THE GREAT AUSTRIAN SKI ADVENTURE Part 1: Getting the Basics Together(Part 1 of 5)
by Dick Domey, Former US Olympic Biathlon Team Coach

Publisher's note: Solid information from an expert offers a great how-to on Austrian skiing.

I parked near the statue in the village square and climbed the snowbank until I stood level with the warrior's helmeted visage. When I followed the line of the hero's steely gaze as far as the eye could see figures rushed about like armies covering the fields and hills. Under a deep blue sky and towering white clouds brilliant colors stood out against sparkling white, new fallen snow. The figures charged up and down the hills. Whole lines of people would rush smoothly up hillsides and glide swiftly out of sight among the trees.

These were not military troops but hundreds of stylishly dressed skiers: all ages, all sizes and shapes, and obviously of all abilities. Other than at ski races, I have never seen so many varied skiers in one place in my life. Each skier seemed to be heading in a different direction on a ski track of their own. No, I wasn't at Sun Valley and these weren't all alpine skiers. They were mostly cross-country skiers.

Bells pealed from a clock-faced, onion-shaped steeple on the yellow village church, ringing loudly in the frosty air. This was Seefeld, Austria, the site of the 1976 winter Olympics and Mecca for dedicated cross-country skiers. Seefeld (say-feld) is just forty minutes by mountain road from Innsbruck, a major city with air, train and bus connections to the rest of the world. These were the Tyrolean Alps to which European cross-country and alpine skiers flock for the fantastic scenery, ski trails, slopes and picturesque accommodations.

Our trip in search of good cross-country skiing started in London where my wife and I were spending the year researching and writing.

London is nice, but after a wet, dreary December and "the coldest January weather on record," I had heard too many roaring trucks and smelled enough diesel fumes to last a lifetime. I wanted clean snow, fresh mountain air and a chance to hit the ski trail by myself. Upon the advice of British friends who also "langlauf", the German word for cross-country skiing, we sent to Waymark Holidays for a booklet advertising tours for cross-country skiers originating out of London. The pamphlet offered twenty-three pages of trips to Austria, Canada, Czechoslovakia, Finland, France, Germany, Italy, Norway, Scotland and Switzerland: tours with groups and do-it-yourself tours. The excellent prices covered travel, lodging, and some meals as well as guides where needed. All of the holidays lasted for a week or more and were even graded as to the difficulty of the area's ski trails. The more difficult hut-to-hut and dog sleigh accompanied tours in Norway usually included one or two days of warm-up skiing at the arrival lodge. This year prices for trips from London range from $1100 for ten nights in Norway to $670 for seven days at Oberammergau, Germany. Waymark Holidays does have tours from the U.S. Their address is 44 Windsor Road, Slough SL1 2EJ, London.

Rather than travel with the tour company, we decided to use the pamphlet as our guide for choosing the general area to visit with our own independent transportation. The description of the Innsbruck area and the effusive advice of friends and overseas relatives sent us packing to Seefeld situated in the heart of the Austrian Alps, an area called the Tyrol. My brother who has lived in Europe for over twenty years and is a very experienced traveler and skier said, "Don't make reservations. When you get to a village where you want to stay, the tourist office will help you find a small hotel or 'zimmer frei'."

"Zimmer Frei" is usually signaled by a little green sign hung on the outside wall of a home or inn that has a room for rent. So with this experienced advice, we packed our ski clothes, the computer and printer, books, research notes, half completed papers, and all the paraphernalia one needs and accumulates during a year away from home into the back of our trusty, canvas-topped Suzuki jeep and drove off down the autobahn.

The Suzuki's top speed is a very bouncy 60-65 miles per hour. We were the slowest vehicle on the road. Most of the others were passing us at a ratio of 2 to 1. They were doing 100 plus miles per hour to our sixty. Even the slowest of the big trucks were blowing us off the road.

After crossing the English Channel our trip began in the modern city of Rotterdam with its great world-class harbor. We motored across the flat, windmill dotted Netherlands, drove into industrial Germany, down the autobahn past Stuttgart, Wiesbaden, Munich, and into the evergreen covered mountains around Garmish. The snow had been falling lightly off and on all across Germany and we were excited at the skiing prospects.

From 4 p.m. to 7 p.m. we drove ever deeper into the mountains anxiously looking for an inn. I have a theory that all across the world at 4 p.m. all the hotel signs are taken down and hidden. In the morning, when I don't need a hotel, I find them everywhere, but not at night when it starts to get dark. In desperation we turned off the main road and drove through quaint Tyrolean village after village looking for the "zimmer frei" signs with no luck. In the total blackness that comes from being the only vehicle on the road and with growing hunger pangs as the hours went by we were becoming quite concerned about spending the cold night sleeping in the little jeep. At that point I began making snide comments about my brother's advice.

Then we rounded a curve and saw the Hotel Alpenhof in Oberau. Gulp! Sixty dollars for the night. That was way over our planned budget. When you travel for twelve months on your savings, budgets are very important. Remember when the book title was "Europe on $5 per day?" Well, now its up to "$50 per day" and then only if you start looking for the hotel at noon. But, you know very well, if I had driven on looking for a less expensive hotel there wouldn't have been any at any price. A quick discussion. Oh well, from now on we will be saving money when we find that small apartment we had been assured was just waiting for us. As with most German and Austrian hotels this one was excellent and because it was just on the edge of the snow country the bulletin board notices for ski tours, ski lessons and bus rides to the mountains made for exciting reading. We unloaded our gear and took it up three flights of stairs to a knotty pine covered room in the eaves where great white feather comforters covered the beds and the skylight showed brilliant stars in a blue-black sky. This first night in the mountains had definite promise of great things to come.

A quick washing up and we took our appetites to the dining room. I had assumed the hotel would be quiet on Monday night. But, no, most of the tables had "reserved" signs. We had hardly gotten our menus when small groups of German locals started to arrive. All were obviously well-known to the waitresses and owner, who without taking any orders started bringing out, what from across the room, looked like long boards of something red and handfuls of great beer steins. We were involved in our ordering of a good pork roast and some white wine and didn't look closely at what was going on. More patrons arrived amid stamping feet, rubbing of cold hands and great greetings thrown across the room. The restaurant quickly filled to capacity. As the diners near us settled in we started to notice that each was being served the same bright red meat on those long boards.

When one was delivered to the table next to us we could see the board contained . . . (swallow hard) . . the entire head of a pig. Bright pink hairy ears stood straight up as if listening to the table conversation. The long snout ending in that round button nose we know so well drooled on the board and its eyes seemed to see all the drinkers ready to pounce. The mouth was open and the tongue lolled from the side as if in protest. Oh, dear! Not her, not . . . Miss Piggy? The diners attacked with vigor and reduced the head to nothing but ears and bones which were quickly whisked away and replaced with another head. We asked the waitress what it was called. "We are famous for our Monday night Schweinkopf." she said proudly. "All the villagers come." Another question. "Yes, it did still have the brains inside." And, No! We probably wouldn't like it. Our pork roast arrived and was delicious, but still, all we could think of was Miss Piggy and "Pi-i-g-g-g-g-s-s-s In-n-n Spa-a-a-c-c-e-e." Click here to go to Part Two