Choosing a ski destination in Central Europe that was affordable and had reliable snow early in the season proved to be one of our trickiest decisions to make when planning our grand tour.
We wanted accommodation that was right in the centre of a ‘ski village’ that could be accessed by train or bus, and that was in walking distance to the ski lifts or resort ski bus. The destination also had to have après ski opportunities and plenty to do for the non-skier. Too much to ask, perhaps?
Zell am See, in the state of Salzburg, Austria, appeared to tick all the boxes. At least on paper…
Our holiday rental, Zell am See, Austria is a first floor apartment in a small block of flats in the centre of the town. During the ski season, the closest ski lift, City Express, is a minute away from the front door. The shop I hired my snowboard from was one-minute in the other direction. It doesn’t get much better than that in terms of location. You can ski down to the lift station at the end of the day and be in the shower or having a beer no more than a minute later.
The apartment itself is modern, clean, comfortable, and, above all, functional. With two bedrooms, as well as a large sofa in the living room that converts into an additional bed, it sleeps six in total, making it ideal for a family, group of friends, or two or three couples. There is a huge main bathroom and an additional toilet at the entrance of the apartment – a welcome extra if someone’s hogging the shower after a long day on the slopes.
Another nice touch is a small ‘ski room’ with a heater in it, perfect for drying out wet boots and clothes, although a washing machine-dryer would also have been welcome. Not so perfect was the heating system which went off at midnight every night only to come back on around dawn. Given the freezing temperatures that Zell am See experiences (at least when we visited), it comes across as a little mean-spirited.
The kitchen is well-equipped, with a decent-sized fridge-freezer, a convection stovetop and oven, and plenty of cooking utensils and glasses, including big beer mugs. With its large six-seater dining table, it’s ideal for a group or family who want to cook and do a lot of eating in. (And that’s a good thing.)
Unfortunately, nothing else is provided in the way of any basic groceries such as milk and bread to get guests started, so when we arrived on a Saturday evening after missing a train connection and all the supermarkets were closed (as they were on Sunday also), the only option was a service station a five-minute walk up the road. During our stay, we would find the supermarkets closed up to 20 minutes earlier than the times indicated on their signs, so the service station would prove to be our saviour on a couple of occasions.
The living-dining area is spacious, if uninspired, but once you have some soup on the stove or a lasagne in the oven, the place becomes quite cosy, particularly if there is a blizzard outside! There’s also a television with a couple of English-language news channels and complimentary Internet access.
Given that we were early arrivals for the season, you could forgive the lack of atmosphere in the town (apart from the Krampus Festival – that’s another story), but not the lack of good restaurants. There are a lot of hotels with ‘all-inclusive’ packages in the town and this is reflected in the lack of creative dining options.
If you’re a foodie and eating out is high on your list of priorities this isn’t the town for you. There’s only so many times you can eat pizza. If your focus is the snow and you’re happy to cook a hearty meal and have a quiet night eating in after spending the day on the slopes, then Zell am See will suit you just fine.
Once the town had a decent dump of snowfall to top up the already decent base of snow, Zell am See, with it’s pedestrianised centre, started to feel more like a charming European ski village in winter. The stunning lake, a grand hotel, pretty waterfront walks and parks, the handsome church, and a smattering of splendid old buildings went some way to make up for the architectural hodgepodge of the rest of town.
With plenty of snow coming down and a glühwein in your hand as you warm yourself at the Christmas markets, you can tell yourself there are many far less attractive resorts. But my mind kept drifting to thoughts of what Lech-Zürs (also in Austria), Cortina d’Ampezzo (in Italy), Zermatt (Switzerland), and even Zakopane (Poland) would be like right now. All of them have considerable more character and charm, a livelier atmosphere, and more eating options.
But every morning, walking that 50 metres to the ski station, with a day of good runs ahead of me, and with the beautiful backdrop of the lake below, I wasn’t complaining.