This family explores Europe's small towns and festivals on nice n' easy ski weekends.
From our home in Heidelberg, Germany we are exploring as much of Europe as possible on long weekends. Our February cross-country ski weekend to Seefeld, Austria began for me with a bike ride to the local Bahnhof (train station) to buy our train tickets. Yes, you can do this on-line at www.bahn.de (and hit the English button), but when you are crossing into other countries it is sometimes difficult to get an accurate price. It is easier — and more exercise — to go to the Bahnhof. My German, while poor at best, is good enough to arrange a train trip.
Why didn’t we drive? Trains go everywhere in Europe; gas is outrageously expensive (+/- €1.20 per liter); and it’s much more relaxing to go by train. The cost for this trip from Heidelberg was €136 including reserved seats for two.
Planning Our Long Weekend of Skiing
The transportation was the easy part of the trip planning. Finding a place to stay in Seefeld took some doing. We wanted to go to Seefeld because of an article I had read online about the more than 125 miles of cross-country tracks there. It has been the host of the Nordic events for two Olympics and one Nordic ski world championship. In 2008, for the second time, members of ADAC Ski Guides (all active skiers, cross-country skiing journalists and tourist experts) selected the Olympiaregion Seefeld from among 200 destinations as the “No. 1 Cross-Country Skiing” region. And not least, Seefeld is located 3,450 feet above sea level so we thought there would be a lot of snow.
February is a big ski time in the Alps and at our visit, the President’s Weekend holiday for Americans fell during the middle of Fasching, the last week of partying before Lent begins. In German, fasching is supposed to be the last drink before the fast or “pouring out the casks before Lent,” a time when all are allowed to go mad. Carnival is another name for the holiday, and people wear masks for the week because tradition says that this chases away the winter ghosts and prevents their revenge.
All Seefeld hotels were full when I started looking, and that was three weeks prior to arrival. I called the Office of Tourism in Seefeld and they were very helpful. They gave me a list of 10 bed and breakfasts with vacancies for our weekend. The problem was that most Austrians don’t want to rent for just a weekend in February. They are willing to wait until the last minute for a full week rental. We were lucky and found one place happy to have us for just two nights.
Exploring the Village of Seefeld
We arrived at noon on Saturday to 50°F weather. There was evidence of past snows piled high on the sides of roads and even a huge snow statue in the town center. It was a beautiful, sunny day but not what we expected for the Alps in mid-February.
Seefeld is a small town with a small train station that deposits you at the beginning of the pedestrian-only (and horse-drawn sleighs) town center. After a short 10-minute walk we found our pension, Pension Edelweiss (00435212-2304), which charged €51/night per person bed and breakfast. It is located right across the street from the Olympic Stadium complex which has a large indoor/outdoor heated pool, health center, cross-country ski school, outdoor ice skating rink and a curling rink.
This is also the start of one of the cross-country ski loops. The downhill lifts were another five-minute walk from our pension. Whatta’ place — how we got this lucky, by chance, I do not know. People were sitting in front of our pension at outdoor tables enjoying the local food, beer and wonderful sun. That’s the first thing we did — enjoy the sun. How relaxing…
We then walked over to try out the 6kms cross-country loop passing children on sleds coming down a well-groomed slope and a snow castle with small snow slides for very young children. Needless to say, with 50°F weather, not all of the cross-country trails were open, so we called it quits the first day after two loops on the 6kms trail. With the increased snowmaking capability coming to the region, we may be able to try this run again next visit.
We checked out the local nightlife with a stop in one of the outdoor igloo-type bars where you can get a Grog or a beer and the bartenders wear parkas to stay warm. The best place was the Siglu of the Hotel Klosterbrau (+43-5212-26210). We had a delicious dinner and were then entertained by an oom-pah band complete with accordion, tuba, and yodeling. They broke into their American oldies after the typical Austrian music and we danced the night away. We enjoyed this so much that we went back the second night.
After breakfast at our pension, complete with Seefeld bread, eggs, luncheon meats, cheeses, cereal and fresh yogurt, we took a bus up to the cross-country area of Wildmoos. It took five minutes and cost €2.50 per person. Snow was everywhere here and we were the first bus to arrive at 09:35. The sun, clear blue skies and the snow-covered Alps in the background were breathtaking.
Excursions on Cross-Country Skis
We skied the Lotensee Trail which was an intermediate one. We hadn’t ever skied on an intermediate trail. I now know why.
It wasn’t too difficult but the downhills were long and steep and the uphills got your heart pumping. One downhill lead us to an open field surrounded by only trees and mountains. We were almost the only people in this beautiful whiteness of undisturbed snow. The end of this trail was interesting… a very long steep downhill with a 90-degree turn at the end. I almost made the turn but decided a little sit-down stop would be better. My husband caught up, I got up, and off we went on another trail.
After two hours we stopped for a rest in the beach-type chairs facing the sun and enjoyed some hydration at the small snack bar. The horse drawn sleighs were up here, too.
We decided to go back to Seefeld because the Fasching celebrations were at 14:00. Instead of taking the bus we walked the 2kms down to Seefeld. Had there been more snow, we would have skied down. However, the walk was spectacular. The views of the Alps and the many Alpine ski slopes surrounding Seefeld were incredible. We passed older folks doing their Nordic Walking and young families with children walking up and down the same trail.
Fasching Carnival Festival
We arrived in Seefeld with time for a late lunch before the festivities began. This was our first Fasching experience and it was quite fun. Apparently the Austrians and Bavarians from this part of Europe had, for hundreds of years, suffered from a great fear of bears.
The many costumes of huge bears on chains being led around by woodsmen were the biggest part of this carnival. I read recently that there has not been a bear in Bavaria, Germany for 170 years; one crossed over the Alps last year and they shot it.
There were butchers and bakers wearing huge kuhglocken (cowbells). They would hop twice and walk a bit, then hop twice, and so on. This noisy tradition apparently originated in Mittenwald, Germany, only 15 kms from Seefeld. Loud noises are also supposed to chase out the ghosts of winter and this Carnival started with the whip-cracking several times after the Master of Ceremony made his traditional speech.
I have to admit, unfortunately, that I understood almost nothing of what he said. The costumed people also carried flasks of schnapps in their belts. They would wander over to people in the crowds and offer a sip from the flask; my husband said it was potent stuff.
The Fasching parading and activities continued for hours and we enjoyed every minute. Little girls in authentic Austrian dress were passing out soft pretzels. We watched the knee-slapping dance called schuhplattler done by the men to the rhythm of the Austrian accordion music. It is thought this was an early courtship display; there is evidence of it in the writings of a monk from 1050. Chevy Chase made schuhplattler the funniest dance to watch in his movie, “European Vacation” and I loved it.
We found that Seefeld has activities for absolutely every age in a small, quaint, culturally rich environment. We’ll be going back with our teenage son when there is more snow to take a cross-country ski lesson, check out the Alpine slopes and maybe ski from Seefeld to Mittenwald.
I will be working on improving my German in the meantime!
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