Robert Pimm

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Austrian idyll far from the well-worn pistes

Robert Pimm on the unspoilt charm of Lech

Financial Times, March 26 2004

There is something about a charabanc that yells “holiday!” And the views from the big yellow bus are breathtaking: as we climb through the cosy resort of Stuben, the hairpins and avalanche tunnels of the road to Lech come into view, burrowing up through ice-capped cliffs.

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Lech is staggeringly picturesque – picture Robert Pimm

The gradient of the road and the number of skiers clambering aboard fuel the familiar mix of dread and anticipation that for me marks the start of every ski adventure. “Soon we’ll be skiing,” says Owen, aged 11. “I can’t wait.” It’s his fifth visit to Lech. “I’m glad we took the bus, not a taxi,” says Anna, nine, also on her fifth visit. “It’s a tradition.”

Tradition and return visits are what Lech is all about. An astonishing 75 per cent of visitors have been there before: a conservative and well-heeled set who want Lech to remain the romantic, snow-smothered mountain village they liked first time round. So the resort faces, in extreme form, the dilemma of any tourist destination that relies on natural beauty for pulling power: how do you exploit that beauty without ruining it? For Lech, the answer is simple: invest, push upmarket and stay small. If that means the masses go elsewhere, so much the better.

Claudia Lengenfelder of Lech Tourism says the aim is to market Lech as romantic and traditional. “If there’s a Christmas tree on the corner this year, it’ll be there next year too.” Strict building controls protect the town centre,and overall visitor numbers haven’t grown for 20 years. “We’re in the upper price bracket,” she says, “so maybe we get fewer 18-year-olds . . . But there are lots of families. Children grow up with the ski school, go some-where else for a bit, then come back with their own children.”

Lech’s ski school has more than 250 teachers in high season. About half teach ski groups, like the one I’m joining; the other half give private lessons. Everyone in my ski group has been to Lech before, some of them 25 or 30 times. Francois Defaix and Danielle Vitalis are from Rotterdam. “The first time we came, our friends said: ‘Queen Beatrix goes there, it must be posh’,” they say. “But when you’re here, it’s anonymous and normal. Let’s be honest, it’s expensive, so it doesn’t attract certain people. But it feels so authentic. You have the feel of a real Austrian village.”

Lech is quiet at night. When I stroll down the high street at 10pm, the loudest noise is the crunching of snow under my boots. A line of candles in the snow marks the entrance to the Tannberg Disco, open every night from 9.30pm, but I can’t hear any music. A horse-drawn sleigh jingles by, passengers tucked up under blankets. In the Information Bureau, a couple of people are studying a location-finder for hotels and guest-houses. A wall-map full of red lights shows that nearly every bed in town is taken.

Most of the pistes are red or blue: there are no black runs. But that’s misleading: the Lech equivalent of black runs are the “ski routes” criss-crossing the mountains on all sides. There’s no shortage of challenges. Ever wanted to ski one of those parallel tracks through virgin snow that feature so prominently in the brochures? Look no further. On our fourth day, after 36 hours of heavy snow, the sun is out but temperatures fall to minus 10. Robert, our guide, picks out one slope of untouched powder after another, the snow anywhere from our shins to our waists. At the top of a steep incline, he pauses. “Now we’ll do a Kamm [comb],” he says.

“Make your own set of tracks to the right and left, next to mine.” And he’s off, leaving behind him a gorgeous set of turns. Five minutes later, breathing heavily, we stand with him looking back up the hill. There it is: a set of parallel tracked turns.

Our last run of the day ends at Rud-Alpe, a hut just above Lech. The evening sun falls square on the town, painting the snow-laden roofs below us a lustrous orange. The hut blends in perfectly: its massive beams, weathered to a rich dark red, are 250 years old. But it was completely rebuilt in December last year, with fibre-optic lighting by Swarovski, and automatic doors.

After a round of Schnapps, I rise to go and collect the children from ski-school. We all shake hands.

“See you next year?” Robert asks.

“Yes,” I say, knowing we’ll be back. “See you next year.”

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