Nestled in a valley in the Alps, a mere 30km from the Brenner Pass, Innsbruck is a magical Christmas-time destination. I arrived there by train from St. Anton, a train journey that is worth taking for its own sake. The scenery here is breathtaking of course – this is the Alps – so it was a pleasure to take a train that followed a winding path through the mountains. It was snowing heavily when I left St. Anton and the landscape that unfolded from the train tracks was harsh and desolate, but utterly beautiful in the fading daylight.
I don’t know what sort of landscape you grew up in, but this was all completely alien to me and it felt like I had stepped into a different world. Everything was completely white, the mountains, the snow covered trees and even the heavily leaden sky. Everything, that was, apart from the river, which was the most fantastic melt water turquoise. The colour of the water, which was the same in Innsbruck, was absolutely fascinating. For some reason I always expected that alpine water would be crystal clear, so the turquoise took me by surprise. No doubt the river is absolutely lethal if you fall into it this time of year, much better to watch it through my own reflection from the cosy train compartment.
My trip to Innsbruck was impromptu to say the least, but as far as touristy delights are concerned I really landed on my feet. The Christmas markets were in full swing and occupied a large part of the ‘Altstadt’ (Old Town). The Christmas markets kept me well fed and topped up with Gluhwein, but also provided a fair bit of entertainment in the form of the Krampus.
Don’t know what Krampus are? Neither did I, and I have to say it was a pretty terrifying introduction. The Krampus are devilish creatures from alpine folklore; the legendary helpers of St. Nicholas. They appear around the 5th of December (the eve of the feast of St. Nicholas) and roam the streets terrifying children and unsuspecting tourists, beating bad spirits out of people with sticks. Krampus are hairy, devil like creatures with bells around their waists so you hear them causing havoc before you see them. They wear horned masks contorted into terrifying expressions, and these days might also be adorned with glowing red eyes. Costumes are passed down from generation to generation, and in rural places are stored in barns during the rest of the year, so they can smell pretty bad. Children are warned that if they do not behave then they will be kidnapped by Krampus and carried off into the mountains. If I was a child I would be absolutely terrified of these things, this really is scary old world fairytale come to life in true Brother’s Grimm style.
I also visited the Hofburg Imperial Court (not to be confused with the Hofburg Palace in Vienna). My knowledge of the Hapsburgs is fairly hazy and this was an enlightening visit. The court in Innsbruck really screams of only one royal: Marie Therese, Empress of the Holy Roman Empire and only female Hapsburg ruler. But you’ll probably know her best as the domineering mother of Marie Antoinette, keen on moving her children around like political pawns. Marie Therese is a fascinating character for the amount of power and influence she held, pulling the strings on Europe for a certain amount of time and trying her hardest to keep the whole show running. The imperial court in Innsbruck is her private retreat; a chapel designed to commemorate her husband, Francis I, a room filled with the portraits of her children (the Giant Hall), the next generation of rulers.
Hapsburg history seems to be a little bit stuffy and unfashionable and I struggled finding anything in Waterstones to further my quest for knowledge when I got home. However, I have managed to dredge up a weighty tome on Marie Therese from somewhere which will do for now.
Hopefully I’ll get to visit Austria again in the new year (maybe Vienna?) and practice my German on some unfortunate locals. It wasn’t a planned trip but I still had a pretty great time, and I really enjoyed exploring alone. Independent travel is a recently discovered pleasure of mine and gives me the chance to discover a place on my own terms without the experience being mediated by someone else. So, go forth and make your own adventures!