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Ischgl, island of winter sport
In the Romansh language, ‘yscla’ or ‘ischla’ roughly translate as ‘island’. The former farming village in the mountains derived its name from the early settlers from Engadin in the 9th century BC. Ischgl is a place with a long and interesting history that spans wars, changes of geographical affiliation and cross-border smuggling born of necessity. It was only in the mid-20th century that the community began to establish a reputation as an island of winter tourism. The first ski lift, financed from the proceeds of smuggling, was built after the Second World War in 1952; the Silvrettaseilbahn AG cable car company was subsequently founded in April 1961. Today Ischgl is one of the biggest and best-known winter sport regions in Austria. Although the local community only has 1,593 inhabitants, Ischgl offers 10,600 beds for visitors, accommodating close on 1.5 million overnight stays in 2017 according to the state government of Tyrol.
Ischgl is situated in Paznaun in the extreme west of the North Tyrol in Austria, 10 kilometres from Samnaun in Switzerland. With an altitude of just on 1,377 metres (above the Adriatic) and a skiing area of 2,872 metres, the village ranks as one of the highest winter sport areas in the whole of Austria. With an altitude differential of as much as 1,495 metres, the pistes are correspondingly lengthy; the longest descent is 11 kilometres. The Silvretta Arena skiing area alone has 238 kilometres of slopes spanning 515 hectares. Every hour, 45 lifts and gondolas are capable of transporting 93,800 winter sport fans. Although snow is virtually guaranteed in the region, an extra 1,100 snow cannons are on hand to fill any gaps in the surface. The season in Ischgl therefore lasts around 160 days from November to May – exceeding the season of most other winter sport regions. Ischgl has never lost its typically Tyrolean, picture-book charm, even with modern lifts and gondolas linking the village to the modern world. The Dorftunnel was completed in 1998, directly connecting the centre of the village, with its moving walkways for winter sportspeople, to the Fimbabahn. The Silvretta Seilbahn Museum, which charts the long history of the cable cars and their links to Ischgl, is located close to the entrance of the Dorftunnel. There are now three gondolas running from the valley to the various summit stations. The first Silvrettabahn entered service in 1963, while the four-person gondolas of the Pardatschgratbahn – Austria’s first monocable gondola – commenced operation a decade later. All lines have been modernised or replaced, with a third gondola system entering service in 2014.
Ischgl has a reputation for après-ski, but away from the extravagant partying there is untouched powdery snow and slopes to suit all abilities. A number of ski schools also offer avalanche and rescue training in case of emergencies. The Silvretta Arena lies between the Silvretta and Verwall mountains; the summit of the Hoher Riffler is 3,168 metres. The lifestyle skiing region is renowned beyond the borders of Europe, with skiers and snowboarders visiting Ischgl able to choose from many snow and obstacle parks. Although there is no longer a halfpipe, the facilities for freestyle snowboarders are outstanding. The Snowpark currently has two lines with jumps and rails as well as a ‘funline’ of steep turns and mini jumps. Since the lifts and slopes of Tyrolean Ischgl and Swiss Samnaun are interconnected, there are 238 kilometres of slopes in total. For most skiers, this is more than enough to explore a different descent every day of their stay; the same goes for advanced skiers, who are also sure to find suitably thrilling pistes. There are several descents officially graded black, plus a number of unmarked side routes. Guides can help to pinpoint appropriate levels of difficulty on the Greitspitz, Paznauer Taya and Pardatschgrat ridge. The Piz Val Gronda gondola entered service in 2013, transporting visitors to an altitude of 2,812 metres. The ungroomed descent leading from the summit station is a pure freeride zone for experienced skiers and snowboarders. The choice for complete beginners is a little trickier as they must ascend from the Idalp to the summit to access the novice slopes, which means at least a one day pass is required.
• For those wishing to keep the glittering party going, several alpine cabins stage live music when the sun goes down. For a more cultivated ambience, visitors can reserve a table at a Michelin-starred restaurant. Lower-priced eateries are also available, including three pizzerias.
• Ischgl has much to offer away from the slopes. It is renowned for its wide après-ski range, annual pop events and open-air concerts, with international musicians performing at 2,320 metres to mark the start and end of the season.
• Those taking a break from snowy activities can visit the Alpenquell water park in Samnaun or the Alpinarium Galtür, which has a climbing wall as well as a roof terrace with panoramic views. The pools also make a good alternative when the weather is less friendly.
• Since it was smuggling that gave rise to Ischgl and ensured the survival of the villagers, hiking trails have been created in order to honour the erstwhile smugglers and the pathways they established across the Swiss border. A guided tour (commencing after a gondola ascent to Flimjoch) takes around two hours.
• In addition to 238 kilometres of pistes, visitors can take advantage of ski schools, a ski kindergarten, toboggan run, skating rink, a curling pitch and horse-drawn sleigh rides. There are also 23 restaurants, three pizzerias, six cafés, 14 pubs and six discos to choose from.
• Since 2016, a ban on the wearing of skis and ski boots in the village after 8:00pm has been in place; the same applies to poles and snowboards. In this way, the mayor of Ischgl is aiming to prevent injuries and reduce noise levels. Evening entertainment is therefore free of ski equipment.
• With all restaurants, cabins and WCs within the skiing area linked to the wastewater treatment system, Ischgl and the Silvretta Arena lead the way in environmental friendliness.
• A number of shops on the Swiss side of the border in Samnaun offer duty-free shopping; statutory regulations on import allowances apply. A free shuttle bus to Galtür runs during the day.
From modest beginnings, Ischgl has grown into an institution among Alpine ski regions. Male winter sports enthusiasts aged between 20 and 50 make up the main target group of regular visitors, but there is also much to attract families and teenagers. Although there are ski schools, novice skiers and snowboarders are advised to focus on the wide après-ski range, which has something for every taste.