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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.

 

Magical Lake Bled

After Prague, we were desperate for something relaxing, especially for Jonathan’s birthday week.   (With approximately 17 destinations in the past six weeks, we’ve strayed seriously far from our original plan to have a couple of European bases and tempers were fraying and moods were, well, moody.)  I’d heard positive reports on Slovenia generally, but still didn’t know whether it would fit the bill. But, we needed to move on so we booked a last minute place at Lake Bled and headed south.

We broke up the long drive with one night in Bratislava, which used to be part of Czechoslovakia but has stronger German roots.  It’s situated on the Danube, is not as grand and exciting as Prague and retains a bit more of the Communist era feel, but it’s a welcoming place with a charming old town packed with outdoor restaurants and cafes.  We also enjoyed a much welcome break from the price inflation we’ve felt in our other European destinations. The following morning we drove through Austria (best highway roadstops ever!), and crossed the border into Slovenia with a gorgeous drive over the Julian Alps down into Lake Bled.

Bled was perfect. It felt like being at summer camp in a fairytale setting. The lake is small enough to easily circumnavigate on foot (under 7 km), so the setting felt cozy, yet incredibly picturesque.  Lake Bled even comes with a miniature island, which houses a pilgrimage church. We never made it out there, but a set director could not design a more photographic scene.

For me, lake swimming typically conjures up images of murky waters hiding unknown horrors, but Lake Bled’s waters were as pristine as any we’ve experienced.The water’s temperature, although a bit too bracing to slowly wade into, was perfectly refreshing when  jumping off of the high dive at Grajsko kopališče (the Castle Bathing Area).  The lake has several designated swimming areas, but people line the banks along its entire circumference for picnics and swims and by the end of our week Zara had swum in all four quarters of the lake.

Another day we rented bikes and cycled through the surrounding countryside and its tiny hamlets in 90-degree heat.  It was Zara’s first independent bike ride on roads with cars so I was a bit of a nervous nelly each time a car barreled by at 40 mph, but I did my best to remain calm.  (I’m not sure that Zara would agree that I succeeded.)  Once we reached the lake side, we cooled down with ice cream cones, cycled to the top of the lake where Z further cooled down with another swim and then raced against (and lost) a fast-moving thunderstorm for a very soggy but exciting ride back to our place.

In keeping with the summer camp theme, we also summer tobogganed at the Straza and Z and J spent hours enjoying a ropes course at Pustolovski Park at the top of that same ski hill.

Another day we took a 20 minute stroll up to Bled Castle, which is a cozy castle with panoramic views of the verdant hills and dramatic alps.  Although the castle is worth a visit for the views alone, it also has a printing shop with a reconstructed Gutenberg printing press, so we had an interesting demo from the apprentice printer on the printing method. We had hoped to dine in the restaurant there one evening as the setting can’t be beat, but we ran out of time.

We stayed at the Apartment Gaja and were lucky enough to snag the apartment with a postcard view towards Bled Castle.  In five minutes, we could walk to the lake or almost any restaurant in town.  The Slovenians were incredibly friendly, English was widely-spoken, wifi worked well, the cuisine was not one-dimensional (we even found Indian and Mexican) and, perhaps most importantly, even in the peak of the summer tourist season, it didn’t feel unbearably crowded.  (Oh, and I almost forgot, no mozzies!) If I lived in Europe, Bled, Slovenia would be a top choice for a summer cabin and I would happily return for a longer stay.  I was eager to explore more of Slovenia but my mom was flying into Vienna in two days so Austria beckoned…and, we were on the road again, but with moods a lot sunnier.

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My two fish in their first swim in Lake Bled

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Biking in the Bled countryside

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Waterslide fun at the Castle Bathing Area

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Atop Castle Bled

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Famous Lake Bled Cream Cake

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Printing Press at the Castle

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Ropes course at Pustolovski Park.

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Geronimo!

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Summer Tobogganing at the Straza

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Last evening in Bled

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Dinnertime antics…

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High in the trees…

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