Cutting curves into the snow of an Alpine slope is almost wired into the DNA of many Germans. Regions of the country as far north as Hamburg give their children a special winter holiday to allow them to go skiing, meaning by the time they reach adulthood getting around with slats strapped to their feet seems to come more naturally than walking.
German families often choose to hit the resorts of Austria and Switzerland where good snow conditions are guaranteed. But their own Alps still have something to offer and are ideal for a day or weekend trip.
Take Lenggries for example. It is a little over an hour from Munich, meaning early risers in the Bavarian capital can jump on the 6am train and catch the first lift up the mountain.
The resort offers a fairly impressive 34 kilometres of slopes that provide everything from basic green slopes at the foot of Brauneck mountain all the way up to hair-raising black runs (black runs are the hardest grade of ski piste) that have been used for world cup speed racing.
I set off from Munich for the slopes of the Brauneck in February two years ago not knowing quite what to expect. I’d cut my teeth on the icy, wind-swept slopes of the Scottish Cairngorms, so there was little weather-wise that could intimidate me. But I’d also been spoiled by skiing in the late season in the glacial Silvretta region on the border between Austria and Switzerland. For me Alpine skiing has always meant huge snowy peaks rising up to big blue skies.
The early morning train from Munich to Lenggries was packed to bursting, as walkers joined skiers and snowboarders to make the most of a day of cool winter sun. We were grateful that we had hired skis at the resort and weren’t forced to squeeze into the standing-room only carriage with all our gear.
By the time we reached our destination we were 680 metres above sea level and disembarked from the train to find a good base of snow before we had even hit the hills.
From the station, a shuttle bus whisked us off to the base of the mountain. Once we'd picked up our gear from the hire shop, it was a simple case of buying day passes and jumping into a cable car to the top of the mountain.
One ought to be prepared for unreliable snow cover in the German Alps – the peak of Brauneck is just 1,550 metres above sea level and thus lies lower than even the base station for iconic Alpine resorts such as Val d’Isere or St. Moritz.
But that doesn’t mean that the conditions are necessarily worse. It regularly happens that the north side of the Alps get a huge dump of snow early in the season, while the south and west are left bare.
A cable car on the Brauneck. Photo: DPA
On my day of skiing in Lenggries I was lucky: the whole resort was covered in fresh snow. (Of course, the luxury for those who live in Munich is that they can make a spontaneous decision based on snow conditions.)
The skiing wasn’t the most spectacular I have ever experienced. But there were some fun descents through forests, while the high red runs on the Latschenkopf at the far eastern end of the resort offered crisp snow and panoramic views.
For me though, what stood out about Lenggries was everything that went on around the skiing. Many of us who are mad about this winter sport take the rough with the smooth: famous pistes often also mean an aggressive atmosphere in packed lift queues and a general lack of etiquette on the slopes. Meanwhile poor quality, overpriced food is a price we pay for gliding through fresh snow.
Lenggries was a reminder though that things don’t have to be that way. It markets itself as a small family resort with a friendly atmosphere and my experience suggested this was more than just empty words. Perhaps this had something to do with the fact that the queues were delightfully short. But the high number of children on the slopes also meant that more experienced skiers picked their way down with more care.
The real delight though was the mountain restaurants. These are mostly to be found in Alms, traditional farmer's huts situated up the mountains for the summer months when cows graze in the mountains. In being repurposed into restaurants the Alms on Brauneck have lost none of their charm. Tiled-ovens spread warmth through the wood panelled rooms, providing instant relief to chilly toes and fingers. Meanwhile Knödel soups and goulash are staples on menus delightfully free of chips and pies. These places are a million miles away from the tacky apres-ski culture of some of the Alps’ more touristy resorts.
After filling my belly with goulash, I ended the day with a long descent of the Weltcupabfahrt, a break-neck black run that is regularly used for women’s competitive racing. Conditions on the 800 metre descent were occasionally icy, but the four kilometres slope certainly put paid to my own belief that the German Alps were too small to provide proper descents.
With an hour to waste before the train departed I wandered around town – also something that was well worth one's while. In contrast to many resorts, Lenggries is a real town that is lived in all year round. There are no ugly resort hotels scarring the landscape, just traditional Bavarian farm houses.
This is skiing for those of us who like a little Gemütlichkeit (cosiness) in their lives. Small and humble, it’s not spectacular but it seem perfectly happy leaving this accolade to others.