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Alpine Idylls: Alpbach and Galtür
In Hemingway’s Footsteps, These Tyrolean Villages Offer Ski Alternatives

As dusk descends upon the cemetery in this tiny Tyrolean village, the night is brightened by rows of red candles over the graves. The candles, lit each day by surviving family members, are a tradition that has survived here for centuries.

Skiing is another time-honored activity in the largely undeveloped Alpbach valley. Thanks to strict architectural controls, Alpbach has escaped the wrenching changes that have transmogrified many European ski resorts into collections of condominiums and parking lots.

Located in the eastern Tyrol near the Winter Olympics city of Innsbruck, Austria, this village of 2,000 people retains its rural character in a valley where farming lives harmoniously with a small but sophisticated tourist trade. In addition to its prize-winning status as "Austria's prettiest village," Alpbach has a reputation for good skiing and warm hospitality to English-speaking visitors, most of them British.

Alpbach slopes Church Paraglider
A snowboarder samples the
slopes above Alpbach.

[Photo: Jay Corvan]
The 15th-century church
dominates the tiny village
[Photo: Gregory Dennis]
A pagaglider soars
aloft over Alpbach.

[Photo: Gregory Dennis]

Defying European Skiing Skepticism

Most American skiers, discouraged by Europe's unpredictable snow conditions and unfavorable exchange rates, have long looked to North American resorts for their winter vacations. But resorts like Alpbach and Galtür -- another traditional village in the Tyrol that was a favorite of writer Ernest Hemingway's -- offer lower prices and, thanks to snowmaking and geography, reliable snow.

While not destination resorts in their own regard, both Galtür and Alpbach are near much larger ski areas. Either makes an excellent addition to a European ski vacation. Alpbach is near many other ski areas around Innsbruck and Kitzbuhel, while Galtür is not far from the well-known St. Anton and Lech.

Alpbach skiing features snowfields above timberline, with lower trails descending through forests along a vertical drop that exceeds most resorts in the eastern United States.

Twenty-one lifts, including a speedy gondola, climb from four separate valley sites connected by free, semi-reliable bus service. Snowmaking helps assure good snow from December through March, though conditions at lower elevations may be patchy during low-snow seasons. The best accommodations are found near the village cemetery and 15th-century church. Restaurants often feature local game and trout, and there are several cozy pubs for après-ski drinks.

Valley at Galtur
On "Ski Safari", a day-long, multi-valley tour from Galtür - {Photo: Gregory Dennis)

Barrel-stave Skiing

Galtür, in another Tyrolean valley dominated by a Matterhorn-like peak known as the Ballunspitze, also reflects many of the old ways. Galtür has fewer ski slopes than Alpbach; but in low-snow years or late in the season, Galtür is a good bet for reliable conditions because of its high alpine setting. Galtür attracts day skiers from the larger, nearby resort of Ischgl, along with Germans who come for a week of downhill skiing, long walks and cross-country skiing along the valley's well-maintained trails.

Skiing at Galtur
Skiing beneath the peaks at Galtür - [Photo: Gregory Dennis]

Although Galtür has more new buildings than Alpbach, daily life still revolves around a village center dominated by an old church. Galtür's nine lifts and relatively modest ski slopes are a couple of miles from the town center via impressively regular bus service.

Ski Safari Lunch
Skiers on the "Ski Safari" enjoy a break
for lunch and schnapps at the Piz Buin
Hotel, near where Ernest Hemingway
[Photo: Gregory Dennis]
For a sample of the surrounding mountains and valleys, try the day-long "ski safari" run by the ski school every Thursday. Led by a guide, the safari makes a five-mile-long descent on skis via a backwoods trail into the next valley. From there it ascends another peak by cable car, then takes a van on roads through old mining shafts to the spectacularly situated Piz Buin hotel. The hotel and restaurant are above a hut and high mountain lake used for ski touring in the 1920s by Hemingway, who wrote about the area in a short story called An Alpine Idyll. After lunch and a sampling of local schnapps or beer, the safari returns to the Galtür lifts, having circumnavigated the Ballunspitze.

As in Alpbach, nightlife in Galtür revolves around a handful of comfortable pubs and restaurants. One hilariously lively exception is the staging of nighttime ski races in which participants wear barrel staves instead of skis. The staves are nearly impossible to turn, and the racers' desperate gyrations are a source of considerable amusement for the noisy crowd that gathers to witness the races, held every other week.

Like most other things in Galtür, the barrel-stave races can be reached by a short walk from the village center and church, which is also often lit by candles in the winter night.

Click here for details to plan your own ski adventure to Alpbach and Galtür, Austria

                      Gregory Dennis

Gregory Dennis is a travel writer and former ski instructor based in Encinitas, Calif. He has skied and snowboarded throughout North America and the Austrian Tyrol.

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