Ischgl: A Smuggler’s Paradise
In the middle of ski season, our plague-ridden correspondent tries to relax in one of the highest-octane spots in the Alps
Spring skiing can be the finest of the year. When the sun’s growing warmth turns the hardened early morning snow into softened meadows of glistening corn crystals, you can effortlessly swish down the mountain before lingering over lunch on the wooden terraces of the mountain huts. After the long months of thermal underwear, it’s now time for dolce vita skiing. But to avoid the slush, with its melancholy atmosphere of decay, you do need to get high up on the mountains.
In Austria, you can’t get much higher than the resort of Ischgl. At 1,400 metres, the village itself is fairly lofty and from its centre, two swift gondola lifts converge on the Idalp, which is the gateway to the vast bowls of snow below the Greitspitz and Palinkopf. Here you can ski all day and barely dip below the 2,000 m mark, enjoying good ski conditions while crocuses are beginning to sprout in the valley below.
One of the quirks of skiing in Ischgl is that you can cross the border into Switzerland and ski down to the tax haven of Samnaun. Feeling a bit like a smuggler, you can get great deals on jewellery, perfume and fine Swiss chocolates. But be aware, for gin and tobacco, all the normal quotas apply and border officials on skis might occasionally ask to check your Rucksack. The route down to Switzerland via Alp Trida offers relaxed, gentle skiing and some of the Swiss huts, such as the space-age glass fronted Restaurant Salaas, serve traditional cheese fondue. On a sunny day the views over the jagged peaks of the Silvretta mountain range are spectacular – although being high above the tree-line means when the clouds close in you see precious little.
The Ibiza of the Alps
It was the promise of all this expansive high altitude skiing that had drawn me to the Paznaun valley, but Ischgl, often nicknamed "the Ibiza of the Alps", is also a party town with the rather challenging motto of "Relax... if you can."
The huge open-air concerts on the Idalp at the beginning of the season and again in April are internationally renowned and free for anyone who’s bought a ski-pass. Past seasons have included Sting, Pink, Rihanna, Mariah Carey and Kylie Minogue, and this year, ageing British rock legends Deep Purple have been booked.
Daniele Sauer, of the local tourism office, is proud of Ischgl’s vibrancy: "People come to have fun, there’s nothing wrong with that." But the resort has suffered a bit of an image problem after a series of television documentaries depicted a rowdy and often frighteningly boozy après ski scene.
"It’s unfair," complains Daniele. "Nothing goes on here that doesn’t go on in other resorts, but the media always seems to portray us in a certain light."
Recovering from a bout of glandular fever, I was hardly in the party mood, but I traipsed around the main street when the lifts closed and again after dinner, looking for scandal. Instead, I found a series of sweaty bars, from the timbered Champagne Bar (not as glamorous as it sounds), the double-decker Trofana Alm, and Niki’s Stadl. In all of them I found lots of red-faced people, mostly over 30, having plenty of unembarrassed and good-humoured fun and dancing to German mountain pop. It wasn’t very hip, but it was hardly Sodom and Gomorrah.
Late nights and early mornings
Early next morning, riding up the Silvretta cable car, I met a fan of the Ischgl night life. Robin, a snowboarder from Holland, was up to exploit the early powder-conditions but his skin was exuding that ethanol smell of a long party night.
"It’s relaxed here, you know, people don’t take themselves too seriously like they sometimes do in places like St. Anton. You come here to have fun and let your hair down." Robin goes to Ischgl every year with a group of friends. He said he knew all the best runs so I asked if I could tag along.
"I love the variety of runs," he said as we pushed off from the Idalp. "There are plenty of blues to warm up, but there is some nice steep terrain too." Robin showed me some of the more challenging slopes, carving turns on the spectacular black runs that run either side of the jagged Greitspitz rocks before we headed over to the quiet Höllenspitz. Coming down the secluded Vellital valley, we enjoyed a wonderful view to the Madlein mountain massif where Ernest Hemingway used to ski in the 1920s, fuelled by the local Kirsch brandy. Paznaun is proud of the Hemingway association – although the one story he set here of a frozen corpse and a delayed funeral, An Alpine Idyll, is best known for its famous line: "These peasants are beasts."
Hemingway stopped in Galtür, a few kilometres further down the Paznaun valley, where the skiing is more limited but the rustic charm remains. Ischgl, it seems, has chosen the path of functionality over romance. The huts I visited were well-lit, efficient, canteen-like affairs that invited you to wolf down some carbs and get going again rather than linger over hot chocolate in a cosy corner. The concrete Idalp lift station, with its sports shops, children’s crèche and a restaurant, looks like a bustling congress centre.
Robin told me that I wouldn’t understand Ischgl’s charm fully until I’d joined him on a late afternoon tour of the boisterous après-ski bars. But, virus-ridden, I had to admit defeat. Bidding my guide good-bye, I cruised down the wooded track that snaked back to the village, curving adventurously through a tunnel and past a sheer rock face. At the bottom I steered resolutely past the techno-beats of the umbrella bars and headed straight to my base, the Hotel Schlosshof, where pictures of Ischgl’s visiting pop stars adorn the stairwell.
Here I wallowed my plagued body in the heavenly spa and nibbled on my duty-free chocolates. So I didn’t party in the party town. But the motto does say "Relax…if you can."
I’d taken on the challenge and won.
Tourismusverband Paznaun – Ischgl
Dorfstraße 43, 6561 Ischgl