Can a man bearing a harp really make or break your holiday in Niederau? Well yes, possibly, if that man happens to be no other than Herr Herbert Thaler, head of the Harmony Hotels group in Niederau and more specifically, the enigmatic and imposing boss of the Hotel Harfenwirt, where most package-holiday travellers from Britain will end up staying.

So why single-out the seemingly harmless Herbert as the barometer to the success(or otherwise) of your furlough in the Wildschoenau? He, like the bricks-and-mortar of his hotel, the food and service received in it polarise opinion: quite simply, you will love the whole package, hate it or decide that you’ll quit whilst you’re ahead. I fall into the third category.

And yet, the Harfenwirt heavily-contributed to what was my greatest ever holiday in Austria. It was one of those last-minute deals for an embarrassingly small price where you throw up into the air the component parts of your holiday hoping they land butter-side up, and boy, did they. The runes though weren’t promising when check-in was a drawn-out, laborious process with many a room not being ready for it’s patrons. I was initially miffed to be put at the back of the hotel away from the enchanting view of the Markbachjoch just across the road. As though the week went on I was glad to come back in the afternoons to a room at the rear of the hotel, whereas the front sweltered and suffered in temperatures of 35 degrees. The room? Not memorable but clean and with a balcony. Remember: this was a cheap holiday. I paid £169 for a week, including half-board accommodation, flights and transfers, in the first week of July.

The dining-room experience was certainly that. Being a single-traveller I rarely come across fellow singletons in alpine hotels and the ones I have previous encountered usually are single for a good reason. On this occasion, once I ‘d been unceremoniously propelled towards a circular-table seating six, I wondered what was in store. Gradually, a trickle of sheepish lone-rangers joined me at Herbert’s round-table seemingly equally as put-out as I was that they would have to share their dining with hitherto strangers. What a masterstroke though it proved to be on the part of the hotel or perhaps they just got lucky. Either way, the people I met around that table were the most diverse and eclectic collection of travellers I’ve ever encountered. A certain Mr. John Cheeseman accompanied me on several walks and many, if not all of the others would join us both for raucous drinking-sessions in the evenings. Special mentions to Tara from Yeovil and a certain lady from the south-coast who kindly offered to assist me with my packing…

The facilities at that time at the Harfenwirt were nothing special but I believe in the last couple of years there has been a significant facelift of the property. The terrace-bar was a particular favourite, especially after the heat of the day had receded. The restaurant staff though were impossible to love, insisting on payment after every single drink at the dinner-table; getting Euros and cents out of your pocket whilst in the middle of ones meal is inconvenient and betrays an element of distrust shown by mein host towards his guests. In defence I will though say I have no doubt they have been stung in the past by people racking up large tabs which haven’t been settled at the end of the night or on departure; with many guests departing for the airport in the middle of the night, I can imagine it would’ve been quite easy in the past to avoid settling ones dues. It was though a case of not what the restaurant and bar staff said but HOW they said it. The meals were formulaic, bland and unimaginative with the choice being pork, served in seven different ways. When abroad, one sometimes has to put ones vegetarian-sensibilities aside for the sake of actually not going hungry.

So where does the harp come into it? With Herbert, these are definitely amongst the strings-attached to your stay at his establishment. Being a self-styled harpist of local-repute, guests are made to feel it is mandatory that you attend one of his recitals and that is fine; it is local-culture and the owner is seemingly trying to enhance the enjoyment his guests get from staying at the Harfenwirt, whilst burnishing his considerable ego. Now, I am no expert in any particular musical-discipline but I would say, from the one time I bore witness to him harping-on that the standard was ordinary. Perhaps though I do not know enough about the nuances of this instrument to pass any qualified judgment. Herbert was quick-witted, often charming but at other times acerbic with his put-downs. To say he quickly formed judgments, fair ones or otherwise, of his guests would be an understatement. The creeping, obsequious-types were given short-shrift but I think I found his favour when two of the pearls of wisdom directed towards me were:

  • you remind me of a Parisian chef friend of mine, and…
  • you must come back in the Winter – the women are better. 

Taking into account the holiday I had in Niederau and in particular at the Harfenwirt, I a) would never return to the Harfenwirt but b) would go back to Niederau and the Wildschoenau tomorrow. As stated at the beginning of this post I feel ‘quitting whilst I am ahead’ is appropriate, bearing in mind it would be impossible to again have such a great time when everything landed sunny-side up and the stars aligned to showcase an almost perfect constellation. Anything other than the experience I previously had would inevitably be a great disappointment and sully my memories of the fantastic holiday I had in Niederau. Mr. Thaler is obviously doing something right when it comes to the Brits: the upmarket Hotel Sonnschein that is part of the Harmony Hotels stable is run by Gill, his English wife. Perhaps they get on better if they run separate hotels? Either way, I wish Herbert, his wife and their businesses well.

Many of my happy memories of Niederau and the Wildschoenau stem from the outstanding, lengthy and scenic walking I undertook. I do though think this alone is worthy of a separate blog-entry, which will be posted once I can encapsulate the area into apposite words and therefore entirely do it justice.