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Arlberg: In the hidden idyll of St Christoph, some cultural surprises await…

David Churchill

When the snow and skiers retreat, the Austrian alps become a vision of summer. And, in the hidden idyll of St Christoph, some cultural surprises await…

When summertime arrives the instinct is to head down to the sea. It’s time to reverse that thinking and try something different by heading higher. A lot higher. Around 1,800 metres above sea level, to be exact.

When the snow melts and retreats to the mountain caps to reveal green valleys carpeted with wildflowers, the Alps transform into a vision of summertime. The buzz of aprés-ski is replaced by the buzz of bees and some of the world’s most extraordinary locations become havens of relaxation.

St Christoph is one of these. An intimate collection of properties nestled in their own valley high in the Tyrolean mountains. It’s world famous for high-end skiing in winter – European royalty own apartments here – and evolves into something altogether more tranquil in summer.

Flying to Zurich and driving across the border, the wide Swiss autobahn of monochrome cars thins into twistier roads as you cross into Austria. Rising up through the densest region of peaks in the Alps, the scenery becomes as eye-popping as the altitude is ear-popping. St Christoph is one of the highest resorts in Austria and, steeped in history, is also one of the oldest.

Image TVB St. Anton am Arlberg / Wolfgang Burger

Its central property, the Arlberg Hospiz, was founded in the 1300s by a monk wanting to give refuge those attempting to cross the treacherous mountains. He saved so many lives that his efforts were sanctioned by the Pope of the time, allowing his refuge to expand. There’s still a Brotherhood of St Christoph today – who continue to hold knighting ceremonies in the Hospiz – but their charitable works have broadened now their original refuge has attained five-star status.

Remodelled in the 1950s, the Arlberg Hospiz is as traditional an establishment as you could want in such a historic setting with a heavily-carved interior, flagstone floors, a permanently crackling log fire and 14th century cellars under its chapel housing vintages extending back to Napoleonic times. It’s a curious and intriguing place, combining the feel of a luxurious ski lodge with the rambling romance of a castle. Packed with fashionable skiers in the winter it mellows to a more sedate pace in the summer, acting as a social hub for the surrounding alpine community and a base for mountain explorers.

And it’s a stunning locale to explore. A quick dash in one of the hotel’s Audi Quattro SUV’s through an open-sided tunnel hewn into the mountainside brings you to the ski-hub of St Anton. It may not be as crowded as it is in winter but, conversely, the spring/summer melt opens up a wider range of activities not solely dependent on sliding down a slope.

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There are more than 200km of signposted walks ranging from picturesque strolls through wildflower meadows to full-on clambering over rocks (or bouldering as it’s more professionally known). From mountain biking to alpine marathons, all levels of adventure-lust and physical fitness are catered for. We overestimated ours quite badly and set out on a guided four hour hike that was testing at times, but worth it for the awe-inspiring views.

Grateful to be able to cheat the first few miles in a high-tech cable car we were soon being pushed to reach greater heights, spurred on by the lure of even more epic Instagram moments. Scrambling up beside alpine streams and edging along zig-zagging paths with vertigo-testing drops, the expert knowledge of our guide was as welcome as his hip flask of schnapps made from the flowers we were surrounded by.

Peeling off our boots in front of the log fire back at the Arlberg Hospiz, leg muscles buzzing from our hike, it seems like the perfect time to indulge in a massage, sauna and swim at the spa. After pummelling and steaming our aches away it’s time to dress for a gourmet dinner, but not before exploring somewhere truly surprising down near to the underground entrance of the medieval cellars.

Under the oldest part of the building is a passageway that’s a gasp-inducing contrast to the rest of the building – a glowing, minimal corridor straight out of a sci-fi movie set. It’s an unexpected sight in such a historic building and leads to something even more unexpected. A vast minimal modern art gallery and state-of-the-art contemporary concert hall.

Arlberg1800 is a startling new addition to the traditional architecture of St Christoph, boasting a world-class programme of classical and modern music coupled with exhibitions of international modern art. Above it are a range of jaw-dropping architect-designed apartment suites if your taste in accommodation is more cutting-edge modern than traditional ski lodge.

It’s a bold, unexpected find and we’ve hardly had time to marvel at the long, stark lines of the art space before we’re joined by the local cultural glitterati and ushered front-row for a classical recital by the award-winning LGT Young Soloists.

Body still buzzing from the day’s exertions, it’s hard not to rewind the day’s images as the music stirs and soundtracks the memories of the epic mountainscapes. It’s a sublime way to end an extraordinary stay in an extraordinary place. A stay that has catered to the mind, body and soul and ends with a standing ovation in the highest concert hall in the world. l

Gay Times stayed at Arlberg1800 Resort in St Christoph. Rooms start from £175 per night based on two sharing a double. Arlberg1800 Suites start from £2,000 per person based on six guests staying for seven nights, arlberg1800RESORT.at.

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