Monthly Archives: October 2015

Why SPECTRE (and Bond) is at home in Austria

You may have noticed that a new James Bond film has opened. You may also have noticed that part of it was filmed in the Tirol, in Austria, in an Alpine village called Sölden. Of course 007 and snow have a long history, going back to On Her Majesty’s Secret Service (poor Bond, decent film, great soundtrack), so Spectre is continuing an 007 tradition which goes back to Ian Fleming’s love of the sport.



Fleming skied at a time when it was elitist, glamorous and dangerous. The glamour remains to some degree and as for the danger – you might have more forgiving skis and boots that don’t snap your ankle, but there’s still  whiteouts, avalanches, treacherous driving conditions and rogue cable cars. But that is all grist to the Bond mill – isn’t putting the spy in peril in a spectacular setting the essence of a 007 movie? It certainly is of the globetrotting Spectre.

But there are plenty of countries that have snow, so why did Mendes and crew choose Sölden? Well, the cynics might suggest that it was a village willing to close its main ski slope in peak season in return for the sort of publicity money can’t buy. Or possibly the Spectre scouts thought that the glistening glass cube of its mountain-top Ice-Q restaurant might rival Piz Gloria on the Schilthorn in Switzerland as an iconic Bond location.

The Ice-Q restaurant, Sölden, which isn't a rerstaurant in the movie

The Ice-Q restaurant, Sölden, which isn’t a restaurant in the movie

It is also possible that the scriptwriting team, always in search of a backstory these days, knew that, although Bond was not born or conceived in the Tirol, his DNA is all over it. thanks to his creator.

Ian Fleming was forced to resign from Sandhurst after contracting gonorrhoea from a prostitute and in 1927 he was despatched by his formidable mother to the town of Kitzbühel (having spent some time there the previous year) in the Tirol. He arrived in a place that eschewed stuffy Anglo-Saxon sexual mores. Which, once he had shaken off his initial torpor, suited the testosterone-fuelled Fleming just fine.

Fleming’s mother had sent the 19-year old to be tutored, alongside other English boys, by a very influential pair – the Forbes Dennises. Ernan Forbes Dennis had been the British ‘Passport Control Officer’ in Vienna, which if you speak spy, you will know is code for resident MI6 officer, although he was indeed also a keen educationalist and proponent of the theories of Adler. His wife Phyllis was a successful author who encouraged the young Fleming to write. Together they represented two cornerstones of Ian’s future life – espionage and writing.


     In the thirties he would also meet the splendidly named Conrad O’Brien-ffrench in the Tirol. He was an adventurer, explorer, an excellent skier and.. a spy. He worked for the Z Organisation, a kind of shadow MI6 that was sympathetic to Churchill’s insistence that Hitler wanted war. He set up a network of agents across Austria and Southern Germany. Ian and his older brother Peter (at that point a very successful author) often bumped into O’Brien-ffrench, as the man’s cover was that of a travel agent looking to open up the region to British tourism. When war broke out O’Brien-ffrench escaped from the Nazis by hiking over the Alps into Switzerland. Some claim he was later very influential in securing Fleming a post in Naval Intelligence during WW2.

Oetztal Alps credit Tirol Werbung.Aichner Bernhard

Fleming had learned to ski in the Tirol (and even today there is a downhill event in Kitzbühl named after him), although he always said it was a toss up between summer and winter as his favourite time – he loved the skiing but also appreciated that the girls weren’t so bundled up in their thick clothes in the warmer months.

The war put paid to Fleming’s sojourns to the Tirol. He would return to Kitzbühel when he was 50, with wife and son in tow, to try and recapture something of his youth, but according to his biographer Andrew Lycett the trip was something of a failure, even though the writer professed to have enjoyed himself. He was no longer an athletic young man who could have his pick of the locals, but an aging dyspeptic author in a failing marriage, with his bored wife and tragic son Caspar (who later committed suicide) in tow.

But Kitzbühel was never far from his thoughts and what he called his ‘golden years’ there made many appearances in his fiction. He decided that, as he had, James Bond would learn to ski in Austria. In Octopussy, the story of the Nazi gold and the mountain refuge was surely based on the wooden huts you can see dotting the Alpine meadows of the Tirol. And when James Bond marries Tracy in On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, they are on their way to an idyllic honeymoon in Kitzbühel when she is murdered. He also left £500 each to three people in the town in his will when he died in 1964, exhorting them to “do something exciting” with it. Among them was Lisl Jodl, one of his many Bond-like romantic entanglements from the ’20s and ’30s.

So perhaps it was just serendipity and/or finance that brought the makers of Spectre to choose the Austrian Tirol  for the snow scenes (spoiler: Bond does not actually ski in this one), but conscious or not, they chose well.


You have to work hard to reach the finest view of New York’s Hudson Valley. The trailhead to the aptly named Overlook Mountain can be found just outside Woodstock, opposite a Buddhist Temple and you soon find yourself praying for good karma on the hike up. It is a rocky and relentless two-and-a-half mile climb, with barely a flat section until near the top, when you reach the spooky, eerie husk of a once-glamorous hotel. Its roofless hallways and public spaces are now full of trees and creepers and (a warning sign suggests) timber rattlesnakes. Take it as a waymarker that the end is nigh and move on, rather than explore its unstable interior.


       At the summit of the trail is a small sign pointing through the undergrowth. “Scenic Outlook”, it says, and you damn well hope so after that climb, where you have mainly been looking at a solid wall of trees on either side. You struggle through the brushwood until you find yourself on a rocky outcrop, with the valley spread out below you, the wide, silvery ribbon of the Hudson itself on the left, the glistening waters of the Ashokan reservoir on the right and what feels like the whole world at your feet. It is both sudden and breathtaking and I can’t recall such a sneaky reveal of a fabulous view outside of the Grand Canyon.


       You can gild this particular scenic lily by taking the steel staircase (if it is open – it’s manned by volunteers and usually weekend-only) to the restored firetower, which adds in a portion of the Catskill mountains to the north, humped like a series of green-backed cetaceans. I asked my wife if she thought the view was worth the long hike and the rickety steps up to the tiny cabin of the tower. “It’s worth the plane ticket over,” she replied. It was an opinion she was to revise on the return leg.

       The walk down was not that much easier than the ascent, but we were elated at having made it to the top on a hot, enervatingly muggy day. We were talking loudly and joking about rattlesnakes when two hikers who had halted some way ahead waved for us to stop. We did so. The man drew a finger across his throat. I instantly thought of Cabin In The Woods or any other number of city-folk-in-the-wilderness movies.

       But my wife hissed in my ear: “Oh my God, it’s a bear.”

       And so it was, a handsome black bear, inspecting the ferns, shrubs and trees that lined the side of the road about twenty metres to our right. Not a huge bear maybe, but when it reared up against a tree trunk, large enough to make knees knock. Every now and then it glanced our way or at the other hikers. It gave a few desultory sniffs of the air. It was a fine time to remember the half-eaten sandwich in my backpack.

bear photo

       Discounting the grizzly, which this was definitely not, there are two types of bear you are likely to encounter in the US, the brown and the black. “With one of them you make as much noise as possible and wave your arms,” I authoritatively whispered to my wife. “The other you climb a tree or play dead.”

       ‘Which one do you do for a black bear?” she asked.

       “I don’t remember,” I replied.

       Quietly, so as not to disturb our new ursine chum, she gave me a dead arm.

       All I could really recall was that a black bear can run at 35mph. A rough calculation suggested this was about 30 mph that I could manage uphill, even with a bear on my tail. We were stuck on that path for the time being.

       I subsequently discovered that there are at least 8,000 black bears in New York State. The population is growing and interactions with humans are increasing. So this year the autumn hunting season was extended into what amounts to a cull. Until the end of September, hunters were allowed to kill bears with “bow, crossbow, muzzle-loader, shotgun or rifle” in areas designated by the Department of Environmental Conservation. But I didn’t have any of those particular weapons on me and, besides, the innocent bear was mostly minding its own business. Mostly. Every now and then it would wander onto the track then, as if catching an elusive fragrance, it would be drawn back to a particular tree and start inhaling and snorting loudly.

       We were standing there for close to twenty minutes, waiting for this tree-junkie of a bear to get bored. Eventually, it looked up into the branches of its favourite trunk and, with an ease I still can’t quite comprehend and a speed that was both impressive and terrifying, it began to climb. With the crack of claw on bark and the odd grunt, it was soon in the upper branches, swaying like an overgrown, swarthy koala.

       ‘Not the climb-a-tree-to-escape species, then,’ I offered to my wife, whose expression suggested she thought my zoology degree was a waste of three years.

      It was time to go. We set off using a speedy gait that was a combination of Olympic race-walking and Lee Evans at his most hyperactive. We warned those coming from the car park that there was a bear in the air. Several, who had encountered bears before, turned back. Others, including a pair with what looked to me like a tasty morsel of a dog, carried on regardless.

       Later, nursing a slightly unsteady beer in a bar in Woodstock, I asked my wife what she made of the experience. “I was wrong about the view,” she said. “It was the bear that was worth the price of the plane ticket.”


  • I travelled as a guest of Virgin Holidays (0844-573 0088,, which has a week’s fly-drive to New York from £929pp, including flights and Alamo car hire. Advice on what to do when you encounter a bear can be found on The best course of action is to back away slowly. Attacks are rare. If you are attacked, with brown and grizzly bears, you play dead. With black bears, you shout and make yourself seem as large as possible. Don’t climb a tree.