As you may have read, Werner Von Trapp died earlier this month. One of the children in the Trapp Family Singers, on whose story the musical The Sound of Music was based, he was born in Zell am See, the Austrian ski town; and he spent much of his adult life near another ski town, Stowe in Vermont. There, his father and stepmother set up the Trapp Family Lodge soon after they fled Nazi Austria and migrated to the US.
Famously, the hills are alive with music in the show – and the subsequent film – which the Trapp Family spawned. (I have avoided both versions of The Sound of Music, initially by accident and then by design; but the musical score was unavoidable.) In patrician Stowe, traditionally a quiet place until the earth-movers arrived to create its first lift-base accommodation for this season, the hills are generally silent. In Zell am See they are not, although whether the sound you hear is music is a matter of taste.
On one visit there I was greeted, at the end of the chairlift ride up from the lakeside town, by deafening pop/disco of the kind that bedevils Austrian ski slopes. Yet half-an-hour later, across the ski area at Berghotel Blaickner's Sonnalm, Bach's Mass in B Minor was emerging – at a sublime, just audible level – from two small loudspeakers on the façade of the old inn.
The two extremes of Zell am See's broad musical repertoire can't quite be resolved into a neat metaphor with which to characterise all of Austria's skiing; but the mixture of old and newish is central to the British skier's view of Werner Von Trapp's native land.
Take that oompah disco that assaults skiers when they alight from a chairlift. For all I know it could still be the hottest sound around in Austria; but that style fell out of favour here more than a couple decades ago, before Austria – for long the most popular ski destination among British skiers – fell behind France in market share. At that time the modern French resorts, high, snow-sure and convenient, made Austria's old farming villages seem out of date.
Very recently, some Austrian ski towns have rivalled the hi-tech Swiss resorts with their cutting-edge, "designer" lifts. The fairground-ride Galzigbahn lift at St Anton, with a Ferris wheel that scoops skiers up from ground level, won prizes in the wake of its opening last season; and for this season a new rail link from Innsbruck, by the London-based architect Zaha Hadid (who previously designed the sensational ski-jump ramp nearby), will be the first in the world to connect a city centre with a ski mountain, on a 27-minute ride. But this phenomenon is new. It is in the enduring, traditional aspect of Austrian skiing that the bedrock of its appeal lies.
The roots of skiing as we now practise it lie in Austria. It was at St Anton's Arlberg Ski School that Hannes Schneider developed and taught the technique of ski turns, enabling skiers not only to plot a path down the mountain but also – even more importantly – to stop at will. St Anton has since become one of the landmarks of skiing, its international status cemented by ever-growing numbers of British and Scandinavian guests.
But such is its scale and popularity that St Anton is not characteristic of Austrian skiing. The local traditions are best represented by the old mountain villages, especially the small ones such as Kappl in the Paznaun valley and Turracher Höhe in Carinthia, and some of the mid-sized valley towns, such as Schladming in Styria. These places have an appeal which, as history is now showing, France's purpose-built resorts can never match. The development of those resorts was a step-change which disrupted mountain tradition and created part-time, seasonal communities. That was not the case in Austria, where the villages remained the focus of skiing, which brought considerable wealth to them. Rather than heading down the mountain in search of a better standard of living, as hill farmers' sons and daughters are wont to do, younger generations have stayed on in the villages, maintained continuity, and devoted time and money to protecting the communal patrimony.
Another Austrian tradition is hospitality, at a level unequalled elsewhere in the skiing world. Characteristically, the hotels are small and family-owned, with year-round revenue that permits continual improvement in their facilities. While the French high-altitude resorts struggle to attract guests in summertime, when their concrete buildings look worn and leaden rather than dramatic, many Austrian resorts have a flourishing, four-season business, with walkers and older tourists visiting in summer, the latter to avoid the hubbub of seaside destinations. Finally, although the cuisine may not be renowned for innovation, it is unusual to leave an Austrian restaurant feeling cheated by the food or the prices – unlike in many ski resorts elsewhere.
These traditional virtues make Austria attractive as a ski-holiday destination. But in geological terms, history has not served Austria as well as other Alpine destinations, nor North and South America. The mountains are relatively low, and generally lack the formidable challenge offered by the slopes in other ski areas, notably those in France.
An associated problem is the lack of the joined-up skiing of France's great ski domains, such as Paradiski at Les Arcs/La Plagne and Espace Killy at Val d'Isère/Tignes. There are lots of places to ski: drive up the valley to Obergurgl in Tirol, for example, and you pass several other ski areas (Khütai, Oetz, Sölden) along the way. Tirol alone has 115 separate ski areas. But in a skiing context, more is less: for most skiers – particularly foreign visitors – a handful of big ski domains is more attractive than any number of small areas.
The long-planned link between St Anton's Rendl slopes and those of Kappl in the next valley now seems likely to go ahead; but Austria needs more of such initiatives.
The altitude of much of the skiing is also a concern. There are high spots such as Hochgurgl/Obergurgl, where the skiing stretches up to 3,080m, and snow-sure areas in the Arlberg region at St Anton, Lech and Zürs; but Austria's topography may ultimately prove a handicap, at least in the foreseeable future if not in the current climate.
It is not surprising, then, that following last season's poor early snowfall in the Alps Austria is now making much of its snow-sure, glacier skiing. The national tourist office is currently pointing out that in Austria "the ski season has already begun: the popular glacial resorts at Hintertux, Kitzsteinhorn, Sölden, Kaunertal and Stübai [are] all up and running".
Most of those areas (not Kitzsteinhorn, which is near Zell am See in Salzburgerland) are covered by an innovative ski-pass for this season called White5. Described on these pages last month, it gives access to Tirol's high-altitude glaciers, on which the skiing season can stretch from September to June. To less experienced skiers, glacier skiing may sound difficult and dangerous. But you don't actually ski on the glacier, rather on the snow above it – which is maintained by the often relatively flat "ice-box" below.
What else is new in Austria this season? Still on the glaciers, Dachstein near Salzburg has created a "Sky Walk", a viewing platform at 2,700m with a partly glass floor that juts out of a vertical rock face. On a clear day, Slovenia and the Czech Republic feature in the 360-degree panorama. In the brochures, several lesser-known, family-friendly resorts make an appearance. Inghams has introduced St Johann, near Kitzbühel; nearby Fieberbrunn is in the First Choice brochure, along with Berwang; Crystal has Serfaus in southern Tirol and Zell am Ziller near Mayrhofen.
The other development is not wholly new, rather a continuation of last season's trend. In 2006/7 Austria's traditional resorts became more accessible to British skiers thanks to low-cost flying. The launch of an average of seven new daily services from the UK, primarily to Salzburg but also to Klagenfurt and Innsbruck, increased passenger capacity by close to 6,000 a week. But that didn't exhaust the market's potential: a clutch of additional services have been announced this autumn. EasyJet's first flights to the country are on a daily Luton-Vienna route operating from Monday, followed by services into Innsbruck from Gatwick (six times a week) and from Bristol and Liverpool (both three times a week). Also on Monday, Austrian Airlines launches a twice-daily flight into Vienna from London City. And at the start of the ski season, Ryanair will start flying twice a week to Salzburg from Bristol, and Thomsonfly will have 20 new flights per week into Salzburg from five UK airports: Bournemouth, Coventry, Doncaster-Sheffield, Gatwick and Manchester.
The number of Britons travelling to Austria last winter increased by a remarkable 13 per cent over the previous year. The further capacity on the new air services from the UK suggests that this coming season Austria's hills will be alive with British skiers once again.Reuse content