Feldkirch, Austria. I’d never heard of it and had no plans to visit. I ended up in this sub-Alpine village for one reason only; it was the easiest and least expensive way to visit Liechtenstein. Not knowing how long that would take I booked two nights, but by the end of the first day, I’d seen more than half of Liechtenstein. As I rolled into bed that night back in Feldkirch, I wondered what I would do with a full extra day.
The next morning I woke to brilliant sunshine. The surrounding hills sparkled with clean green pines and cottony clouds scooted through crisp blue skies. I grabbed my camera and headed out to explore. At the pretty Town Hall I learned that Feldkirch, Austria was established by Count Hugo I of Montfort around 1200. Each of the 50 farms at the base of the mighty Schattenburg Mountain was required to deliver one cartload of manure each year to ensure the Montfort vineyards thrived. Thus the Count’s list of suppliers – the Mistrodel – (literally the “manure list”), became the town’s first census of residents. It was just the first of many intriguing stories I would hear about Feldkirch.
The town flourished and by 1218 the Montforts had built the first hospital, as well as St. John’s Church and Monastery. This is the very church where the devil is said to have appeared against a backdrop of lightning and sulphur vapor one night, to drag the alchemist Faust through the skylight to hell. According to the legend, the skylight must forever remain open, since any new pane of glass would shatter.
The first part of what would become the mighty Schattenberg Castle was completed in 1265 atop the mount. Today the restored castle houses a fine restaurant that offers impressive views over the town and valley. But residents also insist it is haunted. Long ago, Schattenburg was home to Ida, the most beautiful maiden in the land. One day a traveling troubadour came through town and captured her heart. When the musician moved on, he left behind a sad and very pregnant Ida. Afraid of the scandal that would come of a bastard child, she killed the infant when it was born and crept down the beggars’ staircase to wash the blood off her hands. Locals claim her sorrowful ghost follows the same path every Saturday night.
As the town grew prosperous, thick stone walls with high turrets were constructed around it for protection. Wealthy citizens built palaces and mansions within the strong fortifications, in architectural styles ranging from Gothic to Baroque. One in particular, the Lingg Inn, is renowned for the paintings of naked Bacchus figures on its facade. The chubby-cheeked cherubs were revealed in their nakedness during a restoration in 1969. Originally painted in 1888 as a protest against the restrictive laws of the day, they created such an uproar that the owner was forced to have clothes painted on them.
Though only small portions of the old city wall remain, four of the magnificent towers and the two original town gates still stand. Most significant among them is the Katzenturm, named for the big cannon that once occupied its top floor. During medieval times, the cannon was replaced with the Pummerin, an 8.5 ton bell that still strikes thunderous tones on special occasions. Each peal recalls the time in March 1799, when Napoleon’s troops massed outside the town walls in preparation for attack. In a ploy aimed at fooling the citizens of Feldkirch into believing they were safe, the troops suddenly withdrew on Easter Sunday morning. Led by the bell in the Katzenturn, all the bells rang out in joy. The French, mistaking it as a call to muster additional forces, fled in the face of what they assumed must be superior power.
Feldkirch has been witness to scores of historical events. The stately Voralberg State Conservatory, built in 1900, began life as the Jesuit college of Stella Matutina. Its most famous student was Arthur Conan Doyle, who attended in 1875 to improve his German. During his time at the institute he wrote many articles for the school – who knows, maybe the seed of his Sherlock Holmes character was even sown in Feldkirch.
Fleeing World War I, author James Joyce escaped to neutral Switzerland from the Feldkirch train station in 1915. Many years after the end of the war he returned for a long stay. Every evening he stood at the station and waved to trains headed for Switzerland, paying homage to his successful escape. “Over there, on the tracks – that is where the fate of Ulysses was decided,” he said.
Even today, the town continues to play a part in modern mythology. In the 2008 classic “Quantum of Solace,” James Bond pursued a villain through Marktgasse, the main street in the historic center. The chapel at the old Capuchin Monastery attracts headache sufferers, who claim that praying to Saint Fidelis cures their malady. The monk was so over-zealous in his attempts to convert the local farmers that they murdered him in 1622. His body was interred at the cathedral in Chur, Switzerland, but his head remained in the Capuchin Church in Feldkirch. Each year on April 24, the anniversary of his death, it is paraded through the streets.
Feldkirch is such a treasure trove of exquisitely preserved buildings and churches that I can hardly believe it is not better known. Certainly, it is it an ideal base for visiting Liechtenstein. But Feldkirch itself is well worth a visit, to see its delightful old town and hear the many legends that have been handed down from generation to generation.
Author’s Note: I stayed at Hotel Garni Bären, a wonderfully historic guesthouse located just a two-minute walk from the historic center. If you make your reservation through clicking on the above Booking.com link, I will earn a small commission, which helps keep this blog free for you to read.