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Austria Skiing's Birthplace


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The city of Innsbruck has been blessed with an embarrassment of both natural and manmade riches, as well as plenty of good fortune in the course of 13 centuries. This Tyrolean capital’s car-free downtown is packed with elegant Baroque and Gothic architecture, and you’re likely to hear a half-dozen languages as you walk its enviable streetscape of museums, shops and cafes. These urban attractions are surrounded by a mountain spectacle of craggy peaks, picture-perfect pastures and fast-moving streams (Innsbruck means “bridge over the River Inn”).

Six ski resorts with dozens of lifts enclose Innsbruck, including the nearby steeps of the Seegrube-Nordkette, where locals sneak in a few turns at lunch when there’s enough snow, and the Stubai Glacier, which is open year-round. It also offers the world-class winter-sport facilities necessary to host the Winter Olympic Games, which it did in 1964-when Billy Kidd and Jimmie Heuga put U.S. men’s ski racing on the map-and then again in 1976.

This means that if you prefer ski history to the slightly eerie Black Fellows statue collection in the Imperial Church, you can visit the Olympic Museum instead. Or grab a flag and some gluwein and join tens of thousands of fans at the annual World Cup ski-jumping tourney at the Olympic complex just south of the city limits. If you’d rather participate than spectate, try the four-man bob at Igls, check out the ice-skating stadium or haul butt on the seven-mile toboggan track above Birgitz.

You could call Innsbruck a ski town, but that would be an understatement-a little like identifying Austrian hero Franz Klammer, who laid down the sport’s most electrifying run ever to win the 1976 Olympic downhill on the Patscherkofel above town, as merely a “skier.” There may not be a mountain town like it in the world-Grenoble, France, perhaps?-and there certainly isn’t one in North America. Think Lake Placid, N.Y., which also hosted two Olympics, but 20 times the size, with bigger mountains and a 1,000-year head start on perfecting cultured mountain living.

So if you want powder in the morning, super-sized world-class sightseeing in the afternoon and inspired dining well into the evening, you’ve come to the right place. Innsbruck is the only major city in Austria with the Alps at its front and back doors, and that’s just a start. As a sophisticated city of 130,000, including 30,000 university students, it is similar-on paper, at least-to a Burlington, Vt., or a Boulder, Colo., but with a much deeper past.

Innsbruck’s roots date to the eighth century, but things didn’t really get interesting until the mid-1400s, when Maximillian I, a Hapsburg, came along. Max I had time and money to burn before being tagged to run the Holy Roman Empire, and in Innsbruck, his adopted city, it shows. Staked by the region’s mining riches, he left behind too many monuments to count, but Goldenes Dachl (“Little Golden Roof”) is a must see. The late-Gothic wooden balcony is covered with 2,600 gilded copper shingles and overlooks the Old-Town square.

We stayed a few hundred feet away in the classically accommodating 600-year-old Goldener Adler. The dirndl-clad innkeeper and a local tourism official, both extremely hospitable, had arranged a dinner gathering, and the photographer from the local newspaper even stopped by to take a picture. We felt pretty special, until discovering in the guest log the names that preceded us, including Goethe, Mozart and Sartre.

Just more than two hours away, Saalbach-Hinterglemm is the Summit County, Colo., of the Tyrol. It doesn’t have the glitz or the pricey shopping of an Aspen or Vail (or St. Anton or Kitzbuehel). It does have great skiing (it skis bigger than Summit County’s four resorts combined), attractive villages, affordability and an unmistakable allure for families.

The villages of Saalbach and Hinterglemm sit two miles apart in a narrow valley, with slopes rising up on both sides. They’re connected by an efficient lift systtem, which also reaches out to a third town, Leogang, located one valley to the north. Saalbach is the most upscale, and it’s a delight to make the scenic ski journey north to Leogang. The entire region is packed with interesting blue cruisers but is light on steep terrain. Experts should try the runs under the Schattberg Seilbahn, Austria’s largest cable car. In spare snow years, head to the north-facing, snowmaking-covered slopes of Hinterglemm’s Zwolfer.

Saalbach-Hinterglemm’s finest asset may be its 40 on-mountain huts, all of which make you wonder why we don’t have these independently run gems in North America. On Saalbach’s north side, the Barnalm’s cozy interior and huge decks will make you want to stretch your lunch break into two or three hours. At Hinterglemm, the Sonnhoff and the umbrella bar at the summit of the Zwolfer gondola come highly recommended. My favorite is the off-piste Pfefferalm, which operates without electricity in a 300-year-old structure nestled into a hillside on a narrow, twisting sled track, 1,000 vertical feet above Hinterglemm. We skied down to it on our last run on our last day, and after a couple of heffeweisens and a plate of strudel, clicked back into our skis in the gloaming. The sparks from our edges hitting the occasional rock lit the steep descent back to town.

Besides its friendly, warm people, Austria is famous for offering the rowdiest après-ski scene in the Alps, and Saalbach may be its MVP. On my first visit there, for the World Alpine Ski Championships in 1991, I recall an industrious young Tyroler who was charging five schillings to guard tourists’ skis, all stacked up against a 300-year-old church. That allowed their owners, mostly Scandinavians and Germans, to attack après-ski at Bauer’s Skialm or the Zum Turn, housed in what was once a former medieval jail. Six hours later, I saw that the skis now went unguarded as the visitors continued to party, still clad in ski boots and one-piece suits, into the morning. Inside Bauer’s, shielding my ears from the loud Europop, I noticed the bartenders all had custom keys to turn off the kegs so the customers wouldn’t serve themselves.

Combining Saalbach-Hinterglemm and Innsbruck in one visit makes for an interesting trip. Most visitors to the Tyrolean capital may prefer to stick to the nearby Innsbruck ski resorts or make day-trips to better-known St. Anton, only two hours away, or to Kitzbuehel, 90 minutes away. Likewise, those headed to Saalbach may opt to travel to or through Salzburg, which is closer. Convenience aside, a visit to Innsbruck and Saalbach allows a glimpse into two very different-and special-worlds of the Tyrol. And you’ll be treated like royalty in both.