Christmas this year was extra special for me and my family: our first ever Christmas abroad! Of course we all enjoy a good old British crimbo, but we decided to do something a bit different for 2016, so we packed our bags and headed to the Austrian Alps for Christmas week.
It was such a fantastic experience, and though I’m struggling to meet the word count on my university essays right now, I’m pretty sure I could write you a whole dissertation about this holiday!
Don’t worry though, I’ll try to spare you too much rambling and instead present you with only the best bits about a Christmas in Austria – but I will be including a few strange things too. And, of course, there will be plenty of festive photos for you to have a little scroll through, perfect for if (like me) you’re suffering from post-Christmas blues and you need something to extend the season for a little longer.
The Best Bits:
Skiing, and the Snow
When me and my sister were younger our parents took us on quite a few annual skiing holidays, I always felt so privileged because skiing holidays seemed to me to be reserved for only the most poshy-pants upper class families. We are far from poshy-pants, believe me (to be honest I think the fact that I even use the term poshy-pants really proves that for me) but my parents love skiing so much (their first holiday together was a skiing holiday, and so was their honeymoon) that’s why they worked and saved-up so hard to be able to give us our skiing experiences.
However, this annual Hunt family skiing tradition came to an abrupt halt in 2012, when (on our FIRST DAY) in Andorra, my dad had a fall that broke his neck in two places. That’s a whole other story, but in short, he recovered and is now fine and healthy- but we were put off skiing for a long time…
Now, nearly five years later, we finally convinced mum to lift her never-again skiing ban and booked our hols to Austria. We were only planning on skiing for about 3 of the 7 days, but we had forgotten just how much we enjoy it, and we ended up skiing every day!
There’s something about whizzing along on that soft snow and breathing in the cold, crisp, mountain air while pine trees pass you by that is so refreshing and exhilarating. And, being able to stop at Austrian mountain restaurants for a hot chocolate or two and a big Spaghetti Bolognese or Grostel is a huge highlight too.
The snow conditions were fair all week, but as an extra present, the top of the mountain saw very heavy snowfall on Christmas day. How many people can say they skiied (on a ridiculously snowy) mountain on 25th December itself!? It was a dream come true to have such a perfect white Christmas and I feel very lucky indeed.
The Lebzelter Hotel
As well as the skiing and the snow, the other factor that really made our trip spectacular was our fantastic hotel. The Lebzelter felt so traditionally Austrian, and it had such a festive Christmas atmosphere. Especially in it’s beautifully decorated reception area, and it’s very quirky Stüberl Sports Bar. The icing on the cake was having a balcony that overlooked the illuminated street, a cute little Christmas market, and the huge Christmas tree that stood in the town square.
Christmas Eve Boat Trip
While our main activity was skiing everyday, we still found time to squeeze in some other festive activities, my favourite of which was our Christmas Eve boat trip. At around 3pm on we gathered onto the lovely boat pictured below and took a table on the top floor next to one of the huge windows, we drank Glühwein and Punsch, and munched our way through a plate of Austrian Christmas cookies, and a brass band played while we travelled around the lake.
Lake Zell is 4km long, and our journey around it lasted about an hour, giving us plenty of time to soak in the spectacular views of the sun going down over the mountains. We particularly enjoyed looking at the adorable Austrian houses at the edges of the lake or nestled into the hills, which have definitely inspired me to create a little sketch or two…(Look out for December’s Inspirations, hopefully coming soon)
Being in the Mountains & by the Lake
It’s not very often you find yourself both in a ski resort and also by a body of water like the sea or a lake, because it is quite a rare occurrence. That’s another reason why Zell am See felt like such an amazing place to be. Being in the mountains is already such a great feeling, I love the dramatic backdrop that they create, especially when they are snow-topped and it is Christmas time. A particular highlight was when clouds would form low over the town and the lake and we could rise above them on the cable car and look down at the wonderful view.
Some Strange Bits:
Being a Tourist at Christmas
Having never been away for Christmas, I had never really given a thought to what a tourist might do whilst local families spend time at home over Christmas. Although Austria was a beautifully Christmassy place to spend the season, it was admittedly quite strange after returning from skiing on Christmas day itself and wondering what to do with ourselves because everything was closed!
We stayed Half-Board in our hotel, which meant that we always had our evening meal there. The food was lovely, but at times the choices available were a little strange. For example, the 24th December the Austrian’s ‘Heilige Abend’ or ‘Holy Night’ so it is when they celebrate, and therefore when we had our ‘Christmas Dinner’ at the hotel. Although it was pleasant, it was really rather strange to be eating a prawn and avocado starter, crispy vegetable pancakes, and hazelnut parfait as our Christmas grub. (I don’t think that’s traditional anywhere!)
‘Christmas Tree Diving’
This is perhaps the weirdest thing we witnessed during our holiday- a Zell am See diving team tradition; Christmas Tree Diving. We had heard of the existence and whereabouts of this ‘event’ but we had no idea what it entailed, so on Christmas day we simply wandered on down to have a look…I will recount my reactions so you can relive the experience:
Crowds gather at the side of the lake for this alternative annual ritual: while some divers delve into the depths of the water, others wait at the surface with their burning torches and slowly form a small circle. The crowds wait in anticipation as bubbles begin to appear in the middle of the circle and then suddenly- oh! A very bare-looking Christmas tree emerges from the water… is that it? Then, a few seconds later, the tree is illuminated and we realise it is covered in (seemingly waterproof?) little fairy lights! It is pretty and the crowd cheer… but it’s still slightly disappointing if I’m honest…
I was left feeling puzzled for a minute as to how this very odd little tradition could draw so many people to the shores, but then the raft that was floating out in the lake was lit up and smoke began to rise- after which followed one of the best firework displays I’ve ever seen in my life! Enormous, awesome fireworks exploded one after the other above the lake and the view was amazing, you would’ve had to pay about £40 for a ticket to see that in England, and we saw it for free! Christmas Tree Diving was very strange indeed, but I can safely say that the brilliant fireworks made the evening.
Some extra photos:
And, as promised, here are a few more selected photos for you to browse through; soak up that festive Austrian atmosphere and fight those post-Christmas blues…
These photos were taken mostly with my digital camera. However, as my main Christmas gift this year I got a little VicTsing Sports Camera that I mounted onto my helmet while we skiied, but that footage will take a long time to edit, so you can expect to see a lovely montage video of our Austrian Adventures later on in the year!
Have you ever spent Christmas abroad? Where? And if not, where would you like to go? As ever, I love reading your comments so don’t stay silent!