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. 

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