We visited Vorarlberg and experienced so many wonderful things. I barely know how to begin. The first thing to know is this small province in the west of Austria shares borders with Germany, Switzerland, and Licthtenstein. And there are mountains…
We spent most of our time in a district called the Bregenzerwald, a landscape of delightful villages set in improbably green pastures, surrounded by those mountains.
Our days were filled, visiting small producers and sampling local food, looking at finely crafted wooden architecture – old and very new – and generally being enchanted. I’ve struggled with how to introduce you to the diversity of the Bregenzerwald and at last I’ve decided to begin with something we noticed everywhere that can give you an insight into the land and the people. That something is woodpiles.
Throughout our travels there were big logs waiting for a sawmill, lumber drying in piles, and firewood split and stacked with precision. We heard stories about how essential wood is to the Bregenzerwald and that harvesting is rigorously regulated and sustainable. Healthy forests help protect from avalanches, and maintain the picturesqueness of the landscape that citizens (and visitors) treasure.
Commercial forests support a long and continuous tradition of wood craftsmanship that has enabled modern wooden architecture to blossom alongside the big traditional farmhouses and village inns. Local architects collaborate with highly skilled tradespeople to produce striking new buildings. I went to Vorarlberg particularly to see this architecture, and that will be the topic for a future blog.
Travelling through the region, I began noticing how people took great satisfaction in splitting and piling firewood. Look closely at the photo below of a traditional farmhouse to see that what appears to be the foundation is actually tightly stacked firewood with crisp openings created for the basement windows.
People in Vorarlberg embrace a concept that translates approximately as “proper” or perhaps “respectable”. We got the sense that there was considerable effort to build proper woodpiles and to live in proper communities.
Every detail of the elegant workshop and gallery in Riefensberg, that celebrates and keeps alive the know-how of the traditional Bregenzerwald woman’s costume, was perfect and proper. Like the striking firewood display in a niche next to the washroom.
These contrasting wood piles appeared to be a long-term installation. Notice how precisely all the wood is split and selected. This doesn’t just happen.
And when it comes to burning all this firewood? Wood smoke was on the air as we stepped out of the car on arriving in the Bregenzerwald. It can be cold and dark deep in mountain valleys in winter, and a warm fire brings comfort and joy. Older houses often have large ceramic heating stoves that are the centres of family life. Our hotel had a contemporary fireplace in their cozy, wood-lined lounge (with afternoon cake). We immediately felt at home that cool rainy day.
Wood fire also powers industry. We saw pear schnapps dripping out of a wood-fired still in an artisanal distillery. And we watched as the cheese maker, in a tiny mountain dairy, fed the fire under his cheese-in-the-making. On another scale, a number of communities have biomass plants burning wood waste to provide heat for hotels and residences. All the wood that is harvested gets used.
Some people have fun with their fire wood before it gets burned. We noticed firewood lawn ornaments.
Here the winter’s wood makes an appropriate backdrop for artifacts that represent some traditional trades of the Bregenzerwald. An old work bench evokes the heritage of fine woodworking, and a cowbell recalls the sound of pastures filled with grazing cows, whose milk goes into the mountain cheese.
I stopped the car to marvel at this display of extreme wood piling.
Are you getting a sense that piling wood is taken very seriously? And perhaps it is about more than just wood piles?
One last example to make my point. Some years ago the tiny town of Krumbach invited some well-known international architects to design a collection of new bus shelters. The architects visited the region and worked with local designers and builders to translate their ideas into reality.
A Spanish architect, Antón García-Abril, chose as his muse the same ubiquitous stacks of lumber that attracted my attention. His bus stop didn’t excite my interest from the pictures I saw before I experienced the landscape. Seeing it in person, after travelling about the Bergenzerwald for several days, the shelter felt inspired. Actually standing and sitting in the shelter revealed it was designed to frame views of an approaching bus and the surrounding landscape. I suspect that children are thrilled to clamber over the ledges. Stacks of wood can be more than just stacks of wood.
A big thank you to the Vorarlberg State Tourist Board who invited me to visit, and hosted Sheila and me during our stay. A direct flight from Halifax to Munich and a two-hour drive to Vorarlberg made getting there very convenient.