As the people of the UK deal with the new face of the land revealed by the exiting snow, which is muddy and grey and a recession which shows no sign of lifting, holidays have moved from being a luxury to a necessity. The logic of using these apocalyptic tales as a marketing tool overwhelms me, but Thomson and First Choice Travel are encouraging us to book a break using this strategy. The ‘credit crunch’ has become part of our psyches; changing the way we live. These days, we would prefer to sacrifice a new home appliance or car in favour of a getaway. A recent report showed that four out of five people were not changing their holiday plans because of the recession; however, package holidays are experiencing a boost as we hunt for value for money.
A blast of sun is a sensible investment if we are to avoid Seasonal Affective Disorder, or S.A.D. which affects an estimated half a million people per year between September and April. A lack of the sun’s rays can lead to a deficiency of vitamin D and serotonin which regulates sleeping patterns, appetite and even libido. It is not surprising then that Brits crave foreign climates to keep depression at bay; it is perhaps also why we seem to strip the second a ray of sunshine appears in the sky! Our pagan ancestors practised the art of balance, worshipping each element and recognising its importance, with sun and water receiving special dues as the givers of life.
As a child I remember that the family yearly calendar was well planned once I was old enough to participate; Winter’s were broken up with a skiing trip in Europe, Easter’s were spent in Florida visiting our family in America soaking up the sun and Summer’s were spent in Poland. Being included in Mama’s mid-Winter ‘spa’ trip was exciting, though it sounds more luxurious than it was. Polish sanatoriums are available to everyone at affordable prices and still seem to have far more advanced systems for wellness than many over priced Western alternatives. The concept of them is unique; the state subsidises a three week stay for each citizen every two years, where prevention of illness is the focus. Nothing can beat places like Ustron and Busko Zdroj and their most advanced treatment in rejuvenation called crio-therapy which involves standing in a freezing chamber in temperatures of -120º for 3-5 minutes, clad in a swim suit, thick gloves and wooden clogs. Some sanatoriums have their own healing waters and sources of sulphur and mineral mud called borowina in which you can bathe or be wrapped; it does however not make you invisible as Schwarzegger in Terminator! At the other end of the relaxation scale is the most extreme treatment which is used in psychiatric wards and prisons; it is needless to say, anything but pleasant. After stripping down, you cling to large metal handles at one end of a tiled room, while at the other end, the executor blasts your body with both hot and cold water, under high pressure. Funny that it’s called bicze szkockie, when no Scot has ever heard of it. These sanatoriums encapsulate the spirit of elderly Polish people; despite aching limbs, shortness of breath, artificial joints and zimmer frames, they can still be found at the post-dinner tea dances enjoying innocent romances!
I prefer to worship my health and body in a Polish sanatorium, than subject myself to the questionable luxury of Western spas where beautiful people pamper themselves with rose petals in the bath-tub, hot-stone massages and chocolate body wraps. However, I recognise that these places have their function; if our body is our temple, then we need to find a place to nurture it. When you are living life on fast-forward it can be difficult to hit the pause button. The holistic world shouts about suffering from stress: holidays help, but to really unwind we need to turn off our phones, laptops and pamper ourselves, with whatever works for us individually.
As I reach into my memory of skiing holidays, the habit of hitting the slopes in winter was born on a childhood trip to the Austrian Kitzbuhel resort. The trip was under the spiritual guidance of Ksiadz Kukla and the venue, none other than a local monastery. Needless to say, our troop of Polish mothers and children did not sample the fashionable après ski bars and nightlife spots! We began and ended each day in a small chapel with a prayer, the mornings proceeded with being forced to drink spoonfuls of Amol’with sugar and the joys of ski school absorbed and exhausted us well into the afternoon. I remember the homely atmosphere and joy of sharing the evening meal, accompanied by endless cups of tea and a sense of belonging created by Father Kukla. He was not only much loved by us, but also admired as an accomplished skier.
Since I had no intention of showing off my ‘Christmas’ hips in Barbados, (or even Tenerife) this year; I slipped my feet into mink-lined moon-boots, wrapped myself in furs, a Russian hat, Killy stirrup pants and leather-trimmed white sunglasses. Just add lip-gloss and attitude, I thought, even doing a snow-plough will look sensational, (I wish)! In response to the question: ‘Are you a good skier?’ I must admit that what I lack in technique, I make for in enthusiasm and brute force! I decided to reconnect with my passion for the Italian and Swiss Alps. What could be better than standing at the top of the Mighty Matterhorn 4.5, 000 metres above sea level, wondering how on earth I will negotiate the descent, high on adrenaline and lungfuls of pure air?! Exhilarated, dizzy and trembling with fear from the downhill run, this is where I feel most alive and truly humbled by Mother Nature.
The promise of a hot meal sustains me in the descent – forget cordon bleu and nouvelle cuisine, Italy is all about mountain basics. Italy, I salute your celebration of carbohydrates! Trattorias are packed with people feasting on pizza and pasta, twirling spaghetti around their forks and sipping prosecco absolutely guilt-free! Although no-one ever talks about diets on skiing holidays, the physical exhaustion, oxygenation of the brain and renewal of the cells always promotes a sense of health and wellbeing lasting well into the year.
As the financial storm in Britain worsens, the mass exodus of the city high flyers increases as they seek refuge in the tax-free oasis of the Swiss mountains. Let’s hope the ‘hard-done’ bankers do not cause a perennial avalanche with their insatiable appetite for glitz and cash. When we start to see stocks and shares, pounds and euros marked in the snow, we’ll know it is time to hang up our skis for good and head for the beach. As usual, money talks but do we need that noise in the silence of the snow-capped mountains?