THE BLOG

Charm and Glamour in the Austrian Tyrol

28/01/2015 14:50 GMT | Updated 29/03/2015 10:59 BST

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Kitzbühel has vast areas of wide open pistes

It's lunchtime in the Austrian ski resort of Kitzbühel. I'm polishing off a bowl of goulash, soaking up the sun on the terrace of a traditional wood-built gasthaus at the bottom of a long tree-lined piste. Inside the 400-year-old building, the landlady is cooking dessert: a big pan of Kaiserschmarrn, the classic Tyrolean dish of shredded pancake sprinkled with icing sugar and served with plum compote.

Apart from the high-tech ski clothing draped over the backs of the wooden chairs, it's a timeless scene. There is no traffic noise and not a modern building in sight, only the schuss of passing skiers, twitching their noses at the glorious smells wafting out from the kitchen.

And yet ... it's not all calm in Kitzbühel. Not far from here, the world's best downhill skiers are warming up for the fastest, most dangerous and most exciting race of the year, for Kitzbühel is also home to the infamous Hahnenkamm, the highlight of the World Cup season. It's held each year on the Streif, a treacherously steep and icy 3km-long course that has destroyed the careers of many bright young hopefuls.

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Watching a practice session at the top of the Streif course

This year marked the 75th anniversary of the Hahnenkamm. The first race was won by a Briton, Gordon "Mouse" Cleaver, who later served with 601 Squadron in the Battle of Britain. That's rarely mentioned nowadays in Austria where an appearance on the podium guarantees lifelong fame and glory. No Briton has come close to winning it since.

More than 50,000 cheerful spectators turn up in Kitzbühel (population 8,000) to watch the race, shout and sing until they're hoarse and drink industrial quantities of lager. It's the equivalent of an FA Cup Final held in a small provincial town.

Even the practice sessions - which I watched last week - are said to attract larger crowds than some races in lesser-known resorts. Standing beside the track as the racers tear down at 140kph is a thrilling, visceral experience.

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Chef Monika prepares Kaiserschmarrn in her kitchen

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The traditional Tyrolean dessert is served with plum compote

Back at the Alpengasthof Schroll, where chef Monika is dishing out the Kaiserschmarrn, you couldn't be further from the chanting fans and throbbing speakers. But that's the beauty of Kitzbühel, which manages to combine all the traditional charm of the Tyrol with world-class skiing, a sprinkling of glamour and a side serving of danger.

The resort has 170km of groomed pistes, but it's not just about size. Kitzbühel is eye-poppingly gorgeous, with rolling hills, panoramic viewpoints and wide runs that carve between the trees. There are no fewer than 56 traditional huts and lodges where you can stop for lunch, a glühwein or a schnapps. It's certainly a contender for world's best-looking ski resort and, as you'd expect in Austria, the lifts are fast and efficient, and the welcome friendly.

The only snag with Kitzbühel is the altitude. It's a low-lying village with a sometimes patchy snow record. Earlier this season it didn't get its first serious dump until 29 December, which must have been a nail-biting few weeks for local business owners.

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Soaking up the sun on the terrace of the Alpengasthof Schroll

However, 25cm of snow had fallen three days before my visit last week and the skiing on the pistes - under bright sunshine - was superb. This week more than 100cm of fresh snow was forecast, with serious powder on the upper slopes, setting the resort up nicely for the mid part of the season. With prices for ski holidays reduced following media reports of grassy slopes, now is a great time to book.

Glamorous resorts in France and Switzerland tend to be pricey, but Kitzbühel - like most of Austria - represents good value, particularly now that Sterling is strengthening against the Euro. Both the goulash and the Kaiserschmarrn at the Alpengasthof Schroll were €9.80 (£7.35) but there were plenty of cheaper options. At most huts you can get a filling bowl of goulash soup for around €6 (£4.50).

Last week all the hotels in Kitzbühel were booked so I stayed at the Cordial which is just outside the village and connected to the slopes by regular shuttle bus. I expected the pistes to be crowded but most of the time I had plenty of space and as soon as the practice sessions started the slopes seemed to empty completely. It was like having my own private resort.

If you visit Kitzbühel on any other week of the season you'll find a picturesque and historic village with painted houses and cobbled streets. There are upmarket shops selling lederhosen and handmade shoes, and traditional konditorei serving coffee and patisserie.

The locals are friendly, but just be sensitive when asking about the Hahnenkamm - this year it was won by a Norwegian, Kjetil Jansrud. The Austrians didn't even make it to the podium.

* Mark Hodson is Editor of 101 Holidays. All photos by the author.