Some crack skiing in magnificent Austrian Tyrol
Amid enjoying log fires in mountain huts, picture-perfect historical villages, funky hotels and satisfying apres-ski facilities, it was all downhill for Geoff Hill on a recent trip to the Austrian Tyrol – though mostly in a good way
HERE is a handy hint for tobogganists. Don't forget your toboggan. I speak from experience. The skiing in Austria was great, but after dinner on the last night, a few of us decided it would be a really good idea to toboggan down the mountain. There may have been drink involved, and it would probably have been fine had the mountain not been steeper and icier than we thought.
As a result, at one particularly challenging bend, I found myself sailing through the air without the benefit of being accompanied by the toboggan. Thinking quickly, I softened the impact of my return to earth with a rib, which promptly cracked, and when I got to the bottom, discovered that I was not alone, judging from the groaning coming from various snowdrifts here and there.
As I result, I am now trying very hard not to sneeze. Or cough. Or breathe. Still, thank heavens it's on the left side and doesn't affect my drinking hand.We must be grateful for small mercies, especially since the skiing had been so fabulous.
We flew into Munich, got a bus to St Johann, and since it was too late to start skiing that day, decamped to a mountain hut for a late lunch. What a fine creation the Austrian mountain hut is. With the firelight dancing on its wooden walls, and the satisfying food and matching waitresses, it makes you feel so warm and cosy that if Heidi walked through the door, you'd want to marry her immediately and have her babies, never mind the pain.
Replete with goulash soup, wiener schnitzel and that traditional Austrian favourite, spaghetti Bolognese, we went walking through the streets of St Johann as darkness fell.
Dating back to the 13th century, this is one of the most charming of Tyrolean towns, with its quaint old houses painted with romantic baroque scenes by quaint old journeymen artists, its little shops and cafés, its church square and, most importantly of all, a brewery with a bar atop a tower from which you can look down on the happy scene below.
Then you realise the happy scene is actually your reflection in the window.
We drank glühwein at a Christmas market in the courtyard of an army barracks, huddled around a bonfire with teenage conscripts, then tucked into dinner at the Hotel Post, built in 1224 as a staging post for the mail horses.
Outside our window, the cobbled streets would have rung for centuries with the drumbeat of hooves, then the clatter of carriage wheels, and finally, from the 1920s, the snort and fuss of the post bus with its newfangled internal combustion engine.
And so next morning to the slopes, and the serene bliss of rising aloft in the chair lift with the blue sky above, the white slopes below, the sharp tang of pine and the seductive warmth of woodsmoke in your nose, and the only sound the gentle whisper of the breeze in the trees; so soft you have to lean closer to hear that what it is whispering is: “Happiness is here”.
And then the joy of skiing, that most energising and fulfilling of activities. Like motorcycling or flying light aircraft, those other things I do, its pleasure comes not just from the physical challenge, but from the way you become completely absorbed in it, and therefore waste not a moment in ruining the present by regretting the past or worrying about the future.
In that sense it's like Zen meditation, with the difference that sitting cross-legged on a stone floor chanting a mantra doesn't work up such a splendid appetite. Or thirst.
It was the most satisfying first day possible, with perfectly groomed snow, no crowds and a nice blend of blue then red runs to break us in before we headed the next day to Kirchberg, about 20 minutes away.
This had more red and black runs, but deeper and softer snow, and by the afternoon my legs were complaining on the last, long run all the way down the mountain to that other bliss of skiing: easing off your ski boots, putting on your normal shoes and feeling like you're walking on the moon all the way to the pub for an après-ski beer.
The pub in this case was the Eisbar, run by a man from Eindhoven who'd married a local woman. Even at 4.30pm, it was packed with Dutch twentysomethings doing the conga to a tune whose lyrics went something like: “Oompa boompa stoompa woompa”.
It sounded like an early Leonard Cohen number, although I could be wrong.
Even worse, Austria still allows smoking in pubs, so after a quick beer, I escaped into the fresh, oompaless air and walked back to the Hotel Adler. This was as 'cosy and traditional' as our hotel in St Johann, the Explorer, which had been so funky and so cutting edge that it went out of fashion between when we checked in and left.
And no surprise: it was one of those smart but stupid hotels which is a triumph of form over function, with useless power sockets halfway up a wall and in the breakfast room cutlery tucked into an alcove so low that you would have needed a passing leprechaun to reach in and dig out a knife for you.
And leprechauns, as I'm sure you know, have been few and far between in the Tyrol since the savage Leprechaun v Troll War of the late 1890s.
The next day, all change again, this time to Westendorf, another 20 minutes away, which is great for families, since the nursery slopes are within easy walking distance of the hotels.
For more advanced chaps and chappeses, it has steep but wide slopes further up which I spent a happy day whizzing down while unaccountably humming: “Raindrops keep falling on my head”.
I did try sanity once, but it didn't agree with me.
:: I flew to Munich with Aer Lingus, which flies there twice daily from Dublin from €54.99 one way. For more information visit www.aerlingus.com.
:: During the winter season, Aer Lingus also operates a charter to Salzburg with partners Crystal and Topflight. From there, the Austrian Tyrol is within easy access by Four Seasons (www.tirol-taxi.at) and other transfer companies, as well as train and car.
St Johann is good for beginners and families, with gentle blues and intermediate red slopes.
:: Kirchberg, with 170kms of piste, has a great choice of blue, black and red slopes for intermediate to advanced skiers. It and Westendorf are part of the Ski Welt, one of the biggest interconnected ski areas in Austria, with 280 kms of piste.
:: The Kitzbuehler Alpen All Star ski pass covers skiing in all areas, free bus travel between all the resorts I've mentioned, and next season train as well.
:: I stayed at the Hotel Explorer in St Johann (www.explorer-hotels.com/kitzbuehel) and the Adler Hotel in Kirchberg (www.der-adler.at), which has an excellent restaurant, as does the lovely Obergaisberg Alm above the town (www.gaisbergstueberl.at). Just don't toboggan down afterwards.
:: For information: www.kitzbueheler-alpen.com.