Secret Alpine Valley

A horse-drawn sleigh carries riders away from Tamsweg, LungauÂ’s county seat. (Christian Neuhauser)

One ancient Alpine day the people of Lungau, a 25-by-30-mile hand-shaped nest of glaciated and riverine valleys tucked behind Salzburg's Tauern Alps, chose the fittest man among them and sent him to find the end of the world. A three-day walk from his home in Zederhaus, one of the small villages scattered throughout Lungau, brought him to what appeared to be an impenetrable granite wall. Satisfied and likely relieved, he went home.

"I have been to the end of the world," he told his people, "and return to tell you that there is no place on Earth more beautiful than Lungau."

He was right about the beauty. Had that ancient Lungauer pressed on, he would have discovered the hidden gap where the Tauern opens north to Pongau's green valleys and Salzburg's musical hills.

Not until tunnels were blasted through the Alps in 1975 could one travel to or from Lungau without scaling the mountains that encircle it. When the passes were closed, as they often are in winter, no one got in or out. During those years of isolation, Lungau's traditions, culture and dialect thrived. Its people, bound by their geography and history, evolved into a 20,000-member family that embraces the occasional traveler fortunate enough to wander in. By car it's only three hours west of Vienna, three hours southeast of Munich and four hours north of Venice, but Lungau remains a world apart.

A region beneath the radar

"Lungau?" The man in the Lufthansa seat next to mine shook his head and tossed back his martini. "Never heard of it. Innsbruck, Kitzbühel, Zürs, sure, but Lungau?"

My husband, Albert, smiled and whispered, "Good. Lungau still sneaks in under the jet-set radar."

A year ago at Christmastime, Albert finally delivered on his promise to take me to Lungau, his birthplace, to treat me to three weeks of the region's winter sports and to introduce me to his valley's cozy quirkiness. Since then we have been back twice: in summer, an equally appealing season when the landscape is reminiscent of "The Sound of Music," and again last month. This time there was less snow than usual, but the skiing was still good.

"It's OK that you don't speak German," Albert assured me. "Everyone old enough to reach the bar and young enough to stay upright on skis speaks English." And he told me not to worry whether I was good enough to ski down Austrian slopes. Everyone -- even beginners and intermediates like me -- could enjoy the skiing, he said.

When we arrived in Munich on our way to Lungau, it was a frigid, blue-sky morning. At a crossroads south of the city, we ignored the western routes that lead to the too-chic resorts of Tirol and Vorarlberg and turned east, toward south-central Austria.

We sped an hour and a half through wintry Bavarian farm country, then paused for coffee and warm apfelstrudel at the Café Bazaar in Salzburg. After another hour, first through narrow valleys and then along vertiginous mountainsides, we passed the fabled Lungauer's granite wall. From there the road continued its climb to a 5,200-foot pass and the base of Obertauern, Lungau's largest ski resort, where, in 1965, the Beatles filmed "Help!" We parked among the jumble of coffeehouses, ski shops, discos and chalet-hotels that compose the village at the base of the resort. Then we suited up to spend the last hours of the day skiing as many as we could of Obertauern's 75 miles of runs.

We climbed above the tree line to the Seekar summit. Peaks on the southern horizon mapped the road to Italy. Cross-country skiers glided along the valley floor's six miles of trails. Albert and I pointed our skis downhill and plunged nearly 2,000 feet before regaining the village. No traffic crowded our descent. No lines slowed our re-ascent, thanks to Obertauern's 26 lifts.

We skied ourselves limp, then squeezed in around a communal table at a slope-side hut for spicy Bosnian sausage, mulled wine and a few polkas. Later that evening we hitched a ride on a snowmobile back up the mountain, shared a pan of käsespätzle (Austrian macaroni and cheese), then screamed back down to the village on bentwood sleds at a pace guaranteed to sober up even the most schnapps-addled Austrian. Roman milestones marked the ancient commercial north-south route through Lungau as we drove the stretch of highway from Obertauern into the heart of Lungau and the village of Mauterndorf.

A 12th century castle sits atop a rise at the north end of Mauterndorf (literally "toll town"), where the road narrows. The original inhabitants, medieval toll-takers, extorted cash from travelers in return for safe passage. That night the only cash our host demanded was for our pints of lager. A men's a cappella quartet sat drinking beer and rehearsing at a corner table, loden jackets and green felt hunting caps hanging on pegs behind them.

Three thickly bundled women blew in on an icy gust, then peeled off layers to reveal Lungau's traditional red and green dirndls, so sweet they made my teeth hurt. The locals exchanged greetings. Greetings turned to song. Austrian harmony filled the chamber.

After midnight, we drove the block or two down the empty, winding road from the castle, between rows of half-timbered houses and traditional stepped-roof buildings, and pulled up in front of the Gasthof Steffner-Wallner.

An enormous, slobbering St. Bernard bellowed from the end of the deep entry and shuffled across the worn marble floors to inspect us. Hans Steffner-Wallner, the owner of the inn, appeared through a small doorway, welcomed us with grins and knuckle-breaking handshakes, then led us to our cozy room.

Tradition mixed with tech

At 6 the next morning, Albert and I climbed out of our deep down nest and made our way to the breakfast room, where we gorged on slabs of dark bread spread thick with home-churned butter and wild strawberry jam, followed by creamy coffee.