Category: Austria


Austrian roots

For as long as I can remember, I’d heard the story of my mother’s youth in Großraming, Austria (a name that summoned the same giggles from Zara as they did from me 35 years ago) and had pored over the handful of black and white photos she had from this period, where her family of six stood somberly dressed in home-made clothes against the backdrop of Großraming’s verdant and rolling hills.  It was a part of my heritage I was eager to explore and as I entered adulthood, I dreamed of one day being able to visit it with her.  And yet, life happened, years passed and we never seemed to find the time.  So when my dream of this year of travel first took root, one of my priorities became to finally take my mom to Austria.  And in the end, the long delay was worth it, as being able to share this heritage with Zara and Jonathan made the experience even more memorable.

My mom was born in Upper Austria, in the throes of WW II, to parents who had been driven out of Yugoslavia after Hitler invaded (first sent to Poland and then to Austria).  She grew up speaking Serbo-Croatian at home and learning German at school, until her family finally had the opportunity to immigrate to Los Angeles in the mid-50s.  Life for them after the war was difficult (as it was for most) — they lived in former army barracks with one bedroom shared amongst the six of them and a communal bathroom down the hall, yet my mother’s memories of that time were fond as I suspect her parents shielded her from the real worries.  I knew several of her relatives had stayed in the region and raised their families there, but contact with them over the years had been very limited.

After picking up my mom in Vienna, we drove the back roads into Großraming on an unusually hot afternoon, through rolling hills and other small villages and across the river Enns, to the family-run guesthouse in the village where we’d booked a room for two nights – Kirchenwirt Ahrer.   It was located across the street from the church were my mom had her first communion and as we sat in the hot sun enjoying a refreshing beer in the outside garden, Zara grabbed my mom’s hand and dragged her across the road so as to the the first to explore the church cemetery and locate the Gabaldo family plot.  

The next two days were filled with strolls down memory lane, getting to know family I’d never met and sketching out a complicated family tree on Jonathan’s iPad.  My mom’s cousin, Tomislav, was our primary tour guide, and his 17-year old granddaughter served the dual (and equally critical) roles of translator and companion to Zara.  We were invited into their homes for dinner, where we shared plenty of laughter even when divided by a language.

We visited the site that had housed the former army barracks they lived in (now a power plant), the hydroelectric dam where my grandfather had worked, the tiny train station from which they departed for the boat that would take them to America and the site of her old school.  And Zara formed her own ties to Großraming by getting her ears pierced at the jewelry store where Tomislav worked and buying an authentic Austrian dirndl which she insisted on wearing even in the 90 degree heat.

After Großraming, we drove 30 minutes north to Styer, where some of our other relatives lived.  Helga, my second cousin, went out of her way to show us around and we were invited to a lovely barbecue at her brother’s place one evening.

Before we visited, I’d been so excited about the sites I’d visit from my mom’s youth.  Once we were there, however, what became most meaningful was connecting with this long-lost side of my family, hearing the stories of our shared history and better understanding the tapestry of my own life.

My mom (girl on left) and her family in Grossraming, Austria

My mom (girl on left) and her family in Grossraming, Austria

Christmas, 1948, in Grossraming

Christmas, 1948, in Grossraming

Grossraming!

Grossraming!

Location of old barracks where my mom lived

Location of old barracks where my mom lived

Train station from which her family departed Austria for America

Train station from which her family departed Austria for America

Zara playing with my mom's cousin's granddaughter, Theresa, our trusted interpreter

Zara playing with my mom’s cousin’s granddaughter, Theresa, our trusted interpreter

With Mom's cousin Tomi and wife Anni
With Mom’s cousin Tomi and wife Anni

The crowd that accompanied Zara to her ear piercing.

The crowd that accompanied Zara to her ear piercing.

In front of Kirchenwirt

In front of Kirchenwirt

At the Gabaldo family plot in Grossraming cemetary.

At the Gabaldo family plot in Grossraming cemetary.

More Grossraming

More Grossraming

Barbecue at my mom's cousin's son's house in Styer

Barbecue at my mom’s cousin’s son’s house in Styer

My mom and Helga
My mom and Helga

My mom's cousin, Mira, and her daughter, Helga

My mom’s cousin, Mira, and her daughter, Helga

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Austrian Alps

Pre-hike gondola ride

Pre-hike gondola ride

You may recall that we introduced my mom to some pretty cool hikes in the Wellington region when she visited us in New Zealand.  (She, on the other hand, may argue that we converted her holiday into a marathon training session.)  In any case, we couldn’t be in such close proximity to the Alps and let her off the hook on this visit.

After Salzburg, we headed north towards Innsbruck, lunched there after a quick walk around and then wended our way up into the hills, which quickly morphed into mountains.  Our destination was Solden, a popular winter playground in the Ötztal region that is much more laid-back in the summer months when visitors swap ski poles for hiking sticks.  Plenty of last-minute accommodations were on offer so we rented a traditional ski apartment in the heart of the village.

Jonathan spent the first evening perusing the hiking maps for potential routes and the next morning we set off on foot for the gondola to take us halfway up the mountain.  The temperature was brisk (perfect hiking weather), especially after several weeks when we hadn’t experienced a daytime dip in the thermometer below 80 degrees, and the sky was mostly sunny but with a few darker clouds on the horizon.  My  mom’s only protection against the Alpine elements was a jean jacket and a straw hat, so I hoped the weather would hold.

The first hour was a gentle incline traversing the mountain, but then the serious hiking began.  Up, up and more up.  And then, the rain began.  Also, as was typically the case on our New Zealand tramps, we noticed that most people were coming down the mountain just as we were really getting started.  The skies cooperated for a short while to allow for a lovely lunch break, much needed rest break and panoramic views, but once I heard thunder in the distance, I panicked (although I argued it was mostly to get everybody to up their pace).  After a quick consultation, Jonathan and I decided to abort our initial route (which seemed too ambitious and risky) and instead head towards another gondola, from where we could better evaluate the weather conditions. The temperature had decidedly dropped, but Jonathan was staying true to his English roots by claiming not to be cold and refusing to put on his sweater (whereas I was bundled up in a scarf, a sweater and a rain jacket).

By the time we reached the gondola, we were all a bit damp and cold, but we put it to a vote and everybody was game for heading down the mountain on foot rather than taking the easy gondola ride back down to the village.  Fortunately, the sun soon decided to make another appearance and we stopped at a lovely mountain inn for some refreshments and an apple strudel and soaked up some rays.  And because this is Austria, where everything is so clean and well-organized, there was an extensive playground with an enormous tunnel slide and a two trampolines for Zara to expend some or her excess energy (which she always seems to have, even after a long hike).  

The hike down the rest of the mountain was a relentless downhill, but we had it to ourselves, passing only a cow herder and his charges (which chased my mom down a stretch of the path).  By the time we reached our apartment, Jonathan calculated we’d descended 4,000 feet and my knees felt it.

The next day we recovered with a short stroll around town and by going for a swim in the “adventure bath” at the Freizeit Arena.

One of the highlights of the visit was our drive out of Sölden as we headed towards Bolzano, Italy.  We took the Timmelsjoch, which is a high mountain pass that connects the Otzal Valley in Austria with South Tyrol in Italy.  As we climbed the pass on the Austrian side, the road was wide and well-engineered and the route had five stopping points targeted at tourists, complete with stylish architectural displays, where one could read about the history of the region and its geology, learn about the construction of the road, explore a fantastical sculpture garden and breathe in the crisp Alpine air.  We even stopped to share a last schnitzel before leaving Austria at Rasthaus Timmelsjoch on the summit.

The second we crossed the border into Italy, the situation changed dramatically.  The road narrowed, the guardrails disappeared and there were no places to pull over unless one wanted to perch one’s car on the edge of a precipice.  As my acrophobia went into overdrive, I had to have Jonathan take over the steering wheel.  Fortunately I did, because the drive soon started to feel like a rally car race as we sped down the mountain with Italians inured to driving on dangerous roads. Once we read that the road was first built by Mossolini (although it wasn’t completed until the 1960s), “to be Mossolinied” entered the Kirk Family lexicon along with “to be Amalfied”.  Let’s just say that I am not a big fan of driving in Italy.  (Much more to come on that in a later post!)

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No jumper required.

Lunchtime antics in Innsbruck--it's amazing what this kid will do.

Lunchtime antics in Innsbruck–it’s amazing what this kid will do.

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Changeable weather

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Up, up and away

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On the Timmelsjoch

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One of the stopping points on the Timmelsjoch

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And of course we expected to find a sculpture garden on an Alpine pass.

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Tour guide Zara

Tour guide Zara

Our cheesy bus

Our cheesy bus

Our real tour guide

Our real tour guide

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Leopoldskron Palace

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The Gazebo

The Gazebo

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The church where the Captain and Maria tied the knot

The church where the Captain and Maria tied the knot

Post-tour beer garden

Post-tour beer garden

Full disclosure.  I’m one of those Sound of Music freaks.  I’ve probably seen the movie at least a 100 times, was in the musical with my sister, Amanda, at the Wharf Theater in 1982 and performed it with my siblings at home more times than was fair to my parents.  My two sisters and I donned dirndls, my brother wore lederhosen and we recruited friends to fill out the rest of the Von Trapp family.  In fairness, my mom was born in Austria during WW II, so we felt an especially close tie to the story.

I’d dreamed of visiting Austria with my mother since I was in my teens, and had even made a point of going out of my way to avoid Austria on prior European trips, preferring to wait until I could do so with my mother at my side.  Once her ticket was booked, I had to add Salzburg to the itinerary.  And was there ever ANY doubt that we’d take a Sound of Music tour in Salzburg?

Interestingly, there are at least two tour companies that lay claim to the “original Sound of Music tour”.  We went with Panorama Tours and had a fantastic time, owing in very large part to our very entertaining guide.  Zara eagerly dressed in the dirndl we had recently bought her in Grossraming, my mom’s hometown.

I was just a wee bit excited and determined to snag good seats on the bus, so we arrived nearly half an hour early.  The bus was already there, as was our tour guide, but Zara took it upon herself to climb into the driver’s seat. By the time the other passengers started arriving, she was playing the part of official tour guide, requesting their tickets and asking them whether they’d like a beverage.

The actual tour was relatively light on sights, but our guide’s humorous banter regarding Sound of Music trivia, the soundtrack playing in the background, the gorgeous scenery and the general enthusiasm on the bus made it a complete blast.

So what did we see?

  • Leopoldskron Palace:  This is on the lake where the famous boating scene was filmed and served as the Captain’s backyard, although the interior scenes of the Von Trapp home were filmed elsewhere.
  • Hellbrunn Palace and the Gazebo: The gazebo where the “16 going on 17” scene was filmed was originally located at Leopoldskron Palace, but due to constant trespassing from crazed SOM fans, they moved it to this location and reconstructed it.  It is a lot smaller than I’d expected and the gazebo’s interior scenes actually were filmed on a sound stage, because the gazebo wasn’t large enough.  (In fact, you can no longer even enter the gazebo, as they locked it after an elderly woman injured herself trying to channel Liesl leaping from bench to bench.)
  • Nonnberg Abbey: A quick drive by of this still active convent where the real Maria was a novice.
  • Salzburg Lake District: Where the picnic scenes were filmed high on a hill…
  • Mondsee: Where the wedding scene was actually filmed (although it was supposed to be Nonnberg Abbey).

As our tour bus climbed the verdant hills towards Mondsee, “Edelweiss” was piped through the bus’s speakers, transporting me back 30+ years as we unabashedly sang along (and I fought back a few tears).  The only thing that could have made the experience sweeter would have been to have my siblings by my side (but then I would have required a full box of tissues).  And special thanks to my sister, Amanda, who was always our musical director —

p.s. Even Jonathan enjoyed the tour, although he did admit to one cringe-worthy moment when he saw a group of tourists burst into laughter when they saw our tour bus.

 

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