Feldkirch youth hostel, Austria
If these walls could talk, there would be a world-weary rasp in their voice. It would probably be a slow voice, one that needs time for thoughts to be collected. There would be a lot of thoughts to sort through… but also an inevitable sluggishness that comes from age.
You see, here at the Feldkirch youth hostel near Austria’s western border, there’s a lot of history. The hostel doesn’t claim to be the oldest in the world – but it probably could if it wanted to. It first offered respite from the road more than 300 years ago.
The first document that mentions the building is from 1362 and describes it as having “been around for a long time”. During the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries it was used as a leper colony – a sanctuary for them but moreso a cage to keep everyone else safe.
It was in the 1600s that this old castle first opened its doors to weary travellers looking for a bed for the night.
Technically, the building was being used as a hospice for people who had paid a form of insurance levies during their life so they would be able to come here when they got sick in older age.
But some beds were spare. They were able to be rented cheaply for a few nights by people passing through Feldkirch who couldn’t afford a room at the inn. And so the hostelling began.
By the early 1800s, it was time for a change but the community couldn’t decide what they wanted to do with ‘The Old Siechenhaus’, as it was called (or, in English, ‘The Old Infirmary’). In 1818 there was a proposal to turn it into a mental hospital but that plans was shelved because it would’ve been too expensive.
In the end it became a halfway house for the poor and unemployed… again, in some form, a hostel.
Imagine a hostel without staff, though. A hostel where no pride is taken in the social environment or the physical condition of the residence. One where checking in means a moral defeat, rather than a step in an adventure of opportunity.
That’s what the building came to embody and it fell into disrepair – much to the despair of the local community.
In 1982 a decision was made to restore the glory of The Old Siechenhaus – both its physical appearance and its social responsibility as a home for the travel-weary. About 18 million Austrian schillings (1.5 million dollars) were spent to upgrade the facilities but still maintain the history of the building – including completely preserving the façade.
In 1985 it opened as the youth hostel we know it today. Centuries after it first gave shelter to travellers, it was again unlocking its doors to those of us looking for a friendly roof over our heads.
It’s a pleasant place to spend a few days, nestled at the base of a green ridge. In the distance you can see the snow-topped mountains of Austria. Just a couple of kilometres away are the borders with Switzerland and Lichtenstein.
The hostel itself is welcoming and comfortable with a large garden, spacious common areas and a good breakfast. And (perhaps the best part) a bed in a dorm room will only cost you 13 euros.
It may not be the oldest youth hostel in the world – or maybe it is. Who knows how you should judge these things?
In some ways, descriptions like that don’t mean much anyway. What is important is knowing that if you stop here, you are following a long tradition of people doing the same. And those people have always been welcome.