Graeme Spratley’s annual trip to the Austrian mountains starts with a slightly creepy B-movie feel but soon warms up to a family blockbuster
A wrong turn near Munich meant a later arrival than planned. As the dashboard clock flashed midnight we reached the end of a deserted lane in Wald, a tiny hamlet deep in the heavily forested heart of Austria’s Pinzgau region. Through the thick, falling snow, the car swung into a long driveway, headlights barely making out the ever-so-slightly foreboding building in the distance, Jagdschloss Graf Recke, our shelter for the week (I had to check the address to make sure it didn’t say Transylvania). I’m sure we all felt the same chill down our spines as the heavy front door creaked slowly open, a shaft of light split the darkness and into the doorframe stepped the silhouette of a tall, imposing man…
To our blessed relief, not a fictional creation of Bram Stoker, however, but Count (Graf) Recke, German aristocrat, our host, and owner of this unique ski and hunting lodge. The Graf is a man of class and breeding, but thankfully no interest in drinking our blood, although clearly partial to a bottle of fine red wine, one of which he had sent to our room after thanking us for travelling all the way from England to visit.
The reason we were here is thanks to my Austrian friend Bernie, who lives 20 minutes down the road in Mittersill, and who each ski season I rely on to unearth an obscure jewel for my annual fix of Austria. This year he surpassed all expectations by sending my wife Fiona, my 15-year-old son James and me to this charming little village in the hills.
The only problem with some of these hidden Austrian gems, is how to get to them. The nearest airport to the Pinzgau area is Salzburg, about two hours away, and the most frequent service to Salzburg from the London area is Ryanair, which means ‘London’ Stansted, the most inaccessible place in Britain, so getting to Pinzgau was a no-brainer – we were driving. No gaudily dressed sales executives-cum-cabin attendants flogging you scratchcards or overpriced food and drink, plus you get the seat you want and, unbelievably, you are allowed to take bags and ski gear without added cost. How about that? Besides, driving both adds a bit of an adventure. And it’s greener, especially in an environmentally friendly Citroen (yes, Citroen!) four-by four, the C-Crosser (is this the future of ski commuting?).
Wald isn’t a ski resort, but in one direction, is close to the Zillertalarena (including the resorts of Zell am Ziller, Gerlos, Königsleiten and Gerlosplatte) with 165km of skiable terrain on the same lift pass. In the other direction is Neukirchen, a pretty village with a more modest 55km of piste (though about half are red or black runs), but a secret weapon – the world’s longest (they claim) toboggan run, at 14km. So, the plan was to ski Gerlos and the Zillertalarena, not bother with Neukirchen, other than perhaps a little dabble on the toboggan (our inner child was already tempting us).
Sunday morning brought sunshine through the window, and the scent of coffee curling under the bedroom door, accompanied by the strains of classical music from deep in the lodge. A better call to breakfast is hard to imagine, and even James seemed – happy would be an exaggeration – vaguely alive. Graf Recke, dressed to the nines in a Bavarian high-collared jacket with all the trimmings, warmly greeted us and helped us figure out our day, the highlight of which would be an aperitif with him and the Countess that evening. So, after a very lazy Sunday morning and with all the ski gear thrown in the back of the car, we chugged up the winding road to the nearest slopes, at Krimml, better known for it’s summer attraction, the Krimmler Waterfalls – with a total drop of more than 380m, they are among Europe’s highest. From here, the lifts link in to the whole of the Zillertalarena, and the intermediate cruisers in the immediate area were a perfect loosener after a day laying down rubber on the motorways of Europe. The further reaches of the area could wait.
Back at the lodge, we were received by the Graf and his Countess in the trophy room, and politely sipped a glass of champagne, discussing his future plans for expanding the lodge, which was built by his father in 1926. Graf Recke is in his eighties, but has the imagination and energy of a much younger man. The walls are adorned with the heads of several horned beasts, as well as a variety of stuffed birds. The perpetrators of all this carnage are also immortalised in monochrome photos on the walls – moustachioed men with shotguns draped across their laps, reminding me a little of a football team photo. Dinner was excellent, though with few people choosing to dine, the atmosphere was a little cold, and the feeling of time warp wouldn’t go away, added to by the background music, all from the thirties and forties. Perhaps we were stuck in a Hammer horror after all.
The next day, we gave in and visited the rather diminutive offerings of Neukirchen. What followed was a superb day of skiing, in glorious weather, and the snow, though not fresh, was in top squeaky condition beneath the skis. For half-term week, queues were short and the steeper pistes were muscle-burningly exhilarating. The skiing was over all too quickly, but at Neukirchen, the closure of the ski pistes does not mean the end of the fun.
The Rodelbahn (toboggan run) starts at the top on the mountain and winds its way down the mountainside for 14km, terminating at the next village, Bramberg. A short hike from the top station of the gondola brings you to the start of the run. In the setting sun, it’s very special to be on the top of a mountain, something that almost anyone should enjoy. Push off and away you go, feet first. Feet act as brakes and for steering, and that’s about all you need to know, other than to whoop with joy on your way down. As the natural light dimmed, so the lighting alongside the winding trail came on, and an atmosphere of sheer excitement built with every passing switchback bend.
The alpha male competition between father and son raged, and first blood came my way as I managed to run him off the track and down an embankment. (In the interests of fairness – and to avoid being pursued by the Child Protection Agency – I have to report that he got me back.) In Neukirchen, they have thoughtfully built a bar half way down, perfect for a couple of warming glühweins to stoke the competitive spirit. After an hour of ‘rodelbahn’, the finish line beckons, and if you time it right, so does another glühwein before the bus turns up to take you back to Neukirchen. We never did get back to Zillertal – the lure of Neukirchen was too much. The local tourist office told me that they have had parties of Brits who come just to toboggan.
After saying our farewells to the Count, we stopped for one night at the little known resort of Steinach in Tirol, high on the Brenner Pass, where night skiing is popular with the residents of nearby Innsbruck. Bizarrely, the piste runs under the motorway of the Brenner Pass, and you schuss by at eye level with 40-tonne trucks heaving their loads down into Italy.
As the clock ticked midnight, I glanced
at the headless walls of the hotel and I think we all wished we were back at the Count’s lodge…
Neukirchen, Pinzgau, Austria - urlaubsarena-wildkogel.at
Zillertal Ski Arena – zillertal.at
Nearest Airport is Salzburg, transfer 2hrs. Fly with British Airways (ba.com), Jet 2 (jet2.com), Easyjet (easyjet.com) or Ryanair (ryanair.com). If driving, ferry crossing (Dover-Boulogne) – Speedferries (speedferries.com)
Crystal Holidays (crystalski.co.uk)
Jagdschloss Graf Recke –
double/twin with breakfast from €55 per person per night
Season dates: Dec – April
Vertical drop: 856m – 2167m
Pistes: Easy Advanced 15%
Snowmaking: 50% of terrain
Lift passes: £27, 1 day - £135,
6 days. Discounts for youths and children
Mountain munchies: There are 15 mountain restaurants and huts.
Guiding: Neukirchen Ski School (skischule-neukirchen.at)
Downtown: The pretty village of Neukirchen is home to a good selection of hotels, restaurants
‘Ow you say...?
Sausage sandwich: Wurst mit brot
How much is it?: Wieviel kostet es?
Which do you prefer – yaks or llamas?: Was liebst du gerne, llama oder yak?
Highlight: The World’s longest toboggan run
Bummer: Toboggan run should be longer!
New this season: More snow cannons and an expanded ‘Kinderland’ children’s ski area