Life

Travel: Austrian resort of Obertauern the perfect place to hurtle down mountains

Steering clear of Austria's more dubious historical places of interest, Geoff Hill headed south from Salzburg to the slopes of Obertauern for some top skiing, fab food and a ho-hum sleigh ride

Obertauern is Austria’s highest ski resort, with snow pretty much guaranteed from September to May
Geoff Hill

IN 1945, a group of American soldiers in Salzburg, their libidos fortified by several foaming steins of Stiegl, decided it would be a really good idea to visit the nice girls in the Maison de Plaisir, founded in 1513 and Austria’s oldest house of ill repute.

The only problem was that it was at the end of a very narrow alley called Steingasse. And the only vehicle they had to hand was a tank. And the tank was slightly wider than the alley.

You can still see the marks in the wall where it got stuck, just across the street from the former home of Joseph Mohr, who wrote the words of Silent Night in 1818.

Although the Maison de Plaisir is still in business, you’ll be pleased to know that my arrival in Salzburg involved neither the nice girls there, nor a tank.

Instead, it was hot chocolate and strudel at Café Tomaselli in the old town, as always packed with locals catching up with the gossip at marble tables under the chandeliers, as they have since it opened in 1700.

Thus fortified, we set off for the mountains, stopping in the apparently unassuming Reinbachstube restaurant in St Johann im Pongau for a brilliant five-course lunch at a laughable €35 from young chef Alfred Rohrmoser, son of the founder who went off to learn his trade, was head chef at the UN in New York, and returned home to do great things with his family’s restaurant.

He already is, creating food with a subtlety and lightness not usually associated with hearty Austrian nosh.

And so to the slopes – in Obertauern, Austria’s highest ski resort, with snow pretty much guaranteed from September to May. Combined with sunshine, blue skies, perfectly groomed pistes and not too many people, it made for a perfect reintroduction to hurtling down mountains, occasionally in control.

Perfect. Having managed not to kill myself yet again, lunch was in the beautifully contemporary mountaintop Gamsmilchbar, whose speciality was a half litre of milkshake with rum, presumably for alcoholic toddlers. Every year they have a competition to see who can drink the most, and the record stands at 17, after which the winner was rolled down the mountain, gurgling gently.

Spurning the tasty vegan option of Verhackertbrot, bread with meat and minced lard, I had goulash soup.

As darkness fell, we took a taxi to Gnadenalm, a lonely farmhouse restaurant, for a sleigh ride, which involved an hour looking at two horses’ bottoms. It was difficult to see the point, especially for the horses, a mother and daughter who spent the hour trotting along gamely and glancing lovingly at each other.

Or maybe they were saying: “Here, is my tinnitus getting worse, or is those ****ing jingle bells they’ve attached to our collars?”

After an hour, we arrived back where we’d started, the horses were led off to their stables, presumably to watch an old John Wayne movie, and we settled down to a hearty dinner in the sort of rustic surroundings which make you want to buy a pair of lederhosen and a Tyrolean hat, marry an absurdly healthy girl in a dirndl and have 17 absurdly healthy children, all called Hans except the girls.

Perhaps it was thoughts like that which made me wake several times that night, fretting that the duvet was too short, but very wide, then realising it was sideways. Don’t tell anyone, or they’ll just laugh at me.

Outside the window, the only signs of life the headlights of the piste bashers grooming the slopes, driven by lonely men who never had found their girl in a dirndl.

After another splendid morning’s skiing, we stopped for homemade schnapps and chocolate cake at Krings Alm, a beautifully contemporary building which still paid homage to the rustic simplicity of traditional Austrian interiors.

The owner Manuela Krings and her sister Doresia were world class skiing and snowboarders respectively, and on the walls were several photos of The Beatles, who filmed the skiing sequences for their film Help! here in 1965.

And then at the end of the day, no matter how well your boots fit, the best feeling was taking them off, putting on normal shoes and feeling for a while like you’re walking on air.

After which I had a go at something called e-fat biking, which involved riding an electric mountain bike up and down the slopes I’d skied earlier.

“Mmm,” said the instructor Harald after 10 minutes. “I think it’s got too warm. The snow is very slippery.”

He didn’t need to tell me: I’d already almost lost control of my back end several times. Not to mention the bike’s.

Slightly more gentle was a torchlight wander around the town with Hermann Koch, who with fellow ski instructor Harald Brenter set a world record in 2018 of 208,786ft downhill on ski bikes in 24 hours, fuelled on jelly babies. Not content with that, Hermann set a world record for the fastest 1km on a ski bike – backwards. I should have hired him earlier as my stunt double, I thought as I glanced down to see that my torch was just about to set my hand on fire.

I doused it in snow, then just to be safe, added more liquid internally that night at dinner in the Latsch´n Alm, with its lovely old interior and huge central fireplace.

Dinner was a DIY affair which involved flinging assorted lumps of meat onto a pyramid-shaped brazier on the table, accompanied by so many sauces that by the time the waiter had finished explaining the last one, we’d forgotten what the first 23 were.

However, I did such a good job cooking and serving myself that at the end of the meal I gave myself a pat on the back and a 100 per cent tip, thus getting a free meal out of it.

All the same, after another fabulous day whizzing down assorted red runs and a couple of easier blacks, I was glad that dinner on the last night was a more normal affair in the Schrotteralm Restaurant in the nearby Hotel Almschlössl.

This was another traditional spot, full of happy families and with a bunch of teenagers at the next table who actually spent the night playing cards and talking to each other rather than being obsessed by their phones, then at the end of the night, when a brass quartet arrived to play some tunes, applauded them politely.

It was a very heartening end to a trip which had started with a bunch of drunken soldiers on their way to a house of ill repute.

FACT FILE

Getting there:

EasyJet flies from Belfast International Airport direct to Salzburg every Thursday and Sunday during the ski season (easyjet.com)

Staying there:

We stayed at the friendly family-owned Hotel Alpina, which is close to ski hire, ski school and access to the slopes. Rates for B&B start at €70 pp per day (alpina-obertauern.at)

Skiing:

SkiWorld ski rental has two branches in Obertauern, one right beside the Hotel Alpina.

Eating out:

On the way from Salzburg, stop in St Johann im Pongau for the brilliant €35 tasting menu in Reinbachstube (reinbachstube.at)

Nightlife:

The biggest pub in town is the Lürzer Alm just off Obertauern's main street, like an Alpine hut on steroids.

For information:

The Salzburgerland Tourism website is (salzburgerland.com)

Skischule Silvia Grillitsch is the largest ski school in Obertauern (skischule.co.at). As well as a big choice of ski classes, they also offer a big choice for children including pre-school. They also offer off-piste skiing and ski touring – but check your ski insurance for same – as well as helicopter flights, dog-sled rides, biathlon, torch-lit yodel hike and ice climbing.

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