The ICE (InterCity Express) whizzed through the countryside as we left behind the tall buildings of Munich. The landscape changed dramatically, and the bucolic surroundings seemed like they were straight out of a Bollywood movie. Splashes of red and yellow announced the onset of autumn, and the much-looked-forward-to cattle festival called Viehscheid. The annual descent of decorated livestock from their summer alpine pastures is celebrated across the high-altitude region of Germany and Austria. Across my seat, a septuagenarian gave me some company as he conversed between his catnaps. A resident of Berlin, he was on his way to a village close to Innsbruck to retrieve his broken-down campervan.
By the time the train chugged into Innsbruck, the overcast skies indicated a wet day ahead. I checked into Nala, a quirky boutique hotel in the Wilten district, before meeting my guide Andrea Werwitz, a slim lady with a soft demeanour and warm smile. With rain gear in place, we walked towards the city centre. It had already started to rain, but the downpour hadn’t deteriorated the spirits of the pedestrians at the Maria-Theresien-Strasse, a bustling street named after the Empress Maria Theresa. Peppered with impressive monuments like the Triumphal Arch and St. Anne’s Column along with an array of shops and restaurants, the street is the lifeline of the Alpine city. Founded in the 12th Century by the Bavarian Counts of Andech, the city derives its name from the river Inn flowing across it. Innsbruck, meaning bridge across the Inn, has an old-world charm as you pass through the Altstadt, meaning Old Town. After the Andechs died out, the land passed on to the Counts of Tirol, and by the 14th Century, the county of Tyrol was ruled by the Habsburgs, who continued for the next 650 years.
We took the Nordkettenbahnen cableway to Seegrube, for a panoramic view of Innsbruck through the glass gondolas. As we gained height, the weather changed drastically, and it had started to snow. This year, the mountains had received the first coat of white quite early, and the pine trees on the slopes were drenched in silver, giving me a Christmassy feeling. Nordpark lay sprawled like an enchantress, tempting visitors to explore her magic through numerous alpine trails, skiing, snowboarding or downhill biking. I, however, chose to warm myself with a bowl of piping hot soup at the Seegrube restaurant.
As we returned to the foothills, we crossed the Imperial Palace that had a huge exhibition to commemorate the 250th death anniversary of Emperor Francis Stephen of Lorraine. But what caught my eye was the Imperial Church which houses the tomb of Emperor Maximilian I. The cenotaph was surrounded by 28 larger-than-life bronze statues of his ancestors, which were made over a period of 80 years. The national hero Andreas Hofer, who died a brave death fighting Napoleon’s troops, is buried in the state church.
As Andrea and I bonded over a steaming cuppa and some famous Sacher Torte at Café Sacher, she told me about her travels and her love for sambar. While she had attempted making the lentil-based vegetable stew herself, she admitted that it hadn’t turned out well; I offered to make it for her the next day, if time permitted.
The following morning, after a good night’s sleep and a hearty breakfast, Andrea and I headed towards the architectural marvel that is the Bergisel Olympic Ski Jump Tower. I was lucky to spot a show jumper as he slid down the glide. After a short stop at Grassmayr Bell Foundry Museum and the Ambras Castle, a romantic 16th Century castle, I took a bus to the Swarovski Crystal Worlds. Daniel Swarovski, founder of the Swarovski Group and a patent holder for a machine to grind crystal stones to perfection, has left a rich legacy in the world of crystals. To celebrate the centennial anniversary, Swarovski Crystal Worlds was opened in 1995 at Wattens. The giant exhibition is awe-inspiring, as international artistes have interpreted and showcased crystal in different forms in its Chambers of Wonder. Tyrol had surprised me with its vast history, culture and innovation.
As I made my way back, Andrea invited me home to make sambar. Armed with sambar masala from the nearby Asian store, Andrea drove me to her beautiful home with bewitching views of the Austrian Alps. As I stirred a bubbling pot of sambar, I bonded with her children — a shy boy of seven and a smart girl of 11. As we sat together and had an early dinner of sambar and basmati rice, her husband joined us. Andrea’s daughter watched me eat with my hands and was intrigued.
A hearty meal later, I bid farewell to the wonderful Werwitz family. Andrea offered to pack me some rice and sambar for my train journey to Vienna the next day. As I left behind a little bit of India at Andrea’s place, I carried home a bag full of memories from Tyrol.