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.
"You Americans," said our dairy farmer/innkeeper host as he shook his head and grinned. "So ambitious. Sure, the lifts begin at 8 a.m., and you will have the mountain to yourselves. But why? Skiing is fine, but better is the camaraderie of other skiers. You can ski anywhere in the world, but you will find Lungauer hospitality only in Lungau."
On his way out, he tossed Albert a cell phone. "Call me from the mountain if you need anything. I'll be at the barn." He slid behind the wheel of his shiny Mercedes, then turned, grinned and tipped his battered felt hunting cap to us.
I grinned too. For all the simplicity and tradition of their agricultural lifestyle, it was clear Lungauers too were attracted by modern devices.
We drove 10 minutes south to the village of St. Margarethen and the base of Lungau's second largest ski resort, the Katsch-berg-Aineck mountains. Along the way we passed the squat, thick-walled, heavy-roofed farmhouses typical of Lungau, as well as Schloss Moosham, one of Lungau's three medieval castles.
Erwin Resch, a former Austrian national ski champion, sold us organic chamomile lip balm at the base of Aineck, then tossed a couple of schnapps singles into our mitts. "Keep warm!" he said.
Ten minutes, two shots of schnapps and four lifts later, we arrived above the clouds at the Adler Horst (the Eagle's Nest) summit lodge. Icy peaks floated in a fog sea under an endless blue sky. Austrian folk music piped out from under the hut's eaves.
We had the mountain's 37 miles of runs to ourselves and were spent by noon. A quick warmup in the Adler Horst turned into a languid afternoon around the fire, boots off, soaking up Lungauer folklore, courtesy of the brothers Gspandl. As the winter sun dropped behind the Alps, we dragged our limp limbs out for the descent to St. Margarethen.
"I want to take you to visit someone," Albert said as we left the mountain. "He's called the Thomatalerpfarrer, the 'priest from Thomatal.' I was altar boy with him when I was a kid. He's 86 years old. He's ... well ... you'll see."
Thomatal, with its dozen or so farmhouses, was only a few minutes' drive south of St. Margarethen. We pulled up beside a two-story slate-roofed house next to the church. Albert knocked on the weathered door. I heard some shuffling, then some keys jingling, and finally the door creaked open.
First a battered leather Merlin-the-Magician hat appeared. Then a remarkably smooth face with dancing eyes, high cheekbones and a waist-length gray beard peeked out at us. He was a combination of Haight-Ashbury hippie and Indian sadhu.
There was a moment's pause, and then his face broke into an enormous grin, the door flew open and he shouted, raising his arms as if in prayer, "Viva America!"
His house has neither electricity nor, other than the wood stove in the kitchen, heating, so we went to the nearby gasthaus to share a beer with him.
Albert told me later that the Thomatalerpfarrer has always put forth his own singular interpretation of the church's message, to the dismay of Lungau's church hierarchy but to the delight of his parishioners. Late on Christmas Eve he celebrates Mass in a barn and plays Joseph in a skit reenacting the birth of Christ. On Palm Sunday he dresses like Jesus and rides a donkey to Mass.
"We adore him," Albert said as we left.
On our drive back to Mauterndorf along village streets, kids shouted greetings to us through their home-crafted masks and costumes. They tramped from house to house, reenacting the journey of the three Wise Men, to be rewarded by townsfolk with sweets and coins.
Albert and I fell into the local rhythm. We argued politics over coffee at Café Hochleitner until 10 a.m., sliding onto the new six-seat chair at Fanningberg (probably the locals' favorite hill) around 11:30 a.m. We waltzed down the smooth-as-carpet runs off each of Fanningberg's four lifts until midafternoon, rode back to the top, then kicked off our boards outside the rustic Gamsstadl hut and dropped in for a beer and a rest.
Tony Schitter, a dairy farmer who operates his high-pasture summer cabin as a skiers' refuge in winter, hammered out folk songs on his accordion, his younger brother accompanying him on guitar, and his mother and sisters stirring up miracles in the kitchen. Skiers made room for us at an already-bulging table. Pans of käsespätzle, bratwurst and sauerkraut were pushed aside to accommodate pints of beer and mugs of hot wine.
Local ski racing champs, army officers, farmers' daughters and cabinetmakers, together with a handful of Italians and Germans -- the only non-Austrians we saw during our stay -- wandered in from the slopes. Soon we were watching the locals dancing polkas on the tables. An hour later we were up and dancing with them.
When we finally scrambled back out to the hill and stepped into our skis, it was nearly midnight and socked in with a ground-hugging fog. A decision was made -- perhaps by the soldiers among us -- that the person most familiar with the mountain should lead us down to the base of Fanningberg. We would carry torches, hold the ends of one another's poles and turn where our leader turned.
Tony offered to take in his tractor those who preferred not to ski down. A few Germans accepted, visibly relieved. The rest of us lined up single file and skied two turns, and then the whole thing fell apart. It was a midnight free-for-all with torches flying. The Austrians couldn't help themselves. Each wanted to be first over the finish line.
The following week Albert and I ventured out of Lungau to explore the neighboring resorts of Turrach, Radstadt, Flachau and Schladming. We joined a horse-drawn sleigh ride to a creaky wood cabin deep in a forest behind Katschberg mountain, where accordion and zither music and a meal of roasted venison waited.
We agreed to meet with strangers (if the locals can ever be called strangers) the following evening at midnight on a full moon for a ski trek up Aineck Mountain. We crashed curling parties on frozen lakes and were cheered as heroes. We witnessed wacky skits performed by cabin-feverish village elders at annual winter festivities.
On our last evening, as we glided on cross-country skis circling frozen Preber Lake, we met Florian Frühstückl, the grand master of the ancient, yet still thriving, valley tradesmen's league. He invited us to his 200-year-old home for a feast of spit-grilled lamb, hand-picked chanterelle mushrooms and Lungauer erdlinge (potatoes).
At 2 the next morning, he and his wife sent us off with an invitation to return the following summer to celebrate his 50th birthday with a shooting party at Schatten Lake, the site of our earlier curling fest. They assured us that by then the lake would have thawed, transforming itself into a liquid jewel.
Albert and I savored our last moments in this undiscovered, authentic Austrian Shangri-La, with its huge-hearted, life-loving, accordion- and zither-playing folk who will meet you, invite you into their homes and then drink you under their tables, all in the same evening.
We did not miss the chichi resorts of Tirol or Vorarlberg. We were too busy loving Lungau.
Gisele Rainer is a lawyer who lives in San Francisco.Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times