Family resort is a real ‘Katsch’

In my opinion there has always been something very special about the Katschberg – the town on top of a mountain pass which nestles on the border between Carinthia and Salzburg.I first visited the region in the summer almost 50 years ago with my father at the wheel of a VW Beetle. We had been driving almost 22 hours from the UK on a route that can now be done in 10. By the time they arrived at the Katschberg my parents realised they would not reach Italy without a rest. That meant staying the night at the only guesthouse in sight – The Stranachwirt – that still stands largely unchanged at the base of the Katschberg pass.They only planned to stay one night but had such a great time drinking schnapps with the owner of the Stranachwirt – an Austrian who had been a POW in England during the war – that they stayed for the entire two-week break.He gave them a discount for the rooms – on the condition he was allowed to drive round in the car. At the time nobody in the village owned a car – and especially not one that was with a right hand steering wheel – which he considered a fair exchange.Everyone in the area had very little money but there were few complaints. The main route into the village was using what now seems to be not much more than a path that still runs at the back of the Stranachwirt. It had a tractor on permanent duty ready to haul lorries up and then down over the pass, the latter because the road was so steep many found their brakes were not up to the task.The pass itself had a single mountain hut when I first visited – located where the occasional cars completed the climb between the twin peaks of the Aineck and Tschaneck mountains. Nowadays the same spot is the site of a high-speed moving bridge that links the two sides of the Katschberg resort with the minimum of effort for skiers.But back then the only other thing to be seen was a single mountain hut and nearby a line of rusting rifles – formed into crosses on which were impaled steel army hats.Since that first visit there has rarely been a year when I have not visited the region at least once, as winding gravel roads were replaced by motorways, wooden stables by modern hotels and ancient single chairlifts by modern high speed wind proof gondolas.The area has undergone great expansion but it is not too extensive that it is in the big league of resorts which would attract enough people to spoil its charm – nevertheless it has  managed to develop a sophisticated infrastructure of first-class facilities including high-speed lifts. It has regulars who return year after year – and as newcomers discover – with good reason.Despite the growth and expansion one thing has not changed, and that is the warmth of the welcome. The community spirit and warmth that existed 50 years ago is still very much in evidence. And whether in the many restaurants offering a mixture of specialities from both Carinthia and Salzburg, or at the hotels and guesthouses or on the slopes where the people seem to be just that much more friendly – that welcome is what makes regulars like me want to return year after year.Anybody who has already been to Austria to go skiing or who lives here will know that the country has among the highest and best standards in the world with numerous rules to ensure resorts do not leave guests feeling short-changed. That, together with competition and the fact that Austria knows the value of tourist visitors means high-speed ski lifts and first-class but reasonably priced hotels are almost standard – so in the Katschberg the warm welcome and the extra effort locals go to to make sure the visit is a good one is what really singles out as the best of the best. Lift operators in Katschberg all seem to speak English, and pay particular attention to children.The Katschberg ski area has a total of 70-kilometres of well-groomed slopes that are broad and well-maintained and for the most part they do not seem to attract huge queues at the 16 lifts. The only exception is the spectacular A1 ‘autobahn’ route – a straight, constant descent and perfectly snow-covered piste all the way from the Aineck peak to St Margarethen in Lungau that stretches over six kilometres, and which sometimes seem to lead to slightly longer waits at the bottom than at the rest of the resort.The resort also has the advantage that it nearly always seems to be well positioned for the volume of snow it offers and many is the time that I have been there with all runs open when other parts of Europe or indeed other parts of Austria have had many runs closed. That is partly because of its location but also in part because of the fact that even the town is at 1,640 metres and the fact that a state-of-the-art snow making machine covers 100 percent of the runs. Also most of the accommodation is at locations where you simply ski straight onto the piste.The skiing is particularly well-suited for families as there are wide runs and plenty of good ski schools to choose from with the competition ensuring prices are reasonable, and those who use them won’t be bored as there are a number of easy blue runs very near the village to allow beginners plenty of variety.Other attractions include night-time skiing on the Konigwiese slopes every Monday and Thursday from 7 until 10pm, with the day lift pass still valid in the evening unlike many resorts that charge an extra fee.And there is a great winding route all the way down to the valley from the Konigwiese which emerges at the Stranachwirt, which is well placed to serve a warm soup before catching the free bus back up at the front of the hotel – alternatively there is an excellent off piste route to the Bonnerhütte – that starts on the Aineck and goes around 10km down to St Margarethen in Lungau. Its not dangerous but its easy to get lost unless you travel with someone that knows the way.Visitors who take a trip to the Pritzhutte will find the lift a novel experience – it is equipped with ropes pulled by powerful Noriker horses. Horses are also on offer at the Alpine Pferdezentrum Katschberg and the sleigh rides in the evening will deliver you to a selection of mountain huts. You can also go on a ‘fire and ice hike’ on some evenings to the Gamskogelhutte on the Tschaneck slopes – then, after a meal, sled down or return in a snow-cat vehicle.The resort is easily accessible from the A10 autobahn which links Salzburg and Villach and then Klagenfurt, so there are good links with the airports at Salzburg and Klagenfurt. The nearest rail station is Spittal an der Drau with a Postbus connection to the resort.For more information contact Katschberg Tourist Office on +43 4734 630 or visit their website at