Innsbruck, long live the Emperor!

On the spring of 1490, the archduke of Austria Sigismund granted the government of Tyrol to Maximilian I of Habsburg. When the future Holy Roman Emperor stepped in Innsbruck it was love at first sight, for several reasons. One of them being the short distance to the Brenner Pass – making the city an ideal stop for those coming from Italy and the north of Europe-, and another the abundance of mineral deposits promising riches –blacksmiths would contribute greatly to the economic growth of the city producing armour, cannons and bells.

It became straight away one of his favourite cities, even though Vienna was the capital of the Empire. Maybe it was here in Innsbruck where he could evade from his duties, fond as he was of hunting, fishing and hiking- Tyrol had been known as the “land of the mountains” since the Middle Ages. 

Although his duties as ruler would keep him away most of the time, Maximilian promoted the city, which, during the decade of 1490, somewhere between the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, experienced a golden age as the centre of European culture and home to international events. Maximilian did his best to turn Innsbruck into a breathtaking place, commissioning numerous buildings like the Treasury and the Golden Roof (the city’s most iconic landmark).

In the Emperor’s absence, the city kept on playing a decisive administrative role and it was home to court members like Bianca Maria Sforza (Maximilian’s second wife) or later the two princesses Anna of Hungary and Mary of Austria, receiving numerous illustrious visitors from all over Europe. Maximilian is known as “the first European” because he advocated for the union of cultures and countries. He also earned himself the moniker “the last knight” due to his passion for jousts.

All this splendour left its mark in the compact and beautiful historic centre, full of Gothic and Baroque architectonic jewels.

On Herzog-Friedrich square we find the most iconic landmark of the city, the Golden Roof (Goldenes Dachl), from the 15thC. It takes its name from the fact that the balcony where the royal family used to watch their beloved tournaments and festivals is covered by 2657 fire-gilded copper tiles. As you can image it glows under the sun. It is also decorated with Gothic arches and paintings depicting coats of arms and peculiar figures, among them the Emperor himself, his two wives Bianca Maria Sforza (for whom the roof was built) and Mary of Burgundy, and some Moorish dancers.

The City Tower, also in the square, dates from 1450. Its 51 metres make it a privileged vantage point over Innsbruck. To get there you need to climb 133 steps but it is worth the effort and the reward is a magnificent view of the roofs, the medieval centre, the mountains, the Bergisel and the river. The onion shaped dome was added 100 years later.

In front of the tower the Helblinghaus will certainly catch your eye with its colourful Rococo stuccoed ornaments, although the building was originally built in the 15thC on Gothic style with a Baroque façade. Other remarkable façades in the square include the Stadtrichter Zeller-Haus, the Katzunghaus – with sculpted relieves in the balcony -, the historic Goldener Adler hotel– with its Golden Eagle -, or the Ottoburk, with its shutters painted with the colours of the Tyrol flag (white and red).

Most of the 130 old buildings in the historic centre are from Maximilian’s time.

The Imperial Palace, Hofburg, was commissioned by Sigismund after he chose Innsbruck as his residence on the second half of the 15thC. Maximilian expanded it and Empresses Maria Theresa had it rebuilt in Vienna’s Baroque style during the 18thC. Today, it belongs to the State and some of the 4000 rooms are used as office space, while some other have been reconverted into social homes (24 families live here) and the rest can be visited. The highlight of the visit is the biggest banquet room in Austria, richly decorated with paintings and frescoes, along with the royal apartments, the chapel and the tower.

Saint James cathedral was built in Baroque style during the 18thC over a Romanesque church and it had to be restored after WWII. It is one of the most important Baroque buildings in Tyrol although the Mary of Succour painting above the main altar by Lucas Cranach is from 1530.

Hofkirsche, the men in black guarding an empty tomb

They say Maximilian was obsessed with death and that he spent the last five years of his life dragging a coffin into all his trips (which would not be the most typical thing to do but taking into account he finally died on the road heading for Vienna maybe he wasn’t that misguided after all). His wish was to be buried in a big tomb surrounded by 28 full-size statues of his ancestors, forged in all detail in black bronze. They started working on the figures in 1502 but by the time of his death, on January the 12, 1519, they had only completed 11. His son, Charles V, would continue this “tradition” which would be passed on to his grandson, Ferdinand I. The last figure was finished in 1555.

Seeing that the tomb in Saint George’s cathedral at Wiener Neustadt, where he was buried, was too small to host all those figures, Ferdinand commissioned a new one, complete with a Gothic monastery, for his grandfather in Innsbruck, the Hofkirsche, which was finished in 1553.

This collection is known as The Men in Black (even though there also women represented), all depicting remarkable figures like nobles, kings, queens and Emperors, accompanied by king Arthur, surrounding a carved marble mausoleum. Funny enough, the tomb is empty; the Emperor’s mortal remains never made it there and he still lies in Wiener Neustadt. It is worth taking your time to admire each and every one of the forged figures, the details of the embroidery in the dresses (according to the fashion of the figure’s time), the braids in the hair, the features in the armour… They are absolute masterpieces.

It is the main monument in Innsbruck and the most important mausoleum dedicated to an emperor in Europe.  

Walking around the city’s neighbourhoods.

A good way to explore the neighbourhoods of Innsbruck beyond the historic centre is to follow one of the trails created by the Tourist Office. There are 7 of them, themed to suit different aspects and interests (the Habsburg footprint, the younger Innsbruck for active people, modern architecture, Christmas markets…).

We chose the trail that took us to the Bergisel Ski Jump, one of the most iconic images of Innsbruck, up on a hill of great historical significance.

The trail starts by the Triumphal Arch built in 1765 by Empress Maria Theresa (visiting Austria and not hearing about Maria Theresa is quite a challenge), to commemorate the marriage of his son Leopold II (one of her 16 children) and to honour her husband, who died during the celebrations. The triple arch was built with reused stones from the old city door and is decorated with marble reliefs.

From here we walk south towards Wilten Basilica (arguably the most beautiful Rococo church in Austria) and Wilten Abbey (closed to visitors) at the foot of the hill. Going up we pass by the Tirol Panorama, a museum holding an enormous 360º painting on a canvass of 1000m2 depicting the battle of the Bergisel and the fight for freedom of Tyrol against Napoleon forces in 1809 and some exhibits focused around the region (nature, politics, illustrious figures, religious icons, anthropology and local culture…). The building, from 2011, was designed by local architects Stoll Wagner, the same team that designed the Panoramaweg, the vantage tower rising on top of the hill above the ski jump platform, which is our next stop. We get there following the signs for the panoramarunde, the round trip trail of 2.2km that circles the hill. It goes into the forest passing by the observation deck with a glass floor (drachenfelsen) over the Sill river gorge. Suddenly, and almost inadvertently, we find ourselves in the wild. Then the trail takes us up the Jump and over some breathtaking views of the city.

The Innsbruck Ski Jump was designed by architect Zaha Hadid and it is open from November to May and from June to October. Therefore, funny enough, a hot July day you can sit and watch ski jumps in one of the most iconic sites for this sport. There will be no snow, of course, but the jumpers come to practice. A gondola allows you to avoid stairs to get to the vantage point (and the restaurant there) on the top platform. Apart from the 360º view above Innsbruck and its surroundings, one of its highlights is the access to the balcony just above the platform from where skiers throw themselves into the void -and to be able to confirm that one needs to be a total badass to take the plunge from here. It’s intimidating.

We can walk back to the city centre or take the tourist bus (acquiring an Innsbruck Card, which I’d recommend, will give you free access to transport, including the gondolas, the tourist bus and the shuttle bus to Swarovski Kristallwelten). 

A magic world of crystals

I must admit a visit to Swarovski had never been in my plans – I’m not really a fan of jewellery or glass figurines. I went there without any expectations, not really knowing what I’d find. It really surprised me. And I certainly enjoyed my visit.

A few kilometres away from Innsbruck you find the city of Wattens, seat of the glass company Swarovski, founded in 1895 by Daniel Swarovski, a Bohemian who had invented a glass cutting machine. There are two very different sides to the business, actually. One is focused on industrial machinery. The other, the one that has made the name famous around the world, produces jewels and ornaments.

In 1995, to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the company, the artist André Heller created Swarovski Kristallwelten (Crystal Worlds), a subterranean chamber of wonders guarded by a green giant –inspired in his childhood games when he imagined giants living in Vienna. To make his idea come to life he invited artists from around the world to create installations inspired by crystals.

Since then, the space has doubled in size. And now it covers a complex of 7.5HA including the outside gardens, where we can find outdoor installations like the cloud made of 800.000 crystals that reflect over a lake and twinkle in the sun, creating the effect of a million little sparkling lights. Also in the garden we find an unexpected exhibition of Roman coins and other objects found during some works in the grounds.

Inside the giant there is a chamber of wonders inspired by the one in
Ambras Castle, where each room surprises us with an installation radically different to the previous one. Some artists play with movement, others with mirrors, others are inspired by nature and the science of geodes and crystals and others bring some humour to the plate. A very curious experience. Names like Salvador Dalí, Andy Warhol, Niki de Saint Phalle, John Brekke, Alexander McQueen, Yayoi Kusama or Brian Eno… are proof of the mix of styles and artistic disciplines of the creators. The space grows bigger and changes every year to offer something new to recurrent visitors.

And of course, the exit goes through the gift shop. Prepare your wallet though, and maybe a kidney. A shuttle bus will take us from Innsbruck and back (included in the City Card).

The Nordkettebahnen and the Hafelekar summit, over the clouds and above the city

Just a 30 minutes streetcar and gondola ride takes us to the biggest natural park in Austria, 2300 meters high. The contemporary gondola stations designed by Zaha Hadid, who got the inspiration from alpine glaciers, are really interesting.

First, the Nordkettebahnen stops at Seegrube (1905 m). Here you can take the “trail of perspectives”, a short walk of 1.5km, ideal to stretch your legs and contemplate the city at your feet or the rocky summits above. There is a restaurant and a shop.

Next and last stop takes us near the Hafelekar (2.334m), 15 minutes away from the summit. Here we will be able to gaze at the whole Karwendel park – on a clear day, that is.

This is a trip accessible to almost anybody that will allow you to effortlessly enjoy the Tyrolese mountains. You need to take into account that Innsbruck stands at 574m and therefore we are going up almost 1800 metres at once, and the temperature falls quickly. In the middle of July, at 27 degrees in the city, the summit was around 16º and it was windy. You need to be equipped with a good windstopper or at least a jacket. Even though we are getting there in a gondola a summit is still a summit and the weather can change in a blink of an eye anytime.

On the way here the gondola passes by the Alpine zoo, home to autochthonous species like lynx, bear, eagle, otter, owls…

Schloss Ambras

Our last visit before leaving is one of the most important historic landmarks in Innsbruck. Built on top of a hill over the ruins of a 12thC fortress, this castle was commissioned by Archduke Ferdinand II in the 16thC, after he was named provisional ruler of Tyrol. He brought two Italian architects to create a Renaissance palace for his wife, who he had married in secret (and who would be very loved by the Tyrolese).

Ferdinand used the castle to keep his collections of weapons, armour, portraits, natural items, musical instruments and weird things. Unfortunately, his son Charles, who inherited the castle, was not interested in these objects and sold the collection to Emperor Rudolf II, who left it in Ambras. Neglect caused many manuscripts, books and drawings to be lost when the building deteriorated. In the 17thC Emperor Leopold I moved the most valuable objects to Vienna (kept today in the National Library). Napoleon also took to Vienna the rest of the collection after the occupation of Tyrol. In 1855, Archduke Karl Ludwig refurbished the palace to turn it into his summer residence and redesigned the garden in English style. the castle would later be abandoned again until it became property of the Republic of Austria after the dissolution of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. It was restored in the 70s in order to be opened for visitors.

Inside we can visit The Spanish Room, where Ferdinand welcomed dignitaries, regarded as one of the most beautiful Renaissance rooms in the world. The walls are decorated with portraits of the counts of Tyrol. The wooden doors and ceilings covered in gold leaf are the original ones from the 16thC.

The Chamber of Wonders. During theRenaissance these chambers which tried to embody the knowledge of the time and held collections of weird and unique objects were trendy. Ferdinand’s chamber was regarded as one of the most significant in the 16th C and it is the only one which has been preserved in its original location. Glass, silver and gold objects, bronze, glass and wooden statues, coins and weapons, scientific instruments, natural artefacts… It is still one of the most important collections of Exotica (non-European items) of that time. It inspired André Heller to design the Swarovski Crystal Worlds.

We can also see the collection of weapons and armour, the Strasser glass collection, the Habsburg portrait gallery and a collection of Gothic sculptures, among other things.

The cured gardens contrast the wild forested area crossed by streams and cascades spreading down the hill. From the garden we can appreciate the castle’s structure, a white building with wooden shutters painted with the colours of the Tyrol flag, red and white.

Next to the castle there is a park with enormous trees and a pond with the usual set of waterfowl residents.

We eat in the historic centre before leaving for Munich. Maximilian turned Innsbruck into a great capital and culture centre. His love story with the city, though, has a bittersweet ending. On his last visit, on November 1518, a few months before his death, the Emperor had fallen into such a debt with the city’s innkeepers that they rejected to host him. He and his 400 men (and his coffin, we presume) had to sleep outside the walls (and outside the coffin, we presume too). Never again he would see his beloved Innsbruck, a city which remembers him fondly. On the 500 anniversary of his death, in 2019, they prepared all sorts of homages. We were able to join them for a few days. Long live the Emperor.

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