Having just spent our first full winter in Europe, we thought it was time for some reflections on the last four months of our grand tour.
Having lived in Sydney for many years, it’s fair to say that winter was of little consequence. Sure it gets a little chilly, but you have to drive a few hours from the city to actually see snow – if you’re lucky. Booking a ski holiday in Australia is a gambler’s pastime.
When we moved to Abu Dhabi and then Dubai, winter translated to welcome relief from the relentless heat of the preceding months, as well as being the time of year we took frequent trips to Europe to fill our bellies and drain our bank accounts. And make the dream of a White Christmas a reality.
This year we’ve spent the best part of the northern hemisphere winter in Europe, only leaving last week. “Why would you come to Vienna/Budapest/Krakow/Berlin in December?” was a question we would often get asked.
Well, firstly, our Grand Tour wasn’t about an Endless Summer. Secondly, visiting places ‘off-season’ can be far more rewarding than peak season. Thirdly, we wanted to experience what it was like to live in a place during winter, not just jet in, eat at Michelin restaurants, go to chic ski resorts, and then leave for warmer climes.
So how did we enjoy our first full winter in Europe? While I love the quote of adventurer and author Sir Rannulph Fiennes “There is no such thing as bad weather, only inappropriate clothing”, after a few months of wearing appropriate clothing, putting on several layers to go outside, and then progressively removing them again as you warm up at your destination, it started to get a little tedious.
I’ve also lost count of how many times I’ve started to gently perspire in my winter gear waiting for a certain travel writer to finish getting ready before we went out, even going outside to wait for her in sub-zero temperatures rather than begin shedding layers one more time. By the time we got to Edinburgh in January, I was reduced to quoting Antarctic explorer Captain L. E. G. Oates, who famously said “I am just going outside and may be some time” before wandering off into the cold so I wouldn’t have to peel off those layers and put them back on again.
Dressing and undressing aside, I still love those crisp, clear winter days when the snow squeaks under your feet and the cities look like winter wonderlands, but I’m guessing everyone does – they’re the best part of winter.
In Zell am See, I loved heading up on the ski lift for my first snowboarding run and seeing local guys down a hit of Jägermeister with coffee over lunch. In Berlin, a child being pulled along in a wooden sled never failed to bring a smile to my face. In Budapest, I reflected on the notion that goulash tasted so much better when there was snow gently falling outside. In Vienna, I enjoyed the simplicity of a walk through a park and having a snowball fight before warming up with glühwein at a Christmas Market. In Krakow, the walk through the old town that we did every day was eerily beautiful, with snow on the ground and fog in the air – it was at its most memorable on Christmas Eve when silhouettes filled the streets before midnight.
But it’s with Christmas that we have our first gripe. Some places don’t even get snow until after Santa decides whether he needs wheels or skis on his sled to deliver goodies. Christmas markets should be named winter markets and keep locals happy with a little tipple and some hearty food until the end of January. Some cities are obsessed with getting rid of their snow – creating slippery paths and conditions more dangerous than when the snow was on the ground. In Berlin, we could have ice-skated along the pavements.
But there is more: slushy sidewalks; ice falling from several-storey buildings; sleet; being one layer short of being warm; wearing one layer too many; and heartbreaking single gloves mislaid on pavements.
The only person I’ve ever seen happy to be using a ‘snow thrower’ (those lawnmower-like machines made for removing the by-products of blizzards) was a New Zealand snowboarder in Lech, Austria who said that when he had to use it in the mornings, he knew he was soon going to be knee-deep in fresh powder snow in more vertical conditions than at the front of the hotel.
But, yes, it’s true that a winter wonderland can be mesmerizing and everyone loves the first flakes of the season. But as reality kicks in, locals are soon icing up the windows of travel agents, mournfully checking prices of winter breaks in places like Australia, where there are shrimps on the barbie and bronzed Aussies on the beach at this time of year.
So our first full winter in Europe was a bit of a mixed bag. Now understand why people would want to thaw out after a long winter, if I’m not somewhere snowy for Christmas, I still feel like I’m missing something special. Even if I don’t stay for four months next time…