The best view from the Hotel Theresa was not the spectacular panorama of Alpine peaks out the back (though they were truly breathtaking...
The best view from the Hotel Theresa was not the spectacular panorama of Alpine peaks out the back (though they were truly breathtaking as I gazed at them, over my toes, from the outdoor hot pool each evening at sunset).
No, the view I couldn’t get enough of was on the other side of the hotel, from a third-floor balcony overlooking the village of Zell am Ziller. Below was a flesh-and-blood diorama of domestic life in a tiny Austrian mountain town: a little Playmobil-style train that trundled by every few minutes; timber frame barns and wholesome Holsteins; a schoolyard full of kids.
It’s this twinning of down-home setting and world-class skiing that is the special charm of Austria’s Zillertal, a valley in a deep fold of the Tyrolean Alps an hour south of Innsbruck.
The Zillertal is a place where the keen schuss of the slopes is followed by the mellow hush of the hills, which are alive with little more than the soothing clank of cowbells and the hiss of glacier melt tumbling down the Ziller River. It’s the Lost Horizon with strudel. Shangri-lederhosen.
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One late morning, squinting through the steam of a cup of fine Vienna-style hot chocolate, I watched students pour from the school. They had book bags and ski boots, the uniform of Zell students during the blessed snowy months.
Some had snowboards, marking the limits of tradition even in these time-forgotten crannies. Most of the youngsters disappeared into the village’s winding lanes, but a dozen peeled off to board the train pulling up to the little station in front of the hotel.
That tram defines the winter experience in the Zillertal, a kind of grand shopping mall of ski resorts. The train, free to ski-pass holders, links a string of gondola stations along the valley, portals to four major ski areas and three smaller ones.
Within one 20-minute ride are more than 170 lifts feeding more than 390 miles of downhill trails. Imagine jamming Vail, Steamboat, Telluride and Whistler into a 32-mile valley and connecting them by a free and efficient public transit line.
For tourists, that means the ski op of a lifetime. For Zillertal teens, it just means another chance to get in a few lunchtime runs before the geometry quiz.
Skiing is so big to Austrians that it is nothing at all, something you do before work or when a meeting is canceled. Keep the boots in your locker; meet for lunch on the slopes.
Austrian boys take the gondola up from one village and ski down to visit Austrian girls in another. No wonder they kick our butts in the Winter Olympics every four years. The Zillertal breeds skiers the way Texas grows bull riders.
Sampling the slopes
Sampling the slopes
This trip would be my first time on serious snow since a near-death fall in Telluride two years earlier, an out-of-control slide of more than a quarter-mile down a steep sheet of black diamond ice. I wasn’t sure how I would face my first runs on the slopes that had produced Franz Klammer.
The ski areas operate as a consortium, letting you buy tickets for one or all in various day-pass combinations. I went for the most flexible, the $305 Super Ski Pass, a smart card that gave me scan-and-go privileges on every gondola and lift at every ski area for five days.
I rode up to the biggest park, Zillertal Arena, which is also closest to Zell. A bus, stopping at the Theresa dropped me at the gondola station in three minutes. I was at the top of the first run within half an hour of pushing away from my hotel’s breakfast table.
The gondola network around the Zillertal is an attraction unto itself. The gondolas string around the valley like flying mass transit, skimming over treetops, crevasses and even glaciers. Some are four-seaters, some eight.
On the very steep slopes, I saw a lot of very fast skiers, blurry figures in tight Austrian tucks. And those were just the little kids. (On another day, on a course rated for racers only, I saw a skier travel faster than I have ever seen a human go who wasn’t trying to get into a department store on the day after Thanksgiving.)
But I breathed easier to see plenty of moderate alternatives as well: wide and winding trails with family groups, and snowboarders enjoying less radical runs. I would find the Alps laced with all manner of trails, from training-wheel greens to suicide blacks and plenty of just-right grades in between.
Only in one place did I feel outmatched by any of the available routes down, and that was at the top of Hintertux, a glacier park at the very highest reaches of the Zillertal. I rode the gondola down from that one, sheepish but alive.
The network is so vast, it was easy to spend all day up high on the ski slopes, breaking for lunch at one of the warming hut restaurants where Austrian oompah-pop music blared over the decks, not touching the valley floor again until the last minutes of sun marked the ski day’s end.