Tyrol, Austria, summer 2013. ‘Innsbruck has one of the world’s most dangerous airports to land in.’ This; the conversation piece brought up by the local woman I had the misfortune of sitting next to on my flight into Innsbruck. She went on, despite my ever-more-blanching face, to proudly explain that it is because of the mountainous landscape that acts like a wind tunnel in creating a more than troubling amount of turbulence. Pilots require special training, apparently. While this woman’s small talk was quite upsetting, the pride in her hometown was justifiable.
Innsbruck is a small cosmopolitan town, all but lost among the Tyrolean Alps. The aerial view from my window seat displayed sundrenched meadows, Schnee-topped hillsides and thick pine forests all surrounding pretty rows of small ice-cream-coloured houses flanking an emerald-green river. This charming landscape was laid out below the snow-tipped and truly breathtaking Dolomite mountain ranges that were to be the subject of my attention for the next few days. These hills are the home to and birthplace of Swarovski Optik – the world-leading innovator of binoculars, telescopes, viewfinders, and anything else that provides you with Superman-standard vision; and we were invited to this stunning part of the world to attend the press launch for their brand-spanking-new CL Pocket.
Our press trip kicked off with an exclusive behind-the-scenes tour of the mountain-set Swarovski Optik headquarters in Absam and an insight into the intricacies involved in mastering optic technology. Along with 15 or so journalists, editors, photographers and birders, I donned a lab coat and safety spectacles, and looked at stuff utterly incomprehensible to a civilian.
All I was able to make out was that the fundamental parts of a CL Pocket are aligned by means of laser mechanics to degrees of precision that require an endless amount of zeros and decimal points to express. I was forced to employ a fair amount of thoughtful chin-scratching and arm-folding, lest someone recognise me as a techno Joey Essex; and also to keep my hands from touching something that might have caused an explosion and/or mass hysteria. After a fine lunchtime spread of smoked speck, schüttelbrot and fresh fruits we each took a pair of these pocket binos for a field test with a guided tour of Innsbruck’s old quarter and the Nordkette mountains.
The old town’s a very pleasant place for a stroll. It’s dotted with fashionable boutiques, coffee shops, bistros and craft stores, and is full of attractive architecture and equally attractive people. Come the winter months, these cobblestone lanes are a bustle of musicians, artisanal food vendors, stylish tourists and fresh-faced locals, all basking in the fun-time atmosphere of one of the best skiing destinations in Europe. Why this place has such pull with so many slope-seeking holidaymakers became abundantly clear after we took the cable car to the top of the Nordkette (2,269m). From foreground to horizon the landscape was stiff with valleys, gorges and cliffs of such abrupt angles that the area couldn’t help but provide ample entertainment to even the most seasoned of adventure-hunters. And it proved to serve the birders well too.
As soon as we reached the summit they all scattered in search of the perfect perch from which to spot some rare breeds, and judging by all the pointing and excitable yelps they spotted a fair few. Left to my own devices I took up a solitary spot above a ravine to drink in the views. With a wide and meaningful stance I took deep drawn-out breaths and stared pensively into the middle distance, fully committing to a ‘I-definitely-look-like-Sir-Edmund-Hillary’ fantasy. Just then a chamois skipped across a scree slope ahead and immediately broke me out of the fantasy as I hopped around pointing and yelping. No one else was within earshot – which might have been a good thing, to go by the look the goat-antelope was giving me – so I just carried on pointing and yelping till it had enough and wandered off. It dawned on me that in an area with some 8,000 miles of walking trails and incredible wildlife waiting around every panorama-unveiling corner, South Tyrol is an extraordinarily varied landscape that offers just as much excitement for a summer break as it does for a winter getaway.
Back down on more stable ground we were then taken for a lesson in true Tyrolean gastronomy with a tremendous dinner at the Michelin-starred Wirtshaus Schöneck. With South Tyrol spreading itself across the Austrian-Italian backcountry, it’s a region rich in culinary influences from both sides of the border, and it harbours many a restaurant offering the best in fusion fare as well as the hearty traditional grub that’s so lauded locally. You can expect to tuck into belly-warming plates full of things like Riesling asparagus risotto with morels and sugar carrots or encrusted back and braised cheek of bullock with mixed summer vegetables and au gratin potatoes – all of which will have likely been plucked and procured from the region. We were certainly not disappointed with the offerings at Wirtshaus Schöneck – the proof was in the pudding; and the main; and the starter; and all those little courses you get before the starter. There was a lot of food. It was fortunate each dish tasted like it was made by Cordon-Bleu-trained angels. That night’s sleep was less of a snoozy slumber and more of a brief beef-consommé coma. [A side note on food and the ski area of Alta Badia in the Italian Dolomites: here South Tyrol’s love for local food is celebrated with A Taste for Skiing which offers skiers and boarders top-quality, Michelin-quality aperitifs right there on the slopes. This year, you can pick up a Slope Food Card for €30 and benefit from discounts at many of the Slope Food huts.]
Back to Habicht, the mountain that was our rendezvous for the next morning for a nature-watch tour through the Pinnis Valley. (Yes, Pinnis.) After fuelling up on coffee and cake, naturally, and packing our lunch boxes full with delicious Bergkäse cheese, home-baked biscuits, scrumptious Tiroler Graukäse cheese, all kinds of ham and also more cheese at the idyllic Karalm Alpine lodge and followed our guide and local huntsman, Karl, on a snaking trail among wildflower-blanketed fields, snow-smoothed banks and pink-hued Alpine rose bushes as he regaled the gang with hunting tales.
We stopped for lunch at nearly 8,000 feet and watched a cluster of ibex and chamois skitter across the mountainside opposite. From here we could see rare ranges of distance, where a bright blue sky, brushed with wisps of cotton cloud, spread itself out across the face of the wide and spacious surrounds. It felt like I was in the midst of a rare and especially South Tyrolean experience that couldn’t have been better punctuated than with an evening of traditional folk music, Speckknödel dumplings, yet more cheese and twice my fair share of cream-covered apple strudel.
So, you now know where I’ll be recommending you go every winter (perhaps at one of Smith’s favourite Alpine boltholes). And the ultimate travel accessory to take. Dangerous airport or not.
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