Outside of Austria, save the skiers who are in the know, nobody had ever heard of Ötztal until 1991, when a couple of ramblers discovered, frozen in the ice, the mummified corpse of a sprightly megalithic man - Ötzi. This ambassador has done a great deal for the region’s reputation, but he has simply brought to light of all the existing assets that make it the Mecca of Tyrolean skiing. It has more than 90 peaks over 3000 metres high, a 300 km ski area, 76 ski lifts and internationally renowned après-ski amenities which transform Sölden into Ibiza on ice every evening.
Oetz, the family resort
This is the first resort you encounter when you arrive. Oetz has preserved its small, typically historic centre with its baroque church, a few traditional fresco-decorated houses and a wonderful hostel. If you want very active skiing, Oetz is not the place as the ski area is modest with 34km of slopes, around ten ski lifts and a summit of 2020 metres. It is, however, ideal for relaxed, family downhill skiing.
For more physical activities such as snowshoeing or cross-country skiing, different organisations have guides available, many of whom speak English. Won over by the region’s quality of life and having fallen to the charms of local beauties, robust men have decided to settle down in Oetz and the surrounding area. Whilst not begrudging their homeland they form a small British community which has turned to the businesses of sports, leisure and tourism. You have a good chance of coming across them in the summer when the resort takes on more of a sporting atmosphere. Oetz is in fact an important base for canyoning and white water rafting due to its location on the banks of the torrid currents of the Ötztaler Ache.
Sölden the night owl
Forty minutes by car from Oetz there is a complete change of atmosphere - a feverish and youthful one. The hardened enthusiasts of ski and board culture scale the 34 ski lifts connecting Sölden to Gaislachkogl (3058 m), Schwarze Schneid (3 370 m) and Tiefenbachkogl (3 309 m) which is over-towered by the imposing Wildspitze (3 774 m). The trend favoured here is more towards snowboarding than in the other stations, but there is enough room for everyone on the 146km area of slopes (58km of blue runs, 58km of red and 29km of black.) And you are sure to have quality snow right up until the Spring, not to mention the slopes on the two glaciers of the Tiefenbach Gletscher and the Rettenbach Gletscher.
Curiously enough, the slopes are not too congested and you don’t have to queue at the ski lifts. However this is one of Austria’s most popular resorts with a population of 2000 for most of the year rising to 10000 during the winter season. But it is only at the last of the cable car stops that you become fully aware of the the resort’s character. This one has nothing traditional about it. It devotes itself completely to après-ski, as seen by the sudden effervescence which starts up at the end of an afternoon in the myriad of bars and clubs that Sölden is renowned for.
Spend an evening at the Schirm Bar, one of the top places for nightlife and après-ski. But best of luck making your way to the bar! The music is at full blast and the jubilant crowd (comprising largely of Germans and Dutch people) burst into song with tankards in hand: “Heit ist so a schöner Tag, la-la-la-la-la !”. These cheesy songs of national glory by Tim Toupet lend themselves to Black Lace style dance moves.
Another local celebrity in the same vein is DJ Ötzi. If you were to believe the natives his hits have been heard around the planet and he has made a fortune, which is quite possible judging by the way his Tyrolean Techno is played over and again at Sankt Anton, in the heart of Sölden. This is a long way from the great era of Falco with his Rock me Amadeus, but as they say here, « er macht coole Musik »… After a hard day's skiing you obviously don’t want anything more.
Ötzi, a prehistoric polar
The other Ötzi - the real one, lived 3300 years BC and had been sleeping peacefully in his glacier ever since. This was until 1991 when he was discovered in excellent condition wearing the complete outfit of a Neolithic gentleman: a leather coat, a cape made from vegetable fibres, a bag containing everything for making fire, a bow, a quiver full of arrows, a flint bladed knife and the latest of that period’s technology – one of the first copper axes. In other words Ötzi was a real find and Italy and Austria came to wrangle over the rights of ownership of this illustrious ancestor. The Italians finally won and Ötzi is from now on, resting in a refrigerated glass case at the Archaeological museum of Bozen-Bolzan.
But how, in the prime of his life at the age of 45, did Ötzi die? There were all kinds of theories. Did he die of hunger? Was he caught by the snow as he tried to cross a mountain pass? Eventually an autopsy revealed the presence of an arrow in the shoulder. Ötzi had been the victim of a cowardly murder, something that evidently takes place in every era! Another strange phenomenon peddled by the media was the “Curse of Ötzi.” Seven people who had approached the mummy from near or far were to die in the years that followed... However you can now visit and enjoy “Ötzi’s village”, an open air archaeological museum without any risk at all!
Obergurgl, at the world’s end
A quarter of an hour by car from Sölden, Obergurgl is huddled up at the very end of the valley at an altitude of 1930 m. At this point there is no more road, nothing. You find yourself at the end of the world. It is quite a chic, upmarket resort which is fairly small and there is such an incredible calmness that you almost become self-conscious hearing your steps crunching in the snow. With a view over approximately twenty high peaks, the environment is exceptional and you can ski here in complete serenity over an area of 110km far from the crowds, which is almost a unique phenomena in Europe. The snow here is as exquisite, powdery and smooth as you could wish for and slippery like a silk stocking.
Obergurgl is coupled with another resort at a higher altitude, Horchgurgl (2150 m), the highest parish in Austria with a ski area that ascends to 3080 m.
Ötztal Tourismus : www.oetztal.com
Aqua Dome Spa Centre
Situated in Längenfeld, mid way between Oetz and Sölden, the Aqua Dome is the Tyrol’s biggest spa. The open air baths with a temperature of 40°c and sunsets over snow covered peaks as a backdrop are an absolute must after a day’s skiing. www.aqua-dome.at
Ötzi-Dorf (Ötzi’s village) : archaeological park