Sunday, February 23, 2003

In search of: A ski resort for a non-skier

In search of: A ski resort for a non-skier

Hurl myself off an icy mountain top on two planks? No way, says Jeremy Atiyah. There are other ways to enjoy winter in Austria

I detest skiing. Why on earth would I take my holiday in a ski-resort?
Perhaps because someone else in your family is desperate to go skiing, but feels guilty about going without you. Or perhaps because ski resorts can be beautiful places in themselves, as long as they are not too crowded. Pertisau is a good example of this: set in a snowy valley by Lake Achen (Aachensee), it is hemmed in by the dramatic peaks of the Karwendel mountains of western Austria, a couple of hours' drive south from Munich airport. Your family can go downhill skiing, while you relax and enjoy yourself. The main point is to take a complete break from your everyday life, in a place where the air is extraordinarily fresh and clean, in a cosy family run hotel, with a spa and an excellent restaurant.

Hah. All that vile Germanic stodge, you mean
In fact, Austrian cuisine combines influences from French, Italian and Balkan, as well as German, cooking. Austrian white wines can be surprisingly good. In the Hotel Wiesenhof where I stayed, the food was excellent, with lots of duck and pork as well as good vegetarian options (and no sausage). There was excellent hot chocolate to drink between meals. The tarts and cakes were outstanding, especially the apfelstrudel with vanilla sauce.

So I'll just have to stay in and get fat
Not at all. The fact that you are not keen on downhill skiing does not mean you can't do any exercise. The village of Pertisau is itself a famously scenic place. Austro-Hungarian Emperors came here for their holidays, as did Sigmund Freud. Just take a walk round the village. Otherwise, you might try some cross-country skiing, which goes along the valley floor and is entirely non-scary. All you need is a bit of balance and the strength to pick yourself up every time you slip over.

But that sounds almost as bad as ordinary skiing
In that case you can always go snow-shoeing or Nordic-cruising, which are different ways of walking comfortably through, and across, deep snow. Neither requires the slightest skill and is hardly more tiring than walking. But they do enable you to walk through beautiful forest snowscapes, which you will probably have to yourself. And if even they don't appeal, you can try getting on a horse-drawn sledge instead, wrapped up warmly in blankets, and trotting along past the pines. The Wiesenhof offers the possibility for a group to ride out to one of the gasthofs in the valley for a traditional lunch of potatoes and pork and beer.

I'm not geriatric, you know
So you want an adrenalin rush then? Let me offer something that might appeal, if you are so averse to downhill skiing: snow-biking. Pertisau, in fact, goes so far as to call itself the "the world's first snow-bike region"; exponents refer to their bikes as "piste-ponies". Essentially you ride down slopes on a bicycle which has skis instead of wheels. The art is considerably easier to pick up than skiing (and vastly easier than snowboarding), to the extent that most people in my class could ride down the nursery slope in comfort, and at speed, after just an hour of instruction. Personally, I think you will enjoy it as long as you are not required to turn or slow down.

No thanks. I think I'll stay in my room
If you insist, by all means stay in the hotel, but don't confine yourself to your room. The best thing about the Wiesenhof, after all, is that it contains not only a swimming pool and children's room, but also a very special and luxuriant spa, where you can enjoy baths and Jacuzzis and saunas and steam-rooms and "treatments".

Treatments? But I'm not ill
That's what they all say. Only after they've smeared your naked body with mud or hay from meadows, or put you in one of their special baths of "stone-oil", will you know what it is to feel well.

My naked body? This is an outrage!
Oh, calm down. You know the central Europeans never wear clothes if they can help it. Locals have been bathing in stone-oil for 100 years. It is extracted from rocks in the valleys. It may look black and gooey, and smell of crude oil, but it sure helps to extract those toxins from your skin. And once you've got out of that bath, you can go and sit in beautiful, intimate tiled rooms with soft lighting, where steam is fed out through lavender and rosemary. Then you'll take a shower in a "mint mist", before going to recline in the warm meditation chamber, on a ceramic bed, in the nude, staring out through huge windows at the snow and the mountains, listening to recordings of Philip Glass.

The whole thing sounds perfectly hideous. I'm going to Florida.
I'm sorry, but you probably wouldn't be able to afford that. A holiday in Pertisau on the other hand will break neither an arm nor a leg. Inntravel (01653 629010; offers three-night and seven-night breaks in winter (between 21 December and 23 March). A week at the Hotel Wiesenhof costs from £594 per person sharing a double/twin room, including seven nights' half-board, return scheduled flights between Heathrow and Munich, rail and hotel transfers. Three nights on the same basis costs £396. Skiing lessons, gear hire, horse-drawn sleigh-rides, and hotel spa treatments are extras. You'll pay, for example, about £50 for six two-hour lessons in cross-country skiing, and about £3 per day to rent the boots and skis. The horse-drawn sleigh ride costs about £7 per person. In the spa, massages and stone-oil baths cost about £16 each. Guided walks and Nordic cruising, on the other hand, are organised free of charge at the hotel on certain days of each week.

Sunday, February 9, 2003

Holy emperors! It's the birthplace of Europe

Holy emperors! It's the birthplace of Europe

Unity takes on a new meaning when Jeremy Atiyah travels with his father to Aachen to visit Charlemagne's grave

Published: 09 February 2003

It is not easy choosing a holiday destination for you and your father, when you are already 40 years old. I was wondering if we might take a week in Greece, or Spain, in early summer. Instead, we are going to Aachen, in Germany, by train, in the middle of the winter.
My dad insists. "Charlemagne is buried there," he explains. "The first Holy Roman Emperor! The founder of European unity!"

And so do things begin to make sense. My dad is the type who goes misty-eyed at the thought of the peoples of Europe coming together in harmony. He loves the Roman empire, the Mediterranean, sunshine, fresh fruit and wine. The trouble is that he doesn't like cold weather, sauerkraut or beer.

I just have to hope for the best. Anyway, it won't be a long trip. We are going by Eurostar to Brussels, and then on to Aachen. To be on the safe side, although this is the nethermost of low seasons, my dad has gone to prodigious lengths to book his train tickets weeks in advance, visiting half the travel agents in southern England in the process.

And although we are going only just beyond Belgium, when we meet at Waterloo I find him dressed for Siberia. "You're ready then?" I mumble, looking at his Russian fur hat and padded gloves and trench coat. He could be a general in the Soviet army. "The last time I went to Brussels," he reminds me, sternly, "was in 1938." He seems to be suggesting that it would be wise to be ready for any outcome.

Off we go. It is dark and wet. Our journey through the tunnel to Belgium seems normal to me, though my dad can't understand why we are being served a meal at 11 o'clock in the morning. "What do they think this is, lunch-time?" he exclaims indignantly, having dismissed, with some contempt, the offer of champagne. What's more we have only 20 minutes to make our connection to Aachen, and we look like being late into Brussels. In the event, we are obliged to run for it, which may be the first time my dad has does any kind of running since 1963.

An hour later, though, he is beginning to cheer up. We are reaching Germany. As we cross the border, somewhere between Liège and Aachen, the sky is almost pitch black, and he has begun recalling his last visit to this part of Germany – during that same trip in 1938. "Yes, now let me see," he suddenly exclaims, trying to peer out into the darkness, "where are those famous German autobahns?"

In Aachen itself, by the time we arrive, my dad seems contented. It's a tidy, medium-sized provincial town. He keeps marvelling at the nicely painted apartment blocks. The only trouble is that he can't help talking about the war in a loud voice wherever we go. "I don't know if we really needed to smash them so thoroughly," he muses, looking at the passers-by.

Anyway, the main reason for our presence here is to visit the relics of Charlemagne, which we begin doing the next day. Under dark skies, we amble through the lanes in the centre of town, which are full of brightly lit shops selling gingerbread and tarts and cakes and biscuits. Hardly anyone is out in this freezing wind, except us.

Our first stop is the Schatzkammer ("treasury"), containing Aachen's hoarded treasures from the past 1,200 years. My dad seems suitably impressed. The first thing we see is the famous life-sized bust of Charlemagne, made of partly gilded silver and covered in antique gems and cameos. Charlemagne's real cranium, we read, is enclosed behind this forehead, in the "anatomically correct position". In the next room, we find the 1,000-year-old gold Cross of Lothair, studded with huge precious stones. My dad begins marvelling aloud at the altars, reliquaries, chalices, sceptres and crowns, all embodying the spirit of European unity.

By now we are ready to enter the church itself, built by Charlemagne more than 1,200 years ago. Only when we find ourselves signing up for the compulsory guided tour does my dad suddenly look suspicious. "What?" he exclaims. "A guided tour in German?" And he begins muttering darkly about this whole trip having been a waste of time, until our guide actually appears.

Like most Germans, she speaks perfect English. From her, we immediately learn that the cathedral was the first monument in Germany to be included in the Unesco Cultural Heritage list. All I have seen of the building until now has been a sooty, scaffolding-clad conglomeration of steeples and vaults and porches. But the moment we step inside, we can see what the fuss is about. We are standing under a 1,200-year-old octagonal tower. Galleries rise up around us to a distant ceiling that is almost lost in the gloom. A colossal chandelier suspended on a dizzyingly long chain hangs almost to our faces: in fact, this turns out to be a recent addition, a mere 800 years old, given in the 12th century by the Emperor Frederick Barbarossa. "After organising the canonization of Charlemagne," our guide informs us, "Barbarossa declared the inhabitants of Aachen to be freemen, and the burgher-community was granted liberal rights of coinage and commerce ..."

My dad likes the sound of this. It seems to fit perfectly with his ideas of European unity. "Yes yes," he keeps exclaiming, "Frederick ... I must read more on him ..."

Meanwhile, our guide is taking us through the Gothic choir, to one gilded shrine containing the relics of Charlemagne, and another containing the nappies of the infant Jesus. She then leads us upstairs to the gallery to inspect an ancient marble throne on which 32 German kings were crowned. Tests prove that the throne dates back to the age of Charlemagne himself.

What single object, suggests our guide, could be more sacred in the history of European unity than this? "How marvellous!" sighs my dad. Whereupon we leave the church, well satisfied with our discoveries. Just round the corner, stands the gothic City Hall, built up from the ruins of a separate annexe of Charlemagne's palace. We gaze at its great façade, still decorated with the statues of the Holy Roman emperors. In a vaulted hall within, we learn that the annual "Charlemagne Prize" is awarded for services to the ideal of European unity. Up the stairs hang pictures of previous winners, who include Roy Jenkins, Ted Heath and Tony Blair. My dad is nodding in approval, once he has got over his hilarity at finding that the German word for city hall, Rathaus, sounds exactly like "Rat House".

By now it's almost time for dinner. I propose something authentic: a knuckle of pork with sauerkraut and mashed potatoes, and a litre of beer. "Beer for dinner?" chokes my dad, as we step into a cosy inn, with dark panelling. There's a nasty moment when he can't find any wine at all on the menu, and Charlemagne's reputation looks to be in the gravest doubt. Only after studying the small print does he find that wine is served by the glass; only then can he possibly agree to drink a toast to European unity.

The Facts

Getting there
Eurostar (0870 160 6600; offers return Leisure fares to Aachen via Brussels from £85 return if you book 14 days in advance.

Further information
For accommodation, contact the German National Tourist Office (020-7317 0908;