“You’re not in Austria anymore!” chuckles Stefanie, my local Tourism guide, “This is Switzerland”.At my feet an invisible borderline runs atop the 2,760m Idjoch. Spread out below me like a scale-model in the crystal-clear air lie peaks and valleys as far as the eye can see. Behind me, Ischgl, my starting point in Austria.
All is peaceful and pristine after a gloomy weekend which brought snow but not much skiing. But now! It’s one of those matchless Bluebird Days, each moment to be savoured to the full.
We’re on the Smugglers Gold Circuit-a modern tag for a secret route used post-WW11 by a handful of the inhabitants of Ischgl, worn down by their wartime hand-to-mouth existence, to get illicit Swiss coffee, rice, flour, tobacco, and saccharin sweetener, impossible to obtain in Austria. There was one item that was the most desired, the most hard-to-get, the most prized…but more of this later.
For the moment, and absolutely in the moment, my mind and senses are utterly attuned as we slide past frozen waterfalls and pristine snowfields, my skis carving better than a Beefeater chef on Father’s Day. This joins my Top Ten Runs of all time.
Eventually, Samnaun comes into view, a small village completely devoted to two things: tourism and duty-free shopping. There’s big money to be made. Tax-free booze, fuel and watches are 20-30% cheaper than in Austria and Germany, the profits closely guarded by two local families, the Zeggs and the Hangls, who own everything between them: hotels, bars, shops, you-name-it. For them, there is certainly Gold in Them Thar Hills.
After an obligatory heiße schokolade mit rum in the Schmuggler-Alm
Stef chivvies me on to a double-decker. Not an iconic red AEC Routemaster but a 180-person twin-level gondola heading in the direction of Ischgl, and, along the way, lunch. We’re only half-way on our four-hour round-trip so no time to hang about.
Back over the invisible border without a hitch (on-the-spot-fines for dastardly duty-dodgers do happen) But I’m clean, no Rolexes down my long-johns.
The Pardorama Restaurant atop the Pardatschgrat lift gives me a chance to catch a breath and review the day’s antics on the excellent SkiIschgl app which has logged every twist and turn. I’ll have done 59 kms with 12,956m elevation…including lifts. Blimey. Those smugglers must have been fit. No lifts for them.
By now the sun is off the last piste of the day, a steepish red, which from previous experience, will soon be littered with skiers and boarders given a false sense of their own capabilities after taking drink on the mountain, so I opt for the lift down and celebratory snifter to christen my smuggling success.
Ischgl has a deserved reputation for partying, which starts around 3.00. Those that survive the icy Piste A2 are confronted by a heaving mass of (mostly male) celebrants, few females, some cavorting on the bar tops in scanty dirndl outfits which would have left my mum muttering about “catching their death of cold”. Schatzi and Niki’s Stadl are hotspots for endless litres of beer, Europop, and trays of ‘Little Willies’ down-in-one shots (no comment).
Being of sound mind I head for the more select end of town and the newly-opened Winklers Café Pub, where, after some trial and error and negotiations with the very helpful staff, I procure a passable Ischgltini or three, this being their daft name for a Dry Martini.
Back at my base, the delightful four-star-superior Hotel Brigitte, a soak in their super-duper spa deepens my contentment at the four-star-superior day I’ve had. This, like almost all hotels in the town, is family-run, in this instance by the Mangolds whose attention detail is exemplary. I’d only eaten a salad for lunch so tucked into the sumptuous four-course meal with gusto. The family serve local ‘field to fork’ produce and it shows.
The Tourist Office arranges a chat with one of the original smugglers. Emil Zangerl is 85, with a nut-brown face that has more wrinkles than a relief map of Samnaun.
He’s led several lives rolled into one: smuggler, ski instructor, mountain guide, and founder of Silvrettaseilbahn AG, the ski-lift company with a current annual turnover of €200m. But it doesn’t stop there. He’s done a spot of poaching, had two heart bypasses, a pacemaker, and oh, by the way, has ten grandchildren.
I ask about der Schmuggel and the mystery Most Prized Goods. “What the girls craved above all else were silk stockings. It was fun. Dodging the customs wasn’t hard. We were all much better skiers. But if you got caught you lost all your loot. That wasn’t good. No silk stocking for the girls then”
And were there girls? “Plenty of them! Nothing like Forbidden Fruit to charm a village girl. I brought them American nylons with the black seams. They couldn’t say nein! I didn’t always get paid in money for my services”
I ask if he remembers when he last did any smuggling? “Yes, of course! Last year”
With my Ischgl ski pass comes a day in nearby Kappl, very much the undeserved ‘poor neighbour’ of its famous Big Brother (Are resorts male or female? I decide Ischgl is definitely macho male) On paper it looks tiny and easily dismissed by kilometre-hungry skiers. But how wrong they are.
The single lift up from the roadside village deposits me on a sunny plateau (it’s actually called Sunny Mountain!) thronged with families. I sense a shudder from you, Dear Reader, as I write this. I’m a father of four and I’ve been through all that long ago so I tend to shun the younger end of the demographic. All I will say is that I wish I’d discovered Kappl when my kids were learning. It’s the perfect environment for children, parents, and grandparents.
However, I rise selfishly above this and explore.
The top of the area is 2,720m and way, way over the next ridge is neighbour St Anton. To date plans to link the two resorts have been vetoed by the environmentally-conscious government, but a new lift spanning the valley below me may be a goer. It would create access to the enormous freeride slopes only previously reachable by ski-touring. No kids up here.
It’s turning out to be another Bluebird Day and Ludo, my Kappl guide, shouts “Follow me” as he launches down a proper black – a severe drop-off of perhaps 300m followed by a testing left-hander that gets tighter…tighter…tighter. Muttering to myself through a silly grin, ‘Hold the edge! Absorb the bumps. Keep your nerve’ I manage to stay on his tail until suddenly he vanishes. I haven’t seen the considerable series of rollers ahead which Ludo has entered and disappeared behind. Ooof. I absorb the first more by luck than judgement then I’m ready for the rest. Then we’re out of it in one piece. “Welcome to the Kanon, my favourite piste” laughs Ludo.
Kappl reveals its secrets: more testing blacks, all in pristine condition, and wide fast reds emptier than Euston Station during a three-day rail strike, which give me a chance to really test my skis-Völkl Race Tiger SLs – recommended by the helpful guys in Intersport Bründl Ischgl.
I now add Piste 1, catchily named Mardinaabfahrt, to my Top Ten, along with yesterday’s smugglers. It doesn’t get much better.
Except it does. A slap-up meal in the Paznaunerstube, prepared by Austria’s top chef Martin Sieberer, a man with more stars than the Planetarium. The luxurious restaurant is in the Hotel Trofana Royal – the only 5-star superior Hotel in Austria awarded 5 toques by Gault-Millau. The menu lists six courses which on first glance seem delish but not unusual: ‘Roasted filet of sea bass with cabbage’; ‘Local lamb in mustard seed crust’, and so on, but our delightful young gourmet guide reveals that all is not as it seems. She sprays the table with an aroma of “…mountain brook and pines…the start of your culinary journey from alp to sea” as the team of waiters move in like a well-drilled squad at the Changing of the Guard to reveal what turns out to be the first of thirteen courses.
Dear Reader, I try, I really do, to remember for you what I eat, but each successive plate brings a new taste, sight, and sound experience. Two courses stand out: halfway through the four-hour spread ‘Refreshment of oysters and champagne’, a pairing bang up my brook, so to speak. This mini-theatre, in an oblong dish containing a bed of small pebbles, bubbles around two spiky patches of living reeds, between which lie two oyster shells with glistening opalescent ‘pearls’ the size of pregnant Maltesers. Over the whole dry ice swirls on to the surrounding table. Unable to resist I bite into the ‘oyster’. It’s a thin chilled shell of chocolate revealing a salty liquid secret. Quite extraordinary.
The second stand-out and final course is ‘Sweet Temptations’. You’ve guessed it…chocs! A cart groaning with twenty-nine varieties is wafted before my eyes. Handmade pralines, pink pepper chocolate, Ischgl diamonds…Charlie in his Chocolate Factory couldn’t have dreamed them up. I find space for a modest selection, and thoughts of asking for a doggy-bag cross my mind. But I’ve had quite enough.
Tell me more about skiing in Ischgl and Kappl.
Inghams offer a seven-nights half board at the four-star superior Hotel Brigitte in Ischgl, Austria, from £1,189 per person based on two sharing. Price includes return flights from London Gatwick to Innsbruck and airport transfers.
For independent travel, fly easyJet (Gatwick, Heathrow, Manchester, Bristol) or BA (Gatwick, Heathrow) to Innsbruck. Use the booking facility on www.ischgl.com or www.kappl.com for a range of accommodation from apartments through to 5* hotels. Or book direct with hotels. For example, a direct booking at Hotel Brigitte is from €126 pp per night half board www.hotel-brigitte-ischgl.at
The Silvretta skipass, covering the four resorts of Ischgl, Kappl, Galtür, and See is from €256.50 for 6 days. The Resort Options Pass is from €240 which gives four days in Ischgl and two in neighbouring resorts.
The main UK tour operators to Ischgl are Inghams, Crystal, Ski Solutions and Zenith Holidays.
Gourmet restaurant “Paznaunerstube” six-course menu €114 per person. Reservations +43 (0)5444 600 or firstname.lastname@example.org