Christmas Markets and downhill skiing in the Alps
By Sonja Stark
Winter is a holidaymaker’s favorite season for an escape to the unspoiled kingdoms of Austria and Switzerland. An outdoor paradise of strolling, skiing and moonlight sleigh rides await you in the Tyrolean capital of Innsbruck, while shopping, haute cuisine and rich spa experiences abound in Zurich.
Austria: Aimless Strolling through Story Town
Tucked inside the Inn valley, shouldered by snow-capped mountains and colorful baroque churches, sits the charming Capital city of Innsbruck, Austria. The medieval Old Town section, with its pastel-painted, wedding cake-like buildings and labyrinth of alleyways invites aimless strolling for hours.
Like other European towns, Innsbruck in December is awash with busy Christmas markets that have operated for centuries as festive meeting places for selling homemade crafts and ornaments.
Gifts like wooden figurines, glass balls, straw stars, cookie tins and painted toys are popular among visitors.
The shopping hoopla is closely watched overhead by life-size oddities along Fairytale Lane, characters like: Snow White, Cinderella, Pinocchio, and Hansel and Gretel. They perch like birds on windowsills, peeking down onto children enjoying roasted chestnuts and warm pretzels.
A favorite meeting place for families is in front of the privileged three-story balcony, aptly named The Golden Roof, because of its 2657 fire-gilded copper tiles, built in 1500 by Archduke Friedrich IV as a gift for Emperor Maximilian I. During my first visit here in 1980, I was a tiny 10 year old, but to this day I remember that sparkling Golden Roof like it was yesterday.
Seeing Innsbruck from Beyond the Clouds
The twice Olympic-city of Innsbruck draws visitors from all over Europe; many come to ski the fluffy white stuff; others come to watch brave souls launch themselves from the 50-meter Bergisel Ski Jump.
The jump is open to the public and accessible from downtown Innsbruck by tram Nr 1 or by taxi or by foot in less than 20 minutes.
It’s an inspiring infrastructure that integrates several geometric shapes: an abstract glass and concrete tower, a curved green metal bridge and a long, sweeping vertical run. It was designed and built by female Iraqi-born British architect Zaha Hadid in 2002. It’s a landmark building with lights that change color at night that intensify the appearance.
Or, rather than see he city from the ski jump, hop aboard the Hungerburg cable railway with its modern oval glass stations and ascend to the top of Nordkette Mountain.
The heated cable cars leave underground Congress Station every 15 minutes climbing 1,905 meters (6,250 feet) past green gardens of soft moist earth and over the Inn River.
Traveling fast into the rugged terrain of the Tyrolean Alps you’ll reach the summit in 20 minutes, experiencing an extreme metamorphosis in climate that few other cities can boast.
I get giddy with a kind of oxygen narcosis as we pass through low-lying cloud cover traveling at top speeds. Finally, the doors open on the last upper station. We spill out onto larger-than-life vistas wrapped inside a mountain of silence and stillness. It’s a solitude only describable in pictures.
Downhill Skiing in the Mutterer Alm Area
The last time Innsbruck hosted the Olympics was in 1964 and 1976. Collectively, there are nine groomed resorts to ski off-piste. I draw straws for the beautiful Axamer-Lizum, one of the mountains used in the Olympics.
I rent my equipment in Innsbruck at a top sports shop called The Progressive Sports Store, owned by Volker Gesslbauer. He suits me up in well-polished demos ideal for tackling steep slopes. The shop offers more than just ski toys: snowshoes, bmx, snowboards, clothing and footwear are popular purchases.
After a free ride using the local bus service, I jump aboard the red Olympia train to the top of Axamer-Lizum. The mirror-enclosed Panorama Hoadlhaus restaurant rests at the summit with photos of hallmark Olympic medal winners like Gustav Thöni, Rosi Mittermaier, Ingemar Stenmark, and Austria’s own Christl Haas and Franz Klammer.
Billy Kidd and Jimmy Heuga both earned alpine medals here in 1964, the first American males ever to do so.
In 2012, Innsbruck will host the very first Winter Youth Olympic Games. This is a special honor that is expected to attract 1048 athletes vying for medals in 63 categories.
With my new friends Donna and Sebastian in tow, we descend every trail at Axamer-Lizum in a fast and furious fashion. This area is referred to as the Mutterer Alm ski region and caters to advanced and experienced skiers. In December, ladies ski at a reduced rate.
We pick several precipitous trails intended for experts, which I am not, and drop like pebbles in a raging torrent.
It’s early December and there are still parapets of rock and bald spots visible where snow has yet to build a base. I skirt around the bare stuff as best as I can but I’m curious to explore every trail regardless of ability.
Moving like the wind, there are so many shelves and shears to descent that I feel like I’m part of a Warren Miller movie. My eyes dart like a moving camera, panning the horizon, tilting from one natural jump to the next.
By three o’clock in the afternoon, a vast sweep of shadow spreads across my favorite run, the Olympia Riesenslalom Damen, which greatly limits my visibility. By closing, we’re exhausted and need nourishment anyway.
Sideburns and Saddles
It’s time to indulge in Austrian cuisine and the chariot awaits. The driver of the horse-drawn open sleigh is Fritz, made famous in Innsbruck by his traditional Austrian Tracht ornational costume
He’s wearing black leather trousers, a tangerine-colored vest with a crest on the left pocket and a black felt hat. We hop aboard and he deftly navigates the wooden sleigh so that the blades find the ice and ease the work for the two fillies pulling out front.
Fritz doesn’t speak much but the scenic ride through bucolic farmlands bordering miles of mountains needs no explanation.
He and his lovely wife own the Postkutscherhof, a log-built restaurant and farm in the nearby hamlet of Axams. After a home-cooked meal of roast pork, dumplings, sauerkraut and apfelstrudel, Fritz tops off the meal with a pint of Schnaps.
In the summer, Fritz shows off his other skills dressed up as a Roman gladiator aboard a gold-embossed chariot for horse shows. Not only is he an exceptional cook he’s a traveling showman as well.
Saluting Austria’s National Anthem
At night romantic walks by swinging lanterns, moonlight tobogganing and even cross-country skiing are adventures sure to please the outdoor urge
Instead, I duck inside the Congress Convention Center to pay homage to Austria’s long lineage of brass ensembles.
Every December, Major Hannes Apfolterer conducts an evening performance of the legendary Tyrolean Kaiserjäger military brass troupe.
Austrians wait all year for this formal event. They dress in their Sunday best, arrive promptly one half hour before curtain call and applaud loudly from their balcony seats. The songs, the marches, drum interludes and trumpet calls are all steeped in Austrian history.
The Austrian flag at the corner of the stage, with its red and white stripes, is considered the oldest national flag design in the world.
While playing the national anthem, Austrians rise dutifully from their seats, tenderly place their hands over their hearts and declare “Oh du mein Österreich” (“O thou, my Austria”)!
Drop your Drawers at the Penz Hotel
We unwind for the evening by checking into the über trendy Hotel Penz (Adolf-Pichler-Platz 3) in downtown Innsbruck. A whimsical Starck-like statue sits naked in the lobby assuring you this place is fashionable and fun. It’s Innsbruck’s first designer hotel accented with a warm glass façade and a funky fifth-floor bar, restaurant and terrace.
Stuffed on Germknödel
For something more nostalgic, we spend the next night at Innsbruck’s only five-star hotel – Hotel Europa. The rooms offer re-designed modernity as well as romantic suites decorated with wood paneling from 300-year old Tyrolean farmhouses.
The adjoining restaurant is sectioned off by five tasting parlor rooms akin to cedar yurts where dinner is served by award-winning Chef Roland Geisberger. The main course will satisfy your every craving, but make room for the native dessert dish called Germknödel.
Germknödel is a steamed Austrian dumpling dish made of fluffy yeast dough filled with spicy plum jam and topped off with sugar, poppy seeds and melted butter. A heavy vanilla cream sauce soaks the bottom. Be aware that this high-calorie bun will sit like a brick in your stomach if you don’t hike, run or ski it off immediately after.
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