Smuggler Routes in Ischgl

Published by PlanetSKI on

The first lift in the Austrian resort of Ischgl was built in 1952 with money made from smuggling. Emil Zangerl, AKA The Smuggler, tells PlanetSKI about his years of trekking at night to cross the Austrian-Swiss border.

After World War II, villages and regions such as Austria’s Paznaun were lacking many luxuries and so smuggling was common in this area across the Austria-Switzerland border.

The runs to exchange goods were done by local men with unmatched knowledge of the region.

From Austria the smugglers carried meat, butter, cheese, fur and leather and brought back from the Swiss side of the border tobacco, coffee, sweetener, spices and seamed stockings.

Paznaun locals took 10-hour journeys at night through the Alps and over to the Swiss village of Samnaun.

Not only was the long journey through the Alps physically demanding, but the rucksacks filled with contraband weighed up to 50kg.

Smugglers worked throughout the year, often in bad conditions as poor visibility and bad weather were better for travelling unseen and avoiding customs officers.

The border
Customs officer on the border crossing point

If caught the goods would be confiscated.

It seemed that the relationship between smugglers and officers was otherwise good.

Bribes were common and the smuggling was almost tolerated as often officers and runners would sit together at the local gasthaus, a local Austrian explained.

Life-long smuggler Emil Zangerl said that, in his knowledge, just one voyager was shot, but he did survive.

Emil Zangerl
Emil Zangerl on the mountain

PlanetSKI was in the Tirol in Ischgl to talk to Mr Zangerl and ski the resort’s commercial ‘Smugglerrunde’ – the route of the illegal traders 50 years back.

Emil’s first smuggle was in 1952 when he was 17 years old.

And his most recent trip across: last summer.

Emil was never caught and did around three expeditions per week during the most active smuggling period.

He was supposed to train as a cobbler after the war and although a good opportunity Emil never did it, instead sticking to smuggling.

The first question asked to Mr Zangerl was: Did you earn a lot of money?

Smiling, the adventurer replied Natürliche”.

Emil Zangerl
Emil Zangerl

What was most difficult obstacle?

“It was the weather, and of course the customs officers. It was best in bad weather as it was harder to be seen. The moonlight was the most beautiful way to do the journey but the most dangerous.”

“The best way was to do it alone, at night…” – which might be why he was never caught.

En route

Were there any female smugglers?

“No. But the women helped a lot.”

“The officers were never alone; two or three were together at certain points on the boundary and they could be bribed.”

The women were on the mountain and looked for where the officers were stationed along the border, reporting back to the smugglers.

Emil told of the role of the women and explained – with a smile – about the flirting between the Swiss and Austrian ladies and customs officers, which made it a very romantic look back at this time.

“The 50s and 60s were the best years to smuggle,” said Mr Zangerl.

Afterwards it was not necessary to go over the border anymore for such ‘luxuries’ but many did anyway, just because it was forbidden.


Emil and his translator for the evening, Isabelle, from Ischgl’s tourist office

One man got very rich through the smuggling trade and with the profits built the first lift in Ischgl in 1952.

Afterwards he was a ski instructor in the resort.

Ischgl's first lift, the Edelweiss lift
Ischgl’s first lift, the Edelweiss

And so it was smuggling that brought about one of Austria’s most popular ski resorts.

More recently Ischgl has developed commercial ski routes based on those of the smugglers.

There is the Bronze route (40.3 km that takes around 4 hours), the Silver (41.1km – 3.5 hours) and Gold (59 km taking approx. 4 hrs).

A smart-phone app tracks progress and gives information about the route along the way.

Gold route
Gold route

Present day Samnaun, the Swiss ski village and destination of the smugglers, has many duty free shops, even in the downstairs of the slope side Schmuggler-Alm restaurant and bar.

Duty free in Samnaun
Duty free in-resort in Samnaun

Along the smuggler’s ski route:

Austria - Switzerland
Austria – Switzerland

Standing in Austria (very nearly in Switzerland) looking to Italy and further away, Liechtenstein.

The route through the Tirolean mountains and down into Switzerland made for a beautiful day’s skiing.

The scenery we made tracks through was picturesque. The skiing done was a welcome challenge: a good change from the wide pistes and repeated runs of a normal resort day.

It was also great to have an itinerary to follow, and one with such an interesting history.

Winding route of the smugglers trail
Winding route of the Schmugglerrunde trail

To read about more about the modern side of Ischgl, see here for a report on the resort’s new, fast zip wire.


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