When the music's never over

Austrian resorts may provide good ski slopes, but Stephen Wood finds the eurodisco less appealing
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The Independent Travel

The time will come when I will write my own, definitive skiing reference work, perhaps the Better Skiing Guide or – a more radical concept, this – Where not to Ski or Snowboard. Whatever its approach, the book will contain a menu of do's and don'ts. The latter list will include this advice: never start your skiing day in a multi-storey car park.

Hauling on cold, stiff ski boots can be a positive pleasure if you do it within sight of a chairlift soon to whisk you up across the snow towards a distant mountain peak. Doing exactly the same thing in the dark and damp surroundings of an enclosed car park is both painful and depressing, as I discovered last weekend in the Austrian resort of Saalbach-Hinterglemm.

To be fair, Saalbach's planners did skiers, villagers and the environment a favour by creating a car park – apparently hewn out of a rocky ridge – which rises almost from the valley floor to the base of the Hinterhagalm lift. Regular skiers must regard it as a blessing, particularly as parking is free for lift-pass holders; but for first-timers such as myself and the photographer Peter Grant, it's just a maze. After entering from a road tunnel and driving up six spiral ramps, we were so disoriented that it took several lift journeys and long walks along gloomy corridors – one with a huge, tantalising piste-map on the wall – for us to make our escape, still lost and already late for our appointment with the local Thomson ski rep.

That was bad; the rest of the day was extremely good. The weather was beautiful, if cold enough at –15C to have led a Munich radio station to warn skiers of the risk of frostbite. The snow cover was excellent, helped by a light dusting overnight on Friday, and almost all the lifts and runs at both Saalbach and Hinterglemm were open.

The linked ski areas, with a total of 47 lifts, rise up both sides of the valley, above the two rather nondescript villages. From Saalbach's Bernkogel chairlift there is a good day's skiing on the round-trip along the sunlit south face, across the valley at the area's eastern extreme, and back down the crisper surface of the north face. The whole loop – plus the skiing at Leogang to the west – is marketed as the "Ski Circus".

Although the piste map shows blue, red and black runs, the skiing is all broadly intermediate. It ranges from easy, wide pistes – you could land a Boeing 747 on Hinterglemm's Bachabfahrt slope, even in a crosswind – to "blacks" that are steep and tricky on icy, hard-packed snow but which would be rated as red in more challenging ski areas. Those more difficult runs are concentrated on the north-facing slopes; and to complete what had been a satisfying day, crowned by a beautiful sunset, we set off on the one that sweeps down to Saalbach from the area's highest point, the 2,020-metre Schattberg Ost.

On the peak, the resort was celebrating the opening of the Christmas season with a bizarre outdoor rave: a heaving throng danced – insofar as their boots permitted – to techno music.

We were staying less than 20km away from Saalbach – like Hinterglemm, largely a creation of the 1980s – in the ancient town of Zell am See. Its origins go back to the eighth century, and a few medieval buildings still remain. The town's own slopes, which we skied the following day, also maintain a sense of tradition. Development is restricted on the mountain, and off-piste skiing is closely controlled to protect the environment.

No ski circus, the Zell am See ski area – which forms part of the Europa Sportregion (who thinks up these names?) with nearby Kaprun – offers rather genteel intermediate skiing in beautiful surroundings, with a sideshow of outdoor sculptures. They are of variable quality, but a couple are extremely good. One of them, seen from a distance, appears to be just an urn-shaped, freestanding woodpile; close up, a jetsam of everyday life and work (office equipment, an old radio, a supermarket trolley) is revealed, encased within the logs.

That sculpture stands alongside a mountain chalet in an exquisite setting on the quiet, northern extreme of the ski area. The wood-clad Berghotel Blaickner's Sonnalm, near the top of the Sonnenalm cable car, is just off the ski track and partly enclosed by trees. If the skiers seated at the wooden tables on the terrace outside had been wearing worsted and leather boots (rather than the Toronto Maple Leafs sweater that one was sporting), this would have looked like a perfect re-creation of the Alps in the 1930s. Incredibly, the music being played sotto voce on the terrace's tiny quietspeakers was not the standard eurodisco: it was Bach. Next time I go to Zell am See, there's no question where I'll be staying.

If there is a next time. The scourge of Austrian ski resorts – the appalling and appallingly loud music played at ski-lift stations – is becoming intolerable. As Peter and I set off for our final run past the early-20th-century wooden chapel of St Elisabeth at the top of the Schmittenhöhe lift, some "la-la-la" sing-along rubbish was blasting out. In a resort that takes pride in its environmental awareness, some thought should be given to noise pollution.

Ski holidays with Thomson (0870 606 1470) at Saalbach-Hinterglemm and Zell am See start from £395 (B&B in Saalbach) and £339 (half-board) respectively, including flights, transfers and seven nights' accommodation. Half-board at Berghotel Blaickner's Sonnalm (00 43 6542 73262) starts from €62 per person.

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