Travelling slow around Vorarlberg

Demi Perera taking in the view on a slow trip to Austria
Demi Perera taking in the view on a slow trip to Austria | Courtesy of Demi Perera
Demi Perera

September may not be the month that springs to mind when anyone thinks of Vorarlberg – a place renowned for great skiing and raging après-ski. Yet, coming here out of season was a game changer for me. A surprising thing happened when I arrived. I met the people who live here and they taught me one of life’s most valuable lessons.

I travelled via Zurich and stayed at citizenM hotel, which is conveniently close to Zurich central station. I was to catch the early train the following morning and meet Katrin, my host, at the Swiss-Austrian border station of St.Margarethen.

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When I arrived, Katrin and I drove to Burgi’s Living in Zug. It was a perfect, bite sized introduction to Vorarlberg. Burgi’s occupies a nook in the valley with 360 degree views of the mountains. The ski gondola runs overhead. Burgi herself popped in to greet me when I checked in, but for the rest of the time, I roamed free. It was still early afternoon and I visited some local sites. Katrin and I drove to Lech, the next village, and stopped at Arleberg’s oldest inn House No.8 for a traditional Austrian meal of Käsespätzle (cheese spaetzle) with grilled beef and potato salad. It was the perfect welcome. Afterwards, Katrin took me around the town, drove me to Skyspace Lech and then I went back to Burgi’s to rest.

The next morning, I caught the village blue bus back to Lech to meet local yoga instructor Marilena Walch for mountain top yoga. I rented a mat from Lech Zürs Tourism office and headed to the gondola where I met a few others who’d come for the class. Together, we took the gondola 1500 feet above sea level. The top of the mountain was distractingly beautiful and the air noticeably thinner. “Still mind, still body,” Marilena continued to remind us as we flowed from one movement to another. At the end of the class, someone suggested a coffee at Der Wolf. We had time to spare before the next gondola back down so we, a group of strangers who’d never met before, had a coffee together. It was here that I met Ana Cristina Dos Santos who’d moved here from Portugal. She had responded to an ad in a local newspaper asking a simple question – Do you want to change your life? She did, then arrived in Lech shortly after and has no plans to leave.

I returned to Zug and walked around this tiny place, set deep within an Alpine valley, with little more than 30 residents and a single-room church. Beside the church, on a chalk board was a name I recognised; Max Natmessnig – one of Austria’s best 100 chefs. Natmessnig was head chef at Rote Wand Gourmet Hotel (recently succeeded by Julian Steiger) and was hosting the Chef’s Table that evening. Although reservations book up months in advance, Katrin arranged for me to have a place and I rushed back to change for dinner and arrived at Rote Wand embarrassingly early. Natmessnig delivered 19 courses, cooked in the middle of a room with 14 curious faces sitting around it. Everything we ate was made using only ingredients that grew, were caught and foraged from Rote Wand’s surroundings. Word around the table quickly spread that I’m British and what had been the gentle murmur of German in the room softly turned to English in a considered, collective attempt to make me feel welcome.

The following morning, Ana Cristina and I met Veronika Walch, Lech’s very own herbalist. Veronika led us on an Alpine walk foraging flowers, tasting herbs and identifying roots. “Every season, the mountains in Lech provide everything we need to get through the season,” she says as we walk past crystal clear streams, walk over foot bridges and pretty cottages. Veronika’s knowledge of Alpine flora and fauna was astounding. Yet, it’s her respect for nature that imprinted on me. Every time she plucked a leaf or flower she exchanged a strand of her own hair with the plant.

Later that day, Katrin and I met to drive to Bregenzerwald. We arrived at the village of Egg and headed to Löwen Alpine distillery and bar for a hearty lunch. The wooden tables and chairs outside were occupied by local diners, enjoying the clear day amongst wild flowers and honey bees. Everyone greeted each other. “That’s my friends house,” says Katrin, pointing at a cottage directly opposite from where we are seated. We order Kasnocken (cheese dumplings) and cakes and pies, made with mountain berries but barely finish it all.

Bregenzerwald translates to English as Bregenz forest. And this forest cloaks you wherever you go. My home here would be Romantik Hotel Das Schiff in Hittisau. Katrin dropped me there after lunch and I walk up to my room. A sea of green stretched from the edge of my window, through the valley and all the way to the mountain tops and touched the sky. It was the same everywhere I looked.

The hotel is also home to Ernele restaurant which serves local produce and ingredients from its own gardens. The restaurant is wildly popular and a steady stream of diners walked through its doors when I had breakfast there the following day.

September in Austria

I was in Bregenzerwald for a five senses hike with Katharina Moosbrugger. When we met, Katharina encouraged me to trust my senses as we moved through the landscape of mud and fallen trees. I removed my boots and socks and allowed the mud to squelch between my toes and the gravel to get under my nails. There was freedom in letting go and with that connection to the earth, I finally felt the heartbeat of the forest around me.

That evening would be my last night in Vorarlberg and I headed to Bregenz to catch a train back to Zurich. Of course, Bregenz is a city, wildly different from what I’d experienced so far. Magnificent Lake Constance draws visitors from all around the world to Bregenz. Bars, restaurants, galleries and shops line the streets around the lake. Hundreds of people walk around the promenade and yet, underneath it all, I could still hear the wild call of the forest.

As I headed home, I began to think about the people I’d met. They had shared their experience of living in the model landscape of a snow globe that comes under great weight once a year. Vorarlberg hosts most of Europe during ski season; 2.5 million visitors descend upon these mountains in just four months. Whilst visitors are graciously welcomed and certainly brings prosperity, very few residents have tied their existence to it. Instead, those who live here have hedged their bets on the terrain; respecting, cherishing and valuing it. Eating what grows here, respecting the forest and despite more than nine million visitors every year, allowing no trace of it to remain on the mountains.

Every person I met had a sense of calm and spoke with a stillness I could only hope to achieve – nature’s reward for treading lightly on earth. As my train pulled away, I realised that this example was the greatest gift they could have ever bestowed upon me. And it is a gift I will cherish forever.

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