I arrived in Schwarzenberg just as the funeral procession entered the graveyard. Scratched clouds lingered overhead, matching the mourners’ sorrow with their weightless, clawing rain.
Schwarzenberg stands, indeed stands out, among the fresh mountains of the Bregenzerwald region in west Austria. The stone church tower faces a dancing pavilion, while two traditional guest houses look on. Their facades, in fitting with the region, consist of stained wood layered like fish scales – or schindel as Irmtraud tells me.
“Bregenzerwald is my home,” she says. “And I wouldn’t want to be anywhere else. People here – our young people – they leave to study or for work but they always come back. They always come home.”
By now, the mourners have gone and wedding guests gather in front of the pavilion.
The women wear juppe, embroidered bodices that fit over fresh white blouses with aprons that hang over long black skirts. It is, as Irmtraud tells me, the oldest traditional dress in Europe that’s still actually worn.
This sounds a little flavoured by tourist board zeal, but I get a closer look at the juppe later in Schwarzenberg’s small museum. Gold stitching and blue ribbons promenade across velvet, cotton and centuries of needlecraft, while heart-shaped carvings hang on the windows. The scent of cinnamon and sawdust follows us around and lace-trimmed pillows snuggle onto the simple wooden beds.
While I’m fascinated, Irmtraud seems anxious to move on.
“We are not Tirol,” she says. “We are not Austria in a chocolate box. This is the real thing.”
In the village of Au, Andrea agrees. “Bregenzerwald prides itself on its innovation. You can see it everywhere, from the architecture to the gastronomy.”
She’s talking about the KäseStrasse, the cheese route that circles through artisanal shops, along the smooth but winding mountain roads and into the cooperative cellar near Lingenau. Rows of amber discs glow behind a pane of glass, while a woman slices cheese with a viciously large knife.
“Would you like a taste?” she says.
With that knife, I can’t refuse.
The Alpine cheese has a tough, sweet-yet-salty taste. Farmers here, like many in Europe, have struggled to make a living the old-fashioned way. So, they improvised, expanding into gourmet tastings, cheese tours, and in the case of one farmer, creating a range of beauty products based on cheese and milk alone.
The mountains have embraced innovation, in the form of 100 statues of Antony Gormley, each one standing proud at 2039 metres above the sea and attracting attention from the snow, hikers and the odd inquisitive cow.
Yet for all the focus on the future and innovation, those cows, snowy mountains, wild orchids and alpine air dominate Bregenzerwald as much now as they did years ago.
That’s why I find the paradox so interesting. The people I’ve met are fascinated by the future, while I’m drawn more to their past.
In Britain, we’ve lost so much of our heritage, our customs, costumes and traditions. And while I’m pleased that Irmtraud and Andrea are excited about the glassy modern buildings, the awkward truth is that I can see similar buildings and similar furniture across much of the world.
Yet there’s nowhere else I can see these juppe. I felt the same in Hoshinoya, in Japan, where I longed to see the rare flying squirrel that nested there but my host preferred the new American coffee shop.
I suppose that’s the difference between living somewhere and visiting. After all, when I lived in Toulouse I remember the excitement that coupled the arrival of a Japanese restaurant rather than one more patisserie.
And even if modernisation does bring us closer to a one-flavour-world, individuality still lingers in the shadows.
Take these Bregenzerwald boots for example:
Back in Schwarzenberg, I’m warming up inside. As it happens, both the funeral and wedding parties are in the same guesthouse as me, and so are the juppe they wear.
In fact, we’re the only women without one.
At least I can agree with Irmtraud on one point. It’s clearly not just for the tourists; this is the real thing.
Abigail King is a writer and photographer who swapped a career as a doctor for a life on the road. Now published by Lonely Planet, the BBC, CNN, National Geographic Traveler & more, she feels most at home experimenting here: covering unusual journeys, thoughtful travel and luxury on www.insidethetravellab.com