Your route takes you through gorges and flat hollows – wide between the hills of the foothills of the Alps around Alberschwende and Lingenau, narrow between the mountains of the foothills of the Alps around Andelsbuch and Bezau, squeezed in between the alpine peaks of the Kanisfluh, Diedamskopf, Zitterklapfen and Widderstein around Schnepfau, Au, Schoppernau, Warth and Schröcken. This correlates with the division into the Vorderwald, Mittelwald and Hinterwald (front, central and rear regions of the Bregenzerwald) – a topographical spectrum which, right at the start of tourism, had travellers extolling the “charming landscape” as an “enclosed park” whilst at the same time shuddering at the “Siberian exile” on the wild, upper course of the Ache. A valley area of contrasts, borders, crossings.
Cross-border experiences also leave their mark on the locals – they know how to set themselves apart from outside. Yet the scarce rural areas have never been sufficient to feed the population. The locals had to get moving, cross borders, leave behind their homes and families. This took on many different forms: the nomadic existence of alpine animal husbandry, or in the form of seasonal migrant work outbound commuting or even emigration (to America in the 19th century in particular). Flexibility, ideas and self-help were essential to stave off poverty. The area was only sparsely populated for a long time: only plot names give rise to assumptions about the border between Celtic and Rhaeto Romanic cultures. It was not until the High Middle Ages that Mehrerau Monastery in Bregenz encouraged the population of the area upwards of the Bregenzerache. From above, coming the opposite direction, you come across a second wave of population with the Walsers. The particle “Wald” (forest, wood) found in many of the names of places makes it clear how undeveloped this settlement area was for a long time. Naturally, the locals gladly take advantage of this remoteness: interesting as a hunting ground at best for the feudal rulers, extensive autonomy was allowed to develop which went down in literature as a “peasants’ republic”. It ended with the brief Bavarian occupation (1806 – 1814) as a result of the realignment of Europe by Napoleon.
Hard cheese and lace
It was during this time that the region developed in the form you see today. Rational, mercantile methods gained importance in agriculture, desertedness became characteristic of the Vorderwald to the Mittelwald, production of hard cheese grew to such a sustainable extent that the first dairy farm school in the Habsburg Empire was established. The new rulers were the cheese barons who amassed staggering wealth with the products of the new form of agriculture, and textile manufacturers who supplied material produced by the textiles home industry before the railway provided factories in the Rhine valley with workers after 1902. Such changes were also accompanied by resistance – Franz Michael Felder, author and spokesman of the revolt, is still considered an exceptional character in the valley today, and which is why one’s own house and home are tenaciously clung to. New sources of income have to be continuously developed – the multitude of manual skills is proof of this.
This culture has succeeded in maintaining its vitality. Innovation and flexibility based on the acquired continue today in initiatives such as the Werkraum and have turned the Bregenzerwald into a model European region.
The introduction of hard cheese making in the middle of the 18th century not only opened up new sources of income, it also changed the farmers. Initial failures are evidence of how much sweat and tears went into complying with the hygiene standards, into working out the complex production stages and the precise time standards. The alpine dairyman became a highly-reputable skilled worker with extensive expertise whose circumstances demanded him to be what we these days call somewhat interdisciplinary. For Franz Michael Felder, the poet from Schoppernau, he is “a jack-of-all-trades: shoe mender, vet, launderer, carpenter, tailor, philosopher and much more”. A century earlier, the valley community had already proven that its people knew how to help themselves in the face of adversity: in the form of the Au Guild, a new branch of industry was created from nothing: architecture and the building trade. What: from nothing? Even though the background to this movement is unknown, one thing is for sure: it was born from necessity, and the resulting talent shown by the farmers of helping themselves. And the architects’ contribution? Artistic talent practiced for centuries.
Farmers’ palace and parlour
However, none of the large buildings actually stand in the Bregenzerwald itself: they are constructed “outside”: “inside” keeps house, tries to increase affluence and displays it with a reserved pride. When, in the early 19th century, agriculture started to prosper – especially in the Vorder- and Mittelwald – new farmhouses were build which were soon known as farmers’ palaces and which, according to the relevant literature, were amongst the most magnificent in the whole of the alpine region. The log cabin was shingled, windows and doors were finely decorated in line with the Biedermeier period: more than anything else, however, people treated themselves to a panelled parlour, nice and bright thanks to the tiled stove and special pieces of furniture. The sofa was one such piece: around the middle of the century, manufacture of this piece exploded, only to dwindle in a few decades: usually manufactured in the evening at home by “laymen”, today they are popular collector’s items. The stoves, too, were special: the artistic tiles came mainly from local potters whose trade flourished during this century.
Decoration and Taste
And then were the covers and textiles: textile processing – first of all weaving, followed from around 1760 by embroidery and lace-making for manufacturers from St. Gallen – soon proved so lucrative that farming was sometimes neglected: a repeated upturn was experienced from 1865 following the introduction of the “Parisian machine”. This can still be felt today: there is something missing in a Bregenzerwald parlour without the white, finely crocheted net curtains.
As a rule, these skills are practiced at home, with the individual members committed to the family. One is surrounded by one’s own craftsmanship. This is also true of the clothing. The local costume stands out amongst all those from the alpine region: ornate, strict, proud – the “Juppe” is the first thing you notice. A four metre-long black piece of cloth is folded into numerous pleats, smoothed in several stages – this is the skirt. It is decorated only with one bright blue band. Then there are the half a dozen different pieces of headgear. The artistically embroidered blouse, which is a good indicator of social standing, is not the end of the magic. Inspired by fashion worn by 18th century courtiers in Spain, the costume still demands poise of the wearer today.
The magic becomes even more physical when it comes to cooking and eating. Whatever is produced by the soil and the garden is cultivated: the cheese from the largest silage-free dairy reigon, for example, is unique. And you can taste the meaning of refinement when you compage local cheese “knöpfle” with cheese “spätzle” from other regions. It is hardly surprising then that the Bregenzerwald has, by far, the most “chef’s hats” (culinary distinction) of all regions far and wide. Or that here, where one in three is employed as a craftsman, this refined everyday culture is a fixed source of income.