Brigitta Stauder on Emma Hellenstainer, the tourism pioneer who gave her hotel its name, about her well-guarded recipe book, and about how a postcard from overseas found its way to ‘Frau Emma in Europe’.
Historic: Up and down the country, everybody is talking about the famous host, Emma Hellenstainer. Who was she?
Hostess at the Hotel Emma
Emma Hellenstainer was a pioneer. It is really thanks to her that tourism even exists in the upper Val Pusteria. For example, she was the first host to employ a mountain guide. She was also a co-founder of the Villabassa tourist association or, as it was originally named, ‘beautification club’. And when the Puster Valley Railway was built, she made sure a station was erected in the centre of her village. Emma had a huge herb garden and brought healing waters from Bad Neustadt to Villabassa. She actually cured people using her knowledge about herbalism, treating them with baths and drinking cures.
Is it true that your place had a different name before Emma came along?
Yes, the inn was originally called Schwarzer Adler, the Black Eagle. It is the oldest guesthouse in Villabassa, its first record is from 1500. In 1842, Emma married Joseph Hellenstainer, the innkeeper of the Schwarzer Adler, and moved here from St. Johann in Tyrol. Soon she became so famous as a host that people would just say, ‘We’re going to Emma’s’. So, little by little, the place assumed her name.
The house of ‘Frau Emma in Europe’. On the trail of a tourism pioneer.
How did Emma Hellenstainer manage to get people from all over the world to Villabassa, Val Pusteria?How did Emma Hellenstainer manage to get people from all over the world to Villabassa, Val Pusteria?
When she came here, the Schwarzer Adler was a plain guesthouse with some stables for post riders to change horses. Emma gradually built a reputation. For example, she would arrange candles everywhere in spite of her mother-in-law telling her it was too expensive and they couldn’t afford it. But Emma got her way. People went to her because they knew they would be well received and fed, and because Emma would take care of everyone personally. Her charms as a host were unrivalled.
Emma had guests from high society, philosophers, scholars, nobility.
That’s true, Emma was a people person. She was able to have a conversation with anybody¾that’s rare. Famous personalities came here, such as writer Peter Rosegger and even Emperor Franz Joseph. Emma would soon be known internationally. There’s this story of a postcard a former guest in America addressed to ‘Frau Emma in Europe’. And it arrived! I don’t know where this postcard is now, but Emma’s descendants verified the story.
Wasn’t she also famous for her cooking?
Emma had her own cookbook; she was a wonderful cook. There was no such thing as a recipe book back in the day. All guesthouses had their own, often well-guarded recipes. Emma would gather her recipes from all the places where she worked. When she came to Villabassa, she had assembled an impressive collection. We tried to follow some of her recipes; it’s more difficult than you would think. I had to have the recipes translated by a historian. Not only is the handwriting almost impossible for us to decipher, she also used completely different units of measurement. Rather than giving grams or even a pinch, she used terms we haven’t even heard of today. So, when following those recipes, you need to develop your own sense of how much of a given ingredient works best.
For example, on the Hotel Emma’s menu, there is the 1867 pot roast.
That is actually from Emma’s book. My husband, who is a professional dentist but also loves to cook, did some experimenting on Emma’s recipe. (Laughs.) Anyway, we only make the pot roast for special occasions.
»I might be old-fashioned, but I just don’t care for modern buildings. I like old buildings that tell stories.«
»Emma was a people person. She was able to have a conversation with anybody-that’s rare.«
How did your family come to acquire Emma’s place?
My uncle first had a mountain farmstead in Villabassa and nothing to do with innkeeping. But when Emma’s guesthouse was up for sale, he said the place had to remain in South Tyrolian hands, even better in the hands of people from Villabassa. So, when nobody came forward, he acquired the place himself. This was 53 years ago, in 1970. His sister¾my mother¾was a cook and helped him. I was a small girl back then. We worked hard hand in hand as a family business for everything to work out.
So your family wanted to carry on Emma Hellenstainer’s legacy?
was only one bathroom on every floor, equipped with a wash bowl each. The house was full of wood plank flooring that needed to be washed and cleaned. So we rebuilt. There were times when we weren’t sure we would make it. But now even my children are fully committed. And I hope they will continue to write this place’s history.
Do today’s guests know about that history?
Yes, many come exclusively for Emma Hellenstainer. When they pass through the door, they immediately ask me to tell stories about. (Laughs.) It’s nice, we are proud of the place’s history. The energy of the building and the way it is constructed with its rib vault¾you just don’t find anything of this kind anymore. I might be old-fashioned, but I just don’t care for modern buildings. I like old buildings that tell stories.