Sölden: Glacier Escape
With the Atlantic in between us and family this Easter, we decided to take a road trip to the Tyrolean Alps. Inspired by the new James Bond movie Spectre, we chose Sölden, Austria. Just north of the Italian border, Sölden is known for one of the longest continuous ski runs in the world starting from the peak of a glacier. Since the release of Spectre, it's become even more popular with people who want to visit the setting of the film. Back when we studied abroad in Florence, we took a memorable weekend trip to the Swiss Alps to visit a mountaintop locale featured in "On Her Majesty's Secret Service", so we jumped at the chance to hit up another Bond-approved spot.
We started the 7 hour drive Friday afternoon. We passed through southern Germany just over the border to Austria before deciding to stop for the night at the base of the Alps. We booked a last-minute room in a traditional Austrian lodge and unloaded our bags in the rain, but when we arrived the reception was closed and nobody was around. Dave managed to find another guest (who spoke only German) and we called the owners, but still nothing. After about 15 minutes we reloaded the car and headed further into town to find another option. We found an antiquated inn run by a husband and wife who decorated the place with awkward caricature portraits of themselves and their family. They arranged a private breakfast for us earlier than normal so we could reach Sölden right when it opened. We woke up pinching ourselves as we ate breakfast alone in a giant 1800s Austrian ballroom. We tried to express our gratitude to the hotel staff via our minimal German and hit the road.
The weather was perfect all weekend, bright and sunny, and nearly 60 in the valleys. We drove for 2 hours through tiny valley towns, winding pine tree forests and julep green rivers up into the Alps. Tiny villages clung to mountainsides and each town displayed its own prominent steeple. In Austria, the buildings are simple plaster and wood, but many churches, restaurants and inns feature hand-painted murals of religious scenes and landscapes. We made it to Sölden just in time for the lifts to open.
-We noticed many contrasts between skiing in Europe versus the states. Most skiing in the alps is done above the treeline. There were way fewer snowboarders. The runs were groomed into wide sections of moguls. We spent the first half of the day taking gondolas and high speed lifts and exploring the 3 mountains that make up the Sölden ski area. In each shared gondola ride, we heard people speaking Italian, French, Russian and German. The highest runs took multiple gondolas to reach but the views were incredible. There were craggy, snowy mountains as far as we could see.
For lunch, we decided to stop along one of the runs at Gampe Thaya, a classic Austrian restaurant housed in an all wood structure from the 1800s, featuring cowbells and its own dairy. An outdoor deck lined the restaurant with skiers enjoying beer, wine and fondue on chaise lounges. We sat outside and sampled meat, cheese and potatoes. When it came time to pay, we handed over our card, and the waiter let us know that the restaurant didn't accept cards and that we would need to ski all the way down the mountain, walk from the base of the gondola to one of the few ATMs in town, and get back up to the restaurant before close at 5. Our mission for the afternoon was figuring out how to navigate to the correct part of town in the valley and back to the mountaintop again. We huddled together with the trail map, planned our route and made it back just in time.
We checked into our Sölden base, Pensione Waldheim, and took a walk around the village. We passed several clubs blasting techno music for the après ski crowd. We were struck by the abundant advertisements for strip clubs littered throughout town. We walked along the bright blue-green river as the setting sun reflected off the surrounding snowcaps. After the early drive and full ski day, we decided to grab a simple dinner from the local grocery store, only to find that it closed one minute before our arrival. Exhausted from our day, we decided to make a few protein shakes in our room and call it a night.
We woke up early Sunday morning and were the first ones to the gondola at the base of the mountain. We took 3 gondolas and 2 lifts to the top of the glacier to start what would be the best ski run of our lives. From the top of the glacier you could see the bright blue ice crystals peeking through the snow. From the top, we started a winding 15km run all the way back to the base of the mountain. We put our headphones on, zoned out and each did a continuous run for over 20 minutes all the way down to the valley floor. It was so cool to be able to get into the zone and ski for that long without stopping and without crowds. Even though our thighs burned, we were both so pumped after the run that we wanted to do it again, but the upper gondolas closed for the rest of the day due to technical difficulties. To think, one extra schinkenspeck at breakfast could have delayed our start and trapped us in the cramped gondola for hours.
From the base, we took a series of gondolas up to ICE Q - the setting of the medical institute from the last Bond movie Spectre. As we entered the thirty-person gondola, Erin sat down on one side and waited for Dave. She spotted him at the far end of the gondola and shot him a quizzical look. Dave called out "this guy got in my way" and pointed at the German man next to him The German dude looked back and sat down next to Dave hip to hip for an awkward 12 minute gondola ride up the mountain.
ICE Q is an all glass, mirrored modern building that reflects the mountain surroundings. The restaurant is gorgeous in its simplicity. All the walls are glass, the floors are wood and the decor is minimal. The special Easter meal was epic: champagne, caviar with roasted potato mash, local Austrian smoked salmon with roe, radish, spiced cream and cress, gratinated filet of beef with braised cheek and vegetables. To cap it off, they served a molecular gastronomy dessert of maple and blueberry mousse balls, which included pop rocks and gelatinized mountain berries. The lunch was definitely Bond-worthy, and the contrast of having such an upscale meal in ski pants and long johns was comical. As we ate, an Asian couple posed for wedding photos just below us wearing traditional wedding attire with ski boots.
After lunch, we took another 20 minute run to the base of the mountain. The technology built into our ski passes allowed us to track the length of our runs, and we ended up doing more than 50 km in two days, so we needed a soak. We headed to an isolated portion of the valley to Aqua Dome, where there are multiple indoor and outdoor thermal pools that are fed from the local natural hot springs. We enjoyed exploring all of the pools under the open sky as the sunlight receded from the valley.
We woke up Monday morning and decided to be responsible and start the drive back to Luxembourg rather than our original plan to ski another day. On our way home, we stopped in Stuttgart, Germany for a quick walk around to check out the market hall, palace and gardens, and also to stretch our legs. Stuttgart has a richer Thai community than Lux, so we picked up some Thai food for lunch and cruised the Autobahn back to Luxembourg. We're looking forward to local exploration in our new home city this coming weekend.
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