Travel: Why more Irish skiers haven't discovered Flachau is a mystery to me
If cold, crisp air, the sun in a cobalt sky glittering off the snow as you whizz downhill, hearty food, unusual drinks and the odd flying snowboarder all sounds like your idea of contentment, the lovely little Austrian resort of Flachau is the place for you, writes Geoff Hill
AS ANY Zen Buddhist will tell you, the secret of contentment, apart from marrying a young, kind, intelligent, funny, beautiful woman who owns a vineyard, is to live in the moment, neither regretting the past nor worrying about the future.
However, if the thought of sitting on a cold stone floor in a hut halfway up Mount Fuji for several years contemplating the stillness at the centre of your being and trying to think about not thinking either doesn’t appeal or makes your head explode, there are alternative ways.
I’ve found several of them, like motorcycling, flying and skiing, since if you don’t focus on the moment doing any of this, you’ll end up wrapped around a tree or sitting in a pile of smoking wreckage in the middle of an airfield.
Which is why at this particular moment I was enjoying myself tremendously, hurtling down a snowy mountain above Flachau with hardly a soul in sight.
Why more Irish skiers haven’t discovered Flachau is a mystery to me: a lovely little town with 236kms of slopes and great restaurants and pubs, it’s only 40 minutes from Salzburg, and although various continental Europeans fill it at weekends at peak times, on a weekday before Christmas, it was like having your own private ski area. Make a note and book now for either later this season or early next.
Oh, wait, I was trying not to think of the future, but instead enjoying that glorious sensation of unweighting the skies, carving the perfect turn, looking up for the next one, then doing it again.
It’s a similar sensation to a series of perfect corners on a motorbike, added to by the fact that skiing takes place in the most bracing of environments: the cold, crisp air, and the sun in a cobalt sky glittering off the snow, whether you’re whizzing downhill or gliding up in a chair lift through the treetops in blissful silence.
We stopped for lunch in Herzel Alm, where I had the vegetarian special of pork filled with ham and cheese and served with fries. Eating that lot at home, you’d feel like a glutton, but here, you’re just replacing calories. There was a very impressive wine list as well, but I’m bad enough at skiing sober.
At 3.30pm, all skied out, I slid to a halt at the bottom of the mountain.
“I’m knackered. Where’s the pub?” I asked Peter, the guide.
“Over the other side. We have to take the lift all the way up, then ski all the way down,” he laughed.
“Noooooooooo!” said my knees.
Oh well. When we finally got there, it was to the pleasure of easing off your ski boots and slipping into normal shoes which make you feel like you’re walking on the Moon, and having a beer or a hot chocolate laced with rum.
However, Peter had other ideas: a round of warm schnapps in the Hofstadl Alm après-ski bar, topped with cream and known locally as a Hot Widow. The music, meanwhile, was a curious Austrian ditty whose chorus was: “Shalalee, Shalala, Shalalee, Shalala." Even worse, everyone in the pub seemed to know the lyrics, and was singing along.
Dinner was in Zum Holzwurm, run by the Gappmaier family and with a great menu: prawn tempura to start, perfect fillet steak to follow, then fluffy dumplings filled with nougat with wild cherry sauce and ginger ice cream from a fabulous dessert selection. Bliss.
As was the following morning, with bright sun and freshly groomed snow; until I got to the top of the mountain and realised I needed to go to the loo.
“Josef, is there a toilet near here?” I said to our guide.
“Of course,” he said, then launched into a history of the ski area, which is owned by his father. I finally got him stopped halfway through the 19th century, made it just in time, and skied on to the Absolut Snow Park, an area of jumps mostly for snowboarders, that species of grungy youths which is now dying out again.
Not that it stopped one of them whizzing inches over my head screaming politely.
Surprised that I’d made it down the Snow Park alive, I was whizzing down a blue run when Bláthnait, one of the gang, took a nasty tumble. As the only one who spoke any German, I went with her in the ambulance to the private clinic of Dr Harald Breitfuss and his wife Dr Eva. I can recommend it if you ever fall over, and of course they spoke perfect English, so my presence was superfluous.
After a while Dr Harald emerged and announced that Bláthnait had, rather impressively, broken her collarbone in three places, and would need an operation at a private hospital.
It turned out that this would cost €5,000, so while Bláthnait broke the thrilling news to her insurance company, I offered to do it for a fiver with my Swiss Army knife.
Sadly, she declined, so while she went off to the operating theatre, I met up with the rest of the gang at a rustic barn in Altenmarkt used for functions and filled with ancient farm implements and old children’s toys, including a little wooden sledge with the word Maria carved into it which would have melted a heart of stone.
I accepted a mug of glühwein, snuggled into an armchair by the fire, and waited for a while in case Maria came home, but it was no use. Oh well. Draining my glühwein, I had dinner, went to bed and set off the next day for Salzburg and the Christmas market in Residenzsplatz, the scene of the military parade in The Sound of Music.
When residents complained about having Nazi flags draped from all the buildings, the city council allowed filming to go ahead, but at 5am.
Above all sits the castle, brooding and severe, and in the square next door is a bakery which has been run by monks since the 12th century, but I ignored it, since the last time I bought a loaf there, it had obviously been baked in their first batch back then, and needed a chain saw to get through it.
Instead, I had a hot chocolate in the Stiftskeller St Peter’s, the oldest restaurant in Europe, established in 803 and a magical warren of vaulted rooms, especially with all of them decorated for Christmas.
Outside, the temperature was well below zero, and with a sigh I realised it was having an effect on my bladder again. I was beginning to see a pattern developing, but the only loo in sight had a turnstile operated by a €1 coin, and I wasn’t in possession of such a thing.
Glancing around to make sure no-one was looking, I vaulted over the turnstile, setting off a loud beeping sound – then noticed the CCTV camera above the door.
I spent the next hour before the taxi arrived for the airport hiding in alleyways every time I heard a police siren, then fled, feeling a bit like the Von Trapps when they left Austria.
Funny Julie Andrews never had these sorts of problems. She was obviously one of those Zen Buddhist nuns.
:: Aer Lingus has a new service from Dublin to Salzburg until March 30, from €55.99 one way (aerlingus.com)
:: For those staying in Salzburg on a city break, there’s a free Snow Space Salzburg Ski Shuttle to Flachau, 45 minutes away. Book online at salzburg.info or email email@example.com.
Where to stay
:: In Flachau, we stayed at the very friendly family owned four-star Hotel Waidmannsheil, (hotel-waidmannsheil.at), which has a good restaurant and an excellent spa and pool, and is a short walk to the lifts, ski school meeting place, ski hire shop and Hofstadl Alm après-ski bar. A week in March is €972 pps for a week, including six-day lift pass and half board. From March 16, children under 15 get a free lift pass when sharing a family room, and from March 30 to April 6, adults 60 and over get a free lift pass when staying seven nights.
Where to ski
:: Flachau is part of the Salzburger Sportwelt, with 236 kms of piste in Flachau, Wagrain-Kleinarl, St Johann, Radstadt, Altenmarkt-Zauchensee, Eben and Filzmoos. (salsburgersportwelt.com)
:: The Salzburg Super Ski Card also covers the 760kms of Ski Amade, from €264 for six days.
Where to eat
:: Zum Holzwurm (zum-holzwurm.at/en/)
:: In Salzburg, the specialities at Goldgasse (gasthofgoldgasse.at/en/) is delicious deep-fried chicken followed by nockerl, ice cream in a meringue, both from a 16th century cookbook displayed in a case.
What to do
:: One of the winter highlights of Salzburg is the puppet theatre (marionetten.at/the-theatre).
It’s usually booked solid, but Martina from the tourist board pulled a few strings to get us seats.