Winter escapes: where locals go on holiday in Europe
Malin Nyberg, 35, from Stockholm I spend my winter holidays on an idyllic 17th-century farm in Östergötland province, 200km south-west of Stockholm (two hours by car, or train to Linköping and then bus). We live in the capital so the relative silence of Östergötland strikes me every time. I met my partner Daniel four years ago and the farm has been in his family for generations.
Growing up in the city, I never thought I would end up loving a place like this – but I guess you change with age. There is plenty to do in the countryside, but often I just love to walk my dog in the surrounding forest. Sometimes I go cross-country skiing straight from our house. Riding on an Icelandic horse through snow is one of the most magical things you can do during the winter (nearby Uggletorp has horses that you can ride). In summer and autumn we forage for blueberries, as well as chanterelle mushrooms, and often swim in nearby Gårasjön lake.
The city of Linköping is a 20-minute drive from the farm. Simøn’s Rosteri and Bageri is a great place for indulging in the Swedish tradition of fika with coffee and homebaked cinnamon buns, when it’s cold and dark outside. Östergötland has plenty of flea markets to browse around, such as 73:ans loppis – and there is secondhand shopping in the city of Linköping.
But I tend to just stay at the farm most of the time – I really see no reason to ever leave a place like this. Especially during winter – when the landscape glistens with snow.
StayElite Stora Hotellet Linköping (doubles from about £100 B&B) is a historic landmark built in 1852 and has views of Linköping’s medieval market square. Also central is Hotell Östergyllen (doubles from £56 B&B). Interview by Lola Akinmade Åkerström
Czech Republic: Krkonoše mountains
Dominika Tupá, 29, from Holešov, Moravia Czech people adore winter, and at weekends we disappear to the countryside to go downhill or cross-country skiing, or to just go for a snowy hike. There are many beautiful mountain regions to explore, but for me and my boyfriend, Jakub, Krkonoše is our big winter love.
Krkonoše is a vast, unspoiled national park on the Polish border 130km north-east of Prague. It is guarded by the mythical figure of Krakonoš – a grey bearded, staff-carrying old man who protects the region against poachers and magical treasure hunters. He was Tolkien’s inspiration for Gandalf in The Lord of the Rings – and the gift shops are packed with Krakonoš-based souvenirs.
We head to Černá hora (Black Mountain) ski resort. At an altitude of around 1,200 metres it has a variety of blue and red slopes – fine for me – and steeper black slopes – terrifying for me but great for Jakub! From there you can also get to the summit of 1,603-metre peak Sněžka, the Czech Republic’s highest mountain, using a cable car. The most exciting feature for us though is the 3km sledge track that snakes scarily down Sněžka. At one point it crosses the ski slope so you have to get off and tiptoe your way across without getting taken out by a snowboarder. And then you’re back, flying down again, digging your heels in so you don’t fly off the edges. This year we’re planning to do the nighttime sledge – where you have to wear a headlamp (€15 per person, skiresort.cz).
The Krkonoše region is also known for its beer. There are lots of small breweries, competing to serve the best après-ski lagers. In Vrchlabí – a good base to stay in – there’s an excellent brewery called Medvěd (Bear). Tucked inside the Hotel Pivovarská Bašta, the pub’s restaurant is a cosy, stone-clad cavern with tables dotted around the huge copper brewing tanks. There are lots of great Medvěd varieties to choose from, though our favourite is a tasty IPA called HopBi.
For a day trip away from the slopes, we often visit the town of Trutnov – and always tie it in with the Christmas markets (16-22 December). We have lunch there at Hospůdka u Rozmarýnku: a plate of hot beef goulash and a pint of Krakonoš. Afterwards we might look for tree decorations and have some trdelník – a cylindrical sugar-coated pastry. Stay After working your way through the Medvěd tasting list you can always crash in one of the hotel’s modest guest rooms (doubles from £47 B&B). Interview by Mark Pickering
Spain: Boí, Pyrenees
Olga Pratginestos, 44, from Barcelona Whenever we get the chance to get away from city life for a few days, we go to Boí – a small village in the Pyrenees, about four hours’ drive north-west of Barcelona.
My parents discovered Boí in the 1990s and loved it so much they decided to buy an apartment there. I’ve been visiting ever since, and these days I bring my own family – my husband, Oscar, and our two children.
The village is in Vall de Boí, right on the doorstep of the Aigüestortes national park, where you can go hiking amid spectacular scenery.
Vall de Boí is also famous for its nine 12th-century Romanesque churches. One is in Boí itself and another two in the neighbouring village of Taüll. The original church frescoes are unique and so valuable that some were removed and sold to museums abroad in the early 20th century. In Sant Climent, in Taüll, they have created a wonderful video projection of the frescoes onto the apse showing their evolution over the centuries.
At the top of the valley is the Boí Taüll ski resort. It’s the highest in the Pyrenees at 2,751 metres and also faces north, which means better snow for longer. Our children learned to ski there on the beginner slopes but it’s good for experienced skiers too. The best thing is that there are no crowds. We’ve started a family tradition of skiing on the morning of New Year’s Day – we have the slopes to ourselves and it is absolutely glorious – I can’t think of a better way to start the year.
Cerveseria Tribulos is a craft beer bar in Taüll that also serves fondue. It has a great view of Sant Climent church and the mountains. The kids’ favourite place is Ca la Pepa, a tiny little restaurant in Boí serving sweet and savoury crepes. Stay The best place to stay if you’re visiting with children is Apartmentos els Arenys de Boí (from about €110 a night, sleeps family of four) in the centre of the village. Interview by Annette Pacey
Germany: Black Forest
Daniela Schönle, 41, from Berlin I was born and grew up in the northern part of the Black Forest, in a small town between Karlsruhe (to the north), Freiburg (to the south) and Straßburg (to the west).
As a teenager I remember there being not much to do – especially if you didn’t have a car – but as I got older I started to enjoy the area much more, and now I go back at least twice a year. I go to see my family and also to let my kids become immersed in nature and introduce them to the stories of woods and witches.
We always visit the Mummelsee: it’s a little lake below the Hornisgrinde, at 1,164 metres the highest mountain in the area. It’s mesmerising, and even more so in winter, when everything around it is white except the lake, which appears like a black mirror. According to folklore the water is inhabited by a nix, a shape-shifting water spirit.
When I was a kid I got a voucher for skiing classes as a Christmas present but it didn’t snow that year, nor for the two years that followed. And, so, I am probably one of the few people in the area who can’t ski. But I still slide down the hills, usually on a plastic bag.
Kniebis, Ruhestein, Mehliskopf, or Hundseck are fantastic places – with ski lifts – where everyone, beginners and families included, can have fun in the snow. If you are not into the outdoors, then you should take the opportunity of a short trip to Baden-Baden, where you can visit a spa and check out the great German and American abstract expressionism at the Frieder Burda Museum. The town also has a contemporary collection at Kunsthalle Baden-Baden, and a casino, which was famously frequented by Dostoevsky. No one should really leave Baden-Baden without eating a piece of schwarzwälder kirschtorte at Café König. However, this suggestion comes with its own warning: please do not drive afterwards – the cake is soaked in schnapps. StayHotel Liberty in Offenburg (doubles from €150 B&B) is a former prison that has been converted into a boutique hotel. In Baden-Baden, good value Hotel Qeuellenhof Sofia (doubles from €60 B&B) is just 50 metres from the Friedrichsbad baths. Interview by Paul Sullivan
Tore Stenberg Falch, 58, from Oslo Winter in the old copper mining town of Røros, five hours’ drive north of Oslo, is magic. My father-in-law built our log cabin in the 1970s. I have since installed water and electricity, and it’s now like our second home. We have 20 or so neighbours and some of their cabins come with turf roofs and small pine trees on top, although there are several hundred more holiday homes in the area.
Røros is inland and around 600 metres above sea level with guaranteed snow, so skiing conditions are perfect for four or five months a year. Every Easter for the last 25 years I have taken part in an informal ski race through the beautiful highland scenery. It is for people of all ages and participants carry backpacks with sandwiches, oranges and hot chocolate in a thermos. The race finishes at a cluster of wooden huts where we have our lunches. Those who prefer downhill skiing are spoilt for choice just across the border in Sweden or at the small ski resort at Hummelfjell, 15km away.
The coldest day on record was in 1914 and saw -50C. Minus 20 or 30C is more common these days but the climate is so dry that -10C on the coast actually feels much colder.
We’ve celebrated Christmas with our extended family in the cabin a few times. It’s like being in a Christmas card with candles or torches, frosted windows and Christmas trees inside and out. The first weekend of December there’s a traditional Christmas market. We have reindeers, horse-pulled sleighs and market stalls in the streets. And Santa, of course. Røros winter fair deserves a mention, too. It’s a legendary five-day party in February that’s been going since 1854.
We get few foreign visitors, except from Sweden. Most come to see the old wooden houses in the idyllic town, which is a world heritage site due to the historically important copper mines that can still be explored. Small food producers have made their mark here recently through cured reindeer meat, fermented fish, flatbread, herbs and cheeses. We often eat local produce at Vertshuset and 1748-founded Kaffestuggu has a great menu, too. StayErzscheidergården Hotel (doubles from £85 B&B) in a 17th-century building next to iconic Røros Church is cosy, or rent a log cabin at Røros Camping (two to four people from £30-115, not all en suite). Interview by Gunnar Garfors
Nathalie Junières, 37, from Carros, Provence I couldn’t imagine being anywhere else but Strasbourg at Christmas. I was born there and studied there, then moved to Carros on the French Riviera six years ago for work, but always return for the winter holidays. It’s such a special period for Strasbourg, site of the original Chriskindelsmärik (Christmas market). I remember visiting the chalets when I was a girl and buying pastries, hot chocolate and aprons, baubles and cuddly storks – one of the symbols of Alsace. Nothing has changed.
Decorations go up at the end of November and last until the start of January. I love the streets around the cathedral square and the Petite France district but it feels as if the whole city is covered in fairy lights, snowflakes and decorations. The giant fir tree in Place Kléber is one of the biggest in Europe.
Part of the tradition of winter time in Strasbourg is to flâner (stroll) the illuminated streets, stopping for pretzels, iced gingerbread, Black Forest gateau, kouglof (Alsatian brioche) and enjoy a café kuchen (coffee and cake) with friends at Chez Suzanne. Every corner of Strasbourg has a cauldron of mulled red wine and, because it’s Alsace, there’s also mulled white wine with cinnamon, nutmeg and cloves.
There are outdoor concerts, choirs singing and musicians playing in the streets, ice-skating, storytelling and merry-go-rounds for children. Sometimes we even walk across the bridge over the Rhine into Germany (too cold to cycle) where the Jardin des Deux Rives links the two countries.
Every year, we faire des bredele – spend time making biscuits with family and friends, box them up and offer them as gifts. My favourite places to eat are the Ancienne Douane, which serves flammekueche savoury tart, and the Maison Kammerzell, a timber-framed hotel and restaurant where you can enjoy a choucroute (sausages with cabbage and other veg) or spaetzle gratin with munster cheese and oyster mushrooms.
A short train ride from Strasbourg is the town of Colmar, which also has a famous Christmas market. We love to visit Saint-Hippolyte, a village known for its wine and Kirrwiller, whose Royal Palace cabaret puts on a special Christmas show.
There are no big ski resorts near Strasbourg so people enjoy what’s going on in the city. Strasbourg sees itself very much as the Capitale de Noël and (unlike the rest of France) we even have a public holiday on 26 December. Stay The Cour du Corbeau near the cathedral dates from the 16th-century and is one of the oldest hotels in Europe (doubles from around €145) Interview by Jon Bryant
Italy: San Candido, South Tirol
Carolyn Pettenello, 54, from Venice During the February carnival Venice is invaded by tourists, so my family and I (pictured, Carolyn’s husband Andrea) flee 190km north to our secret spot: the mountain village of San Candido, it’s high up in the Dolomites. It is a brilliant ski station in the Three Peaks nature park, down-to-earth and perfect for families compared with the more glamorous Cortina, less than an hour away.
The resort is in a breathtaking landscape of jagged peaks and wooded hills, and we stay in an apartment that my in-laws bought 30 years ago. As with many Venetians they don’t drive, and chose San Candido because you can get there by train from Venice (via Verona or Bolzano), a fabulous journey through the mountains that puts you in the mood for a holiday.
Our children, Julia and Nicholas, have been on skis since the age of three, and the moment we arrive they’re off on the slopes. San Candido has a ski lift 50 metres from the town centre, up to the Baranci ski area.
Another great advantage that we find here is that the resort is comprensorio, which means that all 110km of slopes are connected by lifts, so you can spend the whole day out skiing. And the resort also has excellent cross-country and snow-shoe trails, especially one through the beautiful Val Fiscalina, coming out at a great place for lunch, the Rifugio Fondovalle.
Only 3,000 people live in San Candido, and it’s quite a traditional town with three Catholic churches, so there’s no ski instruction on Sunday morning when many people worship. The Austrian border is a mere 10km away and sometimes it really feels like being in a different country – as more people speak German or the South Tyrolean dialect than Italian. I give cooking classes back in Venice, and I’d describe the food here as much more Mittel Europa.
We love the fabulous dishes at traditional restaurants, such as Wiesthaler and Hotel Schopenhof. The cuisine can come as a culture shock; giant canederli dumplings with spinach and locally-smoked speck ham, a delicious plate of formaggio alla piastra, melted mountain cheese with grilled wild mushrooms and creamy polenta, and once I even tried a wonderfully aromatic risotto pino mugo, made with pine needles! Stay In San Candido, Residence Wachtler (from €85 a night) has apartments that are perfect for families; it’s in the town centre, near a bakery and just five minutes’ walk from the slopes. Interview by John Brunton
Slovenia: Velika Planina
Ezav Mrgole, 23, from Kamnik I learned how to ski and snowboard on Velika Planina, a mountain plateau in the Alps near my home town, Kamnik. My friends and I like to kick off our snowboarding season there. We’ll drive up, just about as high as we can, hike to the highest point of the mountain, then board back down. We head up in the morning, board until lunchtime, then take a break at one of the inns on the plateau. Our favourite is Zeleni Rob (the Green Edge).
Some of our friends have now got cottages up there; there’s a mixture of self-catering cottages for rent, as well as locals’ weekend homes. Everyone’s doors are usually open and people invite whoever is around in for a warming cup of mountain tea or schnapps. If we choose to stay over, one of the best things to do is night sledding. On Christmas Eve, there’s also a mass held in an idyllic wooden church up there, and everyone walks to it carrying torches. On a snowy Christmas Eve, it doesn’t get any more magical.
There’s an absolutely amazing view from Velika Planina: it’s down to the valley towards Ljubljana looking south and right up in the face of the Kamnik-Savinj Alps to the north. For centuries, cowherds have brought their stock up there for the summer – and because of that the area has developed its own microcosm of culture, which you’ll see in strange-looking costumes, like a sort of ancient rain cloak that herdsman wear.
There are particular foods associated with the area. Herdsman would eat mostly dairy, since that was all that was available, and so a speciality has become this hard cheese called trnič and sour milk, which tastes like sour cream.
I love the chance to combine hiking with off-piste snowboarding and I also love filming what I come across in the alpine winters – so this is the place for me. It’s dotted with these Hobbit-like houses unique to Velika Planina. You can stay there overnight and in winter it’s extra cosy. You keep warm by the fire, a lot of the houses have no electricity, so you pull up a candle, melt some snow, and go old school. StayChalet Zlatica Velika Planina (sleeps six, from about €170) has a hot tub, great views and has two ski lifts within a short walk. Also see koca.si for a range of cottages. Interview by Noah Charney
Claudia Braunstein, 54, from Salzburg I’ve been going to the area around Altaussee and Grundlsee (both about 80km east of Salzburg), in the culturally rich Salzkammergut region, since the 1970s, when I’d spend New Year’s Eve there with my parents. The Grundlsee, the largest lake in Styria state, is a mystical, almost meditative place in winter when the mist settles over the water.
Ice-skating on the Grundlsee is great fun and hiking around another nearby lake, Altausseer See, has also become a winter highlight for me. There’s plenty of opportunity for snowshoeing and cross-country skiing, too. And if you can’t do without downhill skiing, there’s a small skiing area at Loser, a 1,838-metre mountain close to Altaussee.
At Christmas there are many local traditions, such as the Glöcklerlauf (5 January 2020), which involves people in white garments wearing huge, colourful, handmade light caps and bells – a custom that’s supposed to drive away evil winter spirits. Christmas markets can be found in many of the local villages, such as Altaussee and Bad Aussee.
Picturesque Bad Ischl is only a short drive away and there you’ll find a thermal bath – along with gorgeous pastries at the traditional confectioner Zauner. Try the house speciality, the zaunerstollen, made of hazelnuts and chocolate. It was created in 1905 when confectioners Viktor Zauner and Josef Nickerl decided to make something new from leftover wafers. StaySeehotel Grundlsee (doubles from €180 B&B) has beautiful views over the lake and of the surrounding mountains. Interview by Carolina Gnigler
Poland: Bukowina Tatrzańska
Jacek Smulczyk, 53, from Łódź I have spent my winter holidays in Bukowina Tatrzańska, a small village in the Tatra mountains of southern Poland, for more than 30 years. It all started on New Year’s Eve in 1986 when I was in high school and visited for the first time with my girlfriend Magda. Now she is my wife and we still love it so much that we drive down there from Łódź (five hours) twice a year: once at Christmas and again during our daughter Zosia’s winter break from school.
When we started to come here it was a small village with beautiful nature and landscapes but not much to do. Now it has a lot of accommodation options and a huge variety of attractions, most important of which is great skiing. Options include short ski slopes for beginners such as the one at Wierch Olszański, where my daughter and I learned how to ski. Right behind this slope is my favourite bar, U Danusi, where I usually have mulled wine or rum tea and where really good regional food is served. For more advanced skiers there are slopes such as Wierch Rusiń-Ski, where Magda (who learned how to ski years before I did) and I tend to go.
If you are tired from skiing or the weather is not so good, Termy Bukovina, a huge complex of thermal pools, is a perfect place to relax.
Bukowina Tatrzańska is also close to lots of other interesting places, such as Zakopane, a town 20km away. It’s often described as Poland’s winter capital, thanks to its great ski slopes (particularly for beginners) and fine après scene. There’s also Morskie Oko (Eye of the Sea), which is the largest lake in the Tatras in the Rybi Potok (the Fish Brook) valley.
Our favourite local restaurants are Pod Stancyjom and Bury Miś, which have great local cheeses, barberry (a soup made from sauerkraut and meat: kwaśnica in Polish), sour rye soup (żurek in Polish, served with boiled eggs and white sausage) and potato pancakes with goulash. Another place we love is Bigosówka – famous for trout.
Stay We’ve been going to the Maria Stasik Guest House (from £7.95 per person per night, half board deals available) for 20 years – we are good friends with the owner and know the rest of the regulars well, spending evenings together, going on sleigh rides or sitting around bonfires. There are also modern hotels to stay in such as Harnaś Hotel (doubles from about £55 B&B). Interview by Kit Macdonald
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