By Ulrich Stefan Knoll
From the sun terrace of the Krone in Hittisau, the eye wanders over the central square of the small community in the Bregenzerwald region as if from a loge. And—if it does not turn towards the mountain ranges in the background—it stops at the opposite Heilige Drei Könige parish church (Church of the Three Kings). If you keep on looking for a little longer, two details become apparent. The layout of the church does not follow the usual eastward orientation. The solution to this riddle is quickly found: it is due to the terrain, which suggested a main axis with a north-south direction. The inscription on the portico, “Domus Dei—Porta Coeli” (House of God—Gate to Heaven), on the other hand, is not really a riddle for those who know Latin.
This message lingers pensively in my mind during the four-course menu. At some point, it combines with the culinary delights into a simple and obvious thought: Here, directly opposite, the Krone represents the worldly equivalent, the house of man. If you like, it is also a gateway to heaven—but that of worldly pleasures. Welcome to the Krone, a paradise for gourmets and friends of high-quality architecture that has long since become a classic!
Anyone who asks Dietmar Nußbaumer, the host, about the essence of what he does—in other words, who wants to know how it is possible that the hotel, in all its facets, appears to be so serene and unpretentious, but at the same time radiates an equally peaceful and majestic, almost intangible magic from all corners—will receive a straightforward and succinct answer: “Beauty, reduction to the essentials, and economic management that is suitable for grandchildren”.
A few days and many conversations later, I can confidently state that this is a very fitting description in view of what I have in the meantime—even more intensively—perceived myself.
In the forest, from the forest, with the forest
The hosts Helene Nußbaumer-Natter and Dietmar Nußbaumer as well as their philosophy and its implementation in everyday routines are in any case the decisive factor. After having taken over the Krone from Helene’s parents, they have further developed the hotel—both in architectural and culinary terms—in many years of conversion work.
Given his omnipresent, circumspect manner, Dietmar Nußbaumer can be safely described as a phenomenon. At the same time, he is vivacious in a pleasantly quiet and reflective way and has the necessary feeling for every guest. His wife Helene, by contrast, is less present in public perception. Her realm is the kitchen, where she, together with chef Michael Garcia Lopez and their team, wields a sceptre. This too is a great art, but a quieter one. Despite all this, the Krone is deliberately much more than ‘two proprietors plus staff’. Helene and Dietmar understand themselves and their team as ‘the Krone Family’. And that’s exactly how it feels.
In general, Hotel Krone is a house of philosophy. Well, one should rather say: lived philosophy. After all, what use are the most beautiful thoughts if they remain mere theory? Here, a lot of thought has been given to a great many topics, and that is good. Much of it can be found in the hotel’s ow magazine Edition Krone, which is extremely worth reading. It starts to be particularly pleasing, however, when you realise that the topics pointedly presented in there are not just theory or merely modern marketing but rather accurately describe the actual situation.
A good example of this is the interaction between interior and exterior, i.e. the deep rootedness in the Bregenzerwald region, in the context of which the hotel and its operators see themselves symbiotically embedded.
For, as we all know, Bregenzerwald is a very special cosmos—not only but especially for architects and architecture lovers. In this part of Vorarlberg, the westernmost state of Austria, a large number of planning and construction companies, which have been making a name for themselves both nationally and internationally for many years, can be found in a small area.
This development was and is decisively promoted by Werkraum Bregenzerwald, an association of local craftsmen and designers founded in 1999. Education, training, debate and competition are essential aspects of the initiative, which is regarded as an exemplary driver of innovation in Europe. Its visible symbol and public venue is the Werkraumhaus in Andelsbuch, planned by Peter Zumthor and opened in 2013.
In addition, Bregenzerwald and the region in the border triangle between the Rhine and Lake Constance is home to numerous well-known architects who have had and still have a decisive influence on both the teaching and practice of the profession over many decades—among them are Ernst Hiesmayr, Hermann Kaufmann, Oskar Leo Kaufmann, Dietrich I Untertrifaller Architekten, Prof. Dietmar Eberle and Leopold Kaufmann, to name but a few.
No less talented, although less prominent in the public eye, are the local craft businesses. Their skills are evident in the Krone par excellence—the hotel could very well pass as the ‘showroom’ of Werkraum Bregenzerwald.
Continued construction! Together.
The cooperation between the hoteliers and Bregenz-based architect Bernardo Bader, which started in 2005, has been and still is very important for the further development of the hotel. In two major construction phases (2007 / 2010) and with the construction of a new sauna house (2018), Bader has had a decisive influence on the ‘new Krone’.
According to him, the aim of the conversion and partial new construction, which has been awarded numerous prizes, was to make the old existing building shine in new splendour. This has been achieved by a special way of combining old and new, which deliberately does not thrive on strong contrasts or dramatic confrontations.
“The delight in the log-established and the heterogeneous was the main focus. The aim was to achieve architectural synergies that only the special context allows,” explained Bader.
There was one special feature that the hosts had requested in advance: no conventional invitation to tender for the trades was issued. Instead, they approached craftsmen whose quality they were personally convinced of. Another circumstance that also contributed significantly to the high quality of the construction measures was the extremely dovetailed work processes performed by the various trades. A high art—considering that almost 40 businesses were involved. Solutions were mostly devised on site and bilaterally, often during the joint breakfast or lunch break.
Determination and precision, both in detail and in its entirety
The result is well-designed comfort with top-quality workmanship 27 times over—in the form of the new Werkraum and Bregenzerwald rooms. It thus represents a convincing continuation of the building tradition of the guesthouse built in 1838 by Johann Conrad Bechter and extended in the 1970s by Leopold Kaufmann. Leopold Kaufmann is responsible for the design of the Klassik rooms, which, although not new, are still cosy and much loved by many regular guests.
All in all, the new rooms in particular are characterised by an enormous and reduced clarity that almost has a Japanese feel to it. Exceptionally precise execution has ensured that everything looks as if all is made of one piece. The expert use of wood as a key component of the visible surfaces creates a warm, well-tempered ambience. In general, it is easy to see that despite all the art in planning and execution, the human being, or in other words the guest, is the focus of attention here: the clarity of the design makes for a calm, relaxed mind, and the soothing effect of wood immediately makes you feel safe and secure. Thus, the Krone appears simple in a perfect sense, because it is natural.
Manufacture, made in Bregenzerwald
Craftsmanship in the Bregenzerwald region means drawing from centuries of tradition without being stuck in the past. For here craftsmanship always means both—old and new. Or, as architect Georg Bechter so aptly put it:
“Departure, less as abandonment, rather as enrichment, development in transition.”
Quality, made in Bregenzerwald, the epitome of which you experience in the Krone, therefore means: no serial production, no standard solutions; instead, manufacture, always implemented at the limit.
One of the many craftsmen involved in the conversion is the Hittisau-based master joiner Markus Faißt. A visit to his workshop vividly illustrates the prudent handling of the material, its precise processing and the careful and individual planning of the respective task. The underlying convictions are also clearly evident: only wood grown in the region and felled in accordance with suitable moon phases is used. Whether oak, beech, silver fir, ash, spruce, sycamore maple or elm—the wood is stored for several years in his own maturing warehouse and processed exclusively as solid wood. Instead of nails, composite or plastic, handed down experience and modern skills are applied.
In this way, high-quality, custom-made pieces of furniture are created, whose value—since they are never an end in themselves—is now and then only noticed on site at second glance, because they know how to blend in.
Toques, stars, spoons—pure culinary pleasure
The cuisine at the Krone is refined but, like the hotel itself, not overdone and artificial but rather down-to-earth and rooted in its own tradition and in the region. Special attention is paid to seven principles, which the Krone kitchen team has imposed on itself as ‘rules of good taste’. Dedication, simplicity, care, handcraft in the literal sense of the word, harmony and precise knowledge of the regional and seasonal offers are the essential factors of the continuing success.
This is appreciated not only by the guests but also by international gastronomic critics. For example, the Krone has been listed as an awarded gourmet restaurant for two and a half decades. The success story began under senior proprietor Wilma Natter and is carefully continued by her daughter Helene and her team to this day.
Currently, the hotel restaurant is listed by Gault-Millau with two toques (14.5/20), Falstaff rates the Krone with three forks (90/100) and A la Carte awarded it three stars (82/100).
“Dining at the Krone has always had an almost spiritual quality.” – Helene Nußbaumer-Natter
The Austrian restaurant guide A la Carte describes a cuisine that does without frills; bound to tradition, quiet and yet modern. Little can be added to this, except: Bon appetit!
The selection of wines that can be enjoyed with this is as large as it is exquisite. This is because wine is another of Dietmar Nußbaumer’s pet passions, to which he dedicates himself with devotion. He prefers to do this on the spot, because then he not only knows about the general quality of the products, which is beyond doubt, but also how the wine will complement the Krone—how it will blend with the air, the place itself and its aromas. This is why he likes to invite well-known winemakers, such as South Tyrolean viniculturist Alois Lageder, to the Krone. And so, on returning from a hike in the afternoon, you will find the two of them in the restaurant having an intense conversation—true dedication, down to the last detail.
Miracle machine, march!
Back on the sun terrace, I ask myself how the public square in front of the hotel could be properly designed—it urgently needs a design overhaul in order to again represent the town centre appropriately in the future—, only to find out that everything has already been thought of. Well, how could it be otherwise. Of course, here in the heart of this architecture-obsessed region, not only have intensive thoughts been given to this topic in recent years, but an architecture competition has long since been organised, the jury of which included high-ranking architects like Prof. Dietmar Eberle (Baumschlager Eberle Architekten) and Günther Vogt (Vogt Landschaftsarchitekten). The ‘miracle machine’ of Bregenzerwald continues to run at full speed, always self-confident, but free of any airs and graces.
Text: Ulrich Stefan Knoll, September 2020.