By Nick Selby

Our man in Europe, Nick Selby, visits Austria's glorious Tirol. He checks out a pair of castle hotels in the countryside and gives us a rundown on Innsbruck, of Winter Olympics fame.

To say that Austria's Tirol region is heavily touristed is about as much of a news flash as the announcement that cars are made in Detroit, or that New York is a fairly large city. The Tirol, a gorgeous region of towns almost too pretty for their own good, nestled amongst the mountains of western Austria, has long attracted visitors. By the busload.

But it's not all package tourists, and if you're there during the shoulder seasons of early autumn, midwinter and early and late summer, there's plenty to do and relatively less competition for it all.

On a recent trip, my wife Corinna and I slept in one castle, visited another, had several pleasant days of driving and sampling the local specialties, and spent one lovely night in Innsbruck.

The best thing about the region is that, while it's possible to see it in three days, and feel that you've done it all, it's just as possible to spend a month exploring the mountains, hiking the paths, and riding the trails without feeling bored.

The key strategy is don't stay in one place too long; keep moving and discovering and this beautiful region will reveal its treasures to you.

Tirol is well-known for its outdoor activities, with possibilities for all levels and ranges of hiking, climbing, skiing, swimming, trekking, tramping, snowshoeing and snowboarding, as well as fishing in its many rivers and streams.

Don't panic, more traditional attractions will keep you cheerfully occupied: for example, stunningly opulent rococo architecture and dramatic views from the Hungerburg, which is ascended by cable-car in stomach-tingling delight. Innsbruck's royal Kaiserliche Hofburg and jaw-dropping Goldenes Dachl are also must sees. In fact, the early 18th century saw what amounted to a "baroque-ing" contest, drawing artisans from across Europe, including the brothers Asam, to bedazzle the region's churches.

In spring and summer, and near Christmas-time, there are free outdoor concerts throughout Tirol, with particularly good ones in Innsbruck's Hofgarten.

Not a bungee-jumping fitness guru or a member of the concert-and-museum set? Between the extremes are the simply beautiful scenery and the unique family-owned shops and restaurants of the region. Wonderful and definitively gemütlich restaurants serve up Tirolean specialties with a smile.

No one in their right mind comes here to begin a slimming regimen, but the rich food in the region is hard to resist, with main courses like Tiroler Rindersaftbraten - temptingly juicy roasted beef smothered in a melted, Parmesan-like hard cheese.

For dessert (some actually even use it as a main course!), do not miss Kaiserschmarn. This "Emperor's Mess" is pancake nuggets laced with raisins and chopped almonds, doused in rich, Austrian rum and dusted with powdered sugar.

Little family-run shops dot the countryside, turning out some of the finest fresh-butchered and smoked meat specialties to be had on this planet such as Tiroler Speck, the fabulous bacon with a flavor so fine it improves anything it's paired with.

These shops also sell a wide range of Tirolean liqueurs and schnapps, made from a variety of local fruits and berries, at very reasonable prices. Especially in winter, a glass of hot fruit tea with, say, a Tiroler Pflaumenschnaps, or plum liquor, is divine.

Innsbruck

There are two schools of thought on how to tackle Tirol: using Innsbruck as a base to discover the region, or staying in the smaller towns and making short visits to Innsbruck.

Die-hard independent travelers often scoff at Innsbruck because it's been "discovered" by the tour buses. Indeed, a walk through town on any given day will reveal several gaggles of name-tagged Globus-and-Cosmos packaged clusters, all following tour guides hoisting lollipop-shaped "Follow Me!" signs.

But before you relegate this delightful baroque city to the dross heap of travel plans, consider that tours are usually to rather interesting places and Innsbruck certainly is that. It's also gorgeous, surrounded by dramatic Tirolean Alps. Almost every street is worth a photograph, if not a postcard.

The views stem from Innsbruck's fortuitous location in the valley of the Inn River (the town grew originally around the "Bruck" that crossed it), nestled perfectly between the Karwendel and the Tuxer Vorberge. its location is such that even the least skillful photographer will come away with great shots of beautiful rococo buildings contrasted against the dramatic cliffs of the nearby mountains.

Get your bearings in the city in one of two ways - climb the Stadtturm, which affords lovely rooftop views of the city center, or go for the gusto and take the excellent cable-car ride to the Hungerburg, a 3000 foot mountain ascent at the north end of the city. Not high enough? From the Hungerburg summit you can catch a second cable car ride to the Hafelkarspitze which, at 7,655 feet, offers thrilling views of the entire valley.

Or stay grounded with an old-fashioned horse-and-carriage ride through the cobblestoned streets of the old center; they cost 300 AS ($23) for up to four people and leave regularly from in front of the Kaiserliche Hofburg.

Innsbruck was founded as a border town, just north of the famed Brenner Pass, in the 12th century. Beginning in the early 1400s Maximillian I, and later Empress Maria Theresa went on an extended building spree, constructing and expanding what remains the heart the city center. The famed Kaiserliche Hofburg, an architectural hodgepodge of a palace, is now open as a museum displaying Imperial furnishings and artworks and the gorgeous chapel. Don't miss the meticulously renovated Gothic Cellar, where you will marvel at the building techniques of the past and view rotating exhibitions of modern art.

The 1960s brought real change to Innsbruck, due to the buildup for the 1964 Olympic Games. It hosted them again in 1976 and the city is still referred to by the tourist board (and as well by the American ambassador at a party recently) as, "This Olympic City". Sports fans will take ghoulish note that here stands the very Olympic ski jump down which a Mr. Vinko Bogataj so gracelessly tumbled again and again (the agony of defeat) throughout the 70s and 80s in the opening sequence of ABC's Wide World Of Sports.

Recently emerging from a renovation, the Hofburg now holds two treasures: a museum of art and sculpture, and perhaps of more interest, the Innsbruck branch of Vienna's Café Sacher, where visitors can sample, in suitably decadent surroundings, the famous Torte with a steaming Milchkaffee.

There are several Alpine-themed museums here, but no visit to Innsbruck would be complete without at stop in the Volkskunstmuseum, hands down the finest collection of regional folk art, furniture and farming equipment you'll see, and a friendly, helpful staff.

What the tourists are all craning their necks to see is the shining Goldenes Dachl, or Little Golden Roof. Once a royal residence, the building's balustrade is swarming with reliefs and busts of royalty, including Maximillian, and coats of arms of Germany, the Holy Roman Empire, Austria and Hungary. The top of this is smothered with over 3000 golden-colored tiles.

Just behind the Goldenes Dachl is the fabulous, newly renovated and almost hysterically baroque Dom St. Jakob, constructed by Johann Jakob Herkommer and decorated, it's said, by the brothers Asam. Note the portrait of the Madonna on the high altar, the Mariahilfbild, by Lukas Cranach the Elder, painted in 1530.

Another must-see just southeast of the city center is the looming Schloss Ambras, which Archduke Ferdinand II began expanding in the late 1500s. The Renaissance palace holds the Ambras Collection; art, armor, portraits, medieval sculpture and, not as uncommon as you'd expect in these parts, a royal collection of bizarre curiosities. The grand Spanischer Saal ballroom is another highlight.

Hotels

Goldener Adler

(Editor's Choice)

Late one afternoon in Innsbruck, wandering the streets with the hordes of tourists, we came upon the Goldener Adler. its plaque, right next to the front door, lists the names of the luminaries who have stayed there since its opening in 1390. The first name, from 1494, was Kaiser Maximillian I, and the roster continued: Willhelm Herzog von Bayern, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart...You get the idea.

We went in to see how it looked. The receptionist was so disarmingly friendly that we asked to see a room, and it was simply fantastic: Number 410, a corner double with a view through its oval windows out over the rooftops and the mountains beyond. The price, we were told, was 1600 ($120). We asked if that was the best deal available and were given a 300 schilling ($23) discount. Sold.

We looked at a few other rooms and found them all to be clean and comfortable, with private bath, phone, color TV and radio, mini bar, hair dryer, cosmetic mirror and safe. Some are more expensive superior rooms, but for our money, Number 410 is definitely worth more than the price. Breakfast was excellent, and the hotel's main restaurant has an excellent reputation.

• Daily Rates: Singles 1080 AS ($81) doubles 1600 AS ($120), superior 2100 AS ($158)
Contact: Best Western Goldener Adler, Herzog-Friedrich Strasse 6, tel. +43/0512/57 1111, fax 58 44 09
Rating: Quality: 17/20 Value 15/20

Weisses Rössl

Once upon a time we checked into this hotel but, due to a sudden emergency, had to checkout about an hour after arriving.

Despite our sudden retreat, we found the hotel to be a very pleasant, family-run place, with a nice café downstairs and simple but clean guestrooms.

As a less expensive option it's a pretty good one. Furnishings are a little worn, but, again, the rooms are clean.

Lest we make the place sound too dire, note that there is a good choice of rooms, and some of the more expensive ones are nicely furnished. All the rooms have private bath, TV and telephone.

Staff was very helpful, even at a busy time of the day, and they were surprisingly understanding when we just left which says quite a bit: they could have given us a hard time, but instead were gracious and polite.

• Daily Rates: Singles 870 to 1010 AS ($65-$76) doubles 1220 to 1500 AS ($92 to $113)
Contact: Hotel Weisses Rössl, Kiebachgasse 8, tel. +43/0512/58 30 57, fax 58 30 575
Rating: Quality 10/20 Value 12/20

Schloss Matzen

Using Innsbruck as a base to explore the surrounding region has its advantages, but using the surrounding region to explore Innsbruck might have more. And, when you have the opportunity to spend a couple of nights in a 12th century castle for about $200 double, you should snag it.

Schloss Matzen, now owned by Americans Margaret and Chris Kump, is about half an hour east of Innsbruck, nestled in the heart of the Tirolean Alps, near Wörgl.

Margaret and Chris, who inherited the castle in 1995 (in the family since 1957), have renovated up a storm over the last several years (the New York Times profiled the couple as having a money pit) and the cheerful castle now has 11 rooms open to visitors, all with private bathrooms and central heating.

Nearby are heaps of activities, like walking, cross-country and downhill skiing, rock climbing, biking and, in summer, river rafting and swimming.

Guests tend to be well-traveled Americans, including lots of visitors returning to the region for further exploration and expatriates, and the B&B is open from May to October and from Christmas to mid-February. There's an Austrian Wine hour daily, and breakfast consists of fabulous fresh-baked goods, assorted cheeses, yogurt, quark, fruit, and hot entrées like french toast and scrambled eggs.

From Innsbruck, take the Autobahn towards Salzburg, then the Kramsach, Rattenberg, Brixlegg exit. From there, go left toward Rattenberg and Brixlegg. Turn right at the traffic circle opposite the SPAR supermarket and go 1.3km, through a second traffic circle. Immediately after the blinking yellow traffic light turn left onto the narrow road which leads right to the castle.

Schloss Matzen's website says there is a two- night minimum stay requirement, but owner Margaret Kump tells us if you can only stay one night they won't hold you to the minimum.

You should also be aware of Matzen's cancellation policy. Reservations must be accompanied by payment in full for the first night's stay. A 30-day cancellation notice is required and in such cases there is a $25 service fee. Cancel less than 30 days from the date reserved and you get no money back unless the room can be rented to someone else.

Since our first review of it in July 1996, several Gemütlichkeit readers have reported favorably on Matzen.

• Daily Rates: No singles. Doubles range from $145 to $250, averaging $200, including breakfast and wine hour but not an 11% tax.
Contact: Schloss Matzen, 10701 Gurley Lane, Mendocino, CA 95460, tel 888 837 0618, 707 937 0619, www.schlossmatzen.com, or in Austria, +43/05337/626 79, fax (Munich) +49/089/202 386 54
Rating: Quality 15/20, Value 15/20

Schloss Hotel

(Editor's Choice)

The nicest, and most expensive, place we saw in the region was the highly-regarded Schloss Hotel in the village if Igls, just south of Innsbruck. Privately held by the Beck family for over 25 years, this exquisite hotel is set in a 19th century mansion on a hilltop overlooking Innsbruck.

We went in unannounced and, frankly, not really dressed for success, but the management and desk staff were absolutely shockingly polite, pleasant, friendly and helpful. Without saying why, we asked to see some rooms, and immediately an escort was dispatched to tour us through the property.

The five-star resort has only 33 beds, and you do have the impression that you're staying not in a hotel but rather with some incredibly wealthy distant relative who's invited you for the weekend. Igls itself has a reputation as something of a spa town, and ski slopes and golf courses are all nearby, as are hiking and riding trails, tennis and other outdoor activities.

Inside the hotel there's a sumptuous living room, a very cozy fireplace bar, and what we thought was the highlight, a connected indoor and outdoor pool.

Rooms are, simply put, fabulous. The very best of everything, and all the amenities make this one of the best places to have an extravagant holiday in the Tirol.

It is, however, a splurge. Double rooms from May to October are 4300 AS ($331), and at Christmas time they're 5500 AS ($423). But if you're after the absolute best of everything, this is the place to be.

• Daily Rates: Singles 2000 to 2900 AS ($154-$218), doubles 3600 to 5500 AS ($271-$413), suites 4240 to 6100 AS ($319 to $459)
Contact: Schloss Hotel, Family Beck, A-6080 Igls, tel. +43/0512/377 217, fax 378 679
Rating: Quality 19/20, Value 15/20

Sustenance

Restaurant Ottoburg

(Editor's Choice)

It looked suspiciously like a tourist trap, and so it was with great trepidation that we entered this comfortable cellar restaurant. We were nervous about its perfect location - smack in the touristy heart of the city, on the River Inn and in the cellar of one of the town's oldest buildings, sporting a guard tower that may have protected the Hofburg.

The room was slightly smoky, but we liked very much the way the modern furnishings and renovation complemented the historic architecture, and the staff were very welcoming - big smiles all around, and we had barely sat down before our waiter came around offering drinks - efficient and not at all pushy.

The menu changes daily. We had two absolutely delightful meals: rosagebratenes Hirschentrecote auf pikanter Wildsauce (rare roasted stag fillet in a mildly spicy sauce) for 235 AS ($18), and a sensationally tender Brazilian steak fillet with Pfeffersauce, puffed potatoes and fresh steamed green beans that knocked my socks off for 330 AS ($25).

Restaurant Ottoburg, Herzog-Friedrich-Strasse 1, tel. +43/0512-584 338, 0512-574 652, open Monday to Saturday, 10am to midnight

Pizza Subito!

A surprise inclusion here is Pizza Subito!, a small snack place opposite Restaurant Ottoburg. We noticed it several times while walking through the city, and each time we glanced in there were crowds of happy people; students, pensioners, tourists and locals. So before we left we tried it.

The large slices of pizza, which run from about 50 AS/$4, are heavenly, with just the right amount of sauce, a crust that's not too thick and not too thin, generous portions of fresh mozzarella and a choice of several other toppings.

Service is very friendly, and we include Pizza Subito! as an option for grabbing a quick snack while on the run between sights. It's great for a light lunch, but remember; it's fast food and there's no atmosphere to speak of.

Pizza Subito!, Kiebachstrasse 2, tel 0512-562 862

Café Sacher

A clone of the Vienna favorite, Café Sacher Innsbruck attempts to capture the opulence of its mother, and to a certain degree succeeds. The famed torte is of course available and scrumptious, along with superbly rich coffees and coffee-based drinks and exceedingly creamy desserts and sweets. The atmosphere is posh, with lots of wood and dainty furniture - in essence, an Austrian café from Central Casting.

But on our visit, service was less than stellar, and the staff was darned high-fallutin' about the little they did do! Perhaps it was stage fright; we visited in September, just a couple of weeks after the grand opening. Since then, friends have gone and said it was great, so it could have just been a bad Herr day regardless, it's definitely worth a try.

Café Sacher, Kaiserliche Hofburg, tel. +43/0512/56 56 26

Gasthaus Herrnhaus

Near Schloss Matzen we found two cozy restaurants, one nicer than the other but both worth recommending.

Since 1930, the Moegg family has run the Gasthaus Herrnhaus in the town of Brixlegg near Schloss Matzen, and the quality of food is consistently high. The staff is accommodating, and several speak English - even those that don't make an effort.

There's good news on two fronts: first, the menu is varied, with everything from Tirolean specialties like Zwiebelrostbraten, to the twice weekly fresh fish specials, to the fresh game shot personally by chef Christian Moegg. When there's venison it's served in a number of ways, from steaks to goulash, to ragout. But the repertoire is not at all confined to the local stuff; you're as likely to see grilled chicken breast served with ratatouille and homemade noodles as food from the region.

Second, there's nothing on the menu that's over 200 AS ($13.50), and you can usually get out with a main course, appetizer, desert and a glass of wine for under $25 a person.

The restaurant is open Wednesday to Sunday and closed in July.

Gasthaus Herrnhaus, Herrnhausplatz 1, Brixlegg, tel. 05337/622230

Stockerwirt

In the town of Reith (pronounced, of course, "right"), we visited a second, less impressive, but still warm, welcoming and friendly restaurant. Gasthaus Stockerwirt, does immense portions of meat-and-potatoes traditional Tirolean cooking at good prices with little fuss or bother.

It's not gourmet cuisine, and decor is a bit rough around the edges, but dependably good. Main courses average about $12 to $15. Keep it in mind as a second choice if you're in the region when the Herrenhaus is closed.

Gasthaus Stockerwirt, Dorf 39, Reith im Alpbachtal, tel. 05337 / 62213

Innsbruck Info

Population: 120,000
Altitude: 1,886 feet

Distance From Innsbruck To:
Salzburg 150 km 93 miles
Vienna 410 km 254 miles
Munich 120 km 74 miles
Hamburg 750 km 465 miles

Tourist Information

The efficient Innsbruck Tourist Office in the city center seems to offer every pamphlet ever printed on the region. They also have an excellent ticket booking agency, sell ski passes, the Innsbruck Card and Innsbruck city transport tickets. There's a smaller tourist information office in the central train station.

Main Office: Burggraben 3, A-6021 Innsbruck, Tel. +43/0512/59850, fax 59850 7, email This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it., open Monday to Saturday from 8am to 7pm, Sundays and holidays from 9am to 6pm.

The Innsbruck Card

An exceptionally good deal, it costs 230 AS ($17) for 24 hours and 300 AS ($23) for 48 hours, and grants entry to all museums mentioned here, plus the Stadtturm, the Hungerbergbahn, and all Innsbruck public transportation.

Bike Rentals

Despite its mountainous surroundings, the city is actually very pedalable, and the main train station rents city bikes at reasonable prices: 120 AS ($9) for a half day to 670 AS ($50) for a full week. Mountain bikes for a bit more.

Innsbruck Main train Station, Tel 0316 67 45 46, email This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

Guided Bus Tours

Busreisen Tirol operates daily bus tours of the old city in several languages, leaving from the Central bus station at noon and, from June to October, there is an additional 2 pm tour. Prices are 160 AS ($12) for adults and 70 AS ($5.25). Buy tickets at the tourist office.

November 1999