I hate to say it in April, but winter in the Alps is well and truly over, and has been for a while. The last few weeks in Innsbruck have seen temperatures as high as 25 degrees C, the cows and horses are back in the meadows, and rock climbing, via ferratas, hiking and running are very much back on the agenda.
Despite the fact that it feels like summer, this is my first Spring in Austria and I love the feel of the city as the seasons start to change. Being a university city, it’s no surprise to see the students out in force as the weather becomes warmer, but the sight of the neverending line of people sitting along the banks on the river Inn next to the university still made me stop, get off my bike and marvel at the power of the sunshine.
The mere presence of the sun means that everyone is happy and relaxed. Stress is forgotten, people suddenly have more free time and want to be outside; having barbecues, playing frisbee, or simply socialising out in the sun.
Here’s to a long summer of enjoying the outdoors x
I wrote a few weeks ago heralding the coming of Winter, the colder days, the darkness creeping in earlier and earlier, the imminent arrival of the snow… But I feel the need now to perhaps delay that slightly and cling on to the beautiful, and highly underrated, season that is Autumn. I find myself thinking the same thing every year and once again reminding myself that Autumn is one of the most stunning times of the year. In the Alps it is all about winter and summer, the periods bridging the gaps are simply referred to as ‘Interseason’ and I believe are totally forgotten and glossed over.
I feel so strongly that we must embrace these ‘in between’ periods and not just see them as time to kill before the ‘proper’ seasons arrive. There is so much to do in the mountains right now, with the added benefit of it not being too hot, so you can often actually do far more than in the sumer. There is also no-one around. Summer peak season is so overrun with holiday-makers, yet no-one seems to come in the Autumn. It’s like a secret, our own personal paradise, deserted and beautiful. On a walk last week I found myself becoming quite the nature lover and flora photographer! Everywhere I looked I saw stunning colours in the trees, the leaves and the heather. I’ll include some of my amateur snaps, no photoshop, no colour enhancement, just the pure beauty of nature at its best.
It’s a sentence most people dread. September in England signalled the end of summer and back to school which inevitably brought with it short, dark days characterised by cold and rain. September meant Winter was coming which generally led to negative grumbling and griping about the weather and how hard done by everyone was! Winter and positivity were two words not often associated with each other! I think it’s safe to say that England doesn’t really get much of a seasonal weather pattern, it can get slightly warmer in the summer and marginally colder in the winter, but in general the weather pretty much stays the same, so although I was aware of ‘seasons’, I’d never really experienced them.
You grow up dreading winter and desperately waiting for summer, so how I ended up living in a mighty cold ski resort and itching for winter is anybody’s guess! Don’t get me wrong, I absolutely love the summer, especially in the Alps. It’s by far the most convenient season and I am genuinely sad that it’s pretty much over for this year, but the wonderful thing about living in the mountains is that you get four distinct seasons and you know exactly when it changes. This year the summer here has been pretty dismal, as I believe it has been across most of Europe, but almost as a special treat to make up for it, September has been absolutely glorious. Up until last week the sun has been shining and it has been genuinely warm; shorts and flip-flops weather still. We’ve been climbing, hiking, running and even swimming in the lakes, not what you’d expect from an often ‘dreary’ month. But this week we have clearly felt it ‘turn’. It has suddenly gotten very cold in the mornings and evenings, the trees are all turning fiery red and golden and the darkness is rolling in earlier and earlier. It’s such a snap change, Summer becomes Autumn almost overnight, not Winter, Autumn.
This is why I love it here so much. Everyone enjoys the summer but as soon as it cools down and the trees start to change, the thoughts inevitably turn to winter and the chat turns to skis, lift passes and winter plans. But before all that excitement begins we get a grace period where we get to ease out of summer mode, eek out the sunshine as much as possible, but gradually start to get our warm clothes down from the loft and think about when the snow will come.
In the vein of enjoying every last drop of that sunshine, last week I went for a wonderful long run along the Chamonix valley, starting and finishing at 2 different points which resulted in a reasonably long wait for a bus at the other end. Again sitting and waiting for a bus is a prospect that conjures up images of miserable commuters huddled under a rainy bus stop. It’s a strange place to count your blessings, but I couldn’t help but smile as I sat on a bench in the sunshine facing a spectacular mountain range bisected by a stunning glacier, and to top it off, the trees in the foreground were at that perfect autumnal point where they can’t quite decide whether they want to be red or green.
It’s the little things that make the difference… I love autumn!
This is an age old question which I’m sure countless numbers of people have asked themselves at some point in their lives. I would be tempted to say that the majority of people would automatically say ‘beach’ simply because they have spent more time on beaches and very little or no time in mountains, but also because our society tells us that beach holidays are more exotic and the obvious choice for a summer break.
Growing up in the United Kingdom it’s safe to say that we don’t get much experience of impressive mountainous regions or golden sandy beaches, our highest peak being Ben Nevis at 1344m and the hottest average summer temperatures hovering around the mid-twenties. Holidays mean ‘getting away’ and we grow up believing that hot places and beaches are the only option worth considering. This is where the rise in low cost airline flights has come from to countries such as Spain, Greece and Italy; people want a cheap escape to somewhere in the sun, and understandably so. Why would you want a holiday to a freezing snowy place if you spend the other 50 weeks of the year grinding away in a rainy, cold city? Most Brits live in landlocked counties and only see a beach once a year on an annual summer holiday; sand and sea are exciting, different and best of all, cheap. To go on a beach holiday a family needs nothing more than themselves and swimming gear, no expensive hiring of equipment or paying elevated prices for lifts or accommodation. In my experience children couldn’t care less and often have no awareness of whether they are staying in a 5* hotel or in a tiny tent on a crowded campsite so it’s easy to see why beach holidays win for a family.
Skiing holidays are viewed as only for the wealthy and privileged, a pastime which is only ever viewed in magazines or on television for the majority of people. It’s too foreign, too difficult and too expensive, why not just get a cheap flight to Spain with your togs and towel and you’re all set for a holiday? But those who have never visited the Alps or indeed any high mountain range I find are often extremely naive. What people don’t seem to realise is that in the summer months the mountains serve a very different purpose. I remember heading out to the French Alps in July aged 18 to work my first ‘summer season’ and several people asking me if I was going to be a ski instructor. I found this hard to understand because firstly even at 18 and having never stood on a pair of skis, I was aware that you probably needed qualifications and experience to be an instructor, and secondly, it was the summer, didn’t people realise that snow is generally a winter phenomenon??
However I imagine this is a completely different story for those growing up in countries with a more temperate climate or surrounded by mountain scenery such as the States or a lot of mainland Europe. Much of these continents are covered in spectacular peaks which their inhabitants grow up admiring and using in every way, and perhaps these people would have little interest in a beach. You can’t climb it, conquer it, travel down it quickly. I think my opinion of how people view mountains and beaches is very much British as this is the main pool of experience that I can draw from. With the exception of a hardy handful, Brits generally don’t grow up roaming the hills and valleys, children will generally choose building a sandcastle over donning a pair of hiking boots and trailing after dad over the Yorkshire Moors. Most people’s earliest experiences of holidays are on the beach in the sun and this is therefore imprinted in to their brain as what holidays are all about.
But I feel people are missing out on what these places of natural beauty are all about and often it takes an inspirational teacher or a school trip to broaden a young mind as to what nature has to offer. How many of us have walked away from the crowds at a beach and simply sat down to admire the tranquility of the waves, or snuggled up on a rugged coastline to watch the ferocity of a storm? In a similar vein, on those annual skiing trips how many tourists avoid the over-crowded mountain restaurants, take a packed lunch and find a peaceful spot to eat where they can really take in the beauty of a mountain landscape? I worry that ‘holidays’ have become such a desperation for over-worked and fed up people that most don’t even consider where they are going anymore. Wherever is cheap and hot, nothing else matters.
So back to my original question, having spent many a happy summer working on the south and west coasts of France, and having had the fortune to experience the East Coast of Australia in all its glory, I love the beach and the sea. I fell in love with the ‘beach’ way of life in Australia, so simple, so chilled, so beautiful. Scuba diving, snorkelling, sea kayaking, it’s all hard to beat, but for me the mountains will always win. They are a geographical phenomenon and awe-inspiring doesn’t even come close. To me they are nature’s greatest achievement and will be there reigning supreme when everything else is long gone. Life in the mountains is constantly varied and I love that there are 4 very distinct seasons, all of which are magical in their own way. Rather than being a miserable, cold, dark period that everyone hates and wishes away, winter is highly anticipated and never long enough. Every year I think I like winter more and then when summer arrives I change my mind, until the following December when my love of snow is rekindled! Being in the mountains in winter, completely alone with not a soul in sight, having pushed your skis uphill for hours, you have truly earned your turns downhill, and in the summer, having got up at first light and climbed a steep, rocky and exposed ridge, standing on the top of that peak looking down at everything below is a feeling that cannot be beaten.
Beach or mountains? I think deep down, everyone is one or the other. It’s important to experience both. I’ll always spend time on the beach and in the sea, but the mountains will always take my breath away.