Germany's unsung pistes boast top-quality skiing and great beer, says Stuart Forster, while instructor Sarah Benton gives us a snowboarding lesson
Ski in Germany, really? Well, yes really. Although the country boasts over 300 winter sports venues, spread across the Black Forest, Harz Mountains and Bavarian Alps, few people outside Germany head here specifically for a ski holiday. Yet once you get yourself to the Zugspitze – the country’s highest peak, at 2,962m – and stay at fairytale resorts like Garmisch-Partenkirchen, you’ll wonder why you missed out for so long.
Perhaps it’s because the majority of resorts in the area are situated at a lower altitude than their counterparts in Austria or France, meaning ski-able snow is not guaranteed for as much of the season. This could present a riskier bet for holidays booked months in advance. Or perhaps it’s because the German resorts just haven’t had the publicity, or benefited from the fashionable factor, bestowed upon resorts in neighbouring nations. But when the snow falls in the Bavarian Alps – as it is this season in bucketfuls – the German pistes offer fine skiing for people of all abilities.
In Germany, the experience is about much more than the thrill of the descent; that sheer joy and exhilaration of carving down a mountain using just the edges of your skis, dipping your finger tips into freshly fallen snow on every sweeping turn. It’s about looking at the Alpine scenery from the lifts and gondolas, enjoying the beauty of a clear blue sky contrasting against a white mountainside, and the freshness and purity of pine trees, their branches laden with snow. Skiing here is about spending quality time with friends – and it’s also about drinking!
If you thought that alcohol and sport don’t mix, think again – my German friends always pause in a traditional mountain hut for a beer. To the Bavarians, beer is “flüssiges Brot” (“liquid bread”), a source of energy. But if you don’t fancy a refreshing Weizenbier (wheat beer) you can always go for an Apfelschorle (apple juice mixed with sparkling mineral water), or perhaps a Radler (beer shandy).
There’s always plenty of time for a beer après-ski, alongside the pumping “Schlager” music. Between the obligatory looking each other in the eyes and making a “prost” (toast) with every glass, the day’s skiing is analysed in a manner similar to the way that golfers talk about holes – the incident on the nine run, how we overcame the challenge of the moguls on the six. Then the popular Schlager songs soon have you swaying, and it’s common for the entire bar to sing along to the catchy, witty lyrics of the best-known ones. It’s hard not to enjoy the camaraderie of such moments.
Apart from the beer and singalongs, one of the chief attractions of the south German resorts is their easy access from Munich and Memmingen. Garmisch-Partenkirchen lies less than 90 minutes away. Lenggries and Spitzingsee can be reached in about an hour. That means you can pick and choose when and where you ski at short notice. If the weather forecast is good, you can head to the slopes. If not, then Munich has plenty of attractions. Skiing only on bright winter days allows you to get the best out of the experience, and also means you minimise the risk of accidents.
As Garmisch-Partenkirchen is preparing to host the International Ski Federation’s (FIS’s) Alpine World Ski Championships in February 2011 – and to host the final event of the FIS Alpine Ski World Cup this season – the level of skiing and pistes is high. The Kandahar course, the best black run on the Kreuzeck, will be used for the majority of events, and offers a challenge even to accomplished skiers. If you don’t fancy trying the Kandahar, you can get a feel for it while crossing to the Hausberg, which drops down into the town.
Nearby, the Zugspitze offers the country’s only glacier skiing. The pistes up on the plateau are usually open from November until May. And while the red runs are fairly easy, they can be fun for a day – especially at the start of the season after months away from the skis. The views of the countryside from the top of the mountain are truly spectacular, almost more impressive than the skiing itself.
For more challenging slopes, head over to the 1,550m-high Brauneck, close to Lenggries. The pistes here are groomed at night, and that means deep, loose powder on heavy snow days. On weekends, it can seem like all of Munich has migrated to the mountain, which is dotted with traditional wooden huts offering refreshments. But during the week the slopes are practically deserted, allowing better scope for experimentation.
Overall, you’d be hard-pressed to find lovelier resorts than the ones in the Bavarian Alps. Towns like Garmisch offer a great, traditional welcome, with fantastic restaurants and hotels nestling in every mountain corner. And the steep couloirs, tree-runs, open powder fields and views are just excellent – with fewer people to spoil it for you than in the more popular French or Italian resorts. Skiing in Germany, you say? Yes, really!
FOR MORE DETAILS ABOUT THE ZUGSPITZE AND GARMISCH-PARTENKIRCHEN, VISIT WWW.ZUGSPITZE.DE AND WWW.GAPA.DE FOR MORE ABOUT OTHER GERMAN RESORTS, VISIT WWW.OBERSTDORF.DE AND WWW.NESSELWANG.DE – LOCATIONS IN THE ALLGAU REGION, CLOSE TO FUSSEN, WHICH IS FAMED FOR THE PICTURESQUE NEUSCHWANSTEIN CASTLE. ALSO CHECK OUT WWW.LENGGRIES.DE – THE EASY RUNS OF WEGSCHEID ARE IDEAL FOR BEGINNERS AND PEOPLE WHO WANT TO BUILD THEIR CONFIDENCE. THE SKI BUS IS INCLUDED IN THE PRICE OF THE LIFT PASS, AND OFFERS A SHUTTLE SERVICE BETWEEN THE LIFTS AROUND LENGGRIES.
SNOWBOARDING OFF-PISTE WITH INSTRUCTOR SARAH BENTON
“Just lean forward and wiggle your butt a bit.”
It isn’t easy getting back on a snowboard when you’re knee-deep in powder with no real incline to use as leverage. I’m instructing a group of friends in the ways of boarding. But perhaps taking a bunch of novices – English girls, at that – off-piste on the highest mountain in Germany is a step too far, however amusing. They look like toddlers attempting their first steps – ungainly and wobbly, yet focused on the task at hand.
Snowboarding is something you never stop learning. On a recent park improver course, I was the beginner in a group with riders far better than myself, and it wasn’t easy. But the fun and sense of achievement when you finally do what you intend to – be it a front-side 360 on a 3m kicker, or linking your first turns in front of a hot instructor – is what makes boarding great. This is the reason I spend half my time on a snowy mountain in bright, baggy clothes, instead of getting a “real” job.
But now my toddlers are all standing up and ready for action. They’ve managed basic turns and the art of stopping. The night before, they’d begged me to take them offpiste, after hearing locals bragging in the bar about the waist-deep snow and jumps. Since snowboarding is all about powder, I agreed to give them a taste of the fluffy white stuff. The technique required is completely different to that needed on-piste. You have to lean back so the nose of the board doesn’t dive into the snow, turn more smoothly and keep your speed up – which is challenging if you’re scared of falling, as you are inclined to go too slowly.
The beauty of Garmisch-Partenkirchen is the ease with which you can go off-piste, although don’t go into the unknown on your first attempt, as this could prove not only frustrating but also dangerous.
The bowl area of the Zugspitze means you can find pockets of powder just off the piste. If the piste is blue (easy) that means the off-piste section is likely to be the same. But this doesn’t mean more experienced riders won’t be catered for. Natural kickers, mini-cliff drops and wide expanses for powder turns are common, so you won’t have to fork out cash on snowmobiles or helicopters to reach the best spots.
As we near the bottom and the area broadens out, the girls are finally making some proper turns and looking like real snowboarder chicks. Reaching the lift, we turn to admire the lines we have just carved in fresh snow before heading off for a rum and hot chocolate, and some winter sunbathing.
Bayerische Oberland Bahn (BOB) trains run every hour between Munich and Bayrischzell (a family friendly ski resort at Sudelfeld, with 31km of pistes); Brauneck (at Lenggries, with 34km of pistes); Tegernsee (at 740m, set by an attractive lake and good for cross-country skiing); and Schliersee (with the resorts of Taubenstein and Stümpfling, renowned for its après-ski). Combination tickets include bus transfers and the day’s ski pass. The train from Munich to the Hausbergbahn in GarmischPartenkirchen takes about 85 minutes.
Several Bavarian resorts host Rodelstrecken (sledging runs). In Garmisch, a 3.9km run drops down from the Hausberg at 1,280m. Lenggries also has a couple of decent sledge runs.
Cross-country skiing, or “Langlauf”, is a popular winter activity. It’s easier on the knees than Alpine skiing, and good for fitness. You can find routes at a number of Bavarian resorts.