Just the two of us
Illustrations: Elena Xausa
A couple staying alone in a mountain hut sounds like the perfect romantic getaway. But what happens when there’s no escape from each other’s company? Might the holiday then turn into couple counselling?
Thirty years as a couple and 25 years of marriage gives some experience of holidaying together. Backpacking all the way to Asia; family holidays with children; road trips across Iceland, Romania and the USA; hiking and cycling holidays. Lots of memories, encounters and discoveries. What's next? A week with my wife in a self-catering mountain hut in East Tirol. The Gritzer Alm sits at an altitude of 2,005m, high above the Defereggental valley, far off the beaten track. Nobody else for miles around, a fair trek to the next restaurant, and questionable mobile reception even when the weather is fair.
Just the two of us. We haven’t been alone like this for a long time. No escape, no distractions, no excuses. “Is it going to be a kind of couple counselling?” ask our friends when we tell them about our holiday plans. “Of course not!” we laugh. But gradually we start to have misgivings. Was it really such a good idea? Would we still manage it? To be so close, so intensively? After all, we‘re no longer dewy-eyed teenagers, but parents of twenty-somethings.
At home we give each other plenty of space, spread throughout different rooms, with earphones in, making separate arrangements. Each happy to do things their own way. And now, suddenly, we are supposed to enjoy the exact opposite? What happens if the weather turns bad? Wouldn’t it be inevitable that we would get on each other’s nerves? Better pack a few more books to read! “So we won’t be forced to play Ludo or mau mau,” teases Christelle, even though she shares my aversion to board and card games.
When we arrive at the hut, I immediately notice the saying on the wall. “Pay attention to one thing: be nice to me,” is written decoratively in front of a metallic wreath. I point it out to Christelle. “I’ve already seen it,” she replies, and adds with a grin, “It means be nice to me, of course.” Inside the Gritzer Alm we find a heart-shaped mug, a heart-shaped bathmat, lots of candles and a cigarette lighter with a sloth and the slogan ‘Slow Down’ on it. Plenty of well-intentioned hints.
The first few days pass smoothly enough. Perhaps because life in a mountain hut has its own daily rhythm and a clear structure. My theory is that the fewer options there are available, the fewer things there are to argue over. The first thing to be done each morning is to light the fire, obviously. We have electricity, sure, but no electric cooker and no kettle. So, I form a little pyramid of sticks and put a firelighter underneath. Two minutes later, the oven is crackling, and I can fill the Espresso pot and warm up the milk. No better way to start the day. We are not used to our mornings being so synchronized. “At home it’s impossible to get you out of bed,” laughs Christelle, who normally gets up 1.5 hours before me and is usually out of the house before I’m fully conscious. In the hut, getting up is easier for me.
Out of the hut at last
As soon as the oven is hot, we brew a tea and cook some porridge. Porridge? It’s not easy to get fresh bread rolls at 2,000m and the loaf we brought with us has to last a week. We have fruit and vegetables – as well as a stock of beer and wine – in the pantry, a little room built into the cool rock at the back of the hut. We didn’t want to compromise on the cooking, especially as chopping vegetables can stave off boredom. That is, for one of us at least. We’ve never really enjoyed cooking together and Christelle’s take was, "Trying it out up here isn't a good idea."
We have brought enough supplies, at any rate. Cheese, quark, jam, ham and spices – all of which I portioned into daily rations. Thyme, oregano and tarragon for the spaghetti, with artichokes, caraway and nutmeg for the cheese soup. Back at home in Munich, I can barely plan meals two days in advance. Here, we came with a complete menu for the week. “Impressive,” compliments my wife, “You’ve really outdone yourself this time.”
But it’s finally time to get out of the hut, because if there is one thing that Christelle and I have always agreed on, it’s hiking. As soon as we can, for as far as we can. We don’t need to discuss it, especially not up here. Make some sandwiches, pack the rucksack, and off we go. As ever, it’s my job to plan the route. Christelle likes not having to think about that and doesn’t see why we should change our roles now. When I want to show her the map and my plan, she just responds with, “Looks great.”
We’re usually on the way before 9am. The paths lead to Steitenegge, the Gritzer lakes and Gasser Hörndle. Wherever we walk, before long we’ve left the tree line beneath us, even though it’s actually the highest tree line in the Alps, as we learn from Thorsten, the landlord of the Speikboden hut. “It’s because of the mild air that comes to us over the pass from South Tirol,” he tells us.
Currently gigantic clouds are moving over us from Italy. Our weather app forecasts thunderstorms. For every day of our holiday. Today a thunderstorm is predicted for 3pm. „When it comes, you’d better run for it,” advises Thorsten: “Lightning storms up here really are no joke.”
The dramatic weather reminds us of our very first holiday together. Thirty years ago, we were hiking with backpacks over the Pyrenees, and each evening we were hit by spectacular thunderstorms. Flashes of lightning almost every second and heavy rain drumming on the roof of our tent. “Surviving that holiday was a good basis for our relationship,” I say.
It's great that bad weather can still not put a dampener on our mood, even after so many years.
Admittedly, we now have a solid roof over our heads, which wasn’t the case in Spain in 1991. We can ride out the storm in a cosy hut, while the rain patters against the windows and hailstones collect between the old eaves.
We brew up more tea and watch the wrath of the storm. We’ve got enough books – one pile each, naturally. No need to share more than we have to. Christelle and I can decide for ourselves which book to read. As soon as the sun comes out again, we sit outside and carry on reading. Around us, steam rises from the pine trees and alpine roses, from the campanulas, the buttercups, marsh marigolds, anemones, gentian and forget-me-not.
The carpet of flowers all around is very romantic. I flick through a thick flower book that I found in the bedroom, while from her lounger Christelle watches a chamois through her binoculars. Buttercups, I read, fragrant orchid, martagon lily. “Since when do you care about flowers?” my wife wonders. “I don’t know what’s wrong with me,” I reply. “It must be the altitude.” Incidentally, I notice that Christelle still has a great bikini figure. But that’s not the point.
Day by day we find out a little more about the countryside around us. The mountain opposite, the derelict hut across the meadow, the bridge and mossy forest directly below us. The cow bells which clang all day long, not like our mobile phones, which never ring. The connection is too weak. Thank goodness for that. Undisturbed. Peaceful.
The Gritzer Alm is also suitable for families or for holidays with friends. The attractive, spacious hut can be booked at: email@example.com
After dinner on the second evening, I potter alone around the hut, taking photos. It feels good, but so does looking through the pictures together afterwards and reflecting on the day. We’re comfortable here. Our fears were unfounded: we don’t feel cooped up, we haven’t squabbled over little things, which normally can lead to rows. It’s fine being here on our own, 24/7. It’s nice, and that’s a pleasant surprise.
After the thunderstorm has passed, we sit on the rug that serves as a cushion for the thin wooden bench in front of the hut. The tidily stacked pile of firewood next to us smells of tree sap. In front of us is the full mountain panorama of Wagenstein, Hochleitenspitze and Großer Leppleskofel, of Rote Spitze and Weiße Spitze and Gamsburg. The sky is clear blue, insects are humming, the brook beneath the spring is babbling. My eye wanders to the sun-bleached balustrade, which has been patched with a new board. To the boulder carefully placed to stop the steps from sinking. Everything has been repaired – a wedge here, a new beam there.
The hut, I think to myself, is like a long-term relationship. There is always something to be worked on and improved. But actually, the scratches and cracks are what make it beautiful. When I note down my thoughts, they seem a bit kitschy. “What are you writing?“ asks Christelle. “Oh, nothing,” I say. “The peace and quiet up here does me the world of good,” says my wife. “Me too,” I respond, and fetch two beers from the fridge. “To us,” says Christelle, kissing the foam away from my mouth. “This couple counselling works for me.”