Christmas in Austria - December 2003
 
For Christmas 2003, we decided to revisit the little town of Mallnitz, Austria, where we had gone skiing in 1970 and to which we had returned with Lisa, in 1990. On that last visit, we had stayed at a small hotel in the center of town and had enjoyed a white Christmas, complete with snow-covered nativity scenes, Christmas Mass in the little church, and a special Christmas-tree ceremony at the hotel, in addition to skiing. For the 2003 visit, we planned to drive across southern France and northern Italy, sampling some of the local culture (and food) as we went, and then (hopefully) to enjoy another Austrian white Christmas.

We left Barcelona on the afternoon of December 16th, turning north to enter France through the Pyrenees instead following the coast. Nightfall came as we ascended, so we didn't enjoy the mountain views as we (i.e., Rob) negotiated the switchbacks of the mountain pass in the dark. We stayed in Puigcerda, just 20 kms. from France but still in the heart of Catalunya, with signs in Catalan and, rarely, in Spanish. At some 1200 meters, it was right at the snow level and quite cold. At the tiny restaurant we found for dinner, the French customers seated behind us needed a shower, so Rob, who was sitting nearest them, opted for steak with garlic. Andi had local mountain trout. Both dishes were delicious, if not particularly Catalan.

Next morning we left without breakfast, as we wanted to treat ourselves to French croissants. At the border (which still had the old buildings, but no gates), Spanish army guards armed with machine guns were randomly stopping cars coming from France. The recent arrests of Basque terrorists in France must have put them on higher alert.

We are always surprised as we travel around Europe to discover the differences that exist between countries, and to have our mental images of "the French," "the Italians," and "the Austrians" confirmed. Almost instantly as we entered France from Spain we noted that the architecture was different: houses were larger, taller, square blocks with smooth walls rather than rough stone, and there were lines of trees along many roads and fields. But the signs were still bi-lingual-now in French, with Occitane (a variant of Catalan) as the second language. Also, almost every road is lined with trees. This makes for a very pretty countryside, but the trees are planted right up alongside the road, so if a car drifts to the right a little, BAM. Sort of the opposite of a safety railing!

We had breakfast in Prades, confirming that croissants in France are just simply better than they are anywhere else in the world. Why they should differ from those in Catalunya, a few kilometers away, is a mystery. Prades is the town to which Pablo Casals fled when Franco came to power, and we were looking forward to visiting the small Casals museum, but it was closed for lunch. This set a pattern for our trip - we struck out on about half of the things we decided to do. (No surprise, really, since we had done absolutely no advance planning, and were winging it, reading guides as we drove.)

Next we visited two Cathar castles. The Cathars were a religious sect of the middle ages who believed that man is essentially sinful, but through good works and a few reincarnations, could work his way up to salvation. This was so counter to the teachings of the Catholic church that in 1208, Pope Innocent III preached a crusade against them, called the Albigensian Crusade. The Cathars were fiercely persecuted and thousands were massacred. The survivors first barricaded themselves behind the walls of cities such as Carcassonne, but when those towns fell and the inhabitants were slaughtered, the survivors moved into stronghold castles in very remote sites. These were the castles we wanted to see. The first, Queribus, was the last Cathar refuge. It seems to grow right out of the 728 meter high rocky spur on which it is perched. We took a gravel side road partway up to it, marveling at how and where it was built, but decided to save our touring for the second, larger, and even more amazing Peyrepertuse Castle, just a few kilometers away (you can see from one castle to the other) up a twisting gorge atop an 800 meter high ridge. We again drove a switchback road about 2/3 of the way up the ridge. From there, the only access was a narrow path that wound around the base of the cliff, climbing to the castle gate. Inside the crumbling walls, a long flight of steps led to another part of the castle. It was not clear how one would make this ascent on horseback, let alone with a cart, so maybe in olden days anybody who wanted to go there walked, as we did, for about 30 minutes. The castle itself is a complete ruin, but two masons were working away at repairing it - by our calculations, they'll finish the restoration sometime in the next century. The walls, though not very thick, were very high, and with 100-meter cliffs below, the castle seemed impregnable (however, it was successfully attacked 4 times, including the Albigensian Crusade). Our speculation was that these aeries were built more as defenses against the local citizenry and marauding bandits, and as encampments for troops, than as serious obstacles to large, determined armies. Of course, for the Cathars they were a last resort, and, unfortunately for them, a forlorn hope.

On the way to Peyrepertuse, we had stopped at a vineyard at a lovely chateau where Roussillon Villages wine is grown and bottled, but, alas, it was closed for lunch. So, after our castle explorations we returned to the vineyard for a wine tasting, with accompanying explanations. We learned that at this vineyard, the grapes are all hand-cultivated (including pulling weeds), hand-picked, and hand-separated. Each variety of grape is pressed and stored separately until December, when the vintners mix "assemblages" and have their 2 certified tasters ("oenologes" in French), plus one from the local oenological institute, taste the new pressings to come up with the correct blends for that year. They continue to ferment the varieties separately for another year until they are mixed and bottled the following winter! We bought 2 bottles as thanks for the lectures.

Then it was off the back roads, onto the peage (tollroad) to Nîmes. We arrived after dark, which gave us a wonderful first sight of the attraction we'd come to see: Les Arènes. It's a remarkably intact 2-level Roman amphitheater, and it was bathed in red floodlights, presenting quite a sight. We reveled in French cuisine for dinner. Andi had "feuillotte", a fish mousse, followed by a stew of wild bull meat from the Camargue. Rob had about 100 small snails in a rich sauce but still in their shells (really messy but good), then quail. Dessert was crème caramel.

The next morning after breakfast croissants, we visited a roman temple erected around 5 A.D. to honor Emperor Augustus's nephew and grandson (whom he hoped to groom as emperors, but unfortunately they both died before he did). The impressive Maison Carré is so well-preserved you can tell that the sculptors who made the frieze had different skill levels. Les Arènes, the amphitheater, was next. We had been pleased to learn that the arena is still used for sports, concerts, etc, but then found that this meant that in the winter, they erect a domed roof inside to enclose and cover the first level of stands. This makes it hard to really grasp the size and scope of the amphitheater, but we were still fascinated by its maze of entrance/exit tunnels (called "vomitoires") leading to and from the different levels, designed to keep the Roman elite separate from the riff raff.

En route from Nîmes to Avignon, we stopped to see another Roman artifact, and incidentally, another Unesco World Heritage Site, the Pont de Gard, a 3-tiered Roman aqueduct that dates from 19 B.C. It's huge: It stands some 50 meters above the river, has 35 arches on its top tier, and is 285 meters long. It's one of the most visited sites in France, but on this cold drizzly day, we were almost the only visitors. There's no admission charge but you can't see the aqueduct from the road, and the parking lots charge 5 euros. Well, this annoyed us, so we got stubborn and found a tiny side road which led past some derelict farms then petered out. There were signs to walking paths, so we parked on the roadside near the tethered goat and followed one. It ran atop the aqueduct where it crossed the countryside, emerging right at the end of the Pont de Gard. What an approach! It's mind-boggling to consider the construction effort that went into this aqueduct.

Then it was on to a vineyard that bottled Chateauneuf du Pape, one of our favorite wines. At this castle vineyard, we tasted 4 different blends/years and got another lecture. We learned, for example, that a Chateauneuf du Pape can have up to 13 different kinds of grapes in it, but Grenache, the primary grape, must be a certain percentage (75?). Once again, the "oenologues" taste each pressing and blending to determine if it's Chateauneuf du Pape. If they say it's not, it may just be a Côtes du Rhône, or, worse yet, a Vin de Pays. Our hostess was, to put it mildly, enthusiastic about her wines. She claimed to decide what to serve for dinner, and how to prepare it, only after she has chosen a wine, because it would not do to serve stewed meat with a certain vintage, which calls for grilled meats. She also insisted that old vintage wines should never be decanted, comparing wines to people. "An old wine is like an old man who has been living in his quiet dark room," she explained earnestly, "if you take him out into the sun too suddenly, and shake him all up (i.e., pour the wine), you can break his bones, and hurt him badly. No, no, never decant an old wine. Treat it gently." On the other hand, a young wine, she claimed, is like a young boy, full of exuberance, who must be allowed an opportunity to let off a little of his extra energy. Definitely, one should decant it and allow it to breathe for awhile. Enchanted and bemused, we bought an adolescent Chateauneuf du Pape.

We stayed in Avignon that night. It was drizzling, so we did not stop to dance on the famous bridge as we had on our honeymoon. We did have another very French dinner: Andi had pumpkin soup with gingerbread croutons, followed by roast chicken breast in a creamy mustard sauce; Rob had a mélange of pickled red peppers and other vegetables, and then trout in papillotte (really tinfoil). Realizing that our vineyard hostess would have been appalled, we simply ordered the house white wine. All of it was delicious.

In the morning (December 19th) we visited the Palace of the Popes. The Palace is called the biggest and grandest "house" in the world, and it lives up to its name. It was built over about 4 centuries by a series of popes. The "Old Palace" dates from the 1200s; the "New Palace" dates from the 1600's. The audio guides were extraordinary, making sense of the various wings and towers, their uses and changes through the centuries, as well as of the history of the papacy in Avignon. We spent about 3 hours there ("If you want to hear more about medieval tapestries, press 801"). A brief hot chocolate and visit to the Christmas market in the main square, and admiring the shop window displays of very stylish and sexy holiday clothing, then off to the French Alps. As usual, we ate a picnic lunch of bread (like croissants, French bread really is better!), meat and cheese en route. We arrived at Briançon, an ancient walled medieval town and lately a ski center, after dark. We found a charming and cheap room under low eaves in a small pension just inside the ramparts. Not only is Briançon walled, its cobbled main street is reverse-crowned with a center gutter in which water from local streams flows. It makes a charming noise, but you want to be careful where you step - it's glacier-fed! As we were now in the Alps, we had to have fondue bourguignon for dinner. One of the ingredients of one sauce was ketchup! The whole meal was great, and cost about twice as much as our room.

From Briançon France, we drove through the valley that led into Italy, gaping up at the Alps and down at a fogbank at the bottom of the valley. We stopped about an hour later in Susa Italy for coffee latte (served lukewarm) and crème-filed "croissants", which were really soft rolls in the shape of a crescent. Already, we missed French croissants. We asked a couple of guys the name of the mountain that loomed above the town. They didn't know, but knew that the shrine atop it is said to be the highest in Europe. The road descending from this valley toward Torino (Turin) is under a lot of construction, as Torino will host the Winter Olympics in 2006, and many of the Alpine events will be in this area. We noted that Italian drivers are much more aggressive than the French or Spanish. When Italians pass, they pull in abruptly in front of the passed car, and the left lane is definitely reserved for the jet set - Maseratis, Ferraris, and Porsches predominate. The entire plain was smoggy and we decided not to stop in Turin. We did drive into Milan (and parked illegally) to see its fabulous cathedral. It was obvious we were in Milan because of the prevalence of fur coats and elegant clothing on the women. Unfortunately, the cathedral façade was totally covered in scaffolding, completely hiding its beauty. We ducked inside for a brief look around, and found one interesting tidbit: The cathedral is on the site of a former chapel to St. Tecla! With the heavy smog, there was no point in climbing (or riding) to the roof for the views, so we strolled through the spectacular Victor Emmanuel mall, ogling the stylish shoppers, and the expensive chic clothing in very stylish store displays. Our shopping was more mundane: we needed an adjustable end wrench (try asking for that in Italian when you speak no Italian - Andi drew a picture). We had torn a mudflap near a front wheel and wanted to remove it to keep it from scraping on the ground. Unfortunately, even with our end wrench, we couldn't get it off. Fortunately, we had brought along some pieces of rope from Akka, so we tied it on! Smoggy, expensive Milan held no further allure, so we headed out. Heavy fog and traffic made for pretty miserable driving for a couple of hours, but the reward was Bergamo, yet another medieval walled town, about 40 kms. east of Milan. What a charming place! We balanced a higher priced hotel with cheap pizza for dinner, but Rob's frutti di mare pizza was better in concept than execution - frozen seafood, little tomato sauce and no cheese.

We spent a leisurely Sunday morning looking around Bergamo in light rain. We took coffee (lukewarm again) and croissants at the café in the square, then visited the church of Sta. Maria Maggiore (built in 1137), with its Venetian lions - in red marble for one portico, white marble for the other-and rococo interior. Donizetti, a native son, is buried here. Sunday mass was about to start; we listened to the choir practice, stayed for the beginning of the service to hear them in full voice, but left after the kyrie. It was cold inside as well as out - the choir and parishioners were all bundled up and standing,. This gave a real feel for what it must have been like centuries ago, with no heat whatsoever. Right next door is the cathedral, more modest in scale and décor but still magnificent. A mass was in progress there, at the same time as the one in Sta. Maria Maggiore. Nowhere is there an explanation of why there are 2 huge churches virtually side by side, holding simultaneous services (each attended by about 30 people in buildings that could hold several hundred) and no-one could explain it to us. The mysteries of religion.

In the line of medieval walled cities, Bergamo is one of the most charming we've seen - and by now, we've seen quite a few. Its narrow streets bustled with people enjoying the Christmas shopping season. Though cars are allowed almost everywhere, there were very few in evidence and pedestrians definitely have the right-of-way.

A long afternoon drive took us past beautiful Lake Garda, obstructed by low clouds and mist, then into Italy's autonomous region of Trento/Alte Adige. The Alte Adige is also called the Südtirol, and while it's part of Italy, it is noticeably influenced by German language and culture. Once again, there were bi-lingual signs, now in Italian and German. The Italian dominates in the southern part, but German predominated as we moved north and east. Houses became smaller, with low flat chalet roofs, lost their decorative columns and began sprouting wood balconies.

It was snowing as the sun was setting, so we called ahead to confirm a room at a Gasthof written up in The Lonely Planet Guide, before continuing through the snow. The Gasthof was in Perca, in the pass to Austria, and we progressed slowly, in a line of cars making its way slowly through the increasingly heavy snow. We didn't mind the slow pace, though, as this was when we realized just how bald our tires were. When we finally made it into Perca, we stopped to get precise directions to the Gasthof and were told it was about 8 km. up the steep hill above the town - over a snow-covered road that we clearly could not manage with our worn tires. Fortunately, we had ordered chains with the rental car, so on they went and up we went. The Gasthof was definitely in the boonies, but what a place! A real farmhouse with wood balconies, and a restaurant doing booming business. Our lovely room had eiderdown comforters, under which we rested up for a bit before going downstairs for a delicious meal of venison goulash with polenta and red cabbage (we also tried "gray cheese" and discovered why it's never become popular outside the region). We never asked the price, figuring that it was worth whatever it cost, but in fact the room was 56 Euros and the sumptuous meal cost 51 Euros for the two of us. The next morning dawned crystal clear with new snow everywhere, except on the roads. It was an enchanted scene; though the farm geese were not enchanted - one of them bit Andi on her leg!

We had considered skiing in Perca, but overslept under our eiderdowns, so decided to drive through to our destination: Mallnitz. It was a glorious sunny day of driving past Dolomites on one side and Alps on the other, snow on all the trees but none on the roads. It was nice to have plenty of time as we drove into Austria and stopped to rent skis at Flattach, at the base of the road to the Möltaller Glacier, a new ski area a few miles from Mallnitz. When we got to Mallnitz about 4 pm and checked in, we were delighted to see that this was indeed the same hotel we had stayed at in 1990 - we had thought the name was right, but hadn't been sure, and our hosts were unable to confirm that we had stayed there. But as soon as we went up to our room, we recognized the layout.

We got up early on December 23 in order to get to the ski slopes before the crowds. We had decided to try the Möltaller Glacier first, as its map indicated a number of intermediate runs, which we thought might be best to try after about 5 years of no skiing. But when we got to the base station we were told that almost the whole area was closed due to high winds. This surprised us because there was virtually no wind down in the canyon where we were. We shrugged off our disappointment and drove back to Mallnitz to try Ankogel, where we had skied for a week in 1970 and again for a day in 1990. As we walked up to the ticket office, it seemed pretty windy and cold, so we asked about the conditions at the top. Minus 20° C and very windy, we were told. We quickly did the arithmetic and decided that, at -4° F, this was too cold for us! We returned to town, located an internet café in a nearby hotel, and picked up our e-mail. Above the computer, we noticed several prizes from Tornado class regattas, and discovered that the proprietor is an avid sailor who no longer races but regularly charters in Croatia. When we told him we're bound for Croatia next summer he spun up his digital charts and showed us where the best anchorages and ports are located! After an hour of so of interesting conversation he was called away to attend to work at the hotel, and we repaired to the local indoor swimming pool where we enjoyed the big whirlpool bath. That night after dinner we went to a local bar that advertised live music. There was a lively, friendly group at the bar, and the whole atmosphere reminded us of the bars we used to frequent in Wisconsin, where everybody acted as if they were old friends, even if they had just met. Rob almost lost Andi to a ski instructor, but managed to get her back.

The next morning dawned as cold as the day before, so we returned our rental skis and enjoyed a day sitting around watching TV and wandering about town. The sexy styles and chic displays of French and Italian stores are not to be found here; wool sweaters, loden coats and polypropylene replaced silk and sequins. We splurged on a real apple strudel at the local bakery. The village of Mallnitz is exactly as we remembered it, and is the perfect setting for a White Christmas, with spectacular views of snow-capped Alps in all directions. Our hosts invited us to join their tree-lighting celebration after dinner that evening, just as they had done 10 years earlier. They and their staff were all dressed in their finest holiday dirndl and lederhosen. We all gathered around their tree, the hostess read a little "homily" about the joys of giving, wished us all a "Frohe Weinachten" then lit the candles and sparklers on the tree as we all sang "Stille Nacht" or, in our case, "Silent Night." We suppressed fears of the obvious fire hazard and went with the holiday emotion. Charming. We then walked to the small church for the 10:30 pm service, arriving at 10:15 to an empty church. The trickle of villagers grew as the time for the service approached and, as our watches indicated precisely 10:30, the church was filled and the service began promptly. Ahh, Austria. (In Spain, we might STILL be waiting!) We of course couldn't follow the liturgy and they sang carols we didn't know, but we still loved it-especially when we left the church, hearing the brass quartet on a balcony across the street from the church, caroling us home to "Stille Nacht."

Christmas morning was sparkling clear and warmer. We quickly rented the skis we'd scoped out the day before and headed for the Möltaller glacier. We rode 1500 meters up through the mountain (!) on the funicular, to arrive at the bottom of the glacier bowl and a cablecar that took us to the restaurant near the top of the mountain. Then another cable car ride to the very top, at some 3400 meters (10,000 ft.). The views were amazing! We could clearly see Grossglockner, Austria's highest peak, some 30 miles away, and Alps every way we looked. The snow was also beautiful, but Andi found that her repaired left knee still didn't have the strength or stability to enable her to ski with much confidence or comfort. After only a few runs, she retired to the coffee shop while Rob tried out some powder. After lunch on a sun-lit terrace, Rob took a few more runs and we returned for our final night in Mallnitz.

Our plan for the return trip was to drive straight through on superhighways, but faced with another gorgeous day we decided to take a detour past Cortina d'Ampezzo, one of the world's ritziest ski resorts, where fur coats and fancy cars abound in a spectacular setting. Once again, we were treated to amazing views, first of the snow-clad gray granite Austrian Alps, then the dramatic red peaks of the Dolomites. The Austrian Alps are more triangular in shape, while the Dolomites are more vertical, cliff-like fingers with hanging valleys of snow. A sign on the road westward from Cortina indicated 33 turns in the climb to the top of the pass, so we started counting. We counted over 43, and most of them were sharp switchbacks. With snow underfoot, the trip was pretty arduous, but the views from the top were ample payoff. The combined ski areas there extended as far as the eye could see in all directions, and the alpine panorama was spectacular. We stopped for another picnic lunch and tackled the "22 turns" advertised on the sign at the top of the descent. This time, each turn was numbered, and it was clear that only the abrupt, 180-degree switchbacks qualified as "turns". We negotiated all 22 (or 33 if we counted them all) with no problems and were soon back on the smoggy plain of northern Italy. We decided to return to charming Bergamo, the same hotel as on our eastward trip, and even the same pizzeria. This time Rob stayed away from seafood and we both dined on more "traditional" (i.e., American-style) pizzas.

The next day we really did keep going cross-country-all the way to Aix en Provence on the autostrada (in France, the péage). As we rolled along at 130-140 km/hr, we pondered why they bothered to put any speed limit signs anywhere. On one stretch, there were posted limits for each of the three lanes: 100 km/hr in the right lane, 120 in the middle, and 140 on the left. Inasmuch as no car in any of those lanes was traveling under the posted limit (average speeds were roughly 120, 140, and perhaps 200 km/hr respectively), we wondered if maybe these were minima rather than maxima. We also wondered if there were any policemen, because we saw none.

Aix turned out to be charming, and we had a late night walk about town and its Christmas markets, then chicken provençal style for dinner. From Aix, we headed west on secondary roads through the low-lying marshlands of the Rhone estuary called La Camargue. They still have herds of wild black cattle here, and French cowboys. We stopped briefly at the curiously named Aigues Mortes (Dead Waters), a sleepy little town that time has forgotten, but which was built by St. Louis as a port from which to launch his crusade. It's a bit hard to imagine that this tiny walled town in the middle of nowhere once was the site of an armada of some 1,500 ships. From that rather desolate locale, we drove into Monaco, to see how the other half lives. Quite a contrast! The superyachts in the harbor were impressively large, but the super-cars were more impressive. In several blocks, we walked past a Ferrari and a Lamborghini, while Jags and Mercedes rolled by.

Now we found ourselves eager to be home, and lacking enthusiasm for any more touring, we got onto the péage and sped our way back to Barcelona. Once again, at the border, Spanish guards were randomly stopping cars, but causing little delay for most of us. We arrived a day sooner than we'd anticipated, full of wonderful memories of sights, foods, people and countries, but glad to be back home in the marina and aboard Akka again.