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On Top of the World

For a break that blends city and ski like no other, head to the Austrian city of Innsbruck

You’d think, what with all that glitters being gold and everything, that we might be able to spot Innsbruck’s most famous sight, given we’re apparently standing right under it. “This is definitely where it is,” I tell my wife, waving a now-soaking map in her face. She doesn’t look convinced.

The Goldenes Dachl – or Golden Roof – was built in the late-15th to early-16th century by Emperor Maximilian I and comprises 2,657 gilded copper tiles (all original), none of which we can currently see because there’s near-horizontal rain persistently daggering in to our eyeballs.

Once we’ve finally spotted the roof through the mist and rain – it sits on top of an elaborate gothic bay built into the side of the Neuhof building – we nip down a narrow cobbled street and squeeze ourselves into a tiny souvenir shop for shelter. There’s just about room for us in between rows of lederhosen, cowbells and tiny plastic models of the Goldenes Dachl.

I can’t afford the lederhosen, don’t own any cows, and left plastic models of tilings behind years (ok, months) ago, so we step back into the rain – where I’m almost decapitated by a couple of clattering Gore-Tex robots with skis slung over their shoulders. Skis. And ski boots. And skiwear. In the middle of a drizzly city.

Obviously I can’t pretend to be entirely surprised – we booked a skiing holiday here, after all – but here’s no denying how alien those skiers look, wobbling awkwardly and noisily over the cobbles of the Tirolean capitals old town in weather that feels more like autumn than early March.

Though you can’t ski in the city centre itself, Innsbruck is pretty unusual in being both a decent-sized city – complete with restaurants, expensive shops, a university, bars etc – and an access point for proper slopes. Were we able to peel back the dense layers of clouds currently pelting us with rain, a steep, unforgiving slab of a mountain called the Nordkette would be revealed.

Just a few minutes walk (or shuffle, if you can’t be bothered to take your ski gear off) from the Goldenes Dachl is the Nordkettenbahnen. where a vertigo-inducing train whisks skiers and sightseers up the mountain. There are four stations on the route, each sprouting a fungus-like futuristic roof designed by the late Zaha Hadid, after which you switch to a couple of cable cars that take you right to the top.

As well as being the highest place you can get to without doing some serious mountaineering, the Hafelekar is also the starting point for one of the steepest ski runs in all of Europe (with a 70% incline), though having come more-or-less straight from the airport we’re wearing our civvies rather than ski gear. Which is fortunate, really, because the second we step out of the cable car a brutal (and brutally cold) wind threatens to rip our faces and clothes off.

It’s beyond me why they’d bother, but a few hardy idiots are braving the slopes, despite the howling wind and almost zero visibility. In theory, this is one of the most spectacular views in Austria; in reality, we get back in the cable car before it disappears and we have to wait for the next one.

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