Tim Hughes experiences the delights of traditional Austrian hospitality in Vor Arlberg

Clemens Walch grins as he surveys the ice-capped peaks around his mountain hut; the spring snow turned a vivid gold by the setting sun.

With his shock of silver hair, checked shirt and green hunting jacket, he fits everyone’s image of the typical Austrian – only enhancing the effect by pouring me a glass of schnapps, picking up an accordion and teasing out a medley of mountain tunes.

His warming homemade hooch burns all the way down, fending off the Alpine chill, but the music is exquisite. As I listen, I spot a mountain goat making its way over the rocks and the mountains turn a deep bruised purple in the fading light. As a quintessential Alpine experience it was approaching cliché: a muesli or chocolate advert on steroids. I half expected Heidi or Julie Andrews to come skipping down the slopes to the sound of an alphorn, accompanied, Disney-style, by a troop of whistling marmots.

It gets you like that, this corner of Austria. Wedged between Switzerland, Germany and tiny Liechtenstein, the region of Vorarlberg is the very embodiment of the Alps, and the stylish old mountain resort of Lech is its prettiest corner.

The village, clustered around its church and reassuringly expensive boutiques, has long held a place in the hearts of the rich and famous, who come for its world-class skiing in winter, hiking and fresh mountain air in spring and summer, and startling scenery and bracing mountain air all year round.

This is no Courchevel or St Moritz, though. There are few signs of overt wealth or conspicuous consumption. This grand countess of the Austrian Alps oozes glamour but, in the best tradition of old money, keeps things understated. Gauche Russian oligarchs and their label-fetishising entourages need not apply.

“So many people come here,” says Clemens, back at the bar of his family-run hotel, the Gotthard, “but we never say who they are. That’s why they keep coming back.”

As one might expect from a hotel run by a model Austrian straight out of central casting, the four-star Hotel Gotthard is the embodiment of Alpine culture.

With its pitched roof, expanses of stripped pine and long balconies it certainly looks the part. So do its staff – women, including Clemens’s Australian wife Nicole, turned out in extravagant dirndl dresses and men in the obligatory checked shirts – as if dressed for Oktoberfest.

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Head for heights: Lech from above

But it’s not just a tourist version of Austria. It is, he tells me, simply the way it’s done out here.

“Lech is a very traditional place,” he says. “It has its own customs and people do things differently to those in other valleys – even in the way we speak. And we are proud of that.” That pride extends to the food.

Forget stereotypes of stodgy Germanic fare, this is mountain food with a refined twist; quality, locally-sourced, and highly seasonal produce, prepared according to tradition with the resort’s incognito high-class regulars in mind. 

The fondue at the Gotthard (which takes its name from Clemens’s grandfather Gotthard Walch) is a must - and the perfect way to bond over a shared love of rich mountain cheese, cold meat and pickles. There’s also fish from the rivers and lakes, beef from the high Alpine meadows, local mushrooms and some of the best bread in central Europe – cooked by Clemens himself before dawn and sold in his onsite bakery. It’s not all old-world charm though.

There’s modern Austrian cuisine and a gleaming new spa, complete with indoor pool, sauna, whirlpool and massages.

Skiing is the big draw here. One of the biggest ski areas in Europe, Vorarlberg has 340km of runs. But while the season draws to a close and the snow retreats, the mountains reveal themselves in a vivid explosion of green and a profusion of wild flowers.

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This is the time to hit the slopes on foot, exploring exquisite hamlets with onion-domed churches, or taking to two wheels – mountain bikes on the pistes and road bikes on the routes which climb out of Lech along the precipitous gorge of its eponymous river.

There’s also first-class fishing, canyoning and golf at a three-hole golf academy (a nine-hole course is under construction).

And if you’d prefer to hit the heights with company, Clemens can sort you out with a guide – possibly even himself.

If you’re lucky, you’ll find yourself up at his mountain hut on the Pazuler Mader.

Just watch out for that schnapps.

Stay: The four-star Hotel Gotthard is in Lech am Alrlberg. For details go to gotthard.at email hotel@gotthard.at or call +43 5583 /35 60-0

Getting there:

  • British Airways flies London Heathrow to Zurich from £120, or London Gatwick to Innsbruck from £84 return with a direct Arlberg shuttle bus transfer in winter Friday/Sat and Sunday.
  • Arlberg Express: arlbergexpress.com/en/ airport-shuttle-service
  • Lech can also be reached by train to Bregenz or Feldkirch and then taxi, or by hire car.

More information: For more on Vor Alrlberg, go to vorarlberg.travel/en

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