The Alps Never Cease to Amaze…

Ischgl Walk, Austria

On Monday morning I (along with family and a friend) drove out of the Alps for the third time this month. This is not a complaint; for sure. It has been incredible for Phil and I to take advantage of what has been left of the end of Winter. In reality, it’s like Winter isn’t even over. It was snowing our whole way home. As hard as it is to head home after a fun ski trip; it’s much easier to leave when the mountain is socked in (thus making it practically impossible to ski) than when it has just finished snowing, the clouds have cleared, and it is a sunny day. I was thankful for the weather. In the backseat of the car, with the huge mountains, winding roads, and babbling streams flying by, I debated (in my head) what I like better, Austria or Switzerland. After a short while I smiled to myself as I realized….it’s all The Alps. How ridiculous! It’s like posing the question, What’s better Haagen Dazs or Ben & Jerry’s? Seriously? It’s all ice cream.

Ischgl is a fun mountain and a fun town. I was impressed; as I am so often with every new European town I visit. We arrived early Friday afternoon to find that we had booked yet another suitable accommodation. I have to admit; we’ve really lucked out with every place we’ve stayed while skiing in Europe. This past weekend’s hotel was an adorable, more bed and breakfast style, establishment run by a friendly woman named Gretta. We were fortunate to find any empty beds in Ischgl at this time of year; let alone reasonably priced and clean beds with showers. Ischgl was practically sold out. In fact, the only reason we had a reservation with Gretta was because the (super nice) hotel staff at the Bergland Hotel in Soeldon (two weekends ago) found it for us on their Austrian-hotel-network-system. As I stated, we got lucky. Gretta doesn’t speak English, so finding her would have been impossible if it wasn’t for help. I hear a lot of people, in reference to getting around Europe, say…”Everyone speaks English.” But you know what? (At the risk of sounding like a jerk.) I’m gonna say that isn’t true. Everyone speaks their own language, and maybe they understand things like “hello” and “dollar” and “Jersey Shore”, but they don’t speak English. In fact, when our reservation was being booked Gretta was concerned about us staying at her place because we were American. Thankfully the receptionist at the Bergland convinced her that I spoke enough German to be able to communicate with her. I was pleased that my (unsubstantial) amount of German vocabulary had won me a prize again.

Our accommodations were in a little village just outside of the main part of town. In other words, we had a quiet hotel on a sleepy street, ten minutes walking distance from the lights, noise, booze, and bustle. The walk was great for winding down to-and-from dinner, but it was a bit long for a morning hike to the gondola; carrying equipment and wearing boots. Luckily we had the option to get a taxi, ride a bus, or drive our car.

After unpacking that first afternoon, we walked to the town center. It was packed tighter than my suitcase! Seriously, the crowds in Ischgl that afternoon looked like they could rival Monday morning in Bejing. It was a gorgeous afternoon. The sun was hanging low and the temperature was still up around 40 °F. We walked to the end of the main street and back. Along our cobblestone-way we passed four and five star hotels, ski shops, wood carvings, restaurants, ski shops, outdoor pop-up bars, and lots (and lots) of people. It was a typical ski-town scene, but I was still experiencing it like I’d never seen it before.

Ischgl Town and Gondola

Before we came to Ischgl I had done some research trying to find live music and entertainment for the times we were not on the mountain. It didn’t happen. The Ischgl definition of live music is a DJ. This is, of course, until the end of the season, when they host a large outdoor concert in celebration of the close of the ski season. Even though I found this to be a bit of a disappointment, Ischgl made up for it in more than one way. There’s something about Ischgl that screams, “come party and get wild.” Maybe it is simply the fact that the town name is always spelled in the same font that Def Leopard used the write the band’s name. Regaurdless; Ischgl is full of fun establishments. All of their bars have a different personality. The bar’s theme will be exemplified through the name, building size and shape, decorations, and costume (uniforms) of the wait staff. The caliber of these establishments runs the gambit from shot-and-a-beer to only bottles of Champagne.

After the lifts stop running for the day, the doors of these establishments spill over with people. It’s a terribly festive and inviting atmosphere. I get the impression that Ischgl is a luxurious party town; it isn’t just one or the other. Thusly, the general vacationer here has an agenda quite the opposite of my own. Luckily, we can coexist. In actuality, the coexistence is perfection. I like to get up at the crack of dawn and score the empty early morning runs…and they are empty. All of the wahoos are still sleeping. I generally end my ski day at three or three thirty. This is the time of day that the wahoos are stealing extra runs on the mashed potatoes. (That’s what we call slushy, melting, dirty snow.) I ride down to the town in the valley in enough time to still find a table and post up for no more than an hour of apres ski. It’s a good thing for the wahoos that I apres early and don’t stay too long. They are arriving just as I am finishing and I can give them my table. After this hand-off it’s time for me to head home and wash up for dinner. When I ski I can’t eat a big lunch. I don’t want to carry that food around with me all afternoon. So inevitably dinner must come at an early hour. I’m good and ready to eat by 6:30; and I’m the only one. I think the wahoos are either still apres-ing or they are at the spa. In Ischgl (and a lot of other places in Europe) 6:30 is a ridiculously early time to dine; but I never have to wait for a table.

After a maxed-out ski day I’m fat, happy, and asleep by nine or ten at night. I was never more grateful for this habit than this past Sunday morning. On Saturday we had the bluest skies for the entire day. Sunday was the complete opposite. It was a bit cloudy when we awoke, but the clouds were broken and the sun was peaking through every so often. We ate breakfast quickly, skipped the third cup of coffee, and were the first ones to the mountain. We were at the front gate before the gondola opened. I was actually in line to witness the lifting of the huge metal barricades. This is a situation many skiers lovingly refer to as “pressing glass.” The term insinuates that the excited skier is first in line, with his hands and face pressed up against the glass of the gondola, grinning from ear to ear in anticipation of the mountain’s opening. On Sunday we definitely had the first possible runs of the day. It was 90 minutes of perfection; wide open runs, early morning light, early morning solitude, and perfect corduroy snow. (not too soft, not too hard) During that time, my snowboard was on the ground, but I felt like I was flying. If I would have stopped using my brain and only used my senses, I would have believed I was in the air. During the best 90 minutes of the trip; my husband and his friend clocked themselves as having ridden down the mountain at a top speed of 76 mph; and thus filling their need for intensity and adrenaline. After the early morning the clouds started rolling in, the sun disappeared, and it began to snow. Visibility was a thing of our past. We had to take a coffee break by 11:00 just to rest our eyes. An inability to see (or focus on anything) when you are riding plays such tricks on your eyes and your brain. You need to rest. Your muscle are tense and tight from the stress of the ski conditions; and it’s slightly depressing because it isn’t as much fun as you remember. Days like Sunday are tough. I went from being on an emotional high in the morning and shedding a tear for the magnificence of the situation; to being ready to throw my snowboard out the window by 12:30. Oh well..C’est la vie.

Snow Corduroy

The resort of Ischgl has many long, wide runs with lots of pitch. They actually boast an 11km long run; which I chose not to ski from top to bottom. There are (roughly) 5 peaks with lifts, and traversing to each is no problem. Ischgl has more lifts than I have ever seen; 43 total! They can move 88,900 people per hour! I was (seriously) impressed that a lift ticket for 47,00 Euro ($60.50) could score you 238 km of skiable area from 9,400 ft. To properly put this in perspective I will draw up a (ridiculous) comparison. In New Jersey there is a ski resort; believe it or not. It’s called Mountain Creek. The lift ticket is $51.00. The peak elevation is 1,000 ft, they have 167 acres of skiable mountain (I apologize for my inability to translate this into km, but I’m sure it’s a heck of a lot less than 268 km of trails) and 8 lifts. As far as I’m concerned; the bang for your buck is in Austria!

The resort was designed along the Austrian-Swiss border. I’ve skied along the California-Nevada border at Tahoe; in Zermatt we skied Switzerland while extremely close to the Italian border; but here at Ischgl I finally rode back-and-forth between two separate countries and I didn’t even need a passport!

The Swiss part of the resort is a town called Samnaun. We rode over to this part of town on Saturday. On the way to Switzerland you are directed with, not only normal trail markings, but a bunch of signs directing you to duty-free shopping. I found this amusing, as the only other duty-free shopping I have ever seen is at the airport. Fortunately for my wallet, I was not curious enough to interrupt my ski day to explore this anomaly. Later that afternoon, back on the Austrian side, we saw a few people skiing with their shopping bags. It looked like a nuisance; and I was glad that I had not shopped. We had lunch in Switzerland. Aside from the large Swiss flag flying high on the lunch deck, soup served in the typical white swiss crocks with lion heads for handles, you also know you are in Switzerland because you have the option of paying in one of two currencies, the Euro or the Swiss Franc. It’s a little detail, but it’s one more detail that reminded me that I was doing something unordinary. The last detail that I (thoroughly) enjoyed about the Swiss side was the ski tram. One of the 43 lifts (that are found at Ischgl) is a double-decker tram. It was incredible. For those of you having trouble developing a mental picture of this; I will describe the tram as a standing room only bus that can fit 75 people on the bottom floor and 75 people on the top floor, and their ski equipment. It’s got a driver operating the motor. It hangs on an enormous cable, and carries skiers a total distance of 7,545 ft with an altitude change of 2,365 ft.

That’s enough Math and Science for one blog post; let’s talk taste. I don’t think I have yet accomplished an unbelievably extraordinary amount of traveling, but I have done enough traveling to know that you never know when (or where) unbelievably scrumptious flavor sensations are going to hit your lips. When I’m out-of-town I’ll eat anywhere from holes in walls to the first option that pops up on TripAdvisor. I’ve learned that when it comes to food and beverages the best thing you can do for yourself is not to have any expectations. This way you are always pleasantly surprised; and rarely disappointed. This being said, I had the coffee of my life at 2270m, at a cafeteria on the mountain called Alp Trida. It was a treat I had not planned for, and I was happy to take advantage of it. Actually, it wasn’t even my coffee. It was Phil’s and he let me have a couple of sips.

Late in the afternoon on Sunday we stopped to have a drink before we rode the gondola down for the day. I know it probably seems less lazy to ski all the way to the bottom, as opposed to riding the gondola down. I have developed a new perspective on this though. It’s much nicer to ski higher up on the mountain, with the good snow, and the great trails, until you’re exhausted and need to ride the gondola down. The alternative is to ride (tired) down a narrow slushy trail with too many other (tired) people on it. No thanks. As I was saying; we stopped at the cafeteria Idalp. Using the word cafeteria is a laughable understatement. We only bought beers, but the trays of food that people were walking by us with were unbelievably impressive. If you’ve been to a ski resort in the US, you are (most likely) used to the cafeteria serving burgers and fries, pizza, and maybe soup and salad. At the Idalp you can get any gourmet dish you could imagine; whole roasted chickens, loaded baked potatoes, (and most impressively) pasta with an assortment of fresh toppings. A woman walked by me with a large bowl of piping hot fettucini topped with assorted shellfish (including a small whole lobster) in a pink sauce with fresh lemon and parsley. It was resting on her tray next to her split of champagne and a real champagne glass to pour it in. Have you ever heard (or seen of) such a thing? Don’t ask me how you could ski after that. I hope for her sake she was done skiing for the day, and would be riding the gondola down.