From Graz we took a small prop plane into the city in the early morning, with the Alps emerging below exactly like model-train mountains, each one a different shade of vibrant green.
The trickiest thing about Innsbruck is the bikes. While bikes are given plenty of leeway all over Austria, in some parts of Innsbruck they get dedicated lanes on a secondary sidewalk between the road and the regular sidewalk. This means that you have to look both ways twice when crossing the street—once to check for cars, then again to make sure that a bike hasn't stealthed up on you while you were looking the other way. I nearly got run over by a cyclist once every few hours.
Travel around the city centred around Freidrich-strasse, easily identified by the Golden Roof standing at its head, which was covered in gilt copper tiles by Emperor Maximilian I in 1500.
We took a guided tour around the Imperial Palace (Hofburg), the former residence of Emperor Maximilian. Maximilan had a brilliant tomb created for himself in the Court Church (Hofkirche), with 28 two-metre high bronze statues of his relations and ancestors—including King Arthur, go figure—standing guard around him. Then one day the city officials refused to let the emperor back in the gates because he hadn't paid any of his bills, and he refused to set foot in the city again, living or dead. His magnificent tomb is still here, but he's buried somewhere else.
The sense I got from all the historical exhibits at castles, cathedrals and palaces was that Austria was a sort of underdog superpower—an empire, but a tenuous one. The emperors built great palaces, but they had to bring all the furniture from one to another when they travelled, because they couldn’t afford two sets. They were always working assiduously just to maintain what they had, be it by war or by marriage.
The lady at the ticket booth liked us enough to give us free passes to the Alpine Museum while we waited for the tour to start.
St. James' Cathedral
Completed in 1724, St. James' Cathedral, also known as Innsbruck Cathedral, is lavishly done in the Baroque style, and contains the tomb of Archduke Maximilian III.
It was €27 to get from Congress Station in Innsbruck's old town to the top of Hafelekar on the Nordkette mountain range. The trip would begin with a funicular (or cable-car) before progressing to not one but two gondolas. The funicular actually started as a subway and then went up the mountain to the town of Hungerberg, playing music almost identical to that played on the funicular into Nerv's geofront in Evangelion.
I felt a little lazy taking a gondola from Hungerberg (860 m) to Seegrube (1905 m) as people climbed up the sheer slope below us. Real gluttons for punishment cycled up. There was also a mad downhill mountain biking single track going the other way, and the whole area was a brilliant-looking ski slope in the winter.
The final stretch of rock from Seegrube was grey, with gravel-like scree filling the spillways between outcrops, though grass still grew on flat surfaces. It was cooler at the top, but not at all uncomfortable, and it was fun to watch a small family mountain sheep climbing around the rocks and bleating at all the people walking on their buffet.
From there it was about fifteen minutes' walk up to Hafelekarspitze (2334 m). Looking at the vista from the top of the Alps, it was the kind of beauty that made you want to start a religion.
It was in Innsbruck that I finally understood why so many characters in 19th-century fiction are advised to “go abroad for the air”. The air in Innsbruck was clear, dry and crisp, and you got the sense that everyone in the city climbed a mountain at least once a week. At the end, going back to Tokyo humidity was like being hit in the face with a greasy rag.
Throughout Austria, most people seemed to be tanned and fit, and I also saw a fair number of active people in wheelchairs. When you see a Japanese person in a wheelchair, he or she usually has a significant disability that requires someone else along for support, or they’re like my friend Yoshihiro, whose activity is limited because he has difficulty moving one side of his body. Most of the guys I saw in Austria looked like they were ready to wheel straight up a mountain, and there were also quite a few people moving nimbly on forearm crutches.
Schloss Ambras, or Ambras Castle, is a Renaissance castle in the mountains south of Innsbruck.
We got day passes for the Sightseer bus for €6 each, which was rather expensive compared to regular bus routes, but included headphones with vaguely useful explanations of nearby sights in German, English, French, Italian, Spanish and Japanese. The Japanese was even done by a proper Japanese person.
The castle had a fantastic gift shop (I was tempted to buy a real metal gauntlet for €200), an extensive armoury supplemented by early guns and two-handed swords, and an art gallery including a variety of old-world crafts in addition to a copy of the original painting of Vlad the Impaler (better known as Count Dracula).
The castle was most notable for the Spanish Hall and its styllistic obsession with Bacchus—taken to its most extreme in the Bacchus Grotto, a cave carved out of the mountainside where guests were tied down in what was essentially a dungeon until they had drunk a prescribed amount of alcohol, after which they'd be released and allowed to sign one of the castle's three drinking books.
According to the nearby plaque, these books "show signatures of the most popular personalities of the time."
The interior of the castle was the least interesting part—just three levels of portraits of relatives of Archduke Ferdinand II, notable only for the uncanny resemblance between Emperor Leopold I and Keith Richards in pirate gear.
They let you take photos of anything in the castle as long as you didn't use a flash. Sadly, they ushered me out of the art gallery before I could get a shot of the carving of "Little Death." The staff were very punctual: they told me time was up at exactly 5:00, and they were outside themselves by 5:05. Germanic efficiency.