Skiing in the Austrian Alps

Having grown up in the foothills of the Pacific Northwest Cascade mountains, I was spoiled when it came to skiing. My hometown was less than an hour’s drive from one of the larger ski resorts in Washington, and my Saturday mornings as a child were marked with ski lessons instead of cartoons. I’d never done a proper ski holiday before, unless you count a brief stay in the Czech Republic in 2012, so when a friend invited me to go skiing in the Alps this winter, I said yes.

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My friend Sebastian sits at the top of Glattjochbahn at the ski resort Brandnertal in western Austria. Perfect weather made for gorgeous mountain panoramas of the Alps.

2017-02-04-21.30.32.png.pngAfter doing some research on ski resorts accessible by public transportation, we settled on Brand, a ski village located in the very west of Austria near the border to Lichtenstein. Our trip was marked by sunny skies, vertigo-inducing gondola rides and near-empty slopes for two of the three days. The Alps provided a stunning backdrop to all of it.

Village life

It took two trains, a bus, and nine hours to get from Hamburg to the remote Austrian village. Laden with suitcases and ski gear, our plan to buy groceries when we arrived failed when we discovered the supermarkets in the nearest small town closed at six. Unfazed, we ate dinner at one of the restaurants in town.

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The main street of Brand, a small skiing village near the western border of Austria. The Alps make a stunning setting for this wintry town, and festive lights are up all winter.

The next morning we got up early, me to rent equipment and my friend to buy groceries before we hit the slopes. Grocery shopping was a dud. While the nearby town of Bludenz had several proper grocery stores, our mountain village had only a tiny bakery with maybe five vegetables and some assorted hygiene articles, all at outrageous prices. We bought some bread and some aged Austrian Bergkäse (mountain cheese) for breakfast.

Hitting the slopes

The ski resort was huge. Brandnertal has fifteen lifts: two gondolas, six chair lifts of all sizes, five old-school rope tows, and one enormous cable car to travel up and across the mountain. We made it our mission the first two days to cover as much ground as possible, and by the third day we had picked our favorite runs and just stuck to those.

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The view from one side of the cable car. The cable car traversed across a deep, tree-covered valley between two areas of the ski resort.

The trade-off in ski conditions is that you can either have fresh snow or nice weather, but very rarely both (and often neither). We had gorgeous weather with clear blue skies and sunshine every day, with the air temperature reaching 22 C/71 F during the day. There was no fresh snow, however, and since some of the runs were a bit icy, we stuck mostly to the groomed tracks.

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We took a few minutes to soak up some rays in these lounges.

Although I had been skiing approximately once in the past four years, it felt good to get back into ski boots and onto the mountain. Your muscles never forget. While the first day I was constantly aware of my form, chiding myself for not keeping my weight more forward or making smoother turns, by the second day skiing felt much more natural and I was able to enjoy it more. The downside of skiing multiple days in a row is that on the second day your muscles ache before you even get started, but even that wasn’t too bad.

Our first ski day was a Sunday, and the slopes were moderately crowded and the lifts all had lines. I was surprised at the Austrians’ poor lift etiquette. People cut in line, crowded each other, and despite ample time to organize, often failed to fill the lifts to capacity. But there was a huge difference from Sunday to Monday. None of the lifts had lines and they all ran intermittent empty chairs. The slopes were noticeably less crowded. Our second run down, we even had a slope to ourselves.

Skigebiet Brandnertal

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There are three main parts to the Brandnertal ski resort, and it is easy to travel between them by ski or by lift. Our accommodation was a short walk from the middle part, serviced by the gondola called Dorfbahn. Our favorite part to ski was at the ski area’s highest point, Glattjoch. From the top of Dorfbahn, you take the six-seater lift Gulmabahn up higher, ski a short ways over and down, and take a third lift, Glattjochbahn, to the very top. This lift is at 2000 meters above sea level, or 6,560 feet. My favorite run was run number 9, medium-difficult and reachable from this lift, which took you around the corner to the other side of the peak and down a steep valley before flatting out and becoming a pleasant trail which ran through trees and past a lake.

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A crowd of people wait to get on the cable car, an enormous car nearly the size of a bus that traverses across the mountain. Seilbahn, Pendelbahn or Panoramabahn in German.

The first day, we skied all day. We took one of the last lifts to the top, then took a particularly long cat track that traversed across the mountain (run number 25) and all the way down to the bottom until we wound up on the main street. Conveniently, the base of the Dorfbahn gondola also had a depot where you could drop your equipment off at the end of the day and change your shoes, so you didn’t have to walk across town in your ski boots.

Austrian Cuisine

Although we had had the best intentions to cook for ourselves, we wound up eating out a lot during the trip. My friend was eager to eat Käsespätzle, his favorite Austrian dish, which is a sort of noodle bake not unlike macaroni and cheese. Although we wanted to make it ourselves, the local grocery store was lacking the key ingredient of parsley, and the price of pepper was positively insolent, so we ordered it at multiple different restaurants instead and compared.

Disappointingly, the handful of restaurants in this tiny Austrian village didn’t have a great selection of vegetarian food. We wound up eating at the same restaurant every single night, the Mühlebach Pub Cafe, which had a few different vegetarian dishes. One night we tried to go to go to the restaurant Dorfschenke across the street, but, although the place was half-empty, the wait staff told us we needed a reservation, so we returned to our favorite once again.

There were just as many restaurants on the mountain as in the village (around 10). They were all different and each had their distinct style and charm, and varied as well in terms of how fancy they were. My favorite was probably Melkboden, located at the top of the Dorfbahn gondola, because we got to sit on a balcony facing the sun and it was warm enough that I could take my jacket off and each lunch in a t-shirt.

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Lunch with a view. One day we had lunch on the sun-soaked back balcony of Melkenboden, a restaurant located at the top of the Dorfbahn gondola. It was so warm took off my jacket.
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Restaurant Goona was much more spacious, modern, and was more of a self-serve cafeteria than restaurant with waiters.

Right nearby was restaurant Goona, which had a spacious interior, modern design, and an indoor fireplace. Loud pop music was playing while we were there. We also checked out restaurant Fuchsbau, on the far side of the mountain, which was playing loud Austrian Schlager music (think Oktoberfest, oom-pah oom-pah) and had waitresses in Dirndl and Lederhosen. Since Fuchsbau was full, we skiied down to the next one, Rufana Alp, which had good food but slow service. We also stopped briefly at restaurant Frood, but decided against eating there because it seemed too fancy – think salmon and champagne.

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Lunch break! Abandoned skis sit outside of Restaurant Goona in the early afternoon.

Why we decided to rent an apartment (instead of book a hotel)

Our accommodation was a Ferienwohnung, or a rented apartment. We decided on an apartment instead of a hotel because it was bigger, we’d have the opportunity to cook for ourselves, and it had a bathtub. We went with Haus Abina, which turned out to be a large house with maybe a half-dozen large studio apartments and one penthouse suite.

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Haus Abina Apartments

A friendly woman with a thick Austrian accent met us when we arrived, gave us the key, and gave us some pointers for around town. The apartment was cozy and pleasant, spacious, and well-furnished, with a small kitchen, separate bathroom, and an enormous window overlooking a snowy pasture which supposedly had horses.We even had a little balcony, which I assume is pleasant in summer.

For visitors who prefer privacy, more space, and don’t mind cooking their own breakfast and making their own bed, I can definitely recommend a Ferienwohnung over a hotel, and our experience with Haus Abina was excellent – and at a good price.

Not just for skiers – other winter sports at Brandnertal

20170124_193512.jpgSki Resort Brandnertal turned out to not just be a place for skiing and snowboarding, but also for cross-country skiing, snowshoeing, hiking, and sledding (more on sledding in a bit). While this was nice, it was also a bit odd to share the slopes with snowshoers, and it felt a bit dangerous at times having sleds traverse the ski slopes. Still, it’s nice that they offered so many winter sports.

Towards the right-hand side of the mountain, near the Einhornbahn, we even saw a wellness hotel right on the mountain itself. From the ski lift, I could see into the windows of a spa where some people in swimsuits were laying on lounge chairs. I waved at them from the lift. They waved back.

The sled ride from hell (I’m never doing that again)

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Me on a Rodelbahn (luge) in southern Germany on a school exchange trip in 2009. Aren’t I having fun?

My friend turned out to be an avid sledding fan, and he had expressed some mild regret that we were only staying three days and wouldn’t have time to go sledding. So when we saw a sign advertising night-time sledding on Tuesday nights, we thought, what a perfect way to end the trip!

Now, I was a bit nervous about sledding, not in the least because I had tried going on a Rodelbahn the first time I traveled to Germany and I fell off every single time. But my friend assured me it would be fine…

No. It was NOT fine. It was scary, and out of control, and dark, and cold, and I think I am traumatized for life now. I trudged back to our apartment after one run, grumpy and cold, and recorded this five-minute rant about the sledding experience, and why I will not be repeating it anytime soon. Enjoy 😉

 

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