Nassfeld: Frontier Fantasies
Southern Carinthia has some of Austria’s favourite pistes, dedicated to snow sports and relaxation
I flung open the window to the balcony of my room in the Gartnerkofel hotel, breathed in the icy air, and peered out over a vast forest of heavily snow-laden trees.
It was like waking up in Narnia. The hotel is built at an altitude of 1500 m, so for the first time on a ski holiday I looked down rather than up, feeling like a smug prince.
The forest stretched out over waves of rounded hills into the distance towards the peaks of the High Tauern mountains. The border with Italy was just ten minutes walk in the opposite direction.
After ten years of fanatical skiing in Austria, this was my first expedition into the southern province of Carinthia, and I was wondering why it had taken me so long. Well actually I know why.
I’d associated the south with warm sun, and given that the lifts at Nassfeld rarely poke up above 2000 m, I’d assumed there would be little snow.
As if to punish me for my prejudice, the Carinthian skies were unfolding in generous waves of white when local guide Walter met me outside the hotel that morning to show me the highlights of Nassfeld’s 110 km of pistes.
Walter was a large muscular Carinthian, with a beard that was quickly frosting with snow and the baritone of a generously-lunged sergeant major:
"We have a microclimate here," he bellowed.
Above the mountains the moist air from the nearby Adriatic meets cold, continental air.
That means plentiful precipitation. Some of the farmers’ summer huts were buried up to the eaves in snow and the hiking trail’s signs were all but submerged.
The word "nass" means wet in German and Walter explained that this is no coincidence.
"If you look at the records from the 17th century, carpenters write of the need for extra strong roofs in this region; we’ve always had a lot of snow," he lectured, before darting off into the soft powder by the side of the piste.
Prosaically erudite, a proud Carinthian and a passionate skier, Walter was going to show me a good time.
On the lifts, he lectured me on the local fauna and flora including the Wulfenia, a flower found only in this cluster mountains or in a small area of Nepal, then, switching topics quickly, he told me about the best spots to find fresh powder as well as local Carinthian dumplings.
I like forested ski resorts. Even in a snowstorm you can always see well among the trees, and as they snake through the mountainside you really have the sense you are on a journey.
Our starting point was the Sonnenalpe Nassfeld, a cluster of high-alpine hotels such as the Gartnerkofel.
Just a few decades ago, Walter explained, there was nothing there but a customs building and a single Alpine Society.
From the Sonnenalpe, we embarked on a higgledypiggledy route that passed the picture-postcard settlement of Sonnleitn, a huddle of huts nestled on a summer grazing pasture.
The on-piste skiing was relatively easy, making Nassfeld a favourite for families, but there was an undulating and exhilarating black run under the Rastl gondola lift and an easily accessible free-ride area to the left of the Rudnigsattel draglift.
I loved the narrow connecting paths that saw us pass clusters of snowy-roofed farm buildings, holiday apartments and egg-shaped boulders.
Eventually we found ourselves speeding down an 8 km run from the rocky Zweikofel peak to the resorts main village Tröpolach at an altitude of just 600 m.
From there, the Millennium- Express lift, which claims to be the longest gondola lift in the world, whisks you back up the mountain.
It’s a long way and takes 17 minutes, but on Fridays language trainers pop in to the cabins to give skiers quick lessons in Carinthian dialect.
You’ll learn such essential words as "Pfiateich", which means "hello", or " Bussln", which, as every hopeful young man knows, means "little kisses".
If you remember the vocabulary, you are rewarded with a certificate at the top.
A less gimmicky innovation, perhaps, is the express ski service at the summit where, for the bargain price of €7, you can have your skis waxed and your edges sharpened in the time it takes to drink a cup of coffee.
For love of the sport
Nassfeld is the third most popular resort for Austrian skiers.
"They like it here because it’s about sport and relaxing," tourist director Kurt Genser told me over dinner that night back at the hotel.
Yet it is largely unknown in the English-speaking world. Many guests come the short way from Slovenia and Croatia, whose national youth team I’d seen training during the day.
Surprisingly only five per cent of Nassfeld’s guests come from Italy, but the proximity of the border was felt all the same at the dinner table.
The owner had bought fresh fish and seafood on the coast that morning, and I soon found myself surrounded by the detritus of my battles with the first fresh shrimps I’d tasted in months – a welcome relief from the standard ski-fodder of meat and doughy dumplings.
There’s not much après-ski in Nassfeld, which is fine for a party-pooper like me.
I’d spent the evening in a glass-fronted wooden sauna watching the fresh snow swirling in the roofs in the wind of dusk and the dark peaks slowly disappearing into the night.
A few nights of this, I thought, and I might end up feeling well. The next day the sun was out and the true splendour of Nassfeld was in full regalia.
The wind had been fierce during the night and the new snow had been sculpted into curved ledges like sand dunes in the Sahara.
Though much of the landscape is open, allowing for the panoramic views that locals call "Nassfeld’s cinema", the border area with Italy is lined with vertical weather-beaten crags that are reminiscent of the Dolomites.
I skied and I gawked. The Rosskofel, or Monte Cavallo – to use its more exotic Italian name – is only 2,240 m high but its long face of sheer rock eroded into crannies and wrinkles is as beautiful as anything you’re likely to see in the Dolomites.
The Gartnerkofel, for which my hotel was named, turned out to be a row of teeth and chimneys like a sand castle once run over by the incoming tide.
The triangular Trogkofel, riveted with gullies of snow, looks uncannily like the Paramount film emblem.
As all true travellers know, crossing borders is romantic, even when they are unmanned.
So I threw my skis on my shoulders and tramped a couple of hundred metres on a snow-clad road that skirted an iced-over lake until I reached the Albergo Wulfenia Livio Fedrigo.
I could tell I’d arrived in civilised Italy because the patrons had left the building to have a smoke.
Laying my skis on the side of the hut and slapping the snow off my trousers, I entered a fragrant world of wood oven pizzas, perfect espressos and views over the craggy mountains.
The sun was beating against the windowpanes, inviting me out for more skiing. Why had I waited so long to ski in the south?