Two Swiss – discovering the history and stunning scenery of Innsbruck

Tyrolia is a great destination for ski touring – Mario takes us to Praxmar near Innsbruck

With our mountain guide from the Bernese Oberland, Mario, we travel to Praxmar near Innsbruck. We stay in the comfy and friendly Alpengasthof Praxmar and share dinner for several evenings at this beautiful table.


I join the team for two ski tours – towards the Lampsenspitze – this is the view from the top…


…. and to Zischgeles – this is a foto that shows us shortly before reaching the saddle with the ski depot.


Thank you, Mario, for having provided me with these fotos.

But then – I feel my Achilles tendon – I had strained it too much, when doing cross country skiing. Well, there is always something else to do: It takes half an hour by car to get to Innsbruck, and this is a town with a lot of history in a stunning alpine setting. Something new to discover. Niklas joins me.

The Alpgasthof has a handy map, gives us hints for our excursion and organizes a knowledgeable and experienced tour guide, Elisabeth Grassmayr. I buy “Innsbruck – der  Stadtführer” by Monika Frenzel (Tyrolia Verlag). The “Stadtführer” is my primary source, along with the input of the tour guide and of Dr. Google.


Innsbruck is strategic on the way to the Brenner pass and, belonging to Tyrolia, became part of the Habsburgian possessions

Already in Roman times, Innsbruck (Oenipontum and nearby military post Veldidena – today Wilten) was a stopover on the way to the Brenner pass across the Alps. In the twelfth century Innsbruck was in the hands of the Bavarian counts of Andechs. Later the counts of Tyrol took over (hence the name “Tyrolia”), and in 1363 the dukes of Habsburg inherited Tyrolia. In 1420 they moved their Tyrolian residence from Meran to Innsbruck.


Rendez-vous with German emperor Maximilian I – also well-known to me from Switzerland

Around 1500, the German emperor Maximilian I used Innsbruck as his second residence.

I have “met” emperor Maximilian before. I know him from the Swabian War (Schwabenkriege). He lost the battle at the Bruderholz and the battle of Dornach near Basel in 1499 and had to definitively give up the original Habsburgian family possessions in Switzerland.  But outside Switzerland Maximilian was able to strengthen the position of the Habsburgians paving the way for his grand-son Karl V (later the sun would never set in Karl’s empire and Habsburg’s policy to arrange political marriages had become famous).

Now I had another rendez-vous with Maximilian in Innsbruck, as he is very present until today. To show his power, he built the “Goldenes Dachl” (“little golden roof”). It overlooks the main street (Herzog-Friedrich-Strasse). Whoever crossed the bridge and headed for the Brenner had to pass by under the Goldenes Dachl. Maximilian used the loggia to watch festivals or tornaments.


Maximilan’s grand-son, Frederic I, built the Hofkirche in memory of his grand-father.


Maximilian had planned his cenotaph as a memorial for the Habsburgian family. Its completion took 80 years, until 1584. It is the major attraction in the Hofkirche.


Maximilian is not buried here. This sarcophagus is empty (hence called “cenotaph”). A bronze statue of Maximilian kneels on top. Reliefs around it show scenes from his life. 28 bronze statues mourn around the cenotaph. They are either relatives (e.g. his wives and parents) and ancestors (e.g. king Rudolf I) or leaders that Maximilian admired (e.g. king Arthur). A detailed description of the “black men” (Schwarze Mander) is on the Website “The World of the Habsburgers“. Renowned Renaissance artists, among them Albrecht Dürer, participated in the work.

Our tour guide knows  every black man (and woman). As she points to Rudolf I, the first Habsburgian to be elected king of Germany (1271), I can proudly add that  my home town Basel was on good terms with Rudolf. He was just besieging Basel. The citizens heard that the duke outside their walls had become king and opened their gates. Rudolf’s wife Anna von Habsburg is buried in the cathedral of Basel, with little son Karl.

There is more to see in the Hofkirche: An old organ from the late 16th century, the tomb of Andreas Hofer (who fought to free Tyrolia from Bavaria in the early 19th century) and the silver chapel wth the tomb of Ferdinand II and his wife Philippine Welser.

Maximilian completed the Hofburg (Imperial Palace) around 1500. It was a gothic castle with a famous tower that was covered with emblems. In the 18th century Maria Theresia had the castle rebuilt in the baroque style. Principal magnet for visitors is the giants hall with paintings of the large family of Maria Theresa (she had given birth to 16 children). My guide knows every family member. She also takes me through the rooms – the tables are set for superb dinners and the sofas and chairs have been renovated based on faded examples found on the attic. This video gives an overview. And here is a foto of the Imperial Palace with the Northern Chains (Nordkette).


Maria-Theresa was the last Habsburgian. She married Francis from Lorraine. Today she is also present in Innsbruck: The “new town” centers around the “Maria-Theresien”-Strasse. In Innsbruck, her second son, Leopold (later Leopold II) married Maria Louisa of Spain, but a few days later Maria Theresa’s husband, emperor Francis, died.  Maria-Theresa was very, very sad. The triumphal arch at the end of Maria-Theresien-Strasse shows the wedding of Leopold and the death of Francis. Our tour guide still feels sorry for Maria-Theresa.

Today the “new town” area is great for shopping in all the arcades and in the old palaces that turned into shops. Roof top bars and restaurants provide a great view of Innsbruck stretching along the Inn and squeezed between the gorgeous mountain chains.


Maria Hilf picture (Maria Help) – a guest present from the duke of Saxony in Dresden to Leopold V, when he was bishop in Passau

The “Maria Hilf” picture by Cranach and its history made a great impression on me. Cranach’s Maria Hilf (Maria Help) picture is integrated on the altar of the baroque dome of Innsbruck.


“Maria Hilf” is an almost protestant painting – Cranach was a good friend of Luther’s and he painted Maria in a natural way – without a nimbus. How did this painting end up in the strongly catholic town of Innsbruck? This is the answer: Archduke Leopold V was bishop in Passau. When visiting the duke of Saxony in Dresden around 1600, he was given the “Maria Hilf” picture. He first took it to Passau, but when he became archduke of Tyrolia, he left a copy of “Maria Hilf” in Passau and took the original with him to Innsbruck. It is now adorning the choir of the dome of Innsbruck (very small). Usually there is a silver altar around Cranach’s “Maria Hilf”, but during fasting times, the painting around it is revealed – as it presents itself now.

Our tour guide gives me a copy of the “Maria Hilf” picture – in the dome it is so tiny that I could not discern any details.

Maria Hilf

And the tour guide showed me many houses in the city that are decorated with a copy of Cranach’s painting. An almost protestant painting made its way into a catholic stronghold. I enjoy seeing this – it gives hope.


Strolling through the old city center

It is a pleasure to stroll through the old city center. The Rokoko Helbling house dominates the Herzog-Friedrich-Strasse near the “Goldenes Dachl”. It once belonged to a rich merchant.


Across the Helbling house the Town Tower (Stadtturm) dominates the city line, next to the old townhall.


In the narrow Kiebachgasse we find the traditional restaurant “Weisses Rössl” (white small horse) where we enjoy Apfelstrudel and Palatschinken.



I read that the word “Palatschinken” is said to come from the Latin word “Placenta” or “cake”.

Later I come back and have a Blunzengröschtl (potatoes roasted with blood sausage and cheese, served with a cabbage salad). I first frowned a bit, but then found that it does not taste bad at all.



Innsbruck is surrounded by mountains – real mountains, about 2500m high!

While strolling through the city of Innsbruck, I hear the sound of heavy ski boots banging on the pavement. I look up. Yes, there is a skier going by, helmet on his head, boots at his feet, carrying skis and poles. His friend is not so noisy. He is a snow boarder with soft boots, helmet on his head, snow board under his arm. Others come in sneakers, while the ski boots hang over their shoulders. We are in the middle of a town of 130’000 inhabitants. What are the skiers and snowboarders doing here?

Well, Innsbruck is surrounded by real mountains, about 2500m high. Skiing areas are just above the town, to the north (Nordkette) and to the south (Patscherkofel). Other valleys such as the Sellraintal and the Ötztal are not far.

As the sun comes out, we can see the Nordkette just above the “Goldenes Dachl”. Our tour guide confirms, it takes her half an hour to go skiing there, and when there is snow in Innsbruck she can ski down into the garden of her house. She skis practically every day. I hear that students ski during their lunch break and then join the lessons again not taking off their ski boots. I am impresssed. I have always dreamed to live in a town that is so close to skiing opportunities…



Around – and above – Innsbruck

By car we drive south to Igls and see the Bergisel jump with Zaha Hadid’s viewpoint and restaurant.


Above Igls there is the Patscherkofel ski area. No wonder that Innsbruck has been selected for Olympic Winter Games – even twice, in 1964 and 1976.

We get onto the Brenner motorway and have to pay two Euros for about 5km, until we reach the main motorway of the Inn valley. Not everything is cheap in Austria…

To the north there is a cable railway that takes passengers from the city center to the Hungerburg (literally “castle of hunger”). Zaha Hadid has been here as well, as the train station shows (Basel has refused to build her proposal for the Town Casino).


At the Hungerburg train station I find a great view of Innsbruck with the river Inn and with the mountains in the south of the town…


… and a teleferic that leads up to this ski resort in the Northern Chain (Nordkette).



A stunning scenery…

Skiing high above a city… on the Website the scenery looks gorgeous. I may come back just to experience that – and then, in town in the evening, I can dive into the culture of Innsbruck that has played an important role in European history.




Three Swiss in Florence – Enjoying museums and palaces

Again to recapitulate: The architecture time line – now focusing on the second part with the secular buildings


Let me now present some of  the museums and palaces we visited…



The palace was built in 1254. Some say that 40 years later this palace was the model for the Palazzo Vecchio. I can see similiarities and even confused the two buildings in the beginning. Town leaders lived in this palace – sometimes local  representatives, sometimes representatives of the German emperor. In 1574 the Bargello became the seat of the “bargello”, the head of the Florentine police. Today, the palace is another renowned art museum.


In the ground floor I am impressed by the works of Michelangelo – below is his Bacchus.


Also on the ground floor are the prototypes that Cellini casted before creating his famous Bronzeperseus with the head of Medusa around 1550.


Cellini’s Perseus stands in the Loggia near Palazzo Vecchio. Cellini was a goldsmith. His bust is venerated on Ponte Vecchio. Franz Kotteder gives this title to the biography of Benvenuto Cellini “the life of an artist like an overheated roadmovie” (“Florenz, eine Stadt in Biographien”, Merian 2014). He repeatedly got involved in quarrels and fights. Due to his good connections (even to the Pope) he always obtained pardon.

On the first floor there are various gothic and renaissance sculptures and paintings. Here is the marble statue of David that Donatello created in 1409 – it attracted my attention.


About 30 years later Donatello made a second David out of bronze that is more famous than his first David.

On the first floor there is also an exhibition of artworks from various countries. For instance this porcelain elephant from Persia.



Palazzo Vecchio

Originally the Palazzo Vecchio was called “Palazzo della Signoria”. It was built between 1299 and 1343, as the townhall for the town republic or the place of work and residence for their “Signoria”. The Palazzo was amplified several times, for instance in the 16th century, when the Medici reconstructed it – it was then their “Palazzo Duccale”. When the Medici moved to the Palazzo Pitti around 1570, they renamed their “old” palace to “Palazzo Vecchio” Above the front door are lions protecting the lily flowers. Lions and the flower are symbols of the town. Often they appear as a lion protecting a lily with his paw (called “Marzocco”). The lion is the symbol of the pope or the Guelphs (symbol of freedom as opposed to the eagle that is the symbol of the German emperor). Why the lily became the symbol of Florence is subject to guesses. Some say that the goddess “Flora” had founded Florence.


The Palazzo Vecchio can be visited, but we decided to postpone it to our next trip to Florence. This is an impression taken in the first courtyard. P1070184


Ponte Vecchio

The Ponte Vecchio is THE place in Florence. If a tourist does not remember anything else, he always remembers this bridge crossing the Arno. This bridge was built around 1340.  The common roof above the small houses is the Vasari Corridor. It was ordered by the Medici after they had settled in the Palazzo Pitti around 1560 to connect their “new” palace with the Uffizi and their “old” palace. Until 1593 there were butchers in the small houses on the bridge, but the dukes did not like the smell, when walking through their corridor. They doubled the rent and goldsmiths and jewelers moved in (Dumont).


We spent quite some time with one of the jewelers in his shop. From his workbench, he has a great view of the Arno.


Palazzo Davanzati

There are many, many rich palaces in the city center. We visited one of them, the Palazzo Davanzati. It was constructed around 1350.


I am impressed how modern this palace is. A tube brings water into the upper floors.


There is a toilet on each floor.


And there is a bathroom on each floor.


The most beautiful salon is the Papagalli room with the frescos covering the walls.


In one of the rooms we come across the brother of the famous Masaccio that died at the age of 27 after having painted the magnificent “Expulsion from the Paradise” and the “Crucification”. His brother Scheggia painted scenes from everyday life – and this helps today to understand what life in Florence was like.



Ospedale degli Innocenti

The Ospedale degli Innocenti or the house for the orphans is not only a great piece of Renaissance architecture built by Brunelleschi, but it was also a very social institution. It was completed in 1445. Today it is still an orphan house, and also a museum. We just enjoyed the harmonic architecture of the Piazza SS Annunziata dominated by the archades of the Ospedale and the church.



Palazzo Medici-Ricardi

The Palazzo Medici, Renaissance from around 1450, was later amplified by Ricardi after they had acquired the palace in 1584.


THE treasure here is the small chapel with the frescos by Benozzo Gozzoli, ca 1460, showing the adoration of the kings. There are guidebooks that claim to recognize the Zar from Byzanz and the Patriarch from Jerusalem as wel as Lorenzo Il Magnifico. Dumont does not believe this. He just recognizes Piero de Medici and the artist.



Let us continue with the Palazzo Pitti, the Uffizi and the Accademia in one of the next blogs.