Oh, Alps. You have my heart. Summer or winter; biking, swimming, hiking or skiing; family or friends; Germany, Switzerland, Austria, France or Italy; foothills or peaks – you just cannot go wrong.
This Christmas was spent high up in the Austrian Alps with my (growing!!) family. Some skied, others hiked. E and I made our happy place for the week somewhere between the pool, mini-excursions, and the thermal spa cradled in a valley of the picturesque peaks of the Ötztal.
With everyone headed in different directions throughout the day, dinnertime is the glue that brings us all back together each evening, and this year, we managed to stumble across a mealtime experience for the record books.
I can’t complain about our fixed dinners at the hotel – 5 course meals with options of all sorts; fancy appetizers, warming soups, feel-good salads, meats, fish and pasta, and decadent desserts followed by cheese. They were truly delicious. And, somehow, I managed to secure my spot as a member of the clean plate club…every night (with a bit of help from E, of course!). The cozy fondue dinner on Christmas Eve was divine as well.
Noticeably missing amid all of these wonderful meals, however, were the basics of any trip to the region – a good Wiener Schnitzel (breaded veal) and any of the amazing desserts that made those exhausting bike and hike trips of my childhood worth it. Apfelstrudel, Kaiserschmarrn, Germknödel? Prettttty please? Just a taste?
I wasn’t the only one in favor of a change of pace for a night. Whispered requests for a good schnitzel were coming from family members of all ages, and once plans were set, even those with a more sophisticated palate surrendered in exchange for the experience. A cozy little mountain hut high above the town would open its doors on Friday evening just to serve us their famous Schnitzel. How could we say no?!
Well, on to our evening. We’ll skip over the fact that only one taxi service is licensed to make the drive up the steep, narrow mountain road and that our vans arrived at the hotel more than an hour late, and instead, we’ll focus on the leisurely start to our excursion.
Our group of 14 met in the hotel lobby at 6:30pm for a round of (hotel-sponsored) drinks and pre-dinner conversation between the warm fireplace and candle-lit Christmas tree. About an hour later, we climbed into two large vans and buckled in for what was very clearly going to be a gut-wrenching trip up the hill. With chains on the tires, a very specific seating arrangement and a driver who used the word “dangerous” more times in a span of 10 minutes than I have used it in the last year, I knew this was going to be impressive.
Within minutes, we had crossed the little village of Sölden and started our ascent to the Stallwies-Alm. The snow flurries falling, fresh tire tracks and perfectly powdered evergreens made for the most beautiful welcome.
The Stallwies-Alm, a family’s mountaintop hunting abode and part-time restaurant, was ours for the evening. A Saturday in the summer would surely find this little hut filled to the brim with thirsty hikers enjoying a rest and children’s tired squeals of joy coming from the playground in the meadow. Or place it near the slopes, and all winter long you’d see heavily clothed skiers leaning back, boots unbuckled, enjoying a beer and some sunshine.
On this dark night, however, it sat peacefully and quietly under a blanket of fresh snow, beckoning us to enter with its single, low light reflecting off the white dust surrounding the front door.
Inside, the all-wood mountain hut was adorned with subtle Christmas decorations and a magnificent homemade nativity scene. We eagerly took in the ambience of the storybook Alm and excitedly chattered away about the harrowing paths we had just conquered.
Then, as any good dinner should begin, the group first toasted with a delicious appertif followed by the traditional Obstler. With high spirits and hungry stomachs, we gathered around the cozy and inviting tables to finally enjoy what may have been the most satisfying meal of the trip – salad, a wonderfully delicious Wiener Schnitzel and absolutely mouth-watering, shredded pancake perfection, the Kaiserschmarrn. And as desserts really are the most important course of the meal in this part of the world, a bonus of Apfelstrudel.
For a few hours, that room was filled with nothing but the loud chatter, roaring laughter and light-hearted debates of people I love. My family doesn’t come with a slew of traditions dating back generations, and we don’t see each other often, but the love is clear and the determination (because, let’s be honest, it requires a lot of it with a family spanning the globe!) to continue coming together is so very much appreciated.
What started as a simple request for a restaurant recommendation ultimately turned in to an evening that won’t be forgotten for years to come. Though the meal and accommodation may seem simple on the outside, the culture, the adventure and the company made this meal incredibly special.