Inner peace is all part of the package in Austria

In a brave experiment, the Catholic monks of St Georgenberg-Fiecht are welcoming British tourists to their monastery in the Tyrol. 'Tepid Christian' William Cook was entranced

Last summer, in a lush green valley surrounded by snow-capped mountains, an ancient monastery threw open its old oak doors. The Catholic monks of St Georgenberg-Fiecht have long welcomed individual travellers, but in 2013 they went into partnership with a major tour operator for the first time. Now British tourists can book a package with Inghams at St Georgenberg-Fiecht, a Benedictine monastery in the heart of the Austrian Tyrol.

So why stay in a monastery? Is it only suitable for true believers? Or can you treat it like a normal holiday? As a vague and inconsistent Anglican, I thought I might make a good guinea pig. With my lax religious record – bog-standard C of E, with several lengthy lapses – I decided that I could assess its merits from a (tepid) Christian perspective and also a secular point of view.

Arriving at the monastery, half an hour's drive from Innsbruck airport, it's immediately apparent that this is no ordinary package holiday hotel. Built in 1705, it's a handsome and imposing building with the robust dimensions of a castle. Framed by woods and meadows, the setting is tranquil and attractive, but it isn't the isolated hideaway I'd expected. For me, that's a nice surprise. St Georgenberg-Fiecht is built for quiet contemplation, but there's a lively little tavern next door and a busy road below. With the village of Fiecht on one side and the market town of Schwaz on the other, this is a place apart, but it still feels connected to the outside world.

Father Arno Father Arno An elderly monk in a black cassock meets me at the door. This is the Prior, Pater Arno, who looks after all the visitors. He's small and stooped, but his face is fresh and youthful. He greets me with a boyish grin and his eyes are full of laughter. I warm to him straight away. He directs me up a wide stone staircase to my bedroom, on a long corridor lined with antique paintings. There's no one else about, but it doesn't feel at all spooky. Sunlight streams through the windows. The ambience is light and airy. The decor is simple yet elegant. It reminds me of a posh boarding school.

Downstairs, in the refectory, Father Arno joins me for supper: soup and lasagne, and to drink, the sharp cider which the monks make themselves. It's more Spartan than most hotel food but it's just as nourishing. Despite the schoolroom decor, it feels like eating in someone's home. Over dinner, Father Arno tells me a bit about himself. He's 74. He's lived here since he was 20. If he had his time again, he says, he'd do it all again.

"We have a lot of freedom here – inner freedom," he explains. This isn't a closed order (he's travelled widely with his work, throughout Austria and overseas) but he's totally committed to this one monastery, and the dozen monks who live here – though there were twice as many when he first arrived. "You have to love each other even if you don't always feel love. It's like a marriage." The Abbot is the boss. No one leaves without his say-so. Chances are, Arno will be here until he dies. It's not a silent order, but conversation is seen as precious, as is everything. "All the objects in the monastery are holy objects. If you take a pencil and write a letter, you are performing a holy act."

Next morning, I'm in the ornate little chapel at 6am for the first service of the day (there are at least four services every weekday – more on Sundays and Feast Days). I'm not usually up this early, but I'm not remotely bleary eyed. Without the TV to distract me, I had nodded off nice and early the night before and today I feel full of beans.

The monks' melodic singing is hypnotic, but my schoolboy German isn't really up to following the words, and it's 10 minutes before I realise I've got the wrong hymn book. Without any prompting, the Abbot goes and fetches me the right one. I'm touched by his kind humility. He's the head honcho, but he's not too grand to make sure his guests feel at home.

Father Arno is perfectly happy for Anglicans to participate in these Catholic services, but it's not something he expects of me, or any other visitor to St Georgenberg-Fiecht. "If somebody just comes for a holiday that's OK, but we like it if they intend to grow," he tells me. "Our guests are not just tourists. We don't want to be a hotel." However, there are no hard-and-fast rules. The monks' time is divided between worship, study, work and recreation (in the corridor I see photos of monks playing table tennis and volleyball) but you're free to join in with as much or as little as you please. Father Arno gives spiritual counselling and leads classes in meditation and relaxation, but it's all entirely optional. All he asks for, if you choose to attend, is a donation of €3.

Over breakfast, Father Arno fills me in on the origins of St Georgenberg. The original monastery was built in 1138, in the mountains high above us. Monks lived up there for more than 550 years, until a series of fires forced them down into the valley, where they built this "new" monastery, St Georgenberg-Fiecht. One monk still lives in the old monastery, which now doubles as a hotel and restaurant. A winding footpath leads from the new monastery up to the old one, marked with the Stations of the Cross. After breakfast, I set off. "Walking is one of the best forms of meditating," says Father Arno, as he sees me off.

The old building The old building It's a 90-minute uphill hike, but the view is well worth the effort. (As Father Arno says: "Without suffering you can't have happiness.") The medieval monastery is perched above a precipice, beside a beautiful Baroque church. The panorama from the summit is sublime. "Thank you for this lovely holiday," a child has written in the prayer book. "I hope I will remember it forever." A trestle table outside the folksy Gasthaus is the best place to drink in the view. After a hearty lunch of venison and red cabbage, and a cold beer, I amble back down the way I came until I reach a little bridge where another path veers off down a dramatic gorge called the Wolfsklamm. A steep staircase follows the ferocious torrent down 354 wooden steps to a quaint little town called Stans, where you can cool off in the Freibad (public swimming pool) or the chic spa in the Hotel Schwarzbrunn next door.

There are loads of other scenic hikes, direct from the monastery. The fairytale castle, Schloss Tratzberg, is only a couple of hours away. Train-spotters adore the Achensee Steam Railway, the world's oldest cog wheel locomotive, which wheezes up the hillside to Achensee, the Alpine lake which belonged to St Georgenberg until the end of the First World War. Pleasure boats criss-cross the water, shuttling sightseers across the lake. If you're feeling really fit, you can walk here from the monastery, although you should probably set aside half a day. The most exciting expedition is to the Schwazer Silberbergwerk, the silver mine on the outskirts of Schwaz, the biggest in medieval Europe, and still active until the end of the last century. A little locomotive carries you deep into the mountain, where an old miner takes you on a walking tour through a maze of ancient tunnels, more than a kilometre underground.

On my last morning, the Abbot, Father Anselm, joins me at breakfast to say goodbye. I ask him about his monastery's partnership with Inghams. Should the people who come and stay here be Christians? "They should be open to new ideas," he says. "It's an experiment. It's a spiritual project. And we will do our best." As always, the outcome is a mystery. "We're distributing ideas – spirituality, the Gospel – but we don't see the proof. A banker may see it in the accounts, but we can't control the outcome."

He's quite right, of course. This brave experiment is completely unpredictable, but if the first few visitors are anything to go by, I think it could become a big success. "Thank you for sharing your wonderful monastery with us," reads an entry in the visitors' book, from one of the first British couples to come here. "It has been an experience that will remain with us for the rest of our lives."

Getting there

Four nights' half-board at St Georgenberg-Fiecht monastery costs from £529pp with Inghams (01483 791 114; inghams.co.uk) including flights from Gatwick to Innsbruck and transfers.

Inghams has also introduced an Italian monastery for summer 2014. The Neustift Monastery sits near Brixen in South Tyrol. Four nights half-board at the Neustift Monastery cost from £589pp including flights from Gatwick to Innsbruck and transfers.

More information

silberregion-karwendel.com

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Life and Style
love + sex
Arts and Entertainment
Victoria Wood, Kayvan Novak, Alexa Chung, Chris Moyles
tvReview: No soggy bottoms, but plenty of other baking disasters on The Great Comic Relief Bake Off
Sport
Ashley Young celebrates the winner for Manchester United against Newcastle
footballNewcastle 0 Man United 1: Last minute strike seals precious victory
Life and Style
Tikka Masala has been overtaken by Jalfrezi as the nation's most popular curry
food + drink
Arts and Entertainment
Seth Rogan is one of America’s most famous pot smokers
filmAmy Pascal resigned after her personal emails were leaked following a cyber-attack sparked by the actor's film The Interview
News
Benjamin Netanyahu and his cartoon bomb – the Israeli PM shows his ‘evidence’
people
Travel
ebookHow to enjoy the perfect short break in 20 great cities
Arts and Entertainment
80s trailblazer: comedian Tracey Ullman
tv
News
i100
Life and Style
A statue of the Flemish geographer Gerard Kremer, Geradus Mercator (1512 - 1594) which was unveiled at the Geographical Congree at Anvers. He was the first person to use the word atlas to describe a book of maps.
techThe 16th century cartographer created the atlas
Arts and Entertainment
Stephen Tompkinson is back as DCI Banks
tvReview: Episode one of the new series played it safe, but at least this drama has a winning formula
News
i100
Independent Travel Videos
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Amsterdam
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Giverny
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in St John's
Independent Travel Videos
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Travel

    Recruitment Genius: Product Advisor - Automotive

    £17000 - £23000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Due to the consistent growth of...

    Recruitment Genius: Sales Administrator - Automotive

    £18000 - £25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An opportunity exists for an ex...

    Recruitment Genius: Renewals Sales Executive - Automotive

    £20000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An opportunity exists for an ou...

    Recruitment Genius: Membership Sales Advisor

    £18000 - £26000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: The fastest growing fitness cha...

    Day In a Page

    War with Isis: Iraq's government fights to win back Tikrit from militants - but then what?

    Baghdad fights to win back Tikrit from Isis – but then what?

    Patrick Cockburn reports from Kirkuk on a conflict which sectarianism has made intractable
    Living with Alzheimer's: What is it really like to be diagnosed with early-onset dementia?

    What is it like to live with Alzheimer's?

    Depicting early-onset Alzheimer's, the film 'Still Alice' had a profound effect on Joy Watson, who lives with the illness. She tells Kate Hilpern how she's coped with the diagnosis
    The Internet of Things: Meet the British salesman who gave real-world items a virtual life

    Setting in motion the Internet of Things

    British salesman Kevin Ashton gave real-world items a virtual life
    Election 2015: Latest polling reveals Tories and Labour on course to win the same number of seats - with the SNP holding the balance of power

    Election 2015: A dead heat between Mr Bean and Dick Dastardly!

    Lord Ashcroft reveals latest polling – and which character voters associate with each leader
    Audiences queue up for 'true stories told live' as cult competition The Moth goes global

    Cult competition The Moth goes global

    The non-profit 'slam storytelling' competition was founded in 1997 by the novelist George Dawes Green and has seen Malcolm Gladwell, Salman Rushdie and Molly Ringwald all take their turn at the mic
    Pakistani women come out fighting: A hard-hitting play focuses on female Muslim boxers

    Pakistani women come out fighting

    Hard-hitting new play 'No Guts, No Heart, No Glory' focuses on female Muslim boxers
    Leonora Carrington transcended her stolid background to become an avant garde star

    Surreal deal: Leonora Carrington

    The artist transcended her stolid background to become an avant garde star
    LGBT History Month: Pupils discuss topics from Sappho to same-sex marriage

    Education: LGBT History Month

    Pupils have been discussing topics from Sappho to same-sex marriage
    11 best gel eyeliners

    Go bold this season: 11 best gel eyeliners

    Use an ink pot eyeliner to go bold on the eyes with this season's feline flicked winged liner
    Cricket World Cup 2015: Tournament runs riot to make the event more hit than miss...

    Cricket World Cup runs riot to make the event more hit than miss...

    The tournament has reached its halfway mark and scores of 300 and amazing catches abound. One thing never changes, though – everyone loves beating England
    Katarina Johnson-Thompson: Heptathlete ready to jump at first major title

    Katarina Johnson-Thompson: Ready to jump at first major title

    After her 2014 was ruined by injury, 21-year-old Briton is leading pentathlete going into this week’s European Indoors. Now she intends to turn form into gold
    Syrian conflict is the world's first 'climate change war', say scientists, but it won't be the last one

    Climate change key in Syrian conflict

    And it will trigger more war in future
    How I outwitted the Gestapo

    How I outwitted the Gestapo

    My life as a Jew in wartime Berlin
    The nation's favourite animal revealed

    The nation's favourite animal revealed

    Women like cuddly creatures whilst men like creepy-crawlies
    Is this the way to get young people to vote?

    Getting young people to vote

    From #VOTESELFISH to Bite the Ballot