My children were thirteen and ten when I decided that our next December getaway would be spent in Austria, the land of white Christmases and childhood dreams. I suspect that my family thought I had gone a little crazy when I announced that we would be flying in a steel tube to the other side of the world to celebrate Christmas in the freezing cold. No lazy summer days this year.
This trip came about from a visit to Austria two years prior in the European springtime. I got so caught up in imagining this gorgeous little Austrian village at the foot of the Alps as the perfect destination for a family white Christmas that we just had to go. Here I was again conjuring up these perfect Christmas scenarios and how magical it was going to be. I didn’t think about the logistics of it all, I just loudly announced that we were going!
When we arrived it wasn’t snowing. Not even a bit. No white stuff for us. All the locals were telling us how unseasonal it was for there to be no snow before Christmas. Great, I have hauled my children across the globe to celebrate a white Christmas and there is not one snowflake to be seen. Well, no matter we were going to make the best of it and soak in the festive atmosphere.
Villach is situated in the state (or land) Carinthia, it is an extremely attractive town with an enormous Hauptplatz (meaning town square) and is lined with pastel coloured town houses, cobblestone streets, sweet little arcades full of delightful little shops, the whole area has this medieval atmosphere that makes you feel like you have been transported back three hundred years. It is like time has stood still. The Hauptplatz is filled with beautiful and dazzling Christmas lights strung between the individual buildings that line the largely pedestrianised area. At the very top of the square is a purpose built ice skating rink which is free for everyone, and at this time of the year it has the most beautiful canopy of fairy lights that shimmer like a thousand crystals, how utterly gorgeous.
I had downloaded an app to tell me the weather forecast at any given time in Villach. I had become obsessed with the whole snow thing. I desperately wanted the children to experience it at least once. I was very well aware that this could be the last time that we would all be travelling at Christmas time together and given my youngest daughters dislike for aeroplane travel there was a real possibility we would not make a December pilgrimage to the northern hemisphere again.
We were somewhat of an orphan group this year with no family to spend the evening with, so it was decided that we would spend the evening with the nuns. Just outside Villach is the most spectacular convent I think I have ever seen. The Wernberg Convent is in part a Renaissance castle dating back to the early thirteenth century that overlooks the River Drau and is used by the Mariannhiller Missionary sisters of the precious blood. The sisters are an international community who work all over the world improving the circumstances of women and children in countries such as Papua New Guinea and Africa. I couldn’t think of a more worthy and admirable community and I was very happy to be spending Christmas Eve with them.
The convent is fully self-sufficient, they grow their own vegetables, fruit, herbs, breed cattle and chickens and even have their own bee hives all within the estate. It is quite magical. The food in their restaurant comes straight from the surrounding gardens and paddocks and is home cooked and I am here to tell you that it was delicious. The restaurant is the most charming of the buildings set back from the quadrangle with its curved ceilings and ornate plasterwork. A huge Christmas tree had been set up at the entrance with simple decorations and fairy lights, it was understated but lovely.
We weren’t the only people who thought that Christmas with the nuns would be an excellent idea; there were at least another twenty people in the small, but cosy dinner space. This was when we were introduced to Sister Monica, and what an amazingly beautiful person she is. She was our chaperon of sorts for the evening; she told us all about the convent and its charity work, the estate, education programmes and the recent addition of a guesthouse. She was assigned to us mainly because she was one of the only nuns that spoke English.
It really was a marvellous evening, not only did we have a very tasty dinner and excellent wine from their vineyard, we sang songs and attended an early church service (we didn’t understand a thing, it was all in German) and shared Christmas magic. When it was time to leave we called a local taxi service but they never arrived. It was getting late by this stage and the nuns were preparing for midnight mass. Sister Monica insisted that she drive us back to town and given we had no other option we accepted. No more than a few minutes later she had pulled up (or should I say screeched up) to the front of the restaurant in a Volvo Estate car.
No sooner had we closed the doors she took off at a rate of knots, leaving dust billowing up behind us. I hadn’t even put my seatbelt on. I think Sister Monica was in fact masquerading as a nun; she was actually a Formula 1 driver! She took those hairpins and bends in the road like a professional; she hardly looked at the road and continued to talk to us with her head swivelled in our direction for most of the trip. I am amazed that we got back in one piece; she definitely had God on her side.
God must have been on our side overnight because we awoke the next morning to the most beautiful sight, snow. The streets were covered in deep layers of the white stuff. The town had transformed, the trees were snow dusted, it was quiet, serene and picture perfect. Everything was now bathed in a silver hue, straight off of a postcard. The sky was clear blue, the sun bleached the view, so much so that you had to squint because of the glare.
We couldn’t wait to get out in it. We quickly dressed and put on all of our accompanying winter gear and headed outside. The minus fifteen degrees did not deter us; we gathered up the snow from the tops of cars and piles in the streets and threw snowballs at each other and enjoyed the sound of that satisfying puck when it hit its target. The bare trees now had a canopy of snow and as you swept past the boughs shook and covered you in drops of ice, sometimes down your back from the gap in your coat which would make you jump as it touched bare skin underneath your clothes.
It was an amazing Christmas morning, not like any other we had experienced, ever. We made a bee line for the ice skating rink and the children promptly put their skates on and manoeuvred themselves around the ice with the assistance of two penguins with glides underneath that you could lean on to get your balance (not real penguins of course). I was pretty sure that not many people in Australia could say that they had been ice skating on Christmas morning.
My husband and my sister headed up the mountain to ski but I was absolutely in heaven sitting here at the base of the Alps taking in the most spectacular of scenes, snow sprinkled houses, my children laughing and frolicking on the ice rink and a coffee and krapfen (Austrian style donut) in my hand. Who could ask for more?