Christine Silberberger knows a thing or two about pretty ski resorts. After all, she grew up in one – Auffach, which is part of the Wildschönau in the Austrian Tirol. Here she picks six of her favourites, where scenic splendour and Alpine authenticity go hand-in-hand with great skiing.
Amidst all the flying planks and fireballs, you may have noticed the surrounding village looked rather cute. But even if you did, you still won’t have any idea just how exceptional this middle-of-nowhere village really is.
To do that, forget skiing for an hour or two – and go for a wander in its central cluster of sun-blackened farmhouses. All you’ll hear is the drip-drip-drip of melting snow – and the occasional snatch of conversation from the locals, as they gossip between their balconies. All you’ll see is life lived at a different pace, with different priorities. Here, a mother and granny sit chatting on a bench in the sunshine. Over there, a waiter opens a restaurant door and shouts to some children that there’s fresh apple pie to eat – and like a flock of starlings they swoop indoors. I’m not making this up. In Obertilliach this is what a weekday afternoon in winter looks like.
The atmosphere isn’t likely to change in a hurry, either. The Osttirol is a part of the Tirol that time forgot: left behind when Italy took a big bite out Austria at the end of the First World War. It’s separated from the rest of the province by Austria’s highest mountain, the Grossglockner, and few skiers – even the keen ones – have any idea it’s there.
The handful that make it to Obertilliach come primarily for its cross-country trails, which leaves its handful of downhill pistes all but empty. One – the top-to-bottom Ralsabfahrt – would be regarded as a classic even if it were in St Anton. In a place as quiet and as unspoilt as this, it’s nothing short of miraculous.
What makes a ski resort pretty? Bizarrely, mining and obscurity often help. They’ve certainly had a benign influence on the current state of Alpbach – which is widely regarded as one of the cutest villages in the Alps.
The mining – for copper and silver – started in the 15th century, and over the next 400 years had a profound influence on the look of the village. But once the deposits were exhausted, Alpbach faded from most maps, and a modern road didn’t reach it till 1926. Then, in 1953, the local council voted to protect the local architecture, and ensure new buildings went up in the traditional style. Even today, they can’t be more than three storeys high, and each one, above the ground floor, has to be made of wood. The result, after more than half a century of celebrity, is a village that is still low-rise, charming and relaxed.
You don’t have to pay a fortune to stay here either. There are plenty of modern ski resorts where a sense of richly-textured Alpine authenticity can be had – at a stellar price. In Alpbach, you get it whether you’re staying in the four-star superior Böglerhof, or in a B&B such as the Haus Sonnwend.
The skiing, by contrast, is much more 21st-century. That’s because Alpbach shares its lift system with the Wildschönau’s, in the next valley. In all, there are 109km of pistes to play on, served by fast lifts and offering the kind of straight-down-the-mountain “fall-line” skiing that focuses the mind and gets the legs pumping. So yes, Alpbach is rustic. But it’s rip-roaring too.
Of course, in the Alps, farming communities create beautiful landscapes too. That’s certainly the case in the in the Wildschönau, which shares its lift system with Alpbach. Here, there are still 260 working farms, and plenty of high-altitude summer pastures (alms) which are grazed in the traditional way. Add stretches of carefully-managed forest, as well as a sprinkling of hay barns and mountain dairies (such as the Schönangeralm) and you’ve got the kind of authentic, productive landscape holidaymakers often look for in the Alps, but rarely find.
Mind you, when they’re skiing, they might be too busy to notice. The highest pistes in the Wildschönau, on the Schatzberg ridge above Auffach, are absolute fliers. Wide, steady and unrelenting, they are the perfect place for keen intermediates to get up on their edges and start to carve. Meanwhile, above Niederau the Hochberg Abfahrt is a magnificent straight-down-the-mountain black. Elsewhere you’ll find flat and soothing nursery slopes, and a lovely meandering top-to-bottom run down to Auffach where even the most gung-ho skiers will finally look up and realise how well tradition and modernity are integrated in the valley.
The scenic highlight is undoubtely Thierbach. Set in its own private valley, beneath an elegant, onion-domed church, it can be reached by a waymarked off-piste route from the Schatzberg ridge, or by local buses from Auffach. At least one visit is essential. Some might say it’s like a film set from the Chronicles of Narnia. But that’s missing the point. This is not a fantasy. It’s a place where people live, and raise their kids. After an afternoon here, you’ll probably wish you could do the same.
There aren’t many resorts that can match the good looks of Igls: but what makes it genuinely exceptional is its location. Set on forested plateau, half-way up the 2,246m Patscherkofel, this cluster of hotels, haybarns and neat country villas is actually a city suburb. Catch a J-line bus from the bottom of its pistes, and in 15 minutes you can be in the heart of Innsbruck. Here, your après-ski might include a wander through the art collection of the Ferdinandeum museum, followed by cocktails at sleek, chic Das Schindler. Though you might want to change out of your ski boots first.
The other big attraction is the skiing itself. The Patscherkofel may not look much compared with some of the loftier, more angular peaks around Innsbruck, but it has proper skiing pedigree, thanks to the 1976 Winter Olympics. It was here that Austrian hero Franz Klammer threw all caution to the wind, and won Downhill gold in a descent that flirted with disaster from start to finish. It is, probably, the single most famous ski race of the last half-century, and it’s quite a buzz to follow in Klammer’s wake – even if the modern well-groomed piste, the Olympiaabfahrt, is a breeze compared to the rutted race track Klammer had to negotiate.
Sounds interesting? Then you might like to know Igls is only 20 minutes by taxi from Innsbruck airport. With several other ski areas to sample nearby – including the formidable Nordkette – it’s one of the best destinations in the Alps for a ski weekend.
The scenery will blow your ski boots off. Lermoos looks east, across the pancake-flat site of a long-vanished lake, and the view is straight onto the one of most eye-catching massifs of the eastern Alps: the Zugspitze. At 2,962m, it’s not especially tall by Alpine standards, but its sheer and shattered western face has few rivals when it comes to visual drama. At the end of the day – when the setting sun paints it pink – you’ll be struck dumb.
It’s not the only soaring peak hereabouts, and the top-to-bottom views you get from the the valley floor create an all-pervasive sense of mountain majesty. This is nicely tempered by the atmosphere in the village itself. In some resorts, architects might have been tempted to echo the shapes of the surrounding peaks. But thankfully not in Lermoos. The onion-domed steeple of the Dorfkirche St Katharina is the only tall building in the village. Elsewhere, pitched roofs, timber balconies and jolly, red-and-white shutters are the rule. High standards of hotel-keeping add to the charm too: for example in the stately, all-suite Hotel Post, and the buzzing, family-friendly Alpenrose. Meanwhile, Lermoos’s own lift system – part of the Tiroler Zugspitz Arena – offers more than 1,000m of vertical descent, on some thrilling fall-line pistes. Just be sure to watch where you’re going, With the Zugspitze right in front of you, it’s easy to be distracted.
Never mind the fearsome reputation of the Streif. Each January, Downhill skiers may hurtle down Kitzbühel’s world-famous race course at speeds in excess of 80mph; but away from the 85% gradients, and the do-or-die Mausefall jump, Kitzbühel is actually a kitten. Think easy-going, tree-lined pistes, characterful mountain restaurants, and a chic town that’s home to some of Austria’s finest hotels and restaurants. This is a resort that’s been catering to well-heeled skiers since the 1890s – and its star continues to rise.
It’s good-looking too: as you’ll notice when you wander its pedestrianized medieval centre – the Vorderstadt. Here, brightly coloured hotels and houses line the cobbled streets, and the spire of the 14th-century Katharinenkirche serves as a reminder that this was a proper town long before the era of “white gold” (aka snow). Its fine, late-gothic altarpiece is a rare survival from the early 16th century: when the the local copper and silver mines were booming, and nearby Innsbruck was key city of the Holy Roman Empire. It’s not often, as a skier, that you want to wander the streets of an A-list resort, soaking up its sense of history, In Kitzbühel, it’s an essential part of the holiday experience.