Sunday, 31 December 2017


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 ( 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.

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 or visit your local travel agent.
High in the mountains above Kirchberg, a family hitch a ride on a ski-lift

Wednesday, 18 October 2017


Everyone has heard of the Camino de Santiago, the collective name for the ancient Christian pilgrimage routes that lead to Santiago de Compostela and the tomb of Saint James in Galicia. Very few people outside of northern Spain, however, know of the Camino Lebaniego in Cantabria, which is a pity. At only 72kms, or roughly 95,000 steps, the ‘Secret Camino’ is the road less travelled but the most scenic of all.

The monastery of Santo Toribio de Liébana (© Cantabria Tourism)

In the Franciscan monastery of Santo Toribio de Liébana, close to the picturesque town of Potes, two thick walls either side of a courtyard separate the church from the souvenir shop cum pilgrimage office – which is just as well. Were it not for the sound-absorbing stone, visitors queuing in solemn silence before the altar to kiss a piece of the cross on which Christ died would have heard a little Spanish girl squeal: “Daddy! Look! The baby Jesus is riding Noddy’s scooter!”

She was right. Standing out from the array of rosary beads and religious statuettes in the shop was a small, red and yellow ceramic Vespa with the Holy Family on board. The daddy was mortified, but the footsore pilgrims waiting to get the final stamp on their special passports (credenciales) nearly wet their pants laughing.

They’d chosen a good time (mid-May) to walk the Camino Lebaniego – a few weeks earlier and they might have arrived at the monastery with their pants already wringing. Cantabria didn’t get to be as green as Ireland without getting drenched; in summer it can be scorching, but at other times the rain in Spain falls mainly here.

The Lignum Crucis, which is kept in the monastery
The purpose of the pilgrims’ journey is to venerate the Lignum Crucis, reputedly the largest surviving piece of the True Cross, which would be a lot larger but for its early monastic custodians’ readiness to exchange fragments for favours.

When it arrived in Cantabria in the Middle Ages from the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem, brought by Saint Turibius of Astorga, it was the entire left arm of the cross, but splinter by splinter it was whittled away until it resembled a walking stick well on its way to becoming a chopstick.

In 1679, the monks sawed what remained into two pieces and encased them in a gilded silver cruciform reliquary. The longer, vertical piece is exposed near its base, revealing the hole where the nail was hammered through Christ’s wrist.

The wood is Mediterranean cypress, which was and is common in the Holy Land, and carbon dating shows that the tree from which it came grew 2,000-odd years ago. Science puts it in the right place at the right time, while faith verifies its bona fides for believers.

The Door of Forgiveness, in the monastery, will be open until April
The 'Secret Camino' is walked almost exclusively by in-the-know Spaniards, but that’s not because they’re keeping it quietly to themselves; rather, it’s put in the shade by the more famous long-distance routes, especially the busy, 790km Camino Frances, which has become even busier on the back of the worldwide success of the 2011 film, The Way, in which it and Martin Sheen co-starred.

Now, however, it’s the Lebaniego’s turn to shine – without the help of Hollywood lighting – because 2017 is a Jubilee, or Holy Year, on the Cantabrian Way, which occurs only when the feast of Santo Toribio, April 16, falls on a Sunday (the next one is in 2023).

During the current special 12-month period, which ends next April 15, pilgrims who pass through the monastery’s Puerta del Perdon (Door of Forgiveness) and comply with a handful of simple conditions will have the time they’ve accrued in Purgatory annulled. It’s like getting penalty points wiped from a driving licence.

Walking the Camino Lebaniego on a beautiful summer day (© Cantabria Tourism)
Beginning at the fishing port and holiday resort of San Vicente de la Barquera, the Lebaniego can be walked in as few as three days or incorporated in a weeks-long trek that takes in the North and French Ways, which it partly connects, en route to Santiago.

For those keen on keeping in touch with the outside world while getting in touch with their inner selves, there’s free wifi every step of its modest length, making even the narrowest forest trail a lane on the information superhighway.

Spiritual fulfilment aside, the reward for walking the Lebaniego is a certificate of completion (a lebaniega), but it’s the coastal, riverside, woodland and mountain scenery that make the journey such a joy. Snappable sights that nature crafted or man made present themselves at almost every turn, so pilgrims should factor into their daily schedule time spent stopping to take photos.

San Vicente de la Barquera and the Picos de Europa (© Cantabria Tourism)
Those who opt to spend a pre-pilgrimage night in San Vicente should stand on the eastern shore of the estuary just before twilight and look across the water. With some moody clouds to better highlight the historic towers, turrets and rooftops against the snow-capped mountains, the town looks like it should be hanging in a frame in the Prado.

The mountains are the Picos de Europa, so named by 16th century cod fishermen and whalers from the Basque Country returning after months of hooking and harpooning in the waters off of what are now Newfoundland and Maine. When the Picos came into view, they knew they were nearly home the Basques are the Cantabrians’ next-door neighbours to the east.

Pilgrims and holidaymakers are not alone in flocking to San Vicente. Thanks to the estuary and the nearby marshes, cliffs and dunes, many species of migratory aquatic birds congregate here; in the Picos, vultures, eagles, hawks, falcons and owls rule the roost.

Anyone with even only a passing interest in our feathered friends will find a fascinating online resource. Clearly a labour of love for English ornithologist Richard Crombet-Beolens, whose surname looks suspiciously like an anagram but isn’t, it includes a comprehensive section on Cantabria’s birdlife.
Stalactites in the 240-million-year-old cave of El Soplao, near Cades (© Cantabria Tourism)
The Lebaniego has three stages – San Vicente to Cades (28.5kms), Cades to Cabañes (31.3kms) and Cabañes to Potes and the monastery (12.1kms) – and most people walk them in three days. However, the journey can be broken into four or five, which allows time for some peripheral exploring.

Any visitor attraction described as “the subterranean Sistine Chapel” had better live up to its billing. The natural cave of El Soplao (, near Cades, does so with its extraordinary stalactites, stalagmites and helictites, these last also known as eccentrics because they grow at gravity-defying angles that scientists are at a loss to explain.

The 240-million-year-old cave was discovered in the early 20th century during exploratory drilling for zinc deposits, which were there in abundance. Unfortunately for the prospectors, they knocked through into what became known as the Gallery of the Ghosts; fortunately for posterity, what they saw – before they turned tail and ran, screaming – helped ensure El Soplao has remained unspoiled.

The gallery is named after the group of 500,000-year-old, man-sized stalagmites that look like spooks of the white bedsheet variety. Fear of the supernatural meant miners gave this part of the cave a wide berth, though apprentices were tricked into a first-day-on-the-job initiation they would never forget. Disappointingly, photography in the cave’s several galleries isn’t allowed, but on the plus side there are no bats.

A big plate of cocido Lebaniego looks a tough task, but that food disappears pretty quickly

A day on the go can be taxing, and food becomes a fixation. There’s no such thing as a free lunch, but with a three-course menu del dia including coffee and a half-litre of wine costing as little as €8 in roadside restaurants, it’s as good as gratis.

For dinner, Cantabrians love hearty stews (cocidos) and ladle them out in glutton-sized portions. That might sound off-putting, but the spectacle of skinnymalinks feverishly polishing their plates with chunks of bread is unremarkable.

Cocido lebaniego and cocido montañes, which feature on most menus along the way, differ only in that the former contains chickpeas while the latter has white beans. Otherwise, the big terracotta dishes from which both are served are piled high with ham, pork belly, beef, baby goat, black puddings and sausages.

Cocidos are nutritious and delicious and more than replace all those calories burned on the hoof, allowing pilgrims to set off each morning with a spring in their step. These beauts are made for walking.

Arguably the rudest tree in the world

At the 55km mark, two of the Lebaniego’s most photographed sights stand, in jarring contrast, a few metres apart. One is the small, 10th century church of Santa María de Lebeña with its tiny, overgrown graveyard where wildflowers have been spared the hoe. The other is the gnarled, barkless and sun-bleached trunk of a lifeless yew that has inexplicably been spared the axe.

Resembling a fist with the middle finger raised, it’s the rudest tree in the world. The parish powers-that-be must have a mischievous sense of humour or are blissfully oblivious to the obvious; either way, there it is – dead, defiant and crying out for a photo to be sniggered over later in the El Hayal hostel in Cabañes, 5kms distant.

Typical of most hostels on the Lebaniego, El Hayal (+34 942 744203) offers B&B for around €20, and half and full-board are also available. It’s not the Ritz: guests sleep in singles or bunk beds in six rooms accommodating from four to 18 people with half-a-dozen shared bathrooms, but it’s well-run and spotlessly clean.

Although not exclusively for pilgrims, being principally a base for hillwalkers, cyclists and birders, everyone’s welcome to enjoy the food and facilities, which include a pool, and drift off beneath its rustic timbered roof.

Dander by the Deva River in Potes before an end-of-pilgrimage feast that will cost only €30
Birders rise with the larks, but pilgrims needn’t get up early for the last stage of the journey. With only 12kms to go, there’s time to tarry over lunch in Tama, where a chunky tuna salad in the Hotel Corcal’s Casa Fofi restaurant ( is sufficient sustenance for the home stretch; anything more substantial might spoil the appetite for a mission-accomplished dinner in Potes.

After collecting that certificate from the monastery, there’s not a lot to do back in Potes apart from pottering around the narrow streets, admiring the medieval houses and dandering by the Deva River that runs through town; still, it’s a pleasant way to kill time until the best restaurant on the Lebaniego opens at 8pm.

In the attic dining room of El Cenador del Capitán (, where reservations are a must and tall people should beware the rafters, choosing from the menu isn’t easy: diners who spend 10 minutes deciding what to order frequently change their minds as soon as they see what those at neighbouring tables are having.

To avoid trying the waiting staff’s patience, opt for the house’s award-winning cocido lebaniego; a bottle of local red wine, rarely seen outside of Cantabria but top class; a dessert selection of local cheeses, which are among the best in Spain; and, to round things off, a pot of herbal rock tea (té de roca) with a generous splash of the regional firewater, orujo. At around €30 a head, it’s a celebratory meal steal.

One of the Fuente de cable cars in the clouds (© Cantabria Tourism)

As soon as that orujo hits the spot, it’s time to hit the pillow. The pilgrimage is over – but not necessarily so the adventure. Those with time to spare and a serious head for heights should hop on the bus the next morning to Fuente de, half-an-hour from Potes, for a daredevil cable car ride in the Picos de Europa National Park.

There are two cars, which sway and sometimes lurch in anything more than a breeze, each with a capacity for 20 passengers. The bottom station is at 1,090 metres above sea level and the top one is at 1,850 metres – a vertical ‘drop’ of 760 metres, or six-and-a-bit Dublin Spires. The trip, which covers a cable distance of 1.45kms, takes three minutes and 40 seconds and the cars can reach a top speed of 10 metres per second, or 36kms per hour.

Nervy passengers tend to observe the ascent and descent through splayed fingers, but even a peek-a-boo view of the mountains high above and the valleys far below draws admiring – and vertiginous gasps. Only a fibber would deny it’s frightening: countless prayers are said in the church in the monastery, but plenty of Hail Marys are whispered aboard the cable cars, too.

Maroon arrow and cross for the Lebaniego, yellow
arrow and scallop shell for the Camino de Santiago

The phenomenal international interest in the various caminos shows no sign of abating year after year, they register sizeable increases in the number of people walking them. When next April 15 comes around and the Jubilee ends, the souvenir shop cum pilgrimage office where everyone nearly wet their pants laughing will have issued more lebaniegas than in any previous 12-month period.

As people continue to return home to regale family and friends with tales of their experiences and share treasured photos, the 'Secret Camino' won’t stay secret for much longer. It will, however, remain the loveliest pilgrimage route in Europe.

Talking of lovely: somewhere in Spain, a beautiful little girl is the proud owner of a unique souvenir of her visit to the monastery in the mountains. Her father may have been mortified by her excited outburst, but no doting daddy could refuse to buy his daughter a model of the baby Jesus riding Noddy’s scooter.

A little taste of why the Camino Lebaniego is the loveliest pilgrimage route (© Cantabria Tourism)
Ryanair ( flies from Dublin to Santander and Aer Lingus ( from Dublin to Bilbao. Flights arrive in late afternoon, so stay over and take an early Alsa Lines bus to San Vicente (; book well in advance). To reserve a bed in a pilgrims’ hostel (again, book well in advance) and for detailed information on the Lebaniego route, see Autobuses Palomera (+34 942 880641) operates a three-times-daily service from Potes to Santander, from where Alsa serves Bilbao. For further information on Cantabria, see, and

You’ll need a credencial to sleep in cheap pilgrim hostels, where it will be stamped as proof of your journey, and to obtain a certificate of completion at the monastery of Santo Toribio de Liébana. Collect your credencial from the Church of Santa María de Los
Ángeles, Calle Alta 24, in San Vicente (€2). Apply at or call +34 942 211563 (it might be wiser and quicker to phone, because they're frustratingly slow at responding to emails).

There are no ATMs or supermarkets between San Vicente and Potes, so carry sufficient cash for lunch stops and commandeer pastries and fruit from the breakfast buffets of your accommodation, where vending machines offer water (always carry a litre), chocolate and energy bars.

Camino de Santiago: Follow the yellow plaque road