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It's the end of afternoon in Alpbach and the first song to accompany a cold beer on the little terrace at the foot of the Wiedersberghornbahn is either by or about "die Mallorca cowboys". I can't be sure which. My German hasn't quite reached cruising speed yet. Anyway, it’s part of one of those raucous compilations that used to have you dancing on the table in ski boots, full of more Jägertee than you care to remember. Maybe it would still get you up and rocking, for all I know. It's music for packed bars full of alcohol fumes and bosom buddies you've just met. Except the bars here are not packed.
A little later my wife and I duck under the plastic insulation into an outdoor pool. The light is fading on the mountains, there is new snow heavy on the boughs and on the railings of the Japanese style bridge in the surrounding garden, a bridge shaped like Monet's at Giverny. Steam rises into the chilly evening air. It is magical. We are the only ones there. It seems so like the preserve of a private, exotic villa that I resolve the greet the first person to emerge from the hotel spa complex with the words "Ah, Mr Bond, we have been expecting you". But nobody materialises.
It is not always this quiet. For a couple of weeks immediately after the festive season pistes and restaurants - save at weekends - are rarely crowded. But the tourist office in this prettiest of Austrian ski villages concedes that locals, including people from Munich, across the border in Germany, have been lured away by other, larger ski areas. So this winter they have opened a new gondola lift linking Inneralpbach with Auffach, beyond the Schatzberg in another valley, the Wildschonau, whose best known resort is Niederau. They've called the combined area the Ski Juwel, or Ski Gem.
Alpbach alone, long a ski training centre for the British army, has probably been somewhat underrated. With the new link, whose £11 million cost was shared between the two connected valleys, it has become a destination truly to be reckoned with. Most British leisure skiers, particularly those with a nostalgia for cosy mountain restaurants serving local specialities such as Graukassuppe (a soup made of grey cheese, so called because of the mould it develop so) would happily spend a week here without getting bored. I for one, as I grow older, am less attracted by countless kilometres of motorway skiing. The terrain here is acceptably varied I and the views of the Wilder Kaiser, the Hohe Salve and the Kitzbüheler Horn, are magnificent.
The new link has two drawbacks, however. First, there is only one, steepish intermediate run - which clearly tends to ice - back to the middle station. And second, you can't ski on piste at all below that mid station. Objections from farmers with meadows below prevented the cutting of an official run to the valley floor.
We are staying six kilometres from the centre of Alpbach, near the quiet village of Reith, in the four star Hotel Pirchnerhof - which is used by UK tour operator Crystal Ski. To reach the ski runs - unless you have a car - you need to take the hotel shuttle, the public Post bus or a combination of both. It might sound tedious but the plus side is the tranquility of the place. There is hardly any traffic. From our balcony we can watch horses cantering in a snow covered field further along the valley, sharp black silhouettes against the white.
On our first morning snow is falling but there is still a little ice beneath the powder on some of the more heavily used runs from the Gmahkopf. The Albach ski area is not especially high. The Gmahkopf is at a fairly modest 1900 metres. We transfer our attention to the Hornbahn lift, which takes us to a black run starting 100 metres or so higher. Only a handful of skiers and boarders seem to have disturbed the fresh snow. This is superb skiing. Next day the sun shines brightly. We take the new gondola and ski down to Auffach on lovely, broad red runs. We lunch at a restaurant called the Gipfö Hit, which is local dialect for Gipfel Hütte, or summit hut. I succumb to the suggestion of a traditional Wildschönau Brezel Suppe - pretzels soaked in broth and covered with cheese. After that it's ski or lie down and snore. I wouldn't crawl over broken glass to eat it again but hey - such specialities are what skiing in Austria is al about.
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