Midwinter dusk falls as gently as snow on the mountain village, its timbered buildings huddled beneath the towers of twin medieval churches. Shop windows spill their light onto snow-dusted sidewalks as I make my way through the archway of the town’s ancient gate, then pause to let a team of carriage horses clip-clop past. Stepping quickly through the winter cold, I slip down a pedestrian passageway, hang a right on a narrow cobbled street, and soon arrive at Hans Frauenschuh, a shop built in the traditional Austrian farmhouse style, with long wooden balconies on the upper floors and a pitched roof now laden with snow. A friend who grew up in the village has insisted that I drop in: this, she promises, is the real Kitzbühel.
As I step inside and shake off the cold, the shopkeeper, Elisabeth Frauenschuh, greets me from behind a sturdy table with cast-iron legs. The air is rich with the smells of traditional Austrian materials: deer leather; chamois; boiled wool; loden. Elisabeth walks me around the store, inviting me to run my fingers over the intricate stitching on a pair of boys’ lederhosen, the lumpy wool of the handmade house slippers, the soft deer leather of a Janker jacket. The store, she tells me, was founded by her father, Hans. “As a young boy he was orphaned and grew up on an uncle’s farm in great poverty,” she says. Determined to improve his lot, he worked hard tanning hides, expanded his business, and raised a big family. Today, his six children run four companies between them, including one that designs, manufactures, and retails Austrian-made clothes in 120 stores across Europe and the United States. A few blocks away, Elisabeth’s sister Theresia runs another store, Frauenschuh, that’s stocked with high-tech ski pants and sleek down parkas of the company’s own design, all set in a blindingly contemporary space with blond-oak floors and buckskin-covered walls.
As Elisabeth shows me a pair of boiled-wool socks knitted by the wife of a shepherd, a gnomic figure with tousled white hair emerges from the back room, smiling amiably and looking comfortably chic in sandals and a loden cardigan. It’s Hans himself, now 94. “He’s retired, officially,” Elisabeth says, “but he still shows up at work every day at seven a.m.”
The Frauenschuhs are emblematic of Kitzbühel, a place that’s at once profoundly traditional and utterly stylish. This not-so-quiet mountain village has played host to some of the world’s wealthiest and most celebrated figures for more than a century. Even as it evolves to keep pace with the fashionable Europeans who buy houses here now (large ones, though tucked discreetly into the hills), it maintains its down-to-earth, mountain-folk spirit—a rare balancing act, especially among Alpine ski resorts of such lofty renown.
You can’t talk about Kitzbühel, of course, without talking about skiing. Set in an immense bowl, the confluence of three Alpine valleys, the village is surrounded by icy crags that rise above a precipitous white landscape. Kitzbühel was among the first wave of winter resort towns to introduce the sport of skiing to the public, back in the days when Britain was an empire and Russia had a czar. These days the resort offers a vast amount of widely varying terrain, linking together a chain of peaks that stretches 15 miles from north to south. Is it cutting edge? Not exactly. The lifts that bind it all together are a pastiche, from ancient T-bars to a supermodern cable car that spans peaks two miles apart. This hodgepodge means that you can’t cover nearly as much ground as you could at one of the mega-resorts back home, and when I first set out on the pistes I wondered if the resort’s proprietors were taking the sport seriously enough. Then I remembered: this is Austria. If that’s the way they want to do it, maybe that’s the way it should be done.
And if the Austrians know skiing, they really know après-ski. They basically invented it. From the turn of the last century until the 1950’s, Kitzbühel’s old Grand Hotel was the ne plus ultra for international celebrities, including Edward, Prince of Wales, and Wallis Simpson, the Brangelina of their day. Later the action shifted to the Hotel Zur Tenne, an intimate inn stitched together from three adjacent houses in the heart of the medieval city. Though its history dates back to the reign of the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V, all that was overshadowed by the gamboling of Frank Sinatra, Kirk Douglas, and Bob Hope. The scene may be quieter today—come evening, the lobby bar is thronged with a tanned and immaculately attired crowd chatting away and cheerfully doing that European thing, smoking cigarettes—but it’s still a place where the celebrated feel at home. The day after my visit, Hugh Grant was scheduled to check in, and a few days later Arnold Schwarzenegger and the Begum Aga Khan stopped by.
Today a pair of newcomers are vying to take the Tenne’s crown. The Grand Tirolia Kitzbühel, opened in 2009 a few miles outside town, was built at staggering expense by Yelena Baturina, the billionaire wife of the former mayor of Moscow. Though such a provenance no doubt raised eyebrows in some quarters, the five-story hotel blends modern and rustic with impeccable self-control: stacked stone is left rough-edged, unadorned wood has been laid out in simple planes. The crown jewel is its flagship restaurant, Petit Tirolia, which was elevated to national prominence by its founding chef, Munich-born Bobby Bräuer, who was named the top chef in Austria by Gault Millau in both 2011 and 2012—but who this summer made a surprise departure, leaving the kitchen in the hands of his replacement, 31-year-old Steve Karlsch, a protégé of star German chef Tim Raue. How he’ll handle the pressure should be a drama worth the price of admission alone.
The other new jet-set magnet, the Kempinski Hotel Das Tirol, is set along the flank of a forested mountain six miles south of town. A glowing oblong of metal, wood, and stone, this quietly opulent world-within-a-world opened at the end of 2011. My room contained a wood-burning fireplace, a glass box of a shower visible from the bed (for sportif honeymooners, I imagine), and chairs upholstered in faux animal skins from a medley of species. From the lounge chairs on my balcony, I could see the steaming outdoor swimming pool. The suite flirted with opulence but remained in immaculate good taste. The effect was delightful, albeit decontextualized, as international-grade luxury can often be.
And so, craving that feeling of connection that comes from immersing oneself in a community that has accreted over the centuries, I found myself drawn back into town. Strolling the oval of streets that once defined the village’s inner keep, I ducked into Café Praxmair, a coffee shop where the owner’s daughter, who happens to look like a Chanel model, served me a fluffy jam-filled confection called a Faschingskrapfen that is only available during the Carnival season. A few doors down, I stumbled upon Haderer, a shoe shop that has been owned by the Haderer family for three generations. One of the shopgirls handed me a men’s brogue, a beautifully crafted piece of leather so meticulously burnished that it seemed to glow, and informed me that if I wanted, the cobblers in the downstairs workshop could have a pair finished for me in six months. By now the sunlight was beginning to fade, so I hopped over to the tiny nearby village of Aurach, where Hallerwirt, an inn built of hewn logs, has been welcoming guests since the 18th century. Even in Kitzbühel, the Filzer family’s three-century-long ownership counts as particularly enduring. After I’d sipped a glass of local Huber beer in the wood-paneled Gaststube, the current innkeeper took me into a banquet room to show off a painted chest that has been in the family since 1492.
The ultimate Kitzbühel experience, of course, would subsume all of its wonderful idiosyncrasies at once: the cozy historic charm and the grand Alpine vistas, the simplicity of the mountain folk and the glamour of the international wealth cloud. And so, on my last day, after carefully consulting a trail map, I set out on a cross-country ski odyssey, working my way from mountain to mountain until I reached a distant peak called Zweitausender. From there it was a quick trip to the doors of the Panorama Alm restaurant, set in the most dramatically sited of the many rustic Hütten (cabins) scattered among the mountains.
At once breathtaking and adorable, the restaurant is a traditional Alpine cabin with a low ceiling, rough-hewn timbers, and roaring fireplaces. If it weren’t so busy, I’d have tried to get a table in one of the little nooks inside, but as it was, I was content to hit the more casual café, get a well-roasted half-chicken, and find a spot on the deck. It was a bit surreal to sit in the cold air and warm sun, surrounded by jagged peaks, and be sonically bathed in the up-tempo Europop playing over the P.A. system. But I hardly noticed, absorbed as I was in people-watching. Who were those people over there, with their leopard-print snow pants and fuchsia shells—a Frankfurt banker and his trophy wife? A de-titled aristocrat and his Serbian au pair? A pair of boldfaced names from a country with an illegible alphabet? Before I could discern any decisive clues, they had risen and clomped off into the snow.
I glimpsed them an hour or so later from my chairlift, two dots of impossible brightness, gliding down the shoulder of a hill and disappearing into the shadows of the mountain beyond.