From Warsaw via Berlin to Salzburg. The scenery increasingly arresting, as we roll south through the Bavarian Alps, past the ski resorts and nip over the German border - Salzburg sits just the other side.
I put 'outdoor pool' into Booking.com’s filters and came up with the Gersberg Alm. It has a lofty position on the alpine meadow (as the name suggests) with incredible views through the trees across Salzburg and to the mountains encircling the city. The old town with its jade green domes is especially prominent, as is the Festung Hohensalzburg fortress, perched on its own formidable crag above the city. This one is a properly ancient and huge castle, the home of the archbishops of Salzburg.
The city, swathed in mist is enticing, but for the first day or so the swimming pool and sunbeds are the stronger attraction. A heatwave has been engulfing Europe for a couple of weeks now. It’s even hot in England. I’m awakened from my slumber by a loud baa. There’s a large floppy eared sheep staring at me. He’s separated from the pool area by an electric fence. I find out it’s electrified the hard way.
The location is great and the hotel itself couldn’t be more atmospheric. A traditional wood chalet with scarlet pelargonium window boxes and an outdoor restaurant that serves up divine food at ridiculously high prices. My room could use some attention from the maintenance department however, – plug, tv, door won’t latch, no towels by the pool and the mattress keeps sliding off the sunbed.
A return visit to Salzburg is not to be missed and I forgo the sunbed for a morning to venture into the sizzling city and explore its ancient heritage. First settlements here date back to Neolithic times. They were followed by a Roman city called Juvavum, though that eventually declined into ruins." Saint Rupert, the 8th-century saint was responsible for the city's rebirth. When appointed archbishop by Theodo, he chose the river for the site of his basilica. Rupert named the city Salzburg, or Salt Castle. This recognised the salt trade that brought the city much of its wealth, via a toll on salt barges. The city state that emerged is now the Altstadt (Old Town), given UNESCO heritage status.
The Hohensalzburg Fortress was built in 1077, as a home for Archbishop Gebhard and expanded and altered over the centuries. There’s a very modern funicular up there (the original was built in the nineteenth century), which whisks me up to another superb panorama of the city. There are more graceful spires than Oxford - maybe. The fortress has umpteen rooms and displays crammed with armour, weapons and medieval furniture. A war games aficionado would love it.
The Old Town (Altstadt), nestling beneath the sprawling medieval castle is magnificently baroque, with its enormous cathedral, numerous churches and curving medieval streets. As Lonely Planet says, 'If it's baroque, don't fix it'....Just below the fortress is Nonnberg, the abbey where Maria failed to become a nun in The Sound of Music. Sound of Music paraphernalia is to be found on every corner of course. Mozart competes with The Von Trapps for mentions. He wins on place names (Mozart Platz ) and concerts (Cosi Fan Tutte and the requiem at the moment). And probably residences. He seems to have lived in about a dozen different places in Vienna. His birthplace, with the musical instruments he played as a child and the clavichord on which he composed The Magic Flute.
The Sound of Music wins on tours. Though no-one is booking at the moment. As everywhere I've been so far this tour, the city is relatively quiet. The squares are empty and not all the fountains are operating. I can saunter through the narrow lanes, with little in the way of opposition.
These cobbled streets are typically Austrian in their stiff elegance, crammed with chic boutiques displaying traditional clothes – lederhosen, dirndls and felt hats with feathers in them – and plate glass restaurants offering frothy coffee and ice cream sundaes. I succumb to one of the latter. It's exceptionally good.
The Old Town and the fortress are roughly south of the suitably rushing River Salzach, the Neustadt to the north. It’s not that new though. There's a Mozart residence cum museum. And the Mirabelle Schloss with its manicured and fountain bedecked gardens. It sports Pegasus above one of the fountains, and the odd unicorn as well. Maria and the von Trapp children sang do-re-mi around them. The palace was built by one of the archbishops in 1606, for his mistress. It’s now mainly used for weddings. There’s a nice irony in that.
I've been skiing in Austria a dozen times. The country has bags more atmosphere than anywhere else. And I wrote this for Ski Beginner website.
Green runs: 0
Blue runs: 37
Red runs: 80
Black runs: 7
High alpine touring runs: 8
Heliski pads: 2
Ski schools: 2
Access to slopes: 4
Beginners’ area: 2
Overall: 4 (unless you are marking just for beginners, in which case 1 or 2)
Getting there: about one and three quarter hour’s drive from Friedrichshafen airport where charter flights land. An hour and half from Innsbruck or an hour on the train from Innsbruck.
St Anton is a classic resort, but it’s tough for a novice, unless you are very intrepid and enjoy falling over. The continuing mantra from instructors and skiers alike was ‘if you can ski here you can ski anywhere’. That said, this is a large ski area and there is some genuinely nice cruisy blue skiing, especially higher up the valley at Lech and Zurs. It’s a good resort for a mixed party as there’s a reasonable amount to do off the slopes and plenty of good shops, bars and restaurants. The valley is pretty and easily accessible and the snow record is good, backed up by lots of snow cannons. The infra structure is excellent and transport is decorative and comfortable, as well as being efficient.
The Arlberg Mountains lie in the western finger of Austria, sandwiched between Switzerland and Germany. St Anton is the most well known village, marketing itself as the place where alpine skiing first began as a leisure pastime. The lift pass covers a sprinkling of villages at a higher altitude that include Lech, Zurs, Zug and St Christophe. These are the most fashionable ski areas in Austria and the playground for rich Germans. The villages are all accessible from St Anton by bus and vice versa. The journey to Lech takes 25 minutes over the Flexen pass. Zurs, Lech, Zug and Oberlech are linked by lifts and the ‘White Ring‘ route through the whole of this region is a good day’s outing, which is not too challenging. You can ski it all on fairly gentle blue runs, except for one red ski route which isn’t too steep.
I’m not a beginner, but it’s so long since I went skiing that my boots are best described as vintage. Moreover, a mouse had nested inside the right one when I retrieved it from the loft. So I felt like a beginner. I started at St Anton, up the Galzig gondola and at first glance the slopes were daunting, to say the least. There are plenty of blue runs marked on the piste map. But nearly all the blues have an element of red in them. There are also a few, narrow, just- about-downhill schusses.
Falling over is pretty well a foregone conclusion. The lower runs get very crowded, and there is a lot of slushy snow that quickly builds into pretty heavy going. Some of it is too steep to snow plough turn on and if you do manage to side-slip down you will probably get taken out by someone else, whizzing past at the end of the day. But that was day 1 and I did survive, reaching the sanctuary of the lively mountain huts that dot the lower slopes, especially alongside route 1, under the Galzig gondola.
On day 2 my legs were aching so much from all my sit-back-too-much-in-panic skiing the day before that I felt like giving up. However, a holiday ski host took me to the blue runs at the top of the new Rendl gondola on the opposite side of the valley. Much more amenable and a reasonable ski down to the village as well, though one or two steep areas to watch out for again on all slopes. As I grew more confident and explored, things began to look a lot better on both sides of the valley. The number 8 run down to St Christophe was a fairly easy blue with an authentic Austrian mountain restaurant, the Hospiz Alm, as a reward.
But the best blues for beginners by far are over in Lech and Zurs. There is enough here to occupy novices for a week. The scenery here is glorious and there are really pretty chairlift rides, such as the one over the pine trees at Zug. Most of the blue runs are genuine blues and there is plenty of ground to cover through the linked system. A nice nursery area, but no really easy green runs on which to build confidence.
The whole valley lift system is ultra modern and really efficient. The lifts are mainly large gondolas or 4 or 6 man chair lifts, some with heated seats. Several of these were new this year. The Galzig gondola, a typical example, is cased in glass and the capacious cabins are lifted round a giant Ferris wheel. There is a little queuing at peak times, especially during holidays, but the capacity is so good that the waiting time never got frustrating. However, not all the lifts quite link up and there are several spots where a waddle uphill for a few (or more) metres is required.
I preferred to practise on my own, or ski with the hosts. Nevertheless, other skiers attending ski school were impressed by the quality of instruction in both regular classes and individual lessons; so don’t write St Anton off for beginners. A new skier I spoke to felt she had managed comfortably on the blue slope under the Galten gondola. After all if you haven’t seen gentler slopes you won’t realise what you’re facing. And just think how well you’ll do elsewhere, on the next trip.
There are quite a few ski boarders around, though they use the same runs as the skiers. There are plenty of facilities for children in addition to the ski schools. There’s a Funpark up at the Rendl area, complete with little jumps. There’s also a special deal for children who are 8 or under on the lift pass. It’s only 10 Euros for the year.
St Anton is an attractive mix of űber-cool modern, intermixed with alpine charm. And you won’t have any trouble making yourself understood. You’ll hear English spoken everywhere, most of it with a public school accent. This is Austria’s main chalet resort, but there is also a good selection of hotels, most of them fairly expensive. The majority of the bars and restaurants are strung along the main street, Dorfstrasse and there is some excellent food available.
Reflecting the architecture, modern European sits alongside traditional Tyrolean. Several of the many restaurants (over 80 in all)) have been awarded the Gault Millau toque, including the Hospiz Alm mentioned above. There was so much to sample and the inevitable cold-weather draw towards comfort food like Grőstl (Austrian fry up) to battle. My snug-fit ski pants were going pop whenever I bent to undo my boot buckles, by the end of the week.
The bars are intermixed with sports shops and hire places. There are lots of these to choose from. I used Skisport Fauner. The equipment was good and the staff very friendly. There are also two very well stocked supermarkets. Plenty of choice for those self catering or just looking for a picnic lunch.
There are quite a few options if you still have some energy when you come off the snow. Nestled at the bottom of the slopes is the arlberg-well.com. This is a modern complex with indoor and outdoor swimming pools, jet pools, sauna, solarium and steam rooms. It’s pleasant swimming and looking up at the snow capped mountains, though the dash between pools is a little too bracing. The sauna is mixed and strictly nude; so the view isn’t always as pleasant as the one from the pool.
Next door, there’s a natural ice rink. There’s also a sports park, Arl-rock, with, as the name suggests, a climbing wall, as well as tennis, bowls and other sports. If you’re still not exhausted, the museum, which traces the history of alpine skiing, is well worth a visit. In addition there’s a packed programme of events each year, including a weekly ski show, ski races, an inter sport spring festival and musical concerts.
Finally, the après ski is varied and many skiers party late into the night, every night. Take your pick from cocktails to karaoke.
I stayed at the Rosanna chalet-hotel on a Mark Warner package. It’s ideally located in the centre of St Anton in close walking distance of all amenities and the lifts. The hotel operates like a chalet in the sense that service is more personal and you get lots of extras like afternoon tea. The whole thing was impeccably organised from airport to door and home again. The chalet was modern and very comfortable and the food was abundant and of excellent quality.
Ski hosts took out parties two days a week (intermediates or advanced only). The staff were exceptionally well trained and were delightful. Nothing was too much trouble. The only downside was that Warner’s also manage Scotty’s bar and pizzeria, which is underneath. Very convenient if you had a yen to stay up late drinking, but not so great for those who wanted to go to bed in preparation for an early assault on the snow and had rooms at the back of the hotel.
Probably the epitome of űber-cool in the village. High tech, beautifully put together and not too far to heft your skis from the bottom of the Galzig lift. There’s even a glass-sided children’s playroom perched above the stairs, so you can keep an eye on your brood while you’re relaxing. By day a funky bar/cafe and by night a restaurant. The food is modern European and absolutely delicious. Try the chilli, ginger chicken. Every silver lining has a cloud and at peak times there’s a bit of a scramble for tables. The Germans and locals have the same attitude to queuing here as they do to reserving sun beds. It’s every man for himself.
Down some steps off Dorfstrasse this is a lively and traditional wood-furnished place to hang out and sip a mojito or caipirinha. If you’re hungry you can eat Mexican, while you watch the football on the big screens.
Another modern European restaurant attached to the Hotel Manfred, just off Dorfstrasse. Stylish, with very friendly staff. It serves Tyrolean dishes such as Wiener Schnitzel and pork chops. There are also huge ice cream sundaes to finish. However, most folk go there for the specialty fondue, so it’s another good place to take children.
There are numerous places to eat and drink on the mountains, especially towards the bottom of the runs. The most famous of these is the Krazy Kangaruh. But the Moosewirt is the happening place currently. The number 1 run swarms with skiers rushing down there at the end of the day, although you can travel by road if you can’t face the bumps. There’s a countdown to the official start of après ski at 3.30. On Fridays and Saturdays the crowd on the terrace spills right out onto the narrow piste and you get the full Bierkeller experience. Dancing on tables, drinking songs and waiters balancing huge, round trays of up to 50 shots of schnapps at a time. Statistics vary depending on the source, but it is reputed to sell more beer per square metre than any other bar in Europe. And it’s only open for half the year.
Read more about Austria here.
Austria was part of the Holy Roman Empire, ruled by the Hapsburgs from the thirteenth century. Then the Austrian Empire remained within the German Confederation until the Austro-Prussian War in 1866. This resulted in Prussia expelling Austria from the Confederation. Instead, Austria entered into a dual monarchy with Hungary: the Austro-Hungarian Empire. When this empire collapsed after the end of World War I in 1918, Austria was reduced to its current frontiers, taking on the name The Republic of German-Austria. However, union with Germany and the chosen country name were vetoed by the Allies at the Treaty of Versailles. The consequence was the First Austrian Republic (1919-1933). Adolf Hitler annexed Austria to Germany, for the duration of World War II. Ten years after the Second World War, Austria again became an independent country, as the Second Austrian Republic.
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