I had been here before. Nicholas Treadwell, marvellously eccentric art agent and performer – now 75 and sporting pink hair – introduced me to the village of Neufelden in Upper Austria, near the Czech border, ten years ago.
He’d left his Shoreditch gallery just as the area was beginning its groovy ascent, and found an old warehouse beside the station in Neufelden ripe to transform into an art and performance space. To celebrate, he invited his London posse to discover these previously unknown delights.
In all honesty, I had no desire to go to Austria. I had prejudices about countries that seemed to tidy themselves into blandness. The Mühltalhof hotel stopped my preconceptions in their tracks.
The Eckl family, in their gloriously traditional hotel, made 20 of us so welcome. Even in our celebratory states. Long lingering breakfasts, lovely rooms, all beside the Grosse Mühl river. We were in heaven.
This autumn, the time came to visit a second friend there, sculptor Malcolm Poynter, who moved from Dalston to Aigen (up the road from Neufelden), where he has converted a garden centre into a huge gallery space for his work. It seemed a fine opportunity to stay at the Mühltalhof again. Oh, and how it has changed yet stayed the same.
The welcome is just as hearty, gracious and generous. Hani Eckl is always around with a glass of local pear champagne to offer us. But the exterior looks as though it has had a visit from Anish Kapoor.
It’s now clad in corten steel, which has weathered to a rusty veneer, and the interior has also shifted in a more contemporary direction. The dining room has been extended over the river, which makes us feel as though we are in nature.
The rooms are individualised and smart. There are balconies with tables, baths in the middle of rooms, branch-like hangers, hand-stencilled toilets, slate showers and the gorgeously quiet view. Not to mention the bottle of the smoothest red wine – Blaufränkish from Peter Schandl – left with freshly gathered apples for our delectation.
The food gets better and better. Helmut, Hanni’s brother, is the chef, and he cares about exquisite tastes and presentations. he cares about using local ingredients and transforming them into culinary wonders. (His son is working at the Ten Bells in Spitalfields at the moment, and I hear they exchange mobile pictures of what they’ve just cooked.)
On the first evening, Malcolm, his partner Barbara – who makes costumes for films, theatre and Grayson Perry – and I had sumptuous duck with red cabbage, and a dessert plate of incredible amuses-bouches, from home-made cinnamon ice cream and apple pie to profesen (French toast with plums) and topfen knödel (cream cheese), all topped off with local schnapps. It’s more of a feast than a meal.
On the Saturday morning, we – me, my sister and a friend – wander along the river to Die Statione, the arts space that Nick Treadwell used to own with Hani’s husband, Joachim. Now it has become Heimart, Joachim’s sole endeavour.
There’s a gold painted boat perched on the bank, its interior overgrown with plants, deliberately overtaken by nature. There are railway carriages that are used as workshop rooms. There’s the tower built in the Fifties by occupying Soviet troops, now covered in tyres and nested by birds. There’s a café (nothing is open today) where we can see what fun they have by the décor.
A bead curtain in the middle of nowhere; a birdcage containing a figure of Christ: Joachim is involved in all sorts of projects, including one where he invited the community to bring their beds down to the river and relax together.
Later – after my favourite dish of the weekend, a rich mustard-coloured pumpkin soup scattered with seeds, juicy plum tomatoes and tiny crisp breads – we take the train to Aigen.
Malcolm’s is a fecund triumph of a gallery, inhabited by all the drama of his horsemen of the apocalypse, strange suicide babies, haunted figures in tortured positions, and his more recent work: demented fish, and a spotted horse with fallen dead rider.
He is a prolific political artist – called a ‘violent genius’ in the Seventies – whose work should be in the Tate Modern. Downstairs, his workshops are full of gilded baroque carriages (hours of craft) driven by demented children. An analogy, I imagine, for his view of the world.
Ah, but I’ve forgotten to mention the new spa at the Mühltalhof. We find ourselves in the sauna and steam room on Sunday morning readying ourselves for a meander into the woods nearby. We find ourselves in the sun, the beech leaves gently wafting down, a spotted woodpecker at work, meandering along. Perfect.
For more information visit Müehltalhof