In the Austrian Alps, there is a growing feeling that summer is the new winter. Our House of Coco team went to the exclusive ski resort villages of Lech Zürs am Arlberg to find out what this meant. As #TeamCoco explored the summer wonders of the Alps, they unearthed the story of a rich family tradition of hospitality at Hotel Gotthard, Lech offering accessible luxury with a personal touch.
“Winter is for everyone. Summer is for your soul.” – Clemens Walch
The weather had remained temperamental from the moment we landed and throughout the drive from Zürich Airport to the rural alpine village of Lech am Arlberg. A bit of pragmatism was called for; I was at least 1,400 meters above sea level and at that elevation, the weather usually had a mind of its own.
However, the warm reception at the Hotel Gotthard Lech banished any thoughts about the weather. This charming family-run hotel would be my base during my time in the Austrian Alps.
“Willkommen!” greeted an amiable lady with a wide smile. Dressed in a dirndl, the traditional dress worn by women in Austria, Nicole Walch was both manager of the Hotel Gotthard and custodian of its proud family heritage which I would later learn about.
The darkness had enveloped the village and following a light Austrian dinner of smoked salmon, trout, cured hams, cheese and wine it was time to head to bed. The bedroom evoked feelings of log cabins and crackling fireplaces on a cold winter’s night. It was a Superior Double Room with garden views, an en-suite bathroom and modern technology. Insulating alpine wood panels and lush wall-to-wall carpeting contributed to the warm, homely feeling. The plush double-bed called out and before long I was nestled within its folds, falling asleep to the soundtrack of the rushing River Lech below.
The next morning was a revelation…
Putting one foot gingerly before the other, I made my way in a daze towards the signs of the early morning sun creeping underneath the thick curtains. I opened the double doors and stepped out onto the balcony. I inhaled deeply and took in the clean, fresh and dry mountain air. As the cobwebs in my head began to clear, my eyes adjusted to take in the sight before me. Snow-drizzled mountain peaks contrasted with lush green valleys. The hotel gardens blossomed with colourful Alpine flowers. With that soul-inspiring view, my Alpine adventure began.
I was here to explore Lech Zürs am Arlberg, neighbouring villages that form part of an iconic ring of ski slopes which spend much of the year covered up with snow. However, for a few months in late spring and through much of summer, these majestic mountains shed their whiteness to reveal luxurious green alpine vegetation. This spectacular transformation in nature turns the region from one of the world’s most exclusive ski resort areas into a summer paradise offering a wide range of outdoor activities including: hiking, cycling, rock climbing, fishing and a host of water and mountain sports.
The latest jewel in the crown of Lech Zürs am Arlberg however was the brand new, highest altitude golf course in Austria. Nestled within the mountains, the 9-hole golf course was the brainchild of Clemens Walch, founder and president of the Golf Club Lech and owner of the Hotel Gotthard.
Over a breakfast of fresh and exquisite Austrian pastries, I met Clemens, a kindly man with a boyish grin and an ever present twinkle in his eyes. He and Nicole seemed like the sort of couple you would love to grab a beer with. We quickly sorted out a rough itinerary for the next few days.
Wanting to spend as much time outdoors as possible, I was pleased when Clemens suggested a visit to the new golf course. As an added treat however, Clemens also offered to teach my small group how to bake apple strudel. A master baker, Clemens was the first non-Swiss baker to be accepted to the exclusive Guild of Lucerne. In addition to co-running Hotel Gotthard with his wife Nicole, he also managed the largest bakery in the area and the Backstube Café, a delightful pastry shop located next to the hotel. Intrigued by him, I wanted to learn his story.
A walk through time
The Alpine weather continued to play tricks for much of the morning. I wandered to Rüfiplatz, the village square, to browse local produce at the farmer’s market. Hotel Gotthard offered us a Lech Card which allows visitors free transportation on local buses, gondolas and ski lifts throughout the region. Wanting to explore further, I boarded the gondola for the ascent to the Panorama Restaurant am Rüfikopf which at an altitude of 2,350 meters offers visitors breath-taking panoramic views of the Lech Zürs mountain scenery.
Later that afternoon and for the remainder of my trip, the sun finally made an appearance. Clemens offered to lead our group on a forest walk towards Zürs. The opportunity to get close to nature and learn more about Clemens was impossible to resist. Exiting the hotel, we left the main road dividing the village of Lech and headed into the forest, following the path of the River Lech. As we walked, Clemens’ story began to unfold.
The original building now called Hotel Gotthard was built in 1931 by Clemens’ grandmother, Filomena who broke the glass ceiling of her time to become the first woman to own a business catering to visitors to the village. As war descended on Europe, the hotel business floundered. Filomena’s four sons went off to battle. Overcoming adversity, they safely returned from war. Filomena split the family properties between her sons with one them Vinzenz, taking on the mantle to continue building the hospitality business.
On the walk to Zürs, Clemens took us off the beaten path to show us some crystal clear waterfalls and holes 6 and 7 of the new 9-hole golf course amidst stunning scenery before continuing his story.
Nearing retirement, Uncle Vinzenz passed on the hospitality legacy to third-generation Clemens who by this time had completed his training as a baker and hotelier. A period of expansion for both the bakery and hotel followed as the region continued to enjoy patronage from dedicated winter sports enthusiasts. Somewhere in that journey, Clemens and Nicole found love and started to raise their family in Lech. This was no ordinary hotel. This was home.
In August 2005, the region suffered terrible floods which completely destroyed the hotel. Nicole recalls that episode with some sadness but also with pride for the incredible spirit of both the family and local community as they overcame adversity and restored the family legacy. Today, Hotel Gotthard Lech sits proudly as one of the top 4-star superior hotels in the Arlberg region providing guests with accessible luxury with a personal touch.
A family legacy in safe hands
Thanking Clemens for sharing his inspiring story, we eventually made it to Zürs and opted to return to the hotel by car. Following a quick tour of the hotel’s spa, gym and in-door pool facilities, we gathered in the Lecher Stube restaurant for dinner.
Previously owned by Hotel Gotthard but now run independently by Werner and Saraj Müllner, the Lecher Stube menu featured fresh quality ingredients and local produce. My choices of Frittaten oder Grießnockerlsuppe (clear soup with sliced pancakes) and Frisches Edelwallerfilet vom Grill (grilled fresh catfish fillet) paired well with a light local beer.
At the hotel bar, and over a cheeky late night round of classic Austrian schnapps, I replayed the day’s events with Nicole. In her words she said, “What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger. No one knows what the future holds and what lies ahead but we do know where we came from and how we got here.”
As the earthy taste of the schnapps warmed my body, in my mind I had no doubt that given their grounded family values, strong work ethic and track record of overcoming adversity, Filomena’s legacy of hospitality was in safe hands at the Hotel Gotthard.
Nearest airports are: Innsbruck (approximately 90 minute drive) and Zurich (approximately 2 hours and 15 minutes away. Nearest station: Langen 20 minutes (15km)
Up to October 2016, half board rates for Superior Garden Double Room are 113.50 Euros pp/pd. Guests to Hotel Gotthard receive the Lech Card which provides free transportation. Guests will also receive a 20% reduction for all of the golf courses in Vorarlberg. For bookings and enquiries, visit their website.
Photos © Omo Osagiede