The allure of Kitzbühel to the well-heeled is there for all to see. A short survey of the main street immediately highlights the Tirolean town’s slavish devotion to luxury brands, and how those sashaying along its pristine thoroughfares are tacitly judged by their own attention, or lack of, to high-end couture and jewellery. For a town that insists its cosmopolitan swagger is successfully melded with the agricultural roots from where many of today’s residents allegedly descend the superficial, materialistic, and temples dedicated to Mammon undoubtedly hold sway. This is a place to be seen, and for our supposed elders and betters mired in consumerist excess to lead by example.
As a seasoned alpinist I have always shied away from Kitzbühel but never actually understood why; perhaps subconsciously the town’s lack of a down to earth atmosphere predominantly influenced by grim but determined hikers permeated my decision- making on where next to take my alpine odyssey.
To me at least settlements on a scale of Kitzbühel do not feel like walking towns; in Slovenia and elsewhere in Austria the areas predicated on summer walking at altitude exude a ‘geared up’ ambiance for those seeking a physical challenge in a modest setting that remains sympathetic to its surroundings. For tourists Kitzbühel is primarily a winter party time when the monied, but necessarily the good and great gather every January to celebrate the fearsome Hahnenkamm ski race, or simply are seen to be getting intoxicated in the ‘right’ company. If you want a Polo club Kitz has it, as it does a Harley Davidson association. Hiking is of course there if you want it but doesn’t feel like an overwhelming priority to the local municipality, despite a programme of weekly guided walks. Tourists primarily stop off in Kitzbühel to take pictures of its main street and rattle their jewellery at each other. Whilst undoubtedly a classic ski town – bracketed as such with the likes of Cortina, Lech-Zuers, St. Anton, and Wengen – thanks to the unparalleled challenge presented by the Hahnenkamm Streif, Rolex, Lacoste, and Superdry give an Oxford Street feel to the proceedings, something that will leave alpinists unmoved. Kitzbühel is no Obergurgl, Galtuer, or Neustift and does not pretend to be.
You will be justified in wondering how I therefore ended up for 11 days in an area of the Austrian Alps so seemingly ill-suited to my demands from a mountain resort. Seeking rest in a holiday from everyday life is not my style but I concluded a change of resort, albeit in part of a wider area of which I know quite well, was worth a punt. Even though I grossly underestimated the unabashed dedication to Croesus I figured escaping up a good few of the 36 mountain lifts open in the region would be an antidote to my complete disinterest, and distaste for materialism and its pole position within the empty and misguided. Sadly, the walking failed to challenge me and was at times hindered by paths compromised by a mixture of the weather conditions and bovine calling cards. The weather, whilst at times typically alpine put paid to 4/5 days of my vacation but this is what can happen in the Alps. Despite the lifts continuing to operate during the worst of the rain and poor visibility the former presented safety issues on the trails, whilst the latter rendered a long-distance hike pointless if peaks near and distant cannot be evinced as reward for one’s physical efforts.
The landscape did not cater for my preferred brand of hiking. A style of classic hut to hut routes or one that cater for significant day walks usually involves a steady traverse from one summit to the next, subtly ascending in altitude before retracing one’s steps or gradually corkscrewing down to a lift’s middle station. When stationed in Saalbach Hinterglemm I found the walking to be frustrating undulating; going down from one peak to scale the next is not my cup of tea but such are regional variations that one man’s meat etc, ensure that individual tastes can be sated assuming significant research is undertaken prior to visiting. Atop the Hahnenkamm there is a moderate walk to the famous Pengelstein focal point but offers few demands on the body; on reaching the array of lifts and restaurants at Pengelstein one cannot help but be dismayed by the cynical over-development of the immediate and wider area, even at altitudes beyond 1,900 metres above sea level. Acting as a sobering example of humanity’s ceaseless obsession with just a bit more money it is an obvious truism that the countless lifts and their uglifiying of the landscape through associated infrastructure and artificial water storage lakes will be masked by winter’s coat, although such unchecked development of one lift after another for ‘winter use only’ is not the preserve of Kitzbühel I am glad to not be witnessing it again.
The Hohe Salve lift above Hopfgarten affords admittedly outstanding views on the type of day when they can be done justice. Approximately 40 minutes by bus from Kitzbühel Hopfgarten is a charming village from where the gondola can be taken to 1,829 metres in a matter of minutes, albeit via a mid-station change of carriage. The summit offers a fine mountain restaurant, large pilgrimage chapel, and a jumping off point for paragliders. On another side of the mountain a separate gondola tops out from the neighbouring resort of Soell. The shape of the mountain does not though lend itself to a day’s walking at altitude but instead as a starting point for an immediate drop in elevation. A wonderful vantage point that the Hohe Salve undoubtedly is – the Wildschoenau, Alpbach’s Gratlspitz, Woergl and dozens of 3,000 metres peaks can all be clearly delineated – this is somewhere to go up, have a look and a drink, before heading down. For me it was a fine summit to arrive at but tinged with frustration at what is, from a long-distance walking point of view, a cul de sac.
Honourable mentions to Hopfgarten and Kirchberg aside my Kitzbühel experience was not all I hoped it to be. There is a wealth of opportunities for the casual tourist and low-level stroller but accessing higher routes and more challenging hiking terrain, two alpine traits that often don’t go hand in hand, is disappointingly difficult. Finding a lack of solace in the town my holiday was somewhat bracketed in the sightseeing category, something to which I would never aspire for my holidays to solely encompass.
There were other British people in resort but my encounters with them were rare, and on occasion displeasing. One such example consisted of a couple telling me they have been holidaying in Kitzbühel over the last 31 years. Fair enough, I thought; there is nothing wrong with liking somewhere and repeatedly returning. Warming to the theme the husband of the couple, sporting a Queen Mary 2 cruise ship hat, chirped up that this was only 1 of their 5 or 6 holidays a year. The verbal equivalent of those who must plaster their whole lives on Facebook and be seen to be wealthy, I resisted any further conversation with just two examples of today’s ‘look at me, me, me’ brigade.
I appreciate Kitzbühel represents bliss for many but as someone who doesn’t even buy postcards on holiday it fostered within me a cold antipathy, the like of which I have never known in the Alps. If the walking had been to my taste the consumerist obsessions on which the town now seems to be built would have been less of an issue. Having eschewed the town for so long it was perhaps unrealistic that for what I inwardly hoped prior to arrival would manifest itself. The fact it didn’t is perhaps my own fault, but you don’t really know until you go.
My stay was at the Austria Trend Schloss Lebenberg hotel, which I will review in due course.