Deep in the Alps between Zurich on the west and Innsbruck on the east there is a small chink in the great wall of Europe through which the journeyer can filter from Switzerland into Austria, indeed from the Channel to the Balkans. It is called the Arlberg Pass, a narrow niche four-fifths of a mile high. Tourists can cross it by-car, and trains can run its tunnel, especially the Arlberg-Orient Express, which careens through daily en route from Paris to Bucharest, carrying its legendary complement of diplomats, demimondaines and derring-doers.
But more important to many is the fact that on the slopes of the Arlberg Pass Austrian mountain men, led by the late Hannes Schneider, took the Norwegian art of skiing cross-country, adapted it for easy downhill running and made it, in time, a sport for every-man. This year, as the Arlberg celebrates the 50th anniversary of Schneider's first ski school, and therefore of the Arlberg technique, the slopes of the mountain pass are crowded with men of all nations who have flocked to its birthplace to pursue the white sport. Day on sunny day Frenchmen and Germans, Americans and Belgians, and Englishmen by the score crowd the Austrian inns to sip Branntwein and beer, fatten on Rindsgulyas mit Salzkartoffeln and whipped-cream-crested pastry and listen to the plaintive pluckings of the zither. But above all, they ride the lifts and the tows and go whizzing down the incomparable Alpine sides where 50 years ago it all began.
St. Anton takes its sport seriously, Z�rs is fashionable and Lech, which has grown so in the last 10 years, seems to be for everyone. Ski lessons in the Arlberg technique first began in 1907 when the Schuler family, who owned the Hotel Post, a popular summer place, imported Hannes Schneider from Stuben 10 kilometers over the hills and told him to open a ski school that would attract winter customers. Hannes taught the Austrian mountain troops in the first war, went to Japan in 1930, and in 1936, with Benno Rybizka and Otto Lang, he came to the U.S. to ski on shaved ice spread over a make-do slope set up in Madison Square Garden and in the Boston Garden. Out of favor with the Nazis, Hannes brought his family to the States and subsequently took over the ski schools at Jackson and North Conway (where his son Herbert is now the mentor).
In 1935, the year before he went to the States, Schneider's St. Anton ski school employed 30 teachers. During the Christmas rush this year Rudi Matt, who ran the house and shop during Schneider's time in the U.S. and who is now head of the school, had a company of 80 multilingual instructors on the slopes. (Matt ran the Sun Valley ski school in 1950-51.)
Meanwhile the Hotel Post, which had, by most historical interpretations, started it all to promote winter business, was still being run by the Schulers. By all odds it is the largest, most soign� hotel in St. Anton. The Dutch royal family descends each year after Christmas, stays until mid-January. Pictures on the wall record the presence of the Averell Harrimans and Claudette Colbert. Its 82 rooms (half of them with bath) rent for about $9 a day per person including meals and all extras. Most luxurious of all is a three-room suite which Millionaire C. V. Starr of New York, an early booster of Stowe, Vt., paid to have furnished with pine paneling, oil paintings and wall-to-wall carpeting. The Starr chamber is available when Starr is out of town.
A delightful inn which fairly exudes a romantic, there's-a-small-hotel quality is the Mooserkreuz, a few minutes from the village. Run with faultless taste by Franz Opitz, once the manager of Vienna's Sacher, it is outside the steep canyon walls of the village and its balconies face the full flood of the sun. About $7.50 a day—room, bath, meals, tips and taxes.
Cheaper still is the remodeled 60-room Hotel Arlberg, which charges between $5.50 and $6.50 a day. The dining room looks out on the ice pond, and at night a two-man band (one virtuoso plays the drum and trumpet simultaneously) draws the young, baggy-sweater set who dance until the earlier hours.
For those who don't want to cart them from home, skis rent for 50� a day, ski boots for 40�, and in a number of ateliers about town tailors will make up ski pants to measure in about 12 hours at anywhere from $20 to $40. The biggest shop in St. Anton, called the Sporthaus Hannes Schneider, is run by Hannes' daughter Herta, who came home in 1954 to marry Franz Fahrner, a ski instructor. They offer Kneissl and K�stle skis at about half the U.S. price and Walch and Strolz boots (the Strolz factory is in Lech) for $30. Altmann's Vienna cashmere sweaters are about $14, and a cottage industry turns out heavy sweaters in patterns copied from the Norwegian. The Fahrners can also take 16 guests in spotless rooms over the shop which rent for $2.20 a day, including breakfast, heat and tax.
Perhaps the best shopping of all is in Lech, a half hour's drive over the mountain roads. Ambros Strolz offers a variety of high-styled sweaters and parkas, but in the back of the shop 23 men and three girls turn out 4,000 pairs of Strolz boots a year, each of them made completely by hand by one person. Some 70% of the Olympic racers of all nationalities wore Strolz boots during the last competition. The cost is $30 even if you buy at the factory, but you can have them handmade to measure in about three days.
Down the street at Pfefferkorn's, a modern shop run by the mayor, Austrian daytime dirndl dresses by Lanz of Salzburg are $12, silk and brocade evening dirndls about double. Norwegian-type sweaters at $8 are cheaper than the originals.