Travel: Obertauern, Austria

Ski lift to heaven in Obertauern. Picture: David Long

Ski lift to heaven in Obertauern. Picture: David Long

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FIFTY years ago, one of the coolest places in Europe – in every sense – was an obscure alpine village that was barely known to most Austrian skiers, let alone the outside world. Until 1965, the only thing Obertauern was known for was being the highest ski resort in Austria, a status which also bestowed a hard-won reputation for having the best late-season snow in the Austrian Alps.

But when a non-skiing foursome called John, Paul, George and Ringo turned up to make a feature film called Help!, the little village went from sleepy to centre stage overnight. For three weeks the Fab Four stayed at the Hotel Marietta in the centre of the village, playing impromptu gigs almost every night for 300 or so locals, many of whom lived such an otherworldly mountain existence that they had no idea who their fellow guests were (in fact several moved out, unable to stand the racket of nightly sessions in which Paul’s favourite, Summertime, screeched out until the early hours). According to all the older locals who say they were there, the Marietta was so packed that it was almost like a dark, sweaty Cavern Club.

Adding a frisson of love interest was the unspeakably glamorous Gigi Mackh, a 20-year-old ski instructor whose parents owned the Marietta but who also happened to be Miss Austria and the national water-skiing champion. Ringo Starr and George Harrison had their girlfriends in tow so they didn’t try to learn how to ski, but John Lennon and Paul McCartney spent almost every waking hour with their blonde ski instructress. Not that it did their skiing any good, but the front-page pictures of the threesome certainly put Obertauern on the map.

The Marietta – which is named after the sophisticated Viennese chanteuse Marietta Mackh, its first owner and a famed post-war entertainer – is still owned by the Mackh family. Even in the autumn of her years, Gigi is still unfeasibly beautiful, and brother Wolfgang runs the much-changed family hotel, which is now a smart 150-bedroom contemporary four-star hotel with a sizeable “wellness” area (pool, treatments, solarium, gym etc) of the sort that Germans and Austrians seem to love so much. One thing that hasn’t changed about this village centre hotel is the number of references to the Beatles littered around, although the Marietta isn’t the only one – it’s much the same at the super-smart Seekarhaus Hotel, which is owned by Gerhard Krings, a businessman who acted as Harrison’s body double throughout Help!

But if the Liverpudlians put Obertauern on the map, they are not the reason the place has maintained its cachet (Obertauern has always has its share of celebs – footballer Franz Beckenbauer – is just one of several to have houses in the village).

The main reason for its success is the fact that, with its base at 1,700m and its highest chair going up to 2,313m, it has the most reliable snow in Austria outside the glaciers. Last year, one of the hottest on record, when Salzburg had virtually no snow and resorts such as Kitzbühel were verdant pastures by mid-March, Obertauern still had virtually all of its pistes open by Easter. There’s not quite a guarantee of snow, but it’s not far off.

This lovely little ski resort is on an old Roman road through the Alps in the Niedere Tauern mountain range, and is as high as it gets in Austria. A former copper mining centre, at the beginning of last century, some skiers saw another use for the place. Unlike most Austrian resorts, it’s not built around a quaint old village, which means what it loses in charm it atones for in ease of access and use. So while there are some private houses, the village is predominantly made up of ski-in ski-out hotels; 150 in all, with a combined 9,000 beds.

That ensures that it can be busy at the weekend. It’s also only a couple of hours from Munich, so there are inevitably a lot of Germans, plus – given that it’s just 90km from Salzburg and 20km from Radstadt railway station – lots of Salzburgers. There’s also a fair smattering of Brits, although numbers almost halved immediately after the financial crash and have yet to climb back up. There’s fantastic après-ski, especially at the Edelweissalm Chalet in the late afternoon and then the Lurzer Alm Ski-Hut and Monkey’s Heaven in the evening.

If you’re an expert skier then beware, because lots of the runs marked on the piste map as blacks are actually bog-standard red runs masquerading as expert terrain. That said, there’s still plenty of terrain that guides can show you, but just bear in mind that the overwhelming majority of visitors are families because of the easily accessible intermediate runs and the fact that all 95km of pisted runs basically head back to the base area so that it’s virtually impossible for kids to get completely lost. Also, the sensible on-piste lunch prices mean that families are not put off.

Completing the family-friendly scene is the ease of travel. Getting there is simple with regular direct flights to Salzburg, or if you can stand a slightly longer transfer there are daily flights to Munich from both Glasgow and Edinburgh.

FACT FILE

✱ Getting there: Jet2 (www.jet2.com) have regular flights from Edinburgh. EasyJet fly daily from Edinburgh and Glasgow to Munich.

Airport Transfers: www.salzburg-airport.com/en/passengers-visitors/arrival-parking/bus-train-taxi/taxi-transfer-service/

✱ Website: www.obertauern.com/en/winter-holiday.html. Also www.welove2ski.com/obertauern-austria

✱ Skiing: There is 1 cabin cable car, 18 chair lifts, 1 combi chair/cabin cable car and six T-bar lifts at Obertauern, with 95km of pisted slopes and 31km of cross-country skiing. There is also a terrain park, complete with half-pipe. Lift tickets cost €174-205 for six days.

✱ Richard Bath and his son travelled to Obertauern in SalzburgerLand, Austria, as guests of Inghams (www.inghams.co.uk/01483 791111) and the Obertauern and SalzburgerLand Tourist offices (obertauern.com/salzburgerland.com)

✱ Inghams offers seven nights’ half-board accommodation at four-star Hotel Marietta from £843pp. Price includes Edinburgh/Salzburg flights and resort transfers. Inghams offers a 6-day area lift pass for Obertauern from £159pp; ski/boot hire from £123 per adult; ski tuition for three days from £135 per adult.

✱ Obertauern has devoted the week of 14-21 March to pay Tribute to the Beatles celebrating 50 years since they filmed Help! in the village. There will be a host of live acts, events, a Beatles sculpture in the ski area near the Kirchbühellift and special offers throughout the week including two firm dates:

✱ March 17: Cult Tribute Band Twist & Shout will present live sing and dance along show All You Need Is Love.

✱ March 19: A Magical History Tour with the Beatles with special guests, Ruth McCartney (Paul’s stepsister) and her mother Angie McCartney featuring interactive live show and home movies. Tickets are €53pp per event (under-13s free), both events at the Sports Centre (5562 Obertauern Ringstrasse 3), 8pm. To reserve tickets in advance (a booking fee applies) visit: www.obertauern-tickets.com.

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