Living on a prayer in Austria

20:29, Jun 12 2014
PEACE: The inner courtyard at St. Georgenberg-Fiecht Monastery.

Prayer and work aren’t two  things I’d associate with going on holiday, but at St  Georgenberg-Fiecht monastery these are words I will hear uttered on  several occasions.

I’m on a monastery escape in Austria where, in the absence of  television, news and 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 ensuite 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 (singing) 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 because: ‘‘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 Salzberg.

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.

The writer was a guest of Inghams.