Kitzbühel means the Hahnenkamm – the most exciting and terrifying of men’s downhill ski races on the planet. Every January, the World Cup race is beamed around the world from this charming village in the Austrian Tyrol. And I catch all the edge-of-the-seat action on Ski Sunday.
But I’ve never skied at the famous resort. We did, however, spend a week there in summer, exploring the mountains on foot amid meadows in full bloom and pine trees weighed down by deep-green needles.
Whisked quickly to the top of the Hahnenkamm mountain on a modern gondola lift, each one bearing the name of a ski racing hero, we walked among docile cows, their bells clanking away merrily in the sunshine.
Kitzbühel, being great territory for hikers and mountain bikers, offers no end of trails on the Hahnenkamm and the Kitzbüheler Horn. So our problem, as lightweight rather than heavy duty hikers, was trying to work out what ones to follow.
Our first mistake was not investing in a decent map. And it’s not a mistake we’ll ever make again. With just an inadequate one grabbed from the pile of leaflets in the tourist office in the heart of the village, we headed off deep into the countryside feeling quietly confident that we could find our way round. Hiking in the sunshine and occasionally passed by ultra-fit mountain bikers going uphill, I felt utterly inadequate as I panted and sweated along in my sturdy walking boots.
Initially we found the hills and trails busy with hikers of all ages, shapes and sizes. But that soon changed, because we realised we were hopelessly lost, with nobody around to ask for help or guidance. Footpaths ceased to exist.
We stumbled into impenetrable woods, and had to dodge rampaging cattle hurtling downhill at milking time. In the heat, it didn’t take long for our small bottle of water to dwindle. But however desperate we were becoming, we could still lap up the views, which were some of the most extraordinary I’d experienced anywhere. Snow still lay atop the greatest of the Alpine peaks, glistening in the sun. Meadows and endless forests added to the patchwork of green in this picture of nature at its finest.
We trudged on and eventually spotted a small village in the distance, at the bottom of a winding mountain road. It took us forever to get there but the feeling of relief on arrival was intense.
With leg muscles and the soles of our feet burning, we made for the nearest bar and savoured its chilled beer as enthusiastically as John Mills in that classic war film, Ice Cold in Alex.
We kept closer to home a few days later for a walk down the legendary Hahnenkamm ski run, which was horrifyingly steep even without ice and snow. It was so steep in places that it was impossible to walk down and we had to make a diversion.
About halfway we stopped at one of the many delightful mountain restaurants that dot the hills, where we were served by a fit young man in lederhosen, saw fluffy fox cubs scampering around and downed an intense chilli soup. The latter took its toll on my guts later on in the day – forcing a hurried visit to the posh loo at the local casino – but it was just about worth the suffering for the taste alone!
The trails on the Kitzbüheler Horn provided more walking opportunities during the week, and more stunning views only marginally spoiled by the presence of a giant TV mast and all the ugly paraphernalia associated with winter sports. At one point a precarious footpath promised to pitch us to our deaths hundreds of feet below with just a minor slip, so we headed back to safer ground.
On another day, we took a break from the walking and relaxed by Kitzbühel’s popular bathing lake, the Schwarzsee, paying a small admission fee to cover the cost of the facilities. It wasn’t exactly the ocean and its green-black water put Graham off the idea of taking a dip, but I joined the crowds and had a swim. Kids didn’t seem to care that there were no waves to play in or sand to make castles with.
We liked Kitzbühel’s pretty, pedestrianised and bustling village centre, lined with decent shops, attractive bars and restaurants. Of an early evening, with the sun low in the sky, the streets were full of locals and visitors, tucking into ice cream, slowly promenading.
Later, after filling ourselves with typical Austrian stodgy food and drinking in some of the many cool if smokey bars, we visited the casino amid holidaymakers rich and not so rich, young and old, and saw our euros disappear on the black jack and roulette tables. Housed in one of the colourfully decorated buildings on Hinterstadt, it was a modest affair but oozed elegance.
Elsewhere in town we found The Museum Kitzbühel, a small but engaging place that told the story of the village over the centuries, including its development as a ski resort. And there we discovered the works of local artist Alfons Walde, whose stylish prints of pre-war skiers now adorn the walls of our home.
We stayed at the Sporthotel Reisch, a family-run hotel handily located just a few steps from the pedestrianised zone. With great food and excellent service from friendly staff, it was a real change from the sterile chains that we sometimes stay in.
Indeed, if we ever return to ski in Kitzbühel it’s the place I’d return to.