007 meets Easy Rider as Neil Sowerby shuns the pistes of Obergurgl
NO helmet, no leathers, and I’m hurtling down a switchback mountain road, swapping places with a ton-up rival biker, praying not to plummet over the rocky edge. Close your eyes and the vertigo will pass, I tell myself, the engine roar freaking my senses as I lean into the hairpin bends.
My Bond faves? The villains naturally – from Javier Bardem as Raoul Silva in Skyfall back to Blofeld and his cat, Goldfinger and Dr No
As a non-skier in the highest corner of the Austrian Tirol I’ve been denied the adrenaline rush of the pistes, so settle instead for this – an unnerving 4D recreation of a rollercoaster ride along the Timmelsjoch High Alpine Road.
Juddering to a digital halt, I dismount unsteadily from my machine in the giant screen cinema of the Top Mountain Motorcycle Museum and return to the vast exhibition of 500 static models tracing 130 years of high octane bliss on two wheels. Brough Superior, Ducati, Harley-Davidson, Henderson, Indian, Moto Guzzi, MV Agusta, Norton, Triumph and Vincent are as meaningless to me as haute couture labels but en masse these brands are quite a spectacle. Alongside is a sleek selection of racing cars for the total petrolheads.
I’m even more impressed when I learn that many of the vintage vehicles are on loan to help resurrect this dream project of motor-cycle mad twins Alban and Attila Scheiber. A definitive phoenix from the ashes. In January 2021 a blaze gutted the original 2015 building, destroying 352 of the 410 motorbikes in their collection, many irreplaceable. Within 10 months, amazingly, the museum was rebuilt in concrete, steel, and timber, retaining a cool apres-ski restaurant/pizzeria and – well, it is 2,000 metres above sea level – direct access to the ski slopes via the state-of-the-art Kirchenkar Mountain Gondola.
This is also the gateway to the 33km section of the real High Alpine Road, also owned by the Scheibers. Now in their fifties, the museum curators cut their biking teeth on it as kids. 60 years ago their grandfather opened up this ancient mule track for the car (my vehicle of choice). It’s now on my bucket list to drive this ultra scenic toll route down the Passeiertal to Merano, 2,000 vertical metres below, in Italy’s Alto Adige region… with Lake Garda just a further two hour drive to the south. It’s very much a summer jaunt, stopping off at various information stations and viewing points. In the ski season, until late spring when the snow ploughs smash their way through, it’s impassable.
Up here in Ötztal with 250 3,000 metre high peaks global warming is not yet the meltdown threat assailing lower altitude ski regions. Still, during my stay, the locals were counting on the fresh snowfalls forecast for the end of the week.
My base, the Hotel Alpenland... was in Hochgurgl’s big brother resort, family-friendly Obergurgl at the head of the valley. Big is only relative. The permanent population is around 500, swelled dramatically during the ski season, when its 25 4 and 5-star hotels are rammed.
The draw is ease of access to the manageable ski paradise above the timberline – 112 km of pistes, 40 runs reached via mountain gondolas (cable cars) and 25 ski lifts. It’s a great place for kids to learn on the handy nursery slopes of the Ski School.
For me, padding along on my snow shoes, the main attraction up there is the food and drink opportunities.
To reach the pick of the refreshment huts catch the gondola from the Hohe Mut Bahnhof in the centre of Obergurgl. The temptation is to stop off en route 2,000m up at the Nederhütte with its jolly terrace and house band the Nederlumpen. Resist. Journey’s end the Hohe Mut Alm is very special, a cosy haven winter or summer, whether you’re skiing or hiking.
On a sunny March lunchtime we declined the terrace with its glacier vistas and hunkered down in the timber-clad interior. Pumpkin cream soup followed by a ‘Knödel Duo’ of spinach and cheese dumplings. The urge was to follow my glass of Blaufränkisch red with a schuss of the local stone pine schnapps liqueur, but I already felt heady from the air at nearly 3,000m and it was slippy underfoot. Hard to tear myself away, though. Mulled wine and gourmet fondue are the draws for torchlit Wednesday evening festivities at the Alm from December onwards.
Lunch next day was even more elevated (in every sense) in the ice Q restaurant – Austria’s ‘highest gourmet experience’ – at the summit of the Gaislachkogl, reached via a vertiginous triple-rope gondola ride up from Sölden, Obergurgl’s buzzier neighbour down the valley.
Alas, I never got to sample the restaurant’s famous PINO 3000, a Pinot Noir blend ‘barrel-aged aged at altitude’ but the local lamb salad, turbot (far from local) and mascarpone pudding went down a treat after an an appetiser of car chases, helicopter escapes, plane crashes and assorted explosions – the full James Bond bag of tricks at the neighbouring 007 ELEMENTS museum.
The spectacular glass-built ice Q , an offshoot of Sölden's five star Sad Central hotel, was revamped to represent a sanatorium in Spectre (2015), the Sam Mendes-directed fourth 007 outing for Daniel Craig. It featured in a 20 minute sequence that also involved the nearby Glacier Road for a spectacular chase. Off the back of this Austrian entrepreneurs, in consultation with Mendes, conjured up Ötztal’s number one year-round tourist attraction in 2018, an interactive homage/cinematic installation to wow even the most exacting of 007 nerds.
I don’t count myself among their number but stepping into the lobby of the bunker-like building felt like penetrating a Bond villain’s lair. You are greeted by a barrage of title sequences and spine-tingling theme tunes. It’s not just chilling in its aura; dress warmly, the whole complex is kept at a temperature of +1° Celsius in order not to influence the permafrost soil. Without this the concrete and glass building might come crashing down.
Across ELEMENTS’ two levels you are led through a procession of presentations, including a Screening Room showing the entire Austrian segment of Spectre. There’s an in depth look on how it was all realised (the iceQ interior was shot in Pinewood to create a setting twice the size) while in the Action Hall, framed against a snowy panorama, is a ‘disintegrating’ front portion of the actual plane used in the movie.
You could spend an entire day immersing yourself in the gadgets, props, special effects, location choices, iconic studio sets across the whole Bond film legacy from Dr No (1962) onwards. From Connery to Craig. Director Mendes himself and Naomie (Moneypenny) Harris are engaging on-screen guides and there’s a plethora of hands-on, inter-active stuff. My Bond archive faves? The villains naturally – from Javier Bardem as Raoul Silva in Skyfall back to Blofeld and his cat (For Your Eyes Only) and the eponymous Goldfinger and Dr No.
Well, I made it back in one piece to homely Obergurgl in time for a very different film experience. The village’s modernistic conference centre Carat was screening a promotional exploration of the valley across the seasons. It’s all pretty amazing under snow but what I witnessed that evening has sowed the seeds for a return in the summer time.
I’d be happy to stay again at the Alpenland. Included in the hotel summer package is an Ötztal Inside Summer Card, which offers free use of summer mountain lifts, swimming pools, public buses, museums and much more.
There will be no shortage of walking in the now green, wild flower-flecked high pastures. There are some 1,600km of hiking trails across the whole Ötztal valley, some that might require a mountain guide, others less strenuous – for the likes of me, whose idea of a trek involves refuelling stop-offs.
At the Alms (inns) outside Obergurgl and Sölden that might mean re-fills of the excellent local artisan beer, Sölsch, accompanied by a bowl of Schlutzkrapfen (small packets of dough filled with mashed potatoes and served with chives and melted butter) or Graukäse (‘grey cheese’ marinated with vinegar and oil and served with onion rings and rustic bread). With a hearty helping of noodles, naturally
After which, with a nod to the Sound of Music classic, I’d be ready to “climb every mountain, ford every stream.” Or maybe just have a nap.
Obergurgl is an hour and a half drive from Innsbruck Airport, which has regular services from the UK, summer and winter.
The ultimate winter season essential is the Ötztal Super Skipass. It’s available if you purchase a lift ticket for three or more days, including all six ski areas that offer 363 slope kilometres and 90 mountain lifts with a single ski ticket. Skipasses for six or more days also include visits to 007 ELEMENTS and the Top Mountain Motorcycle Museum. For full skipass details go to Gurgl. In ski season there are frequent free buses between the resorts.
Hotel Alpenland, Kressbrunnenweg 6, 6456 Obergurgl. Family-run, like most hotels in the village, it is ski in, ski out. I stayed half board and found the dinners included remarkably tasty. For tariffs visit their website.
ice Q (2 toques in the Gault-Millau Guide) is open daily 9am-4pm, meals served 11.30am-3pm.
The Top Mountain Crosspoint Motorcyle Museum open daily 10am-5pm, restaurant 9am-5pm. To take a car on the Timmelsjoch High Alpine Road costs 18€ one way €24 return.
For full tourism information about the area visit the Ötztal Tourism website.