Category Archives: Austria

Where it’s a hard life in the mountains

5/4/13 – April skiing: where to go for a last blast

Fabulous spring skiing in Ischgl two years ago. This year, those brown patches are white

Fabulous spring skiing in Ischgl two years ago. This year, those brown patches are white

To round off this snow-blessed winter in the Alps and escape the persistent winter chill of home, if you have a few days and a few pounds to spare I suggest you go skiing.

I have a final trip booked, to Val d’Isere – not a usual haunt of mine as I generally head for Austria, Italy or Switzerland, but it will be a nice change. Last time I stayed there, apart from one short press trip a couple of years ago, was when I was training to be an Inghams rep nearly 20 years ago.

Anyway, if I didn’t have that trip booked, here are the places I’d consider…

1. Engelberg in Switzerland. The top slopes are open till May 26, the town is lively, there’s accommodation for all budgets (including a youth hostel) and it’s only an hour from Zurich airport. There are also some brilliant local guides. Read more about that in my Telegraph article from last season about where to join off-piste groups.

...and when the slush sets in, here's what you can do instead

…and when the slush sets in, here’s what you can do instead

Zermatt, where the views are at their best at the end of the season

Zermatt, where the views are at their best at the end of the season

2. Zermatt in Switzerland. It’s open till May 5, the town is vibrant, busy and full of ski mountaineering folk – and the shops, for once, are offering plenty of end-of-season bargains on gear (not forgetting the pyjamas, nighties and underwear, at Calida, towards the top of the main street). Again, there’s lodging for all budgets. But it’s far from the airport, so go for a week to make it worthwhile. Read more in the insider’s guide (and here is page 2) I compiled at the start of this season.

3. Obergurgl in Austria. It’s open till April 28, and with the village at about 1,900m and most of the skiing between there and 3,000m, there’s very quick access from hotel or b&b direct to the snow. What’s more, there’s fantastic touring, with a great choice of day tours. It’s less than 90 minutes from Innsbruck, and if winter flights have tailed off by the time you want to go, you can fly to Friedrichshafen, Salzburg or Zurich instead. Read my recent piece in the Telegraph, and my off-piste article from last year, to find out more.

4. Ischgl in Austria. The lifts aren’t due to close until May 1. I went late in the season a couple of years ago and despite it not being a good snow year, there was excellent cover thanks to super-efficient snowmaking earlier in the season. There’s good touring nearby in the Silvrettas – hire a guide and stay overnight in the Jamtal Hut (open till May 4), for instance. Keen apres-skiers will know its reputation for lively bars, which is merited – read more in past blogs of mine, such as this one, by entering ‘Ischgl’ in the search box on the right.

Just think of the tan you will get

Just think of the tan you will get

Other late-season favourites of mine are St Anton in Austria, which stays open till April 21; Alagna/Gressoney/Champoluc in Italy (only till April 14, sadly – but lift passes are free till then if you book three nights locally, and it’s amazing value for food and drink); or Cervinia in Italy, which shares Zermatt’s slopes but not its prices (open till May 5). An underrated place probably not on your radar is the Engadine, where Diavolezza/Lagalb stays open well until May 20, and Corvatsch until May 5. The area offers excellent ski touring too – and don’t be put off that it’s in the St Moritz area: there are hostels and modest b&bs as well as swanky hotels.

Of course, you could always plump for Colorado or Utah, where a snowstorm is meant to be heading right now, or for snowy Scotland, where conditions are excellent.

I’ll leave you with the details of four great cut-price deals that landed in my inbox  this week from Inghams, which might be worth a look if you can make a dash for the Alps at the last minute. I’m sure the other tour operators have similar offerings at equally appealing prices.

St Christoph, Austria. £349 for a week’s chalet-board (that means half-board, including wine with dinner and CHOCOLATES afterwards) in a chalet hotel with a pool and doorstep skiing, including return flight from Gatwick to Innsbruck on April 13.

St Anton, Austria. £349, chalet-board, similar to above. There’s no pool but the place, Chalet Gampen, looks pretty good, with whirlpool, sauna and all that stuff. Departing from Gatwick on April 13.

Tignes, France. £369 at Chalet Hotel Le Dome, described as ski-in, ski-out. Similar deal as above, flying to Chambery on April 13 from Gatwick – easily the best airport for Tignes, being about 90 minutes away.

Val Thorens, France – the high-altitude end of the Three Valleys. £369 at Chalet Anais, departing from Gatwick on April 13, flying to Chambery.

Happy holiday-hunting, if you have time!

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Filed under Austria, Food and drink, France, Italy, Link to article by Yolanda Carslaw, Off-piste, Ski touring, Switzerland, Transport, United States

1/2/13 – Can anybody beat this loo-with-a-view?

Snowy Schladming in mid-January

Snowy Schladming in mid-January

On Monday the World Alpine Skiing Championships begin in Schladming, Austria.

I spent a long weekend at the Austrian resort a few weeks ago, and you can read how impressed I was with the place in the Daily Telegraph travel section next weekend (or online, here).

This comfort stop is clearly signed

This comfort stop is clearly signed

As well as great, tree-lined ski runs, an attractive town square, half a dozen dirndl shops, the largest apres-ski bar in Europe (they claim – and Hohenhaus Tenne is indeed huge – pictures in a future blog) and unbelievably cheap and tasty food in giant portions, Schladming has fantastic places to “go”.

A very public loo

A very public lavatory

To the loo.

On the mountain.

At the junction of two chair-lift top stations on Planai (read the Telegraph piece to see which ones), the mountain where the racing takes place, is a white, green and yellow cabin marked “Sky Toilet”.

Here are the instructions that come with the loo

Here are the instructions that come with the loo

In the ladies’ , I found one cubicle with a wall of glass, one-way viewing, of course, overlooking the  ascending chairs at close quarters and the piste.

Plastered to the other walls and ceiling is local mountain scenery, completing the picture. The second cubicle is  totally wallpapered.

This is the view from where I was sitting

This is the view from where I was sitting

Of course it was all beautifully heated, with plenty of room to put your gloves and a hook to hang your rucksack or coat.

There were similar good loos elsewhere in Schladming – easily up to the standard of Aspen, where the mountain loos are very practical.

Spot the door in the Planet Planai ladies'

Spot the door in the Planet Planai ladies’

In Planet Planai, the new base station, there’s more good wallpaper, plus a powder scene across all the doors in the ladies’.

In Hohenhaus Tenne, on the way out, there’s a sort of chalet willage of lavatories, comoplete with a rustic water fountain in the middle.

Step inside the chalet to 'go'

Step inside the chalet to ‘go’

Please advise if you know of other mountain loo stops that are as beautiful and useful as these, and I will make an effort to make use of them one day…

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12/1/13 – Obergurgl apres-ski: David’s Hut

The Oetztaler Alpentornados at David's Hut

The Oetztaler Alpentornados at David’s Hut

Jolly, traditional, Tyrolean music in Obergurgl, I was glad to discover in December, is alive and well, even though the band at the excellent Nederhut is more inclined to high-volume “ruck’n’roll” than it was when I worked there 15 years ago (see my Telegraph article on Obergurgl – out in print in the Telegraph Saturday travel section today – for more on “then and now”).

On a Thursday evening before Christmas, our family group of three generations – aged nine to 72 – booked in to a fondue/Schweinshaxe (pork)/meat-on-stone evening at David’s Hut (Davids Huette), a few hundred yards downhill from the Nederhut and a place I knew mainly for its outstanding spaghetti Bolognese.

We walked up from the village (25 minutes from the centre, on a lane that starts steeply and flattens out); other groups arrived by taxi. It was beginning to snow.

The van of the promisingly named band, the Oetztaler Alpentornados, was parked outside; tables were filling up, mostly with German guests; a few teenage locals were drinking Weizenbier at the bar; a 20-strong British group, celebrating a birthday, were colonising one corner.

We’d booked meat fondue, mostly the chunky bourgignonne variety, but three of us had Chinoise, which came in jucier, thicker slices than usual. The sauces included sweet chilli as well as cocktail, curry, sour cream and chives, tartare and an unpindownable pink one. Salad arrived first, then rounds of chips to go with the meat.

The meal was spot on, as was the service – the friendliest I’ve encountered anywhere in the world, let alone the Alps. I first met the four longstanding chief waiting staff when working in the village in the mid-1990s, and the fact they’re all still happily there says a lot about the place (David himself is in the kitchen, or behind the bar).

But how was the music?

The band started sedately, circulating around the hut to give each set of tables a kind of private performance before plugging themselves in.

About five songs later, one of the Weizenbier-drinkers jumped up and danced energetically, all on his own. Here he is (in action on Youtube).

A few waltzes later Inge and… ah, I’ve forgotten this great David’s Hut longtimer’s name, I’m sorry to say… took a break from fetching, carrying and pouring to show how Austrian dancing is done.

Here they are – move over, everyone from Strictly (and of course we were rather amateur by comparison, too, when we had a go).

The Tornados played for well over an hour without a break, using a tableful of tuneful little metal bells for several songs – watch and listen here – and getting diners to come up and play them.

They finished their first set with a ‘Polonaise’ or conga around the benches and tables and out of the window onto the now-snowy terrace.

I was glad to see our neighbours join in: usually Brits find it too embarrassing to jig round in a queue holding onto a stranger’s shoulders from behind and being similarly grasped themselves. Usually, they pretend not to understand when beckoned to the line by a German, or they find some excuse such as finishing a drink or ordering another. But these ones were well fuelled by rounds of birthday schnapps.

As the Tornados rested at the bar in readiness for their second set, we paid up (about 45 euros each) and headed back to the village, the fresh snow beneath our feet and in our heads the swinging sounds of mountain music mingling with excitement about the next day’s powder…

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Filed under Austria, Food and drink, Link to article by Yolanda Carslaw, Link to film, Music, Transport, United States

2/1/13 – Apres-ski at the Nederhut in Obergurgl

“GOODAFTERNOONLADIESANCHENTLEMEN!!! We are weryheppytoseeyoufortheapres-skiPARTY!!! Heute willwemake ruck’n’rolllll-boarischen-valzer andifyou nokenskidown because you loseyourski-drinktoomanyschnaps-forgetyourguggles don’tworrywetakeyoudown tothewillech withaSKIDOO! Jetzt heng ein byyourneighbour andwemakethe SCHNEEWALZER!”

The stage awaits several members of the Gamper family at the Nederhut in Obergurgl

The stage awaits several members of the Gamper family at the Nederhut in Obergurgl

The enthusiastic welcome by Rudi Gamper, hotelier, restaurateur and rocker, to his famed après-ski sessions at the Nederhut has barely changed since I was working in the Austrian resort of Obergurgl more than 15 years ago.

Then, when ski hosting for a couple of winters for Inghams, I took a group nearly every Monday, Wednesday and Friday to watch Rudi (on guitar) and two of his charismatic, musical mates – Gebi (mostly on accordion) and Toni (mostly on tambourine) – sing and play for a few hours from 4pm.

Benni (left) and Rudi

Benni (left) and Rudi Gamper

Afterwards, we’d ski the floodlit blue run, which leads to the doors of most of the village’s hotels and guesthouses. (Read more in this post.)

Every time I’ve been back, the operation has become fancier – more (and more massive) speakers, ranks of guitars and several big screens.

Just before Christmas, I was back again, and my sister and her family managed to bag us one of my favourite tables (arrival often necessary by 2.15pm to guarantee a  spot), to the left of the band at the front (best if you’re a group; the taller tables on the right, where the bar once was, are possibly better if you want to mingle).

Rudi Gamper (right) with his friends Toni (middle) and Gebi in the late 1990s

Rudi Gamper (right) with his friends Toni (middle) and Gebi in the late 1990s

Toni and Gebi are long gone – there’s a revolving cast now, the permanent fixtures being Rudi (as full of stamina as ever), Benni, his son (who has taken over running the place – I found it better than ever as a mountain restaurant), on the accordion or guitar, and his wife, Sissi, who learnt the drums so she could join in.

The order of play has evolved, though the playlist is similar. Rudi and Benni begin by standing on a table strumming like crazy, belting out AC/DC. After another couple of energetic, quite loud rock numbers it’s time for Rudi’s longstanding welcome (above) in Oetztal-German and then in funny English.

After the Schneewalzer (watch it on Youtube here!) there are two or three excellent traditional Austrian songs – one of which aims to get couples walzing with the promise of a free schnapps (on my visit the song was Gruene Tannen; the schnapps was Willi mit Birne; my partner was my fantastic dad).

Here’s one of the traditional songs on Youtube.

There follows solid rock and Europop, plus the odd country-style piece (including Vest Wirginia) until about 6.15pm, when there’s more traditional stuff after a break.

We were there with children, and didn’t want to stay too long, so I can’t tell you whether they did any yodelling later on (the Oetztaler Bergsteigerlied used to be my favourite).

Many people will prefer the new to the old Nederhut – it’s slicker and more professional (and it’s now on Thursday, too, at 4pm, as well as Monday, Wednesday and Friday).

However, as I’m only really mad about the traditional stuff, it’s probably less my thing than it once was.

I’ll still always go at least once for apres-ski (and definitely for lunch, as well) every time I’m in Obergurgl, and I’m happy to report that there are other options, too, now, concentrating on Tyrolean stuff. Read/watch more about these in another post, coming soon.

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25/12/12 – Mikaela Shiffrin’s first World Cup win

Obergurgl, where the US team trains

Obergurgl, where the US team trains

When I went up a T-bar with Mikaela Shiffrin’s mother in January last year, she told me her daughter had been “rippin’ since she was tiny” (in English: skiing like a demon).

I was there to watch the 17-year-old American racer practising slalom on the Kirchenkar run in Obergurgl, where the US team trains. Then, already, she had broken records by becoming the youngest female racer to stand on a World Cup slalom podium for decades.

I interviewed her for Fall-Line magazine’s ‘Day in the Life’ series, in one of last season’s issues, an article you can read here:

Day in the Life of Mikaela Shiffrin

Now, a few days ago, Shiffrin has won her first World Cup race, a night slalom at Are in Sweden. I’m delighted – she was down-to-earth, focused and impressive in every way.

You can read more about the 17-year-old here on Planet Ski, and watch an interview with her by the ski reporter James Cove. There’s more detail on her win at Are here.

Shiffrin has moved from one to watch to one to beat. I wish her the best of luck at the Schladming World Championships in February!

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13/12/12 – Riding Haflinger ponies in Obergurgl

A Haflinger from the Edelweiss & Gurgl stable

A Haflinger from the Edelweiss & Gurgl stable

These days people talk about “riding” a mountain, rather than skiing it. Well, a few years ago I went riding up a mountain, in winter. On a horse. Or rather a pony – an Austrian Haflinger, no less. It was in Obergurgl, where I’ll be skiing (and maybe also riding) next week.

Inside the riding hall in this Tyrolean resort, I watched a pricked pair of woolly, caramel-coloured ears and a shimmering flaxen mane bob along in front of me while snow swirled outside.

Instead of 'hup, hup', it was 'trit-trot'

Instead of ‘hup, hup’, it was ‘trit-trot’

My mount, Hevelyn, was trotting round Austria’s highest-altitude – and, then, spanking new – riding hall (1,930m), which was built by one of the village’s “ruling” families chiefly to help revive the resort’s summer fortunes. However, these well-bred mares are in work in winter, too.

The Scheiber family, which owns the Edelweiss & Gurgl hotel, a favourite with the British and bang in the village centre, has kept Haflingers since the 1920s, and a fabulous painting of the herd grazing on its summer pasture hangs in reception.

Hevelyn and Anita with their grooms

Hevelyn and Anita with their grooms

Lukas Scheiber, who took over the hotel from his father about 10 years ago and is a respected international Haflinger judge, told me: “My grandfather brought Haflingers over from the South Tyrol – where they originated – and he became chairman of the first official breed society. They were working ponies – we used them to transport supplies to our mountain hut, the Ramolhaus.”

In the 1960s the practical need for Haflingers petered out, but the Scheibers kept them for fun and breeding, giving them basic ride and drive training, and became one of a handful of Tyrolean breeders concentrating on top-quality animals.

“Since 1980 we’ve been buying the best or most expensive youngsters each year,” says Lukas (the family set a record at the national stud’s 2006 sale by paying £35,000 for Roque, a six-month-old filly with phenomenal bloodlines). “A good Haflinger must have a nice head, a white tail and mane and a quiet temperament. And it’s very important they’re good movers.”

Whose mane is smoother?

Whose mane is smoother?

Hevelyn, five years old and, like her 10 stablemates, in foal, certainly had plenty of movement – it took me a little practice to attain that armchair feeling.

My instructor, Simone Riml (who was brought up just down the valley), took care over warm-up and cool-down, and gave the mares plenty of breathers, especially between canters.

The horses are exercised lightly as close as a fortnight to foaling, which takes place between February and April, and they only jump in summer, in early pregnancy.

Nearly 90 per cent of riders are children and teenagers – although there is no weight limit and most of the ponies look about 14.3hh: “Haflingers can carry anything,” Simone assured me. Handling lessons are available too – and they’re gentle and adorable in the stable: it’s almost as rewarding to groom as to ride them.

Obergurgl's smart riding hall - in use winter as well as summer

Obergurgl’s smart riding hall – in use winter as well as summer

The hall – a 20x40m vision of glass and pine, with a sand and synthetic surface and a spectators’ gallery – sits on a hillock opposite the village church and virtually adjoining the Edelweiss’s livestock barn.

There live the mares; the fillies, inquisitive and nibbly; the hotel’s cattle (the Edelweiss is self-sufficient for milk and butter) and its pigs (pork is often on the menu).

The mares graze on the mountainside in May and June, while the fillies spend the entire summer there. But where are the boys? Well, some may be family ponies in Britain or America, the biggest export markets, and others may be dashing between obstacles at driving trials in Austria and elsewhere. But the ungelded ones, at least, are under strict official control.

The national stud (at Ebbs, east of Innsbruck) owns the Tyrol’s 50 registered stallions, which stand at 30 regional stallion stations. Colts undergo a rigorous procedure to gain the privilege of passing on their genes.

“Each year 1,200 foals are born in the Tyrol,” Lukas Scheiber said. “The association picks the 60 best colts and keeps them at Ebbs for a period, before selecting 20 to stay entire. It buys them from their breeders, but not for a huge amount of money – it’s the prestige that’s important.”

Please, mummy, can I get a pony?

Please, mummy, can I get a pony?

More about Haflingers

  • Haflingers are chestnut – fuchs, in German (which means fox) with a white or flaxen mane and tail
  • Fuchs varies from dark to light
  • The mane is left to grow naturally long, but the tail can be trimmed
  • Feathers may be lighter than the body but there should be no discernible socks
  • The blaze should start under the forelock and peter out before it reaches the muzzle
  • In the mountains, some Haflingers’ muzzles get much blacker in summer
  • Fillies are named with the first letter of their mothers’ names; colts with the first letter of the fathers’ names.

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5/11/12: A cheap hot wine recipe

Vin chaud. Gluhwein. Vin brule. Hot wine. It’s the time of year when I think about making some, and look forward to ordering the first of the season – preferably in a cosy ski hut while it’s blizzarding outside.

At the Nederhut in Obergurgl, where I’ll be holidaying next month, it’s thick, dark, aromatic and very sticky if spilt. It comes in an earthenware mug that takes some knocking over, even with scores of merry après-skiers stamping on the tables.

Elsewhere I’ve drunk it from polystyrene cups, hot-chocolate vessels and heat-proof glasses with an impractical metal handle that burns your fingers (I think this was in Italy, where style won over substance).

Only occasionally do I find one that’s too acidic, too sweet, too bitter or lukewarm.

My wine pan. Orange shows size

My wine pan. Orange shows size

In Anzere, Switzerland, where I’ve skied since I was little, the tourist office hands out free hot wine on Monday nights in the village square, following a descente aux flambeaux by the ski school.

It’s one of the best I have tasted anywhere – and it’s usually white, as this is what’s grown mostly in the district.

At Central Sports, in the same village, Rene Schick, the owner, can sometimes be found handing out a very similar-tasting hot white wine to customers.

As well as being lighter than hot red wine, white has the advantage of being less messy. Which is why, when I last had a winter party, I asked Rene for his recipe. This is it:

Cinnamon sticks, oranges and a few little bits of star anise

Cinnamon sticks, oranges and a few little bits of star anise

6 litres white wine
4 litres water
3 oranges, cut into chunks, peel left on
8 cinnamon sticks
8 star anise flowers
Half a kilo of honey and/or sugar
…and a good dash of dark rum, if you like

Heat the wine and water, then add the rest of the ingredients and continue to heat for a while, stirring now and then. I kept mine on the heat for about an hour, very hot but not boiling.

Wine-box wine is fine

Wine-box wine is fine

You don’t need to use fancy wine – something like Muscadet, Soave or ‘table wine’ is fine (or cheap Fendant, if you’re making it in Switzerland). I used wine-box stuff, which worked fine.

Other essentials are a large saucepan and a ladel. I ladel the wine into a jug to pass around.

Polystyrene cups are a bit nasty – once I’ve used up the proper mugs I have in the house I give people large, substantial plastic glasses – not the tiny, flippy ones – then I half-fill them, so people can hold them without burning their fingers.

I can’t remember how many people this recipe ‘feeds’, but you can add more of all the ingredients once it’s flowing. None except the oranges will go off it you don’t use them up. Just don’t forget to add the corresponding amount of water as you top it up…

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