August 8, 2022

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Pity, if you will, Bernhard Zangerl. He was 25 when two years ago he took...

Pity, if you will, Bernhard Zangerl. He was 25 when two years ago he took over the running of the Kitzloch bar in Ischgl from his parents, keen to prove he was ready to take responsibility for a part of the family business.
Two weeks later, the Austrian alpine village, best known for its raucous après-ski scene, found itself at the crest of the first European wave of Covid-19. And the Kitzloch — with its shot-serving waitresses, whistles and alcohol-fuelled sing-a-longs — might as well have been Europe’s epidemiological ground zero for the headlines it got. The calls from journalists — I was one of them — did not stop coming.
“I leave you alone for one moment. . .” Zangerl recalls his dad saying, half in jest, half not.
An aeroplane of Icelanders triggered the recriminations. In late February 2020, 15 of them, arriving home after a week of winter sports, tested positive in Reykjavik. They’d all been partying at the Kitzloch. Soon after, Iceland declared the region of Tyrol to be on a par with Wuhan and Iran when it came to the risk of coronavirus infection.

Stars that have performed at previous concerts include Robbie Williams (in 2014) . . . © Alamy

. . . and Kylie Minogue (in 2009) © Felix Hoerhager/Alamy

Half of Norway’s initial cases were then claimed to have come from Ischgl. One-third of those in Denmark. One-sixth of those in Sweden. Neighbouring Germany — and Bavaria’s government in particular — were quick to heap pre-emptive blame on the Austrians for being the source of their own incipient Covid disaster.
Partying skiers very rapidly became a powerful shorthand across Europe for official ignorance and public carelessness. A headline in Der Spiegel, Germany’s agenda-setting news magazine, declared Ischgl “Die Brutstätte” — “The Breeding Ground”.
And so, here I am, two years on, in the Kitzloch — as a crowd of revellers belt out half-remembered Europop ski classics like Jägermeister DJ Alex & Matty Valentino’s Auffe aufn Berg — talking to Zangerl in a little office at the back of the bar.
“A lot of people are coming, but it’s still 50-60 per cent of what a regular season would be like,” says Zangerl, who shrugs off the negative attention the Kitzloch got with remarkable grace.
Attitudes towards the village are shifting, he thinks, but it is a slow process. “At the beginning, public opinion was that we in Ischgl were not doing what we were told to — that we were deliberately ignoring the problem. But in March 2020, people didn’t know about this — it was new for everyone. Now I think there’s more understanding.” Ultimately, he says, the lesson everyone is learning is that “you can’t control a virus.”

The Kitzloch bar in Ischgl . . .  © Getty

 . . . and the man in charge, Bernhard Zangerl, who took over just as Covid was breaking out worldwide © Getty

Ischgl sits towards the end of the Paznaun valley, high in western Austria, at the base of the Silvretta massif that divides the country from neighbouring Switzerland. From my home in Zurich it’s a three-hour, picturesque journey by train and then taxi to my hotel. Many visitors reach the resort by flying into nearby Innsbruck, Tyrol’s capital, which is only about 90 minutes away by car or public transport.
The Pacha nightclub might be closed, and the huge mountaintop concert that ordinarily starts the ski season was postponed, but the village’s libidinous reputation is still in evidence this January: the bars here, in the “Ibiza of the Alps” as it has been called, are rowdy from the late afternoon onwards.

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Nevertheless, Ischgl is a compact place, and not without charm. Indeed, if there is an opportunity to have risen out of the pandemic, it is that Ischgl’s authorities now think that they could do with refocusing on some of the village’s original draws. There’s more to bring visitors to Ischgl than carousing.
On a beautifully clear, crisp first day, it is not hard to see what has made the town so attractive as a ski destination: three separate high capacity gondolas take visitors directly from the high street up to the Idalp plateau — a broad expanse 4km or so distant from town, full of glorious broad red and blue ski runs, criss-crossed with modern chair lifts. In all, the Ischgl-Samnaun area has 239km of pistes, and almost all of the runs end at 2,000m or higher, thus maximising the chances of good and early snow.
Ischgl, I read before coming, is also one of the best places in the Alps for ski touring, which I have signed up to try on day one. After some gentle skiing towards our route off the piste, we stop in the sun to attach the skins to the bottom of the skis. Soon the odd sensation of sliding uphill dissipates as my guide Stefan leads me high above Idalp and we glide towards the Filmspitz — 2,928m above sea level — with stunning views into the Swiss canton of Graubünden.
We stop on the lip of a steep snow-packed ridge and, having discovered from Stefan that the goal is now to ski off over the edge of this, share a brief exchange about the meaning of the word “vertical”. But, it’s good to try new things. It’s good to try new things. It’s good to try new things . . . So off we go, sailing down the slope in deep powder towards Switzerland, with only one minor tumble.

An off-piste run at Ischgl. Most of the pistes are above 2,000m, making good conditions more likely © Alamy

Back in town for the evening, I head over to the Schlosshotel to have a glass of champagne with Arnold Tschiderer, its owner, before dinner. The next door Champagnerhütte (champagne hut) — which Tschiderer also owns — certainly gets lively, but the hotel lobby is a far cry from the Ischgl many people think they know by reputation. Tschiderer says that Ischgl is changing. “Not in what it basically offers — the location and the skiing — but in the quality level,” he says. Ultra-luxurious hotels are one element of this. An increasing number of high-end restaurants in town, such as the Stiar or the Stüve at the Hotel Yscla, are another.
For now, though, the focus for Ischgl is very much on restoring confidence. Another lockdown, Tschiderer says, would be disastrous. As a result, safety measures are still needed, he believes — such as the rigorously enforced checks on vaccination status everywhere in town — but he questions whether some of these are not just performative.

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A world destinations pole atop an Ischgl ski run © Alamy

For example: during my stay there is a 10pm curfew in place. The village’s tagline — “Ischgl: Relax — if you can” — doesn’t quite ring true when authorities are enforcing bedtime.
“It is damaging for night-time gastronomy,” says Tschiderer. “It’s cosmetic — we are talking about venues full of people who have been checked, fully vaccinated and have probably already been sitting together for three hours, and then you are saying at 10pm if they stay any longer it becomes risky. That does not make sense.”
Then there are the mask police. Mask wearing is compulsory outdoors in the village, as I am repeatedly reminded. Nothing during the pandemic has done more to make me militate against having to wear a mask than being publicly chastised by uniformed officials for not having one fully over my nose on an empty street in the mountain air. (I have, at this point, had four doses of vaccine — too complicated to explain here — and one festive dose of London Omicron). I suspect at this stage in the pandemic, this kind of policy does far more harm than actual good. Masks are also compulsory on all the chair lifts — not just the gondolas.
Back at my hotel for dinner — the Sonne, which offers an excellent five-course nightly menu as part of its full-board package — the curfew is gently but firmly in force. Our group is moved to the lounge at 10, and after one final round of drinks, no more are served.

On day two in Ischgl, I take up an offer from my hosts to do some cross-country skiing. For this we head to Galtur, a neighbouring village higher in the Paznaun valley but included on the Ischgl lift pass. It is another stunning day, and up at Bielerhöhe pass, which we reach to my total delight by riding in a piste basher, the panorama is stunning. Franz, our instructor, points out that the Silvretta range is known for its blueness and today it is obvious why: even by alpine standards the peaks circling the lake are a prismatic shade of windowlene-blue.
After a hilarious and exhausting morning embarrassing myself and discovering cross-country skiing to be much harder than I realised — like balancing on matchsticks on ice — we sit down for lunch on a sun-soaked terrace below Piz Buin, of sun cream fame, behind which rise the peaks surrounding Davos and Klosters in Switzerland.

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Audience members at the Top of the Mountain concert in 2012 © Alamy

Après-ski begins in earnest at the Champagnerhütte at 3pm, having only had the 30-minute journey back down the mountain to try and recover a little from lunch. The rest of the afternoon is passed with liquid alacrity — with only a credit card statement the next morning to prove to me that somehow, at a venue I shall not disclose, we seem to have sweet-talked our way into dodging the 10pm curfew rule.
Leaving the village after a further couple of days of wonderful skiing, Markus, the cab driver taking me back to Landeck station, reminded me that for most locals, there is much more at stake now than wanting to have some fun after two years of restrictions. Ischgl’s entire economy — like that of many villages in the alps — is utterly dependent on winter sports. For a second job Markus is a musician, but in the past year he’s played only two gigs, compared with more than 40 in any normal year. Many locals are still facing serious economic hardship.
Most are extremely opposed to any more lockdowns or travel restrictions as a result. Which is not to say that they have not taken the virus seriously. Quite the contrary. Ischgl now has one of the highest vaccination rates anywhere in Europe.

The double-decker cable car that links Ischgl with the Swiss village of Samnaun © Alamy

Ischgl’s role in spreading coronavirus back in the spring of 2020 has meanwhile been meticulously pored over. In November — after an exhaustive investigation — Austrian state prosecutors announced they were ending their probe into Ischgl’s authorities. “There is no evidence that anyone did anything or failed to do anything to increase the risk of contagion,” the prosecutor said.
I recall what Zangerl told me at the Kitzloch when I arrived: he couldn’t understand why skiing was still being regarded by so many, including the Austrian government, as being frivolous and risky. I suggested it was because, underlying our quite genuine public health concerns in the past two years, a subtler, harder to shift purity narrative has also taken hold: one that judges harshly those who catch Covid while enjoying themselves.
“But daily life is all about risk,” Zangerl said. “And now we need to start making our own judgments about that again and not judging others. We need to get on with life.”

Details

Sam Jones was a guest of the Ischgl tourist board (ischgl.com). The Hotel Sonne has double rooms from £86 per night; a six-day adult lift pass covering Ischgl, Samnaun, Galtur and Kappl costs from £270. For more on skiing in the Tyrol and Austria see tyrol.com and austria.info

Sam Jones is the FT’s Austria and Switzerland correspondent
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