On the quiet side of the Alps

Austria's skiing isn't confined to its big-name resorts. The Germans and Swiss have long appreciated the joys of the quiet Montafon valley, says Stephen Goodwin

You can almost hear the sighs of relief from every valley home. It is snowing in the Montafon. As we walk across the market square in Schruns late at night, the glow that probably started with the final schnapps at the Gasthaus Zum Kreuz spreads with the realisation that the gentle dusting in the town must already amount to a decent white blanket on the surrounding mountains.

Snow has been the overriding topic of conversation in this valley in the furthest west of Austria. Though it is not loudly articulated, one senses a deep worry among the people of the Montafon that the snow on which their prosperity is based has become an unreliable ally. Last winter they had the best season in memory; this year they sweated as early snow was washed away by rain.

I had been agreeably surprised, arriving in allegedly snowless mid-January, to find myself skiing a well-groomed piste at 1,800m on my first morning. I'd arrived in Schruns, the Montafon's main town, the night before, in darkness, and could see no traces of snow in the valley bottom. However, drawing the curtains at first light revealed that the peaks and pistes were white down to about the 1,000m contour. Not a perfect cover, but adequate. Also more snow was forecast and the air temperature had fallen to levels at which snow cannons could restore the lower pistes.

The Montafon barely registers on the radar of British skiers. Its Rhaeto-Romanish name hardly sounds as if it should be in Austria at all, yet it lies only 30 miles from Brit-packed St Anton and has been made easily accessible by cheap flights from Stansted to Friedrichshafen, just over the border in Germany.

Bludenz, a junction town with a picturesque centre and the relics of medieval fortifications, lies at the entrance to the Montafon valley. Most travellers are hurrying by, either on the main rail line or the autobahn that run eastwards over and under the Arlberg Pass to St Anton and on to Innsbruck. For those who turn aside into the Montafon, the pace steps down several notches. It isn't exactly a backwater - German and Swiss visitors have been enjoying its family-friendly pistes and valley indulgences for decades, but it seems to have none of the push and shove of industrial-scale resorts, except for the busiest weekends.

From Bludenz, the valley runs south-eastwards for almost 25 miles, enclosed by three distinctly different mountain ranges: the chiselled limestone peaks of the Rätikon to the west, demarking the border with Switzerland, the bulky Verwall group to the east and the glaciated Silvretta, blocking the valley, at least in winter, at its head. The skiing is in a string of village resorts, with 62 cable cars and chairlifts giving access to 140 miles of pistes, 60 miles of cross-country tracks and 180 miles of tailored winter footpaths. All that, of course, assumes total snow cover.

The Montafon's attraction is as an all-round winter-holiday destination rather than a gung-ho downhill ski resort. Unlike, say, a steep black-and-hard-red-runs place such as St Anton or another near neighbour, Ischgl, with its snow and sex cocktail, the delights of the Montafon are subtle and take a little time and initiative to unlock.

You might find that the most exhilarating run of the week is not on skis but clinging to a toboggan, hurtling down four miles of floodlit, hairpin track through the pines on the Garfrescha mountainside - all fear banished by an evening's partying at the Brunellawirt restaurant. The Garfrescha run lies in the Silvretta Nova ski area above St Gallenkirch.

The downhill skiing is in four principal areas, all linked by a regular ski bus service. Silvretta Nova is the biggest, with feeder cable cars from St Gallenkirch, Gortipohl and Gaschurn giving access to 70 miles of mainly blue and red runs. It also has a highly rated park for boarders with kickers, rails and 110m half pipe.

The Golm ski area, above Vandans and Tschagguns, grew from the uphill transport used in the building of the reservoirs and giant pipes of the Illwerke hydropower company - a development that began the Montafon's climb out of a peasant economy. As on the Silvretta Nova, it is pretty relaxed terrain, liberally provided with restaurants and "huts" for prolonged breaks over warming gulasch, apfelstrudel and schnapps.

Above Schruns sits the Hochjoch with an extraordinarily varied amount of activity packed onto one modest mountain, including the region's longest run of eight miles right into the town.

Tucked away at the head of a side valley by the Swiss border is Gargellen; its seclusion and good snow record making it something of a connoisseur's choice, especially off-piste. During my visit it was the only place where it was possible to ski all the way down to the village - sited at a respectable 1,400m. Several ski tours start here, including the popular Madrisa round, crossing the border to take in the Swiss resort of Klosters.

However, the finest ski-touring- among the best in Austria - is to be had on the glaciers of the Silvretta, an area I explored with friends several winters ago, climbing Piz Buin, at 3,312 metres the jewel of the Montafon. Although we did not know it at the time, we were following in the ski tracks of the Montafon's most celebrated visitor, Ernest Hemingway.

It is much changed since Hemingway's pre-cable car visits of the 1920s. But his description of it as "so damned beautiful" still stands, particularly as the new snow decorates the pines and revives the pistes.

The Compact Guide: How To Get There

British Airways (0870 850 9 850; ba.com) and Swiss Air (0845 601 0956; swiss.com) offer return flights to Zurich from London from around £60. Ryanair (0871 246 0000; ryanair.com) has return flights from London Stansted to Freidrichshafen from £40. Book rail travel from the airports through Deutsche Bahn (08702 43 53 63; bahn.co.uk). Doubles at the Alpenhotel Bitschnau in Schruns (00 43 5556 75700; alpenhotel-bitschnau.at) from €95.

FUrther Information

Montafon Tourism (00 43 5556 722530; montafon.at), Hochjoch Tourism (00 43 5556 72126; hochjoch.com), Gargellen Tourism (00 43 5557 6303; gargellen.com).

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