Words by Liz Schaffer & Photographs by Angela Terrell
Try as I might, meditation is something I’ve always struggled with. Prone to ambling and general misbehaviour, my mind has a fondness for tangents, which means that when sitting in a quiet room and doing all I can to focus on my breath, it will wander. Thoughts will pop up, an itch with take hold, my legs will start to tingle. Or things might go in the opposite direction and I’ll be woken from an accidental slumber by a polite tap on the shoulder and a sympathetic smile.
So you can image my nervousness when - with spring rain falling against the window and the scent of Austrian spruce filling the air - I lay down for half an hour of sound meditation, a practice that bathes you in the melodic chimes of a Tibetan Singing Bowl, cancelling the noise and vibrations of a busy outside world that your body inadvertently absorbs. I’d assumed it would be a futile venture but in a matter of minutes the light-filled studio, the unseasonable weather, even the clangs of the bowls began to fade away. I was empty, in the moment, without thought or care… and it was glorious. There are numerous ways to learn to let go. It would seem that all I required was the calming distraction of sound, something lovely and a little otherworldly to set my mind at ease.
This session played out high in the Austrian mountains, above the picturesque town of Leogang. I was staying at Holzhotel Forsthofalm, a design-centric hotel dedicated to wellness and escape; an abode surrounded by goats, mountain bike trails and soaring peaks that make the rest of the world feel remarkably far away. Meditation is part of their Mountain Life Programme, a series of exercise classes ranging from early morning yoga, to pilates, hikes and traditional workouts. The programme’s effects are heightened by scented saunas and a spa that utilises natural oils crafted from herbs and aromatics that grow in the garden and alpine surrounds.
Built from wood, Forsthofalm’s design no doubt contributes to the meditative atmosphere. The walls are spruce (as are the 200,000 dowels, used in place of nails and glue), the sculptural furniture is larch and beds are made from pine; materials that honour the hotel’s position in the heart of nature and are destined to age and evolve over time, their patina adding to Forsthofalm's warmth. In such a setting, sleep is remarkably deep, which the team attribute to the use of ‘Moon Wood’, which is sourced from trees felled between November and January when they have stopped producing sap and are at their strongest. While each spacious bedroom is divinely homely, the wood’s effect is most dramatic in the 'Secret Forest’ suite, which comes with a suspended wooden bed, fireplace, private sauna and panoramic view of the mountains.
Beginning life as a winter restaurant for those seeking lunch when skiing, food at Forsthofalm continues to take centre stage. Each evening involves a multi-course feast featuring largely organic ingredients sourced from local farmers, with dishes enhanced by a collection of 300 wines. The menu changes nightly and, for me, dessert was a highlight - each a deconstructed work of art, the combination of chocolate, bergamot and chilli particularly memorable.
In such a setting, nature remains ever-present and windows abound, framing the chocolate box scene while inviting the natural world in. The soundtrack is of waterfalls and birdsong and it’s wonderful how little you feel compelled to achieve. One day my activity consisted of little more than swimming, reading and watching cows and clouds meander up the valley, my mind unruffled and the moment appreciated. It appears it is not just sound I require to meditate, it’s simply something stunning and a little out of the ordinary.
Nature seems to be appreciated across Austria - which is understandable, given its dominance. Indeed, during the two hour drive from Forsthofalm to Innsbruck the scenery, both bucolic and dramatic, was impossible to ignore; a melange of alpine meadows, wooden chalets, sheer cliffs and swathes of dandelions. It was on this drive that I began to wonder if urban distractions - the architecture of Innsbruck, the presence of art and history - would prove themselves to be equally effective meditation tools.
Innsbruck is an astounding destination, a vintage postcard brought to life - the pastel houses of Maria-Theresien-Straße tumbling towards the soft green River Inn, the towering mountains, the medieval lineage, the Tyrollean fare. I appreciated this combination, wine in hand, from the family-owned aDLERS Restaurant, a glorious culinary establishment atop Adlers Hotel. Below me, travellers and locals were wandering in the spring sun, seemingly lost in thought. Watching them, I felt compelled to explore the city, to bask in its splendour - its 13th century architecture, Zaha Hadid’s futuristically beguiling Bergisel Ski Jump, the Old Town’s glistening Goldenes Dachl (Golden Roof), the archways, frescoes and stone.
When walking through it, Innsbruck feels like something from another era - which is fitting for a city that was once at the centre of Habsburg Court life, their legacy preserved in Empress Maria Theresa’s Imperial Palace (Hofburg) and Gardens (Hofgarten). And then there’s the Court Church (Hofkirche), where you’ll find the mighty cenotaph of Emperor Maximilian I. Completed nearly a century after his death, its artistry will rob you of worlds. Around an ornate central tomb stand 28 life-size bronze statues, Maximilian’s royal ancestors. It is humbling and heavenly in equal measure - the respect for life, art and devotion utterly intoxicating.
It was in this state of awe that I turned my attention to the mountains, for in Innsbruck they are constantly calling. Here nature is ever-present and, should you crave space and height, it’s possible to travel from the city centre to Nordkette (which reaches 2,637 metres at its highest point), in around 30 minutes. Passing Hadid-designed stations - which reflect the river’s hue, at its most vivid in spring - the journey is a dreamy combination of the alpine and urban and culminates in a transcendental vista. In one direction, sawtooth peaks cascade into Bavaria, in the other, the verdant valley opens as it twists towards Italy. During my visit - watching birds dart and parachuted locals take flight - the clouds amassed and light rain began to fall, returning my thoughts to Innsbruck below. It would take a decade for this water to filter through the limestone and reach the city’s drinking fountains, an exercise in time and patience.
Taking those final gulps of pristine mountain air, feeling the cool breeze on my skin, I couldn't help but smile. Austria had taught me to mediate, albeit a little unconventionally. Architecture, mountains, music and time. This is what I’d been missing.