Stepping back in time from my previous post, the turn of the millennium is when my relationship with alpine Austria firmly took root.
For decades, my family had already established individual connections with the Alps but aside from a visit as a young child to Salzburgerland’s St. Wolfgang these experiences were never shared together and among the generations. Big family gatherings were just not our thing and although it was never actually said as such, the thought of decamping en masse to a foreign country corralled under one roof would have elicited tacit horror.
It was though our shared but individually honed love of the Alps, in my grandparents’ case Switzerland, my mother’s Austria with an honourable mention for Wengen, that somewhere along the line left a lasting impression on me. As a solitary person the mountains are an obvious location to live on vacation as I would at home, albeit amid towering, vertiginous and snow-capped backdrops instead of the equally constant but visually limited Blackpool Tower. Finding my way ‘home’ to the Alps was not though as quite straightforward and seamless as might have been expected.
Staggering out of my teenage years pockmarked by a chaotic childhood, academic excellence but yet underachievement, it had not dawned on me during what was the pre-Instagram era that travelling was an option until one day, it did. Those Lakes and Mountains tour operator brochures that I periodically saw scattered about my grandparents’ house during the 80’s must have left a subconscious impression, but an initial yearning to head for alpine solitude was not what prompted my first foray into Slovenia, then Austria. Quite simply, the genre of holiday was the first that came to mind, and tallied with my unsociable and anchoritic personality of the time far more than heading to the sun for some Balearic beats or the potential for ‘not coming back’ from Vegas.
With an eye on the bottom-line Slovenia was a natural choice, offering alpine holidays in stunning but less developed locations for perhaps 50% of a corresponding trip to the Tirol. Slovenia was perhaps at the time 20 years behind the Austria in terms of hotel choice and cableways, but a nation that had less than a decade previously seceded from a rupturing Yugoslavia still bore the marks of its Communist past – if only because its alpine infrastructure was less developed and for being commercially callow, or at least less sophisticated. Plus ca change! Many things have changed, although some have pleasingly not.
Although price was king, I also felt a choice of Slovenia would alarm my family who grouped the component parts of the former Yugoslavia together as one big powder keg, where ethnic cleansing and the shelling of historic sites came as standard. Slovenia is a long way from Vukovar, Dubrovnik, and Mostar, and more distant still from Kosovo, the location for the last of the conflicts on what was former Yugoslav soil. To my family this was not the Slovenia that’s hundreds of miles distant from Pristina, but somewhere that must be dangerous because of the time in history it spent under the same Belgrade administration.
I inevitably emerged unscathed from my trip to Lake Bohinj which was revisited a year later and several times since. Now though that the penny had finally dropped that the mountains’ inscrutable and enigmatic identity dovetailed with my own personality and vacation requirements, the genie was well and truly out of the bottle.
After a second successful trip to Bohinj I felt it was time to test my physical limits in a different, presumably more demanding setting. This time focusing on the Austrian section of the Thomson(now TUI) Lakes and Mountains brochure the resorts that offered large hotels, bustling main streets and a packed programme of events were not attractive to me, something that despite my trip to Kitzbuehel last year endures to this day. I then chanced upon somewhere more lunar landscape than alpine idyll, and where nobody would hear you scream in the event of a hiking disaster: Obergurgl. I was sold.
Nearly 7,000 feet above sea level Obergurgl, at the furthest extreme of the Oetz valley, is as a starting point for hikes and mountaineering higher than many summits reached from resorts of lower altitude. It is one of the Tirol’s resorts where the summer season is off peak, which can make an already quiet area feel abandoned with huge, not always sympathetically designed hotels lying empty, and looking as if they were evacuated at a minute’s notice.
Obergurgl isn’t though somewhere to visit if architectural aesthetics are your thing. With individuality being all the range a lack of uniformity has given license to a panoply of controversial designs, with the likes of the Josl, Crystal, and Granat Schloss offering vastly different kerb appeal, if indeed it can be described as that. The Edelweiss and Gurgl, most central of all to Obergurgl’s limited commercial action and Hohe Mut lift, has considerably mushroomed over the years but some reviews suggest that it has now gone beyond spreading itself too thinly. Having only used its bar area I cannot comment on its culinary offering and rooms, but I have never been tempted to stay there. Many though have and do, without complaint.
In many ways staying in a resort during its off season is not an issue if walking is your prime motivation for visiting. If the lifts and mountain huts are open, there is little more that hardened hikers require. If these things are geschlossen you would not be visiting in the first place! It is though the feeling of intruding on hoteliers that have opened up – many do not – for the summer season but whose hearts aren’t in it away from when the big money is made in November-April/May. Aside from my stay at the Jenewein, run to military precision by Doris Schopf, I have never fully felt at ease in an Obergurgl hotel during its summer season.
There has been an incredible amount of change throughout Austria’s alpine regions since my first visit to the Oetztal, now 20 years ago. Specific to Obergurgl and its region, incredible feats of civil engineering have for example perched the Top Mountain Star restaurant perilously on the border with Italy and adjacent to the Wurmkogel peak. Despite the many visual abominations inflicted upon the Alps I regard the Top Mountain Star as an example of futuristic, bold design that does not overwhelmingly conflict with its rugged, brutal surroundings. The Hohe Mut lift, topping out at the eponymous mountain restaurant stationed at 2,670 metres above sea level has in my time of visiting the area changed from being a chairlift to a modern gondola cableway.
More subjective, and betraying more than a whiff of a vanity project built, well, because is the Top Mountain Crosspoint, located on the Timmelsjoch pass that encompasses a restaurant, motorbike museum, and the bottom station of the Kirchenkar winter-only gondola. Quite aside from whether Obergurgl-Hochgurgl required YET ANOTHER cableway to litter its increasingly interrupted vistas, I do not see a demonstrable need to build a motorbike museum other than to showcase the collection belonging to one of the area’s most prominent and influential families. Turning ones passion from a hobby to a money making venture is all well and good, but I fail to see why this unique environment must continue to be used as a proving ground for all manner of architectural experimentation and the canvas on which to realise outlandish and unchecked whims. Undoubtedly subjective as it is innovative, I just don’t believe this is what most want from their time in the Alps.
It is the promised change to my first accommodation provider in Obergurgl, the former Hotel Deutschmann, that has brought about misty-eyed reminiscence. What subsequently became the Hotel Sportiv and eventually synonymous for being somewhat nondescript and less than the sum of its parts, the Deutschmann(now Sportiv), so named after its then proprietor, is located on the edge of Obergurgl adjacent to the Festkogelbahn cableway and a sprawling parking area that is done few favours when not under a blanket of snow. In the summertime this winter-only lift presents a desolate, depressing scene through the redundancy of such a vast and dubiously designed edifice. Highlighting a blind spot in the mindsets of some designs and planners, little thought and time is devoted to what winter infrastructure will look like once the snow has given way to what lies beneath.
The Sportiv, and the higher star-rated Crystal opposite, are seemingly passing from the hands of the local cableway company to the Vaya Group, whose presence over the last few years within many of Austria’s alpine resorts has exponentially grown. This will obviously improve standards and potentially homogenize the rebuilt hotel – the Sportiv but not the Crystal is to be demolished – in line with Vaya’s other properties. From a winter sports perspective the Sportiv never took on the good work of Herr Deutschmann to fully exploit its advantageous position as an edge of village retreat, albeit ideally placed for the Festkogel lift and attendant skiing opportunities.
I am though sorry to see ‘my’ first Obergurgl hotel disappear. In 2000 it truly was a family concern and although subsequent changes of ownership occurred it remained within Obergurgler proprietorship. As the Sportiv the hotel trod water and in the end became a prime target for an out of town chain.
Money from the sale of both hotels will be ploughed, ahem, into the cableway network and snowmaking. It is difficult to see how Obergurgl can justify any further(new) mountain railways, with its current cableways being self-financing for any necessary upkeep and improvements. As for snowmaking, one of the most resource-intensive processes and surely more last resort than a ‘go to’ for Obergurgl, sinking further money into snow cannons and storage ponds will not only further uglify slopes but also lend legitimacy to the over consumption of water when they can surely be none. Six weeks with barely any rain in my normally wet area of the UK suggests that Climate Change imprecations for the future are already coming to pass.
If Covid-19 affords us any respite I hope to once more return to Obergurgl later this year and spend a few silent minutes in the Festkogel car park to remember times past. I cannot though help but feel that the last thing the village needs is a hotel on its very edge being remotely owned.
Tiroler Tageszeitung: http://www.tt.com/artikel/16789356/vaya-gruppe-kauft-bergbahn-obergurgl-zwei-hotels-ab
VAYA Resorts: http://www.vayaresorts.com/upcoming-vaya/?lang=en
Top Mountain Crosspoint: http://www.crosspoint.tirol/
Hotel Jenewein(Obergurgl): http://www.hotel-jenewein.com/en/hotel.html