It was early July in 2007. Funds were low but my by now deeply rooted desire to head to the Alps as often as possible was firmly established. Where though could I go on a budget that would barely get me three nights bed and breakfast in London, for a genre of holiday and in locations known for their aesthetic pleasures and physical demands but not for being at the cheaper end of the scale?
The dotcom bubble had long since burst before I had any use for one of its original exponents, lastminute.com. It was though from a computer in a public library – yes, I was that skint – that I chanced upon the brainchild of Martha Lane Fox and several improbably low-priced package holidays in the Austrian Tirol. A week’s accommodation in a three-star hotel on a half board basis, including return flights between Manchester and Salzburg and hotel transfers – £179. It would have been £169 if I hadn’t been travelling alone.
I never doubted that this offer was genuine nor had just cause to do so; it was though improbably priced. Before Slovenia’s Julian Alps gained their Instagram stripes I could have expected to pay a similar amount in 1998 to stay, for example, at Bohinj’s then Hotel Kompas, but to get the full Austrian alpine treatment for less than £200 sounded like a hoax. I had in 2002 paid over £400 to stay at the Hotel Fluchthorn in Galtur, a price that was acceptable for a standard of accommodation rated only one star higher than my 2007 bargain basement bolthole.
No, the platform through which the holiday was being sold was sound, as was the package company, Inghams Lakes & Mountains, resorting to third party measures to sell off its surplus stock at cost, or presumably at a loss.
This was not though a mystery tour. Although already established that the Tirol would host my Wednesday-Wednesday sojourn it was to be the Hotel Harfenwirt, based in the Wildschoenau village of Niederau, that would host what proved to be a unique and eventful week.
On arrival at Salzburg’s Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart Airport it seemed that half of my flight and the occupants of those arriving from other parts of the UK were heading for Niederau, and to the Harfenwirt. An early start precipitated our convoy of coaches pitching up in the Wildschoenau before midday – not exactly a time usually associated with checking in. A queue of travellers snaked from the reception through the lobby and on to the terrace, which made me wonder where everyone would be accommodated in what was at the time a medium-sized hotel. It transpired that the Harfenwirt also had several annexes and associated boarding houses at its disposal but mercifully I was given a room to the rear of the main building, something I became increasingly thankful for when the heat built as the week progressed.
I am not a gregarious person but can work a room and glad-hand to good effect when just cause gives me reason to do so. There are though limits. On arriving to be seated for my first evening meal I was placed at a large circular table set for 7-9 diners, with me being first to blink. Soon afterwards an assortment of other single travellers shuffled into the dining room, all with the same restrained but pained facial expression on hearing that they too would be sharing their dining experience with strangers. And yet, after that first evening we all ‘hit the town’ and got rather rowdy at a neighbouring bar.
It transpired that several of my co-diners were at the Harfenwirt on a Saturday-Saturday deal and therefore more than halfway through their holidays by the time I and many of the others had arrived. In those four days divisions had already been drawn and holiday romances established, to which the added ingredients of the Wednesday arrivals only added further intrigue.
I can though say it was an experience that could never be repeated, nor would I wish it to be, simply because it was so memorable for all the right reasons. Never before or since have I been thrust together with such an eclectic mix of travellers, most of whom were not archetypal alpinists but those who simply sought out a holiday within their budget. We were all so different in background, gender, age, and even sexual preference, but the night’s out were often drunk and loud, and breakfasts during the mornings after the evenings before suitably subdued, as more often than not we went our own way during the day before reconvening for the Harfenwirt’s ‘chicken with everything’ evening meals.
One lady sitting at the table only ventured out into Niederau before breakfast, to pick up her cigarettes from the local supermarket before heading off on one of Inghams’ coach trips. I doubt she ever used the two cable cars in the valley, but the holiday worked for her. Another of my fellow travellers hit the albeit modest alpine heights that the Wildschoenau has to offer by wearing the same clothes every day. I never did establish if he brought with him seven of everything, or simply washed every evening his one set of walking gear.
My fellow vacationers undoubtedly set the tone for what was a memorable week at the Harfenwirt but the experience wouldn’t have been what it was without the quirkiness of the hotel itself, and its unpredictable owner Herbert Thaler. As already alluded this was not a paradise for non-vegetarians; in fact, I swear from memory we were served the same chicken dish each evening. It must be remembered that this was a bargain of a lifetime holiday and from which too much shouldn’t have been expected; whilst Herr Thaler would’ve presumably been cognisant of what I and those at my table had paid, this was a sizeable reduction from the brochure price on which the wholesale cost of holidays sold by the owner to Inghams was based. Were those who paid less given less, and effectively had no choice of what to eat? I do though recall a woman at an adjacent table being furious that she had paid full price, perhaps two and a half times as much, to get the same package as what we received.
Herbert Thaler is what the more diplomatic would call a character. Owner of the Harfenwirt, its attendent annexes/boarding houses and the higher rated Hotel Sonnschein also within Niederau, this accomplished harpist – Harfenwirt translates as harp host – polarised opinions. Basically, you either liked him or did not. Equally, you would know almost straight away if he took to you, or the contrary. Undoubtedly with an eye for the ladies, Herbert advised me to return in the wintertime ‘when the women are better’ and whilst I have since heard him unfairly labelled ‘Herbert the pervert’ by a resort representative, this eccentric but decent man was devoted to his English wife Gill, who sadly died two years ago. Rather worryingly she is though still included within the Wildschoenau’s 2020 official tourist literature as being very much alive.
I do not recall a great deal of the Harfenwirt’s interior as aside from sleeping and eating, my time spent within it was minimal. Rooms to the rear of hotels justifiably get a bad press and whilst it was to this aspect of the property where I was situated, its north-facing coolness in the heat of the day was especially welcome, as was its balcony overlooking rolling countryside and farmsteads. Paying as one drank, per drink, either at the bar or dining table was an aspect of the dining room not to most people’s liking but presumably reflective of previous guests running up sizeable tabs that were never settled.
During an extremely hot week I walked dozens of miles throughout the Wildschoenau, utilizing both the Markbachjoch and Schatzberg lifts and even dropping down into neighbouring Alpbach. This wasn’t a time for scaling vertiginous peaks or being guided across glaciers but walks that were slow burners, often leaving the stink in the tail to the last. There is probably 2-3 weeks’ worth of hikes for walkers moderately experienced to intermediate.
It took 11 years for me to return to the Wildschoenau, a length of time squarely at odds with the experiences of my 2007 vacation. Was I concerned that another trip to the area would sully the memory of 2007 if it did not live up to expectation? Probably. Was the week at the Harfenwirt a unique pause in my otherwise chaotic life, where I felt to be acting to a different audience to whom I would never see again? Who can say? Was I also though concerned about the negative comments published online about both the Harfenwirt and nearby Hotel Austria, two of the mainstays within the Lakes & Mountains programmes of Inghams and Thomson(TUI)? Most definitely.
Translated as ‘wild and beautiful’ the Wildschoenau valley sounds to have been named less from an organic perspective relating to the proper names of its physical surroundings but as from an interpretive sense. Interpretive, undoubtedly, but subjective? No way. All Austrian valleys are wild and beautiful in their own way, but the nomenclature used to not only describe but name the Wildschoenau is particularly apt and correct. My 2018 return was again last minute, although not booked through the eponymous website nor as cheap. It was though a bargain week in the superior surroundings of Oberau’s Tirolerhof.
My positive experiences at the Tirolerhof can be found elsewhere on this blog. On my return to England and reality it was difficult to consider visiting anywhere in Austria but the Wildschoenau, and the Tirolerhof. There was less, far less chance of future holidays at this expertly run family establishment being a disappointment compared to other providers within the valley, and with so much exploring of the area and the Muhltal side valley yet to to do, I had enough remaining material for many years of walking holidays ahead of me.
Anyone who has already read pertinent posts on my blog will be aware of my distaste for over-development within Austria’s alpine Salzburgerland, Carinthia, and Tirol regions, both from an aesthetic perspective but also the negative consequences arising from increased traffic, footfall, the pollution and erosion of soil, and the damaging encroachment by man into high alpine virgin territory. At times it seems that the alpine and ski sector’s obsession with money and constant innovation will eventually bring about the demise of areas on which the schemes are set amid, and heavily rely upon.
It is the gradual but inexorable eroding away of tranquility, of uninterrupted views and the natural habitats of both farmers and wildlife that is being perpetrated in the name of ephemeral pleasures for tourists. Far from being content with the facilities already in situ, municipalities look elsewhere with envious and covetous eyes, even to neighbouring towns and valleys, and seek to emulate. The very reasons why so many(too many) tourists venture to the Alps are being undermined by profitteers whose dangerous ideas are not only being rubber stamped but are serving as precedents.
On learning that Oberau is to be the location of its very own ‘freizeitpark'(free time park), a generic term found throughout German-speaking nations, my heart sank. Even this little piece of paradise has not escaped the whims of restless speculators and will host a visual and aural abomination that will not only shatter the peace, but also serve to lend a detrimental incongruity to the pasture on which it will be sited and induce traffic that relies on the use of environmentally negative personal vehicles. Although not adjacent to the Tirolerhof the site can be clearly viewed from the hotels webcam:
Bergfex Tirolerhof: http://www.bergfex.com/wildschoenau/webcams/c1684/
It is my understanding that the project is not fully funded, with some debate as to where the significant residue that runs to millions of euros(€) will come from. I am therefore sad to see that the project has started without its entire budget being in place, in effect twisting the arms of those from whom it would like to source revenue. Nobody, after all, wants to see a mothballed construction site in an area termed wild and beautiful because the money has run out.
I ask myself – would I feel the same about this scheme if I had not previously visited the area, from where my experiences had hitherto only been positive? I would like to think so. It is of course my fault that I never revisited the Wildschoenau between 2007 and 2018 but the timing, from my own perspective, is particularly bad that this project should be brought on stream just as I am reacquainting myself with this wonderful valley. It is especially galling, and perverse, that my favourite part of the valley floor, Oberau, is where this depressingly generic project, so out of keeping and unsympathetic with its surroundings, is located. Far though from being an isolated case, this type of development is already common and will continue to gain traction in other resorts as alternative revenue streams are sought away the Alps’ current bete noire, the cableway.
Much in life is now subject to equivocation and subjectivity. What cannot be disputed is that humanity’s poisonous tentacles continue to spread into our most precious green spaces and wildernesses, to extract what it can from fragile natural surroundings. The freizeitpark in Oberau is not on a par with developing ski runs on virgin glaciers but nevertheless stems from the same desire to give alternative uses to areas that should be left well alone, and whose patrons, to whom these schemes are presumably aimed, might ultimately conclude that the natural beauty being piggybacked on has been disrespected and damaged once too often.
Without the Alps’ dramatic and evocative backdrops, man’s schemes such as these are worthless. As a living and breathing entity in its own right, our mountains are not experimental playgrounds to be tinkered with and made to fit in with schemes often more ludicrous than the last. If the only way to make money is to damage the environment by doing so, this suggests that policies make it too easy to do so, and that the progenitors of such counterproductive schemes cannot see the woods for the trees.