Advent in Innsbruck

Innsbruck and its villages don their festive cloaks with Alpine cheer in a setting that seems made for the Christmas season.

It's so special to be staying in a traditional Austrian farmhouse that provides a roof for both people and animals. Haflinger horses occupy one end of the building, and there are stylishly designed holiday apartments in the other end. Each morning as we set out, one golden head after another pokes over the stable door with steam misting around nostrils. 

The place is on a sun terrace in Patsch, a village at the foot of Patscherkofel above Innsbruck, where views span the Brenner Pass, Stubai Valley towards the glacier, and the Inn Valley. Hohe Mund soars like a wave captured frozen, and Serles and Nockspitze play into the scene, as perfectly proportioned as an artist's imagining. The Nordkette chain that protects Innsbruck stretches eastwards, as impressive as ever. 

Advent is almost here and Innsbruck feels festive. On honeycombed squares across the old town, between colourful medieval facades and alleys that are cul-de-saced by mountain views, are huts selling mulled wine, candles and handicrafts. There's a Gemütlichkeit to the place - a cosiness in the sweet aromas, chatter and golden-lit cafes. As far as large Christmas markets go, it is charming. 

Rattenberg Advent, in a medieval town further up the River Inn, is even more magical. Flames dance out of cauldrons on street corners, and candles twinkle on windowsills and cast pavement glows from paper bags. A lemon sky proclaims dusk over the languidly flowing river, as we munch warm chestnuts and gaze at the mountains. The spectacle takes place on the four Saturdays before Christmas and plays on the tradition of fire in ancient customs. As darkness falls, the "light bearers" parade the ornate streets, led by an angel on stilts, to fire up the thousands of candles that will light the city for the rest of the evening. Shops selling renowned regional glass stay open and market stalls sell mulled wine with elderberries, gingerbread and chestnuts. There's not a tacky item of festive tat in sight. 

The following day, in Innsbruck, we buy half an Apfelstrudel from Cafe Kröll in the old town and head up the Nordkette on the space-age, glacier-toned funicular. The day is so bright and mild that there's a feeling of spring in the air rather than winter on the doorstep. Larches glow Lucozade orange against green meadows and snowy summits. From the top, Hafeleker, we can see across the jaunty sea of the Karwendel and down to Innsbruck, like a toy town with toy planes landing far below. Patsch is glowing in the last vestiges of sunlight. Soon, snow will fall and the valleys will be bustling with folk kitted out for snow sports. Today, it's like we have the scene to ourselves. Though of course the horses will be around to welcome us back later. 


Switzerland in miniature: Ballenberg

Delve into bygone rural Switzerland in the authentic farmhouses, dwellings and Alpine huts at Ballenberg, the national open-air museum in the canton of Bern. The honeycomb of paths make for lovely Sunday strolls.

We reach the sunbaked valleys of Ticino after a short stroll through woodland dappled golden. Here, on a bench beside a bulging vegetable patch, we picnic in the heat of the Swiss mediterranean. Mountains face us, tempered by a misty veil.

It's taken all of an hour to walk from western Switzerland, where we parked the car. We've passed giant industrial villas in private grounds, ramshackle wooden storehouses on stone stilts, and gingerbread-house-style dwellings with timber frames and glorious gardens.

This is Switzerland in miniature - Ballenberg, the national open-air museum in the canton of Bern. Arranged according to canton in pastures above poetic Lake Brienz are more than 100 houses and farm buildings, as well as 250 animals, representing rural culture in historical Switzerland.

In one parlour, it's as if we've stepped in while the inhabitants have popped out: a pair of shoes is warming under the oven, and a loaf of bread is set ready on the table. Upstairs, there's a small rocking horse and sweet gingham linen on twin beds.

There's a hat shop - and today, a milliner at work in the studio; and a saddlery, where leatherwork shines. Low-ceilinged huts, with living space attached to stables, are dark but welcoming, reeking woodsmoke. In a townhouse with pale blue trims, we learn how dyes used in the silk industry led to the creation of Basel's pharmaceutical empire. In every nook, the past comes to life in household items, clothing, photographs and books. The vegetable patches are enough to make the mouth water, and the freshly pressed apple juice being sold beside one quenches our thirst nicely.

Now, we're halfway through our tour of the country - and we can't resist spending a while longer on this sun-baked bench on the southern flank of Switzerland of old.


The sound of silence: Tschiertschen, Switzerland

The sound of silence bellows in Tschiertschen, a village hidden high above Chur in the Swiss canton of Grisons. Meadows teeming with butterflies tangle among mighty conifers, and wild summits orbit into the furthest distance.

The village is charmingly, quintessentially - and I mean, really - Swiss. Shuttered wooden chalets with colourful window boxes are scattered like Duplo bricks across the steep left flank of the Schanfigg valley. The scene is wreathed in woodland and wildflower meadows, which fall away before a halo of bulky mountains with profiles like sleeping dinosaurs. Tschiertschen is actually not far off a fairytale. The hotel we are staying in - the 1894-built The Alpine - shimmers like a palace atop the village rooftops. Cloud further up the valley casts a Wild Witch darkness,

We arrived earlier in the afternoon and my shoulders already feel lower. We're just 90 minutes drive from Zurich, and 20 minutes up from Chur, Switzerland's oldest city, but all that can be seen of the urban sprawl is a glow rising from the valley bottom at night. Strolling the village later, we admire tangled country gardens and nosily peer into low-ceilinged living rooms with Alpine charm in spades. There's an organic farm kiosk selling beef from local farmers and traditionally produced cheese - all much cheaper than the supermarkets in Zurich.

On the three-hour Butterfly Trail the next day we ascend wizened woodland and cross panoramic pastures - not spotting a single butterfly, until we emerge onto a sun-dappled wildflower meadow and are encircled by fluttering chessboard butterflies, pale blue counterparts, blowsy bumblebees and buzzing cicadas.

The Nostalgia bus, a circa 1950s sunshine yellow Postbus model, wakes us to the present as it noisily chugs round the corner by the church and splutters away, impossibly, between the tightly packed houses. It's touristy, but somehow at home in this time-forgotten place, which recedes like a hermit into the mountainside, blooming only to those who come and really listen.

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