (00 43 512 59240; www.grauer-baer.at). Double rooms start at €145 (£112), including breakfast.
Tyrolean Tourist Office: 00 43 512 72720; www.tyrol.com
Innsbruck Tourism 00 43 512 59850; www.innsbruck.info.
Austrian National Tourist Office: 0845 101 1818; www.austria.info.
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