From Saltiest Deeps to Snowiest Peaks

From Saltiest Deeps to Snowiest Peaks

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.

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A miner points the way to the Berchtesgaden mine
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Salt mine entrance
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Giant replica of iodized salt canister
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Salt rock
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Mountain entrance sign with miners’ slide

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.

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Nightfall in Sankt Veit im Pongau, Austria

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.

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No winter maintenance: Enter at your own risk

 

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Liechtensteinklamm gorge
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Snow falling through the woods
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Mountain stream
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Hiking back through farmland

It was the very essence of nature. These are the Alps.

Glück auf!

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Castle Höhenwerfen in Austria
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Fasching Costumes on Parade

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The Christmas Markets are closed, all the dust has settled from New Year’s fireworks, and that means it’s time to gear up for Fasching!

As you may remember, the German Karneval season (aka The Fifth Season) has long been underway. It began back in November on 11/11 at 11:11.

But with other holidays out of the way and nothing in store but cold, dark winter days between now and Ash Wednesday, it’s time to start thinking about costumes. In Mainz, Kӧln and other areas of Germany that celebrate Fasching (it’s not everywhere!), people of all ages wear costumes to march in or watch the colorful parades.

Here are some of your options:

1) It’s a fool’s holiday: Dress like a fool. Clowns and fools, or simply silly hats, are the most popular costumes along the Rhein. Even the Gutenberg statue in Mainz gets a fool’s cap for the occasion.

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2) Dress like it’s Halloween: pirate, hippie, fire fighter, etc. To an American like me, this is a little tired, but there are plenty of people-characters from all walks of life whose shoes you can step into for a day.

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3) *My personal recommendation*: Dress like an animal. Animals are the second most popular costume category after fools. As it was pointed out to me when we first arrived, the zip-up animal onesies are not only cute but practical as well. You’re going to wear the costume outside in winter, shouting “Helau!” (or “Alaaf!”, region-dependent) for hours, so this type of costume is warm and loose-fitting enough to go over a coat and/or a lot of layers.

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4) Gear up in Fasching banner swag. This is what I like to do for the first day of festivities, and this year I’m adding fingerless gloves and a hat to my scarf and legwarmers. All the gear is striped red, white, blue and yellow. Necklaces or buttons with “Weck, Worscht & Woi” (Mainz dialect for rolls, sausage, and wine), the duck float that ends the parade, and Fasching greeting “Helau!” are also common.

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5) Make your own costume. If you’re really artsy or daring and have a lot of time on your hands, bolts of fabric and bric-a-brac are available in costume stores or regular department stores as well. Who knows what you’ll come up with!

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To read about how Fasching costumes differ dramatically outside of the Rhein region, see The Soundtrack of Salzburg.

Until late February, Helau!

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Even Mainz bakeries gear up for Fasching

A Winter Wonderland in the Erzgebirge

A Winter Wonderland in the Erzgebirge

Today the lighting of the first of four candles in a wreath marks the first Sunday of Advent, the official opening of the Christmas season. We recently prepped for the season with a visit to Seiffen in the Erzgebirge, a mountain range far east in Germany near the Czech border.

Even before Advent, the quaint town of woodworking workshops was packed with tourists from all over Germany and beyond, as the finely handcrafted Christmas decorations are sold all over the world. You may recognize, for example, the Christmas pyramids, layered wooden towers with a circle of small paddles at the top that spin when candles are lit underneath. Particular to eastern Germany are also incense burners in the shape of men with pipes, and Schwibbogen: arched candleholders decorated with figures or silhouettes.

The boxy Seiffen church is a popular motif among the carved wooden items, as are woodpeckers, which must be abundant in the densely forested mountain range.


It was fascinating to explore one of the workshops in Seiffen to get an appreciation for the local trade. While more work is now accomplished with machines, there is still quite a bit done by hand or a combination of both. The man we saw chiseling into small wooden cones spun by a machine could churn out a perfectly formed pine tree in less than a minute. Each woodworker we saw was likewise concentrated on one meticulous and monotonous task: drilling a hole in the shoe pieces for the nutcrackers, painting eyes on angel figurines, gluing beards onto tiny dwarves. These woodworms complete a three-year apprenticeship program to become licensed woodworkers, a profession that nearly every family in this small but world-famous town seems to be involved in.

And, of course, these industrious little elves also make toys in addition to seasonal ornamentation. We visited the Seiffen Toy Museum for a further look into the evolution of crafted wooden toys. One display showed how wooden animal figures can be sliced off like cookies on a roll after the outline is carved around a cross section from a log. Various interactive toys and games interspersed among those behind glass keep the museum engaging for visitors of all ages.

The sleepy but studious town of Seiffen seemed to resemble its own candlelit wooden house miniatures more and more as the day wore on and turned to early night. As a memento of our time here, we bought our own Schwibbogen with a fastidiously adorned Christmas bakery set among a silhouetted forest scene, complete with two of its own tiny Schwibbogen decorations.

Looking forward to another season of Christmas markets, newly underway. Frohes Fest! / Happy Holidays!