Lech's jovial outdoor tea bars, its warm, well-managed chalet lodges, the interesting conversations of its international guests, its supermarkets, sleigh bells and saunas define gemu tlichkeit. It is state-of-the-art coziness. Punctual yet unhurried, luxurious but not pretentious.
Lech lies in a narrow valley in the Arlberg mountain range of the Alps in Austria. One massive mountain after the other rises sharply on either side of the valley, so close that in the moonlight they seem to be a white wall guarding the town.
The mountains are a definite presence, never to be overlooked or ignored. They command attention. They are a magnificent series of enormous craggy peaks, mostly broad open mountainside fields, bare of trees, covered deeply in heavy snow. The snow is much moister than that of the Rockies -- it's what children would call great packing snow.
In fact, Lech is close to paradise for expert skiers and powder enthusiasts. One open vastness leads into the next and into yet another.
In the early morning, far-off peaks stand out sharply, covered with a pink glow. The sky is pristine and very blue. A broad, rushing stream cuts through the town, spanned by a series of bridges, including an old covered wooden one that is the meeting place for half-a-dozen horse-drawn sleighs. The main street runs on both the left and right sides of the stream; and in between small hotels it offers stores overflowing with the luxury items of well-outfitted skiers and the well-fed. At the far end of town is a 14th-century white stucco church with a tall steeple topped by an onion-shaped dome.
Behind the main street, built into the foothills of the Alps, are dozens of chalets for guests. Though constructed mainly in the past 15 years (before that, Lech was primarily a farming and mining town), the buildings show traditional Alpine touches. Each chalet is part wood, part stucco; the stucco walls around windows and doors are embellished with painted scrolls.
Perhaps the town would suffer from an excess of quaintness in some other setting, but here, anchored by its ancient church and the mountains, it is just right. Since even private homes offer lodgings, there are accommodations for about 6,000 skiers, ranging in price from about $13 for a bed-and-breakfast pension to $80 for a four-star hotel with breakfast and dinner.
My husband and I had never skied in Europe before. On the word of a colleague who is a much-traveled, expert skier, we chose Lech because it is sophisticated yet neither ultra chic nor a mob scene. Its companion village, Zu rs, lies a few kilometers up the road, smaller, less of a true town. Beyond is Stuben and the better-known St. Anton and St. Christoph. All these towns share the Arlberg slopes.
One ski pass is valid for 72 cable cars and lifts throughout the 50 square kilometers of ski terrain. A week-long ski pass costs roughly $10 a day.
Our only regret is that one week is too short a time for a European ski excursion because of the travel time (a day in each direction) and the jet lag.
On the slopes of Lech, you can start on a packed path and, at almost any point, turn off onto untrodden fresh slopes. From the vantage point of a lift, the wiggly marks left by expert skiers cutting through powder in a narrow wedeln look like Botticelli tresses. The snow lies from 1.5 to 2.5 meters deep in the winter.
A good slope is neither abrupt nor boring nor choppy, but wends its way with a satisfying flow. It is the rhythm of a slope that makes skiing a sublime experience. And in Lech, these satisfying runs go on and on literally for miles.
Once at the top of the mountains (and there are seldom lines waiting for the lifts), skiers can take dozens of different routes connecting the mountains on one side of the valley to those on the other without coming back to the bottom till the end of the day. The piste markers used in the Alps, rather than defined trails, are plentiful and well-positioned throughout the Lech area. Between the markers and the detailed map provided free by the Tourist Bureau in town, it's easy to find one's way around the slopes.
As intermediate skiers, my husband and I signed up for ski school, a great bargain at about $10 a day. Boasting 300 instructors, the school asks newcomers to choose a group based on their level of skill, ranging from 1A expert to 6B beginner. Our niche was 4B.
Each class gathers at 10 a.m., skis together for the morning, eats lunch together on the slopes, then skis as a group from 2 until 4 p.m. Lessons and practice alternate with incredibly long runs. The instructor is out front demonstrating techniques with grace, followed one after another by his (or her) line of students. This day-long group session gave us not only an intense learning experience, but also a chance to ski almost the entire terrain around Lech.
Our instructor, Eddie, made the experience perhaps too intense. We have never skied so hard, so fast, in our lives, over slopes that, had we stopped to think about them, would have seemed much too difficult. Eddie kept our group skiing with such Teutonic rigor that we often had no time to see where we were or where, amid that magnificent scenery, we had been.
Our group of 10 ranged from two Viennese women in their sixties to two 30-year-olds on holiday from Germany. There was one other American (who was fluent in German because he works in the United States for a German import company) and a Brazilian.
Lunch breaks became a great part of the fun. Sitting outside at sun-warmed wooden tables at cafe's set in the middle of the mountains (and, one day, at a cozy hotel at the foot of the mountain in Zu rs), we conversed in German and English about politics, children and techniques for keeping one's skis parallel in the face of steep inclines. Some of us lunched lightly on yogurt and fruit, while others consumed hearty portions of stew, spaghetti and beer (there were no hamburgers). After rests that seemed all too brief, Eddie had us out at top speed on the slopes again.
The most beautiful place we found on the mountain was at the top of the Rudikopf, the highest point in the range around the town, reached by a cable car (take it before 9 a.m. or after 11:30 a.m. to avoid the only crowds in Lech). The panorama of mountain peak after peak stretches on all sides. Dozens of slopes flow ahead in their beautiful rhythm, and each time the trail makes a turn, there is another wonderful view ahead. On the one day of our week in Lech that snow fell (there had been a heavy snowfall just before we arrived), the Rudikopf was so shrouded in clouds that the slopes were closed to skiers.
The Madloch offers one of the longest, most diverse runs in the Arlberg -- five kilometers. A challenging intermediate slope, it traverses the sheer face of a mountain at one rather breath-catching point with a great many twists and turns, offers spectacular panoramas and crosses a lake at its foot. It took our group 2 1/2 hours to ski the Madloch. It is a Lech tradition for groups to reward themselves for this feat with a series of toasts. We sat at a table in the late afternoon sunshine on the terrace of one of the town's many konditorei (cafe's specializing in desserts). Those two hours of easy talk became an experience as enjoyable as the wild ski over the Madloch had been.
By late afternoon each day we discovered muscles we never knew we had. Saunas at our lodge before dinner were the reason we were able to get back on skis the next day.
We stayed at the Haldenhof, run by the amiable and very efficient Hubert and Isolde Schwartzler. His hunting trophies adorn every inch of wall space that is not otherwise bedecked with pictures of the hunt. Our room was paneled in dark, carved wood, and had a modern tiled bath and a mountain view. Best of all were the down comforters that covered the king-size bed. Our week's lodging, with breakfast and dinner, cost about $500 per person, as part of a special package deal from Swiss Airlines.
While we took refuge in the sauna at 6 p.m., tougher (and younger) skiers converged on the outdoor tea bars on hotel terraces overlooking the stream. The bars feature music, tea, liquor, pastry and lots of conviviality. This is also the hour when people stroll through the streets, many decked in expensive fur coat and boots. The early evening is the time to browse through the boutiques that offer ski outfits, hand-knit sweaters and French perfume.
The two good-sized supermarkets are crowded at this hour, with people lodging in apartments busy shopping for the makings for dinner. The supermarkets offered such tempting smoked meats, sausages, cheeses and forest mushrooms that we bought some to take home with us -- only to have them confiscated by an apologetic U.S. Customs official. What does make good sense to buy are the chocolates, packaged soups and a fabulous thick chocolate liqueur named after Mozart (and not available in the airport duty-free shop).
Food is a big part of the Lech experience. Our lodge had a large, wood-paneled dining room where guests were assigned their own table for the week. Ours, as luck would have it, was next to the week's most prestigious guest, a Scottish earl, who during years of stopping at the Schwartzlers' lodge had become fast hunting friends with the host.
Breakfast was a sumptuous buffet of smoked meats, cold cereals, yogurt, fruits, cheeses, jams, boiled eggs (each served in its own egg cup with warmer) and the world's best fresh rolls. Dinners had four courses -- homemade soups, smoked fish, a main course of meat with a rich sauce plus salad and vegetable, and a rich dessert.
The most festive meal was translated into English by the Schwartzlers as a "farmers banquet" -- a groaning board of many grilled and broiled meats, composed salads and potato dishes, consumed to the accompaniment of a zither skillfully played by a native in lederhosen. The competent, cheerful young waitresses, dressed in dirndls, sang along, and so did everyone else.