Skiing hones the senses. Biting cold on exposed flesh; shadows thrown by late-afternoon winter sun; snowflakes swirling like shoals of silverfish; the profound silence after a fall of powder. The exquisite clarity of a newly-discovered vista.
Certain places hold these memories in clear focus despite the hurly-burly of a travel writer’s existence. Galtür, a Tirolean village at the end of the Paznaun valley in Austria, never ceases to please.
There are spectres and ghosts here too if you dig into history. This tiny village of around 800 souls, descendants of Romansh people from the Swiss Engadin, Walser people from the province of Vorarlberg to the west, and Bavarian-Tirolean settlers from the east, has met with tragedy and seen giants. More on this later.
The skiing, a short way above the pretty village centre, starts at a respectable 1,600m and tops out at 2,295m on the ‘mini-Matterhorn’, the Ballunspitze. Once above the excellent beginner’s area, some serious runs are on offer. In typical Teutonic fashion, the pistes are numbered. None of your romantic nonsense to be had here. No ‘Chamois’ or ‘Edelweiss’ à la France. Just ‘9’ or ‘15’. Worth a special mention are two blacks -‘19’ and ‘6’- serious contenders in their own right but accessing goodly sections of off-piste. As always, local knowledge is best. My advice: take a guide. Your pleasure, and more importantly, safety, will be repaid a thousandfold.
Sometimes local knowledge counts for nothing. The forces of nature rule. On 23 February 1999, an avalanche 50m high and travelling at 290 kilometres per hour took less than 60 seconds to hit Galtür. 57 people, locals and visitors, were buried. Rescue was hampered by extreme conditions. 31 people died under 170,000 tons of snow. This, the worst avalanche toll in memory is remembered in the heart-breaking Alpinarium in the centre of the village.
An 11.00 (on the dot) heiße Schokolade is a bodily necessity for me, a pause to warm up, catch breath, and take stock. Perched on a shoulder above the village, the authentic Weiberhimml hut, bedecked with mountain artefacts, is the perfect mid-morning stop. The view down the valley toward distant Big Brother Ischgl is hefted between the very slopes that dumped death on the unwitting inhabitants below. This is the view that a certain E. Hemingway would have seen on his own ski forays around Galtür. He wrote a short story ‘An Alpine Idyll’ here, 28 years before winning the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1954. The pollen-free air and tranquillity attracted other future Nobel laureates before him.
Albert Einstein and his chum Erwin Schrödinger (no record of the cat) puzzled quantum mechanics here, perhaps over cups of hot chocolate. Both went on, paradoxically, to win Nobels in Physics. True giants, they fled the Nazis, via Galtür, into nearby neutral Switzerland.
My thoughts, not quite so lofty, turned back to the slopes. More exploring. There are runs that, in certain moments of time, certain conditions, certain companions, and a certain state of being, live forever in my mind. Number 8 is one of those. A proper red, it starts on a ridge just above the tree line, switch-backs down with some steepish drops, widening then narrowing, before revealing a view of such staggering perfection it is absolutely necessary to stop and gasp. Framed by flanking trees, distant mountains reflected in the surface, is Lake Kopsee, gin-clear in the rarefied air.
For those more at home on flatter terrain, a wide variety of cross-country trails snake alongside streams and up valleys. Young skiers have tuition on nursery slopes upon the gentle area dominated by the Hotel Almhof, which is where I took my lunch on their Panorama-Tenne terrace. Experience has taught me to ski hard, pause for the obligatory hot choc, ski hard again, then eat late: a table booked for 2.00 is ideal. Things are calmer after the midday rush.
The Almhof is über-traditional: Groestl (roasted potatoes, bacon, and onions topped off with a fried egg); Speckknoedel (dumplings with pieces of bacon); Kaesespaetzle (spaetzli…noodles…sautéed with a variety of mountain cheeses, garnished with fried onions) and so on. The more daring plump (I use the word advisedly) for fondue with cheese produced by Hermann and Patrick Huber on the nearby Faulbrunnalm. Zero carbon footprint, just hoof prints. By this time belts have been loosened, kaffee taken, and a schnapps sipped – for the digestion – and any further serious skiing is impossible.
Next day I caught the bus in the village heading for the bright lights of Ischgl, Galtür’s unholy twin, 9km and a million years away down-valley, my base for the next 2 nights and my next story.
Images (C) Michael Cranmer
TELL ME MORE ABOUT GALTŰR
GALTŰR, with a population of just under 800, is at the head of the Paznaun valley at 1600m and has 10 lifts and 49km of groomed pistes
The village has a family focus for holidaymakers with the majority of the 4,000 guest beds in apartments and private houses, but the range extends to 4* and 4* superior hotels
SKIPASS: the best value ski pass to explore Galtür and the neighbouring resorts of Ischgl, Kappl and See, is the Area Flexipass, allowing 4 days in one resort and 2 in any of the others; the adult Flexipass is from €275 for 6 days with the local guest card, which is given to visitors staying in the valley.
The nearest airport is Innsbruck, just 90 minutes by road. with BA and easyJet running frequent flights from the UK