Travel theme: Delicate

I think we’re probably all feeling a bit delicate after this week’s Halloween cekebrations, so Ailsa’s travel theme is perfect.

My subject for this week has been a big part of my life until now. It’s true that sometimes it can be harsh to me, even hurt me, but there are so many good things it has given me: A place to play, to relax and to think. It has provided me with work, exercise and new friends. However, it is extremely delicate and over recent years has been disappearing before our eyes. We need to act now to stop it disappearing altogether. What am I talking about?

 SNOW!

Click here to see more entries from this week’s travel theme.

Cardiff in Snow

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Pretty much everything has come to a stand-still here in South Wales this weekend. It started snowing here at 3am on Friday, and it’s so cold at the moment that the snow hasn’t melted. I thought I’d share some photos of my neighbourhood with you that I took today.

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This was the view from outside my flat this morning.

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The rose garden, blooming and beautiful in the summer, looks a lot different covered in snow.

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The local kids literally wore the snow off the hill with their sledges.

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I found this cute little fellow on a wall outside a neighbour’s house.

I still dream of snow

This is the time of year that I miss working seasons the most. The rest of the year, I’m glad that I no longer have to work eighty hour weeks and deal with grumpy tourists and their comedic mishaps. At Christmas and New Year, however, I really would rather be working abroad. If I could just go back there for two weeks of the year, I would. Spending Christmas in ski resorts always seemed so much more genuine than my experience of the holidays here in the UK. For a start, everyone in resort has to carry on working over Christmas, and it’s the busiest time of the ski season, so you don’t have time to plan much. Friends, colleagues and sometimes complete strangers come together to make the most of the spare time you do have. You share the chores and cobble together a Christmas dinner with what you can find in the local shops. You might even have a Secret Santa to make sure that everyone has a present to open. And then there’s the snow. Not the mushy, grey stuff that we sometimes get here in the UK, but proper snow. Snow that you can ski on, which is a great way to de-stress when you do manage to get some time off. Skiing was one of the hardest parts of my old life that I had to leave behind. Every year, at the start of the ski season, I ask myself if I made the right decision. Then I remember those tourists and airport runs at four in the morning after two hours sleep and decide that yes, coming back to the UK definitely was the right choice. Although I don’t get to ski anywhere near as much as I used to anymore, or as much as I’d like, I do make the effort to get back on my skis whenever I can.

I first visited Garmisch-Partenkirchen, Germany, about 5 years ago. At the time I was working as a travel rep in Seefeld, just over the border in Austria. The company I was working for had reluctantly sent me to Seefeld for the final six weeks of the ski season to cover someone who had resigned. Their reluctance was no reflection on my ability to do my job, they were just adamant that an alpine skier like myself would not enjoy working in Seefeld. The resort is sold as being a ‘winter wonderland’ destination, which in travel company talk means that there’s not much skiing to be had. I seemed the only person to not be concerned. I figured that if I couldn’t alpine ski, I’d just learn to do whatever it is that is popular in Seefeld. That turned out to be cross-country skiing and snow-shoeing.

When I arrived in Seefeld, it soon became apparent that I was indeed the first serious alpine skier to be sent there. I loved it, though. Although the alpine ski area isn’t that big, it’s good fun, and I was determined to get the most out of it. So one of my first errands was to claim my free (well, technically – we had to work our arses off in return for all the ‘free’ stuff we got) area lift pass. What did surprise me was that I was the first rep to actually ask for a full area pass. The mountain owner looked genuinely shocked when I asked to see him, but his shock soon turned to excitement when he realised he was in the presence of a rep who could promote his mountain, and he eagerly told me about all the benefits of his lift pass. One of which was that it covered ski areas other than Seefeld, including Garmisch-Partenkirchen. I didn’t have to be told twice. I begged a day off from my manager, and jumped on a train over the border.
That first day’s experience of Garmisch-Partenkirchen would have been perfect, had I been able to see anything. Unfortunately, it was a complete white-out. I still managed to get some skiing in, but I decided to call it a day when, whilst skiing on the glacier, I stopped for a breather and looked down to see that my skis were dangling precariously over the edge of something.
I promised myself that one day I would return to Garmish-Partenkirchen and see what the place actually looked like. Hence the reason I returned this March for four days skiing.

So imagine my dismay when I arrived into the town to find it grey, drizzly and the mountains invisible behind a cloak of cloud. I was starting to wonder if Garmisch-Partenkirchen always looked like this. Maybe even the locals had never seen the mountains.

I tentatively opened the curtains the next morning to check the weather. I could not contain my excitement when I saw bright sunshine and clear skies, and I raced down to breakfast to fuel up before heading out skiing.

Zugspitze Glacier

There are two ski areas accessible from Garmisch-Partenkirchen, the Garmisch-Classic area and the Zugspitze glacier. Click here to see the piste map of the area. The Zahnradbahn connects the areas via one of the coolest train journeys I’ve ever been on. From the main station in the town centre, the train makes it’s way along the valley floor, stopping at Hausberg and Kreuzeck/Alpspitze, from where you can access the Garmisch-Classic area. If you’re too impatient to wait for the train, there is also a local ski bus that will take you to these access points. After travelling down the valley to Eibsee, the train then continues it’s journey to the glacier via a tunnel through the mountain. There’s also the option to travel over the mountain, by the Eibsee gondola and then the Gletscherbahn cable car. This will take you via the top of the Zugspitze, the highest point in Germany. On the return journey, a lot of people choose to get off the train at Riffelriss and race it down red 30 to the Eibsee stop. If you are planning to take the train to the top of the glacier, be aware that the journey time from the main train station is 1hr 15mins.

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The highest house in Germany!

If you’re an adrenaline-seeking, off-piste nutcase on snow, then you’ll probably get bored very quickly in Garmisch-Partenkirchen. The only black runs are a few home runs. If you’re looking for somewhere to have a few, fun days skiing, I would highly recommend it. Although a small area compared to some of it’s neighbouring resorts in Austria, most of the runs are graded as red and there is lots of different terrain to explore. It’s spread out, too, so you don’t just feel like you’re skiing up and down the same bit of snow. The glacier is also home to one of the best terrain parks I’ve ever seen.

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Garmisch and Partenkirchen were separate towns for centuries. In 1935, their respective mayors were forced by Adolf Hitler to combine the two towns in preparation for the 1936 Winter Olympic Games, the first to feature alpine skiing incidentally. The united town is quite often just referred to as Garmisch, an offence to the people of Partenkirchen. I must admit that, until my visit this year, I was also guilty of this.

Garmisch-Partenkirchen itself is definitely more of a working, living town than a ski resort. The shops all close at five, and I was amazed to discover that nowhere sold ski wax. There are plenty of restaurants to visit in the evenings, and if you’re thirsty after a hard days skiing, the Irish bar is definitely worth a visit. Your guest card also allows you one free entry to the local swimming baths, a great way to relax after a day on the slopes. Their hot pool is as good as any ski massage. All in all, I’m glad I gave Garmisch-Partenkirchen another chance.

Easyjet fly from London Gatwick to Munich and Innsbruck, Garmisch-Partenkirchen is about halfway between the two.

From Munich airport, take the Lufthansa bus (German bus stops are marked by a green H in a yellow circle) to the main train station (€10.50). There’s a bus every 20 minutes, and it’s a 45 minute journey to the station. There’s a direct train from Munich to Garmisch-Partenkirchen, and it costs €19 single fare.

Similarly, from Innsbruck airport catch the local bus to the main train station. The train from Innsbruck to Garmisch-Partenkirchen is also direct, and costs €15.10 single fare.

I stayed in a private en-suite room at Hostel 2962, a two minute walk from the train station. I booked the room through booking.com, and it was a bargain at €235 for 5 nights bed and breakfast. The hostel was excellent, and booking.com has lots of other cheap accommodation options to choose from.

At the moment, I have no plans to go skiing this season, but I am determined to get my skis back on my feet before the end of the winter. Even if it means me flying over to Innsbruck, visiting my family there and heading out to one of the local slopes, I will get there. Besides, my brother sent me some videos of my four-year-old nephew skiing at the weekend, and I think I need to practice before he gets better than me! I still dream of (skiable) snow on an almost daily basis during the winter, but when it starts to get me down I remind myself of the reasons I moved back to the UK and everything I’ve achieved since I did. Who knows, maybe one day I will make it back there for a whole season?

Cross-Country Skiing Part 1

As I mentioned yesterday, I’m lucky to be able to say that I’ve worked in some fantastic ski resorts during my career overseas. Although they are usually called ‘ski’ resorts, though, it’s not all about the skiing. One of the benefits of my job was that I got to try out some of the other winter sports that go on in the mountains and add lots of ‘new activities’ to my list.

First and foremost, I am an alpine skier. When I first learnt to ski, snowboarding was becoming increasingly fashionable, but I decided I wanted to learn to ski first as people told me it’s easier to go from skiing to snowboarding than vice versa. I have since learnt to snowboard, I wouldn’t call it ‘snowboarding’ but I can at least get down the mountain on a board. I just don’t like my feet being strapped to the same board, though, and I have to say that personally I prefer to be on my skis.

Snow-blading proved to be a good way to improve my balance on my normal skis. If you lean too far forward or too far back on these, there’s nothing to stop you cartwheeling down the hill, as demonstrated by my colleague Simon when we guided a snow-blading day together. We also had two snowboarders in our group, who proved the theory right that it’s easier to go from two boards to one than the other way around. They so weren’t used to their feet moving independently of each other on the snow, and ended up looking like Bambi on snow-blades!

Whilst working in Seefeld, the snow-shoe guide Mary asked me to help her guide an unusually large group of guests one week. It sounds like the easiest thing in the world, a sport where essentially all you have to do is walk. You’ve been walking since you were two years old, right? How hard can it be? I was supposed to be assisting anybody who fell over, but I was too busy laughing along with the guests and taking photos of them to be of much use. It was so much fun!

Snow-shoe walking in Seefeld – it’s not as easy as Mary made it look

Putting me in charge of anything with an engine probably isn’t a good idea, but I have also tried skidooing/snowmobiling. Tearing around the countryside in the dark, trying desperately to follow the tiny light on the back of the skidoo in front of me, I felt like I was in a James Bond movie. I also apologise profusely to Inghams for breaking their ten-year safety record by crashing my skidoo into a stream. Don’t worry, nobody was hurt and a helpful Irish holidaymaker came past and helped me to pull it back out again.

The one winter sport that I surprised myself by really liking is cross-country skiing, or langlaufen as it is known in German-speaking countries. As an alpine skier, I’d always considered langlaufen to be something people did who…. Well, to be honest, I’d never really thought about who did it or why. They just always seemed to be there, usually at the bottom of a valley, skating round in circles. There are two types of langlaufen, classic and skating. Classic langlaufen is where you propel yourself along in specially prepared parallel tracks in the snow. Skating, as the name implies, is a much freer style. Skaters ski alongside the tracks on groomed snow. Langlaufen skis are very different to other types of skis. They are long, very narrow and lightweight. You wear small, sneaker-like shoes that clip into the ski binding at the front of the shoe, and you use very long ski poles to help you keep yourself going forward. Langlaufen has never been the most fashionable of winter sports, but I imagine that since Pippa Middleton’s participation in a langlaufen race, it may suddenly experience a resurgence in the near future.
Before working in Seefeld, I’d had one experience on cross-country skis. I’d previously worked in a ski shop in Whistler BC, Canada. Part of my job was to rent out cross-country equipment, in particular for the cross-country taster that was held every week in aid of a local charity. I’d confidently guide the customers on how to use the equipment and advise them of the conditions of the cross-country track. In all honesty, I did not have a clue about cross-country skiing. To this day I could not even tell you where the cross-country track in Whistler is. Whilst not really paying attention in a weekly staff meeting, my ears pricked up when I heard my boss mention the company’s famous annual cross-country race. As I’d never heard of this famous race, I was even more surprised when my supervisor assured our boss that our team had been in training for weeks. More than a little concerned, I pulled my supervisor aside and explained that I’d never actually been on cross-country skis. He told me not to worry, and was so confident in my abilities that I didn’t put a pair of cross-country skis on my feet until the start of the race a couple of weeks later. Unfortunately, to add to my challenge, we’d had very little snow that season and the actual cross-country track was already a cycle path. Don’t panic, my ever-confident supervisor announced, we’ll use one of the slopes instead. It wasn’t even a nursery slope that they picked. We drove halfway up the mountain and sneaked onto an intermediate downhill run that was pretty icy even for an alpine slope. One of my colleagues put me into my equipment and before I knew it I was in the middle of a cross-country relay race. I tried desperately to at least keep going forward up a very steep, very icy slope that was only ever intended to be used to go down. Think trying to roller-blade on ice and you’ll get the picture.
Once I reached the turn around point, I was given a drink to down, and then one of my colleagues literally had to turn me round on my skis. Those things have no edges, how are you supposed to turn on them? He pointed me downhill, told me to keep my skis straight, and let me go. I did as I was told, and thankfully another colleague caught me at the bottom before I disappeared off into the back-country. It would be a few years before I put cross-country skis on my feet again.
Finding myself working in Seefeld, a mecca for langlaufen, it would have been rude not to give it another go. I got the equipment I needed from the ski shop, booked myself into a beginners lesson with some of my guests, and I was all ready to go. Well, almost. My colleague Gabi, an experienced cross-country skier, looked at me in despair.
‘Do you not own any leisure pants?’ she asked.
‘Do I look like someone who would own leisure pants?’ I replied. As a freestyle skier, a helmet and belt were higher up on my list of things to pack.
‘Well, at least try not to look so baggy.’ Gabi advised. ‘You’ll only get yourself caught in something. Remove some layers as well, it’ll be warm out there.’
Twenty minutes later, I was glad of the advice. No wonder cross-country skiers always look so slim. It feels like you sweat your body weight after the first 100m. Even with Gabi’s advice, though, and no matter how hard I try to fit in, I think I’ll always look like an alpine skier on cross-country skis.

Some graceful skaters in Seefeld village. Please note: I definitely do not look like this on langlaufen skis.

Coming up in Cross-Country Skiing Part 2… A giant leap forward in my langlaufen training – Gabi decides I’m ready for an intermediate loipe (cross-country trail) and I answer the question ‘Is it possible to wipe out on a cross-country track?’

Winter is most definitely here

Over the past couple of weeks, we have definitely noticed the sudden slide into winter and the beginning of the run-up to Christmas here in Cardiff. Outside temperatures have dropped a good few degrees, everyone has turned their heating on at home, all the teams at work are busy organising their staff nights out and the TV is flooded with Christmas movies. All we need now is for the Christmas Coca Cola commercial to be aired and it will be official.

More importantly to me, though, the start of winter marks the start of the ski season. I love skiing. Since my dad took me on my first ski holiday to Andorra when I was fourteen years old, it has probably been my favourite sport to take part in. During my time working overseas, I was lucky enough to be able to work in some fantastic ski resorts such as Kitzbuehel, St Johann, Whistler, Seefeld, Scheffau and St Anton to name but a few. I literally was living my dream, working mainly as a travel rep and doing the job that I’d wanted to do when I was a child. Although I worked long hours, I had the mountains on my doorstep and could go skiing on a regular basis.

Since moving back to Wales, I miss being able to go skiing without having to book time off work and catch a flight to Europe. We do get (sometimes a lot of) snow here in Wales, and we certainly have lots of hills, but unfortunately it’s not the right kind of snow and we can’t ski on it. Nicole over at thirdeyemom posted some pictures of her neighbourhood this week and talked about how their local ski season will be starting soon, and it made me sooooo jealous. Don’t get me wrong, I love being back in Wales. There are lots of things that I get to do here that I couldn’t in the Alps in the winter like rock climbing, spending time with my godchildren and generally doing normal things like going to the cinema with friends.

I don’t know yet if I’ll get to ski this winter. For the mean time, I thought I’d share with you some of my photos from my time living in ski resorts.

Rosshutte, Seefeld
Enjoying the sun in Saalbach
The first hint of winter in Interlaken
Llama trekking on the Austria/Germany border – well, it’s not all about the snow

Travel Theme: White

This week’s travel theme from Ailsa is White.

My favourite white thing in the whole wide world is snow. I don’t mean the slushy, grey stuff that brings the UK to a screeching halt most winters. I mean high mountain, virgin, clean, pure white snow that I can ski on.

When I stand at the top of the piste, I know how privileged I am to be allowed to travel down one of Mother Nature’s beautiful creations, the mountain, on two planks of wood and fibreglass. As much as it’s my playground, I also have ultimate respect for the mountain and planet Earth. To me, there is no more peaceful and honest moment. Before I commit to my descent, I say a prayer to Mother Nature. For she is the one who will protect me, as long as I respect her whilst I am laid bare on her mountain.