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The pistes are temptingly close
The pistes are temptingly close

Why Innsbruck is the perfect ski city

Skiing's not just a sport in Austria's Alpine capital, discovers Adam Ruck, it's a way of life 

Adam Ruck
Tuesday 26 January 2016 10:35
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In the Alpine nation where skiing is most deeply rooted in pastoral village life, Innsbruck is something else. Host to the Winter Olympics in 1964 and again in '76, the capital of Tyrol is not a gateway to skiing in the way Grenoble and Salt Lake City are. Innsbruck skis. Its most exciting modern architecture is ski-related – lift stations and the Olympic ski jump designed by Zaha Hadid – and it would be entirely practical to stay in a downtown hotel, close to the shopping centres and historical attractions, clump out on to the cobbles each morning in ski boots, hop on a city bus and proceed directly to the slopes.

On one side the Nordkette has a youthful vibe, with steep slopes, a hi-tech freestyle park and student nights in the mountain restaurant. To the south, the long-established resort outpost of Igls seems to look to the past, with its health clinics and proud memories of downhill racing on the slopes of Patscherkofel, a name writ large in ski history. During the infamous World Championship downhill of 1936, after rain and an overnight freeze turned the course into a thin strip of ice studded with rocks and tree stumps, 17 of the 54 competitors were too badly injured to finish, to say nothing of the many stretcher cases among the spectators. Snow conditions were better 40 years later when Franz Klammer took gold for Austria.

Today, on a morning of sunshine and new snow, the Patscherkofel echoes with the laughter of children on the gentle slopes at the top of the mountain and the easy blue family run, which takes a less direct route down the mountain than the Olympic red piste. After a couple of non-stop top-to-bottoms either side of a glühwein in the old refuge at the top, I have ticked the Patscherkofel's box, so I perform a quick costume change: off with the boots, on with the loafers for a bus ride to the city centre, lunch in a beer cellar and an afternoon sightseeing tour.

Its highlights are two masterpieces of Renaissance bling: the golden-roofed loggia on Herzog-Friedrich-Strasse where Emperor Maximilian showed off his Italian wife, and his cenotaph in the Hofkirche (Court Church), a vanity project to rival the Taj Mahal. The Emperor's juggernaut-sized marble tomb dominates the interior, with its guard of honour, 28 larger-than-life bronze ancestors and martial heroes, including King Arthur and Theodoric the Great, cast after designs by Dürer, facing each other across the checkerboard floor of the nave.

From the city it is only a few minutes up the motorway to the exit for the Stubai valley, home to Austria's best glacier ski area. Stubai alone has more skiing than many resorts can boast: 26 lifts and 35 pistes between the Mutterberg base station at 1,750m and the Schaufeljoch – “Top of the Tyrol” – at 3,200m. This is tantamount to a snow guarantee and at times of shortage the long road up the valley is a nose-to-tail procession of buses and cars bringing skiers from near and far.

As bold as ice: the Zaha Hadid designed Nordpark Cable Railway

You'll find all the mod cons. Serial telecabines shift skiers as fast as buses can deposit them, to a mid-mountain concourse where the slopes fan out across an immense arena of snow and glacier ice. The nursery slope has a moving carpet with a roof, and there's a slow-skiing zone for families, timorous exponents of the snowplough, and the over-50s.

Stubai takes Innsbruck's skiing to another level: its lifts start where the other areas end, and Michael Muigg of the Stubai Ski School is keen to show me its tougher side. “There is a 60 per cent gradient here,” he says, at the top of black-graded Daunhill, which connects with the unpisted itinerary to the base. We ski the 10km from top to bottom without stopping, treating ourselves to a beer at the base.

Winter weather does not always make a trip to the high country the most inviting option, as we discover when cloud rolls in, reducing visibility. Rather than fight the elements we beat an early retreat to the Jagdhof, one of Austria's most sumptuous spa hotels, in nearby Neustift.

Armin Pfurtscheller is one of those restless souls who can never stop extending and improving their home; under his watch a comfortable village hotel has grown into a palatial pleasure dome. The wine cellar is an aspirational sightseeing attraction in itself, filled with Jeroboams, Yquems and Mouton Rothschilds; prices go up to €10,000 a bottle.

The Jagdhof's latest addition is a spa complex the size of a small village: an alternative universe of wellbeing offering a bewildering variety of ways to relax. This balmy labyrinth has its own library and a separate chalet reserved for private pampering. I find my personal space in a heated electric massage chair, looking out at the mountains through a wall of glass. Like in Innsbruck, the pistes remain temptingly close.

Getting there

Innsbruck is served by British Airways (0344 493 0787; ba.com) from Gatwick; easyJet (0330 365 5000; easyjet.com) from Gatwick, Luton and Bristol; Monarch (0333 003 0100; monarch.co.uk) from Gatwick and Manchester; and Thomas Cook Airlines (01733 224 330; thomascookairlines.com) from Manchester.

Staying there

Crystal Ski (020 8234 6400; crystalski.co.uk) offers a week at the Jagdhof Spa Hotel Neustift (00 43 52262666; hotel- jagdhof.at) from £1,395pp including flights, transfers and half board. Inghams (01483 791101; inghams.co.uk) offers a week at Sporthotel Igls (00 43 512 377241; sporthotel-igls.com) from £750pp, including flights, transfers and half board. Both hotels are members of Niche Destinations (niche-destinations.com).

More information

innsbruck.info

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