December may be off-season for most of Europe, but in Austria, ’tis the season.
By David G. Allan
Editor’s note: This story was originally published December 2002 on the website TheDharmaBums.com. David’s CNN.com column, The Wisdom Project, can be subscribed to here: https://tinyletter.com/wisdomproject
VIENNA — The first thing Kate did when we crossed the mountainous Italian-Austrian border was make a snowball and throw it at me. We’d seen snow peaks already on this trip but this was the first time it was next to us, on the ground. Snow! And with the holidays just around the corner, could it get more festive? Yes! Because little did we know, we were crossing into a country mad for Christmas.
Crossing Brenner Pass at the Europabrücke (the highest bridge in Europe) we entered the Alps and the winter wonderland city of Innsbruck, host to both the ’64 and ’76 Winter Olympics and reputed to be the best place to ski this early in the season. We quickly found our charming chalet-style pension replete with a balcony view overlooking the green glacial Inn River and the town across it. From another guest at the pension we found out the best skiing was on the Stubaier Gletscher (glacier). The tourist office was selling a cheap package to the glacier that included transportation, lift ticket and rental, and for just a few Euros more we could get jackets, ski bibs and gloves, which was fortunate because we had no gear. Only merry optimism and luck guided our sleigh.
After buying our lift tickets at the tourist office we walked around the Christmas-lit Innsbruck, its pedestrian-only center decked with lights, Christmas trees and jolly visitors. Looking for a place to have dinner we stumbled on a cheery crowd at the main Christkindlmarkt, standing around a large lighted tree, eating plates of schnitzel and würst and drinking steaming cups of mulled wine, hence the cheeriness. We joined in, filling our tummies with spaetzel, Bavarian pretzels, gluhwein (the hot wine) and mirth. And that was just the first few hours in Austria.
We woke the next morning, had a standard Austrian pension breakfast of coffee, bread and jam and took off downhill to catch the bus to Stubaier. An hour and a half later we stood, in our rented ski gear, in a 360-degree panoramic crown of Alpine peaks. Well above the tree line, it was just us, the mountains and a few other skiers. The conditions were excellent, the slopes underpopulated and the scenery breathtaking. We were skiing the Alps! Every gondola and quad lifted us to impressive heights and miles and miles of mountainous views devoid of any civilization. And because it was so early in the season we never waited in line, never had to ski around tumbling beginners, and never faced a mountain of moguls or ice caused by too many skiers on a single run. It was paradise. We went back the next day and did it all over again. At night we returned to town to eat and be merry around the Christmas tree with our fellow mulled visitors.
After three days in Innsbruck we headed out of the mountains to the land of Mozart and The Sound of Music and the birthplace of “Silent Night”: Salzburg. After dinner we took a chilly tour of the city center that included more mulled wine and a stop at Mozartplatz (Mozart Square, which features an imposing statue of the composer) where an ice rink had been set up. So lovely we could barely stand it. The next morning we woke to a light dusting of snow on the city. We went to the Mozart-Wohnhaus museum (in Amadeus’ former residence) and then did our own Sound of Music tour, humming as went. We Do-Rei-Me’d around the Schloss Mirabell gardens. We had “confidence in confidence alone” as we climbed up to the Stift Nonnberg convent church, used in the film and by the real Maria when she was a nun and where she married Captain Von Trapp. And the rest of the tour, since you can’t escape it in Austria, was also wrapped in holiday fun. The Von Trapp house, from the film, was on a lake that had frozen over like a Norman Rockwell painting, kids skating on it as we drove by. And when we went out to the Schloss Hellbrunn to see the famous “I am Sixteen, Going on Seventeen” gazebo, there was a Christkindlmarkt with a cathedral-sized Advent Calendar and a carol-playing brass band. We bought a package of spices to make our own mulled wine.
Salzburg had been just as decorated, lighted and seasonal as Innsbruck but something was missing. Or rather, somebody. According to the story Austrians (who are 78 percent Catholic) tell their children, the Baby Jesus, not Santa Claus, brings toys on Christmas Eve. On Dec. 6, Saint Nicholas’ Feast Day, the locals have another tradition of giving gifts to good boys and girls, but theoretically, by Christmas, Santa should be persona non grata.
The modern incarnation of Santa (a capitalist bastardization of the Dutch Sinterklass and the German Weihnachtsman, or “Christmas Man”) was actually an invention of a 1930s Coca-Cola advertising campaign (in case you were wondering why the jolly pitch man wears the red and white corporate Cola colors) and many Austrians consider him a harbinger of globalization and commercialization, ad creep in what should essentially be a religious holiday. There is actually an anti-Santa organization that is trying to keep him out of the Christkindlmarkts. We did see a few Santas, skulking around the fringes, hawking goods, but they were there for the tourists. We didn’t talk to them.
Our last stop was Vienna. We woke up before dawn the first morning, Sunday, to go to church. This is not a normal activity for us, but then again it wasn’t a normal church. It was the royal chapel of the Hapsburgs and the chorus was the famous Vienna Boys Choir. Kate had a theory that all the young, angelic voices are sent to oversees concerts during the holidays, leaving the cracking adolescents and tenors behind, but still. We had standing-room spots toward the back of the chapel and were a bit weak on our ski-sore legs as we stood through the German-Latin mass and, sadly, we never actually saw the sailorsuit-clad cherubs because they sang from above and behind us and declined their usual after-mass encore. But the rest of the city made up for it.
It snowed nearly the entire time we were in Vienna, laying a duvet of loveliness on top of what is already one of the most beautiful cities in the world. Even without all the winter wonderland Vienna is a stunning conglomeration of architecture, music, culture and history (during our visit we also managed to see Carmen at the Volkstheater opera house; visit the Freud Museum; see the Hapsburgs art collection at the Kunsthistorisches (Fine Arts) Museum; and catch a screening of the Orson Welles Vienna-set film classic, The Third Man, and then ride the famous Ferris wheel featured in the movie).
But at Christmas you get so much more. We hit all the big Christkindlmarkts: Stephansplatz, Rathausplatz, and at the Hapsburg palace of Shloss Schönbrunn. The advent markets are an Austrian tradition dating back to the 13th century and are cute collections of craft stands selling wooden toys, decorations, clothes, food and drink. We heard spontaneous caroling in the cobblestone streets, stared at mammoth displays of holiday lights, Advent Wreaths and Christmas Trees, and had our share of the mulled wine. Vunderbar! Between the snow and the music and decorations, we both felt this Christmas abroad was the most Christmasful, Christmasy Christmas we had ever had. It was like walking through an adult-sized holiday display in a mall, but without the mall. And we stayed merry and bright.
December may be off-season for most of Europe, but in Austria, ’tis the season. And for the first time on this trip (since China), I am actually sad to leave. We are heading to Prague to spend Christmas Day, but I think we’ll actually be leaving it at the border.