Making the 30-km-drive from Bregenz to Schwarzenberg means coming into a different world. It is a small world, 22 villages, and they are really villages, 30 000 inhabitants and almost as many cows. Mountains, forests, pastures and farms, and the Bregenzer Ach, the river that runs through the valley, comprise an idyllic background for the Schubertiade. In former times however, this idyllic country life was a life of hard work at best, and a life of dire poverty for many others. Since the soil doesn’t allow the growth of cereal, the region always was dependent on trade with other parts of Austria. The valley’s main produce was and is wood, and dairy products. In the 19th century, a few big farmers and traders took over the cheese monopoly and ruined many a family who had been able to make a precarious but independent living before. One of the region’s most astonishing characters, Franz Michael Felder (1839 – 1869) took up the fight against those cheese barons, and ultimately their supremacy was put an end to. Felder was the only surviving son of a poor farmer and his wife, who eventually became a writer and politician. Whoever reads his autobiography must feel drawn to this singular character, much like Schubert lovers always love their “Schwammerl”, beyond his music. Music was an important part of Felder’s life as well, contemporary composers have set some of his poems to music, but they are rarely performed today. The Tyrolian brass-banda “Franui” have set some of Schubert’s lieder to traditional brass instruments. Their music is another link between traditions and new ideas, so typical for modern Austria. Things have changed since Felders’s or Schubert’s day. Somewhere along the line the major drawback for industrialisation, the region’s out-of-the-world-ness, must have joined forces with growing tourism and a rising conscience of the values of traditional arts and crafts. The natural sense of beauty, that comes to rural populations through the observation of the beauty and harmony present in the dance of the seasons and the wild flowers, in the song of the brooks and the calls of the shepherds on the rocks, this natural sense of beauty has always made for an architecture in keeping with the features of the surrounding landscapes, for an appreciation of music and poetry in whichever form.
Painters and builders went out from here to decorate baroque churches all over Europe, and one of the region’s most famous children is a woman painter, who was as famous as her male colleagues in her time: Angelika Kauffmann (1741 – 1807). So today we come to a place where old ways and new ideas, are not at odds, but further and help each other. The main productions are still wood and dairy farming. Wooden houses, old or new, are one of the main features of the villages, and beautiful they are. I stayed in an ancient-new inn in the village of Bezau, the Hotel Post, a former post-coach station. Today its rooms are entirely renovated and a modern wing, all of wood, allows accommodation for further guests. The clear and clean lines of the furniture and architecture, combined with a lovely view from the large wooden balcony, make for a restful stay. The hotel also owns a swimming-pool and spa, where wood and water get together in an atmosphere of peace. Its tennis-hall, another breath-taking wooden structure, was used as a venue for the Schubertiade, until in 2005 a flood destroyed the wooden planking and structures that allowed the transformation from tennis- to concert-hall. The Bregenzerwald today, this means also small distances and public transport. Whoever stays more than three nights is given a Guest-Card, allowing the free use of buses, swimming pools and cable cars to the mountaintops. Between nature and culture – unforgettable times are in store for who comes here!