Exhilarating ski slopes, rolling meadows and a pulsating après ski nightlife - Geetanjali Krishna explores the Kitzbuhel blend.
It’s late in the evening. The black and white cows grazing on gentle hills look like they’ve been painted on the alpine landscape. The unexpectedly bright summer sun seems like it hasn’t moved for hours. Though the gentle mountains and meadows give me a queer sense of having been transported to the sets of The Sound of Music, the hills don’t seem to be alive with anything at all. Then it happens. A flaming red open-top Maserati comes roaring down the empty road. It turns with a monstrous vroom into an arched gateway through which we espy an ancient cathedral. We follow the car, peep inside the arch and our impression of Kitzbuhel undergoes a sea change —beyond it is a cobblestone street packed with cafes and bars, tables full of people spilling out on the pavement. All around are pathways for a triathlon in progress. The locals are out in full force to cheer the athletes with ever-brimming tankards of beer. The contrast between the unearthly peace we’d recently experienced and this bustling après ski enjoyment of life is so stark that we have to sit to take it in. So we find chairs in a pavement cafe, and look at the town through the comforting froth atop our beer glasses.
That’s Kitzbuhel for you. A small town in the Tyrolean Alps, it is surrounded by such magnificent glaciers and ski slopes that its annual Hahnenkahm ski race is amongst the toughest in the world. It’s also the playground of the rich, known as much for its après ski nightlife and luxurious homes as for its ski slopes and pistes. With haute nightclubs and casinos hidden behind medieval arches, and flanked on opposite sides by towering peaks Kitzbuhelerhorn and Hahnenkahm, its curious blend of sophistication and serenity makes this Austrian town great fun to explore.
Kitzbuhel is a fabulous skiing destination for all seasons. Although it is at a relatively low elevation, it is top-of-the-heap in a country filled with top-tier ski resorts. Visitors can choose from no less than seven separate ski areas, and over 359 spectacular gondolas and ski lifts to reach them. In winter, they say the sight of the world’s best skiers on the “Streif” run on the Hahnemkamm hitting speeds of around 140 km per hour is so spectacular that over 50,000 turn up to watch! Certain parts of this piste are so steep they can’t be groomed by machines (instead, brave and probably half-frozen Austrian soldiers stomp the surface with their boots).
I hear in a chance conversation that the famous artist Alfons Walde, whose alpine landscapes were inspired by Kitzbuhel, had a, shall we say. spirited role in conceptualising the first cable car in town. The story goes that one evening Walde was having a drink with Franz Reisch, a local keen on what was then called snowshoe sport. In high spirits, the men were ruing the necessary but backbreaking trek up before that exhilarating ski slalom downhill. If only there were cable cars to take people to the top, Kitzbuhel’s snowy slopes would attract a lot of tourists, they thought. Unlike most plans made in high spirits in pubs, this one miraculously saw the light of day. In the winter of 1893, Reisch became the first to ski down Kitzbuhel’s slopes, kickstarting its ski boom. In summer, when the lower reaches of the glaciers are covered with grass and alpine flowers, the hikes are excellent. So a century after the two men sketched out their far-fetched plan, cable cars continue to ferry skiers, hikers and tourists in all seasons.
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We remember them, while ascending almost 4,000 meters to the Kitzbuhelerhorn peak. With pine-scented slopes, sheer drops to the valley below and picturesque vistas of glaciers all around, it’s almost too pretty to be true. But as we step out of the cable car, reality bites. While temperatures at the Kitzbuhel cable station were a comfortable 18° C, it’s barely 7° C at the top, and windy to boot. But we forget the cold as we walk through the Alpenblumengarten, a garden bursting with flowers. The Edelweiss winks at us from under a rocky outcrop, while gentians, primulas and daisies wave gently.
The next day, heading to the Kittsteinhorn glacier, we ensure we’re prepared for the cold before we go forth to the cable station near Zell Am See, a few miles off Kitzbuhel. Changing cars halfway, we exclaim over snow dusting the slopes like icing sugar on cake, and layer up. Imagine our surprise, when, on top of the glacier, 3,029 meters above sea level, snow as far as the eyes can see, we espy Nordic god-types skiing bare-chested in the sun! Inexplicably flushed, I find myself shedding a few layers too…
Back in Kitzbuhel after a day on the glacier, we’re ready for some après ski action. Although the streets are populated with Ferraris, Jaguars, Porsches and other swanky rides, Kitzbuhel is best sampled on foot. As the summer sun lingers until late, it’s rather nice to sip one’s drinks outdoors, basking in sunlight. Lulled by wine and some great rock music, we decide to amble across to The Londoner, arguably one of the hippest hangouts here. But we are deafened by the pub’s liveliness even as we stand outside. We beat a hasty retreat back to our quiet table in Kitzbuhel’s old quarter. As dusk turns to twilight, we ask the bartender how Kitzbuhel got its name and unwittingly start a mini-war of sorts. One faction says the town is named after the chamois kid goat, Kitz in German. To prove their point, they direct us to an arch sculpture of a prancing kid goat near the main town square. Another faction swears that Kitzbuhel is named in honour of a nobleman Chizzo who lived here at the turn of the first millennium. To prove their point, they point us in the direction of Gasthouse Chizzo (a local restaurant serving Austrian cuisine) and an al fresco pub, just called Chizzo.
Which of the stories is true? I don’t know. But we somehow land up in this al fresco pub and raise many toasts to the memory of the long-gone Chizzo and to the continued good health of the kid goats that pepper Kitzbuhel’s bucolic slopes even today.