INNSBRUCK — Though I hate to admit this, I’ve become somewhat of a Scrooge. As a kid, I loved Christmas — cutting the tree, eating raw sugar cookie dough and caroling around the piano, my family always ending, oddly enough, with Oklahoma. But the older I’ve gotten, the more jaded I’ve become, turned off by the commercialism and waste created by one holiday. A recent trip to Innsbruck’s Christmas Market, though, changed all that and has rekindled my Christmas spirit.
Europe is renowned for its Christmas markets and in Innsbruck I find several, three of which are within walking distance from my base at Stage 12 Hotel.
Above: The unique entrance to the Swarovski Crystal Worlds attracts a lot of interest.
One sits in front of my hotel on Maria Theresien St. and I head there first, enjoying the tree-lined avenue and the branches wrapped in lights. There’s a second at the Marktplatz Square, where a blue electric tree lights up the centre.
Yet the market in Old Town is my favourite and for obvious reasons. According to history, these markets sprang up in areas where Christmas trees were sold, and Old Town has taken that to heart.
There’s a real tree in its centre — its height reaching above the Medieval buildings. I stroll the roughly 70 vendors that are selling things like handmade scarves and gloves, wooden kids’ toys, jewellery and Christmas decorations. The light from their stands adds to the cheer, as does the virtual display of snowflakes on the buildings. There’s also food, everything from pretzels and raclette to strudel and Kiachl (fried dough with sweet or savoury toppings). But it’s the Glühwein vendors I gravitate to. Glühwein is mulled wine that’s a mainstay and the stalls that sell it operate as social gathering spots.
Above: A giant Christmas tree adorns the city's Old Town each year.
One night, I sip Glühwein on a viewing platform above the revellers in front of the tree and Golden Roof, an iconic landmark that dates to 1500 and derives its name from the over 2,500 gilded copper tiles on its roof. A brass band with five musicians appears on the balcony to play carols. When they break into Silent Night, an Austrian creation, my eyes get misty. I blame it on the cold, but of course it’s not that.
The Christmas markets aren’t the only attractions that make Innsbruck magical. This is a city with a history of skiing and an appreciation for the finer things, namely crystals.
Olympic fans will appreciate Bergisel, a ski jump used in the 1964 and 1976 Olympic Games. It’s a stunning piece of modern architecture redesigned in 2002. It now stands 47m and features numerous viewing platforms, a wooded hillside the setting. When I look down from the top I feel like I’m leaping straight into the city.
Shakespeare quipped that “all that glitters is not gold,” and that’s an appropriate mantra for visiting Swarovski Crystal Worlds, built in 1995 to celebrate the Austrian company’s 100th birthday. Access to the Chambers of Wonder starts through the Giant, a head made out of grass and crystal, mountains in the background. Once I’m in the Giant’s mouth, the experience is unlike anything I’ve had.
The Chambers of Wonder features 17 different rooms that allow stimulating interactions with crystals in every shape, form and design. One is the Mechanical Theatre, a bizarre display where torsos donning fashion clothing flip and twirl through the air on a machine-driven line. Another is the Ice Passage, a virtual sheet of ice that comes to life with each step I take, cracking and creaking in tandem.
Above: Musicians and carolers bring a festive mood to the city at Christmas.
Then there’s the Crystal Dome, a domed room made of 595 mirrors, music by Brian Eno in the background. It’s designed to make you feel like you’re in a crystal and when I stand in the centre and speak, my voice is amplified 10 fold.
Every chamber stimulates my senses differently and I’m disappointed when the experience ends. There’s still bling to be had, though, as the tour ends in the flagship Swarovski store with its glittering array of products. I emerge sans damage to my credit card and walk outside through the gardens and Crystal Cloud, an amazing piece of artwork featuring over 800,000 hand-mounted crystals that hang over the reflective Mirror Pool.
What’s crystal clear after being in Innsbruck (after which I depart for the slopes) is this: I leave with a little less Scrooge and a lot more sparkle.