The quiet thrill of cross-country skiing
Abandoning glamorous downhill resorts for gentler trails of the Bregenzerwald, Frank Partridge discovers langlauf - and a valley of cheesemakers
Saturday 04 March 2006
On the last day of a week-long course learning how to cross-country ski, I enjoyed a Road to Damascus experience in the Austrian Alps. It was one of those rare and perfect moments when everything clicks: a few seconds when my arms, sticks, legs and skis worked in total harmony with the snow. I swooshed with uncharacteristic elan through the Hittisau valley, allowing myself the luxury of looking around and enjoying the picture-postcard surroundings of Bregenzerwald, a little-known corner of Vorarlberg province, where north-west Austria runs into Germany and Switzerland.
Even in February, there was a tingle of warmth in the bright sunshine; the air was clear and exhilarating; to the left and right, the mountains sparkled, their slopes dotted with the steep, shingled roofs of cosy wooden houses. Fatally, my concentration wavered...
An instant later I was in extreme pain, being helped to my feet by my instructor, Christoph, who helpfully explained that I had just broken two of his cardinal rules. One: in compensating for my unexpected burst of speed, I had leaned backwards and lost my balance. Two: instead of automatically crossing my chest when I felt a fall coming on, I had splayed my hands out wide to break my fall, so my index finger and thumb had borne my entire weight: both would be out of action for a month.
I had decided to experiment with cross-country skiing, or langlauf, out of compassion for my 50-year-old knees, which had been objecting for some winters to the stresses and strains of downhill. It seemed a less thrilling but more sensible alternative: something I could learn in a morning, which would enable me to glide through echoing Alpine valleys and forests, far from the commercialised hoopla up in the mountains.
Bregenzerwald is an ideal venue for the sport because this rural backwater has made a virtue out of its remoteness. It lies pretty much at the heart of Europe, not far from Munich and Zürich, but it's not on the road to anywhere - and is frequently overlooked by the guidebooks. Instead of trying to compete with the glamorous resorts, and losing, it has laid out 300km of the loveliest, loneliest cross-country trails in Europe.
As things turned out, I barely scratched the surface of the pristine tramlines in the snow, except in the afternoons when I exchanged walking boots for the special shoes that slip on to the short, stubby "Nordic cruising" skis, that only began to do my bidding when it was nearly time to leave.
For me, langlauf was twice as tricky as downhill because, in striving to achieve forward motion, the skier gets no help from the force of gravity. The thrust comes from the traction of the fish-scale tracks in the centre of the ski, and the energy is transformed into yardage by applying the smooth, waxed, fore and aft sections to the snow. Thrust and slide, thrust and slide: it's almost like learning to walk again, or something like that.
Throw in the added complication of the poles, which require you to coordinate the rhythms of the upper body with your legs and feet - and life becomes even more complicated. My partner, who had never skied in her life, quickly got the hang of it by visualising herself as a four-year-old on a toy scooter. Christoph was not surprised: "Men think too much, whereas women allow their emotions to flow. The important thing is not to think about what you're doing." Eventually, though, the penny dropped, and I was on my way. Wunderbar!
Midway through the lesson, Christoph would produce from his satchel a bag of nuts and a flask of tisane - a warm, reviving infusion of herbs and honey. We swapped stories of our lives, breathed in the air - and suddenly it seemed not to matter that we had barely left the nursery area, and all those kilometres of freshly laid tramlines through Bregenzerwald's winter wonderland would remain unexplored - at least until next time.
The "wald" of Bregenzerwald is a misnomer, because much of the woodland was chopped down long ago to make way for dwellings and dairy farms. In April, the retreating snow reveals meadow and pasture, populated by 30,000 people and the same number of cows whose traditional, silage-free diet produces a range of strong-tasting, hard mountain cheeses that keep the local economy afloat, though not without a struggle.
The small farms and dairies had been exporting their wares as far as Milan and Vienna for a century and a half when Austria joined the EU in 1995, only to discover that Brussels disapproved of government subsidies to cheese-makers. The dairy farmers responded by combining their resources in to a co-op, and more recently their ranks have been swelled by butchers, bakers and inn-keepers. This has led to an imaginative construct, the Bregenzerwald Cheese Road, aimed at attracting new visitors.
Thirty different types of cheese are now produced centrally and quality-controlled, brought to maturity at a high-tech cellar in the village of Lingenau, where robotic arms monitor and turn up to 33,000 blocks at a time. Sheep and goats' cheese are also produced, and their strength depends on the length of time they spend with the robots. After three months, the cheese is mild and milky; at six months it's saltier; at nine months creamier, and after a year it develops a tang so strong it tickles the front of the tongue.
The Lingenau cellar is part-production centre, part-shop window, and visitors can sample as many cheeses as they like until they settle on the ideal age and blend. Among the contenders is a relative of Emmental made from raw milk, and a more-ish concoction known locally as Sig - and more widely as Walder chocolate - made of caramelised lactose, butter and cream. Whey, the by-product of cheese production, is used to make a health drink, soaps, moisturisers and even lipsticks.
Those afternoon excursions along the Cheese Road (in a hire car equipped with emergency wheel chains, just in case) showed how much this quiet, self-reliant community relies on its main commodity. About 50 small hotels and restaurants bear the "K" sign (Käse means cheese), indicating that local specialities are included on the menu. These often feature Käsknopfle, a fortifying pasta made with layers of cheese and fried onions. The Cheese Road also features craft shops, and 20 hill-farms welcome visitors and guests to witness the manufacturing process at first hand. One way and another, more than 60 per cent of Bregenzerwald's population contribute to the communal effort.
Cross-country skiing instructors, then, are in the minority. In May, Christoph heads to the hills to supervise parties of hikers and Nordic walkers, no doubt praying that I don't choose his blessed village of Hittisau for my langlauf refresher course this time next year.
The closest airport is Friedrichshafen in southern Germany, which is served by Ryanair (0906 270 5656; www.ryanair.com) from Stansted. To reduce the impact on the environment, you can buy an "offset" from climate care (01865 207 000; www.climatecare.org). The environmental cost of a return flight from London to Zurich, in economy class, is approximately £1.50. The money is used to fund sustainable energy and reforestation projects.
A number of international and local car hire firms operate from Friedrichshafen airport. The writer arranged his with Car Rentals (0845 225 0845; www.carrentals.co.uk). In normal conditions, driving to Hittisau takes about two hours.
Gasthof Krone, Am Platz 185, Hittisau (00 43 5513 6201; www.krone-hittisau.at). Doubles start at €76 (£54) including breakfast.
Hotel Bad Reuthe, Reuthe, Bregenzerwald (00 43 5514 22650; www.badreuthe.at). Doubles start at €130 (£92), including breakfast.
Christoph Oberhauser's company, Bewegend (00 43 5572 57284; www.bewegend.com) organises cross-country skiing lessons and courses. A single two-hour lesson costs €50 (£36); two lessons €66 (£47). The cost of hiring skis and boots for a week is around €25-€30 (£18-£21).
Bregenzerwald Tourist Office, in the village of Egg: 00 43 55 12 2365; www.bregenzerwald.at.
Bregenzerwald Cheese Road: visit www.kaesestrasse.at.
Austrian National Tourist Office: 0845 101 1818; www.austria.info/uk.
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