Travel: A high point of the Alps

A favourite with the elite, Garmisch-Partenkirchen is still to be discovered by the masses.
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It was the Nazis who made Garmisch-Partenkirchen a big name in the skiing world. There had been skiing and ski-jumping in the area around the Zugspitze, Germany's highest mountain, since the beginning of the century; but it was the decision to hold the 1936 Winter Olympics there that made the resort's name - Hitler ordered that the neighbouring Bavarian villages of Garmisch and Partenkirchen should be joined together, with a hyphen, to organise the games - and led to the creation of many of its winter-sports facilities.

The U-shaped arena at the bottom of the ski-jumps survives in its original form, the grandstands not quite tall enough to be truly triumphant but none the less heroic in their fascist detailing. The huge ice rink remains, too, although it has been extensively remodelled. Garmisch-Partenkirchen's skiing reputation lives on thanks to its annual staging of a blue-riband event in the World Cup racing series. And the resort has become a member of the elite Best of the Alps association, grouping it with such posh places as Cortina, Davos and St Moritz.

Yet Garmisch-Partenkirchen - to save ink, let's call it GP - has not caught on with British skiers. Whereas in other established European resorts one would expect to see Britons first or second in the list of visitor nationalities, in GP we fall far behind the top two, the USA and, astonishingly, Japan. As far as I am aware, the only British tour operator offering ski packages there, in a couple of pages of its standard brochure, is the Leicester-based German specialist, Moswin Tours.

With the advent of Go's pounds 80 Stansted-Munich return flights, however, it's easy and cheap enough to go skiing in GP without the help of a tour operator. Regular trains from the airport go into Munich's main station, from which there is an hourly service to GP (the journey takes about 80 minutes). And right alongside GP's main station is the terminus of the Zugspitzbahn, a mountain railway running almost to the peak. The weekend before last, I set off for a couple of days' skiing there.

The P part of the resort, Partenkirchen, lay on the old coaching route south from Munich across the Alps to Austria and Italy. On the eastern side of the valley through which it passed is a mountain - and small ski area - called Wank (which doesn't amuse the Germans, but gave me some solitary pleasure); to the south-west is the range which climbs towards the 2,628m Alpspitze, whose vast east-facing snow slope dominates the skyline, and up to the 2,964m Zugspitze peak.

Having arrived late on Friday, I spent Saturday on the larger of GP's two separate main ski areas, which runs off the side of the Alpspitze. Served by three cable-cars, all close to stations on the Zug- spitzbahn, it is dominated by red runs, either wide and easy pitches below the lifts or pistes which sweep down through the forest. The best of the descents, however, is a black, the Kandahar piste used for the annual World Cup downhill race.

Although the descents - especially the Kandahar - were great fun, it was the wrong weekend to ski the wider pitches, what with a "children ski free" promotion and the German pharmacists' annual skiing championship. Dodging chemists and kids, I headed up to the top of the ski area to find a far more entertaining hazard: dogs. An avalanche rescue team was introducing its trainee sniffers-and-diggers to drag-lift techniques. The advanced dogs endured their obvious embarrassment at being wrapped around the handlers' shoulders; the beginners suffered the greater shame of being carried in a bright-pink contraption somewhere between a waistcoat and a handbag.

I talked to one of the handlers after he had been knocked off the lift by a squirming young pup. The drag-lift training was, he said, "very difficult". For him or the dogs? "Both," he replied, in a tired voice.

For Sunday's skiing, I took the early train to the Zugspitze. (I did ask about the coincidence - Zugspitze translates as "Train Peak" - and was told that it was no more than that.) The train rattles along the valley at a good speed; but to get a grip on the steep part it engages a cog wheel with a sort of metal ladder set between the rails, and grinds its way slowly up the 1400m ascent. The whole laborious commuter trip - of 17km - took 80 minutes, almost as long as the Stansted-Munich flight.

The ski area on the Zugspitze glacier offers superb views. But it is small: even a languid skier would cover it in the time taken for a return journey on the Zugspitzbahn. And the skiing is all easy red runs and well- used off-piste slopes - with one notable exception. Although I do not suffer from vertigo, I had some of the symptoms on the area's one rickety chair-lift, hanging off a rockface with Austria, just across the border, spread out below; and I felt the others when it dropped me at the end of a ridge, with steep descents on three sides. The black run off the ridge is also heart-in-mouth stuff at the top; but after a steep and narrow runway, it turns into a wide mogul pitch which is amusing rather than threatening.

There are other compensations for the long train journey. A swift cable- car (crowded, on my trip, with sightseers from Japan, for whom the Zugspitzbahn station signs appear thoughtfully in Japanese script) takes you up to the Zugspitze peak, whose block-house tourist centre's attractions include a panoramic viewing gallery, an excellent restaurant and, curiously, an art gallery. It's hard to imagine what could compete with the view from the windows; certainly, the four blue Perspex blocks installed by Roni Horn couldn't. Still, it was an experience: I have never clumped around an art gallery in ski boots before.

An art form indigenous to GP, of frescos painted on building facades, was far more diverting. I spent most of my non-skiing time wandering around the resort admiring biblical scenes and architectural flourishes (fake windows with wistful women looking out are popular). Even modern suburban homes have the odd knight on horseback brightening up side walls, and I spotted one house on which a superb trompe-l'oeil facade showed workmen finishing off its construction, with a madonna and child on top of the scaffolding apparently supervising the plasterers and hod-carriers.

That alone was worth the trip. I understand now, however, why ski-tour operators don't offer GP in their brochures: with such a limited ski area, it wouldn't provide a week's entertainment - except for those who share my new enthusiasm for luftlmalerei (literally, "outside painting"). But for a weekend's skiing, it's perfect.

Stephen Wood paid pounds 80 for a flight to Munich with Go (0845 60 54321). The train to the resort costs DM72 (pounds 26). A one-day ski-pass for all Garmisch- Partenkirchen areas except the Zugspitze costs DM82 (pounds 29), for the Zugspitze DM61 (pounds 22, including train ticket). For Moswin Tours, call 0116-271 9922. A sale of vintage ski posters, such as the one pictured here, takes place at Christie's (0171-581 7611) on 25 Feb