Wildschoenau: Wild and Beautiful. This Tirolean high valley has much to live up to, and delivers in digger-sized buckets. It is though the use of the aforementioned construction apparatus that is slowly dragging the valley back into the pack, from its once nonpareil position of being perfectly formed and relatively untouched by human intervention.
It is nearly fifteen years since I first ventured to the Wildschoenau, on a bargain break to the Niederau-based Hotel Harfenwirt, owned and stewarded by the enigmatic Herbert Thaler. Never one to hold back from voicing everything that he thought, Herbert would either take to you straight away or give short shrift for the duration of your stay. I recall two pearls of wisdom, one being that I reminded him of a French chef he knew in Paris; the other that I should return in the winter because ‘the women are better looking’. I have never tested the theory of the latter, but it is certainly not inconceivable that Herr Thaler enjoys the après ski scene far more than catering for coachloads of summer hikers.
I should not though like to give an impression about my stay at the Harfenwirt to suggest it was anything but fantastic. What a great holiday it was, with the trip being a bargain of a lifetime that included meeting an eclectic clutch of fellow single travellers, and a wonderful week of walking in what were very high temperatures.
It was though 2018 before I returned to the valley. In the intervening years I had resisted the temptation to return to the Harfenwirt, perhaps harbouring a feeling that any subsequent stay at Haus Herbert would not live up to my previous experience, and somehow sully its memory. Other hotels were either not of the required standard through their poor reviews, or were never available due to repeat business popularity. I eventually secured a great deal for the Hotel Tirolerhof in Oberau, a few miles into the valley and within a settlement that is less touristy than Niederau.
I could not have been any happier at the Tirolerhof, expertly run by owner Martin Erharter and family. From the hotel’s cleanliness to the attentiveness of its staff and the quality of the cuisine, the Tirolerhof is surely a 3-star establishment that surpasses many of those who satisfy the criteria for higher grading, and continues to this day to sent me a Christmas greeting despite it now being three and a half years since my last visit. Arrangements to stay in the meantime have been stymied by the novel coronavirus pandemic.
Many alpine areas within the Tirol, Salzburgerland, and Carinthia have been blighted by overdevelopment in the name of tourism, with redundant ski lifts pockmarking mountainsides in the warmer months that do not benefit from winter’s white coat masking countless architectural sins. In what has become an arms race between neighbouring valleys, regions, and even settlements it seems there is little appetite for settling for what one has, and basing tourist offerings on the natural beauty of the surroundings which are, after all, what first attracted visitors seeking solace and respite from crowded, hurried, and stressful everyday lives. When staying at the Tirolerhof and specifically whilst sitting in its dining room, I cast my eye over the adjoining field which partly doubles up as a nursery ski slope and thought how good it is to see land at valley level which is still used for pasture and agriculture, rather than for some ephemeral pleasure that is unlikely to add anything aesthetically to the area. It couldn’t last.
I was aghast to read only months later of plans to build an egregious in miniature theme park, a freizeitpark, on the land in question, to be complemented by its anchor tenant – an alpine coaster. What has become of the area is an abomination, with the coaster route being held above ground as it corkscrews to its denouement on a metal framework that is as conspicuous as it unavoidable, and impossible to disguise. The coaster, as part of the Drachental Family Park is not without precedence, sadly far from it, with many of its kind evident throughout Europe’s alpine region. Perhaps this is one of the most glaring problems I have with the development, in that it has needlessly carved up green land in the name of plonking something generic onto it. I find this development wholly unnecessary and depressingly dismissive of what the Wildschoenau represents. I am not critical of those who use it, but surely those who bankrolled and sanctioned the build have greater imagination than this?
I am not sure if the Oberau development has opened the floodgates to further schemes within the village, or whether it is just unfortunate happenstance that the the famous and very old, 850 years in fact, Hotel Kellerwirt is subject to a €50 million investment to create a Mountain Health Resort. Within a stone’s throw from the Tirolerhof, the recent history of the Kellerwirt has been somewhat chequered and any genuine desire to bring it back into operation and to its former glory are of course to be welcomed, but the huge gouge in the hillside above and around the hotel’s existing footprint is as sobering as it is a shock to the eye. The argument that the Wildschoenau does not have a 5-star hotel is insufficient to justify loading the small and otherwise sparsely developed Oberau with a double whammy of its new theme park, and a giant overhaul of perhaps its most iconic building. I find it extremely concerning that such a redevelopment is possible when it involves a monument of national significance.
I am aware of my reaction being somewhat counterintuitive when other locations such as Saalbach Hinterglemm are considered. This psychological impact stems from the timing of my visits, and how as many valleys and resorts have been at the forefront of development others have lagged behind either deliberately, or through a lack of available finance. By the time I first stayed in Saalbach, in 2016, the huge expansion of its lift system and tree-top tourist attraction in Hinterglemm were firmly established. Whilst I consider the valley to be overdeveloped, I have never known it to be any other way. By contrast in the Wildschoenau, my previous visits have not been subject to any significant changes, with the Markbachjoch and Schatzberg lifts in Niederau and Auffach respectively being modest, more than adequate, and already established. Even at altitude there is an absence of ugliness and a restless desire for development, something that cannot be said in many other Austrian resorts.
It is though doubtful that I wouldn’t have batted an eyelid at the new and proposed developments in Oberau had I not previously visited. My views are subjective, but nevertheless I believe what has transpired and is slated to do so represent anything but subtle, sustainable developments. I am therefore concerned that further cableways and mountaintop edifices will eventually be given the green light as word spreads that the valley is potentially the developer’s friend.
Can I put aside these changes to revisit the Wildschoenau this year, pandemic permitting? It is important to counter the negatives with recollections of fine and often challenging walks to Kragenjoch, Rosskopf, Feldalphorn, and Eisstein, with the resounding calls of Cuckoos punctuating the peace where the valley borders the Alpbachtal. It is perhaps not what has been built and is ongoing that should dissuade from visiting, but how the higher alpine areas will be affected in the years ahead. The route between the Horlerstiegl chapel and the Feldalphorn peak overlooking the rolling hills towards Kelchsau is perhaps one of the most peaceful, uninterrupted views anywhere in the Alps away from the more vertiginous and snow-capped Arlberg and Oetztal massifs. The Wildschoenau isn’t somewhere to train for scaling a Himalayan peak, but more than holds it own for those seeking an at times challenging, but often manageable introduction to the Tirol’s often contrasting upland landscape.
It is difficult to reconcile that change has indeed not only banged at the valley’s door but also been welcomed over its threshold. It is where the valley goes from here in its desire to keep up with its regional neighbours, should it wish to do so, that will dictate as to whether it eventually becomes overdeveloped in general, rather than in pockets of its landscape. We are of course a long way from that happening but now that it appears amenable to investment and new ideas, will the Wildschoenau be able to resist the blandishments of big money that could potentially bring far more visitors to the valley, but inexorably erode its individual and very personal definition of what it means to be wild and beautiful?