by Trevor Claringbold
There’s little doubt that Austria is blessed with far more than it’s fair share of attractive towns and villages. The majority, of course, also enjoy some of Europe’s most impressive mountains as a backdrop. So how do you choose just one in which to spend a few days?
Naturally you want to pick a destination that ticks as many boxes as possible. A pretty, historic town centre, access to hiking trails and cable-cars for exploring the mountains, a warm lake for swimming, boating, and water sports, and ideally within easy reach of at least one major tourist city. It also helps if there is a choice of good quality accommodation, and a range of pleasant bars and restaurants. Kitzbuhel was suggested to me as an ideal choice, and certainly on paper it looked perfect. But would the reality live up to the tourist board hype?
After a short, budget flight to Munich, we boarded a transfer minibus for the 2 hour trip to the Alps. Airport transfers can be very tiresome, but this one was quite the opposite. The passing scenery gradually changes, tempting and teasing with glimpses of mountains as we speed southwards. Just as darkness fell, we encountered a narrowing valley, with steep rock cliffs, and a broad river alongside the motorway. But the night surrounded us quickly, and for the last hour we could only guess at the landscapes we were passing.
We arrived at the warmly lit Kitzhof, and after a swift and friendly check-in sank into the well-appointed, comfortable rooms to refresh after our travels. The hotel was a happy blend of traditional Alpine style, and chic modern convenience. It was low season – between the departure of the skiers, and the influx of summer walkers – and this quietness meant the hotel did lack a little in atmosphere. Having said that, the service was excellent, and the benefit was never having to queue!
The following morning a few enticing rays of sunlight crept around the curtains. As I lazily drew them back, I was left breathless at the amazing vista before me. Of course I had expected, or at least hoped, to have a mountain view. But laid out in front of me was the entire medieval town centre, with typically Austrian church spires standing proud of the labyrinth of roof tops. In the foreground were the hotels own impeccably manicured gardens and water features, and the entire scene was backed by a panorama of magnificent mountain peaks. It seemed that they changed constantly as the suns rays edged higher. This, I remember thinking, was why people come to Austria.
After a sumptuous breakfast on the terrace, I headed off to make an initial exploration of the town. Just a few minutes walk along the road I was confronted by a large pink building, with an arch underneath, and the word ‘Rathaus’ in metre-high crimson gothic style letters. This was the town hall, and the main gate into the original medieval centre of Kitzbuhel.
Way back in history, Kitzbuhel was something of a maverick. It utilised disputes and localised wars between those who sought to rule the area, to effectively become independent. Then it built an outer ring of tall buildings, which served as a protective and defendable town wall in all but name. These same building remain today, largely unchanged except for the brightly coloured facades that they all now display. The effect today is a one of a cheerful, lively town centre, proud of its historic past, but equally not living in it.
The local authorities lay down rules over the colours of each property, to ensure no two adjacent buildings are the same colour. Woe betide anyone who wants to repaint their frontage in a different colour!
The helpful tourist office is located within the gate into the town, and will provide all manner of useful maps, guidebooks, and even guides themselves. If you want to go walking in the surrounding mountains, they will even offer free guided tours.
In front of it is a small, cobbled market square, with a variety of stalls set up to sell fresh produce, flowers, and local goods. Pavement café’s surround the market, adding to an atmosphere that is somehow bustling and relaxing at the same time. There is none of the shouted sales pitches, or noisy music that have become a feature of many modern markets. Instead, trading is conducted calmly, politely, and almost as if they don’t wish to disturb the elegance of the surroundings.
The centre of Kitzbuhel is not large, and the layout makes a circular route easy to navigate. It’s a place to amble casually, to meander, and to nod politely at the smiling locals who welcome you. Sometimes it’s easy to forget just how old these buildings are, as everything seems in pristine condition. A glance upwards, past the lavish flower bedecked window boxes and ornate balconies, tells the story better. Here you’ll notice the steep roofs and castellated towers from centuries past.
In one corner, almost hidden away, is a small museum. A brief look around will reveal some interesting artefacts – some dating back to pre-Roman times. There are a variety of useful publications in many languages, and some very helpful and knowledgable staff.
There is, of course, more to Kitzbuhel than the old town centre. For a start it has a choice of cable cars to take you up into the mountains, including one to the 2000m Kitzbuhellerhorn. If you feel that’s a little to easy, then there are a vast network of marked and well maintained hiking paths. A map of these is available from the tourist office. The convenient yellow signs give you approximate times for each stage of the journey, and even to the next refreshments!
The town is well served with sports facilities too. A modern indoor swimming complex, tennis school, golf courses and horse riding, are all easily found. I opted for a less energetic pastime, however, and headed off to the outskirts of Kitzbuhel, and a large lake known as the Black Sea.
It’s about a 25 minute walk to reach the main promenade along the waters edge. The clean pavements, colourful flower beds, and graffiti-free benches give an air of quality here, and although there is a small charge if you want to use the busy water park, it’s waterfalls and slides were very enticing.
It was a beautiful afternoon, with the sun beating down from a clear blue sky. The mountains in the background had the thinnest mist just hugging the peaks, and the waters of the lake rippled against the wooden posts of the jetty. I set off on the path that follows the banks of the Black Sea, past the water park, and into the forest that surrounds a large part of the route. As I neared the farthest point, the forest opens into a broad grassed area, where those in the know have come to read, picnic, sunbathe, and swim. It’s a peaceful spot, under the dappled shade of the pine trees, where life seems unhurried and serene. Nobody rushes or jumps into the tempting warm waters. Instead they glide carefully down the rickety old wooden steps, trying not to upset the tranquillity of the lake as they enter.
I sat for a while, taking in the magnificent setting, and pleased with my choice of resort. Kitzbuhel is a friendly place, with more than enough to keep you occupied for a short break. If you want to travel further afield, the beautiful city of Salzburg is only an hour away by train, and Innsbruck about the same.
For me, there was one regret. That I didn’t have the foresight to take my swimming things for my walk around the lake, meaning that I missed out on the most inviting waters. There was a consolation, however. The café on the promenade has the best selection of ice creams that I’ve ever seen in the Alps, and as far as I was concerned indulgence was compulsory!