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Hohenems – a cosy small town with international flair

Exploring Hohenems with Eva Häfele

Vorarlberg Magazine
City portrait Hohenems with Eva Häfele

City portrait

Hohenems with Eva Häfele

The Festival Schubertiade attracts thousands of classical music fans to Hohenems every year. The city has recently been increasingly transforming itself into a meeting place for people who are looking for the individual: cafés, pubs and shops independent of chains are rejuvenating the centre. Old buildings are being gently revitalised and are making the architectural heritage apparent. “The city has been awakened from its slumber,” says social scientist Eva Häfele delightedly. A native of Hohenems, she takes us on a trip of discovery through the town to her favourite places while sharing personal memories with us.


Salomon-Sulzer-Platz: the square where people like to meet is still cloudy from the morning downpour. Eva Häfele brings colour to the place with her smile and the orange jacket she’s wearing. “We’re at the centre of the Jewish Quarter, which creates Hohenems’ urban character,” she says as the tour commences. The beautiful colourful houses have been renovated over the past 20 years. The Salomon-Sulzer-Saal (Hall) used to be the synagogue. “It was the fire station when I was still at school,” Eva Häfele says, pointing to the domed cubic building where  today weddings, concerts and cultural events take place.

The graduate sinologist, Japanologist and social scientist lived in many countries across the world before returning to Vorarlberg in 1999. Salomon Sulzer, born in 1804, had also travelled far and wide. He was a famous cantor from Hohenems, who performed internationally and taught for a long time in Vienna, where he also met Franz Schubert. Both have left their mark on Hohenems to this day: Sulzer left his famous name behind while the Schubertiade, which was staged in the town for the first time in the 1970s, attracts renowned performers and thousands of visitors from all over the world every year.

International relations were also cultivated behind the façades of the Brettauer House, which was built in 1832 although that’s not apparent from the plain whitewashed building: the Brettauer family ran a cattle, horse and colonial goods business from the building. Stefan Zweig’s mother spent her childhood there. And Damiano Collini, predecessor of today’s Hohenems-based Collini company, which is active as far afield as Russia and Mexico, later set up a grinding workshop there. “The entrance is a popular photo motif,” says Eva as we approach the building. Our photographer has already trained his lens on the charming ensemble with its old wooden door, stone portal and bench. “And here’s my office.” The Jewish origins of the house are apparent from the indentations in the door jambs where the mezuzah – pieces of parchment inscribed with blessings used to be placed – also at the entrance to the former Collini workshop on the ground floor. “Collini couldn’t get his machines through the doors so he just broke through the wall here and bricked it back up later,” Eva points to a wall in her conference room. The evidence was uncovered during renovations that took place from 2004 to 2006.

Social scientist Eva Häfele shows us her office at the Brettauer House.

“The Elkan Villa was what sparked off the renovations,” Eva says as we walk along Schweizer Straße – the former Judengasse – towards the smart, former apartment building. Theodor Elkan was the last leader of the Jewish religious community in Hohenems. The building later became a stopover for survivors of the Holocaust who were emigrating to the USA or Palestine from eastern Europe. “My parents were still able to remember the Jewish community’s Feast of Tabernacles on the lawn across the street,” Eva says. A process of gradual modernisation has been ongoing since 1996 that has been very sympathetic to the fabric of the individual old buildings. A success: the city centre now presents itself with an authentic character that is not spoilt by any eyesores. With a population of just under 17,000, Hohenems is the second smallest of a total of five towns in Vorarlberg. It was elevated to the status of a town in 1983, although one important criterion is missing: “Hohenems has no town wall,” Eva explains as we stroll past a building clad in scaffolding.

With a population of just under 17,000, Hohenems is the second smallest of a total of five towns in Vorarlberg.

The social scientist grew up in Hohenems during the heyday of the textile industry; her ancestors had also all been embroiderers, “Mostly small industrialists with one or two machines. I often visited my grandfather in his embroidery workshop. I can still hear the sound of the embroidery machine to this day, the tackatackatackatacka,” she says, imitating the sound with a smile. It was only her father who broke with tradition to become a teacher. As we stand in the courtyard of the former Jewish school, which is now home to offices and an inn, memories of her father return: “He held Jewish methods of teaching, which are based on treating children and learners with respect, in high regard And tried to incorporate that aspect of education into his own work.” There used to be a small grocery store around the corner where she often went shopping with her mother as a child, “There, in the building with the blue shutters. Everything used to be cute and mysterious, many corners, old and dim.” Hohenems was still in its slumber when she returned around 30 years ago. “There was only the Jewish Museum that had anything of the world about it – that’s where I reconnected. But there was also good coffee to be had here.” We take that as a recommendation.

I often visited my grandfather in his embroidery workshop. I can still hear the sound of the embroidery machine to this day, the tackatackatackatacka,

Eva Häfele

“The Rosenthal Villa on Radetzkystraße 1 used to be the number one place for suffering – and it’s going to be revived soon,” Eva says. That seems hard to believe in view of how dilapidated the structure looks, the black and grey sky adding to the doomsday atmosphere. Eva peers through the construction fence. “They used to call this the Schebsta’s Villa, Schebesta was a dentist. The dentist’s chair was behind that big window so you could at least look out into the garden,” the slim woman says. “By the way, an episode of the ‘Die Toten vom Bodensee’ crime series was recently filmed here,” she recalls. The villa is to be made available to the Vorarlberg Literature Network, among others, once renovations have been completed. Hohenems is known to be a great place for writers: the husband-and-wife writing team of Monika Helfer and Michael Köhlmeier also live here, for example. It’s hoped that an inn – the old skittles alley bears evidence of its previous incarnation – will also help return life to the building in the future.

Curious insights: Villa Rosenthal

Just a few steps further on, the spruced-up Marktgasse – the former Christengasse – forms a stark contrast and is great for a leisurely stroll: Café Frida with its organic dishes, the Fräulein Amman stationery shop and the ‘Kleidheit’ boutique are just a few of the ‘newcomers’ that have opened alongside the established shops, all of which are owner-run. Many are artisan businesses with several jewellery makers also having set up shop in the alley. You won’t find any of the usual chain stores here. There are plenty of those in the modern suburb and in the main shopping centres in other cities. One building halfway up the street stands out; it belongs to Gerd Nachbauer, who established the Schubertiade. “It has been deliberately left without rendering to show off the timber framing. The protruding nails were meant to hold the plaster in place,” Eva says. It has become home to the Schubertiade Museum and the Schuhmachermuseum, which Nachbauer installed and which are only open during the festival. Other museums also enable visitors to immerse themselves in the past lives of famous personalities, for example, that of the famous soprano Elisabeth Schwarzkopf and her husband and producer Walter Legge as well as Franz Schubert. The Salomon-Sulzer-Galerie, the Stefan-Zweig-Raum and the Nibelungen-Museum round off the programme for culture fans.

We make a detour to Mondscheingasse, where the structures’ former rural uses remain partly visible in the courtyards. Eva peers through a crack in the wall that reveals a view of old stables and farm buildings. “One reason that the fabric of the buildings has been preserved is how poor Hohenems used to be. The municipality was not able to afford new buildings following the decline of the textile industry in the 1990s. It was also because Hohenems had a mayor who, for a long time, was very committed to agriculture and the establishment of the agricultural school. There were simply no funds available for modernisations. You could now say that the long deep sleep was quite fortunate,” Eva says with visible delight.

Florist Ecke3

Café Frida


We continue our stroll towards the Kirchplatz where the church is. And, as the mighty parish church of St. Karl – named after Charles Borromeo, the town’s patron saint – comes into sight, one detail in particular catches our eye: the footbridge that leads from the palace. It was installed to allow the count’s family to access the church gallery and take part in the service directly without getting their feet wet by way of this elevated passage. The Schlossberg, Hohenems’ ‘local mountain’, with its serpentine path that makes it easy to scale sits majestically to the rear of the palace. It’s possible to visit the ruins of Altems Castle at the top of this mountain, which date back to the 12th century, and enjoy the panoramic view across the Rhine Valley to the Swiss mountains and Lake Constance.

Eva takes us to the foot of the mountain and clambers through brushwood and wet undergrowth before stopping in front a mysterious door: “Locked,” she says, “that’s a shame.” “This was where the bomb shelter that my mum told me about used to be. It was an adventure playing here for us kids. It’s where we bunkered our secrets,” she reveals. “After leaving our sins at the church,” she says laughing.

The Löwensaal, which Eva likes to visit, is also located on Kirchplatz. It’s a home for culture lovers: Homunculus, the puppet theatre, performs here every May, and the Emsiana culture festival, which includes guided tours, presentations, exhibitions and readings as well as concerts, has been staged here since 2009. The gala evening for the first Hohenems Stadtzauber town festival was held with other events here in the summer of 2021.

“Hi, Kurt!” Eva shouts across the square. In a small town, people know each other and are also increasingly on a first-name basis with the aristocratic Waldburg-Zeil family. The current generation is very open in its interactions with the residents of the town. We turn into the climb to the palace, where there is a colourful hustle and bustle: thick bunches of different types of flowers are evidence of daughter Tatjana’s upcoming wedding. “Hi, Nini,” Eva says to the lady of the house, Stefanie Waldburg-Zeil, and gives her a warm hug. She wishes them all the best for the festivities and, with the group in tow, continues on into the beautiful private palace garden. It’s where Franz-Clemens Waldburg-Zeil – a great-great-grandson of Emperor Franz Josef and Sisi – pursues his hobby of growing wine here. “It’s been a bad year for wine,” he says as they pass.
The trained furniture restorer and his wife let out several of the palace’s rooms: for private functions, company celebrations, conferences and anniversaries. Stefanie Waldburg-Zeil also takes visitors on guided tours of the Renaissance palace. The Arpeggione chamber orchestra has been attracting audiences from far and wide every July and has been inviting them to concerts in the palace courtyard in fine weather since 1990. The family also owns Neu-Ems Castle, which is to be found not far from the ruins of Altems Castle. The exclusive castle is available for hire for events and overnight stays – views and seclusion included – since its sympathetic restoration and refurbishment. It’s even been listed as one of the 100 Top Hideaways Worldwide 2021/22.

Eva Häfele in front of the former air raid shelter

A seemingly inconspicuous fountain lies between the palace and the archway. It’s only when you take a closer look into it that scenes from the Song of the Nibelungs are to be discovered in the inlaid colourful mosaic at its bottom. “They were made by Hannes Scherling,” Eva explains. The artist from Vienna once lived and worked in Hohenems. It was not until the 18th century that two manuscripts of the heroic epic were found in the palace.

“It used to be the custom to go to the castle café for a cake after church,” Eva explains, as we walk towards the building with its large garden for guests. “The guy who established it used to be called ‘The Egyptian’ because that’s where he learned his trade as a baker and confectioner,” Eva says, unpacking another anecdote that only a Hohenems native could know. The Fenkart family now also produces confectionery and chocolate at their own factory in addition to the traditional cakes and tarts.

Fountain at the Schlossplatz

Former Jewish Poorhouse

Eva associates another café with very special memories, although today it rarely welcomes guests and usually only does so during cultural events: just downhill from the Jewish Museum, at Schweizer Straße 15, Herz Jakob Kitzinger, a native of Augsburg, opened Vorarlberg’s first coffee house in 1797: Café Kitzinger, which soon became a meeting place for Jewish society. It closed in 1882. The modernised house with the green shutters is now home to offices used by the Jewish Museum and the Hohenems Kulturkreis (Cultural Circle). “This building has always been one of my favourites. It’s funny that there’s also a Café Kitzinger in China, in a bathing resort not far from Beijing. I used to go there quite a lot when I felt homesick while I was living in Beijing,” Eva says, remembering.

A pink-washed apartment building stands diagonally opposite. It used to be the Jewish poorhouse for the poverty-stricken and homeless one hundred years ago. ‘This is where Stationmaster Ludescher lived when I was a child,” Eva recalls. “I went to school with his daughter Gabriele.” Today, it’s where project developer Markus Schadenbauer-Lacha lives; he’s the man who’s been largely responsible for the beautification of the town and who set up the Emsiana festival.

“This is my favourite view"

Eva Häfele

Eva always passed this house on her way to school, when she walked from Herrenried along Schillerallee to Emsbach Bridge as a child. “This used to be Bäckerei Spiegel, the bakery where I bought pretzels and salt sticks,” she says, marking the spot with her index finger as she takes us to a hidden courtyard. Her gaze wanders across an old jagged fence, to a garden, a villa, the church tower of St. Karl, all the way to the Schlossberg. “This is my favourite view,” Eva says with a big smile. She used to live opposite for a few years and Hannes Scherling had his studio just around the corner.

A final detour takes us to the Kaiserin-Elisabeth-Krankenhaus, a beautiful Art Nouveau building that was formerly the hospital but is now a hospice. The town of Hohenems won an award from the Federal Office for the Protection of Monuments for its ‘exemplary renovation of buildings’. It won two more awards for the Löwensaal and the Geschäftshaus Weirather, a specialist shop for watches, jewellery and optics, which has been doing business here for more than 135 years. The individual guided tour of the town has made the small group agree that Hohenems as a whole deserves its awards for exemplary urban development.


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