Unexpected thing number one about Christmas this year was not hearing Fairytale of New York by The Pogues. Not even half of it. Most odd.
Unexpected thing number two; my man and I, being allergic to the British festive combination of gloomy skies and garish tat, usually run away to the sun. This year, we decided to go snowboarding instead.
We landed in Munich beneath a freezing peachy dawn. Great clods of ice lay strewn along the sides of the runway amidst a smattering of snow. All the Brits on our flight from Gatwick, there mainly for the Munich Christmas markets, shivered deeper into their coats. The Russians fresh in from Moscow sharing our luggage carousel shrugged off their layers as though they’d hit the tropics. I couldn’t wait to see real, proper, deep snow up in the Bavarian Alps, where we were now heading by train.
U T no.3: Schliersee. No ski crowds. Was this really a ski resort? The pretty village street, lined with ornately painted and shuttered chalets – many with their own Catholic shrine in the front garden – was deserted. A few crisp, silent moments later we realised there were also no taxis. So we found our hotel, The AlpenClub, on foot, our suitcase wheels complaining over every icy cobblestone.
After checking in, we walked down to the glassy lake and along the single main street. There was snow, yes, but not as much as I’d expected. A local man sat on his balcony in a T-shirt. I slid my beanie off, feeling like the ultimate tourist. We passed a supermarket, souvenir and antique shops and a couple of snow-gear outlets. There were no rowdy bars a la the French Alpine resorts, no chalet girls heading off for an afternoon on the slopes. Everything seemed geared for an older, more sedate crowd but we didn’t see them either.
I noticed that what Schliersee lacks in people, it more than makes up for in churches and independent distilleries. Nestled between the pastel steeples was Slyrs, makers of single malt, Lantenhammer, producers of excellent schnapps and Weihenstephan, the oldest brewery in the world. Perhaps, I wondered, everyone was either praying for snow or at home with a hangover?
Hungry, we discovered a café open beyond the strict noon-2pm lunchtimes. The lack of English speaking waiters pointed towards very few foreigners coming here. In fact, they barely spoke German either – the Bavarian dialect had me blinking blankly in total confusion. Following a bizarre mix of smiles, nods, menu stabbings and charades we were eventually presented with two enormous beers and two ‘snack-sized’ lasagnes, each of which could have fed four.
Nicely lined, we headed back to the hotel bar. A taxidermist’s drunken experiment stared down at me from the wall: a squirrel with an owl’s wings, rabbits ears, ducks feet, antlers, long teeth and a lolling tongue smoking a pipe. “It’s the Wolpertinger,” informed Udo, the barman, in his melodic accent, pointing to the name of the bar, as though I should know what he was on about.
The Wolpertinger is a mythical creature of the Bavarian forests. There is a whole museum devoted to Wolpertingers of all imaginings; foxes bodies with bat heads, rabbits glued to hawks, mice to starlings. A permanent installation devoted to the tiddly visions of generations of Germans full of schnapps or whiskey or beer, stumbling home from the pub through a dark wood and seeing lots of creatures at once all blurred into a furry, feathery mess.
Our first day on the slopes we jumped out of bed, donned our gear: impact shorts with plastic panels that make you look like an armadillo but save the coccyx from being pulped during its inevitable slams into the mountainside; snowboarding pants, thermal tops, jacket, gloves, goggles, etc etc etc. Too excited to eat much, we threw back some cereal and swished open the curtains to see … grass. No snow. Schliersee was absolutely, utterly green. It was 10 degrees outside. Even the most tenacious snowflake wouldn’t last long out there.
As we sweltered out of Schliersee towards the ski fields on the bus in all our gear, we hoped to the heavens that we were rookies who simply had no idea how Bavaria worked. Surely there was snow. As novice snowboarders, we didn’t need a whole mountain of white stuff; just a patch would do.
Thankfully, as we climbed up the twisty roads to Spitzingsee, the highest village on the mountain and a whole km higher than Schliersee, the temperature dropped and the ground outside thickened with lovely, powdery snow. Most gratifyingly, while the mirror lake at Schliersee was irrefutably liquid, this lake was frozen solid. If Schliersee is quiet and small, Spitzingsee is silent and microscopic. The sparse row of dwellings and shops are spitting distance from the water’s edge; hence its name, perhaps?
Wonderful U T no.4: quiet slopes. The lack of tourists in Schliersee extended here. What we feared might become a hiking holiday gave us a perfect snowy mountain practically to ourselves. We had four days of lessons with Jen, a gorgeous, gregarious Bavarian girl who, thanks to a stint travelling the Antipodes, called Australia, “Straalia” like an Aussie, in stark contrast to the rest of her accent.
Perhaps due to our evenings spent in the hotel bar and not a single visit to one of the churches, I found myself regularly thanking the Wolpertinger rather than God for my armadillo shorts. Particularly following one especially hard fall that made my teeth rattle. Slowly, however, the wipe-outs grew less spectacularly embarrassing, our turns more graceful and precise. Most of them I even intended to do. There really is no mystery to these things. We listened to Jen, practised what she told us and gradually, we became half way decent boarders. And it only hurts when you stop suddenly.
The thrill of sending oneself hurtling down a mountain sideways, strapped to a thin sheet of wood and fibre glass, using only a wafer thin edge to avoid death is really rather profound. Food is burned through faster than flash paper and sweat comes out by the bucket load. Half the lost fluid is then replaced with water and the other half with alcohol, of one kind or another, ensuring we were high on fear, beer and sheer delight at dusk; in time to hit the sauna before getting started on the evening’s serious drinking.
Turned out we weren’t the only tourists in Schliersee after all. We met a wonderful couple from Portugal, so warm they might have packed a slice of sun and brought it with them. A spontaneous and hilarious drunken night passed in the hotel games room with a family from Brisbane. Their youngest son, Kai, was born with half a heart and his mother, Angie, campaigns for Heart Kids, an Australian charity raising awareness of congenital heart disease in children. You would never know, looking at this bouncy, happy seven-year old that he had his first open heart surgery two hours after he was born.
On our second to last night, we met Jodler Peppi. At 81 years old, Peppi is a local treasure and super star. Yodelling with his piano accordion, he performed in Vegas with Frank Sinatra in the 50s, played for Eisenhower and The Queen of England. But born in Schliersee, he always vowed to return. So Peppi used the fortune he made with his yodelling to build his home and bar beside the lake where he grew up, where he still lives and plays. Sitting beside the mayor of the town, we listened to Peppi playing old Bavarian favourites and a couple of Beatles covers. He asked me for a request. I called out, “Californian Girls, by the Beach Boys.” “Something old!” he called back. Unlike Peppi, I couldn’t go back more than 40 years.
After his show, in his charming broken English, Peppi told us how his parents refused to join the Nazi party, one of only a few families to do so in the village during WW2. The horrors of the concentration camp at Dachau were only a short distance away but, he said, nobody knew anything about it. Schliersee hoped it might slide quietly through the war. But its close proximity
to Austria made it a haven for the persecuted trying to escape. Peppi remembers American bombers dropping propaganda leaflets in the valley; picking one up could get you arrested. Hitler himself visited Schliersee with Eva Braun; there are photos of her beside the lake.
The town did get busier during our stay. A metre of fresh snowfall just after Christmas created ideal skiing conditions beneath crystal clear sunny skies, and snow fans descended on Spitzingsee from all directions. But more than any other ski town I’ve visited – and I’ve skied in New Zealand, Italy, France and, bizarrely, Dubai – this little corner of Bavaria captured me and pulled me in. Nearby Tegernsee is far more fashionable, keeping Schliersee sleepy – for those who like it that way.
If you fancy a different kind of Alpine holiday, that feels very much as if you’ve accidentally taken a wrong turn and ended up somewhere unexpected, a bit mad and thoroughly Bavarian, this is the place for you. It’s just as beautiful in the summer, when you can swim in the lake and use the ski runs as downhill mountain bike trails and it’s easy to drive to Munich, Austria and even Italy. Bring your appetite for great food, abundant beer and fun.
I can’t wait to go back.