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Swellboy on… a non-skiing holiday

A trip to the Alps offers all manner of non-skiing opportunities

Swellboy on… a non-skiing holiday

Image: Brijesh Patel

February 19 2011
Nick Foulkes

And so to Kitzbühel for the annual non-skiing holiday.

My sole experience of winter sports to date involves driving a snowmobile into a tree some years ago in Courchevel. I have enough difficulty remaining upright while trying to negotiate the London pavement, let alone the snow-mantled peaks of Alpine Europe while wearing long strips of carbon fibre and what have you on my feet. So, I limit my ivernal activities to boarding the ski lift and being hoisted into the mountain air where I dangle in my plastic bubble like some oversized Christmas decoration for about 10 minutes before getting out at the fabled Hahnenkamm – which I am told has the most vertiginous beginning to any ski race in the world. Thereafter it is a brisk 20-second hike to the restaurant where I reward myself with a small coffee and a large cigar. Next I gaze out over the roof of Europe, giving as good an impression as I can of one of those tiny people in the foreground of a painting by David Caspar Friedrich.

Nevertheless, though I neither ski nor toboggan, I allow myself to participate in the spirit of thing. In my book it is neither the winning nor the taking part that counts, but having the right clothes (when in doubt, I model myself on Sir Hilary Bray in On Her Majesty’s Secret Service), one change of sunglasses (a pair of RetroSpecs aviators plus a pair of Meyrowitz’s own label), and a small but good selection of cigars (Cohiba Siglos II, IV and VI).

Clothing and accessories are of course the leitmotif of my existence. I find assembling an occasion-appropriate wardrobe both the perfect distraction from, and example of, the futility of human existence. And one of the rewarding things about completing the arduous gondola ride from the town of Kitzbühel to the top of the Hahnenkamm, which apparently has the steepest start of any of the world’s ski races, is the museum recounting the story of skiing at Kitzbühel and the Hahnenkamm, which, as I may have mentioned, is said to have the most precipitous opening sequence of any ski race on the planet.

This museum has a priceless trove of images from the early days of skiing here, when it was de rigueur to wear a conical felt hat, a tie, and carry a single pole of the type used by tightrope walkers. My favourites are from the middle years of the 20th century: pictures of the Duke of Windsor (inevitably) in marvellous plus fours, glamorous movie stars, and a group shot of women in sunglasses and ski pants in front of the restaurant that might have come from the pages of Vogue of that time.

I suppose what I like about Kitzbühel is the combination between that whole Alpine chic thing and the wearing of Tracht, the traditional dress of Austria and neighbouring Bavaria. So all in all it was fairly predictable that I went into the local Tracht tailor, Eder, where I perused a fine selection of these deerskin, loden and linen (although not all at once) high-buttoning jackets fastened with stag horn buttons or facsimile old coins of the Habsburg era. I could write a book about stag horn buttons and the hunting garb of Kaiser Franz-Josef, but I will spare you that… for the time being.

As is usually the case, I quickly eschewed the prêt-à-porter versions and engaged the head cutter in conversation about the prospects of a bespoke piece of Tracht. Clearly a man who knew his work, he set about showing me any number of slipper-soft deer skins; and then with a great flourish he pulled out a roll of linen which appeared to have been hand-woven on a narrow loom. The cloth had an impastoed quality that one seldom sees in fabrics these days, which have tended to be softened and otherwise processed for the tastes of the new rich who are used only to silk and cashmere. Sensing a sale, he quickly moved in for the kill, telling me that this piece of cloth was 300 years old. I have no idea whether this was the case or whether it was just made in the same way as the linen of three centuries past; either way, it is a powerful argument for making Kitzbühel a component in my summer itinerary as well as my ivernal one.