Snow thrills

Kitzbühel in Austria has an adrenaline-fuelled reputation but there's more to find in this part of the Tyrol


I am at the top of the Hahnenkamm, the mountain in Kitzbühel, Austria whose name translates as the rooster’s comb — and which is home to the most notorious and dangerous downhill race in the world: the Streif.

As I peer over the edge from the starting point, I breathe a sigh of relief that the fearsome piste is closed today. It’s so steep that just staying upright would be challenge enough for a recreational skier like me.

My ski guide Alex is giving me a tour of the Streif via alternative ‘easy’ black and red runs but it’s still close enough to gauge how world-class skiers stare death in the face as they try to conquer the toughest downhill race known to man.

I ask Alex, who like most Austrians has probably skied as long as he has walked, whether he has done the Streif. “Once — and that was enough,” he says.

“I wasn’t racing but just coping with those huge bone-crunching jumps and breakneck turns on what is effectively sheet ice is enough,” he laughs. “I was glad to just finish with all my limbs intact.”

This January, the 78th Hahnenkamm will be watched by 500 million TV viewers worldwide, and a further 85,000 will pour into Kitzbühel to worship the gods of downhill ski racing — racers accelerate to 62mph in 8.5 seconds down a 51% gradient, then into the infamous Mausefalle (Mousetrap) with an inconceivable gradient of 85% and speeds of 74mph.

But it’s not just the adrenalin-fuelled Hahnenkamm that attracts tens of thousands of skiers each year to this medieval Tyrolean village. Just over 55 miles from Innsbruck, it’s synonymous with old-school glamour, luxurious hotels, cafés and designer shops.

With over 130 miles of slopes in Kitzbühel itself, plus more in the wider SkiWelt area, it’s ideal for intermediate as well as more experienced skiers.

And while the top lift is at 2,000m, it’s still usually the first of the country’s non-glacier resorts to open and often one of the last to close, with extra snow cannons added on Kitzbüheler Horn in 2018 as well. There are typically 200 days of skiing in the season, although you’ll also find plenty for visitors away from the slopes.

From late November, the 700-year-old former silver mining town is transformed into a spectacular winter wonderland straight from a book of fairytales.

As I walk through Kitzbuhel admiring the town’s pretty pastel coloured houses festooned with fairy lights, wooden stalls shaped like gingerbread houses sell traditional decorations, hand-made gifts and roasted almonds, doughnuts and glühwein.

Everywhere there’s a buzz of conversation and laughter from people quaffing mulled wine around the stalls as horse-drawn carriages clip clop along the cobbled streets with the snow-covered mountains forming the perfect backdrop.

Children can enjoy the petting zoo in Kitzbühel’s Stadtpark with llamas, donkeys, sheep and rabbits and pony rides, while the festive market takes place in the afternoons until the old church bell tolls at 8pm.

Kitzbuhel wasn’t always thriving: looking for a way to boost the town’s ailing fortunes after the collapse of its mining industry, Franz Reisch, the Kitzbüheler burgomaster from 1903 to 1913 hit upon the idea of introducing skiing to the area.

He had skis sent from Norway and in March 1893 he climbed the Kitzbüheler Horn to try them out, despite never having skied before.

There’s been no looking back since. In 1902, the Kitzbühel Winter Sports Association was launched and in 1936, the then Prince of Wales spent a skiing holiday in the Grand Hotel, which permanently established the town’s international reputation for winter sports.

Signe Reisch, Reisch’s great-granddaughter, now owns and runs the Hotel Rasmushof, once the family farm. The woman they call ‘The Queen of The Streif’ herded pigs in the summer pastures as a young girl: now in her sixties, she cuts an unmistakable figure in traditional Tyrolean traditional dress at breakfast.

Up every day at six, Signe rides up the first Hahnenkammbahn gondola for a coffee and a chat with the ski-patrollers. Then she launches herself down the Streif which she herself has completed in just four minutes — the course record is an incredible 1:51.58.

She even offers tourists the chance to ski part of the Streif with her if they’re brave enough.

Austrian hospitality and traditional cuisine is at the hotel’s heart, where my Tyrolean-style room looks directly out to the famous mountain and finish line of the Streif.

The delicious locally-sourced menu features specialities such as creamy risotto of asparagus with braised tomatoes and wild garlic froth, and Arctic char with grilled asparagus, lovage gnocchi and sauce béarnaise. The cellar has 300 wines to sample too.

The hotel — motto, “warm, Tyrolean, genuine... 365 days a year, we look forward to seeing you” — offers ski-in, ski-out, sledging, snowshoeing or walking. In the summer, the slopes turn into meadows blanketed with alpine flowers.

Activities include electric biking, hiking, or yoga. They have their own nine-hole golf course, indoor and outdoor pools, and the medieval town is a 10-minute stroll away.

With snow on the ground, I take the 3S cable car which bridges the Saukaser valley to connect the skiing areas of Kirchberg and Resterhöhe.

High winds and heavy snowfall encourage an early lunch at the Berghaus Tirol mountain hut on the Hahnenkamm-Pengelstein where I enjoy spinach dumplings washed down with a glass of Zweigelt red wine and an Apfelstrudel dessert — typical Austrian cuisine at its best.

There’s time for pampering at the mountain’s foot, at the elegant five-star Hotel Kempinski in Jochberg. With its three saunas, 12 treatment rooms, a steam bath and heated outdoor jacuzzi, there’s no better antidote to tired limbs — although it would take more than a few hours of relaxing before I’d attempt the Streif.

I’ll leave that to the 60-something locals.


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