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
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
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
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
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
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.,
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.