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Europe’s traditional ski and snowboard resorts

Europe’s traditional ski and snowboard resorts:  Alpine towns with great slopes that capture age-old charm
The Parsenn cable railway enters a tunnel in the ski resort of Davos, Switzerland, Jan. 24, 2006.
The Parsenn cable railway enters a tunnel in the ski resort of Davos, Switzerland, Jan. 24, 2006. Michel Euler / AP
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The spectacular, craggy peaks of Switzerland, Austria, France and Italy have cradled ski resorts that grew from old traditional towns. As skiing has grown, the small traditional towns of wooden chalets and narrow streets are getting harder and harder to find. The demands for more apartments housing more and more visitors have changed the quaint atmosphere of skiing in many places.

Some of the most extensive ski and snowboard regions in Europe’s mountains are modern creations that resemble Battleship Galactica crash landed in a mountain valley and others are a concentration of square apartments one might find on the outskirts of Milan, Heidelberg, Barcelona or Paris. Admittedly the skiing and riding is wonderful and the expanse of the slopes enormous, but the sense of place leaves something to be desired by romantics who are looking for a blend of rugged, snowy nature and Old World charm.

Every European country has its handful of resorts that have retained their traditional look and manners. They are some of the best known in the sport and they have managed to balance growth and modern construction with excellent lift access to hundreds of kilometers of cruising trails, hair-raising chutes and steep moguls.

Switzerland is where it all started. The English arrived and began to develop skiing as a sport of the elite. It combined the healthy living of mountain air, occasional mountain hot springs and an active sport. Of course, today, skiing and snowboarding are some of the most popular sports in Europe, and Switzerland still boasts many real traditional ski towns that haven’t changed much over the decades.

Arosa was one of the original resorts and it hasn’t changed much. Sitting at the end of a winding mountain road that rises from Chur, as well at the end of a chuffing cog rail line from the same city, this town nestled in a small high mountain valley provides isolated access to plenty of wide-open intermediate terrain above tree line. Its grand old hotels are some of the most luxurious in the Alps.

Klosters is a tiny dorf just down the road from the bustling sports metropolis of Davos. Though Klosters shares the Manhattan-sized Parsenn ski and snowboarding area and a joint lift ticket with Davos, it shares little else. Where the Davos architecture is square and more utilitarian than cute and picturesque, Klosters exudes mountain flavor with a definite chalet style and a smattering of age-old restaurants and hotels. The skiing into town from the Parsenn can be steep, or take mellower trails looping through the trees.

In the Jungfrau Region, Wengen and Mürren are both car-free towns accessed by a cog railroad that exudes quaintness and grace. Wengen is the larger of the two. It sits in the midst of the massive ski area beneath the towering Jungfraujoch and its glacier. The village is tightly huddled at the base of a sheer cliff where the famous Lauberhorn downhill race ends. Above the town, the skiing in the Kleine Scheidigg area overlooked by the brooding Eiger is excellent for intermediates with more interconnected skiing than can be handled in a week.

Mürren, on the other side of the Lauterbrunnen Valley, sits beneath the towering Schilthorn. Most non-skiers, and perhaps most skiers, know the Shilthorn and its mountain restaurant as the headquarters of the evil villain in the James Bond movie, On Her Majesty’s Secret Service. The town only has a handful of hotels and appears to be little more than a remote farming community. But the skiing is world-class with a harrowing drop through narrow chutes and down steeps that take a skier’s breath away as the 007 Run descends from the summit of the Schilthorn.

Perhaps the king of all traditional Alpine resorts is Zermatt settled in the valley beneath the Matterhorn. Though Zermatt has expanded over the past two decades, they have maintained the look and feel of a humble mountain town. Of course there is nothing humble about it and the hotels are some of the most luxurious in the world. This village is also a car-free with all guests arriving by train and then either walking to their hotel or being whisked through the snow-covered streets by horse-drawn sleigh. The skiing and riding is dramatic with three giant areas looming above the chalets. These descents provide every level of challenge for skiers from beginner to super expert.

Austria is a country that has perfected the fun of skiing and snowboarding. No other country in Europe knows how to enjoy winter on the slopes like the Austrians. Winter at Austria’s resorts is a non-stop party. Virtually every skiers or snowboarder who visits Austria returns exhausted by the partying as well as the extensive skiing.

The grandfather of all Austrian resorts is St. Anton. It has somehow maintained the look and feel of the olden days. A few years ago the town moved the train station behind the town opening the village  directly to the slopes. Where the town has definitely spread out over the last decades, the atmosphere has been well preserved. Steep trails drop from the top of the crenulated 9,220-foot-high Valluga peak. The sister resort of St. Christoph is even smaller and quainter. And across the ridge topped by the Valluga lie two other old-world resorts, Lech and Zurs. However, though both of these are isolated, their rustic souls have been surrounded by modern looking hotels.

High in the Oetztal beyond Solden that straddles the highway and up a twisting narrow road above tree line skiers will find Obergurgl a tiny town surrounded by big skiing that time seems to have forgotten. Though a few cars and trucks ply the town lanes, there is virtually no traffic. Stay at the old post and beam Hotel am Hof and take time to dine at the religious setting of Restaurant Dominic with light filtered through stained-glass windows.

Kitzbuhel, at its core, is still a walled medieval town where royal flags and noble banners adorn the streets. It is surrounded by fabulous skiing and riding through lush trees and along a long ski circus that winds its way up the valley then back to the town walls. Kitzbuhel is the site of the Hahnenkamm, one of the premier downhill races of the year. This is also one of the après-ski centers of the world, where the skis come off and the skiers belly up to the bar, then dance in their ski boots until dinner is served. Then they go out for more later in the night, singing and dancing into the wee hours. 

France has Europe’s largest interconnected ski areas with the Trois Vallees connecting Courcheval, Meribel, Les Menuires and Val Thorens, the massive areas of Tignes/Val d’Isère and and La Plagne/Les Arc. These trail networks are certainly unmatched, but when it comes to quaintness in the French Alps, one has to search a bit.

Megève still maintains its peaked roofs and wooden chalets and the old world town center complete with steepled church. Tough many hard-core skiers pooh-pooh the skiing and riding, the dining and lodging are some of the best on the continent. And the on-mountain restaurants provide exceptional meals as well.

La Clusaz, tucked into a narrow mountain valley hasn’t changed much over the last century. The parish church anchors the main square and the town surrounds a skating rink. The lifts rise up to a steep ridgeline that drops back into the appealing town. This is not a touristy town filled with foreigners, but rather a town mostly visited by the French for a time-honored ski or snowboard vacation.

Of the most famous resorts, perhaps Val d’Isère provides the old-style village experience linked with seemingly endless slopes. Though the hotels are new and about a decade ago was in danger of losing its Alpine flavor, the town went through the installation of an Alpine façade just before the Albertville Olympics. That restoration still influences the building codes and zoning of this town maintaining its appeal. The skiing and riding is extensive and has something for everyone.

Finally, Chamonix, is still, at its heart a mountain city with a very French flair and wonderful hotels and restaurants. It is not one of my favorite ski destinations because of the cobbled up and disconnected skiing and riding plus the inconsistent shuttle buses. The springtime tradition of skiing down the Mer du Glace is an experience that every skier should try to enjoy. Here spring skiing in the mid-morning and early afternoon can turn into drinks and dinner at a city sidewalk café, a combination that is magical with good weather.

Italy contains more of the Alps than any other country and more importantly is home to the dolce vita or sweet life. Here enjoyment is the rule of the resorts. No one expects the Italians to ski themselves into exhaustion. Of course, they do not expect you to ski yourself into exhaustion either. What Italians do expect is for skiers to take long lunches at mountain restaurants, stop for espresso regularly, enjoy a bit of grappa at a mountain hut and then prepare for a feast in the evening. No other country has perfected pampering the pleasures of the flesh as has Italy. If one wants to enjoy life, really enjoy life, the Italians will find a way to suck as much pleasure from the day as possible.

Courmayeur on the Italian side of Mont Blanc takes fine Italian dining to heart from their mountain restaurants to small trattorias tucked in the narrow streets of the old town center. The original town is as cute as can be and is surrounded by far more modern buildings and hotels.

At the other end of the Italian Alps Cortina d’Ampezzo has been a center of skiing and fashion for decades. This Olympic city is surrounded by skiing and snowboarding trails that link seamlessly to the other resorts of the Dolomites. But for visitors to Cortina, the skiing is secondary to the fashion show that strolls the pedestrian streets of the old town. The latest in ski and snowboard fashion is on display during the afternoon stroll and the town is filled with some of the best, and most expensive restaurants in the Italian Alps.

Take your pick. Every Alpine country has its resorts that can transport you back to once-upon-a-time. It is always nice to have that added dreamy dimension to any winter vacation.