Obergurgl: A blast from a past master
Obergurgl is a classic ski resort that also embraces the modern, says Roger Bray
Saturday 21 November 2009
As we speed up the mountain on one of Obergurgl's newly built, state-of-the-art chairlifts, conversation turns to the subject of marmot fat. There are lots of marmots up here, close to the border with Italy. In fact, we have been skiing over them, snug beneath the snow in their hibernation quarters.
Some elderly people in the Oetztal, the Tyrolean valley at whose head Obergurgl lies, swear by marmot fat. My guide, Gerd Falkner, tells me one man in his village of Umhausen drinks it every day, as a guard against all manner of ailments.
It reminds me of stories that goose dripping, smeared on the chest, keeps away colds. Except that marmot fat, says Gerd, smells much, much worse.
During the past 10 years or so, Obergurgl has invested heavily in improved facilities. Until the late Nineties, skiers and snowboarders had to catch a bus between the village and its satellite development, Hochgurgl, which is 220m higher. Now a gondola connects the two areas.
Perched at the 3,082m mark is Wormkugl, a new circular restaurant and vertiginous viewing platform. On clear days, you can look out over the glaciers, now diminished by global warming, where in 1931 the balloonist Professor Auguste Piccard and a colleague made an emergency landing after becoming the first people to reach the stratosphere.
In 2007, two more new gondolas, built at a cost of €25m, carried their first passengers. One of them, which replaced two chairlifts (the elder of which was a single seater dating from 1953) whisks visitors from the village centre at 1,930m Hohe Mut (2,670m) in seven minutes. At the top, a new lunch spot and bar has opened, designed with much use of aromatic pine. The other is the Schermerbahn, above Hochgurgl, which has heated seats.
Yet despite such advances, Obergurgl does not seem irredeemably divorced from the old rural Austria, or at least from Austria before package tourism became big business. Back then, everyone from the ski-school director to the rental shop owner would turn out at night to drink with awkward British beginners, with their ill-fitting boots, and skis so long that quick parallel turns were a distant dream.
Though you are now much more likely to be offered an exotic cocktail in its bars, locally distilled fruit Schnapps is still made in the area. And while the Hotel Edelweiss & Gurgl has a spa offering up-to-the-minute treatments and a transparent roof protecting you from the weather on the steps between its ski room and the lift base a few metres away, its publicity material prominently recalls that the hotel, in one form or another, has been welcoming guests since 1889.
Grouped around an attractive church, the main village centre remains compact. There are no garish signs of throbbing night life. The nearby resort of Sölden, in contrast, sprawls along the valley. On the way through it from Innsbruck airport, 75 minutes away, I pass a night spot advertising "Show Girls".
A quiet drink is more Obergurgl's style, though most guests also gravitate eventually to the raucous Nederhutte, whose abiding image is of well-lubricated après skiers jumping on to tables to sing along with the band before precariously skiing the final few hundred metres home, long after sundown.
The sense of tradition is heightened by the clientele. Generations of British skiers have come here. They make up about 30 per cent of the resort's visitors. The late Walter Ingham, founder of tour operator Inghams and a pioneer of winter-sports holidays, took his first party to Obergurgl in 1934. This continuity looks unlikely to be broken any time soon. In the bar of my hotel, I fell into conversation with a man who was there with his daughter and grandchild.
It follows that there are a fair few skiers of mature age and that the slopes, which are pleasant and varied but would generally hold no terrors for good intermediates, are free – at least on weekdays – of dangerous tearaways. This is not intended to make the terrain sound boring, however. While this is not skiing on the grand scale of, say, the larger French areas, there are lovely, broad, cruising runs – long enough to provide a work out and with trickier, narrower passages. Down towards the David Skihütte, there are delightful little diversions, cut between the trees.
There is excellent off-piste skiing to be had, too. Lunching on barley soup and Tiroler G'Rostl (traditionally pan-fried beef, sometimes with bacon, potatoes and caraway seeds) at a Hochgurgl restaurant in mid-December, with sunshine streaming through the windows, I watched enviously as an instructor prepared to take the top ski school group on a descent down the Konigstal through fresh snow. We were unable to follow as avalanche risk was high and my guide had not brought me an avalanche transceiver, but he compensated by finding some wonderful stretches of light, fresh powder, safely close to the pistes.
And because the slopes are relatively high, there are often good conditions in early and late season.
On the snow, of course, one is grateful for the advent of carving skis which – not least off-piste – make the sport so much less arduous than the cumbersome, two-metre-plus boards on which many of Obergurgl's older regulars learned. But off it, one is thankful that this is one resort where the past seems always present.
Travel essentials: Obergurgl
*Roger Bray travelled to Obergurgl with Inghams (020-8780 4447; inghams.co.uk), which offers seven nights' half board at the four-star Hotel Edelweiss & Gurgl from £850 per person, including flights from Gatwick to Innsbruck and transfers (supplement for other UK airports).
*A Ski Saver Pack from Inghams, including a six-day lift pass (covers Obergurgl, Hochgurgl and Untergurgl), six days of ski hire and three days of tuition (4 hours per day) costs from £355 per person.
tyrol.com; 00 43 5127 2720
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