Last week, in the number one city in the world, it was half-term, and boy did we need it coming just over three weeks since the start of school after Christmas. In celebration, like last year and the year before, we decided to head off to the green heart of Austria and the Murtal to spend a week or so up a mountain with a few thousand other garishly attired, mostly well-behaved visitors from many nations.
Skiing is a mix or terror and exhilaration (a bit like your first kiss) and it is why last month I lied. No, if you are seeking irrefutable proof for the non-existence of intelligent design, then forget the comparatively benign activity of ice-skating and instead strap yourself to a couple of metal blades, throw yourself down a hill and torture your sanity with something called après ski. No higher being in his strategic blueprint for mankind could have envisaged such a beautifully bonkers activity yet one which possesses such a powerful restorative effect for mind and body (although that feeling between the first and second beer after a day of enforced employment comes pretty close).
But like all things I am a reluctant acolyte. That is not to say I have a healthy aversion to the new it’s just that if there is too much effort involved for only marginal or dubious rewards, especially when these rewards come at a cost which never pays off, I’d rather give it a qualified miss. This might explain my initial reluctance to emulate Franz Klammer. Or perhaps it was because my wife, who is an excellent skier and used to glide over the pistes in jeans and a jumper, also never really showed much enthusiasm to relive her youth chasing boys (again). Either way, opportunity, financial precariousness, perhaps fear or lack of motivation, meant skiing was entertainment for Saturday and Sunday morning winter television and my debut on the slopes was postponed for another time.
Until that that fateful day in early 2000 when I agreed, most likely after my drinks had been spiked with a mixture of Jägermeister and other alcohol of uncertain providence – perhaps Uhudler from Heiligenbruun – to finally agree to enter the realms of serious winter sports (sliding on ice in sharp-toed, super smooth loafers apparently didn’t count) and experience the thrill of falling on your backside slightly out of breath, doing the splits Tom and Jerry style or simply languishing in snow whimpering that it was probably best to leave you there in the interests of group harmony.
The language school I worked for at the time had organised a ski trip to Semmering about an hour’s drive from Vienna. The day is etched in my memory for two reasons. Firstly, it was the first time I was to stand on skis, subsequently sliding off down the mountain for five petrifying seconds towards the unknown until I realised the only way to stop was to throw myself heroically in the snow. Secondly, but by no means ancillary, I had a crushing hangover.
On reflection, this may have unduly influenced my initial appreciation of the noble skiing art and it meant I spent much of the day cursing the very nature of technical sports, too much equipment and an overdose of Central European queuing. Needless to say, with my discomfiture for all to witness, I went up in a cable car, and came down in a cable car, sad and rather embarrassed, and instead spent most of the soul-sapping day on the toddler slope across the road. I was promised glamour and legitimation and all I got was ignominy, a slap and the “fear”.
About ten years later I tried again but this time without the searing pain in my head and a desire to be left to rot in a crevasse. This was in spite of living for several of those years only five minutes or so from Vienna’s very own ski slope and lift. The Hohe Wand Wiese (or High Hills) in the 14th district is reputedly the only ski-piste found inside a capital city and the only one you can, it claims somewhere on YouTube, reach by underground train. This is not strictly true, of course, you also need a bus ride but buses are not sexy unless driven by Cliff Richard. Still, with such facilities on my doorstep I continued to ignore the temptations of the slidey-stuff for as long as possible until circumstances forced my hand and fatherhood loomed into sight like a busload of German tourists intent on noise and public mischief.
But whereas most adults have children so they can “bring another person into the world” or prove to themselves that they have the mettle and fortitude to see through such an important project, my reason was and is much more prosaic: my retirement. And as such I have enacted a cunning, clever and unique master-plan to hedge against poverty in my advanced years by training my kids in all well-paying professional sports. Interestingly, although skiing is probably the most dangerous sport I know, it is only extremely well paid at the very top, think Bode Miller or the legend that is Herman Maier. Nevertheless, a successful, part-British skier would be a marketing bonanza and thus it seemed prudent to expedite their training at the earliest opportunity, which unfortunately meant showing winter willing with all the other parents of my generation.
As I mentioned, our destination this year was again Murau, specifically the mountain of Kreischberg set in the heart of Styria, in the heart of Austria about 250 km from home. Murau is a perfect little town, set on the river Mur, in the beautiful Mur valley, with some tiny little streets, a “castle” and a brewery brewing one of the greats of Austrian lager (Märzen) – “Murauer”. It is the type of place that has a signpost for the local midwife or solicitor, several roundabouts – which reminds me of home – and it is called “Bierstadt” which is the only phrase the tourist board needs to get me to visit. In fact there is very little not to like (or demur).
We stay at the foot of the Kreischberg gondola about a three hundred metre agonizing walk in rented ski boots or a decadent one minute drive if you have whinging offspring and value your early morning, fresh as a daisy demeanor. An Austrian gondola is exactly the same as a Venetian one except it doesn’t float, there is no stripey-shirted driver intent on propelling you around a lagoon for the price of an EU bailout and no one understands references to Cornettos. No, an Austrian gondola is a cable car. Inside you sit in silence, avoiding eye contact. It is like the London Underground swinging in the wind and if your knees touch another passenger, a helicopter will noiselessly appear and you will be surrounded by abseiling, masked men with sharp looking snow-stuff.
The first serious part of any ski holiday, if you are a non serious skier, and after you have checked in to your accommodation, is to organise ski rental. According to recent statistics one in two Austrians now rent skis when skiing. Although why the other 50% rent when they are not skiing is not clear. For us we choose Ski Rental Suli very near our apartment, a magical place where we are offered some kind of schnapps as soon as it is clear we are about to spend money.
As I am now a winter sport professional (see the Ice Man Kommt), I have acquired my own ski boots since last year. You may think this is rather intemperate for someone of my modest talents but one thing I have learned is that you don’t spend a week at the beach sporting badly fitting flip-flops which rub, squeeze and subject your toes to innumerable tortures. Actually, you probably do. So well-fitting ski-boots, which at times feel like you are walking with the grace and sophistication of Frankenstein, are essential. (The cost was more than justified as I bought them half-price in the spring sales and the children were more than happy not to receive Christmas presents.)
Laden with equipment we return, unpack and then explore the local supermarket for supplies. You can have beer but only Muraruer, which seems equitable, and being on holiday it is obligatory to buy things which will only come to haunt you on your return. Back in the apartment we cook, drink and find that life without a wi-fi signal is the future. Which means only one thing: early to sleep and dreams of glory.
Part 2 after some more après ski …
© RJ Barratt 2014