Winning Kitzbuhel’s downhill ski race is seen by some as more prestigious than the Olympics. Simon Miller got his racing gear on…
Kitzbühel hosts the maddest, most prestigious downhill ski race in the world but has plenty of cruising pistes as well. It has stunning restaurants and more than a few infamous party venues. And unusually in the Alps, it is equally popular in the summer as it is in winter. Let’s start with a little winter exhilaration. Winning the Hahnenkamm downhill race is in many eyes a higher accolade than an Olympic gold medal.
The best skiers in the world fear the course like no other. Peter Zaß, my guide, gave me a close up inspection of the steep fareway a week before race day but warned me to stay off the blue racing line while I was skiing, as it is injected with water days ahead of the event to provide a strip of ice from start to finish. Only pros with ultra sharp racing edges are allowed on many sections. No thank you: I think I’ll stick with the gentle powdery stuff…
Having seen the race on TV I felt I knew what to expect. I was nowhere near. The sheer chutzpah to even think about setting off down the track deserves a mountain of admiration. Winners are immortalized with their names emblazoned on a Hahnenkamm telecabine, and for the first time in over 80 years you will be able to ride up in gondola bearing the name of a British skier after Dave Ryding’s triumph in the 2022 slalom event.
The famous race returns this January between 15 and 21st, so now’s a great time to book to watch the pros, or to take part, but if hitting 85mph isn’t for you, Kitzbühel has some fantastic rolling red and blue runs. They’re ideal for accessing wonderful mountain restaurants. With luck you will find your way across the impressive 3S lift to the Jochberg area to the Bärenbadalm Hut where Ossie will regale you with stories of his pride herd ofAngus beef cattle, which are transformed into one of the finest goulashes I have ever tasted. Perhaps you’ll bump into the Lissi – the legendary woman and famed local who for years has held court at the Hahnenkammstübel.
We ate spectacular locally-sourced food, course after course. Then I did more off-piste skiing to offset my indulgence
While lunch was certainly on the agenda, so was working up an appetite. After a day of being blown around by a ferocious storm, the weather had somewhat recovered from its teenage, door-slamming petulance so we arranged to meet Andreas Manzenreiter – a mountain guide briefed to justify a hefty late lunch with some off piste skiing. Would today be the day to abseil down from the Roßgruber onto a face that had just one tantalizing line of S turns to scar an otherwise pristine descent?
When I went the weather wasn’t right, so Instead Andreas had our small group trekking into areas that without a guide we would never have ventured. Down gullies, well away from any pistes, along ridges, pitch after pitch, over blanketed meadows, through forests and finally, back on the skis, and gliding parallel to a stream until we finally reached the valley floor where miraculously a taxi was waiting to drive us back to the lift system. The perfectly guided ski.
Off-piste adventure is the best way to build memories and an appetite for an indulgent evening meal. The recently opened Auwirt by Grobeis is as stunning as the tasting menu at Kitzbühel’s only 5 star resort hotel & spa – the Hotel Tennerhof. The modern interior at Auwirt bei Grobeis contrasts with the traditional décor at the Tennerhof, but both served spectacular, intriguing, always locally sourced course after course. I would need to check in with Andreas for another bout of off-piste skiing to justify my overindulgence.
If the winners of Kitzbuhel’s Big Race are modern day heroes, Alfons Walde (1891-1958) is arguably the father of today’s Kitzbühel. This polymath’s imprint is all over the place. He was an architect (many of the lift installations are based on his designs); a painter as well as a skier. His imaginings of meadows laden with snow are his most famous pieces including one that on second glance depicts Rubenesque nudes in the undulations of snow. I enjoyed a wonderful couple of hours with city tour guide Hilde Flack learning about the influence of Mr. Walde on Kitzbühel (including picking the pastel colour palette of the building in the old town) as well as the rich history of Kitzbühel itself. He left quite an imprint on a town that is celebrating 750 years since it was granted city status by Ludwig II in 1271.
Worthy of particular note on my historical tour was a statue that elegantly sums up the defiant pride Tiroleans (people from the Austrian state of Tyrol) have in their homeland. A Freedom Fighter commemorating the 100th anniversary of the Tirolean struggle for independence. The statue showing a rifle-bearing young man captures a theme throughout the centuries that has been used to protect their way of life against intruders from Napoleon to the Nazis.
I have often wondered whether I could live somewhere like Kitzbühel. Frankly, I’d like to try living here full time, but failing that, the Kaiserhof Hotel where I stayed – the closest to a ski in, ski out luxury hotel Kitzbühel has to offer – is an outstanding way to see this Austrian alpine gem.
Visit Kitzbuhel yourself
For more information go to kitzbuehel.com; rooms at the Kitz Kaiserhof hotel start from around £150 per night. Book online or call +43 5356 20665. The Hahnenkamm downhill race in Kitzbuhel returns this January between 15 and 21st