Travel

Tuesday 22 July 2014

Austria: Piste of the action

Thomas Breathnach

Published 24/11/2012|05:00

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Mountain Grosser Rettenstein and Wildkogelhaus seen from a plane

Taking his first ski steps on the slopes of Austria, Thomas Breathnach soon got a taste for the Tyrolean high life

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For two tick-tocking years, I lived in Switzerland without so much as a sniff of a ski-slope. In truth, it was down to a mix of factors: the prohibitive costs of hiring skis combined with the prospect of being von trapped in a cable car with a bunch of Zurich bankers always had me running for the valleys.

Some years later, however, a bargain trip to the minty fresh slopes of Austria landed on my doorstep.

As perhaps the friendliest nation of the Alps, and Ireland's favourite winter destination, the Eastern Empire has long been luring budget-conscious skiers to its slopes.

After a last-minute ski-gear shop, I was bracing myself, and my lederhosen, for my first package trip to the slopes.

Amid a seasonal snow flurry, my Alpine adventure kicked off with a one-hour transfer from Salzburg Airport deep into the Tyrolean Alps. I'd arrived just as avalanches had left thousands of tourists stranded in mountain villages, but, as a result, the powder was great.

As I cosied up in the coach, frostbitten villages, blotted with the onion domes of gothic churches, hazed by in the valleys. Even the red lights of the ubiquitous Austrian brothel couldn't detract from this winter wonderland.

I was winding my way to Westendorf, a pretty family ski escape nestled in Brixental Valley beneath a craggy bastion of snow-capped peaks.

Arriving into the village, the micro-resort buzzed with the seasonal to-and-fro trudge of snow-bunnies and après-skiers. Outside the St Nikolaus-kirche, a giant tannenbaum dominated the town square as a one-horse open sleigh jingled past us into the woodlands.

There was a Christmas-card authenticity about the place frozen in time – or at least until the first thaws in spring.

Hotel Schermer, a family-run outfit a snowball's shot from the village square, was my plush base. A snowtrail led me inside, where waitresses in traditional Alpine garb carried hefty beer steins across the hotel bar.

Herr Schermer, the Conrad Hilton of Westendorf, mingled with guests in the reception, and families rendez-vous-ed for dinner after a day's exertions on the slopes.

My room was a comfy and toasty wooden affair.

Outside on my deck, I looked out at what in summer must be lush Milka-bar meadows, but were now pristine blankets of cross-country ski runs.

Following the recent fresh falls, the next morning I woke up to the quintessential 'bluebird' day – clear skies, beaming sun and crisp Alpine air.

After bagging my ski suit in Dublin to cut costs, I spruced myself up in my €100 outfit (thanks Penneys), eagerly awaiting my first day at ski school.

My first stop was Dieter's Sport Shop, where, after being taped and measured with Louis Copeland-like precision, my look was completed with helmet, skis and boots.

As the old hands in my Irish group caught a gondola to more intermediate pastures, I hit the nearby nursery slopes to meet newbies instructor, Hannes.

Hannes (aka 'Happy') was just the type of bloke I'd hoped for: a jovial, born and bred Westerndorfer who, no doubt, could ski before he could yodel.

My fellow virgin snow bunnies were an affable mix of English speakers, including a Sligo couple, a Galway girl and a Scottish lass, who confessed to have had some previous form on Ben Nevis.

Happy took a bottom-up pedagogy, showing us the initially cumbersome task of clicking into our skis before leading us off to master the snowplough (the art of braking and control).

My progress was slow and it wasn't long before I took my first fall, timing my face-dunk impeccably as a fleet of toddlers from Bobo's Kidz Schule whizzed past me with precocious aplomb.

Dusting off my pride, I regrouped for lunch at Café Dorfer – one of the resort's many charming dining chalets, ambiently canopied with a thick sheet of snowfall.

The Alpine air had given me an appetite for greasy goodness and I heartily chowed down a plate of eggs, speck ham and French fries as Westendorf's strong Dutch contingent were already elbowing back the Pils around me.

Forget après, has the term 'avant-ski' been coined yet?

The afternoon session saw our group's first elevation aboard the carpet lift, where Happy laid a set of obtuse obstacles for us to manoeuvre on the hillside below.

But little by little, by leaning to the left and leaning to the right, I was getting to grips with the challenge. And just as I would later learn when confronted with some au-naturel Austrians at the hotel sauna, I simply needed to pick my point of focus, and not deviate.

That evening, my first après-ski venture began via an unassuming cellar entrance on Dorfplatz, which led me down an illuminated stairwell to Karat bar. Just how underground could Westendorf get?

But what I descended into was in fact Little Amsterdam – a bar jam-packed with dozens of lager-quaffing Lowlanders, dancing their clogs off to a hefty chorus of Dutch schlager pop. The perfect party storm, in other words.

Soon, an unidentified crooner took to the stage and, by all decibled accounts, I was in the presence of greatness. It was Johnny van Logan, perma-tanned.

The next morning, with just a little calf ache – and just a little headache – I was keen as bratwurst mustard to get back on the slopes. After a snowplough revision, Happy's mentoring soon had us stem-turning, flat- lining and even attempting a downhill mini-jump.

As the day, and indeed the week, advanced, I gradually graduated to higher slopes, my progress rewarded with increasingly dramatic views down the valley.

Granted, leaning against the ski-lift emergency button to bring the lower slopes of Westendorf to a five-minute standstill was an unexpected twist, but it did give me all the more time to soak up those vistas.

On my final night, I tagged along on a visit to the quaint regional capital of Kitzbuhel. My outing began at O'Flannigans oirish bar, where I was greeted at the door with welcome shots resembling something between Jagermeister and Aquafresh.

Waltzing through the night and soaking gup Kitzbuhel's medieval charm, I continued with karaoke at Lichtl Pub, an atmospheric haunt shrouded by a ceiling of glass goblets.

There was another chapter to Westendorf's winter tale other than knees-ups and knee-slapping, however.

Downtime highlights included cosying up in a village bar with Mozartkugeln chocolates and a mug of Jagertee (a mix of rum and tea) and escaping the ski masses for an evening trudge up the alps.

My sunset hike took me high up into the hibernating hamlets of Salvenberg, where the lone activity I met was a farmer stocking his gable end with winter firewood while his cattle dozed in the snug barns next door.

By the end of my week's ski tutorials, I found myself venturing out alone for one last morning milk-run. No longer shackled with my red-slopes L-plates, I schussed down the slopes, gliding to a halt with the finesse of a Lillehammer Olympian.

As my week's sojourn in the Tyrol reached its outrun, I was bidding adieu to the Austrian slopes feeling rejuvenated and upskilled, and I had the ski gear for life. What were the chances I'd be back next year for the blue slopes? Einhundert prozent.

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