The breathtaking Austrian valley of Villgraten has successfully resisted modern ski resorts, offering a natural alternative for winter fun.
The first law of nature – including human nature – is change. Few things remain the same over time because staying motionless takes so much energy. That is what makes the valley of Villgraten in the Austrian East Tyrol a story worth telling. The neighbouring mountains are awash in densely developed ski slopes and aerial cable cars that make easy assents up each summit, so it’s remarkable that villagers here have successfully resisted the modernization that defines the rest of the region.
But it is by trying to stay the same that the people of Villgraten have distinguished themselves as different. On winter days, hundreds of skiers flock to this valley to enjoy the slopes. But each one has to make his or her own way up the mountain, with the help of traditional climbing gear like harscheisen (ski crampons).
It’s not for those seeking the glamorous ski scene, among whom nights in the discos are as important as days on the slopes. And it’s not for those who are out of shape, lazy, or impatient for anything that doesn’t offer instant sensation.
I find myself trudging stoically up the Alps on skis, my eyes focused on the still-distant cross at the summit, 2,624 metres (8,608 feet) high. Mountain guide Hannes GrŸner promises me, as a reward for my labours, a wonderful view, a spectacular descent and, above all, a sense of satisfaction as deep as the powder snow. When skiers go on about how many thousands of metres they have skied in a day, he says: “First of all, climb 500 metres (1,640 feet); then we’ll talk.”
We’ve climbed 350 metres. Our route gets steeper, the snow more compact. With harscheisen biting into the snow, we work our way uphill in a line.
After three hours, we are sitting on a white ridge. The high peaks of the Dolomite mountains look close enough to touch. Far below us lies the V-shaped town, clusters of farmhouses, barns and chalets that seem distant and small. All around lies a breathtaking natural Alpine landscape – a scene few skiers seldom glimpse anymore.
The conflict between environmental purists and development advocates is a familiar tale, with development generally winning out, thanks to promises of new jobs, more income from taxes, better infrastructure, greater prestige. The local people and visiting skiers who like Villgraten as it is fear that the valley might someday sell its soul. “People come here because it’s different,” says Grüner. “It’s more real, more beautiful, more pristine.”
If the citizens of Villgraten allowed a network of ski lifts to be built, Villgraten would be no different than any other ski destination in the Tyrol, choked with boutiques, fun parks and parking lots. As it is, there’s no traffic, no laser light shows or chic nightlife. So it’s not with superlatives that this place is advertised, but the lack of them: “Come and stay with us – there’s nothing here!”
Two ravens soar over the ridges. Almost solemnly, I refasten my skis. These glistening slopes have never heard the roar of a snow groomer. Carefully, our small group begins to weave its way down the mountain. Because of the hard-packed trails I normally ski, I have forgotten that real snow feels different. It is a living medium with a consistency that changes depending on the sun, temperature, wind direction. By this I mean the descent is hard work too. It is delightful, but we earn every metre.
Villgraten inhabitants, who number just under 1,000, are envied for their picturesque Alpine villages. Winter views of the Oberstaller Alp or the Kamelisen Alp adorn many posters and calendars. A few inns and small hotels have sprung up in the valley, but private lodgings remain the usual form of accommodation. Staying with a farm family like the Senfters, guests experience the daily routine of mountain life, from breakfast under the little family altar to the evening feeding of the cattle in the barn. As is the case with most farmyards, three generations live here along with cats under one roof.
“Anybody who has cows can look after tourists,” says Martha Senfter. This charming and quite agreeable rural hospitality would inevitably be diminished if a ski resort were built. The farmyards would be devoid of animals, the accommodations more impersonal and more commercial. The big-money ski buffs would definitely want to come here, but all the wildlife and the other winter sports fans – the skiers seeking solitude, the tireless hikers – would be driven away. The Villgraten valley remains at a crossroads, and local residents discuss, as they do every winter with almost ritual fervour, the many pros and cons of modern development.
Would the place still feel sacred? Would the pilgrims still come? Since a temple and retreat centre was built at the Wallfahrt church in Kalkstein, the valley has achieved national prominence among spiritual seekers. Led by Catholic lay sister Maria Krizmanich, walking retreats and meditations take place here. Everybody – bank managers or prospective priests, curious students or five-time mothers – look to the centre as a place of retreat. The noisier life becomes, says Sister Maria, the more we need silence. The unspoiled winter world of the valley makes life feel more real, more palpable, more replete with meaning. Silence revives people and helps them make decisions. But that’s not incompatible with an emphasis on outdoor sports. From time immemorial, incidentally, the little church in Kalkstein has been called Kirche Maria Schnee (“Maria Snow Church”). Praise be the winter.
Adapted with permission from the German weekly newspaper Die Zeit (Aug. 2005), http://www.zeit.de