Sunday, 31 December 2017

SKIING IN AUSTRIA: A FIRST-TIME DOPE ON THE SLOPE



Austria has for decades been the favourite European destination of Irish winter sports enthusiasts, and for just as long I’ve avoided the slippery slopes like the plague. However, after a lifetime of saying no to the snow, curiosity finally got the better of me and, three weeks ago, I swapped beer goggles for ski goggles. Now I’m kicking myself for having left it so late to discover the thrills ­and inevitable spills ­of fun-filled days on the piste.

I had an L of a time on the slopes above Bad Hofgastein
It’s 10am, only an hour after a big breakfast, but ski instructor Florencia is already thinking about lunch. “OK, guys, we’re going to make a pizza,” she tells me and three other bamboozled beginners. I’m wearing gear borrowed from a pal, and the hire shop has provided skis, boots, helmet and poles, but I don’t recall seeing any dough mix on the shelves.

Maybe Florencia’s suffering from altitude sickness we are, after all, in Angertal, high in the mountains that surround Bad Hofgastein (not Bad Gesundheit, as I’ve mistakenly been telling Facebook friends), where the air is thin.

It turns out she isn’t as nutty as she sounds. To slow down or stop on the slopes, you make a ‘V’ with your skis, the tips almost touching and the back ends spread wide. Some instructors refer to this pigeon-toed configuration as a snowplough, but Florencia calls it a pizza as it’s shaped like a slice of what Domino’s delivers. I call it torture on a pair of creaking knees that look good in a kilt but weren’t made for the contortions necessary to brake on snow.

I should have taken a colleague’s advice and booked a pre-trip try-out on the Ski Club of Ireland’s (www.skiclub.ie) artificial slope in Kilternan, south Co Dublin, where newbies can learn the basics and avoid later embarrassment. Ah, well next time.

Like Weebles, children on skis wobble, but they don't fall down, unlike certain other people
In Angertal, fearless five-year-olds whizz past, some on only one ski, the little show-offs, as I try hard to stay upright, like Bambi on ice. Maximilian, who’s eight, and therefore an old hand at hurtling down hills without a care in the world, comes to a perfect halt in front of his father, Kevin, who’s from New York but lives with his young family in Vienna.

While Florencia helps one of my fellow first-timers back to her feet after a fall, Kevin tells me the snow this year has come early last December, the Gastein Valley was green. Maximilian couldn’t give a hoot about last December he’s living in the moment.

“You look silly,” he tells me, which earns a gentle rebuke from his dad. “Hey, buddy, you shouldn’t speak to the man like that,” says Kevin. “He doesn’t know what he’s doing.” You can go off some people very quickly.

Three hours and twice as many tumbles into my first ever ski class, I’m learning another lesson long, elasticated socks that stay up are essential to prevent the shins and the backs of the legs getting chafed by the hard tops of the ski boots. Mine, unfortunately, have slipped down around my ankles, like Nora Batty’s stockings.

The resultant abrasions must have a fancy medical name, but I know them as welly-rim rash from childhood summers spent running around in shorts and gumboots and going home with red-raw rings just south of my knees.

Pride comes before the first of several falls on the baby slope at Angertal
Florencia finally takes pity on us and says we can have an hour’s break, so we ditch our skis. While the ladies pop to the powder room, I head for the first-floor restaurant. This is easier said than done clomping up a flight of stairs while wearing heavy, rigid ski boots and with arms outstretched for fear of toppling is probably how Boris Karloff practised walking for his role as Frankenstein’s monster.

I'm almost at the top when I hear a familiar voice from below. It's Florencia.

"Tom, what's wrong? Why didn't you take the lift?"

Believe me, Florencia, if I'd seen it Mr. Magoo would've seen it I'd have taken it.

A two-course lunch for a tenner is an unexpected bargain, considering that a pair of gloves in the shop downstairs cost €345. There’s also a pair of luminous pink salopettes for €460 and a fur-trimmed leather bonnet retailing at €600. At the sensible end of the scale, one of our party is wearing a perfectly good pair of ski pants and a cosy jacket that together cost her 50 quid from Lidl the German discount chain fills its shelves with winter sports gear in early November and they’re cleared within days.

For the afternoon lesson, we take the T-bar lift to the top of the learners' slope, where Florencia tells us to park our poles as we’ll be skiing hands-free. This seems a tad sadistic, like ordering a toddler to hand over his comfy blanky.

However, with two fewer accessories to think about, I’m more focused and my balance improves but braking remains beyond me. My 54-year-old knees, in cahoots with my ankles and hips, won’t do what they’re told. When I attempt to make a pizza, it looks like a dog’s dinner. I try transferring my weight to the outside edges of the skis, but end up resembling a fella with rickets. Fortunately, my fiercest critic, Maximilian, is nowhere to be seen.

Austria's ski slopes attract winter sports enthusiasts from all over the world
Despite the discomfort of being drenched in sweat (four upper-body layers are two too many, even though it’s freezing), it’s the best fun I’ve had in ages, but those aching joints underscore my woeful lack of fitness and preparedness. Mercifully, Florencia calls it a day at 3pm. I’m elated after my first experience of skiing, and rueful that I didn’t take it up years ago, but my ribs are beginning to nag after an earlier heavy fall that didn't bother me at the time. Not to worry a healing half-hour in the sauna back at the Norica Palais hotel, which is connected via an underground passage to the Alpentherme Spa, should put things right.

Austrians are weirdos when it comes to saunas, insisting that it’s unhygienic to wear swimming togs within the confines of a steamy cabin. This I learn as soon as I open the door and am greeted by a) the sight of half-a-dozen parboiled men and women in their birthday suits, and b) a chorus of tut-tutting when they see my trunks. I about-turn and retreat there’s no way I’m dropping my drawers and sitting in front of a bunch of naked strangers pointing and sniggering at my welly-rim rash. I take a soothing hot shower instead, and then nip out to the pharmacy for some pain-relief spray.

Later, during dinner in Die Gastein Alm restaurant, a few minutes’ walk from the hotel, the ladies compare notes on their massage and pampering sessions in the spa. They’re glowing, and smell of all the sweet-scented oils of the Orient. Thanks to half-a-tin of Deep Heat, I smell like a Sunday league dressing room at half-time.

Die Gastein Alm’s next-door function hall, the FestAlm, has in previous years been the venue for many a mad night of music and partying for hundreds of Irish revellers on the annual Topflight/Today fm ski trip with the Ian Dempsey Breakfast Show. Resort rep John Hamilton, from Glasgow, says he has seen quite a few romances blossom during these wild winter breaks a case of ski-lift to ski-shift.

The FestAlm is empty tonight, so after dessert we make our own entertainment around the dinner table with John on guitar as well as being a skilled skier, he’s an accomplished musician. There’s no tune he doesn’t know, and the hours-long sing-song ends only when the weary waiting staff start laying the other tables for lunch. We take the hint it’s well past midnight and they have work in the morning, but we have snowshoe trekking to look forward to.

Having swapped skis for snowshoes, it's time for a head-clearing trek through the forest
Grizzly Adams’ snowshoes resembled wonky tennis racquets, but the modern versions are like over-wide and over-long flip-flops with sturdy grips on the bottom and boot bindings on top. With a pair of these beneath me, yesterday’s mishaps behind me and guide Verena leading the way, we scrunch our way into a Christmas card scene. There’s no robin to add a splash of red the forest palette comprises only dazzling white, fir tree green and sky blue, plus the healthy flush of pink in our rosy cheeks.

We halt, and for a few silent moments are lost in little worlds of our own, savouring the beauty of our surroundings. Then I notice the tops of trees poking through the snow and wonder: How deep is this stuff? If I put a foot wrong, will I sink out of sight? If I do, how long will it take to dig me out? And as if last night’s over-imbibing wasn’t more than enough will there be a slobbering St. Bernard dog waiting for me with a baby barrel of brandy dangling from its collar?

Verena must be a mind reader. “Those are little Christmas trees,” she says. “They’re only one metre high. You won’t disappear. Just follow in my steps.”

We express our relief with a group “Whoop!” and lay down on our backs to make snow angels. Because of my bruised ribs, I can’t lift my left arm more than a few inches from my side without whimpering, so when we stand to admire our handiwork, there are four perfectly formed Gabriels and a one-winged wonder.

Making snow angels during our snowshoe adventure
We transfer in the afternoon to Kirchberg, 95kms from Bad Hofgastein and the venue for the 2018 Topflight/Today fm ski trip. If those planeloads of Irish skiers and snowboarders who arrive here on January 27 encounter guitar man John’s colleague, Colin or, rather, his several alter-egos when he's off duty, they’re in for an unforgettable treat.

Colin, who’s from London’s East End, is a mild-mannered resort rep by day, but by night he’s Shirley Bassey, Tina Turner, Elvis Presley and Mick Jagger, an all-singing, all-dancing, all-round impersonator and entertainer. He also inflates big long balloons and twists them into giraffes and sausage dogs while he’s performing. Even hard-to-please Maximilian would be impressed.

Despite not having a note from my mammy, I’m excused the next morning’s ski lesson. I so want to give it another go, but I’m banjaxed the ribs that were nagging are now screaming: “Noooooo!” It doesn’t prevent me from joining the gang for the gondola ride to the top of the mountain, but while they go slip sliding away, I hang out for a couple of hours in the bar with the hard chaws. They’ve been skiing since sun-up and are now on their umpteenth pint at 11.30am.

As a member of the European Union, Austria must abide by its rules on health and safety, but there's widespread opposition to the ban on smoking in public places, which has yet to be fully imposed. The fug in the bar is getting to me, so I step outside for some fresh air. My pal was kind enough to lend me his ski gear, so I don’t want it stinking of cigarettes when I return it. A couple of hours on the washing line when I get home will get rid of the reek. As for the smell of Deep Heat, it should be gone by November, when I'll be first in the queue for a perfectly good pair of ski pants and a cosy jacket from Lidl whose pizzas are easy on the knees.


GETTING THERE
I travelled to Austria with Topflight, voted Ireland’s No.1 ski tour operator for 23 years in a row. Topflight offers ski holidays in numerous resorts in Austria, Andorra, France and Italy, with a wide range of accommodation to suit every taste and budget, including apartments, hotels and fully-catered chalets. I stayed in the 4-star Hotel Norica Palais Hotel in Bad Hofgastein and the 4-star Hotel Metzgerwirt in Kirchberg.

Topflight offers weekly ski holidays to both resorts, with prices including return flights from Dublin, Cork or Belfast, airport transfers, seven nights’ accommodation, 20kgs baggage allowance, all taxes and Topflight resort representative services. A week in the Norica in March costs from €899pps on a half-board basis with free entrance to the Alpentherme Spa. For further details, call 01 240 1700, see www.topflight.ie or visit your local travel agent.
High in the mountains above Kirchberg, a family hitch a ride on a ski-lift