“What,” I asked, “Do Schubert, cheese and hiking have to do with each other?”
Visiting Bregenzerwald, a forgotten corner of western Austria I was soon to discover how the three are closely linked by their association with the lush alpine meadows of the region.
Real tradition is important in Bregenzerwald and is still a part of everyday life. It was the desire to keep the traditional way of life of the small farming communities that was the impetus behind the formation of the Käsestrasse or Cheese Road.
In Bregenzerwald the average number of cows per farm is twelve. Becoming part of the globalised agricultural machine would wipe out the livelihood of Bregenzerwald’s 1200 farming families and their traditional way of life. Working on the dual philosophy that small is beautiful and quality is better than quantity a group of visionary farmers and businessmen discussed various projects that would protect those principles. The Cheese Road was born.
The Cheese Road is not a marked route around the region but an association of cheese producers, users, retailers and the associated trades and crafts. It is best summed up by the phrase “from alpine meadow to the table.”
Among the Cheese Road’s 200 members are farmers who sell their products direct, dairies, hoteliers and restaurateurs who serve cheese dishes to their guests as well as tradesmen and craftsmen associated with dairy farming and cheese production.
Many restaurants and hotels are members of the Cheese Road. As a requirement of membership they have to have at least five different cheese dishes on the menu and use a minimum of five Bregenzerwald cheeses. Both the Gasthof Adler in the attractive village of Schwarzenberg and the restaurant in the Hotel Das Schiff in Hittisau are excellent places to sample the cheese cuisine of the region.
To follow the complete route cheese takes from meadow to the table you will need to pull on your hiking boots. Hiking will bring you to the alps and farms where it all starts and into contact with people glad to show you their part in cheese production. Many of the cheese-producing alps welcome visitors, mostly the hikers, and if you arrive at the right time (mid-morning) you may well be offered a taste of their produce.
No hiker should ever go hungry in Bregenzerwald. There is usually at least one hütte or mountain inn on every major hiking route in the mountains. You can buy a simple meal or drink during the day and some provide accommodation for the night. The hütte are the place to sample kaseknopfel, a typical hearty cheese dish not too distant from macaroni cheese.
Bregenzerwald has many traditional festivals including the alpetriebe, which celebrates the successful summer, and the bringing of the cows from the high alpine meadows to the valley pastures. People dress up in their national costumes and the horns of the cows are decorated with greenery and ribbons.
Not all of the festivals of Bregenzerwald are folk festivals; there are several cultural festivals too. The biggest and best known of these is Schubertiade. This festival is focussed on the music of Schubert and attracts internationally renowned musicians, conductors and singers as well as serious concertgoers to the little village of Schwarzenberg (www.schubertiade.at).
Schwarzenberg is the oldest town in the region and has lost none of its attraction as a result of being thrust into the cultural limelight. Around the village square and the parish church are clustered many wood shingled houses some of which have been declared as national monuments.
It is an unlikely, but nevertheless stunning, setting for Schubert’s music. The Angelika Kauffman Hall, the main venue for the concerts, is on the edge of the village surrounded by meadows where cows graze on lush grass to the aural cliché of tinkling bells.
The Schubertiade is in two parts: June and September, which neatly brackets the Opera Festival in nearby Bregenz. While the majority of music is Schubert’s there are some works by his contemporaries too. There can be up to three concerts a day. Some are in the local parish church and occasionally in other halls in Bregenzerwald. The Schubertiade, in terms of prestige, ranks alongside many of the top European music festivals.
Whatever the reason for staying in Bregenzerwald there are several very characterful hotels to stay in. My own personal favourite is the www.schiff-hittisau.com in Hittisau. It has an extensive cheese cellar and offers tastings to guests. The restaurant has received numerous awards and, being a member of the Cheese Road, has plenty of cheese dishes on the menu. Their philosophy of honest cuisine means that food is seasonal. Ask for a room in the older part of the hotel if you want something with a little more character or in the more recent extension if you prefer the wide mountain vistas from your bed or bath.
Music, cheese or walking; any one of these would make Bregenzerwald worth visiting. Put the trio together and the whole becomes greater than the sum of the parts.