By Britta Krämer
The Gampen Pass is situated on the northern slope of the Non Valley and marks the geographical border between South Tyrol and Trentino. The Alpine Pass has always played an important logistical role as merchants, travellers and pilgrims made their way south across the Alps, encircled by the grandiose Mendelkamm and Maddalene mountain ranges, driven by the prospect of lucrative commerce, new horizons and spiritual salvation. Whosoever needed a break, medical care or a hot meal could breathe a sigh of relief on arrival at a quiet little hamlet not far from the Nonsberg range: Unsere Liebe Frau im Walde (Our Dear Lady of the Forest).
Could a name sound more poetic, more friendly or inviting? This picturesque village on the invisible German-Italian language border is the oldest pilgrimage site in Tyrol. The hostel is right by the church and has been welcoming pilgrims and travellers of all kinds for centuries.
Today, nature and culture lovers can explore the spectacular landscape of the Nonsberg range. These are modern-day pilgrims, but their worlds have become more complex, multi-layered and confused. Their need for clarity, simplicity and peace is thus all the greater. This need is met here; in this quiet, friendly and sunny place. Today, as it was many centuries ago. In a quiet, attentive and naturally welcoming way; in the Hotel Zum Hirschen (Stag’s Inn).
In ancient illustrations, images of deer often accompanied those of mother deities. With their antlers stretching towards the sky, they were predestined to unite seemingly contradictory things: the earthly and the divine, the material and the spiritual. The stag’s antlers, which renew themselves every year, were often compared to the branching tree of life and made the animal a symbol of renewal and fertility. In Celtic myths and fairy tales, the deer became the wise soul-guide: it knew its way through the thicket of the forest and showed travellers the way out. Its alert presence is nourished by a deep inner peace and strength. In China, on the other hand, the stag is regarded as a magical animal and is a symbol of vitality and longevity. Magic powers are attributed to its antlers. In pictures, stags are often depicted with medicinal herbs in their mouths.
And with that, everything has already been said. Even if China and Ireland are a long way away from Unsere Liebe Frau im Walde, the universal symbolism of the deer seems to have found its perfect expression here, in this hidden corner of the earth: in the essence of a house and its hosts.
Authenticity through change
Located directly on the central village square next to the pilgrim’s church, you will spot the simple and elegant building from afar. The documented origins of the Gasthof Zum Hirschen date back to the 12th century, when the adjacent monastery was founded. Unsere Liebe Frau im Walde remained a busy, but very secluded pilgrimage site over the centuries. It was not until 1939 that it was finally connected to the modern world by the road through the Gampen Pass. At the beginning of the 1970s, long-term tenant Alois Kofler bought the inn from the church, and a number of structural alterations were made.
In 2016, Alois’ grandchildren, Ingrid and Mirko Kofler-Mocatti, inherited the business from Alois and set a new course – with a great deal of care, thought, and a well-founded tourism concept. The original significance of the historic hostel for pilgrims was taken up again and deconstructed for the present, under the motto “Authentizität in der Veränderung” (“Authenticity through Change”). The old and the new enhance each other in a harmonious synthesis; the focus on the essentials, and on the essence and history of the region, has been sharpened both architecturally and in terms of content.
The old village inn has thus become a timeless and inspiring refuge for holidaymakers seeking peace, pleasure and active relaxation in the heart of the Non valley’s mountain landscape. The locals – big and small alike – still gather in the Gasthof zum Hirschen: for the mid-morning drink after the church mass, for wedding celebrations, or simply for a cup of coffee and an ice cream. There is probably no better confirmation of the inn’s successful, authentic transformation.
The rediscovery of the essential
The Modenese architect Lorenzo Aureli was commissioned to develop the structural redesign of the Gasthof zum Hirschen in 2017. In collaboration with the inn’s visionary owners, he succeeded in mastering the demanding balancing act between reduction and refinement, the synthesis of which runs through the overall concept of the house:
“Reduction is the rediscovery of the essential. Every project must first focus on the essentials. A draft, a design always includes the subtraction, the omission of everything superfluous, even if you don’t see the reduction at first glance. Moreover, while a project must emphasize the essentials, it must also be “refined”, that is, radiate a simple elegance and integrate modern-day comforts. To achieve this, we concentrated on the quiet, peaceful aura of the setting and the quality of regional, traditional materials.”
The Gasthof is dominated by non-colours. Everything is in white and black, or in muted brown and grey tones. With a few deliberately set colour accents, the house refers back to the natural landscape of the Nonsberg range: dandelion yellow, radicchio red, and petroleum blue.
The rooms of the house captivate with clear lines and a minimalist design that conveys peace, spirituality and contemplation. The meditative character is enhanced by sophisticated textiles in white and amber, reminiscent of the monk’s robes of former times. The minimalist bathrooms smell of lemon thyme and cedar wood. Everywhere in the house, the richly equipped “Flying Libraries” invite guests to be inspired by hiking guides and books on the history and culture of the Nonsberg.
The colour concept creates a contemplative calm throughout the house – in the rooms as well as in the bistro and at reception. Thus the historical function of the house as a spiritual meeting place remains perceptible at every moment – but without any religious connotations. Herein lies the bravura of the owners, who shifted the initially Christian framing of the inn and settled it in a “neutral space”. The spirituality of the stag is more a feeling, a mood, an attitude to life. It finds its expression in the joy of culinary delights as well as in the hot stillness of the bio-sauna with its views of the mountains. Every guest will experience it differently – and that’s how it should be.
Rituals of leisure
Hildegard von Bingen, the “herb pastor” Weidinger and the philosophy of Carlo Petrini’s Slowfood movement go hand in hand in the restaurant Il Cervo and merge into a dance of aromas and a triumph of the senses. To have a meal in the Hirschen is far more than ” consuming food “, it is an experience. Eating is a ritual and each culture has its own traditions to prepare consciously for a meal, to sharpen the senses and to stimulate the appetite. In the hustle and bustle of everyday life we all too often lose the sense and leisure for conscious, pleasurably experienced food.
In the sleek bistro, almost entirely in white, guests are served an elixir based on a recipe by Hildegard von Bingen before every meal, a wonderful concentrate of aromas and essences from the forest. A warm, aromatic herbal wine that automatically makes you close your eyes: a pleasant warmth spreads out in your body, you relax, your soul smiles and looks forward to the culinary delights to come.
After the elixir, a bowl of herb butter with homemade bread is served. You can taste cumin, galangal and clove root. A little herbology and a homage to the simple, good dishes of the former pilgrims’ hostel. Now your stomach is open and you can look forward to what’s to come: on the menu – at any time of the year – there is a culinary poem: The Ode to the Nonsberg.
Chef Erwin whistles cheerfully in the kitchen. Edith and Ingrid pour wine and serve up the next course with a wink, Mirko observes his joyfully gourminating guests with a friendly, open gaze in search of a wish he can read from their eyes even before they become really aware of it. Hospitality and love go through the stomach – or – quite freely after Hildegard: “You have the heaven and the earth in you”.
In the Hotel Zum Hirschen clear values and priorities become tangible, which run like a red thread through the architectural and content-related holiday concept of the house: Have time. Focus on the essence. Enjoy thoughtfully. Be active in the free nature. Rediscover the senses. The moment. Yourself.
In the hotel there is no television. At night the WiFi is turned off. The big spectacle takes place outside in nature. Or deep inside yourself. By no means is it about patronizing the guest or imposing a certain lifestyle on him. It is about creating space for “quiet” experiences. And to sharpen the eye again for what we all too easily lose sight of in everyday life.
The house is a midwife. It brings to light desires and needs that lie dormant in us but have no right to exist in “normal life”: Too busy. Too scattered. Too tired. The hosts of Zum Hirschen have succeeded in creating a place that inspires without preaching. Where enjoyment is beneficial. Where nature awakens the spirits of life and lets the soul sing. Where silence is able to transform the inner noise of thought. To transform into a feeling of serene peace, of deep relaxation. Of being.
Text: Britta Krämer, April 2019
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