You don’t have to slope off into the wild to get your downhill fix. With Hapsburg heritage, futuristic architecture and mountains all around, Innsbruck is an atmospheric Austrian city break and ski holiday in one, says Sean Newsom
So there I was, walking the streets of Innsbruck in my ski boots, feeling ridiculous. Everyone else was dressed for shopping, or for morning lectures at the city’s university. I was in lemon-yellow boots, silver helmet and bilious-green jacket, shouldering a bright red pair of skis. Normally, when I’m heading for the slopes, that’s perfectly acceptable. But on this particular Austrian morning I was a lump of hard, shiny plastic bobbing in a sober sea of overcoats. It felt as if I’d just fallen out of a giant box of Lego.
Then I arrived at Zaha Hadid’s Hungerburgbahn railway station, and everything changed. It’s slap-bang in the middle of town, only 250m from the Rococo splendour of the Hofburg palace, the Hapsburg dynasty’s home-from-home whenever they visited Innsbruck.
But in just 30 minutes its sleek, chic funicular railway, followed by a couple of cable cars, had whisked me to an altitude of 2,256m. When I stepped out of the top station, it was into a raw white wilderness.
On my left was a knuckle of rock, punching its way to the summit of the Hafelekarspitze at 2,334m. On my right… well, I couldn’t see what was on my right, because a tearing wind had whipped the snow into a thick cloud. Thank heavens I’d booked a guide, Sebastian, because the only way I was going to find the piste was if I followed him footstep by footstep. Provided, of course, the wind would let me.
There was one gust I’ll never forget. It seemed to be testing me, like a finger waggling a loose tooth, checking if it was ready to be torn free. My whole body shuddered in its grip. My mind, too. Just down there, half an hour ago, I’d been standing outside Manna Delikatessencafe on the Maria-Theresien-Strasse, wondering if there was time for a slice of Apfelstrudel mit Vanillesauce before the ride up the mountain. Now I was hunkered down in a snowdrift, trying not to be blown off an Alp.
Of course, any day of skiing mixes the wild and the refined, as you flit between the comfort of your hotel or chalet and sub-zero mountain slopes. But nowhere is the contrast sharper than in Innsbruck. This is a city, not a ski resort, and it isn’t near the Alps, it’s in the middle of them – crammed onto the last sizeable patch of flat ground before the road to Italy heaves itself over the Brenner Pass. Look down almost any street, and see a proud procession of exquisite Baroque, Renaissance or Gothic buildings – with the view finishing in a wall of snow and rock. It’s a place where the most civilised of human endeavours and the most rugged of nature’s wildernesses are constantly jostling for precedence.
That means that, unlike a typical ski trip, where time spent away from the snow seems ‘wasted’, here it feels as if you’re getting a terrific city break thrown in for free. On the way to rent some boots and skis, my walk took me underneath an 18th-century triumphal arch that left my jaw well and truly dropped – in a way that nothing in, say, Méribel ever had. The arch is a sober monument, given it commemorates a wedding, not a war: between the future Austrian emperor, Leopold, and Maria Luisa of Spain, in 1764. But served up with a backdrop of Alps, it’s both incongruous and magnificent – like Innsbruck itself.
On another break from the slopes the next day, I ran my hands over the cool orange marble of the columns at the Hofkirche, a church whose modest exterior hides an extraordinarily exuberant mausoleum, designed in the early 16th century as the final resting place of the Emperor Maximilian I. Then, at the Ferdinandeum – Innsbruck’s unmissable museum of history and art – I rediscovered the work of local hero Albin Egger-Lienz. The most underrated of Austrian artists, his anguished paintings explore the hard, plain lives of mountain folk, in an earthy palette of ochres. Hanging alongside work by Egon Schiele and Oskar Kokoschka, they are an eye-popping introduction to early-20th-century angst.
‘Zaha Hadid’s Hungerburgbahn railway station is slap-bang in the middle of town, only 250m from the Rococo splendour of the Hofburg palace’
There was even time for Kaffee und Kuchen, courtesy of Café Sacher. Here, in a branch of the famous Viennese coffee shop, they celebrate the afternoon ritual of coffee and cake with a slice of Sachertorte, a sandwich of chocolate sponge and apricot jam, encased in thick, shiny chocolate icing. The first time I tried it, years ago in the Austrian capital, it seemed much more dry and formal – like the army officers who used to eat it, I imagined. But that was before I learned to smother it in whipped cream.
Admittedly, Innsbruck is no match for Vienna when it comes to Austrian culture. But that’s not the point. There are no mountains in Vienna. And it’s the mix of the two that creates one of winter’s most compelling short breaks. Stay in one of the city-centre hotels, less than 15 minutes’ drive from the airport, and you’ll have plugged yourself into the same network of connections the locals use. Like tentacles, the lifts, roads and railway lines reach up into every mountain, and together they serve up every snowy pastime imaginable.
So, for example, you could spend a morning wading through the wedding-cake interiors of the Hofburg palace – then ride bus line J up to the village of Igls. As well as a small ski area, it’s home to Innsbruck’s Olympic bobsleigh track, and if you’re feeling reckless you can hitch a ride on one of its four-man sleds (olympiaworld.at). Acceleration is instantaneous, the top speed 115kph. It feels like you’ve been strapped to a bullet and fired out of the barrel of gun.
Or you could catch a train from the Hauptbahnhof to Seefeld, and a rather more sedate version of the Alps. I went the next morning, hoping to soothe my still-frazzled nerves – and deliver you to an absurdly pretty village of wooden eaves and spa hotels, where cross-country skiing trails weave through the forest. Don’t commit to a whole day, though. Skiing on the flat is exhausting. Plan instead to spend the afternoon mucking about on the outdoor curling rinks, where they play an easy, uncomplicated version of the Olympic sport, beneath a tiny-onion domed church. It’s so quaintly perfect, it feels like you’ve wandered onto a postcard.
Meanwhile, the skiers in your group will be arguing about which of Innsbruck’s nine local ski areas to try. For most, the essential stop is the Stubai Glacier, which is where I took my hire car on the third day. It’s a good hour from the city centre – but on a sunny day it’s worth every wiggle of road, because there are few better pockets of easy, intermediate-friendly skiing in the Alps. It’s not just the fact that the pistes are so wide, steady and gentle that makes it a blast; it’s the quality of the snow. Up there, the lift system tops out at an eye-watering 3,170m, and the season runs from mid-September until June. It’s the perfect place to warm up your ski legs and rebuild your confidence. By the end of the day, I was skiing so fast I thought my hair would catch fire.
But that was nothing compared with my experience beneath the Hafelekarspitze the next morning. That walk along the ridge I mentioned earlier was just the overture. Sebastian, my guide and guardian angel, somehow got me through it, and together we wobbled on for five minutes until the path dropped down to a gap between the crags – and I caught my first sight of the view south.
‘It’s so quaintly perfect, it feels like you’ve wandered onto a postcard’
Holy Mother of Mountain Scenery: I’d never seen anything like it. It wasn’t so much the distance that made it special. It was the sense of depth. Sealing the horizon, 30km away, was the central spine of the Alps – the one that forms the border with Italy and snakes all the way to Mont Blanc. Immediately beneath my boots, plunging down toward the city limits, was the steepest slope I’ve ever attempted – and there, in a deep gutter of green, spread the streets of Innsbruck, glinting in the sunshine.
‘Is this the only way down?’ I asked. I’d heard that this area, the Nordkette, was steep, but after my ego-boosting day on the Stubai Glacier, I thought I needed a challenge. Now I wasn’t so sure. What if I fell? By the look of it, I wouldn’t stop rolling until I was back in the Maria-Theresien-Strasse, lying outside Manna Delikatessencafe.
‘There is another route,’ said Sebastian. ‘But it’s steeper.’
Then I realised something. I wasn’t scared anymore. Those powerful gusts of wind had been shocking at first, but a couple of days of art galleries and Gothic architecture had sharpened my appetite for adrenaline. And knowing what (largely edible) delights were awaiting me back down in town, I steeled myself.
‘Ready?’ asked Sebastian, after I’d clicked into my skis. I nodded, and we were off.
An hour later, I was back on the streets of Innsbruck once again a lone skier in a sea of busy city folk. But this time, I didn’t feel ridiculous, I felt victorious. There was snow on my boots and a smile as wide as the Nordkette plastered across my face. I could have hugged every one of them. Instead, I went to Manna’s and ordered some apple strudel.
Credit: The Sunday Times Travel Magazine/News Licensing