There’s something wholly overwhelming about the Alps in winter. Even when, as they were when we first arrived at our wide-roofed Alpine lodge one frosty night a few weeks ago, hidden beneath sleepy sheets of fog.
The culture of this area, namely that made up of Bavaria in southern Germany and its neighbor Austria, has developed a tough edge in response to the bitter cold and the sheer rawness of nature. This is where the tradition of Krampus was born, a demon armed with a switch who takes bad children away at Christmas time. This is where heavy, hearty foods and great mugs of beer tide people over through the cold days and long winter nights. Even the traditional Lederhosen attire and oompah bands seem to project a forceful presence within the dark paneled walls of a cozy Alpine inn.
Our adventures in the Alps began in the salt mines of the sleepy German town of Berchtesgaden, just near the Austrian border. Deep under the mountains, salt mining has been a major industry for some 500 years. Like the miners, we rode an open mining train down through the tunnels, clad in dark blue canvas work uniforms and straddling a wooden bench in a line with other visitors on our guided tour. Adventures abounded underground between explanations of the history of the mines: We slid down two steep mining slides at different points in the tour to delve further into the mountain; took a boat across a shallow underground lake as salty as the Dead Sea; and rode a funicular at the end to climb back up to meet our mining train again and reach the surface.
Truly, I felt the only thing missing from the tour was the clink of the mining tools and the uplifting ring of traditional mining songs. As if in answer to this thought, a CD of Berchtesgaden miner tunes was for sale at the gift shop alongside the expected array of salts in every grade and seasoning combination, including bath salts. We let the miners serenade us on the hour or so car ride from Berchtesgaden to the Austrian ski resort town of Sankt Veit im Pongau, belting out the local miner’s greeting of “Glück auf!” (a phrase literally meaning something like “good luck”) every so often along the snowy mountain roads.
Past field and farm and small town after small town of little wooden homes with low slanted roofs, the transition from Bavaria to Austria was imperceptible. As I had decided skiing was not for me after a few lessons in previous years, I found other ways to enjoy the scenic mountain area this time. I spent the first day at a thermal spa with some friends, swimming around from indoors to outdoors in the naturally heated pool surrounded by the majestic Alps. A few vacationers there would get out to leisurely walk around in or rub themselves with snow and then get back in the steamy water. “No thanks!” I thought, shaking my head while reclined neck-deep in the thermal bath.
Just like the German spas, this one had a complete cafeteria-style restaurant, massages and other spa services, a clothing-free sauna, a fitness room, and more.
On our last day, after some searching around, I went off hiking alone near the ski slopes to a narrow gorge called the Liechtensteinklamm. Parts of the area, including part of the entry road not maintained in winter, are closed for the season so it was an enter-at-your-own risk but still not very difficult trail. Signs warning of the risks of avalanche and falling rocks reminded me that I was at the mercy of the Alps. I only saw a handful of people walking their contented dogs during the roughly three hours that I hiked, large papery snowflakes falling all the while. Silence punctuated only by my boots plodding through the powdery snow and the occasional sound of a bird calling or a squirrel cracking nuts reigned under a muted sky.
It was the very essence of nature. These are the Alps.