Sick of St. Moritz?Gorged on Gstaad?In Austria's tiny hamlets of Zürs and Lech there's just the right mix of rustic chic, heavenly powder, and snow bunnies—royal and plebeian. Guy Trebay hits the slopes of Europe's coolest ski scene.
Greetings from the bunny hill, where I am very happy. If no one objects, the bunny hill is where I would like to remain. I enjoy going to the top of the small slope and then clutching a towline alongside people no taller than my knees. It pleases me to warm my face in the bright Alpine sunshine as I glide downhill under the proud and watchful gaze of my Central Casting instructor, Peter Happ.
I find this so thoroughly amusing, I could continue going around in pointless but satisfying loops for the rest of my time here in Austria. And yet, oddly enough, Happ does not consider this a valid idea.
I am here in the Austrian Alps to learn to ski. I am doing this at an age when most of my fellow baby boomers are focused on getting their first Botox injections or salvaging their 401(k)'s. From the general tenor of things, I surmise that conversation in my age cohort will soon be turning to topics like turkey-wattle necks and bowel motility.
There are lines in life that must be drawn. Taking up difficult sports is a well-established method for flouting the horrors of time. Leni Riefenstahl, the legendary filmmaker and Hitler's lapdog, once lopped two decades off her personal chronology to obtain a scuba-diving license (she claimed she was 51). Riefenstahl lived another 30 years to achieve her centenary. To start skiing in my forties would, at the minimum, I felt, cut down on the shock when the dreaded AARP card finally came drifting through the mail.
Or so I thought in New York, when the chic hamlet of Zürs was a spun-sugar period confection in a glossy brochure. Now I find myself in the bowl of a valley surrounded by serrated peaks and populated by jolly red-cheeked people who make a point of telling you that they had boards strapped to their feet before they could walk. Everywhere I turn are tiny figures scrawling volutes down the mountains or else boarding helicopters to head into some backcountry avalanche zone. The reverberant thwack of helicopter rotors adds to the scene a dissonant note of Apocalypse Now.
"You see that?" says Happ, raising a heroic arm toward some imposing slope. "In a week you can ski it!"
Even though I do not entirely share Happ's confidence in my potential, I have nevertheless invested in a Prada parka and some Teflon ski jeans. This is not the first time that I have relied on dumb faith and some well-chosen wardrobe items to carry the day.
"You're high," I remark to Happ.
"Not really," says Happ, who is not yet attuned to New York sarcasm.
"Don't worry," he adds. "You'll see."
With that, we return to our snowplow lesson. Sooner than I can believe, it leads me away from the bunny slope and onto something that to my eye resembles the Matterhorn and that is ascended by means of a mechanized castration device known as a Poma lift.
"How do you like the view?" Happ asks from the crest of a hill where a group of four-year-olds is happily snaking along, hands on waists, behind an instructor. Despite a growing vertigo that I attempt to mask with nonchalance, I am forced to concede that the view is gorgeous. It is true that Zürs's pristine beauty, like that of many of the world's most appealing places, is not entirely immune from kitsch and narrative claptrap. In Hawaii, for example, one is often directed to Maui's Seven Sacred Pools of Kipahulu, which do not number seven and were never sacred except to the press agent who concocted the idea. Likewise, in the Austrian Alps, I find, one is gently encouraged to partake in an image of high-altitude rusticity that may have more to do with Disneyland than with the Alps.
But who cares?When I check into the delightfully staid Hotel Zürserhof I am greeted by the owner and presented with a drink and a room key. The hefty metal key is markedly different from the plastic wafers most hotels now use for induction into the global hospitality machine. This small hunk of metal symbolizes to me a delicate but important transition. "In a high-tech world,people are thankful for a human touch," the hotel's proprietor, Willy Skardarasy, accurately observes. A porter gathers the luggage and leads me to commodious lodgings in an inn that was once a farm belonging to a certain Count Tattenbach, who came to the Alps in the 1920's to treat a persistent pneumonia, stayed on, and eventually began to take in paying guests.
Tattenbach fled the country for Costa Rica at the beginning of the Second World War, never to return. The Skardarasy family took over the inn and built it into the largest hotel in Zürs, a place where 65 percent of the guests book the same rooms annually—among them the regents of Jordan, who came for 20 years. That hardly counts as a record; not long ago a room at the nearby Sporthotel Lorünser was hung with a plaque dedicating it to Mort Stone, a retired photo editor for the New York Times, who has spent winters there for half a century.
The reasons for guest loyalty to the Zürserhof are hardly mysterious. Once installed in my suite, with its adjacent dressing area and bathroom large enough to accommodate a Mini Cooper, I yank back all the curtains. The view is of low slopes mantled in a fresh coating of powder. A lone Alsatian couched on a snowbank warms itself in the late-winter sun. Like a consumptive from a Thomas Mann novel, I feel confident that a cure has been found.
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.
Hardly anybody who spends time in Zürs will fail to hear the story of a stubborn local who once defiantly put Bernhard of the Netherlands in his place when the Dutch prince attempted to cut into a lift line. "In the mountains there is a simplicity of approach," says Florian Moosbrugger, whose family owns the 39-room Hotel Gasthof Post, where the Dutch royals stay. At this elevation, even language is subject to alteration. "You don't use the polite form anymore in the mountains," Moosbrugger says. "Everybody is on the same level here. Everybody is here for the same thing, to enjoy good sport."
Long before the X-Games made risk seem banal by turning it into the jackass's badge of honor, Arlberg skiers reveled in what Thomas Hoving, the former director of the Metropolitan Museum, once called the "roughhouse mood" of the Austrian Alps. A 1931 film starring Leni Riefenstahl and titled Der Weisse Rausch ("The White Flame") caught the spirit of the locals, in footage of the unstoppable Riefenstahl, Hannes Schneider, and a cast of the Arlberg's 50 best skiers "herringboning up hills, jumping crags, and crashing into a snowy crater," as Hoving remarked.
"It's certainly still an off-piste paradise," says Urs Kamber, the director of the regional tourism board—an assertion confirmed by Happ when he explains his unusual, for an Austrian, decision to defect from home to live and work in Zürs. "Friends ask, 'Why would you leave Innsbruck?' " he says. "They think I'm crazy." That opinion could easily be confirmed should Happ ever take them out to one of his favorite runs, an off-piste slope called Antenne that starts on an ice cornice near an avalanche station and has a 2,300-foot vertical drop.
The mountains of Switzerland are better known and bigger than those in Austria, Kamber concedes. "In Switzerland there are at least 20 mountains that are more than 13,000 feet tall, while here there are none," he says. Yet the relative modesty of Zürs and Lech as a resort, its disdain for hype, its stodgy and anachronistic ethos of slow growth, has turned out to be a boon. "We tried to be St. Moritz, with polo on the snow, but this is not St. Moritz," Kamber says.
What Zürs has to offer, he adds, is not chic snow bunnies in Ugg boots or glimpses of Goldie Hawn, "but enough time and enough space." In fact, this vaporous phrase is the new tagline of the resort; part of it is actually true. ("People used to come for three weeks," says Moosbrugger. "Now they stay three days.")
It may seem rich to real skiers that this matchless opportunity has been squandered on the likes of me. Or so I imagined when I first shyly presented myself at the Strolz rental counter in the hotel basement. So I felt when the client who originally booked Peter Happ's services at the local ski school failed to appear. So I thought as I waddled to the towline and was handed a button seat by a local who keeps lollipops in the booth for his usual clientele.
One expects a hazing when coming to a new sport; when in my thirties I took up the equestrian discipline called three-day eventing, my instructors derived great amusement from the way balky mounts routinely launched me like a human cannonball. Yet, oddly, here in Zürs I encounter nothing but good fellowship, lucid instruction, and blind faith. I would not be the first to observe that the challenge at the core of skiing is to override instinct in the interest of waltzing with gravity. Simple phrases like the fall line seem to convey the counterintuitive essence of skiing, and why it is best to take it up young, before logic becomes an impediment to movement and reflex.
And yet, on day one I attain the bunny hill. I learn to snowplow and to turn. Both elated and exhausted by evening, I barely notice the feast being served at the hotel, which I later recall ran to five courses of such delicacies as consommé of guinea fowl, wild saddle of boar, pistachio mousse, and crisp Muhlpoint Grüner Veltliner Smaragd drunk in quantities. I sleep like a child.
On day two, a Monday, Peter praises my accomplishments and remarks that most neophytes wait for the third outing to take a real header. I absorb this information and proceed to spend Tuesday perfecting a Technicolor bruise above my right hip. On Wednesday I find myself viewing the village of Zürs from a moving gondola. The view is stupendous, the ride quite merry. When the second high slope has been negotiated, I can see far across the valley. It is then that I inquire how much a helicopter will cost to carry me out.
It will be obvious by now that my claim at the start of this narrative to be commenting from the bunny hill was not altogether true. In fact, I am in a completely different place. In my short time in Zürs I have continued to move steadily upward, physically but also in some unexpected psychic sense. I cannot be a pretty sight, curving clumsy wide arcs through corn snow, attempting to lean into hills and draw my skis in parallel and move my knees and torso in opposition and in rhythm simultaneously. If I am a nuisance to the experienced athletes racing all around me, they never show it. If my pace is boring Happ, the adrenaline addict, he betrays nothing. This may be because he is a thorough professional. It may also be because he senses how much I am going to love this sport.
Located in Vorarlberg, Austria's westernmost province, the tiny resort villages of Zürs and Lech can be reached by train from Zürich, 124 miles to the west, in Switzerland. Many hotels offer shuttle-bus service from the Zürich airport. Ski season runs November 28 to May 2; passes are sold at area hotels (from $41 per day). Buses connect Zürs and Lech with the surrounding towns of St. Anton, St. Christoph, and Stuben.
WHERE TO STAY
Hotel Zürserhof There's nothing rustic about this refurbished farmhouse with its expanses of marble floors and Persian rugs. Lunch and dinner tend toward the exotic—lemongrass soup with oysters, fjord salmon on kohlrabi with coconut curry. DOUBLES FROM $502, INCLUDING ALL MEALS. 43-5583/25130; www.zuerserhof.at
Sporthotel Lorünser, Zürs A 77-room Alpine retreat. Choice of macrobiotic or Austrian cuisine (the ubiquitous Wiener schnitzel, liver spätzle). DOUBLES FROM $315, INCLUDING ALL MEALS. 43-5583/22540; www.loruenser.at
Hotel Schneider Almhof, Lech Fireplaces in the bedrooms; handmade quilts. Popular cocktail bar and Walser Stube restaurant. DOUBLES FROM $654, NO CREDIT CARDS. 43-5583/35000; www.almhof.at
Hotel Gasthof Post, Lech Hallways hung with hunting trophies and cowbells. Hand-painted murals stand in for headboards in most rooms. Not surprisingly, both restaurants serve traditional regional food. DOUBLES FROM $630. 43-5583/22060; www.postlech.com
Zürs has two nightclubs: Disco Zürserl, in the Hotel Edelweiss (43-5583/2662), and Vernissage, at the Robinson Select Alpenrose (43-5583/2271). In Lech, one of the most popular hangouts is the new, ultrahip Skihütte Schneggarei (43-5583/39888).
Private or group lessons can be booked at either the Zürs Ski School (43-5583/2611), where Peter Happ is one of 150 instructors, or the Lech Ski School (43-5583/2355). Both can arrange guided off-piste and heli-skiing outings.
Lech's sports emporium, Sporthouse Strolz (43-5583/ 23610; www.strolz.at) has ski and snowboard rentals, fur-lined Prada parkas, and Strolz's famous handcrafted ski boots, which can be custom made in 24 hours. There's an outpost on the ground floor of the Hotel Zürserhof (43-5583/251-3911).
—Jaime L. Gross