Adopted by Altenmarkt
In this picturesque Alpine village at the heart of Austrian ski culture, two guests from Vienna felt like friends of the family
At its best, people say, Austrian hospitality is luxurious yet also familiar and with a friendliness that seems instinctive rather than trained.
Our stay at the Hotel Schartner in Altenmarkt near Salzburg wasn’t a holiday, exactly – it was an adoption: We were the ones adopted. Eldest son Bernhard greeted us with a smile at the reception. Middle son Christian, a professional photographer whose images decorate the walls of the hotel, guided us around the best spots of the extensive Ski Amadé region. When we arrived back from the slopes, father Bernhard senior cooked up a gourmet four course meal in a dining room paneled by timber from his own carpentry and joined us for a post-prandial glass of wine and chin-wag about local history, culture and gossip. His Greek wife Christina indulged us with a digestif of ouzo from her home village and then we wandered in for a night-cap at the bar, served by the youngest son and budding musician Johnny. And then, late in the early morning hours the ever smiling daughter, an art graduate, served us breakfast.
The hotel itself is divided into two buildings separated by large landscaped garden, deeply snow-laden in winter, brightly lit by fir trees and centered by a timbered Alpine hut where once a week Bernhard senior gets out his accordion and treats the guests to an evening of riotous Pongau ‘culture’ involving a large amount of Schnapps and a bizarre instrument called the Teufelsgeige or ‘devil’s violin’ - a sort of tambourine on a stick. In the early evening, you can look out over this garden of wintry Kitsch as you lie outside on the snow in a deckchair with stream rising in great clouds off your body and into the night sky as you cool off from an invigorating sauna. The spacious cabin of the sauna is lined with dark brown weather-beaten wood taken from the walls of derelict farm Alpine farmhouses.
This really is the heartland of Austrian ski culture. Michael Walchhofer, the reigning Downhill World Cup holder, lives in the house next door to the Hotel Schartner and owns a hotel in his home village of Zauchensee, a ten minute winding drive on road lined by fir trees to a high cul-de-sac in the valley. From there you can ski over to Klein Arl where Austria’s most successful female champion Anne-Marie Pröll still runs a hut. Iconic Olympic gold medalist Hermann Maier, meanwhile, still lives in the neighboring village of Flachau, where his family runs a ski school.
The best skiing in the resort is around Zauchensee, which is still a quiet hamlet exuding an atmosphere of rural calm despite the explosion of the winter sports industry. The little huddle of hotels is surrounded on three sides by some challengingly steep runs, each with gentler variations for the less experienced skiers. To connect from there with Klein Arl, which is even quieter, you have to ski down to Flachauwinkel, an unromantic stop on the Tauern motorway that connects Salzburg with Villach, and then take an eccentric ride on a sort of tractor-drawn wheeled wooden train that takes you underneath the motorway.
Maier’s village Flachau, a five-minute drive from Altenmarkt, is the brash big brother of the resort, with busy, flat pistes and a roaringly boozy après-ski scene, but from there you can connect with quieter Wagrain on long, wide and steeper runs serviced by gondola cable cars. From the bottom of those slopes, it is a quick bus ride across to the Greifenberg and Alpendorf area where you are likely to find the best snow in the area. Then, finally there is an area that connects Altenmarkt itself with nearby Radstadt, a ski area with a distinctly old-fashioned atmosphere, complete, for the moment at least, with an ancient two-man chairlift with a timber-landing ramp that recalls the early pioneering days of bringing mass tourism to the Alps.
All in all there are 270 lifts and more than enough skiing to make you really deserve that sauna and opulent dinner. You can ski up to 10,000 meters of altitude in a full day and rarely take the same lift twice.
New lifts are being planned to connect the different areas without the need for buses - with cables set to run high above the sleepy villages. Perhaps that would be a shame. The odd drive or bus ride seem to have saved the area around Altenmarkt from becoming just another Disney Land of Austrian mountain culture. While the package tours head to more internationally renowned resorts of Kitzbühel, St. Anton and Saalbach- Hinterglemm, the Ski Amadé region seems like a true skier’s resort, popular above all with Austrian skiers and other than certain areas of Flachau, is more about fresh air than booze or fur coats.
Above all Altenmarkt, where the famous ski manufacturer Atomic is based, feels like a living, working Alpine small town – exactly the sort of place where you might find the unpretentious luxury of the Hotel Schartner, where the guests, drawn by word of mouth rather than glossy brochures, feel like friends of the family. It’s Austrian hospitality at its very best.
5541 Altenmarkt in Pongau