Monthly Archives: October 2012

26/10/12 – Bodo’s Schloss, London’s new Austrian bar: the verdict

The logo for Bodo's Schloss is a goat wearing a bell. Not very Kensington

The logo for Bodo’s Schloss is a goat wearing a bell. Not very Kensington

Last night I went the opening night of a new bar in Kensington. Not my usual habit, but this was a place I was itching to see.

This was Bodo’s Schloss, decked out, I had read, like an Austrian ski lodge, complete with dirndl- and lederhosen-clad staff and a telecabin as a DJ booth. Now, I’m a bit of a veteran of the real thing, so I wanted to check it out.

Wood, wood, everywhere. And chamois horns and cow bells

Wood, wood, everywhere. And chamois horns and cow bells

Bodo’s Schloss (nothing to do with that king of mountain-euro-pop DJ Bobo) is in the basement of the Royal Garden Hotel, replacing a casino.

According to online reports such as this one, the people behind it – Piers Adam and Nick House – also masterminded Mahiki, Whisky Mist and the Punch Bowl, none of which I know but all of which probably sound rather cooler to most people.

Inspired! Can anyone identify this button lift?

Inspired! Can anyone identify this button lift?

At 7.15pm there was no queue at the street-level entrance to the right of the main hotel (it’s free to get in till 10pm; thereafter £15), where smiley female staff are stationed, wearing fur coats over their dirndls.

The reception area (coats £1 per item) has a knockout pine aroma, a film of a button lift in action keenitely slotted behind a window frame and a line of skis from circa 1970.

Four privileged pairs

Four privileged pairs

In we went, down a few steps (with railings made of wagon wheels), and pulled up a fur-seated stool at the bar.

Over a glass of Petra Unger Q Gruner Veltliner (£6.90 for a 175ml glass; the cheapest white is a Spanish viura/chardonnay at £4.20 a glass/£17 a bottle), we surveyed the scene.

It makes you want to yodel... but the music is more London than Lermoos

It makes you want to yodel… but the music is more London than Lermoos

A big effort has gone into decor. A waiter told us most of it comes from Austria, and I believe it.

There are sledges on the walls; light fittings made of antlers; wood, wood, everywhere; two fireplaces stacked with logs; a chamois head; giant cow bells overhanging the bar; cosy lighting; an ibex sculpture; chairs with backs in the shape of deer-heads, and rustic boards on wrought-iron wall-fittings to indicate table reservations.

Can anyone find this on a map?

Can anyone find this on a map?

The ‘Toiletten’ are marked with jaunty Austrian writing, their walls painted with names, funnily enough, of two of my favourite ski resorts, Obergurgl and Soelden.

There’s a poem on another wall that I could half-translate, and, bafflingly, another name, ‘Innsburg’. Did they mean Innsbruck?

The barmen lent us their hats

The barmen lent us their hats

Most tables were taken by couples, chattering groups of 20 to 30somethings and a few parties of older blokes trying not to stare at the blonde, plait-haired waitresses in checked dirndls or short-ish lederhosen – definitely the Austrian variety, rather than Swiss traditional dress.

Ninety per cent of the waitresses, the friendly Hungarian barman told us, are Swedish, and though he didn’t think there was anyone from the Alps front-of-house, the head chef, Franz, is Austrian.

They've even got hold of a schnapps ski

They’ve even got hold of a schnapps ski

I was impressed that, as I’ve seen in Austria, the barmen wear shirts (some with braces, some with hats, too) while the managers wear a jacket (again, decidedly Austrian, rather than Swiss).

Behind the bar are steins (litre glasses for beer), china ski boots (fill it with a rum cocktail for £100 to share between up to eight) and a decent array of schnapps.

Antler wall-lights and wrought-iron hooks. Unheimlich gut!

Antler wall-lights and wrought-iron hooks. Unheimlich gut!

‘Winter season’ cocktails (from £8.50) are named after ski runs (not all in Austria): Lauberhorn, Vallee Blanche, Hahnenkamm, Harakiri, Madloch and Corbet’s Couloir. ‘House’ cocktails include the St Bernard, which contains Mozart liqueur.

Draught beer (£2.80) is Stiegl or Schremser, Austrian brands, and Erdinger Dunkel, that tasty German ski-slope staple, comes in bottles. Plenty of Austrian wines are in the mix, towards the pricier end. And tap water, unlike in many places in Austria, is free.

Perfectly executed spinach dumplings

Perfectly executed spinach dumplings

The most extravagant drink is the ice castle (£5,000), which I gather is a limitless supply of the bar’s signature cocktail (including Ciroc vodka, passionfruit, creme de peche and Dom P), served in some sort of ice vessel – which hasn’t arrived yet, so it’s not available for the moment.

You can download a copy of the drinks menus here.

Apple strudel, no icing sugar spared

Apple strudel, no icing sugar spared

When a table became free we glanced through the food menu.

It’s so full of things you’d find up a mountain that it felt odd not to have to ‘translate’ the prices. Sauerkraut £4.50; goulasch soup £5.50; spaetzle £3; Wiener schnitzel with potato and cucumber salad £16.50 (the priciest dish). So would the proof be in the, er, dumpling?

Our empty schnapps glasses

Our empty schnapps glasses

It turned out it was. Spinach dumpling with grated cheese (£7.50), served in a very new-looking cast-iron pan, was as meltingly satisfying as the last one I had, in the Hohe Mut restaurant in Obergurgl.

Classic salad with chicken strips (£9) was good, too, and generous on the toasted pumpkin seeds. Apple strudel (£5), which I requested without custard but with ice-cream (for which they charged an extra £1), had the requisite sultanas and melt-in-the-mouth apple, though the pastry was a bit tough. Overall, nicht schlecht!

This is what happened after the schnapps

This is what happened after the schnapps

There was a bonus to come, when, at 9.30pm, everyone in the place was presented with a schnapps – a decent-sized one, and not the throat-searing, petrol-fumed variety but something quite smooth.

A bell rang, we all sipped or downed, and out of the kitchen marched a five-piece band, playing “Ein Prosit, ein Prosit, der Gemuetlichkeit” – which was brilliant until it segued into YMCA.

Translations, please! Something to do with Pisa and its tower, a fisherman and a worm, and then I am lost

Translations, please! Something to do with Pisa and its tower, a fisherman and a worm, and then I am lost

By now it was standing-room only, Bodo’s Schloss was segueing from apres-ski to nightclub, and after a second free schnapps it was time to pay the bill (£57.62 for four glasses of wine, three plates of food and a 15pc service charge) and step out into the October night for a Boris bike ride to Waterloo and a train home.

I’ll be back, and now I know it’s properly Alpine, with the trappings and trimmings, I’ll dig out one of my dirndls for the occasion.

DO you enjoy this BLOG? Then SIGN UP to RECEIVE AN EMAIL each time I post a NEW ONE by clicking on ‘SIGN ME UP’ on the top right of THIS PAGE.

Advertisements

6 Comments

Filed under Austria, Food and drink, Music, Switzerland

23/10/12 – Leukerbad, where 40 is the magic age

Olden days Leukerbad, with track to the Gemmi pass winding up behind

Olden days Leukerbad, with track to the Gemmi pass winding up behind; picture from the thermal springs trail

Few ski towns are a pleasure to visit year-round. Examples are Zermatt and Chamonix, which have busy mountaineering scenes and famous peaks and glaciers that ‘grand tourists’ like to admire. Last month I went to another place I’d spend time in any month of the year – the Swiss resort of Leukerbad.

Just inside the German-speaking part of the Valais, it sits in a cliff-fringed bowl up a side-valley between the Rhone Valley towns Sierre and Visp. Two things feature strongly in its history – avalanches and thermal baths.

The Via Ferrata on the Gemmi. No thanks!

The Via Ferrata on the Gemmi. No thanks!

Avalanches persistently wrought destruction until someone thought to rebuild the town in a less exposed spot, in 1719, and put up protection walls (1829). Now they’re not an issue.

As to the baths, they’re mentioned in documents from the 14th century, but the Romans were onto them the previous millennium. In the 16th century a local bishop raised their profile when he took to conducting political and clerical business, semi-submerged, with European statesmen.

In 1556 public baths were built for the poor, and visitors to Leukerbad over the next centuries included Goethe, Mark Twain, Picasso and the writer James Baldwin – probably the first black man to come to the valley, in the 1950s (his essay, Stranger in the Village, recalls his time there).

The contents of Leukerbad's 40-year-old thermal spring water, as shown on a board on the thermal springs trail

The contents of Leukerbad’s 40-year-old thermal spring water, as shown on a board on the thermal springs trail

Every day 3.9 million litres of thermal water flows from springs all over town, feeding 30 thermal pools – four of which are public baths; the rest mostly in hotels.

When the water comes out, it’s about the same age as me.

It works like this. Rainwater sinks into the Torrent massif (2,300-3,000m) – where the ski area is, east of town – trickling, dripping and gushing through cracks in the rock down to 500m below sea level. En route it picks up minerals.

This graph on the thermal springs trail shows guest numbers increasing as more baths are built

This graph on the thermal springs trail shows guest numbers increasing as more baths are built

After being given a roasting while flowing around underground channels, it rises back up another route, seeing daylight again at 1,400m in Leukerbad, at a steaming maximum of 51 degrees centigrade, 40 years after it started life as a shower.

Avalanches, earthquakes, floods and landslides affect the rate of flow (900 litres a minute) – as does building activity, so locals need to take care they don’t dig up a source.

When doctors prescribed all-day bathing, patients dined on floating trays. Picture from the thermal springs trail

When doctors prescribed all-day bathing, patients dined on floating trays. Picture from the thermal springs trail

So what’s the point of sitting in it? The theory is that if you soak in the water, the minerals do you good – changing the balance of ions (according to the dictionary, a ‘gaseous particle’) in the skin; soothing rheumatoid and neurological complaints; and speeding up recovery after a trauma or accident (these are chemical effects).

Swimming in it while wearing fins, or doing something called ‘wet-vest aqua jogging’ (yes, really), are among the ‘training therapies’ used in rehabilitation (these are mechanical effects).

The warmth, for reasons easy to understand, is relaxing.

Switzerland's sources

Switzerland’s sources

Another chemical effect is a diuretic one – it helps you ‘go’. But beware actually drinking the stuff – apparently a few glasses might give you the runs.

Leukerbad expanded dramatically from the 1960s to the 1990s, when the number of overnight stays rose from 200,000 a year to more than 1.1m. During this period, when doctors prescribed a spell in Leukerbad for all sorts of ills, health insurers would pick up the bill not only for the treatment, but for hotel stays, meals and even wine, often for months at a time.

When insurance companies tightened up, paying just for the treatment, the tally dipped, and today there are just over 800,000 stays each year.

You can walk above the water as well as sit in it - this is the walkway in the Dala gorge

You can walk above the water as well as sit in it – this is the walkway in the Dala gorge

Doctors used to advise patients to spend the entire day submerged, and bathers would eat their meals on floating trays. This has been revived today as a bit of a gimmick in the form of things like champagne breakfasts in the water (other innovations include cinema nights).

The baths now range from the family-friendly Burgerbad (entry SF22/18/13 for adult/youth/child), the largest themal spa complex in the Alps, to the Rehabilitation Centre, which started life as the Institute for Paraplegics in 1962.

Each of the sources has a name

Each of the sources has a name

Today’s wisdom says you’re meant to go in for 20 minutes, followed by a spell in the relaxation room to let your body absorb the minerals before another ‘dose’. You can repeat this all day if you like.

I spent a relaxing couple of hours at the Alpentherme (SF23/18), both in the baths and in the ‘Valaisan sauna village’ (see etiquette for the sauna, here).

I was just as impressed by the rest of Leukerbad, which has a year-round population of 1,630, beds for all budgets – 6,900 in apartments and 1,500 in hotels – and 50 restaurants, including several within an easy mountain walk.

The town is spread across the hillside, with beautiful as well as bland buildings, a lovely, mostly pedestrian lane at its heart, lined with ancient chalets, and a cheerful, rushing stream.

Veg on view

Veg on view

In summer and autumn you can admire lovingly tended vegetable and flower gardens at every turn, which aren’t hidden behind hedges or fences like they are at home. There are festivals from music to literature to shepherding, and I was sorry to miss a weekend of Swiss ‘Laendlermusik’ by just a few hours.

There are walking paths galore, both from town and up on the Gemmi (a pass at the top of the cliffs to the west of town), in summer and winter. During my visit I followed the excellent and gentle marked ‘thermal springs trail’ from the centre of town, the highlight of which is a metal walkway bolted to the cliffs of a spectacular gorge. Lining the route are information boards with fascinating photos, diagrams and statistics about the baths, some with roaring waterfalls nearby.

Here's what I missed by a few hours

Here’s what I missed by a few hours

If you’re there for longer, there’s limitless walking, both summer and winter, including a path from the top of the new Gemmi cable car that goes all the way to Kandersteg. And the skiing? Well, it’s smallish and south-ish facing, a bit like Anzere, where I’ve spent a lot of my skiing life. I reckon I’ll be back to check it out and rebalance those ions again.

For more, see leukerbad.ch, and read this entertaining article by James Cove of Planet Ski, about his experience of a ‘Roman-Irish bath’ in Leukerbad, including pictures of the different baths.

DO you enjoy this BLOG? Then SIGN UP to RECEIVE AN EMAIL each time I post a NEW ONE by clicking on ‘SIGN ME UP’ on the top right of THIS PAGE.

Leave a comment

Filed under Music, Switzerland

11/10/12 – When it’s OK to be naked in a ski resort

“So,” said the Swiss man sitting opposite me with no clothes on. “Sind Sie zum ersten Mal hier?” Roughly translated as “Do you come here often?”, it wasn’t a chat-up line, but polite conversation in the sauna.

A towel is a requisite; a dressing gown is optional. This trio - shapelier than the average sauna-goer - are at the Alpentherme in Leukerbad

A towel is a requisite; a dressing gown is optional. This trio – shapelier than the average sauna-goer – are at the Valaisan sauna village in the Alpentherme at Leukerbad

Last week I was in Leukerbad, in the “Valaisan sauna world” at the Alpentherme, one of the resort’s four impressive public spas, warming up before taking a dip in the thermal baths. By chance I had caught the place as it emptied out, an hour before closing, so there wasn’t a sea of stitchless bodies to navigate when finding my seat.

If there had been, I doubt if many would have been my countrymen – whether or not any of them are coming to Switzerland any more. Because although British skiers like the idea of spas, and the saunas and steam rooms they contain, they still haven’t got the hang of them and find the whole thing excruciatingly awkward.

The Aqua Dome in the Oetztal, Austria, which has a large 'Nacktzone'

The Aqua Dome in the Oetztal, Austria, which has a large ‘Nacktzone’

When I was an Inghams rep in Obergurgl, some Germans staying in the Edelweiss & Gurgl complained to reception about some of our guests, because, as they said, “Zey are vearing zeir clovthe-zzez in ze sauna”. And when a friend and I visited the Aqua Dome recently, also in the Oetztal, she took one glance inside the “Nacktzone”, where men and women of all shapes and sizes wandered at ease in the altogether, and fled. Rarely have I heard English spoken in a hotel or public spa with a strict dress code.

In Austria, even very modest b&bs have a small sauna, and sometimes a steam room. I am not into “treatments”, but I like a sauna, summer or winter, and in all Alpine countries, I’ve found that most hotel or b&b spa facilities are streets ahead of British equivalents – and that’s not even counting the genuine Alpine spa towns, such as Leukerbad and Bad Gastein, where mineral springs with healing properties were put to use centuries before today’s “wellness” bandwagon.

I think it’s a shame many Brits miss out, so by way of encouragement here is my 10-point guide to using a sauna in a ski resort – without risking being reported to the authorities by seasoned Continentals.

1. Drink plenty of water, and go to the loo.
2. Take everything off, including jewellery (as it heats up uncomfortably), and put on either a towel or a dressing gown. If you’re in a gown, take a towel too – most places provide a stack of them.
3. Have a shower.
4. If there’s a choice of saunas – hay, herbs, Finnish – work out which is the least hot and start there. Leave your dressing gown on the hook that is inevitably on the wall near the door, and go in with your towel – it’s not forbidden to wrap it around you.
5. Stake out where there is space as you open the door – it is usually transparent, so you can see how busy it is before you go in. If there’s a row of hourglass-style egg-timers on the wall then swivel one upside-down to time your session (and people will thing you’re a pro).
6. Sit down – some spots are darker or more “sheltered”, which beginners may prefer. The higher, the hotter.
7. Either sit or lie on the towel or wrap it partly around you, or fully if you cannot bear to bare. If the place is empty, I sometimes lie down; with feet towards the wall is most modest.
8. Do not stare, nor do you need to die of embarrassment or wonder where to look. It is fine to make conversation with strangers – you soon get the hang of just looking at the face.
9. You’ll soon be sweating away. If you feel unpleasantly hot, move to a lower level, or get out. For beginners, five or 10 minutes at a time is sometimes enough. Then have a cold shower and/or lie down for a while (there are usually sun-loungers), or wade into a freezing tub if there is one (in the Valaisan sauna village this was 12 degrees). I prefer this to fathoming the wall or rain showers, whose controls can be mysterious.
10. Repeat if you like, drink more tap water – and enjoy!

DO you enjoy this BLOG? Then SIGN UP to RECEIVE AN EMAIL each time I post a NEW ONE by clicking on ‘SIGN ME UP’ on the top right of THIS PAGE.

1 Comment

Filed under Link to article by Yolanda Carslaw

5/10/12 – Chop ’em straight, stack ’em strong: the art of building an Alpine wood pile

This beauty is in Ischgl, Austria

This beauty is in Ischgl, Austria

Autumn has set in, it’s not long till the clocks go back and the blackberries (such as they were) are over. It’s the time of year when I light a fire in the evening – and that means it’s also time to get my wood pile in order.

It’ll be no surprise to skiers that the countries that lead the way in the art of building a successful wood pile are the mountainous ones.

The bars were traditionally used for drying hay, but this Alagna house also has lots of scope for wood storage

The bars were traditionally used for drying hay, but this house in Alagna, Italy, also has lots of scope for wood storage

From the villages of the Valais to the towns of the Tyrol to the dwellings of the Dolomites, householders across the Alps are masters in stacking them neat, stable, dry and, in some cases, high.

I have been photographing these labours-of-logs (sorry…) during my travels in the mountains.

We sledged past this Swiss super-stack in Gimmelwald, a lovely farming village just below Muerren in the Bernese Oberland

We sledged past this Swiss super-stack in Gimmelwald, a lovely farming village just below Muerren in the Bernese Oberland

As you can see, there are regional variations. Now I’m no expert, but what I think they all have in common is the following:

1. To make a good pile, logs need to be cut to the same length.

2. Larger logs are split to similar widths.

Here's another goodie in Gimmelwald

Here’s another goodie in Gimmelwald

3. Smaller unsplit logs – almost kindling-sized – are stacked all together, sometimes in their own section of the pile.

4. A good stacking place must be found.

5. Sometimes this place will have support at one or both ends, but often it doesn’t.

Freestanding stacks in Pontresina, in the Swiss Engadine, with perfect criss-cross ends

A store in Pontresina, in the Swiss Engadine, with effective criss-cross ends

6. To build an ‘end’, some sort of criss-cross system is used, such as two logs one way, then two at 90 degrees, on top; repeat up to desired height.

7. The pile does not necessarily need to be under cover – only the top layer gets wet or snowy – and if you leave any bark facing the elements, this is minimised.

Not as neat but it does the job. A wood store in a fjord-side hamlet in Steigen, Arctic Norway

Not as neat, but it does the job. A wood store in a fjord-side hamlet in Steigen, Arctic Norway

8. But most piles are next to a building with an overhang, such as most chalets have. In fact, it looks like many houses have been designed with a wood pile in mind.

9. The logs are usually very easily accessible from the dwelling.

10. Many households have a second, messier, pile of unsplit/chopped or partly split/chopped logs, which are being seasoned.

My dad has always kept a very organised, well-seasoned wood pile, and my parents installed a wood stove long before they became fashionable – which is probably partly why I started noticing other people’s ones.

The industrial wood-burner that heats half the ski village of Anzere, in the Swiss Valais

The industrial wood-burner that heats half the ski village of Anzere, in the Swiss Valais

And the village where I’ve done most of my skiing – Anzere, in Switzerland – now has a giant log-burner heating virtually the whole village (read about it in my Telegraph article here).

I, however, have only recently got the hang of dealing with wood. Or have I? Judge for yourself by looking at the little stack at my back door in Surrey – I know it’s not up to Alpine standards.

Peaslake, Surrey. How does it rate?

Peaslake, Surrey. How does it rate?

I confess that although I did the stacking, it’s my house-mate, Alex, who has been responsible for the sourcing and splitting.

Readers who know me won’t be surprised that I also have a box of easily ignitable material so I don’t have to waste money on smelly, synthetic fire-lighters.

As well as newspaper I’ve taken to hoarding loo rolls and egg boxes.

Amazingly, this is on the Isle of Wight. Its builder, Gert Bach, who runs the excellent Hillside b&b in Ventnor, is Danish

This is on the Isle of Wight. Its builder, Gert Bach, who runs the excellent Hillside b&b in Ventnor, is Danish

My uncle and aunt get their fire roaring – and fragrant – by adding orange peel, dried in a warm oven or on top of a Rayburn or Aga. I’ve tried it, and it works.

So I’m ready for winter. Bring round your loo rolls, egg boxes and orange peel, if you like – I can use unlimited amounts.

And finally, one of my favourites - another Gimmelwalder

And finally, one of my favourites – another Gimmelwalder

Meanwhile I think I’ll just go into the woods to fetch some kindling…

DO you enjoy this BLOG? Then SIGN UP to RECEIVE AN EMAIL each time I post a NEW ONE by clicking on ‘SIGN ME UP’ on the top right of THIS PAGE.

Leave a comment

Filed under Austria, Italy, Link to article by Yolanda Carslaw, Switzerland