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Skiing Zürs and Lech

If, in coming to the Austrian Alps, I have entered into some sort of fantasy territory, equal parts Sound of Music and out-of-focus history, I am not alone.

"Unlike Germany, which atones at every possible moment for the Holocaust, Austria is still in quasi-denial about its role in the Anschluss," my friend Elizabeth Larsen, who taught at the University of Salzburg, explained. Even the saccharine Julie Andrews vehicle is "still a taboo topic among most Austrians," Elizabeth said, "mostly because of the anti-Nazi subplot, but also because the von Trapps left their country while the rest stayed and endured tremendous hardship."

People's perceptions of the past in Austria "tend to be revisionist," Gerold Schneider, a young Vienna-trained architect, says drily at one point during my sojourn in Zürs. He is referringto the deliberately time-stopped atmosphere of the Alpine region but also, tacitly, to the national political scene. Just a month before my arrival, Austria's chancellor, Wolfgang Schüssel, invited the racist, xenophobic, and, one might have thought, discredited Freedom Party, once led by Jörg Haider, to assume three ministerial seats in the newly elected government.

Schneider is better placed than many to comment on the underpinnings of local reality. Trained in philosophy, he also descends from one of a handful of families that transformed Zürs and its sister town, Lech, from farmland into a world-class ski resort, beginning in the 1950's. The Hotel Schneider Almhof, Schneider's place, a 57-room property in Lech where Prince Charles often stays, is a fine example of the prevalent architecture: a peak-roofed ski chalet tastefully supersized.

"A lot of kitsch tries to present itself as our history," Schneider says, mentioning agreeably the welter of stags' heads, lederhosen, dirndls, and flower-painted stucco that become viral above a certain altitude. "After all, this is a town that relies on tourism for one hundred percent of its income," he adds.

It is also a place where Schneider's recent efforts to tweak the vernacular by erecting a rough-hewn contemporary ski hut called the Schneggarei were met with opposition. He prevailed. The fine minimalist structure of peeled logs attracts a crowd of hipsters to its club nights, when mammoth Vienna sausages, cheese fondue, and sturdy ales are consumed in quantity as DJ Mapletree spins the White Stripes and Missy Elliott in front of a big screen showing the latest snowboarding videos.

None of this is to suggest that the Arlberg region lacks a sense of a deeper history: the Alps are not Aspen. Lech, for example, was first noted in a seventh-century document. It was gifted by the Holy Roman Emperor Henry IV to the bishop of Augsburg as a hunting ground in 1059, settled by Walser peasants in the 14th century, then forgotten until it was surrendered to the Kingdom of Bavaria during the Napoleonic Wars.

The valley remained isolated until the Flexen Pass was constructed, at the end of the 19th century. Now, as then, this serpentine route ramps steeply through the mountains from the towns of Langen and Stuben, ascending steadily until the tree cover thins and then yields to a landscape resembling a blanched redoubt, whose walls are sharp-toothed peaks called the Trittkopf, the Hasenfluh, and the Rüfikopf.

A hundred years ago, the area was a patchwork of dairy operations, rustic sheepfolds, and hunting clubs set against a vast dome of blue sky. Skiing did not take hold here until 1906, when one of the sport's pioneers, Viktor Sohm, began to offer courses. Within two decades, the now legendary instructor Hannes Schneider had taken over the area's fledgling ski school and begun promulgating his innovative stem-christie rotation technique.

Stem christie has since been rendered obsolete by new ski technology. But elements of Schneider's approach persist in the formal elegance that remains a signature of Austrian ski style. Or so I am informed over dinner at the Lorünser by Jamie Porter Gagarin, a sprightly octogenarian whose grandfather worked with J. P. Morgan and who still skis every day she's in Zürs, as she has for the past 49 years.

In the early decades of the 20th century, Zürs and Lech were adopted by such people—a snappy international ski set composed of prosperous or well-born Britons, Austrians, Germans, and Americans, who came for the season and climbed the Flexen Pass on foot from the rail station at Langen, their luggage following behind on sleighs. The antic sportiness of the place continued until the arrival of the Nazis, whose rise forced Hannes Schneider to flee to the United States and transformed Zürs into a holiday bivouac for Luftwaffe pilots and members of Mussolini's elite. When the war ended, the French occupied the Alpine villages and closed the small hotels for three years. Eventually these were razed and then rebuilt on the grander scale made possible by an infrastructure substantially funded by the Marshall Plan.

Since then waves of newcomers have continued to discover the Arlberg, magnetized by the valley's 11 prime peaks, good although not entirely reliable powder, 162 miles of interconnected and groomed runs linked by a single lift system, and 112 miles of off-piste trails. Still, it is a curiously unknown, insider's place, a fact one writer for a glossy British magazine swooned over, noting that the "usual cut of British and German good-timers who want two weeks of sport and après-ski" are not to be encountered at Lech and Zürs. In their stead one finds "a deliciously rich and sophisticated cocktail of old European families, blue-chip CEO's, and royalty who have been coming to Lech since skiing became the vogue in the fifties." One finds the princes of Europe and of global industry, in other words, disporting themselves nearly anonymously at the swimming pools and sundecks and indoor tennis courts and on the rigorously democratic slopes.

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