Have you ever discussed life with a working yodeler? Have you heard about the doughty 14th-century Tyrolean Countess Margarete Maultasch, whose name in English (and, some say, her face in any language) translates as "mouth pocket"? Have you ever heard of that elusive Alpine critter called the Kasermandl? One can do, hear and perhaps even see all of these in the back valleys of Austria.
The front valleys will be getting all the attention at the peak of next ski season when the 1976 Winter Olympics come to Innsbruck in February. Tourists will swarm into Austria, since an Olympic-season is always a fine time to combine spectating with a skiing vacation. But the crowds of the first can dim the joys of the second. The secret is to seize the best of both settings.
With the Olympics as a bonus, one either starts or stops at Innsbruck. For the rest of the trip, it is better to avoid the spots with the glossiest reputations and the flossiest accommodations. Stay away from the famous pistes, from sprawling St. Anton and swinging Kitzb√ºhel. Avoid the zing of Z√ºrs, the bright lights of Lech. It is true that you will miss the spine-tingling thrill of plunging off St. Anton's grand peak, Valluga, and have to forgo the excited cries of the mating crowds at the tea dance in Kitzb√ºhel's Café Tenne. But in their place you can find more, much more, if you turn off the autobahn into some of the less celebrated villages of the Austrian Alps. Travel up the Zillertal, up the Valley of the Saal, up the Valley of the Inn, and you will come upon marvelous skiing trails and relatively unplumbed wells of charm in teeming Saalbach and tranquil Hinterglemm, in the ancient village of Serfaus, in the hustling tourist trap of Mayrhofen and the lovely glacial hamlet of Hintertux.
Saalbach lies in a valley truly blessed for skiing. A fine complex of runs and lifts rises on both sides of the Saal River, unmatched in sheer size and variety except by the greatest ski areas of Europe and America. The intricate interconnection of cable cars, chairs and T-bars zigzags upward, offering some 30 different lifts to well above the tree line. On a sunny day you may stand on the West Peak before an almost surreal array of mountain tops, a veritable sea of summits that surges off toward Switzerland, Italy and eternity. The runs from the West Peak are nearly as fine as the view, a steep and mo-gully descent down one side or a long, rolling journey down the other—down into trees, down for four miles or more to the gentle tourist village of Hinterglemm, deep at the end of the valley. There are many more trails above Hinterglemm, but first you might pause on the terrace of a restaurant, sun-splashed and cheery, and order a stein or two of beer and a shot of Vogelbeerschnaps. It may be that a nearby table of ruddy-faced fellows—visiting Rotarians from Salzburg?—will burst into song, in perfect four-part harmony. It has been known to happen here.
November 25, 1974
Above Hinterglemm, on the east side of the valley, the skiing also is lilting and harmonious, open slopes falling prettily between stands of pine and old cow barns. There are several runs, none terribly hard, most of them the sort of dropping-waterfall trail that enlarges the ego and massages the soul. Each of them curls back down to the rustic village. From there, perhaps after another draught of that mystical Austrian beer, one rises on chairs again up the opposite side of the valley. Now it is sunset and you can ski back to Saalbach, a mile or two on apricot-tinted snow. There, in the wood-paneled St√ºberl of the Hotel Kristall, you order a steaming mug of J√§ger tea, the famed hunter's tea laced with rum and schnapps, and a bowl of whipped gorgonzola cheese and butter to spread on your breadsticks and toast.
All of this is easy enough, a mere exercise in skiing hedonism, and it is readily available to anyone. But let us slightly broaden the perspective, add a different dimension to skiing in the hinter-valleys of Austria. Let us reach beyond sheer enjoyment for a deeper appreciation of what we have here, for folklore and history, Austrian peasant life and mountain superstition. Let us meet the Herr Doktor Ernst Scheibl.
Doktor Scheibl appeared unexpectedly early one morning at the Hotel Kristall. He was a burly bear of a fellow with a thick black beard, snapping dark eyes and a baggy green loden jacket that he almost never removed. Doktor Scheibl spoke superb English, was able to yodel quite well and eventually displayed an impressive grasp of Austrian history, rationalist philosophy, Alpine skiing techniques, schnapps "burning" (distilling at home), Renaissance art, all forms of discotheque dancing and countless tidbits concerning points of interest far off the beaten ski trails of Austria. He was called Doktor because of an Austrian custom honoring academic degrees below Ph.D. level (his were in philosophy and High German), and he had come, he said, from the national chamber of commerce in Vienna to help make a trip through Alpine back valleys more comprehensible with his translations, explanations and advice.
At breakfast Doktor Scheibl drank only black coffee and, while others ate, spoke pleasantly, with scholarly emphasis. "Since you are taking a ski tour not many Americans take, let me tell you a ski fact not many Americans know. Once upon a time, the story goes, there was one Countess Margarete Maultasch of the Tyrol. As it is told, in 1363 she was 45 years old and notoriously homely. Her name means 'mouth bag' or, as you might say, 'pocket mouth.' The countess married twice despite these handicaps, but in 1363 she bequeathed all of the Tyrol to a friend, Rudolph IV, of Austria's celebrated House of Hapsburg. This was a political, not a romantic, move. And thus much of the magnificent Alpine skiing for which Austria is now so famous came to us thanks to the wise decision of Countess Pocket Mouth. That is a fact little known outside of Austria."
Doktor Scheibl paused, as if waiting for questions, then rolled his eyes and said, "A pity, however, that it was not a matter of romance!" He yodeled softly to make his point.
Later that morning, skiing the endless runs above Saalbach under a golden Alpine sun, stopping occasionally to sink, beer in hand, into one of the dozens of canvas deck chairs set in rows in the snow, the Doktor fell into conversation with a tough old mountaineer named Hans. Hans was a native of Saalbach and long a guide, both winter and summer, in these Alps above the Saal River.
Doktor Scheibl asked him about the background of skiing in Saalbach. Hans replied, "When I got born there was no skiing in Saalbach, yet I am only 63. There was no ski lift in the whole valley until 1946. My first ski binding—ha, ha!—it was an old shoe of my father's nailed to my ski and laced tight to my foot. Until 20 years ago everyone in Saalbach was farmers. Now we are in the tourist business. Everyone. People don't use the Alps for farms or cows, not anymore, only for tourists."
"Tell me, then," said Doktor Scheibl, "are the Kasermandls gone too, if the farming has stopped?"
Hans exclaimed, "Kasermandls! Nobody believes in Kasermandls now that we are in the tourist business. If Kasermandls were not good for milk cows, they are not good for tourists."
Doktor Scheibl explained, in his patient way, that Kasermandls were creatures no one ever saw. They were probably small and possibly green and had lived in the mountains for centuries, usually with the sole aim of doing dirty tricks to cows and cowherds. "You see," said Doktor Scheibl, "when a cowherd left his hut to go down the mountain, he left food for Kasermandls or they would cause the cows' milk to go sour, or to be spilled. Also, if a Kasermandl becomes angry at you, he will punish you by wiping his hands on a scorched frying pan, then wiping the dirt on your face, and you can never get it off. For life."
The sun shone brilliantly on the snow I and the slopes were comfortably alive I with skiers, some yodeling for the sheer ecstasy of the day. But Doktor Scheibl was in a deep brown study, frowning, stroking his beard. At last he said, "Hans is right, of course. Kasermandls would not be good for the tourist business. It was bad enough when the Austrian ski team was losing to the French a few years ago. Believe it or not, Austrian winter tourism suffered much because of that. And to think of Kasermandls tinkering with tourists besides—a disaster, more or less."
Someone suggested that possibly an Austrian ski team made up entirely of Kasermandls could solve all problems at once. Doktor Scheibl replied, "It is unnecessary. Tourism is up again now that the Austrian team is winning." He yodeled with delight, then said, "Believe it or not."
Though Saalbach lies in a relatively remote and beautiful valley, it is a village plainly in the tourist business. The steep and narrow streets are tied up in a perpetual traffic jam of creeping cars and jostling skiers, and there is an air of ski-bunny commercialism that becomes a mite heavy. At night, the swingers turn out in grand grinning armies to bob and throb on tiny dance floors in the velvet cellars of several hotels and cafés. There is plenty of 20th-century action in Saalbach, but there is a certain lingering Old World beauty, too. An onion-steepled 17th-century church, its walls weathered to ocher by the mountain winds, is crammed inside from pulpit to balcony with the classic gilt gingerbread carvings and sculpture of the baroque style. And there are some gracious old restaurants, hotels and cafés. None is so fine as the café in the Hotel Bauer, with its red-shaded lamps, superb pastries and sharp espresso, its backsound of murmured conversations. A lovely "introspective place," as Doktor Scheibl put it, something out of 19th-century Munich.
Serfaus is a sleeping beauty of a village tucked away high above The Valley of the Inn River, way up where rock-seamed Peak Furgler looms at night. The sense of tranquillity and antiquity is profound. There are no cars moving through the streets, for at the village entrance stands a man with a lantern. When a car arrives, this sentinel at the gates stops the motorist and politely asks, in guttural, Tyrolean-accented German, whether the driver has a hotel room reserved. If the answer is no, the visitor is directed off the road and told that he must walk into Serfaus, for motorized traffic is unwelcome. If the answer is yes, the motorist is permitted to drive to his hotel and park, though not to drive the narrow streets again during his stay.
Thus the medieval serenity is maintained. Barns full of cows or horses stand next door to hotels and pensions. The faint odor of manure is in the air, along with the sounds of the bells of horse-drawn sleighs and the lilt of zither music from skating and curling rinks in the center of town. There is a magnificent ninth-century church, with a Madonna and Child said to date from the year 427. Serfaus, it is claimed, was a shrine for pilgrims of the fifth century and later for travelers bound for the Holy Land, and the stone remains of a Roman road wind through the area.
In other ways, too, Serfaus still seems to live in another century. Nearly every doorway in town, from the weathered old wood frames on barns to the gleaming new oak moldings of the hotels, bears the cryptic chalked notation 19 C‚Ä†M‚Ä†B‚Ä† 74. What does it mean?
Doktor Scheibl said, "That is done all over the countryside for fear of ghosts on the loose. It is to protect the people who use the door from bad spirits. There is holy water involved, too."
There were also odd arrangements of dried wreaths of moss and flowers, with tiny mirrors, tacked upon some of the ancient barn walls. "That," said Doktor Scheibl, "has to do with the days from Dec. 24 to Jan. 6, a dangerous time of year when trolls and ghosts and Kasermandls are all around, but the letters C M B are initials of the three kings, and they will protect you. On the Rauhnacht, the rough night, it is believed that if you are in a stable at midnight without the animals knowing of your presence, they will be speaking among themselves. If you are able to overhear them talk, they will tell you what your future will be. However, if the animals discover that you are eavesdropping, you will die definitely within one year. This all dates from Germanic times. The mirrors on the wreaths are very important. If a bad ghost sees himself in the mirror he will be frightened by his own horrible appearance, and he will run away into the night."
There were no ghosts, no talking animals on the slopes of Serfaus, although there were lots of 19 C‚Ä†M‚Ä†B‚Ä† 74s over the doorways of the café-huts on the mountain, where gourmand goulash is the specialty.
The skiing at Serfaus is, in a word, lovely. It is not difficult, only mildly daring and not half so dramatically flung out over vast square kilometers as at Saalbach. Much of the area is above the tree line, where the runs are creamy smooth, with slow moguls and magnificent scenery. On some days you can ride the T-bar 1,510 meters up the Plansegg through thick clouds, then emerge at the top in blue sky and sunshine, with all of Alpine Europe arrayed before you. Then you ski down, roller-coasting the moguls, out of the sunshine and down into the clouds again, as if on a plane dipping in to land through fog. Once the skies clear, skiing above the trees is endlessly pleasing as well, though perhaps too easy for most experts to enjoy for more than a couple of days. The only run that is marked expert lies just beneath old Peak Furgler. One slips off a chair lift onto a mountaintop arrival trail as desolate and lonely, on a normal weekday, as the top of Annapurna. Far across the valley, lying white and treeless below and beyond, are the Plansegg slopes, relatively crowded for Plansegg, though empty by comparison with the favorite tourist runs in the Alps. But up here, with old Peak Furgler gazing benevolently down, there is a rapturous sense of really skiing the Alps.
The presence of the mountains is absolute. There is no sense of humanity, of population, of mankind's mark. You drop down the Lazid trails, a bit mogully and quite steep, but clean and open. On your left, there are peaks and avalanche steeps where no one has skied and no one can. It is an exhilarating drop to the valley floor, where there is a long and gradual runout back to a lift up the other side.
Over there, after a cup of Bouillon mil Ei in one of the mountain huts, one takes a short T-bar up a rise, then begins a long run down through the trees, into the forests, past thickets and stands of fir and pine. This trail, deep and steep with an ever-changing pattern of dips and drops, leads you back to the sleeping village, where, as you trudge through the street, alive with the day's joys of skiing, you may hear that the wind has begun to rise up among the sunset summits you have just departed. You will be walking past the ancient barns redolent of cows, past the brightly lighted skating rink and the darkened ninth-century church, past a late-working peasant dragging a sled heaped with hay. And then, if you are fortunate, you will run into Doktor Scheibl. If so, he will lead you, as he has others, to the Geiger Pension, a tiny hotel sheltered from the cold and falling darkness.
Inside, Doktor Scheibl will greet a robust old woman with a cotton-gray head. She is Frau Geiger, midwife of Serfaus, and she will inform you that all her teeth are her own, that she has 10 children, 34 grandchildren and nine great grandchildren and has delivered more than 500 babies in her lifetime. And she will tell you of the olden times and the present times in her village.
Though Serfaus still seems more medieval than modern, there are about 2,500 guest beds there now and tourism is the local industry. There are eight lifts and 16 runs, but Frau Geiger said, like Hans, in Saalbach, "When I was young, skis were unheard of. Then in 1909, to our great surprise, a band of skiers arrived. They had climbed up on skis from the valley. Oh, how we celebrated! They were Bavarians and we gave a great party for them. My husband, though he was not my husband then, played the zither. I was 16 and I danced with all the Bavarians, again and again. It was not funny, the Bavarians danced very hard, even though they had skied far that same day. They were our first skiing tourists."
Frau Geiger paused, sipped some wine, sampled some cake and said, "Even after that fine night, skiing was not important in Serfaus for many years. We used skis for something besides having fun. We used them to smuggle things in and out of Switzerland. All the best people in Serfaus were good smugglers. They would bring leather ropes and such over the mountains at night to the Swiss and return by dawn with sugar and coffee. Of course, the best skiers were the best smugglers. Many of them became ski instructors in later years."
The yodeler at the Tyrolean Night festivities later that same evening in the cellar bar of the Furgler Hotel was a strapping fellow with a chest like a barrel and a neck like a stallion's. Hans Lichter, age 40, wore Lederhosen and was considered one of the finest yodelers in Austria, a professional for many years. Herr Lichter was asked how one yodels and he said, through Doktor Scheibl, "It is a combined thing of holding a note in your throat and moving your tongue. I started yodeling at the age of five, then stopped at the age of eight, then started again at the age of 18. I took some lessons to speak clearly the words of songs, but no lessons can really help you yodel. Either you have it or you don't. You really can't tell whether your voice will break right to be a great yodeler until you are 15 or 16 years of age. I was a woodcutter before I became a yodeler. As a young man I was very thin, but as I yodeled more and more and developed my lungs and my throat I became bigger, and soon I had this very big chest and this very strong constitution.
"Yodeling," added Herr Lichter emphatically, "is good for one's health."
He then went back and yodeled a song that Doktor Scheibl said was called The Yodeler of the Archduke of Johann, the words of which Doktor Scheibl translated as, "Wherever I am standing my heart hurts because the Archduke of Johann is not around here anymore."
Mayrhofen is a medium-to-large town on the rich, flat Zillertal, the valley of the Ziller River, and it has never suffered the poverty and hardship of places like Serfaus and Saalbach. Nor does it look—not at first—like a ski town. On both sides of the valley the mountains are heavily wooded. The main highway carries swift and roaring traffic, and the business streets are so overrun with souvenir shops, knick-knack stores and cheap trinketry that Doktor Scheibl was moved to say, "This seems like a big tourist machine."
The skiing lies high above, on both sides of the valley. A cable car climbs each, rising above 75-foot fir trees on the steep slope until, at the top, one is presented with still another Alpine panorama of mighty peaks sloping off toward infinity. At one's feet some nice trails drop down through the trees. They are fairly broad and rolling at the top, narrowing toward the bottom.
You can ski on one side and see the other trails across the valley. On the east side. there is one long, splendid run marked expert, mogully and fun, dropping in great snowy bumps among the trees. There is also a vast selection of gentle beginner and novice plateaus, with peaks rising all around. The far side of the valley is more challenging, and perhaps even more appealing. Trails spill off both sides of the mountain high above the town. There is a stark, rocky peak—The Little Matterhorn, they call it—sticking up in the distance. It is exciting, occasionally fairly hard, skiing.
One of Mayrhofen's pleasant surprises can be found on the east side of the valley at the top of the Ahornlift. This is Ernst Spiess, a droll, apple-cheeked fellow who is director of the Mayrhofen ski school. On a day that happened to be dank and foggy, Herr Spiess sat gazing thoughtfully out the window of his office. In his hand and in the hands of his visitors were goblets of pear schnapps. All were sipping as they watched the swirling mists outside, mists so thick there were no peaks, pistes or skiers to be seen. At last Spiess chuckled and said, "The weather is our friend. We must believe that. Or else we should go into another business, such as raising mink or fixing wristwatches."
He drained his schnapps, rose from his chair and executed one quick, giddy pirouette before his guests. He was wearing grossly baggy striped pants and a shiny red swallowtail coat. Standing there, he rubbed bright rouge on his already ruddy cheeks and put on a silly top hat. "Wiedersehn," he said, "I must work." He stepped outside the office, fastened one ski to one foot, slowly lifted the other foot, rather in the manner of a dog at a hydrant, and glided off down the hill, coattails flying, trousers flapping, one hand holding his hat. As he went, Spiess shouted something, and out of the mists a chirping, giggling colorful cascade of tiny children on skis appeared, sliding down after him. They were dressed in a wild array of clothing, things fit for the Mad Hatter's tea party, and soon he and all the children were swallowed by the fog. Doktor Scheibl observed, "Ernst Spiess seems the Pied Piper of Mayrhofen. Or possibly he is a Kasermandl in disguise."
The truth was only slightly closer to prosaic. This was Fasching, that moonstruck and uninhibited time of year when this part of Europe fills with costumed fools squeezing in all the last-minute high jinks and minor sins of commission before Lent arrives to spoil the fun. Ernst Spiess is famous for his kindergarten-level ski school, as well as for his schnapps-pouring prowess, and this curious scene in the fog was merely a Fasching day's ski class.
Later, at a venison dinner at the Hotel Kramerwirt, an establishment run for 300 years by the family of Hans-Erich Kr√∂ll, Spiess raised a glass and said, "I feel more natural during Fasching. Here's to Lent not coming this year!"
Everyone agreed as Spiess put on a rubber nose, dipped it in a nearby stein of beer and squeezed it, squirting a stream upon the chest of Doktor Scheibl, who raised his own glass and intoned, "Here is to the gift of Countess Pocket Mouth to Rudolph IV, without which we would all be raising mink and fixing wristwatches."
High above Mayrhofen lies Hintertux, an isolated village of scarcely recognizable streets, so narrow and steep are the lanes that twist among the town's hotels and barns. Skiing at Hintertux takes place on a glacier 10,000 feet high, a clean white apron of snow ordinarily splashed by bright sun and swept by biting winds. The trails are gentle, enjoyable—ice-cream stuff again—and the view is almost forever on a clear day.
A soul-satisfying, if possibly sole-searing, experience can be had by choosing to walk down the winding road from Hintertux to Mayrhofen on a mild winter afternoon. This would not occur to many people, but Doktor Scheibl, inveterate enthusiast and rugged individualist, bellowed out to the car driver early one afternoon as a group of skiers rode down that pleasing road: "Stop the car! Stop! I am a hiker, not a rider. Let me out!" And he proceeded to lead a three-hour hike down through the winter Alps, along the gurgling River Tux, past steep drops and soaring peaks, down, down the twisting road. He led the way with sturdy, slapping steps, yodeling upon occasion, sometimes linking arms and shouting out a rhythmic cadence so everyone walked in lockstep, and once simply plunging over the side of the road and running with great jolting steps through a pasture where the snow had melted, to pick up the road again where it curved below. With typical verve, the good doktor insisted that everyone stop at the pensions, inns and bars along the way and ingest a touch of schnapps at each. Gradually the descent took on an interior dimension: in the golden warmth of the wooden booths of Gasthof Persal, a sip of Heidelbeerschnaps ("Blueberry, more or less," said Doktor Scheibl); farther down, in a brightly lit pension featuring a fat, stuffed badger on the bar, a nip of Enzian (made of aromatic mountain-flower root); at the Gasthof Teufelsbr√ºcke, the Devil's Bridge, a swallow or so of Meisterwurz (flower and plant roots); at a brown wood-paneled pension in the village of Finkenberg, a few drops of Obstler (apples and pears) served in delicate silver goblets on a silver tray. And so the afternoon, and the kilometers, passed, and it was growing dark as Doktor Scheibl and his party reached the Ziller River Valley, passed the towering power poles of Mayrhofen and entered its lighted suburbs.
Doktor Scheibl sighed and said softly, "It is purest Alpine existentialism."
Later, at a discotheque, the Andreas Keller, in the basement of the Hotel Kramerwirt, Doktor Scheibl stroked his beard and spoke of the recent days in the back valleys of the Alps. "Now you have seen Austria off the beaten paths. You have discussed Kasermandls, heard about our famous Countess Pocket Mouth. You have done many things Americans never do and never think of doing." Solemnly he donned a rubber Fasching nose, dipped it in a goblet of Obstler and squirted the schnapps toward a waitress, who caught most of the stream in the cleavage revealed by her dress. She giggled. Doktor Scheibl chuckled. He rose, bowed and lumbered off across the dance floor, leaving his friends with visions of Kasermandls yet to be seen and pitchers of Obstler yet to be drunk.