Austria: A religious experience

St Georgenberg-Fiecht Monastery in Tyrol, Austria.

St Georgenberg-Fiecht Monastery in Tyrol, Austria.

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As an alternative to the usual beach holiday, why not try a spell in an Austrian monastery? says Avril Cadden.

The words “prayer and work” aren’t two things I’d associate with going on holiday, but at St Georgenberg-Fiecht monastery, my home for the next few days, I will hear them uttered on several occasions.

I’m on a monastery escape in Austria where, in the absence of television, news and the internet, I’m hoping to completely switch off. Run by Benedictine monks, the monastery is a 40-minute drive from Innsbruck Airport.

I admit, I’m slightly nervous about spending a stint in a religious establishment, but any fears soon disappear when I’m greeted by Pater Arno, wearing flowing black robes and a boyish grin.

The 74-year-old, who has been with the order since he was 20, takes my hand and invites me inside.

The monastery is large, imposing and reminds me of a museum as I gaze at the religious artefacts and paintings adorning the walls. The corridors are long and flanked by windows that look out to the cloisters and a bronze statue of St Benedictine.

The building was once a boarding school for 120 teenage boys, but now the rooms are empty and the air is hushed and quiet. There are 13 monks in residence, including Pater Arno and the Abbot, although some of the monks are away on missionary trips when I visit.

The guest rooms are named after saints, and my humble abode for three days is Room 107 – Saint Irmgard of Suchteln, named after a saint who helped the poor and lived a simple life in solitude. Basic and functional, the room includes two single beds, a desk with lots of religious reading and an en-suite toilet/shower.

The monastery is the smaller sister to the original St Georgenberg, built in 1138, where the monks lived for more than 550 years until a series of fires forced them down from the mountains to St Georgenberg-Fiecht. The original clifftop monastery, now restored, is also a hotel and restaurant.

Pater Arno, surprisingly sprightly for his years, guides us there, in silence, as we take part in some meditative walking. The 90-minute uphill hike follows a path flanked by the Stations of the Cross and we enjoy some spectacular views. When we reach the medieval monastery, we’re presented with a hearty bowl of venison stew and a cold beer.

Although simple, the rooms here are charming, and there’s even a ‘honeymoon suite’ which looks down to the valley below. We continue our journey to the Wolfsklamm gorge. A steep staircase follows a torrent of cascading water as it clings precariously to the rock face. When I reach a small bridge at the top of 354 wooden steps, I feel as if I’ve walked the stairway to heaven and all that’s missing is a set of pearly gates.

It’s evening by the time we reach St Georgenberg-Fiecht, and the monks are gathering for evening vespers at the ornate and opulent church next door. Mass is held there every Sunday and open to visitors, so I join in the very beautiful and humbling experience.

Although prayers and meditation are offered as part of a stay at the monastery, they are not compulsory. Guests can also take part in dream therapy, spiritual dance or counselling sessions.

For some people, though, just switching off, being quiet and taking time to appreciate nature is all the spiritual guidance they need.

Everything runs with clockwork precision at the monastery but the atmosphere is relaxed, and although Pater Arno rises at 5am and goes to bed at 10pm, guests have a key and can come and go as they please. Dinner times are a lively affair, with food prepared by monks in the kitchen. Much of the produce is grown on site, including apples from the orchard, used to make cider. The sharp drink has a heady kick and it’s not for sale. “If we sold it, then we would be thirsty,” says Pater Arno.

Beyond the monastery, there are also trails to explore. I see many pilgrims on the Jacob’s Trail, which runs from Salzburg. Train enthusiasts will love the Achenseebahn steam cog railway which trundles high up the mountain to the Achensee, the largest mountain lake in the Tyrol. Here, you can take a boat ride across the still green waters, or walk all the way around the lake and back to Jenbach.

Between Jenbach and Stans is Tratzberg Castle. Built in 1500, it was a hunting retreat for the Emperor Maximilian I and the Fugger family. Their family tree is depicted on the wall in the building’s great hall. And you can be high in the mountains one minute and deep underground the next. A visit to the Schwazer Silberbergwerk silver mine on the outskirts of Schwaz is fascinating.

When you get to the bottom, an old miner shows you around an underground maze. This mine was still active until the last century and once provided 85 per cent of the world’s silver. But despite the wealth of attractions on offer, I’m happy to return to simple, routine monastery life. I’ve no idea what’s going on in the news and I haven’t sent a tweet in days. Yet, surprisingly, I feel more connected than I have done in years.

• Avril Cadden was a guest of Inghams (01483 791114, www.inghams.co.uk) who offer four nights at the St Georgenberg-Fiecht Monastery from £529 per person (half board), including return flights from Gatwick to Innsbruck and resort transfers. Regional flights are available from Bristol (+£69), Birmingham (+£49), Leeds-Bradford (+£59), Manchester (+£49) and Edinburgh (+£59). For more details on the region go to www.visittirol.co.uk and www.innsbruck.info

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