A self-contained cabin in the mountains is the antitheses of bland all-inclusive resort-style accommodation: It’s a great place for families and friends who don’t mind snow shoveling, wood chopping and cooking for themselves. Vacation or no vacation?
My weather app forecasts four mild and sunny days with temperatures rising up to a nice 15 degrees Celsius during the day and cold winter’s nights. Our mountain cabin trip comes to pass! We are two families of friends, Peter and his wife Carla with their daughter Lea, my wife Christelle and our son Baptiste, plus Oskar, a close friend of our children. Children? Actually, at the age of 18 and 20, they have already made the transition between childhood and adulthood, living on their own. The more we appreciate that we will all spend three days together. Talking, laughing, and listening. And we will catch up with celebrating Christelle’s birthday. To do so, we have opted for a place that offers little distraction: a timber-panelled parlour with lots of snow around it. Our weekend retreat is located at Schwaigerberg near Westendorf. There are a few farmsteads down in the valley but we follow the forest road up, in four or five switchbacks. The road is icy, with walls of snow to the left and to the right. Up there, it’s just the seven of us, and no one else for miles. “That’s gorgeous,” says Carla, and we all take a deep breath. From Hohe Salve Mountain to Gassnerkogel Peak, the Kitzbühel Alps spread out before us, in the cloak of winter.
A Truly Warm Welcome
The previous tenants must just have left. The cabin is still warm. We put our bags in the rooms; store our groceries in the cupboards and place the beer outside in the snow. It’s time to kindle the stove. Now, the cabin is ours.
Quintessentially Tirolean Gfällhütte Cabin is a 350-year old timber structure at an elevation of 1,030 meters above sea level. Two floors constructed of hand-hewn beams and logs. Three bedrooms on the first floor, parlour, kitchen and bathroom downstairs. The stove is placed in the middle of the hut – and together with the corner bench seating this is the heart and core of the cabin. Little says “log cabin” more than a centrally located fireplace and corner bench seating. A crucifix hangs in the corner and right next to it, another painting depicting Jesus Christ. Beneath it sits my son, who has remarkable resemblance with the painted Saviour, given his long and curly hair and beard. “Well, that’s true,” says Oskar. “Although I am not quite sure if Jesus had glasses.”
It’s early afternoon. We have to decide whether we will have our coffee indoor or outside? After all, the sun is shining pleasantly… The result of the poll: 4:3 for the corner bench seating. We light up some candles, make coffee and tea and cut Carla’s Guglhupf cake into pieces. The parlour is definitely the essence of a hut. In the wintertime at least. It has to be warm and cozy, and this one is so much warmer than our flats in Munich. We have to open the window now and again as it heats up a lot. A few books are placed on a shelf: A Belgian detective story, children’s books and joke books, Myths and Legends from Tirol and “Princess Diana. Her True Story In Her Own Words.” Another shelf holds playing cards and schnapps glasses. It seems as if all huts have exactly the same inventory. It’s up to the visitors to really occupy the space.
Gfällhütte is a show-piece of a log cabin. The weathered and sun-bleached timber shimmers in shades of chocolate brown and hues of grey, with the east and south-facing façades being almost black. The logs were hewn with axes in those days long gone. When grain grew down in the valley and Gfällhütte was a mountain farm.
Christelle and Carla are strolling down the mountain to buy local cheese from a dairy woman while Pete and I are cutting root vegetables and salad. The kids are relaxing on the balcony, snuggled up in blankets, philosophizing about life. Oskar is sitting astride on a log that juts out from the deadlight. A few years earlier, I should have warned him, admonished him, and told him off. I can’t tell you how glad I am that these days are gone. The doors are heavy and very low; even I have to duck my head, although I’m only 176 cm tall. Everything here is made of timber, including even the door handles and “locks”. The stairs leading to the upper floor are that steep that I ask myself: Is this still a staircase or already a ladder? They are quite tricky to descend, especially at night. The water comes from a well in the forest and runs directly into the hut through pipes. There is a water heater and you can enjoy a hot shower. “Such kind of comfort is nice to have, especially in the wintertime,” says Lea. “I can do without running water and hot showers in the summer.”
We decide to grill dinner outdoors. We clear the grill from the snow and the boys are provided with the task of firing up. Tinder lights the kindling, and the kindling lights the firewood. Well versed in outdoor lore, they are sitting in front of the fire. They know all about the high art of how to build a campfire. “There is a pyromaniac in all of us,” says Baptiste, staring deeply into those dancing flames. Now that it’s getting dark, we recognize that we are not the only ones up here, as we figured out upon arrival. As velvety dark has swallowed the slopes, lights pop up everywhere like glowing pinheads. Farmhouses, huts like ours, homes, guesthouses. At the other side of the valley, we can see lights as snowcats ride up and down grooming runs at the ski resort.
After our delicious feast of grilled steaks and bratwurst sausages, red beet salad with sheep milk yogurt and apples we are surprised by unexpected visitors. Sepp and Klara are the owners of the cabin and our landlords. They live a few switchbacks down the mountain on a stately farmstead. Complete with a cattle herd of 40, two pigs, one goat and surrounded by many acres of forest. Sepp has brought homemade schnapps and a photo album. Pictures of family reunions, celebrations and building sites. First Holy Communion dresses and dirndl dresses, sideburns and perms. Sepp tells us that his father had bought the hut for like ATS 80,000 back in the 1960s. That equals about Euro 5.800! Incredible and unbelievable. The first tenant, Sepp continues, was a businessman from Germany’s Munich. He drove a Citroën car and built a children’s ski lift. “He was driven by an inventive spirit.” Many years later, they started to rent the cabin to vacationers on a weekly basis. Mainly to regular guests, adds Klara. Once they had a guest from Berlin who arrived with his young girl friend, she tells us: “His children wanted to surprise him and met him with the wrong woman.” Cabin tales.
Next, Sepp tells us from the hard times when he had been working up here as a dairymen at the age of 15. “Although it was really hard work, it was very peaceful up here on the Alpine pasture hut. Life was less stressful those days, compared to today,” says Sepp and pours us all another eau de vie. We talk about moon timber and hay sledges, pilgrimages and how much food Dutch tourists can eat. When we say goodbye, Sepp and Klara invite us to have coffee with them on their farm. We gladly accept the invitation—we really want to visit their farm.
I wake up in the middle of the night. There is not a single sound to be heard at all. It is as quiet as a mouse. No creaking, no snoring, nothing. The moon is almost full, shining brightly on the magical mountain scenery that looks as if it was drawn from milk, cream and curd. In the morning, I get up first. I place myself in the deckchair next to the shed. Three minutes past eight o’clock, the sun rises over the opposing mountain ridge, filling everything with its warm glow, glitter and sparkle. The sky is deep blue. It’s getting warmer by the minute. Birds are singing in the birch tree next to the cabin. Dozens of them. The icicles are dropping from the shed’s roof. That means breakfast is enjoyed outdoors this morning. With Klara’s fresh eggs and milk. Along with cheese and bacon, jam and cranberry yogurt. Bread that tastes just great, with hints of Fenugreek, caraway seeds and coriander.
In the parlour: Christelle’s knitting things, charging cables, emptied bottles and books we haven’t opened. Instead, we talk a lot. The guitar rests on the bench. Oskar plays it occasionally, singing “Wish You Were Here” and “Creep”.
Dancing in the Forest
We have to get outdoors to enjoy this bluebird day to its fullest. We strap on snowshoes and climb the hill, passing barns, huts and cabins to the sound of woodpeckers. There is snow in abundance, everywhere. Pine and spruce dusted with snow, sparkling in the sunlight… During our descent three hours later, the kids’ energy is contagious. We jump into the snow at steep places. This is not a good idea as we get wet, but it is pure fun. Hilarious. We end up standing on a hilltop, dancing to disco hits from the mobile while filming our shadows. “It is, like, completely mad,” says Baptiste.
Then it’s time to put the roast into the oven. And to make coffee. Do we still have chocolate? Christelle and Carla are taking a nap, Lea and Oskar are playing board games and I am cutting potatoes. Oskar is playing the guitar from time to time. Otherwise we listen to music from our speakers. Ry Cooder, Beastie Boys, Ethiopian Jazz. The birthday menu includes beef roast in red wine, jacket potatoes and orange salad with feta cheese. And although we do not have the slightest idea of how to cook with such an old, wood-burning stove, the result is a tender, succulent, delicious meal. And an absolutely filling one, leaving us sleepy and drowsy. We try to play cards but we are too tired. We have opened two windows as it is simply too hot inside the cabin.
The next morning we head out sledding before breakfast. Soon the snow will be too soft for sledding. Peter, Oskar and I rush down the mountain for a hundred meters. A perfect way to wake up in the morning. Slow living at high speed.
“I Would Never Want to Go to the Caribbean”
And once again we head out for a snowshoe trek. This time it’s only the four of us, Peter, Christelle, Lea and I. The others prefer to relax. “It’s that beautiful here,” says Oskar. But we four have to make the most of the sunshine and nothing keeps us inside. Plus, after these days of extreme excess, it doesn’t hurt to burn off some calories and rev up our metabolism with an enjoyable extra workout. In some places, the deep, soft, melting snowpack sinks beneath our weight. This indicates increasing avalanche danger and is a bit scaring. We decide to pick safer terrain and keep slope angles lower. We walk through the forest and stop at a hut, where we relax and bask in the sun. Talking about topics like jealousy and free love. As we get back to our cabin, we are greeted by an idyllic picture: The boys are sitting on the terrace, playing chess in their ski jackets. Listening to Jazz music from the mobile phone.
It’s time to visit our landlords Sepp and Klara. As Baptiste has sprained his ankle, we take the car and drive down the mountain with snow chains. We are welcomed with cream mush and cranberries, followed by “Kaiserschmarren”, the fluffy shredded pancake that is an icon of Austrian cuisine. Klara has prepared everything on her wood-burning stove, using produce from own farming, of course. Afterwards, we are served a glass of fine rowanberry schnapps. “I would never want to go to the Caribbean,” Klara tells us all of a sudden: “I prefer bagging a peak and I want to stay as I am.”
Sepp takes us around his farm, showing us his sawmills and tractors, his Aebi transporter and the schnapps distillery. The calves, the stable with the pregnant cow and the hay barn. “May we?,” he is asked by the kids and they jump into the hay. It smells like summer, flowers, bees and butterflies. And then it’s back to winter. “What I like most is that time spent at a cabin is time well-spent,” says Lea. “It’s about family togetherness. Enjoying each other’s company. Sitting in the parlour, playing games, chatting, having fun.” Without a busy schedule, WhatsApp chats or other distractions. It’s like taking a “small time-out,” as she puts it. We drink our last bottles of beer to that. And then it’s time to pack our bags.