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When I hear the words wine country I think of Range Rovers, golden retrievers and turquoise swimming pools surrounded by terra cotta tiles with a view of the vines. This probably stems from spending lazy Sunday afternoons as a child watching the Parent Trap on VHS. The Lindsay Lohan version.

Here in France, in the middle of the Médoc, north of Bordeaux, wine country is a little bit different. Instead of Range Rovers, I have a red Peugot bike which I ride to the vines each morning. There are no lolloping golden retrievers, only roosters which crow at all hours of the day and cats to catch the field mice. And to cool down after tending to the vines we prefer to drink, not swim. A chilled glass of Rosé with a splash of creme de cassis and an ice cube. Organic Rosé made from the grapes that only a few hours ago I had been weeding, by hand.

Is there anything more beautiful than Wine Country?

Last night I brought a little bit of New Zealand to a French vingernon’s kitchen. More than a little bit, three courses. Three courses prepared in what is affectionately, or sometimes hatefully, referred to as une cuisine de camping. This house is a continual work in progress. There are wires hanging from the ceiling and every once in a while, Gerard must stand on a chair and push the insulation back into place with a broom handle. There are dust draps over everything and in the morning, in my east facing bedroom, I can see the sun rays through the gaps in the tiled roof. Thank goodness it is hot. Imagine the kitchen. I’m sure there are student flats with better kitchens. However, I’m sure these flats do not have Le Creuset. The shining orange Le Creuset helped calm my nerves cooking in a crazy French kitchen for Gerard and Ghislaine. One can not go wrong with Le Creuset.

Menu:

entrée: salad of roast kumara, asparagus and green beans with mesclun and a mustard dressing.
main: leg of lamb baked with eggplant and mint.
dessert: pavlova with kiwifruit

When I began the cooking in the afternoon, determined to break the pattern of eating at 9.30-10p.m, the house keeper, Maria, asked me if I was sure I wanted to cook the kumara in the oven. She wondered if maybe I had muddled my french words a bit. Kumara, or patate douce, is somewhat of a novelty in France. Last night was the very first time Gerard, a man of 56, had tasted kumara. He liked it very much. He even had seconds.

The lamb was quite sensational, if I may say so myself. Or, I could just thank the powers of Le Creuset and be far more modest. Thank you Le Creuset. The lamb was tender and flavorsome and the aubergines, lightly spiked with mint, were soft and sweet. I will be making this dish again.

As for the Pavlova, I think the days of future pavlova Queen are a long way off. While pouring, as supposed to delicately placing, the whipped mixture on the baking tray, I prepared myself for another pavlova flop. But, I would never have guessed that a pavlova had the ability, indeed the quality, to be “the little Pavlova that could.” After a long sleep in a cold oven and a generous blanketing of cream, it really wasn’t too bad.

Gerard and Ghislaine were really rather impressed with New Zealand cuisine. As for me, I had survived “la cuisne de camping.”

And I hadn’t even made that many dishes. Did you read that, Mum?

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Two weeks ago I left the beautiful and lively city of Bordeaux for the Landes region in south western France. I was starting the next chapter of aventure française: WWOOFing. Worldwide opportunities on organic farms. This is a volunteer program, of sorts: for a few weeks you work on an organic farm in exchange for lodging and meals. It is a wonderful opportunity to speak French and discover a new region of France.

I was to be living with Marie Hélène and her partner, Christoph, on the outskirts of a tiny village called Pissos. For two weeks I was very much part of their lives. During the day I would work with Marie Hélène in her organic market garden and at night I would help around the house: feeding the chickens and the pigeons, taking care of the horse and doing the cooking.

I enjoyed working in the garden. There is something very liberating in being able to get absolutely filthy without a care in the world. I would return home each day with dirt under my nails and a mud streaked face from wiping away perspiration. The garden is hard work but the rewards are tangible and, tasty too. Radishes as an apéro with fresh bread, butter and salt; salads for lunch with lettuce picked less than an hour before; new season potatoes sautéed in olive oil and peas eaten straight from the pods. In the coming months Marie Hélène and Christoph will have tomatoes of every variety, courgettes, cucumbers, rhubarb, beetroot, green beans and artichokes.

Like so many of my French experiences, my time with Marie and Christoph will be remembered by the food that we ate. My first night we had spaghetti with beautifully tender and rare entrecôte steak. The next night we sat down late, at 10.30p.m, to a succulent piece of black Gascogne pork that had been roasted in the coals of the original 180 year old fireplace. A friend of Marie and Christoph farm the black pigs, organically, of course.

Every morning for breakfast there was hot coffee, served in cereal bowl sized, hand-made ceramic mugs. Croissants, pain au chocolat or baguette, warmed and slathered with butter and honey. (Honey, from their friend the apiculteur who collects the honey from the beehives in Marie’s garden and, who also happens to be a dab hand at irrigation systems.) For midday apéro hour we ate whole anchovies which had been marinated for a few days in olive oil, vinegar, salt and garlic. We pulled the little fish, dripping and glistening, from the bowl with toothpicks and ate them with crusty bread. A friend had kindly given Marie and Christoph a big white bucket of crabs he had caught the day before. In the evening, the crabs still scuttling in their bucket, we made crab soup.

The next day for lunch, despite not arriving back at the house until 1.30, Marie roasted a whole chicken from a friend’s farm. Whole is not an exaggeration: the head, the stomach, the liver, the intestines, even the reproductive organs. We ate the chicken with fries which had been cooked in duck fat. Friday night dinner was take away pizza from the local pizzeria. Pizza with fresh duck liver, magret de canard fumé, mushrooms and foie gras, or, pizza with white asparagus, sun dried tomatoes, Serrano ham and poached egg.

Saturday afternoon, after a very successful morning selling at the market, Marie and I returned home with boxes of fresh meat, fish, cheese, bread and yoghurt. That night for apéro hour we shelled prawns and broad beans.

Sunday in Pissos is a day of rest and cooking. I helped Marie prepare the vegetables: aubergines, tomatoes, mushrooms, fennel, onions, fresh garlic and broad beans. They were cooked on the stove top with cumin and chili until wonderfully translucent and caramelised. Christoph prepared the outdoor brick fire place where we roasted a whole fish. We ate at the outdoor table in the shadow of 100 year old plane trees, discussing politics and the “fin d’une era.” It all felt so very French.

Sunday evening a friend of Marie and Christoph was cooking for us. On the menu: rognons d’agneau, lamb testicules. I was nervous about trying this particular cut of meat. The rognons were prepared simply with olive oil, salt, pepper, parsley, and then grilled in the fireplace. I was given the first taste, and in front of an audience. I didn’t dislike the taste or the texture: slightly creamy like pâté, but I don’t think they will be going on the weekly grocery list.

Monday lunch was another meal of no mean proportions. A friend of Marie and Christoph roasted a salmon fillet and brought it the house in a beautiful green Le Creuset dish. The salmon had been cooked with artichoke hearts, tomatoes and generous quantities of olive oil. We ate it with boiled potatoes, a salad from the garden and an herbed crème fraiche sauce. The crème fraiche, from the milk of Jersey cows, is made by a friend. It is soft, almost whipped and butter mellow yellow. I could have eaten it with a spoon. In fact, that’s exactly what we did.

Lunch the following day we ate a lentil salad with tomatoes, feta, onions and garlic. In the evening, after planting 200 tomato plants, we had fat andouillette sausages with sautéed new potatoes. Our attempt at eating light.

I cooked the next day, a soup or stew, I do not know. Carrots, mushrooms and sausages cooked in a spicy tomato broth. Apple and wild blackberry crumble for dessert. Last minute on Thursday night Marie decided to make a cheese soufflé. She gave me the pot of béchamel sauce to lick, I felt at home. The soufflé was golden topped, puffed and smooth.

Lunch on Friday, after standard apéro hour, we ate grilled pork steaks and fries cooked in duck fat. Saturday lunch was another meal of “firsts” for me. Our friend at the market hadn’t sold all the veal liver he expected, and for fear of wasting it, he generously gave us five or six veal livers. And hearts, and heads, and feet. The head and feet were destined for the dogs, for which I was secretly glad. I think my two week experience of nose to tail eating had already been quite comprehensive. The veal liver, though, was yet another interesting meal. Cooked in the fry pan with only salt and pepper for seasoning and served with a tomato salad and a slice of veal heart, just for good measure. Nose to tail eating, I feel, is an acquired taste.

That evening we went to a friend’s fête. On the lawn in front of a beautiful old stone house with a grape vine arching across the façade, we danced until the wee hours of the morning. We ate barbequed wild boar and Spanish Merguez sausages and warmed our hands over the barrel drum fire.

Sunday was my final day with Marie and Christoph and we enjoyed another wonderful meal. We tasted regional charcuterie: smoked garlic sausage and delicious salted pork wrapped in a pâté. The second course was fried trout and eel which Christoph had caught in the river that runs next to the house. Marie cooked roast pork with carrots, mushrooms and new potatoes. A slice of cheese, apple crumble and coffee to finish.

Oh, and the wine; one or two bottles with nearly every meal. Mojitos in the middle of day, floc de Gascogne and porto blanco. We drank beautiful Bordeaux reds, and always organic. There is less guilt in pouring a second or a third glass. Two weeks of wonderful meals and new delicacies to try.

But, please, feed me fruit and water for the next week.

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This market, along the banks of the River Saône, is the most beautiful market I have ever seen. A quintessentially French Sunday market; the sky a brilliant blue, the red and blue umbrellas of the stalls forming a canopy under the avenue of plane trees.

Elle and I wandered through; I was trying to take it all in. It was crowded, it was noisy. The smell of fresh strawberries, of fresh fish, of coffee, of cheese all blending together. It was wonderful.

The sellers shouting at each other, at us, like at a cattle market, “Mesdames, Messieurs, oranges-kiwis-bananes, venez, venez.” All in one breath and often with thick foreign accents.

I saw artichokes nearly the size of my head and leeks nearly as wide as my arm. The root ends of green and white asparagus were being broken off with a resounding “snap.” Strawberries sat in little wooden wicker tubs, as if you had picked them yourself. All the fruits and vegetables were so delicately arranged in aluminum pans: red, yellow and green peppers, their rounded surfaces almost glinting in the sun; mangoes, cut in half and arching their backs, showing off their hedge-hogged flesh.

We passed by the “resto” part of the market. Families were out for Sunday lunch, their tables weighed down by plates of iced oysters from the fish stall next door and chilled white wine from the wine stall opposite. Apart from large cauldrons of vin chaud at Christmas time, I have never seen wine being sold at a market before. But what a fantastic way to buy it-immediate access to the vineyard, or at the very least, the representative label.

The market was of significant size. The stalls continued along the river: rotisserie chickens, flowers, cheese, bread, condiments, butchers. A beautiful hippie in a long floaty skirt played accordion music.

Markets such as these is what I associate with France. It may be idealistic, I may have my head in the sand, but even after seven months of living in France that association and love of markets remains strong.

After the market, Elle and I wound our way up through a spring green park to the Basilica on top of the hill. The last time I visited the Basilica it was freezing cold and foggy…

Need I say more?

We had been to visit Sophie’s family in Yssingeaux the day before (and to drop off my two suitcases!) and they very kindly gave me three quarters of a brioche praliné. I nibbled on my brioche while I looked over Lyon, enjoying the heat of the sun. I could vaguely make out the path of the incredible market we had just walked.

Days like that make me wonder why would I ever leave?

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Our big bob sleigh adventure

I had a taste of nomadic-on-a-shoe-string-backpack traveling last weekend.

And I liked it! All I needed was a floral hippie head scarf and I would have been set.

I will explain… Elle, Pippa and I set off from Annemasse early Saturday morning for our big bob sleigh adventure. So early in fact, that we nearly missed the train. It was 8.30a.m. Our bob sleigh was due to take place near a ski resort in Savoie called La Plagne at 18.45-and finish approximately 1 minute later.

It was a complicated journey. Our 35 hour weekend getaway felt more like a traverse of the entire European continent. From Annemasse we took a train to Annecy, then a train to Chambéry, where we missed our next train by 4 minutes and were stuck for nearly a hour and a half. Fortunately there was a wonderful Saturday morning market. We bought apples and strawberries, eating them straight from the punnet as we strolled past stalls of fresh flowers, cheese, saucisson, honey and bread.

Chambéry to Albertville. After staring directly at the Albertville spot on the map of France in my french room at Uni for a year and a half, Albertville feels strangely dear to my heart, like I have visited it many times before. I was glad to arrive here and to see that it appeared a very pleasant town. But the journey was not over yet.

We walked through Albertville in near scorching heat to find our sweet little bed and breakfast. After a brief chat with the lovely woman who ran the “gîte” we were off again, back to the train station. A la gare, we discovered that the train we had intended to take was reserved for passengers only from Brussels… A strange rule indeed but, this break in trains did allow us to have a long leisurely lunch. Creamy salmon and spinach lasagna pour moi and while I sat aching over the richness of the lasagna, delicious chocolate ice cream was being consumed next to me which I had to try…

Back on the train, a little siesta, ready for our next mode of transport. Slightly less luxurious than the TGV, we took a bus up through the winding mountain road towards La Plagne Centre. This is a custom built ski resort town and in the late afternoon spring sun, skiers wandering around with bare arms, it was lovely.

At 6.00pm we took a taxi a little way back down the mountain to the bob sleigh place. The excitement was truly beginning to take hold as we saw the track and realised what we were about to do. Thirty minutes later we had signed the release forms, donned our helmets and were strapped into a slick blue bob sleigh. Photos were taken, au revoir was said to the children standing on the side watching us and the rope was released. We built up speed at a cracking pace, soon reaching a maximum of 120km/h. For the first few seconds I could hold my head up high enough to see around the driver and anticipate our movements. I was giddy and in the in between stages of laughing and crying. But soon, I could make no noise whatsoever and my mouth was just filling with air. Nor, could I lift my head up: the intense forces took hold of my neck, pinning it to my chest. At the bottom we stepped out with slightly wobbly legs and goofy expressions on our faces, looking at each other but the words weren’t coming.

We took some more photos deciding photographic evidence would come in handy later as we were still unsure how to describe what we had just done. Once we had recovered, received our certificates and eaten about 5 chocolate biscuits to re-stock our blood sugar levels, we began our next challenge: getting back to Albertville.

We followed the track along the side of the bob sleigh to the bottom of the hill where there was a bus stop. The next bus wasn’t for another hour and a half so we contemplated calling the taxi company again or hitch hiking. Dad, you will be pleased to know we decided against the latter. The taxi’s were all booked so wait we did, munching on a very nutritious and sustaining meal of more chocolate biscuits and jus de fruits. 8.45pm, darkness was truly upon us and the bus was due to arrive any minute now. It came and it went. It didn’t stop. Momentarily stunned, all we could really do was giggle. What were we going to do now? Stuck in the mountains on the side of a road, freezing and now with no means down to the train station to catch the last train back to Albertville in an hour… Hitchhiking suddenly seemed a good option again but as we couldn’t see who was in the cars in the dark and the cars were becoming less and less frequent this wasn’t going to work.

Just below the road was a car park, the bottom of a ski slope and a bar. There appeared to be people in the bar, so leaving Elle and Pippa on the side of the road to practice their car-hailing abilities, I went to the bar to see what help I could find. As I walked through the car park, quickly trying to think in french of how to explain our current situation, comedic road trip movie scenes were playing through my head. I stepped into the bar and discovered that I had stumbled upon the bob sleigh workers end of season soirée. They all seemed to remember me, I am hoping because we were a group of girls doing a bob sleigh and not because, at times, I appear to have written on my forehead “I am not French!” The men had drunk sufficient amounts of alcohol that they were both overly helpful and extremely unhelpful, in the way only slightly drunk people can be. A fair amount of pigeon English was thrown about, lifts from drunk men were offered and then taken back when they thought their wives wouldn’t approve, and meanwhile, the bar woman just stood in confusion, wondering what was happening in her bar.

Elle and Pippa gave up trying to hail, and suddenly we were three lost English speakers in a bar, in the mountains, in France. A taxi was called and the bob sleighers found new interest in their drinks. We jumped in the taxi and quickly explained to the driver that we had a train to get. She didn’t need to be told twice; we were even early for the train. When the train arrived we were delighted to discover that it was an overnight train to Paris so, like children, we silently ran through the sleeping carriages, darting into spare rooms and taking photos.

We arrived back in Albertville near 11pm. It had been a long day but one I am not likely to forget. I will tell the tales of my nomadic back packing days to my children. And like the stories of my father’s travels where the snake’s head gets bigger or the mountain ridge gets narrower every time it is told, perhaps the bob sleigh will be faster and the men in the bar falling over drunk.

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Sometimes I have rather romantic or idealistic visions of how I think my traveling life should be. A part of me would like to be the nomad back packer, following my nose and seeing where the tides take me. I would wear a huge Lowepro backpack with maybe a small billy strapped to the back and ankle hugging mountain shoes. Instead of hair products and make up remover in my toilet bag I would have hand sanitiser and water purifying tablets.

However, I prefer to know where I am staying each night, to have a warm shower ready and carry a more orthopedically sound roller suitcase.

Though I do prefer the comfortable traveling life, that is not to say I don’t enjoy the excitement of turning up in a new city (with my booked accommodation and warm shower) and roaming un-guided. I like the challenge and I feel the potential for discovery is greater if I haven’t memorised an entire Google Maps itinerary.

I’m not sure if this makes me a good, adaptable and resilient traveler or a stupid one, but my latest weekend in Strasbourg took the more un-planned route and it was one of my best trips away yet.

We arrived in Strasbourg late Friday afternoon after a very pleasant 4 hour train ride through the western part of Switzerland. As a side note, Switzerland looks lovely and is going on must-see travel list. Our accommodation in Strasbourg was a great find: hostel prices with motel facilities as well as clean towels each day and only a 10 minute walk from the old town centre.

Friday was the warmest day we have had in a very long time and we were even able to eat dinner outside. Elle, Pippa and I went to an Italian restaurant where we met some of Elle’s friends and fellow language assistants in Strasbourg. I ordered a mushroom and sun-dried tomato risotto. It was creamy yet not overly rich and of a far more manageable portion size than the whole pizza that we so regularly end up with in Italian restaurants here.

Saturday morning we woke to a slightly overcast and cooler day but this did not deter us. We set off to find breakfast/lunch, or whatever meal we were currently due; the best holidays are always when they follow a trail of delicious meals rather than tourist sights. We walked around the old town stumbling across markets of every kind and squares of every size. The architecture was beautiful again; I am beginning to very much like the Germanic style. We found a quirky little side street pub with a french waiter wearing a kilt. For the very reasonable price of €5.90 I had une quiche lorraine avec salade et une orangina.

Cathedral and really really old restaurant...

One of many squares and courtyards

In the afternoon we bought pretzel shaped sugar doughnuts and ate them by the river as we waited to board our boat tour. The boat tour began with interesting and amusing information on the history of Strasbourg and the various events that had occurred on and by the river Ill over the centuries. We were told of the apparently humane change in torture techniques at one bridge. The House of Regret where people about to be hung could get a meal and a glass of wine on their last night was pointed out, as well as former brothels turned war-time barracks turned boarding school. We went through two locks, all the while the river over looked by blossom trees with fresh green tips. However, the dull and, at times incomprehensible, Irish accent of the narrator seemed to run out of interesting and relevant information.

We spent the rest of the afternoon wandering around; a stroll through the Cathedral; two different encounters with Charlie Chaplin street performers; a rose-sculpted Gelato here and a hot chocolate there. It was all quite lovely, the perfect way to be a tourist I feel.

A night out is very hard to come by here in Bonneville so we decided to treat ourselves in Strasbourg. We started off our night at a Mexican themed club on a boat and finished in a converted cellar fittingly called Underground Club. The best part of the night was walking home in the wee hours of the morning through the deserted streets of Strasbourg playing camera wars and generally seeing who could make the biggest fool of himself.

A brief stop for postcards and we were back on a train early Sunday afternoon. I absolutely loved Strasbourg. It has a wonderful feel about it that I can’t quite describe but I think I would be quite happy to live there… No, I don’t think the nomadic traveler is quite me.

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Eat, Drink, Ski

Ma aventure française has been full of “double take” moments. Moments when I seem to stop what I am doing, step outside of myself for a minute and wonder how I possibly came to be where I am.

These moments occur without warning and in the strangest of circumstances. Walking through the streets of Bonneville, baguette in hand, watching the old men gossip on benches in the town square, I double take. Spending New Year’s Eve in an Irish pub in Barcelona with Australians and French, I double take. Eating confit du canard on the foot-path terrace of a Parisian restaurant, I double take. Running alone through Bonneville late at night during the first snow fall with my face to the heavens, I double take. Drinking vin chaud at 9p.m in a restaurant in the Austrian alps, preparing myself to go whizzing down the slopes, I double take.

These moments often occur in a heart beat, sometimes during the most mundane of situations, but they are the moments that make this experience so special.

So when I spend an entire weekend marveling at everything I am doing, everything I see, everything I eat, I know it is going to be a weekend I remember.

Our weekend began at 4.30 on Saturday morning, eating the first of many muesli bars and walking through the dark to the ski club bus. Four hours and a coffee croissant break later we arrived in a tiny village at the base of the mountain in the Alpe d’Huez resort.

We followed a little muddy path, across a rickety bridge, skis over our shoulders, to the chair lift at the bottom of the village. On the slopes the weather was worse than we expected: rain, snow, -6 degrees and the thickest fog I have ever seen. Or failed to see: we had no idea of the enormity of Alpe d’Huez or of the stunning views that were beyond the cloud cover. We skied for most of the day, taking whatever pistes we seemed to stumble upon and hoping that no major obstacles were more than 10 metres in front.

Saturday evening we bonded with the gentlemen of the ski club as we watched the rugby: England vs. Ireland and Wales vs. France. Rugby conversation led to the All Blacks which led to our loss against France at the last World Cup. I felt like a fraud as I tried to defend them, realising I could more successfully contribute to a conversation rating their good looks rather than their game scores.

We wined and dined on raclette and côte du rhône with boiled potatoes, salad and a charcuterie platter. It was the perfect meal to end a day skiing: rustic, homely and so very french. In a wooden chalet in a remote mountain village in France scraping creamy, golden raclette off the heated round and with crème brûlée for dessert this was definitely a double take moment. Though, more than one person commented after the meal how much raclette “les anglaises” had eaten.

Before...

After....

Later that evening we played Foosball and partook in a rum tasting… When I was poured a tasting glass of ginger rum I decided to call it a night.

noix de coco, vanille, citron, gingembre, canelle, piment et banane...

Sunday morning we woke to clean, clear skies and once on the slopes I could not believe what we had been missing out on. The views were simply spectacular. Sunday was most probably my last day skiing for a very long time and it was not a wasted day. The snow was better and I went higher and faster than I have ever skied before. 3330 metres higher to be exact. And the only way down from such heights is a black run, the highest slope grade in Europe. What a way to finish my first season skiing.

From the top of Pic Blanc 3330m

We piled back on the bus Sunday evening, aching and tired and desperately wanting to be out of ski clothes. Less than an hour into our journey we stopped for une petite pause. Pulled from the back of the bus came 2 huge brown paper bags of baguettes, platters of charcuterie, whole rounds of reblochon, comte et tomme, red and white vin de savoie, genepi liqueur and, eventually, out came the rum… Food just seems to appear here in France. I feel I will not be judged for planning my daily schedule around meal times or finishing breakfast and immediately thinking what I can make for lunch. Maybe I am more of a francophile than I realise…

A crazy, unbelievable, wonderful weekend! We left Alpe d’Huez with goggle tan marks and sore stomach muscles from laughing. With only a few weekends left in this part of the world I am so glad I got to spend one of them at Alpe d’Huez.

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It is always slightly unnerving to arrive in a new place in the dark. My mind never tries to fill in the blanks or create an overall picture from the sounds, smells and vaguely street-lit sights; a blank canvas for the morning light.

And what a morning sight it was! I woke up in Innsbruck (capital of the Tirol region in Austria) last Sunday morning for the first of six days of perpetual sunshine, an alpine skyline and beautiful buildings, that, dare I say it, rival Paris.

Most ski Sundays here in Bonneville involve getting up at 6.30, throwing together a ham sandwich and eating a boring bowl of oatmeal: by Sunday my fruit supply generally consists of one bullet hard kiwifruit and a lemon. Ski days in Innsbruck are a much more leisurely affair. Wake up at 7.15, stroll to hotel restaurant for breakfast, sling your skis over your shoulder (like a pro) and hop on a bus at the perfectly reasonable hour of 9a.m.

And the breakfasts, oh, the breakfasts! Eggs, bacon, tea, toast, yoghurt, fresh tropical fruit, croissants, doughnuts, ham, cheese, pickles, juice, coffee, cereal, nuts, seeds, fresh bread and the best bircher muesli I have ever tasted. I was in breakfast heaven…

Our first day we headed to a resort called Schlick 2000. The variety of pistes was somewhat lacking, but for a first day it wasn’t too bad. The real adventure was getting home. Not wanting to risk pulled muscles and broken bones on the first day, we left the slopes early and went to find a bus stop. Instead we found a tram station and after waiting on the tram for 45 minutes we wove through the countryside of Innsbruck, at times, appearing to only service a horse stable.

hot chocolate and apfelstrudel break at Schlick!

Day two Elle and I, fueled by a fantastic breakfast, took the bus to Axamer Lizum. Day two was Monday and the day I discovered the wonders of week day skiing: empty slopes and no queues. Bliss. We found the snow better than the previous day and the views still offered something spectacular. Lunch was an interesting meal: meatloaf which was really large slices of luncheon ham, potato salad and mustard sauce… From our lunch time loungers we had a wonderful view, possibly one of my favourites of the trip, of a bright red cable car traveling above the mountains.

After two nights of Italian we were all keen to sample the local Tirolean delicacies. We found a large, rambling, medieval tavern only metres from our hotel. I felt there should have been jesters dancing in one corner and the tables adorned with pigs heads and barrels of wine. I ordered roast pork in an onion, carrot and beer sauce served with sauerkraut and a pretzel dumpling. The standout piece here was not the perfectly cooked pork, or the hearty sauce, or even the Austrian red wine, it was the pretzel dumpling. I have decided that this really is the only form in which a dumpling can be eaten.

The lovely thing about not staying in a ski resort with the mountains directly at the back door of the hotel is that you can see a different resort everyday. Our third day we headed to the nearest resort just 20 minutes out of Innsbruck called Patscherkofel. This mountain was slightly unusual as, while not very high, the summit offered more routes for walkers than pistes for skiers. In the name of research, we decided to take the tiny one-man bucket lift to the very top and ski down a walking route. This track was not to everyone’s liking as it was snow-plough all the way but, the views! “Breathtaking” is a rather stereotypical, clichéd word to describe a vista but I really am at a lost to describe it in any other way. It was like being on top of the world: layer upon layer of mountains stretching away into the distance, clear blue skies and green valleys below.

2248 metres

Across Europe at the moment is Carnival week: saying good-bye to winter and hello to spring. So coming off the mountain on Tuesday afternoon we were greeted by fairies, witches, buzzy bees, silly string, hippies and caterpillars. The revelers had taken over Innsbruck and when we returned to our Tirolean tavern again that night we were seated in a separate smaller dining  hall. The atmosphere was not amazing, nor the service particularly outstanding but my meal did not disappoint. Wild game ragout in a mushroom, celery and carrot sauce with cranberry jelly and homemade spinach spaetzle noodles. With wonderful colours and a sweet cranberry sauce in its own cracker cup, this meal was bright enough to distract me from my fellow diners asking for brown sauce, ketchup and vinegar to go with their steak frites.

Topfenstrudel mit Sahne

Loosely translated as cheesecake on the menu, this dessert may have won over the dumplings for crowning delight of this restaurant. Creamy, yet light and tangy, almost savoury with the occasional hidden raisin, it was far from the traditional cheesecake.

Day three was a long day, a day where we spent about as much time on the slopes as we did in a bus there and back. And there and back again. For those of you who know me well, no, I did not leave my skis behind, or my boots. We returned to Kuhtai resort for a bit of tobogganing by moonlight.We arrived at the resort, a thin crescent moon hovering above the mountains, and piled into jeeps.We were driven halfway up the slope to a restaurant where we quickly downed a plastic glass, or two, of vin chaud, then after a brief left-right-brake lesson off we went! I’d like to say I could feel the wind in my hair and the rushing noise of smooth wood on snow. But, always safety conscious, I was wearing my helmet and my toboggan had a tendancy to veer to the right… But 2.5km of pure adrenalin nonetheless.

The skiing during the day was well worth the hour and a quarter trip: the pistes were long, expansive and challenging. As always, the view was incredible. Even after living surrounded by mountains for 6 months it is a sight I don’t think I will ever get over.

Kuhtai Resort

Lunch was also worth mentioning. (Isn’t it always?) Two potato and herbed cream cheese rostis buried under layers of smoked salmon. I would ski everyday if this was always on offer.

Erdäpfelröstikrapfen gefüllt mit kräuterfrischkäse dazu norwegischer Räucherlachs...

Thursday we took a break from skiing to see what the city of Innsbruck had on offer. A star attraction of this beautiful city is the Golden Roof: small and unimposing but impressive nonetheless, this building houses a history museum of Innsbruck and the Tirolean region. I found the history of the Golden Roof building the most interesting, especially the photos of the street during WWII.

The Golden Roof today

The Golden Roof WWII

With a keen eye for gastronomic delights, I had noticed an indoor market hall on our first day in Innsbruck. When I think of indoor market halls I think of what les Halles in Paris would have been like in its hay day. I was hoping for complete sensory overload: bright, clashing colours of flowers and fruit; stall owners and customers bartering and jeering; the overpowering scent of strong cheeses, fresh fish and home cured meats. Vibrant, bustling and slightly jarring to the senses. The Innsbruck market did not play along with my fantasy but the stalls were beautifully presented and the produce was vast, colourful and fresh.

During the afternoon we took a sightseeing bus to the base of a hill overlooking Innsbruck. At the top of the hill is the famous Bergisel ski jump centre built in 1964 when Innsbruck hosted the Winter Olympics. The tower was completely redesigned in the early 2000s and is now much more of a tourist attraction than a concrete ramp. The ramp is dauntingly steep and how anyone could bring themselves to fly off the end I don’t know. Personally, I’d prefer to sit in the restaurant overlooking Innsbruck eating pretzels and drinking vin chaud, which is exactly what we did!

A fine Austrian lunch...

Thursday evening we thought why not try Cantonese banquet in Austria? This was Chinese like I had never had it before: Chinese take-away in a Styrofoam container does not even begin to compare. A multitude of flavours reached the palate-not just sweet and sour or soy sauce. At the end of the meal, the waitress bought out a tiny tea tray with 6 miniature tea cups full of hot liqueur. Watered down port is the closest we came to identifying this liquid.

Friday we woke up, the weariness of 4 days skiing beginning to register in our muscles. Today we were heading to the very end of the valley: Stubaier Gletscher. This was a ski resort like nothing I had ever seen before, like a shopping mall on the slopes. The resort was magnificent with kilometres upon kilometres of wide, well snow covered pistes. Our very last run for the day was about 100 metres wide with a gentle slope in the cradle between two mountains-a truly great way to end the week.

Stubaier Gletscher

Saturday morning we were up early for our very last breakfast. I was tempted to ask the chef for the secret of the bircher muesli but, instead we stole ham rolls… Innsbruck is a wonderful city where history, sport and art all come together under a stunning mountain backdrop.

Thank you Elle, Julie and Phil for taking me on your wonderful holiday.

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