x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 20 January 2018

Find history and perilous sports in Innsbruck

The Austrian Alpine city is a mix of art, architecture and adrenalin.

:"Poseidon's Puzzle", an installation at Swarovski Crystal World. S Olah
:"Poseidon's Puzzle", an installation at Swarovski Crystal World. S Olah

"This is the end, then," I say hoarsely, blinded by the balaclava that has slipped down over most of my face. But no one can hear me. My helmet-encased head taps a beat on the thick steels bars on either side as I sit squeezed in with four people in a bobsleigh that's hurtling down an Olympic run at more than 100kph. "We're going to die - die, I tell you!" yells the girl behind me, her voice eerily distorted by the wind. I resign myself to fate.

I had arrived two days earlier in Innsbruck, the capital of Austria's Tyrol province, with no foreboding of impending death, unless you count that crazy minute of turbulence on the old twin-propeller plane as it slanted towards the jagged, slate-blue Alps hemming in the city on all sides.

Known as a destination for winter sports - Innsbruck has twice hosted the Winter Olympics and is gearing up to host the Youth Winter Olympics next year - the city receives two to three million visitors every year, mostly from other parts of Europe.Visitors from the Middle East spent a cumulative 10,000 nights in the city and that number is predicted to keep rising strongly. But in autumn, when I visit, the hordes are nowhere to be seen at the airport.

Stepping outside the terminal into the cold September air, I meet Rainer, my rugged Austrian guide, who lightly tosses my heavy suitcase into the back of his van and points to something in the distance. Squinting in the morning sun, I make out a strange structure of concrete and steel twisting out of a hill in the distance: it's the Zaha Hadid-designed Olympic Ski Jump. Featuring the Iraqi-born architect's trademark curves and angles, it looks completely at odds with the dark forests and red-roofed villages swathing the lower slopes of the mountains behind.

"Isn't it the most fabulous thing you've ever seen?" Rainer asks. His chest puffs up with pride, and he faills to notice I don't agree. We trundle down narrow roads, the Alps always in view no matter which way we turn. After about 15 minutes of leisurely driving - Rainer spends his time at the wheel pointing at the scenery - we pull up in front of the Grand Hotel Europa, directly opposite the main train station. I get a quick glimpse of flower-filled window boxes before I'm herded into the lobby. Stopping only to kick my luggage into my spacious second-floor corner room, Rainer and I head to the non-descript cafe next door for a croissant and coffee, a bargain at €1.5 (Dh7), before turning our faces towards the city centre.

As if on cue, it begins to pour. Cursing, we sprint back to the hotel to borrow umbrellas, then walk towards the 800-year-old Altstadt, or Old Town, shoes squelching on the damp cobblestones. We arrive 20 minutes later, plunge down the cafe-lined Maria Theresien Street in the pedestrians-only zone and begin to encounter Innsbruck's infamous tourist hordes, pushing through Chinese tour groups, German hikers and Italian families in town for the weekend (Munich is a two-hour drive; Venice, about five). I shut my umbrella so I can see better and, despite the gloom that inevitably accompanies rainy days, Innsbruck doesn't disappoint.

We slowly walk past the heritage buildings of the Altstadt, all in pristine condition and all still in use. My neck develops a crick from gazing upwards at the ancient, flawless edifices, their facades painted pink, eggshell blue or pale yellow; each decorated with figures, pillars and high stone arches.

The rain stops as suddenly as it started and, as we round a bend, there's a flash of light. It's the sun, out from behind the clouds and glinting off the "Golden Roof", Innsbruck's best-known Gothic landmark. Part of the main facade of a former citadel, the gilt-shingled roof sits atop a narrow, intricately decorated balcony, commissioned in 1494 to commemorate the marriage of Emperor Maximilian to Maria Sforza of Milan. A closer look reveals a monarch who was much honoured - Maximilian features everywhere in the bright murals - chatting with his two wives (the first being Mary of Burgundy), standing beside his grim-faced counsellor, and - my favourite - silently suffering his court jesters. Today, staying true to the purpose for which it was constructed, the building houses the city's marriage registrar.

We turn into a side street and stop at a cafe for a quick snack of kaiserschmaren (chopped pancakes with fruit; €10; Dh50) and refreshing glasses of the locally produced Almdudler (€2.5; Dh12), a sweet, mild herbal beverage. Finding benches in the tiny square overhung with glossy, gnarled trees and fragrant with flowering bushes, we ponder our next move.

"St James Church," announces Rainer, indicating a massive stone building to my left. He tells me the 18th-century cathedral was restored to glory after suffering heavy damage in the Second World War, and I dutifully follow him through the wooden doors (open daily; entrance free). The church soars around me in a confection of white marble and gilded decorations up to the domed ceiling. The main altar is overhung with cherubs and angels, and in the centre is a tiny "Maria Hilf" - Mary with baby Jesus - encircled by hundreds of spikes of dazzling gold shooting out in all directions. It's the halo to beat all haloes, and I temporarily lose my powers of speech. Then Rainer beckons me to the front of the church. Standing right in front of the magnificent altar, he points to the ceiling, and I realise that three of the "domes" are actually as flat as pancakes. We discuss the masterfully executed illusionist paintings all the way back to the hotel.

I wake up the next morning with aching muscles and a fever from my umbrella-less jaunt in the cold rain, and applaud Rainer's plan for the day ahead - a slow trawl through warm museums.

We start with the Imperial Church, the tomb of Maximilian, in the city centre. The atmosphere inside is spooky, heightened by the rows of grim, age-blackened bronze figures - bygone royalty - watching the heavily decorated crypt with a sepulchral eye. I shrink back a little, and Rainer chuckles and leads me to a statue of Andreas Hofer, the intrepid peasant revolutionary who led the Tyroleans in the "Wars of Liberation" - four battles fought against the French-led Bavarian army. Despite Tyrol's defeats (save for one war in 1809), Hofer is a revered local hero and appears all over the city, sometimes in the least-expected places. Next door to the church is the Museum of Tyrolean Folk Art which, among other things, displays hand-carved figurines modelling the top fashions of 1900; elaborate parlours and sitting rooms from the Gothic, Baroque and Renaissance eras; and twee Biblical miniatures.

But my favourite museum is the Tirol Panorama, an airy, glass-walled building (open Monday to Sunday, 9am to 5pm; €7 [Dh35] per person) on the flanks of the 746m-high Bergisel hill, south of Innsbruck. Its claim to fame is as the site of that 1809 battle between the local peasants, wielding rudimentary implements, and the gun-toting Bavarian army. This historic moment of success is magnificently relived in Das Tirol Panorama, a 19th-century painting across canvases measuring just under 1,000 sq m. It's full of dying soldiers, charging cavalry, mansions on fire, country maidens offering water to fallen men and zealous monks egging on groups of tired farmers. I find it all very grand and noble, and Rainer is only able to tear me away with a promise to visit the famous Swarovski Kristalwelten.

But first to Rainer's beloved ski jump. I protest, telling him there's no point in visiting when it isn't open to skiers at this time of year, but he won't hear of it. So I deign to take a cursory look at it (it is 98m high, with a stadium that seats 28,000 spectactors). Then we ride an elevator to the top, and step onto a glass-walled balcony into what looks looks like a massive oil painting.

Except that it is Innsbruck. We're only 250m above the city yet we're surrounded by hills, snaking roads ("That one goes to Venice," says Rainer, pointing), little hamlets with spindly church steeples poking through, and the city lying below us like a toy town. I find an empty spot and sit cross-legged, unable to take my eyes off the panorama and completely forgetting to put my camera into action. Out of the corner of my eye, I can see Rainer gloating.

An hour later, we are back in the van and after a few minutes (Innsbruck really is a tiny city), we are standing outside Swarovski Crystal World (admission €11; Dh55). Carved into the hill is a giant, spouting water from his mouth; he is said to guard the precious treasures within, so we stop for cheesy shots, then enter the "cave" - a labyrinth of 14 installations, from the jaw-dropping, reflections-crazy Crystal Dome to Alexander McQueen and Todd Boontje's icicle-filled Crystal Dream. Swarovski boasts that the park has drawn 10 million visitors since it opened in 1995, and I can see why: each installation is glitzier and more phantasmagoric than the last. Along with dozens of my fellow visitors, I drift as if in a dream. The tour comes to an end about 45 minutes later in a brightly lit retail space. Dazed, I leave with a simple, crystal-studded pendant in the shape of Swarovski's iconic swan.

I go home that night sated on Innsbruck, but with a feeling of apprehension building in my stomach. Tomorrow brings up my last day in the city, and I've planned to end my trip, but hopefully not my life, with a ride down the Olympic boblseigh run in Igls, south-east of the city.

The following afternoon I find myself in the back of a large truck with Rainer and a crowd of hooting people, who keep slapping each other on the back and talking in rapid-fire German. As we near the top of the run, they get louder and louder.

"They're saying, 'Want to bet we make it in one piece?'" Rainer says with a laugh, then looks at me closely. "Are you scared?"

"No," I lie through clenched teeth.

The truck comes to a halt and we are quickly off-loaded. Before I know it, I've been assigned to a battered-looking bobsleigh - captained by a bored-looking ex-Olympic champion - along with three girls who're going to do the run with me (€20.35; Dh100 per person, per ride). And, wind howling, my skull nearly bashed in despite the helmet, spine curved painfully and involuntarily from the terrific speed, I rattle to the bottom of the 1,220m track. That, I realise as I stagger green-faced out of the much-dented vessel, is the scariest thing I've ever done. But I now have a certificate that allows me to say, in a very casual manner, "Bobsleighing? I did it in Innsbruck. Piece of cake."



The info

The flight

Austrian Airlines (www.austrian.com) flies from Dubai to Innsbruck via Vienna from Dh3,795 return, including taxes.

The hotel

The Grand Hotel Europa (www.grandhoteleuropa.com; 00 43 512 5931) has a two-night Christmas package from €248 (Dh1,228) per person, including breakfast, Christmas sweets, a gala dinner each night and taxes. The offer is valid for stays between December 23 and 29.