12 Days of Christmas in Austria

12 Days of Christmas in Austria

 

                  All Photos: @theskiwriter

Austria is gorgeous.

This is one of the simple truths of the travel world. An undeniable, indisputable fact that becomes abundantly obvious to those who experience this spectacular alpine nation’s endless supply of towering snowy peaks, lush mountain valleys, majestic imperial cities, and ancient castles first hand.

Amazingly, Austria’s “gorgeous dial,” which is normally set to 10, gets turned up to 11 during the period known as Advent from December 1st to the 24th, when the country transforms itself into a giant, sparkling Christmas tree. Trust me, folks, you haven’t seen Christmas ‘til you’ve seen Christmas in Austria. This place gets lit, literally and figuratively!

Growing up in a family that celebrated Christmas, one of the highlights of the season for me was the daily ritual of opening up the little cardboard door of that year’s Advent calendar and finding a treat or surprise inside. As a ski journalist covering the FIS Alpine Ski World Cup and visiting Austria every January since 1999, I thought I’d celebrate my twentieth campaign by kicking it off with a ski trip across this beautiful country during the Yuletide season.

So last December I cooked up an Austrian ski trip that would play out like an Advent calendar, each day bringing a new surprise or treat that any skier, whether they celebrate Christmas or not would surely enjoy. Here’s how my 12 Days of Christmas in Austria unfolded…

DAY 1 – INNSBRUCK CHRISTKINDLMARKT

A sensual symphony of sights, sounds, and scents, “Bergweihnacht” (Christmas in the Mountains) at one of Innsbruck’s six Christkindlmarkts (Christmas markets) is pure Yuletide magic, and an unbelievable way to kick off an Austrian Advent ski trip!

The largest and most impressive is the market held on the ancient cobblestones of Innsbruck’s “Altstadt” (Old Town). A fantastic spot to do a little holiday shopping during the day, this market truly comes to life at night under the stars, when it’s lit up in all of its festive glory. The sweet, spicy, scent of cinnamon and mulled wine (aka glüwein) in the chilly air, and a playlist of your favorite holiday hits coming from a brass band playing under Innsbruck’s famed Goldenes Dachl (golden roof) is something you’ll never forget.

The highlight of my evening was devouring my first ever “Kiachin” (a freshly fried hot donut) served up with sauerkraut or jam. I crushed a jam Kiachin near a group of divine carolers dressed up as angels singing Silent Night…it was pure heaven!

DAY 2 – KÜHTAI SKI DAY & LUNCH AT A HABSBURG HUNTING CASTLE

Day two’s treat was a double dipper. A day of blue skies and powder skiing at Kühtai, a vast, under-the-radar ski area about 45-minutes outside Innsbruck and a lunch at the mountain home one of Austria’s most famous emperors.

Austria’s highest ski resort at 6500 ft, Kühtai has long been a favorite with locals who love it because of its reliable snow conditions and lack of crowds, but the real bonus is the Jagdschloss, the ski-in/ski-out Habsburg hunting castle you can dine, drink or even sleep at. Visiting this stately home when it’s decorated for the holidays is even more special, with its regal rooms glistening and gleaming with all the bobbles and bows the season has to offer.

Kuhtai Jagdschloss Resort
Kuhtai Jagdschloss Resort

Kuhtai Jagdschloss Resort Used by Emperor Maximillian I during the renaissance for hunting pursuits, this elaborated decorated, magnificent wooden structure is the mother of all ski chalets, and now a luxury hotel called the Jagdschloss Resort. Dining and skiing in the footsteps of royalty is truly a one-of-a-kind experience, almost as good as the Kaiserschmarrn, Austria’s most renowned pancake-style dessert, served up piping hot at the Jagdschloss. According to a friend who’s ancestors once hunted and dined at this castle (he’s a Bavarian count), the Kaiserschmarrn served at Jagdschloss is the best in the world, and I’ve helped him devour more than a few over the years so I can attest to his expertise on the subject.

DAY 3 – ROMANTIC RATTENBERG

When a good friend and local Tyrollean artist Claudia Gatt suggested a trip to Rattenberg to check out what she called “the most romantic” Christmas market in Austria I was baffled. How could a sleepy, perpetually sunshine-starved town that sits under the foreboding shadow of a medieval fortress built atop a mountain named after rats be a place of romance?

“When the sun goes down and the Christmas candlelights go on, you’ll see what I mean,” she told me confidently…and boy was she right!

Nestled on the banks of the River Inn, and with only 400 inhabitants, Rattenberg claims the title of Austria’s smallest city, and the annual Christmas market here is a reflection of its low-key vibe. There are no cheesy stalls, or bustling crowds on the cobblestoned, winding streets and alleys of Rattenberg, and as advertised, when the sun goes down, the magic begins.

Lit only by candlelight, torches, and small open fires set up by local shop, bar and restaurant owners where visitors can warm up and sip a glass of Rattenberg’s famed mulled elderberry “Advent Wine,” this little town is slice of European old world heaven. My evening in dreamy Rattenberg was a memorable one, and my wallet can attest to it after buying an exquisite, hand-blown skull-shaped glass decanter (Rattenberg is a glassmaking Mecca), a pair of lederhosen knickerbockers, and a bottle of delicious Zirbener schnapps made from pine cones.

DAY 4 – SWAROVSKI CRYSTAL WORLDS

After being floored by the glitz and glamour of the giant Swarovski Christmas tree sitting at the center of Innsbruck’s Marktplatz Christmas market, I thought a visit to the headquarters of the world’s most famous crystal maker in the nearby town of Wattens would be a good idea, given that my wife and daughter are big fans.

Swarovski Crystal Worlds or “Kristallwelten,” as the locals call it, is a wonderfully whimsical example of what happens when art meets commerce. One part jewelry store, one part avant-garde museum, and housed inside a building resembling a Telly Tubby-style green hill with a front door shaped like a Giant’s head spewing out a hypnotic waterfall, this is a must-see if you’re in the area.

Swarovski Christmas in Austria
Swarovski Christmas in Austria

Inside, “17 Chambers of Wonder” features a host of impressive multi-media art installations from a who’s who list of world-famous modern artists that include the likes of Salvador Dali, Andy Warhol, André Heller, and Keith Haring. Most impressive for me, however, and an Advent treat like none other I’ve ever enjoyed, was an up-close peek at the dazzling dress Miss Piggy wore at The Fashion Awards in December 2017. This luxurious, body-hugging bespoke Saint Laurent by Anthony Vaccarello creation is adorned with 10,000 Swarovski crystal beads and can be found in a special exhibit as you exit the 17 Chambers of Wonder.

DAY 5 – SKIING AT SÖLDEN ON A 007 FILM LOCATION

Skiing at a high altitude glacier resort like Sölden for a couple of days with endless blue Ötztal skies in the forecast, and mountains of fresh powder to shred is normally treat enough for me. However, as a devout follower of the cult of James Bond, a perfect bluebird day on the slopes followed by a tour of Sölden’s new ‘007 ELEMENTS’ at the very location where SPECTRE was filmed in 2015 is an eminently phenomenal experience I won’t soon forget!

After clocking miles and miles of vertical on some of the best corduroy my skis have ever touched on Sölden’s Gaislachkogl Mountain, where some of SPECTRE’s most action packed scenes were filmed, I had a very late lunch at the chic, new Ice Q restaurant with its unbelievable panoramic views of the Alps. Dessert took the form of a visit to the resort’s new “cinematic installation” called 007 ELEMENTS, an audio-visual walk down a James Bond memory lane of sorts through an assortment of interactive, high tech galleries telling the tale of the world’s most famous spy and his most recent celluloid escapades in the Austrian Alps.

Bonus Advent treat here, one of the yellow Bogner ski suits worn by Roger Moore & stuntman Rick Sylvester 1977’s The Spy Who Loved Me’s opening ski-chase/parachute scene was on display…very cool indeed!

 

 

DAY 6 – HOCHGURGL & THE WORLD’S HIGHEST MOTORCYCLE MUSEUM

My second day in Austria’s heavenly Ötztal Valley took me to the high altitude resort of Hochgurgl for more sunshine, blue skies, and ridiculously epic snow conditions. I could go on and on about the views, the schnapps, the schnitzel, and the hausgemacht (homemade) apple strudel I crushed while skiing, but since this feature is Christmassy by its very nature, let me tell you about the mind-blowing Santa’s motorcycle workshop I stumbled across while skiing!

The brainchild of twin brothers Attila and Alban Scheiber, managers of the Hochgurgl ski resort and owners of an assortment of hotels, ski schools and cable car companies in the area, the Top Mountain Motorcycle Museum is the highest motorcycle museum in the world, with more than 230 classic motorcycles from 100 or so manufacturers. Motoguzzi, Ducati, Indian, Henderson, Harley Davidson, all the big names and some of the rarest of rare bikes in the world are here in a building that looks like a toy factory for big kids who are born to be wild!

Soelden Ice Q Restaurant
Soelden Ice Q Restaurant

DAY 7 – CHRISTMAS SMUGGLING IN ISCHGL

On the seventh day of Christmas, I pit-stopped in Ischgl, the Vegas of the Austrian Alps for yet another day of bluebird skiing (yes I know, tough life), and to go shopping on skis in a rather unorthodox manner to put it diplomatically…let me explain.

Ischgl is connected to a resort called Samnaun, which is just on the other side of the neighboring Swiss border. The two resorts are linked by a ski route called the “Schmuggler Runde” (Smuggler’s Route) which my old ski buddy Herbert Pircher’s grandfather used to “allegedly” smuggle tobacco, sugar and butter back in the good old days. So when Herbert told me I could break the law, while skiing and shopping, I couldn’t resist.

Located in the Silvretta Arena section of the resort, the Schmuggler Runde has three levels of routes to choose from: Gold, Silver & Bronze…Bronze being the easiest. The entire route takes about 4-5 hours to complete with a few mountain hut coffee breaks and some duty-free shopping in Samnaun, which is Switzerland’s only duty-free zone.

Shoppers who visit Samnaun save somewhere between 10-20% depending on the product they’re buying. I splurged on some perfume, and a wicked Colmar ski jacket, but if you’re looking for watches and jewelry Samnaun’s got you covered too.

Make sure you take a few pictures near the Palinkopf chairlift (the super-fast six-pack with images of rockstars who’ve played open-air concerts at Ischgl over the years) as it has one of the most impressive alpine Instagram-friendly panoramas you’ll ever see on a pair of skis! Oh and apparently I won’t be doing any jail time, as I technically wasn’t breaking any laws as a non-EU/Swiss resident, which was kind of deflating as I thought I was Interpol’s Most Wanted for a while that day.

DAY 8 – A HAHNENKAMM CHRISTMAS IN KITZBÜHEL

I’ve always thought Kitzbühel’s famed Hahnenkamm cable car looked like a giant string of shiny red Christmas ornaments. Riding it however, on a crisp, clear December morning, made it feel even more festive. There are certain ski days you never forget, this one, which began floating through the air, high above an evergreen forest of pine trees covered in a blanket of ivory fresh snow made me feel like I was living in a Christmas card winter wonderland.

After an unforgettable set of runs on a carpet of untouched corduroy alongside Der Streif, the infamous race course that scares the bejeezus out of the planet’s best skiers every January, I popped into the Seidlalm, perhaps the most historically significant chalet in the world of ski racing.

Christmas in Austria Kitzbuehel
Christmas in Austria Kitzbuehel

 

 

Once the home of iconic Austrian ski racing/pop music legend Hansi Hinterseer, the Seidlalm is also the birthplace of the FIS Alpine Ski World Cup, as it’s where the idea first came into the minds of French journalist Serge Lang, US Ski Team alpine director Bob Beattie, and French Ski Team alpine director Honoré Bonnet in 1966. After a big-mountain lunch of Wiener Schnitzel, washed down with homemade Johannisbeere Gespritz (sparkling black currant juice), I skied my way down the mountain for a walk through Kitzbühel’s fairytale old town for another round of Christmas shopping and schnapps. Kitzbühel, you always impress!

DAY 9 – A VERY MOZART CHRISTMAS IN SALZBURG

Out of the mountains and into Mozart’s hometown for Day 9 of my Austrian Advent ski tour, and a chance to wander through one of Europe’s most enchanting, fairy-tale cities.

Salzburg offers a smorgasbord of treats all year round, whether it’s a visit to the house Mozart was born in, or to sample the city’s famous marzipan, nougat, and pistachio Mozartkugel chocolates, but during the holiday season this ancient, imperial city is a spectacular feast for the senses.

Mozart Salzburg Christmas in Austria
Mozart Salzburg Christmas in Austria

Wandering through Salzburg’s multiple Christmas markets with the sounds of carolers singing and street musicians playing Mozart’s greatest hits is holiday soundtrack of sights and sounds should definitely enjoy at least once if you’re a fan of the great Austrian composer.

My trail of Advent treats began with a heavenly, apple-flavored glüwein at Salzburg’s Stern Advent Market, before a stroll down the city’s most spectacular shopping street, Getreidegasse, with its stone arches and narrow medieval covered walkways lit up with swaths of twinkling fairy lights. After sampling a few Mozartkugels on Getreidegasse, my sweet tooth switched to overload when it chomped into an assortment of colorful and supremely scrumptious pretzel-shaped Meringues found at the Residenzplatz, one of the city’s largest and most impressive Christmas markets located in Salzburg’s Old Town. A visit to The Christmas Museum located in Mozartplatz square capped off my day perfectly, the antique ornaments, Christmas cards, and nativity creches are simply unbelievable.

Bonus Advent treat here, scoring some Mozart Christmas tree figurine ornaments for my son who shares a birthday with Wolfgang Amadeus himself!

DAY 10 – SILENT NIGHT CHAPEL IN OBERNDORF

2018 was the bicentennial of the world’s most famous Christmas song, Silent Night, and after a 35-minute train ride from Salzburg’s main station, I found myself walking along a levee on the shores of the serpentine Salzach River on my way to Oberndorf, the sleepy little hamlet where it was first sung on the tenth day of my Advent ski adventure.

Arriving late in the afternoon, and far from the bustling crowds and bright lights of Salzburg, I was treated to a slow winter sunset that bathed the little riverside town of Oberndorf, and the tiny white chapel where Silent Night made its debut, in an otherworldly purple and blue twilight glow.

The Stille Nacht Kapelle (Silent Night Chapel) is a memorial to the original church where Joseph Mohr, who wrote the lyrics, and Franz Xaver Gruber, who composed the music, unveiled their musical masterpiece on Christmas Eve 1818. This was the perfect place for a little reflection and spiritual thanksgiving after a week and a half of living the dream in the Austrian Alps, and an opportunity to recognize that holidays like Christmas are about more than decorated trees and shopping.

 

DAY 11 – CAFÉ CULTURE AND KLIMT IN VIENNA

The boldness and flavor of Austrian coffee is a treat whether you’re having it on a sunny deck in Kitzbühel with a warm, custard covered apple strudel, or in a chic restaurant in Salzburg. Nowhere, however, is it more delicious than in Vienna, THE most elegant coffee-drinking city on the planet, and the perfect place to end any Advent ski trip worth its weight in Columbian beans!

The first clue that my stay in Vienna would be a coffee extravaganza was while checking in at the chic Hotel Sans Souci Wien. It was explained to me, that rooms didn’t have coffee machines because the hotel provided a complimentary coffee service between the hours of 7-11 pm…WOW!

My Austrian Café Culture fantasy always includes a coffee drinking session with one of Vienna’s most famous historical figures, the father of modern psychology, Sigmund Freud. So during my visit to Vienna, I did the next best thing and toured some of the city’s most famous cafés with my friend Alexa Brauner who conveniently happens to be a Vienna psychological counselor, passionate coffee drinker, and Café Culture historian!

Some of the cafés we hit on our grand tour: Café Sperl (like walking into the 1880s and featured in the 1995 movie Before Sunrise starring Ethan Hawke), Café Central (an old haunt of Freud and Soviet communist revolutionary Leon Trotsky), Café Mozart (where author Graham Greene wrote The Third Man), Vollpension (where real live, actual  grandparents bake homemade treats from real homemade recipes and serve coffee), and Café Museum where Austrian artist Gustav Klimt and German composer Richard Wagner used to hang out.

My favorite coffees, among the dozen, or so I sampled in one morning alone, Café Fiaker, a decadent rum-infused mocha concoction I coiffed at Café Sperl, and Grosser Brauner (the large brown one) a silky smooth double espresso served with cold milk and cream at Café Museum.

Bonus treat on this day…a post-coffee-safari visit to see Austrian Symbolist painter Gustav Klimt’s oil and gold leaf masterpiece The Kiss at the palatial Belvedere Museum in person. This is the Mona Lisa of the 20th Century folks, and seeing it in person is breathtaking.

DAY 12 – HOTEL SACHER “TIME TO CHOCOLATE” SPA DAY IN VIENNA

Chocolate and I have been BFFs for eons, and we’ve found a myriad of ways to enjoy each other’s company over the years, but to have it spread and massaged all over my body, well that’s something we’ve never tried before and possibly THE most decadent Advent chocolate treat anyone’s ever dreamed up. So I decided to spend the last day of my Austrian Advent ski trip at Vienna’s famed Hotel Sacher and its Sacher Boutique Spa consuming and yes, bathing in as much chocolate as was humanly possible.

If the Hotel Sacher sounds familiar to some of you who’ve been to Austria, it’s because the country’s cherished national dessert, Sachertorte, was created by the hotel’s namesake Franz Sacher for an Austrian aristocrat in 1832. My ultimate treat on this last day would be a sit down with a piece (or two) of Sachertorte at the hotel’s café, but before doing so I planned a little choco-therapy at their posh spa.

“Time To Chocolate” is the copyrighted name of the luxury “signature” chocolate treatments offered to chocoholics who visit the Sacher Boutique Spa using creamy, restorative body-care products made from cacao beans. With four indulgent choices on the spa’s menu to pamper yourself with, I selected “A Symphony in Chocolate” which is now a regular tune on my nocturnal dream playlist!

Hotel Sacher Vienna Austria
Hotel Sacher Vienna Austria

My 90-minute chocolate symphony began with the gentle application of fragrant, rich chocolate body wrap, followed by a “purifying” cacao bean peel that felt like the best back scratch I’ve ever had. This divine experience was followed with a “nourishing” head-to-toe chocolate mask application that felt like my body and soul were being dipped in warm milk chocolate. After showering off – and trust me, you’ve never truly enjoyed a shower until it’s one you’re taking to remove chocolate off your entire body – it was back on the table for a full body and facial massage with more of the spa’s sweet-smelling signature cacao bean body care products.

When my heavenly chocolate immersion at the hotel’s luxury spa finally ended, I floated down into Café Sacher Wien for one last chocolate interlude with a piece of fresh Sachertorte and a delicious Austrian coffee. Raising my cup, I toasted the ski gods for granting me this amazing 12-day odyssey through the winter wonderland that is Austria…and I can’t wait to do it all over again sometime down the road!

When you go:

 

Austrian Airlines is a great way to get to Austria, and direct flights to Vienna are available from many North American cities www.austrian.com.

I stayed at some fantastic hotels during this trip, here’s how to find them:

Innsbruck – Stage 12 – Hotel by Penz www.stage12.at

Sölden – Hotel Aqua Dome www.aqua-dome.at

Ischgl – Hotel Trofana Alpin www.trofana-alpin.com

Salzburg – Hotel Altstadthotel Wolf-Dietrich  www.salzburg-hotel.at

Vienna – Hotel Sans Souci www.sanssouci-wien.com

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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