James Leavey's Corner
Schubert, Scheese And Schigars

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Schubert, Scheese and Schigars

by James Leavey, editor, The FOREST Guide to Smoking in London
and The FOREST Guide to Smoking in Scotland

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James Leavey

When they told me I would be hiking up one of the Austrian alps for the first time in my long, mountain-avoiding life, I gave them the short answer, similar to the one Mariah Carey had used, when the producer of one of her recent concerts in London asked her to make an entrance by descending a tall flight of stairs on stage."I don't do stairs," she replied."And I," I politely told my Austrian hosts, "don't do mountains."

It's not that I dislike heights.I've just never ever walked or climbed up a mountain.All that strenuous healthy exercise doesn't quite go with my penchant for Havana cigars and single Malts.

So how on earth I found myself, just a few hours after I had arrived in Vorarlberg, Austria's westernmost Province, taking what the hardy Austrians call a 'light stroll' up a steep path to Lingenau on a hot summer's afternoon after a boozy airline lunch, to see the Quelltuffhange, one of the region's natural phenomenons, I'll never know. 

But I have to admit it was worth it to experience the world's second largest tuff stone formation, i.e. water dripping down the multi-coloured Sachertorte layers of the mountain, where 'the stone turns to water.' Indeed, our guide pointed out that if I left anything in the waterfall, such as my Rolex wristwatch, for a few hours, it would be covered in limescale and 'turned to stone'.For a moment, I considered sitting in the rockpool for a while, just to give my wife a nice surprise when I returned home.

Voralberg is a small region, just 2600 square kilometers, with a population of about 350,000, but has great scenic diversity.From the gentle banks of Lake Constance - the backdrop every summer of the largest lake stage in the world where the Bregenz Festival takes place - to the imposing summits and glaciers of the Silvretta.

That said, one of the reasons I had reluctantly agreed to this bit of physical torture, i.e. vertical walking, was to attend the annual Schubertiade Festival. 

What started in 1976 as a small series of song recitals and chamber music concerts in the Palace of Hohenems has burgeoned over the years into an internationally renowned annual event, with over 300,000 visitors a year.It's the biggest and most renowned Schubert festival in the world.This year's Schubertiade was held for the first time in the charming rural villages of Schwarzenberg and Bezau in Bregenzerwald, in two cycles: from June 13 to 25, and from August 29 to September 9.Artists performing at the festival included some new interpreters of Schubert's work, as well as well-known guest performances from Alfred Brendel to the Alban Berg Quartet, and a masterclass by one of my favourite singers, Elizabeth Schwarzkopf.

If I had any reservations about this trip they were soon dissipated by the idea of dining out in a region that boasts over 40 award-winning restaurants (according to Gault-Millau). 

Vorarlberg is undoubtedly a Mecca for connoisseurs of high living in every sense of the word, i.e. the view, the fine wines (one of Austria's best kept secrets - they keep all their best wines to themselves, mainly because they don't produce enough of the stuff to share with the rest of the world), and the even finer classical music. But what really did it for me was the exceptional food everywhere we ate - I could have spent the entire trip being transplanted from one excellent restaurant to another.And they were all smoker-friendly!

At first it seemed odd to travel all the way to this part of Austria just to listen to Schubert's music, for Franz Schubert was a true Viennese.The son of a schoolmaster, he was born in an outlying district of the imperial capital on January 31, 1797, and died there of typhus on November 19, 1828 aged just thirty-one. However, his short life was marked by tremendous creativity. 

Schubert showed an extraordinary childhood aptitude for music, studying the piano, violin, organ, singing and harmony, and, while a chorister in the imperial court chapel, composition with Salieri (1808-1813). By 1814, he had produced piano pieces settings of Schiller and Metastasio, string quartets, his first symphony and a three-act opera.

Although family pressure dictated that he teach in his father's school, he continued to compose prolifically.His huge output of 1814-1815 includes numerous songs, two more symphonies, three masses and four stage works.Schubert's fame was long limited to that of a songwriter, until the late 19th century, despite the fact that he had produced major instrumental masterpieces such as his Fifth Symphony and the 'Trout' Quintet.

One of the most prolific composers in the history of music, Schubert composed nearly a thousand works in about fifteen years. And he still managed to find time to nip out to the Austrian countryside, for a breather with his friends.He would have liked 21st century Bregenzerwald, with its fresh air, fine comestibles and politely conservative, friendly people.

17 alpine dairy farms and about 200 family businesses produce 4,500 tons of cheese every year in Bregenzerwald.Only silage-free milk is used - a special criterion as less than 2 per cent of the milk produced in the EU is silage-free.The Bregenzerwald mountain cheese, tasty and hard, is the region's hallmark. 

Now in its third year, the Bregenzerwald Cheese Road comprises 25 mountain and alpine dairy farms as well as private cheese makers, 30 innkeepers offering special cheese dishes on their menu, 15 butchers, baker and speciality shops, 10 traditional craftsman's businesses, including coopers, shinglers, bobbin lace makers, producers of traditional costumes, artisans and carpenters.

In many of Austria's mountain regions the alpine cattle drive and the accompanying fair are the festive highlights of the farmer's year.In the Bregenzerwald village of Schwarzenberg, this tradition has been maintained almost unchanged for over 400 years.In the middle of September the cows return from their high alpine pastures.The leader of the cattle drive and his helpers decorate the animals with sumptuous bouquets of alpine flowers and polish the beautiful cow bells until they shine.Then everybody gets up early as the journey back to Schwarzenberg can take up to ten hours. Between 9am and 1pm, they arrive - over 800 cows accompanied by an orchestra of ringing bells and the echoing shouts of the cowherds.While the casual visitor may only see an indeterminate herd of brown Austrian cows, each farmer immediately spots his 'Blumle' or 'Gamsle' (well, it gets lonely in the winter months).

In the Bregenzerwald, the pastures have been farmed on the basis of a three-stage system for centuries.The cattle (young stock and dairy stock) first grazes the pastures on the bottom of the valley after the snow has melted.From mid-May to the end of June they move to the Alpine foothill, then to the alp, back to the Alpine foothill until mid-October, until they are finally taken back to their home stables.

Walter, my friendly mountain guide who places huge leaves over his head to keep the summer sun at bay, assured me that the smaller cows that graze near the tops of the Alps have shorter legs on one side of their body, to enable them to get round easily. And, sometimes, he added, if they've imbibed too much of the local Williams Pear Schnapps, they topple off the mountain and roll all the way down to the nearest inn.

When Walter sobered up, he further explained that the three-tier form of farming is based on economic reasons on the one hand, because it allows optimal exploitation of the pastures.On the other hand, this system is important for the preservation and maintenance of the sensitive mountain landscape.And the alpine pastures with their many herbs offer the healthiest fodder for dairy cows, inspiring them to produce milk that is particularly tasty and aromatic, the ideal ingredient for the spicy Bregenzerwald mountain cheese.

About a third of Bregenzerwald's population live on and with agriculture - either as full-time or part-time farmers, and what they like to eat is hearty inexpensive food, especially anything made from flour, butter, milk and cheese.In 1995, the region produced six cheeses and by 2001 these had expanded to 23.But then the province has 200 farmers and 10 cows per farm, which apparently works out as 30,000 people and 30,000 cows.

The Bregenzerwald, an impressive region at the northern edge of the Austrian Alps, has, to a large extent, maintained the structure of its traditional rural homesteads, many of them complete with a barn for the cows, often under or part of the building, which is warmed by bovine flatulence on cold winter nights.Every building we saw seemed to be made or at least covered in wood, and there are woodpiles everywhere, for fuel.What a good place to avoid the whims of the world's oil companies.

On my second day in Austria, I was talked into another 'leisurely' two-hour-each-way walking tour from Sibratsgfall to Schonenbach, where we got our breath back over a half-barrel of Kasknopfle (little dumplings made from soft dough and baked with three types of local cheese and topped with carmelised onions) for lunch at Gasthaus Egender.

The third day saw us climbing up the Didamskopf mountain from the middle cable car station to the top.This is where I learned to use my double corona as a walking stick, and then light it up when we arrived at the Kasewirt, or cheese inn, at the very top.By the evening, I had sufficiently recovered to enjoy a splendid dinner at my smoker-friendly hostelry, Hotel Schiff, followed by a bout of schnapps and cigars in the wood-lined, low-ceilinged bar.

All this exercise probably accounted for my sleeping through most of the Sunday morning concert in Bezau, although what I heard of Schubert's 'Rosamunde' and his Symphony No.8 sounded up to world class standards.

Then a last selection of the local cheese for our final lunch at the Kasehaus Andelsbuch, before I dragged my weary bones to the cigar humidor in Zurich Airport (the prices of cigarettes and fine cigars is half that of the UK - another excellent reason to make this trip!), en route back home. 

The funny thing was that I really enjoyed my first visit to the mountains, much to my surprise.One day soon I may even decide to take another trip up the Austrian Alps, preferably in a smoker-friendly bus.

Copyright James Leavey, 2001. All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission from the Author.

James Leavey was a guest of the Vorarlberg State Tourist Board (, and his trip was organized by the Austrian National Tourist Board in London ( stayed at the Hotel Schiff in Hittisau ( can honestly say with his hand on his expanding stomach that he enjoyed exceptionally fine meals (much lighter, varied and subtler than what you'd expect) at the following smoker-friendly Austrian restaurants: Gasthaus Adler in Schwarzenberg, Gasthaus Egender in Schonebach, the 'Schulhus' restaurant in Krumbach, the Kasewirt at the top of the Diedamskopf, Kasehause Andelsbuch, and, not least, Hotel Schiff in Hittisau. 

For more information on Schubertiade Schwarzenberg 2001, see

Special thanks to Oskar Hinteregger and Barbara Gigler in London, Miriam Berkmann at Vorarlberg Tourismus, and the Metzler family at Hotel Schiff. 


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