On Top of the World: discovering the ski city of Innsbruck, Austria
For a break that blends city and ski like no other, head to the Austrian city of Innsbruck, says Jon Hawkins
You’d think, what with all that glitters being gold and everything, that we might be able to spot Innsbruck’s most famous sight, given we’re apparently standing right under it. “This is definitely where it is,” I tell my wife, waving a now-soaking map in her face. She doesn’t look convinced.
The Goldenes Dachl – or Golden Roof – was built in the late-15th to early-16th century by Emperor Maximilian I and comprises 2,657 gilded copper tiles (all original), none of which we can currently see because there’s near-horizontal rain persistently daggering in to our eyeballs.
Once we’ve finally spotted the roof through the mist and rain – it sits on top of an elaborate gothic bay built into the side of the Neuhof building – we nip down a narrow cobbled street and squeeze ourselves into a tiny souvenir shop for shelter. There’s just about room for us in between rows of lederhosen, cowbells and tiny plastic models of the Goldenes Dachl.
I can’t afford the lederhosen, don’t own any cows, and left plastic models of things behind years (ok, months) ago, so we step back into the rain – where I’m almost decapitated by a couple of clattering Gore-Tex robots with skis slung over their shoulders. Skis. And ski boots. And skiwear. In the middle of a drizzly city.
Obviously I can’t pretend to be entirely surprised – we booked a skiing holiday here, after all – but there’s no denying how alien those skiers look, wobbling awkwardly and noisily over the cobbles of the Tirolean capital’s old town in weather that feels more like autumn than early March.
Though you can’t ski in the city centre itself, Innsbruck is pretty unusual in being both a decent-sized city – complete with restaurants, expensive shops, a university, bars etc – and an access point for proper slopes. Were we able to peel back the dense layers of clouds currently pelting us with rain, a steep, unforgiving slab of a mountain called the Nordkette would be revealed.
Just a few minutes walk (or shuffle, if you can’t be bothered to take your ski gear off) from the Goldenes Dachl is the Nordkettenbahnen, where a vertigo-inducing train whisks skiers and sightseers up the mountain. There are fours stations on the route, each sprouting a fungus-like futuristic roof designed by the late Zaha Hadid, after which you switch to a couple of cable cars that take you right to the top.
As well as being the highest place you can get to without doing some serious mountaineering, the Hafelekar is also the starting point for one of the steepest ski runs in all of Europe (with a 70% incline), though having come more-or-less straight from the airport we’re wearing our civvies rather than ski gear. Which is fortunate, really, because the second we step out of the cable car a brutal (and brutally cold) wind threatens to rip our faces and clothes off.
It’s beyond me why they’d bother, but a few hardy idiots are braving the slopes, despite the howling wind and almost zero visibility. In theory, this is one of the most spectacular views in Austria; in reality, we get back in the cable car before it disappears and we have to wait for the next one.
The heart of the action
My base for the next four days is the small and quiet village of Götzens, about a 15 minute drive south from the centre of Innsbruck and even closer to the airport, which, if you’re not a fan of mammoth transfer times between airports and ski resorts, is a very good thing indeed. If, on the other hand, you want a resort where you can fall out of your hotel and straight onto the piste (or, if you’re all about the aprés, into a bar), you might want to consider looking beyond Götzens.
Instead, where the village works best is as a hub, with brilliant access not only to Innsbruck but to a network of nine resorts (known collectively as Olympia Skiworld) including Kühtai, Axamer Lizum, Schlick 2000 and Stubaier Gletscher, all reachable by frequent buses that fork out into the neighbouring valleys.
For my first day on the slopes it makes sense to head to the highest resort base in the whole country – Kühtai – though instead of hopping onto a bus I’m catching a lift with a guide, Toby. Originally from Bavaria in Germany, he came to Innsbruck for university, got into skiing in a big way and never left. We – me, my wife, Toby, a friend of his from back home in Munich, and all our gear – pile into his car and set off for Kühtai. “The weather’s looking better than yesterday,” Toby explains as we tear through wiggling mountain passes, up and up. “We were on the Nordkette and it wasn’t exactly perfect.” I know, I tell him.
skiers look alien wobbling over the cobbles
We’re there in less than an hour, most of it spent talking about Brexit (Them: “Could it really happen?” Us: “It could but it probably won’t.” Ha!), and there are light flurries of snow and mostly blue skies – it’s basically perfect. The resort itself is compact and right in the heart of the action, with most of the pistes fanning out into the valley on either side. (Incidentally, Kühtai is the filming location for ‘celebrity’ reality TV show The Jump, and Toby points out the cordoned off, innocuous-looking area where the magic apparently happens.)
The resort’s 45km of pistes (there’s plenty of backcountry too) tend towards the redder and blacker end of the spectrum, with a handful of blues at the lower levels, though in conditions this forgiving and with pistes this quiet, there’s nothing too challenging for a semi-decent skier. The pistes are mostly fast and open, and Toby takes us around them at lightning speed, peeling us off occasionally here and there to make fresh tracks on the oceans of powder that have settled off-piste; they start off floaty and finish off just about the right side of mogully, as skiers and boarders (not to mention the baking sun) etch away at all the pristine snow. We ski until the lifts start to shut – legs turned to jelly and toes starting to ache with cold – and gladly collapse into Toby’s car in a heap of damp skis, boots and helmets.
Small but perfectly formed
The following day we stay closer to our Götzens base, this time taking the bus all of five minutes to the neighbouring village of Mutters and its compact Muttereralmpark ski area. Better known as a summer resort, the Muttereralmpark is wildly different to Kühtai in just about every imaginable way. For starters, it’s tiny (with just four lifts) and low (950m at the base, compared with 2,020m in Kühtai), which means on the one hand the very bottom slopes – at the tail-end of a less-than-spectacular winter – are a bit thin on the snow front. On the other, its small number of pistes are tree-lined and framed by a picture-postcard Alpine backdrop, and there’s a friendly family atmosphere to go with it.
“You’ll get bored really fast,” Toby had told me the day before when I’d explained we were heading to the Mutteralm, but it turns out he’s wrong. The limited options – which would no doubt start to drag a bit, even for a total beginner, after a few days – make the Muttereralmpark a perfect one-day stopoff on an Olympia Skiworld safari. Perhaps he hadn’t reckoned on my appetite for the truly tedious – or perhaps being a ski instructor means he’s forgotten how much fun it is to simply go the top of a mountain and ski all the way down; then do exactly the same thing again and again. I keep coming back to the same run – starting with Projekt, a short, steep and fast black that soon joins a central piste, before nipping into the snow park, which spits you out into a narrow funnel of a red, surrounded by snow-laden trees and full of small hops and jumps. And there’s no one on it – ever – which, considering the small number of runs in the resort anyway, strikes me as a minor miracle. I’ll take it.
From the very top, it’s also possible to ski back into Götzens; a great idea in theory, though snow coverage is sparse towards the bottom and I’m quietly relieved I’m riding rental skis rather than my own as the piste gets suspiciously, er, greyer.
Reaching new heights
It takes a little longer to reach the resort of Stubaier Gletscher the next (and our final) day, though at a little over an hour it’s hardly an epic journey. We hop on a coach that’s stopping first at the resort of Schlick 2000 before Stubai, and it’s not long before the rumours on the bus (like the wheels) start to go round and round. The Stubaier Gletscher is going to be a whiteout; the snowfall by now is heavy, and the once-blue skies are dark, brooding and ominous. Schlick, by comparison – according to the sages – will be a paradise of blue skies, perfect visibility and (I imagine) people/angels handing out steaming glühwein on the pistes.
we leave the thick layer of clouds below and set off on a long and cruisy blue
When we pull up at Schlick it looks no less grey than anywhere else, but the bus virtually empties out, leaving a hardy few to wind their way further down the valley to the Stubaier Gletscher. Unlike Kühtai, where we practically fell out of Toby’s car onto the slopes, everyone’s funneled into a huge gondola that creeps up a perilously steep wall of rock until it meets a hub, at which you can take one of four smaller lifts. The view from the gondola isn’t exactly promising; it looks rather menacing and monochrome, like an Ansel Adams photo, though the sheer cliffs loaded up with pillowy snow do at least suggest we won’t be skiing on bare rock.
As it turns out, the conditions are neither as bad as the bus sages had prophesied or as good as we’d had in Kühtai or Mutters – and we find the height and layout of the runs makes it easy to seek out spots with good visibility. We head right for the summit of the Schaufelspitze – and its Ronseal-channeling ‘Top of Tyrol’ viewing platform at 3,210m – and leave the thick layer of clouds below us as we set off on a long, cruisy blue. It starts off wide, open and empty and ends with us carefully picking our way post-to-post through the lingering fog, which turns out to be something of a theme as we navigate Stubaier Gletscher’s mostly red and blue runs.
By early afternoon, freaked out by one too many total whiteouts, we join almost everyone else and decamp to one of the resort’s many decent restaurants for enormous beers and even more enormous sausages. I glare out through the tall windows, which look out over several runs, waiting and hoping for the miracle of blue skies and empty pistes.
It never comes, though we find out on the bus home that it wasn’t any better in Schlick 2000. The talk on the bus is of more of the same tomorrow, which anywhere else might be a ski-holiday disaster, but in Olympia Skiworld – with the bustling and charming city of Innsbruck at its centre – there’s always an alternative.
You could look at it as a ski break with a difference, or a city break with a really big difference. Either way, you’re winning – and you might even get to spot a golden roof.
Inghams offers seven nights’ half-board accommodation at the 3.5* Hotel Edelweiss, Götzens in the Austrian Tirol from £579 per person in January 2017. Price includes return flights from London Gatwick to Innsbruck airport and resort transfers, inghams.co.uk
For more information on the Austrian Tirol and the Olympia SkiWorld Safari go to visittirol.co.uk
Like the sound of Innsbruck? Click here for a chance to win an all-access ski and city break.