Pistes and Punsch… early season in Kitzbühel

December skiing is a fickle beast. Pre-Chrimbo snow cover is something of an unknown, and those who do take advantage of early-season tour operator discounts breathe a collective sigh of relief when the flakes start to fly.

So is it worth the risk? In my personal experience, the answer is usually yes. Simply being in the mountains, barrelling down empty pistes, and venturing beyond the groomed for the first powder turns (even if it’s only boot-buckle deep) is reason enough to part with a bit of cash and squeeze in a festive snow fix.

Marienplatz

Marienplatz in central Munich

Monarch Airlines added four new destinations this winter squarely aimed at the snowsports market, with Grenoble, Innsbruck, Friedrichshafen and Munich all now served by flights from UK airports. Throw in free ski carriage and I’m sold – all that’s left is to decide where to go…

I’ve got a bit of a love-love relationship with Austrian skiing myself (though this might just be an extension of  a more general obsession with mountains) and Innsbruck lies right in the heart of the Tirol region, a snowballs’ throw from some incredible skiing. From the little-known touring El Dorado of Kühtai, to hedonistic hot-spots like Ischgl.

But this time round I’m bound for Munich – better known to many for bratwurst and beer, the city is also within each reach of Garmisch-Partenkirchen as well as some interesting little ski areas like Schliersee and Lenggries. Munich is also a convenient gateway for Austrian resorts including Kitzbühel, Mayrhofen and Ski Juwel Alpbach Wildschönau.

Saturday

Lebkuchen

Lebkuchen

The Christmas markets in the Bavarian capital are legendary, and let’s face it, if the snow is not shaping up as well as you’d hoped, you could do worse than exploring the city and indulging in a bit of Punsch, Glühwein, Feuerzangenbowleand other figurative and literal mouthfuls. Not a bad “Plan B”, right?

There’s not just one Christkindlmarkt, but over 20 throughout the city of Munich, and part of the fun of is simply strolling the streets and getting lost in it all. While there are certain common elements (such as the aforementioned liquid refreshments) to all markets, there are a few that are worth seeking out.

Mittelaltermarkt

Mittelaltermarkt near Odeonsplatz U-Bahn station

Wittelsbacherplatz, off Briennerstrasse, plays host to the Mittelaltermarkt (Medieval market). Some locals don outfits that would probably have looked dated when Munich’s first Christmas market took place back in 1642, and there’s plenty of traditional food, crafts and entertainment. Back in the mid-17th century the markets were famous for gingerbread and manger figures, and in this sense not much has changed. Lebkuchen can be found in abundance, while if you’re one for creating your own miniature manger scenes, the Kripperlmarkt  on Neuhauserstrasse (the pedestrianised area near the ice-skating rink at Karlsplatz) has the goods.

The same tourist crowds that are drawn to Munich’s festive markets also flock to it’s most famous beer hall, the Hofbräuhaus. It might lack the atmosphere and the sheer size of it’s famous neighbour, but across the road at Augustiner am Platzl it’s easier to get a seat, the food is better value, and the beer is the best in Munich (Augustiner Edelstoff vom Fass).

MJ memorial outside the Bayerischerhof

MJ memorial outside the Bayerischerhof

If you’ve had your fill of Christmas cheer there are other attractions too, from the bizarre Michael Jackson memorial in the middle of Promenadeplatz, to River Surfing on the Eisbach, to the spectacularly under-whelming Glockenspiel. If you’re not yet in the mood for skiing, the unrelentingly dull dance of this army of prehistoric animatronic figures will surely have you wanting to run to the hills. Takes place at 11am and midday. You’ve been warned.

Sunday

Kitzbühel is perhaps best-known for the Hahnenkamm race, where the best skiers on the World Cup circuit take on the infamous Streif. But asides from that one weekend in January it’s a good family resort with a modernising lift system, some excellent restaurants and cozy huts, an abundance of cruisey pistes and zones to explore, and if you strike it lucky some surprisingly good off piste terrain. The Autobahn makes short work of covering the ground between Munich and the eastern reaches of the Tirol region, so it’s not difficult to be skiing off the top of the Fleckalmbahn by 9am.

Luxury shopping in Kitzbühel

Luxury shopping in Kitzbühel

The conspicuous consumption of some of Austria’s Bogner-clad Skifahrer might not be to everyone’s taste, but the predilection for shopping and long lunches of some just leaves more empty pistes and powder for your enjoyment!

The addition of the 3S gondola a few years ago linking Kitzbühel with Jochberg and Pass Thurn has created an enormous linked ski area. When you add in the Kitzbüheler Horn across the valley, plus touring terrain on the Bichlalm, it’s vast.

Kaisergebirge

Kaisergebirge north of Kitzbühel

The December snow arrived in less prolific quantities than elsewhere in the Alps, so early season conditions prevailed and limited terrain was open. What was on offer though, was boosted by artificial snow-making, and assisted by cool temperatures. Although the snow base was thin, carefully selected low-angle gullies were still harbouring some delicious knee deep powder turns, there for the taking.

The black pistes off Steinbergkogel were hard and fast, the steeper runs ideal for letting gravity do its thing. While the notorious Streif was not fully open, the pistes off Ehrenbachhöhe were great too, and we found a cosy little Hütte (the Eckalm) tucked away near the Hahnenkamm start gate.

Kitzbüheler Horn

Hahnenkamm with the Kitzbüheler Horn beyond

With temperatures staying cold all day the snow remained good until the lifts shut, and while a whole week in Kitzbühel in early December is probably a stretch, you couldn’t ask for much more from the first turns of the season. When the lifts do stop spinning there’s one more Christmas market to investigate… Einen Glühwein bitte!

kitzbuehel.com

Kitzbühel is included in the Tirol Snow Card, which provides access to 4000km of pistes, more than 1000 lifts and 86 ski areas throughout Tirol.

Christkindlmarkt in Kitzbühel

Christkindlmarkt in Kitzbühel

Chris Taine
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