As Christmases go, the one we celebrated in 2013 will remain the most memorable ever for me. You must understand right from the start that I had a very conservative and sheltered upbringing, where the biggest adventure in my young life was catching the bus from Ta’ Xbiex to Vittoriosa on my own at the age of 15.
Fast forward several decades and I found myself prepping for a much dreamed-of white Christmas of a rather extreme kind. By now, my husband and I were proud owners of a Knaus Sudwind caravan, and we had already clocked several miles touring Italy, Austria and Germany with our very young children.
I was a reluctant convert to the joys of “glamping” [glamour camping]. Initially, I couldn’t understand why anyone would choose to squeeze themselves into a box on wheels smaller than a standard kitchen and walk half a mile to communal showers. But the caravan’s charm won me over and my little doll’s house on wheels quickly became a favourite refuge. The children, of course, were instantly enamoured by the cosy space and happy children make happy family holidays.
It also proved to be a cheap way of exploring my adopted country Switzerland and its neighbours. And it was on a scorching hot August day, sitting outside the caravan in a campsite in Northern Italy, that I, the Mediterranean who constantly craves sunshine and never stops missing Malta, suggested to my English husband that we should spend Christmas in the caravan on a campsite in the snow.
Having ascertained I hadn’t taken leave of my senses, we started looking for the right campsite. Winter camping is not as crazy an idea as you might think and most campsites that have winter facilities [heated showers and storage rooms for skis and boots] are always heavily oversubscribed with years-long waiting lists.
By October, we were setting up the caravan in its seasonal home on a campsite at the foot of the famous Eiger mountain in the resort of Grindelwald, about two hours’ drive from Zurich. The caravan had to be positioned before the first snows and would stay there till the end of the season the following April. From our vantage point right at the edge of the ski piste, we spent happy hours watching skiers woosh past our caravan. Many blatantly stopped to point and wonder loudly who in their right mind would choose to camp in the snow. “Isn’t it cold in the caravan in the snow?” they always asked us. “No, we have heating, thank you. In fact, I insist on keeping it at a Maltese 25 degrees inside the van.”
Feeling positively euphoric with my newly discovered sense of adventure, I was looking forward to a real white Christmas. I was 22 when I first saw snow on a journalistic assignment in Vienna and I still remember gluing cotton wool to windows as a child to create pretend snow scenes in balmy December in Malta, while tourists sauntered around in T-shirts, wondering why the locals wore coats in 18 degrees. This time there would be no cotton wool masquerading as snow. We were going to have the real thing, by the bucket load. Guaranteed.
As we were going to spend two weeks in the caravan over Christmas and New Year, I decided to ease my workload by preparing as many dishes in advance as possible. My parents-in-law [veteran campers to an even crazier degree] had parked their little caravan next to ours and, despite the limitations of an onboard kitchen measuring no more than one metre in width, I was determined to serve up a traditional Christmas lunch with all the trimmings.
The oven on our caravan is about half the size of a conventional one, so a full turkey was out of the question. However, a turkey crown could just about fit, while the potatoes could be roasted on the barbecue outside. Simple. My local Swiss butcher obligingly prepared the turkey crown for me, at huge expense, and I pre-cooked the cranberry sauce, stuffing [in two ways], braised red cabbage, and several other special meals for the rest of our holidays.
As you can imagine, the caravan fridge is rather small and the freezer is barely the size of a shoebox, so my father-in-law dug a deep hole in the snow and buried a large polystyrene box in which all the Christmas food was stored. Mother Nature would be our natural freezer and we felt very chuffed with our ingenious plan.
But we had forgotten all about hungry foxes. On Christmas Eve, we woke up to find some four-legged ‘locals’ had sniffed out our food store, dug it up and helped themselves to a veritable feast, leaving a trail of half-chewed foil parcels. Of course, the expensive turkey crown had been whisked off without a trace, no doubt feeding an entire pack of foxes for the rest of that winter.
I was devastated. At that point, however, I had Christmas to rescue and a ski resort was not the ideal place to go looking for a supermarket and especially not on Christmas Eve. Undeterred, my mother-in-law and I hopped into the car and drove up to the village to the one and only grocery store. We elbowed our way through the throngs of tourists, stockpiling chocolate, and lunged at the last two remaining chickens. Well, it’s almost like turkey, no? Christmas was saved.
But we almost didn’t make it to see Christmas Day for Mother Nature had another treat in store for us. By early evening, the wind started picking up. Wind is very uncommon in the Alps, unlike our windy Mediterranean island. And this was no ordinary wind. This was a warm wind, dubbed a föhn [hairdryer in German], which can melt all the snow in a resort overnight. That night, the föhn storm howled to biblical proportions. As we huddled sleeplessly inside our shaking caravan, listening to the frightening crash of the wind as it blustered through the valley at 120km/h, I suddenly questioned the madness of it all. There I was, a Maltese woman [possibly the only Maltese ever in the history of the Eigernordwand Campsite in Grindewald], with my very young family in a caravan in the snow when I could easily have been in a solid bricks and mortar house on a balmy Mediterranean island. What was I thinking?
As day dawned and the wind calmed down, the heavens opened and torrential rain drowned our last remaining hope of a white Christmas. The föhn wind had decimated all the snow around us, leaving us stranded in a muddy field. Still reeling from the food burglary and shaken by the storm, there was barely any Christmas spirit left to ignite any joy that miserable morning. Still, I had a family to feed and I was determined to make it work.
I dispatched the children on to their bunk beds, cleared all the two surfaces in the van and set about recreating a full-blown Christmas meal from scratch. The two chickens were stuffed with a mixture made of locally produced alpine sausages and, despite the pouring rain, we set up the barbecue outside to roast the potatoes in it. This was a cookery challenge that would make any MasterChef contestant weak at the knees but, several patient hours later, and despite all the odds, our feast was ready.
And as we giggled somewhat drunkenly after our delicious impromptu lunch, Mother Nature seemed satisfied that we were up to the challenge of camping in the snow, and gave us our reward: the temperature dropped, rain turned to snow and we had our white Christmas after all. The next morning, we woke to find ourselves buried in glistening powder snow and we would spend the rest of Boxing Day building an ice bar outside the van from which to serve hot glühwein.
Should you be inclined to follow in our mad footsteps, you’ll be glad to know that you can generally rent a campervan with your standard Maltese driving licence and some campsites in ski resorts take tourists for short stays. If you don’t mind trudging through the snow to reach the showers and emptying your own chemical toilet, then camping in the snow is an incredible adventure. At a fraction of the cost of bricks and mortar accommodation in ski resorts, it makes ski holidays in Switzerland more affordable. Just beware of the foxes.