Posts Tagged With: austria

Five-Country Bike-and-Barge trip in Europe, August 2019

By Dom Nozzi

Tuesday, August 13 and 14. We arrive at Paris airport and high-speed train to Strasbourg at the border of France and Germany. In Strasbourg, we tour the Notre Dame Cathedral, which I find to be gray and dreary inside. Remarkably tall ceilings, and a massive Notre Dame Cathedral Strasbourg France, Aug 13, 2019 (31)amount of stained glass windows. We visit the once-daily Astronomical Clock inside the Cathedral. Enormous crowd assembles to see it. I manage to squeeze my way into an area that gives me an unobstructed view of the Clock, only to realize that by doing so, my view of a video screen is blocked by an enormous masonry pillar, which means I miss a detailed 40-minute video describing the history of the Clock. The animation itself is highly disappointing, as a mechanical crow flaps its wings a few times and a few mechanical human figures rotate a few times. After 50 minutes of waiting, that is what 3,000 people have assembled to see?

We climb the 330 steps to the top of the Cathedral spire, which offers a superb view of the terra-cotta-roofed city. We also enjoy a 90-minute boat tour on the River Ill.

We are fortunate to have an opportunity to rent and ride bikes while in Strasbourg because in 2017, Strasbourg was rated the 4th best city to bicycle in the world.

Strasbourg is a party-till-late-at-night city, which means that bedtime for many does not start until 5 am and places do not open until 9 or 10 in the morning (including Starbucks).

I would give our Bed and Breakfast in Strasbourg a negative five rating (on a scale of one to ten). No soap. No shampoo. No waste can in the bathroom. No spare keys. No closet space or fridge space (because it is jammed with his clothes and food). The water heater closet is stuffed with fire hazard clothes and towels. And because the proprietor does not provide a user name, and has chosen an impossibly long password with handwritten letters making it impossible to know if the letters are uppercase or lowercase, it is impossible to log into WiFi.

Strasbourg is mostly a city containing one prominent feature: A charming shopping street main street. Even as a one-important-street city, the city is lovely and contains an outstanding walking street full of pedestrians.

The fabulous historic main train station for Strasbourg, very sadly, is now criminally fronted by a Modernist glass blob. A disgraceful design blunder.

According to Wikipedia, Strasbourg is the official seat of the European Parliament. In 2016, the city proper had 279,284 inhabitants and both the Eurométropole de Strasbourg (Greater Strasbourg) and the Arrondissement of Strasbourg had 491,409 inhabitants. Strasbourg’s metropolitan area had a population of 785,839 in 2015 (not counting the section across the border in Germany). Strasbourg’s historic city center, the Grande Île (Grand Island), was classified a World Heritage Site by UNESCO in 1988, the first time such an honor was placed on an entire city center.

The Roman camp of Argentoratum was first mentioned in 12 BC; the city of Strasbourg which grew from it celebrated its 2,000th anniversary in 1988. The fertile area in the Upper Rhine Plain between the rivers Ill and Rhine had already been populated since the Middle Paleolithic.

Thursday and Friday, August 15 and 16. Our initial plan is to drive our Eurocar rental car to Mannheim for a visit. Fortunately, during our drive, we opt instead to visit the charming medieval village of Heidelberg.

According to Wikipedia, in the 2016 census, the population of Heidelberg was 159,914, of which roughly a quarter consisted of students.

Between 600,000 and 200,000 years ago, “Heidelberg Man” died at nearby Mauer. His jaw bone was discovered in 1907. Scientific dating determined his remains as the earliest evidence of human life in Europe. In the 5th century BC, a Celtic fortress of refuge and place of worship were built on the Heiligenberg, or “Mountain of Saints”. Both places can still be identified. In 40 AD, a fort was built and occupied by the 24th Roman cohort and the 2nd Cyrenaican cohort (CCG XXIIII and CCH II CYR). The early Byzantine/late Roman Emperor Valentinian I, in 369 AD, built new and maintained older castra (permanent camps) and a signal tower on the bank of the Neckar. They built a wooden bridge based on stone pillars across it. The camp protected the first civilian settlements that developed. The Romans remained until 260 AD, when the camp was conquered by Germanic tribes.

Heidelberg has what looks like many newer buildings that mimic historical and ornamental style. My hat is off to the city and its architects for at least making an effort to design lovable buildings rather than unlovable Modernist buildings. But lacking the patina of age, the buildings looked too new. And therefore a bit sterile. The many newer buildings is a sure sign that many historic buildings were lost during World War II.

After Strasbourg and Heidelberg, we tour Nuremberg Germany – mostly on rented bikes. A great many historic buildings have been replaced with awful mid-century Modernist buildings. Again, a sure sign of the many buildings tragically lost during World War II. The Modernism severely detracts from the former charm of the city streets.

According to Wikipedia, Nuremberg has a total population of 787,976 (2016), while the larger Nuremberg Metropolitan Region has approximately 3.5 million inhabitants. Nuremberg was the site of major Nazi rallies during WWII.

We have dinner on a town center island at the Restaurant Trodelstuben, which served me absolutely delicious, authentic German food. I opt for “pig knuckles,” which is a very fatty, buttery meat (when served boiled). I also enjoy knockwurst Barbarossa, which consists of three types of knockwurst in three different types of sauerkraut beds – a total of nine knockwurst. To top off the meal, I enjoy a delicious glass of smoked dark bier and an unfiltered bier.

There are a good number of walking streets in town center Nuremberg. But nearly all of them are too wide and are degraded by too many Modernist buildings of recent decades.

Saint Sebastian Church in Nuremberg is stunning, as I learn upon entering. In a design I had not seen previously, the main alter of the Church is set far back from the parishioner seating.

We enjoy a wonderful museum in the Nuremberg Castle, and we cross “Hangman’s Bridge” to reach a café where I opt for “Gunpowder” tea.

We then visit the still-functioning Nuremberg courtroom where the famous Nuremberg trials were held for Nazi war criminals at the end of World War II. It is a very moving Nuremberg Trials Courtroom 600 Nuremberg, Aug 16, 2019 (79)experience to be in that courtroom – a courtroom that tried. Hans Frank, Wilhelm Frick, Julius Streicher, Alfred Rosenberg, Ernst Kaltenbrunner, Joachim von Ribbentrop, Fritz Sauckel, Alfred Jodl, Wilhelm Keitel, and Arthur Seyss-Inquart were all hanged after being convicted. Albert Speer and Rudolf Hess were tried. And Hermann Göring committed suicide before he could be executed following the trial.

We have lunch at the Behringer Bratwursthausle (the original, serving traditional German food). I opt for Nuremberg bratwurst, and delicious dish of cured tongue and smoked sausage.

Saturday and Sunday, August 17 and 18. We visit Regensberg Germany. Dom Saint Peter’s Cathedral contains amazing stained glass. And Saint Emmersam’s Abbey (Benedictan) contains ornamentation that is so busy that it makes one dizzy. We try somewhat St. Emmeram's Abbey Regensberg Aug 17, 2019 (60)unsuccessfully to avoid disturbing a wedding ceremony while there.

Regensberg contains a gratifying number of great human-scaled streets. And the city is attractive in part due to the playful pastel colors used to paint many buildings.

According to Wikipedia, Regensberg was founded as a hilltop fortified settlement about 1245 by Baron Lüthold of Regensberg.

Later, we arrive in Munich, where we again rent bikes and later dine at Haxnbauer Restaurant in Old Town Munich. This restaurant is said to serve the most loved and popular veal and pork knuckle in town.

According to Wikipedia, Munich is the capital and most populous city of Bavaria, the second most populous German federal state. With a population of around 1.5 million, it is the third-largest city in Germany, after Berlin and Hamburg. The name of the city is derived from the Old/Middle High German term Munichen, meaning “by the monks”. It derives from the monks of the Benedictine order, who ran a monastery at the place that was later to become the Old Town of Munich; hence the monk depicted on the city’s coat of arms. Munich was first mentioned in 1158. Catholic Munich strongly resisted the Reformation and was a political point of divergence during the resulting Thirty Years’ War, but remained physically untouched despite an occupation by the Protestant Swedes.

The first attempt of the Nazi movement to take over the German government in 1923 with the Beer Hall Putsch was stopped by the Bavarian police in Munich with gunfire. After the Nazis’ rise to power, Munich was declared their “Capital of the Movement”. During World War II, Munich was heavily bombed and more than 50% of the entire city and up to 90% of the historic center were destroyed. After the end of postwar American occupation in 1949, there was a great increase in population and economic power during the years of Wirtschaftswunder, or “economic miracle”. Unlike many other German cities that were heavily bombed, Munich restored most of its traditional cityscape and hosted the 1972 Summer Olympics.

Marienplatz in Munich is MONUMENTAL!

Unfortunately, our hotel is situated in a town center Munich location that seems to be a Middle Eastern skid row.

Also unfortunate for Munich is that there appears to be regular competitions held in which architects compete with each other to see who can design the most hideous, ugly building. It is agonizing that there have been many winners of this “contest.”

Munich, for me, turns out to be the most disappointing of the German cities we visit on this trip. The streets (now roads) are too wide – including the walking streets. There is too many Modernist buildings. And too many parts of the town center are run down.

The English Garden Park in Munich is extremely interesting. We come upon a grassy field packed with Woodstock-like sunbathers. Streams flowing through the part have such a strong current that several swimmers float down the streams without using tubes or life preservers. The park also contains a wave park, where several SURFERS took turns surfing the waves. Who knew you could surf in Munich?

Dom w 1-liter dark Bavarian beer Hofbrauhaus, Munich Aug 18, 2019 (3)For dinner, we are at the Hofbrauhaus, where I opt for boiled pig knuckle and a ONE-LITER glass of dark Bavarian bier. It is the largest glass of bier I have ever been served.

Monday and Tuesday, August 19 and 20. We arrive in Passau Germany, our gateway city for the bike and barge trip we are to embark on. Our first bicycling day after barging down the river a bit starts in Engelhartszell. Here we climb stairs after passing by the lock system along a pathway that crosses the Donau River. We find nice, flat, paved trails for our 30-mile ride this day.

Along the way, we cycle through vineyards, cornfields, plum and apple orchards, and forest.

According to Wikipedia, Passau is also known as the Dreiflüssestadt (“City of Three Rivers”) because the Danube is joined there by the Inn from the south and the Ilz from the north.

Passau’s population is 50,000, of whom about 12,000 are students at the University of Passau.

In the 2nd century BC, many of the Boii tribe were pushed north across the Alps out of northern Italy by the Romans. They established a new capital called Boiodurum by the Romans (from Gaulish Boioduron), now within the Innstadt district of Passau.

Passau was an ancient Roman colony of ancient Noricum called Batavis, Latin for “for the Batavi.” The Batavi were an ancient Germanic tribe often mentioned by classical authors, and they were regularly associated with the Suebian marauders, the Heruli.5-country tour

During the Renaissance and early modern period, Passau was one of the most prolific centers of sword and bladed weapon manufacture in Germany (after Solingen). Passau smiths stamped their blades with the Passau wolf, usually a rather simplified rendering of the wolf on the city’s coat-of-arms. Superstitious warriors believed that the Passau wolf conferred invulnerability on the blade’s bearer, and thus Passau swords acquired a great premium. According to the Donau-Zeitung, aside from the wolf, some cabalistic signs and inscriptions were added. As a result, the whole practice of placing magical charms on swords to protect the wearers came to be known for a time as “Passau art”. (See Eduard Wagner, Cut and Thrust Weapons, 1969.) Other cities’ smiths, including those of Solingen, recognized the marketing value of the Passau wolf and adopted it for themselves. By the 17th century, Solingen was producing more wolf-stamped blades than Passau was.

In 1662, a devastating fire consumed most of the city. Passau was subsequently rebuilt in the Baroque style.

At Niederranna we and our bikes are ferried across the Donau. Upon finishing our bike ride, we rejoin our barge at Brandstatt.

Wednesday, August 21. We enjoy a self-guided walking tour of Bratislava. Here we find very nice ornamental architecture and smooth paved stone streets and sidewalks.

For lunch, we dine at the Bratislavska flagship restaurant. I select Klastorny Leziak Tmavy – a half liter of tasty, dark Monastic bier. We also sample one of Slovakia’s trademarks: Currant wine – which to me tastes a little like a light, sweet cough syrup. For food, I select Pecena Klobasas Oblohou (a roasted homemade sausage).

Biking Old Town Bratislava is a treat. We start with a diversion that takes us to the location of the former Soviet-block wall that the Soviets told the world was needed toBunker at Slovakia border Bratsilava Slovakia Aug 21, 2019 (13) “protect the peaceful Communist nations from the decadent capitalist aggressors.” Only tiny remnants of tall, barbed wire fencing remains at the Slovakia border, along with a number of grim, heavily fortified concrete bunkers. We also find time to visit the Bratislave Castle.

Overall, a very good day.

According to Wikipedia, the first known permanent settlement of the area that includes Bratislava began with the Linear Pottery Culture, around 5000 BC in the Neolithic era. About 200 BC, the Celtic Boii tribe founded the first significant settlement, a fortified town known as an oppidum. They also established a mint, producing silver coins known as biatecs.

The area fell under Roman influence from the 1st to the 4th century AD and was made part of the Danubian Limes, a border defense system. The Romans introduced grape growing to the area and began a tradition of winemaking, which survives to the present.

In 1968, after the unsuccessful Czechoslovak attempt to liberalize the Communist regime, the city was occupied by Warsaw Pact troops. Shortly thereafter, it became capital of the Slovak Socialist Republic, one of the two states of the federalized Czechoslovakia.

Bratislava’s dissidents anticipated the fall of Communism with the Bratislava candle demonstration in 1988, and the city became one of the foremost centers of the anti-Communist Velvet Revolution in 1989.

Thursday, August 22. We are in Budapest Hungary.

According to Wikipedia, Budapest is the capital and the most populous city of Hungary, and the tenth-largest city in the European Union by population within city limits. The city has an estimated population of 1,752,286.

The central area of the city along the Danube River is classified as a UNESCO World Heritage Site and has several notable monuments, including the Hungarian Parliament, Buda Castle, Fisherman’s Bastion, Gresham Palace, Széchenyi Chain Bridge, Matthias Church and the Liberty Statue. Other famous landmarks include Andrássy Avenue, St. Stephen’s Basilica, Heroes’ Square, the Great Market Hall, the Nyugati Railway Station built by the Eiffel Company of Paris in 1877 and the second-oldest metro line in the world, the Millennium Underground Railway. The city also has around 80 geothermal springs, the largest thermal water cave system, second largest synagogue, and third largest Parliament building in the world. Budapest attracts 4.4 million international tourists per year, making it a popular destination in Europe. The first settlement on the territory of Budapest was built by Celts before 1 AD. It was later occupied by the Romans.

On a guided bicycle tour. Our guide has a very heavy French accent, which made her extremely difficult for we Americans to understand. In addition, despite her soft voice, she used no voice amplification, nor did she do well in keeping the cycling group together. To top it off, she offered very little information about what we were seeing on the tour. Overall, the tour was so disappointing to us that we successfully got a refund from our barge tour operator afterward.

Bizarrely, at the start of our bicycle tour, a German tour leader was trying to stop vehicles so that cyclists could cross the street and start the tour. One car fails to stop, which infuriates the guide so much that he angrily tries to slap the car with his hand to show his unhappiness. But his slap turns into vandalism, as his hand actually knocks a sideview mirror off the car! Immediately, the two in the car slam the brakes on the car, open the doors, and – red-faced – angrily storm toward the guide to confront him with their understandable rage. The guide gets in their faces and SCREAMS at them for not stopping. It is an ugly scene of fury.

Known as the “City of Baths,” Budapest sits on a fault line, and its thermal baths are naturally fed by 120 hot springs. The city is home to an impressive selection of thermal baths, many of which date to the 16th century.  I convince my companions that an obligatory part of any visit to Budapest is to visit the Széchenyi Thermal Baths.Budapest Aug 22, 2019 (23)

Budapest always provides delights. Everywhere one looks, there is a statue or monument that is over-the-top in splendor. The same is true with the stupendous buildings in the city.

Friday, August 23. Our 60-kilometer bike ride today takes us through the very pleasantly charming little villages of Visegrad, Vac, Veroce, Nagymaros, Zebegeny, Szob, and Esztergom. Esztergom, we are surprised to learn, contains a spectacular Cathedral that is the fourth largest in Europe.

Saturday, August 24. We are in Vienna. Immediately we can see we are in a monumental, world-class city with spectacular architecture. The city is also a very good place to cycle, although as is the case with many large cities in the world, car infrastructure has gone too far – particularly with the monster roadway widths and oversizing of intersections.

Saint Stephen Cathedral and Hofburg Palace are remarkable.

On a guided bike tour, we visit an artistic smokestack, the Gaudi-like Hundertwasser painted apartments, Saint Charles Church, the Vienna Opera House, the Hofburg Palace, City Hall (WAY more spectacular than city halls in America), and Saint Stephen’s City Hall Vienna Aug 24, 2019 (86)Cathedral.. But we miss the famous Narchaet Food Market.

For lunch, we opt for the delicacy that Vienna is world-famous for originating: Strudel. We sample both apple and plum strudel. So good that one has not eaten strudel until it is eaten in Vienna.

According to Wikipedia, Vienna is the federal capital, largest city and one of nine states of Austria. Vienna is Austria’s primate city, with a population of about 1.9 million (2.6 million within the metropolitan area, nearly one-third of the country’s population), and its cultural, economic, and political center. It is the 7th-largest city by population within city limits in the European Union. Until the beginning of the 20th century, it was the largest German-speaking city in the world, and before the splitting of the Austro-Hungarian Empire in World War I, the city had 2 million inhabitants. Today it is the second-largest German-speaking city after Berlin. In 2001, the city center was designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site. In July 2017 it was moved to the list of World Heritage in Danger. Apart from being regarded as the City of Music because of its musical legacy, Vienna is also said to be “The City of Dreams” because it was home to the world’s first psychoanalyst – Sigmund Freud.

Vienna is known for its high quality of life. In a 2005 study of 127 world cities, the Economist Intelligence Unit ranked the city first (in a tie with Vancouver and San Francisco) for the world’s most liveable cities. Between 2011 and 2015, Vienna was ranked second, behind Melbourne. In 2018, it replaced Melbourne as the number one spot. For ten consecutive years (2009–2019), the human-resource-consulting firm Mercer ranked Vienna first in its annual “Quality of Living” survey of hundreds of cities around the world.

The UN-Habitat classified Vienna as the most prosperous city in the world in 2012/2013. The city was ranked 1st globally for its culture of innovation in 2007 and 2008, and sixth globally (out of 256 cities) in the 2014 Innovation Cities Index, which analyzed 162 indicators in covering three areas: culture, infrastructure, and markets. Vienna regularly hosts urban planning conferences and is often used as a case study by urban planners.

Between 2005 and 2010, Vienna was the world’s number-one destination for international congresses and conventions. It attracts over 6.8 million tourists a year.

Evidence has been found of continuous habitation in the Vienna area since 500 BC, when Celts settled the site on the Danube River. In 15 BC the Romans fortified the frontier city they called Vindobona to guard the empire against Germanic tribes to the north.

Sunday, August 25. We bicycle from Wachau to Pöchlarn, Austria. We bicycle through the very sweet little villages of Mautern, Forthof, Durstein (which has an exceptionally charming main street – so charming that we wished we had a day or so to enjoy it), Spitz, and Melk. Our day ends with a pleasant Austrian wine tasting near our barge in Pöchlarn.

Monday, August 26. We drive our rental car from Passau to Frankfurt. On the way, we stop in Erlangen to stretch our legs and enjoy this German college town. Frankfurt has the unfortunate distinction of having an enormous number of glass and steel skyscrapers.

Town center Frankfurt turns out to be very quiet at night. I was not awoken by sirens or scooters.

Random, general observations about this trip…

The older the city we were in, the more lovable it was. The more recent the cities and the more recent the buildings, the more awful those cities and buildings were. This has been true in my travels throughout the world, but most strikingly in Europe, where one finds extremely ancient settlements.
Many German cities have been ravaged and degraded by Modernist buildings that are destroying the lovable charm that once graced these cities for several centuries.
Nearly all of the cities we visited on this trip had outstanding bicycle path and bicycle lane infrastructure.
We found that many larger German cities contain a large Middle Eastern and Muslim population. We were surprised by the overwhelming number of burka-wearing Muslim women we saw in German and Austrian cities.
German cities, in general, tend to be late-night party cites, where vast numbers of citizens seem to drink and dance and laugh into the wee hours of the morning. And not just on weekends.
We found ourselves driving at speeds at or above 140 kilometers per hour on the German Autobahn (about 89 mph). And yet we were regularly passed by motorists driving 200 kph, which made it seem like we are standing still.
Our barge traveled through countless locks on the Donau (Danube) River – some changing our river height by 60 meters.
The Donau River is very wide, and is milky green in color – a sign of eutrophication caused by agricultural fertilizers.
For many of the eight days of our cycling and barging, we experienced very warm, muggy, humid weather.
Interestingly, the Hungarian language contains many words that are extremely long and mostly use seemingly random letters that make for a daunting effort to try to pronounce. Hungarian, our barge guide told us, was about the most incomprehensible language in all of Europe. Amusingly, our guide informed us that the Hungarian word for “kiss” is “puszi,” which is pronounced “pussy.”

An Unfitting, Agonizing End to an Otherwise Remarkable Trip

Two big, crushing lessons learned on this trip from severe brain damage and stress associated with not learning this lesson previously. First, I must never again go on a trip to Europe where travel from city to city is by rental car. With our rental car, we experienced agonizing levels of stress and rage from one-way streets, lack of parking, a rental car company that sought to force us to pay for damage we did not cause, and the stress associated with driving in both congestion and crazy high speeds on highways.

Second, I must never again fly with Air France or through Charles de Gaulle airport. For our flight back to the US from this airport and with Air France, I experienced the most enraging, stressful, unpleasant airport debacle I have ever suffered in my large number of airport experiences.

Unbeknownst to us, Air France now has a punitively low maximum limit for luggage weight. At 12 kilograms and FOUR trips through a baggage weighing line, I was compelled to THROW AWAY three-quarters of my belongings in order to get under 12 kilograms and be allowed to proceed to security (shirts, sandals, pants, food, underwear, socks, etc).

Because airport staff could not speak English, and because they were utterly incompetent, I spent almost two hours being sent on an almost infinitely-looping wild goose chase. I circled between baggage weighing and passport clearance FOUR times. During that entire time, I had no idea what I was supposed to do, nor was the airport staff able to provide correct, consistent information. I repeatedly lost my temper with the incompetent, power-drunk, bureaucratic staff. In fact, the staff threatened to call the police to have me arrested, to which I responded that I would be grateful to be confronted by the police as maybe they would allow me to proceed to the security gate.

It was miraculous that I did not miss my flight, and was only able to catch the flight because my girlfriend heroically called Delta Airlines (the sister of Air France) to have a staff person guide me through the impossible, Kafkaesque infinitely looping quagmire that I was trapped in. It became obvious that the prime qualification that Charles de Gaulle airport looks for when hiring employees is that they must be utterly incompetent. And they must love exerting their paltry, lower-level power whenever they can as a way to punish air travelers. A useful tip for Air France: Please inform your passengers BEFORE THEY REACH THE AIRPORT that there is a draconian weight limit so passengers have a chance to retain possessions at home before being forced to dispose of them as a way to board your plane. Of the hundreds of flights I’ve taken in my life, I have never had to weigh my luggage at the airport, which means this is a very rare requirement.

News flash to Air France: the rarity of this sort of policy should make it obligatory that you notify passengers of this far in advance.

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Skiing Innsbruck and the Austrian Alps (February 2007)

For months, I have fretted over the complete lack of snowfall in Innsbruck, Austria, where I am slated to ski for a week with the Jacksonville Ski Club. Indeed, I read a report from the Associated Press a month before the trip begins that Austria is having its warmest winter in 1,300 years! This being my first ski trip to the Austrian Alps, could my timing possibly be any worse? So gloomy do I become that a week before the trip starts, I abandon my daily monitoring of the Innsbruck snow report on the Internet. It is just to depressing to see, for weeks and months, a report of NO snow for the past several days. And to see RAIN and FOG in the forecast. Am I going skiing in the Alps, or in a tropical forest???

Then, a further indignity: On the day of our flight to Austria, our plane is delayed because the northeastern US is being BURIED in deep, frigid snow (we are to fly to DC, where airports are closed due to the weather). It is the biggest snow season in the US in decades, and I’m flying to Europe, where the weather is balmy and snow-less.

On the plane at long last, the stewardess welcomes the Ski Club, then slightly embarrasses me by announcing to the passengers that today is “Dom’s birthday” (my 47th). While Austria has regrettably little snow, there are, I must admit to myself, worse places I could be traveling on my birthday…

Our plane lands in Munich – a chilling experience as I think about how this airport was the site, in the 1970s, of Israeli athletes being kidnapped then killed.

The Customs agent at the airport sees my home address, and draws a laugh from me when he asks if I have “come to ski in Europe because there is not enough snow in the US.” Very funny, I grumble under my breath.

The Ski Club is taken by bus from Munich to Innsbruck. (The word “Innsbruck,” by the way, means bridge across the River Inn – the main river in Innsbruck.) Along the way, we stop in the tiny German village of Garmisch-Partenkirchen, a pretty little village known for its lovely buildings adorned by colorful fresco paintings. For lunch, I sample authentic German beer and poached trout. Delicious.

Once we have settled into our hotel, I am pleased to learn that the historic quarter of Innsbruck is less than a block from our hotel. Old-town Innsbruck is highly romantic and pleasingly pedestrian-scaled – a feature I have come to expect in all historic sections of European cities. May these cities retain their irreplaceable history!

Dinner that night, as for every night during our stay at the hotel, is a wonderful buffet meal presenting us with a wide variety of Austrian cuisine.

I awake the next morning, and board the Ski Club bus for Stubai Glacier, where year-round skiing occurs – even this year, when the winter is the warmest it has been in over a thousand years. On the way, our guide points out two things: First, that the infamous Innsbruck Olympic ski jump is directly in front of us as our bus rolls through the city. Second, that near the bottom of the jump is, appropriately, the town CEMETARY. Of course. We all remember ABC television and how its “Wide World of Sports” showed us the “agony of defeat” as a skier sickeningly summersaults his way down a ski jump after he has crashed.

Stubai turns out to have surprisingly good, soft snow (A feature we are pleased to experience all week. Excellent morning snow conditions, followed by afternoons of heavier, wet snow.) The ski area is a bit top-heavy with bunny slopes for “novice” skiers. But the Glacier ski runs are confusing and unpredictable. Some of these “easy” runs seem like intermediate or even advanced in skill level required. And some of the “intermediate” runs are easier than the easiest bunny runs. Other intermediates are more difficult than the advanced runs.

Maybe I’m not awake yet…

Our day ends magnificently on two wonderful intermediate cruiser runs. One of these is a long perimeter trail that starts at the top of the mountain and ends at the bottom, where the parking lot and buses are found. This trail is periodically closed, but we are fortunate because today it is open for “business.” And skiing to the buses is so much more enjoyable than taking a chair lift down.

The run is narrow, winding, steep and exhilarating. Perhaps most spectacular, though, is the mountain range that lies before us as we ski down the mountain on this glorious trail. Simply, superlatively gorgeous. It is one of the most astounding views of a mountain range I have ever witnessed.

The mountains and valley in this part of the world take your breath away. Of course, there ain’t much breath to be taken away at this elevation…

The day ends at an Innsbruck dance bar, where I get in a few high-energy dances. This nightclub turns out to be emblematic for Innsbruck, as it becomes clear over the course of the week that Innsbruck is a city vibrant with a fun-loving nightlife. Pubs, clubs and bars are sprinkled throughout its streets.

The next day, I am on a bus to Kutai Mountain within the Innsbruck ski area. Again, I find good morning snow and fun slopes. Almost all of the runs here are rated intermediate in skill level, with only one rated advanced. Picture perfect weather again.

Unfortunately, Kutai demonstrates a bit of a problem we notice throughout the week: Long lift lines (largely due to the fact that this is the week of the annual Fasching Festival holiday, and the fact that skiers crowd to the few mountains with sufficient snow).

That night, the Florida ski clubs parade down the Innsbruck main street, led by an Austrian brass band playing the polka music so well known in this part of the world. The mayor of Innsbruck greets us in the courtyard of the Imperial Palace, where our parade terminates and assembles. There, we are treated to luscious strudel puffs and hot spicy wine.

We have been told that Axamer Lizum and Schlick 2000, two other mountains in the Innsbruck range, are both quality mountains with good snow this year. After a veritable coin flip, I decide on Schlick. But a local skier sitting next to me on the bus alerts us that Schlick and Axamer have very mediocre snow.

We therefore opt to again ski Stubai, which, fortunately, is the final stop for the bus we are on.

We arrive at 10:45 am to find the most enormous lift line I have ever seen in my life at the main lift. There must be over 2,000 skiers in this line. I feel like a teenager waiting to buy tickets for a Rolling Stones concert. It ends up taking us over an hour to get to a chair for the ride up.

Finally, after a long series of chair lift rides, we snap into our skis to launch into our first run of the day.

It is 12:40 pm.

As a result, we have time for only three runs this afternoon. Ordinarily, a total of three runs for a full day of skiing would be a disastrous disappointment. But in this case, it is my most enjoyable day of skiing in my days at Innsbruck, for our runs are on a periodically open perimeter trail that we had discovered at the end of the day a few days ago.

This run features 20 minutes of thrilling entertainment. The relatively long period of continuous skiing means that the time we spend skiing (even though on only three runs for the day) is maximized, and our time sitting on a chair lift is minimized. The run is a diverse, wild mix of exciting, challenging slopes. It is the only run that can be skied from the top of Stubai at 3,200 meters, to the bottom of the mountain. The weather, once again, is magnificent.

That night, I am in my glory because I find that at our dinner tonight, we are served my favorite pasta dish: Italian gnocchi’s. With pesto.

After dinner, we walk to a large Innsbruck Exhibition Hall, where we enjoy a gala dancing and drinking affair with all of the Florida ski clubs in town this week. Authentic Austrian polka music is played, and we are entertained by a series of traditional Austrian folk dance routines by costumed performers.

One group of these performers are dressed as grotesque old ladies, who dance to Austrian accordion music. Costumed characters representing the four climate seasons come out and display their dance traditions. Many of them enter our table area to interact with the audience. I am approached on two different occasions by a costumed character. Each time, the performer gives me a customary slap on my back. Then offers me a swing of schnapps from his stainless steel flask.

What a spectacle.

A day trip to Salzburg (population 140,000) comes the following day. The bus takes us through the Innsbruck valley through farms, silver mines and castles. The mountain ranges here are full of ski runs. Indeed, we are told that each village has its own runs. And the runs are served by village lifts.

Along the way, we briefly drive through Bavaria, and Hitler’s infamous “Eagles Nest” quarters are pointed out to us.

My week-long quest for locally-brewed beer in Austria is to find dark, heavy Austria beer. Inexplicably, nearly every pub or restaurant I inquire at informs me that they serve no such beer. The trip leader informs me that Austria previously brewed quite a bit of dark beer, but in recent years are brewing much less for fear that such beer contributes to obesity.

Not to be deterred, I continue my search. In a Salzburg pub, I learn that while they do not have it on tap, they have Kaiser Malz beer in bottles. The beer is relatively sweet, heavy and delicious.

Salzburg is a city of steeples, pilsner and lager (non-dark) beer, and cobblestone streets.

On our way back from Salzburg, we stop in the charming little town of Rattenberg. The village is second only to Innsbruck in being a tourist destination in the Tyrol region. It is easy to see why. The town is full of glass and crystal-making shops, trademark cobblestone streets, and delightful architecture.

I begin the next morning with a therapeutic swim in the warm hotel pool. My aching ski muscles so need this! The pool is quite interesting, as the water changes color from blue to red to green due to changing lighting within the pool – an interesting visual treat late at night.

My destination today is the Innsbruck mountain known as Axamer Lizum, which hosted the 1976 Winter Olympics with the legendary skier Franz Klamer (who I still recall from my childhood days watching the Olympics on TV). The runs here are relatively demanding (which one would expect) as I rocket down the slopes. I try to imagine the slalom flag stations as I ski, wondering how different the runs are now compared to the ’76 Olympics. Did Jean Claude Killey ski here?

The runs on Lizum are great fun as I recklessly hurtle down them. Regretfully, however, I find a number of patches of ice or grass, which makes for relatively treacherous conditions.

Our lunch is at a restaurant (Hoadl) with an absolutely stunning view of the Alps in all directions from the mountaintop diner. I help myself to an enormous piece of lasagna, Austrian soup, mineral water, a large salad, and Austrian strudel – fuel for the exhausting, exhilarating skiing.

Later that night, I fulfill a lifelong dream.

As a young boy, my friends and I watched the Winter Olympics. Our fantasy was to mimic the intensity of the bobsled runs. We would watch, wide-eyed, a group of four athletes dashing madly to start their sleds down the ice track, then fly like a bullet along the course.

We decided, then and there, that we needed to build a sled run in our front-yard suburban homes in the winter. We ended up, after much back-breaking work, with a run that was about 30 feet long, and learned how it is nearly impossible to build a curve in the course that would have enough of a “lip” so that our little plastic toboggans would not launch off the track (we ended up being unintentionally launched into the snow banks regularly due to our engineering failures).

It was therefore to my exquisite joy that here during my Innsbruck trip, I would have an opportunity of a lifetime: Ride a REAL sled on a real life OLYMPIC BOBSLED RUN!

Finally, we arrive at the sled run. Five of us climb into a sled with a driver up front. We don helmets, which is particularly satisfying to me as real adventures, in my opinion, all share at least one thing: They are potentially deadly.

The track we are to blindingly race down is 800 meters long. The track looks fearsome as its icy surface glows in the high-intensity lighting. The start is a steep drop that requires only a gentle shove by one of the sled run staff.

In an instant, we are rocketing seemingly uncontrollably down the course at 70 miles per hour (!!!!). Forty four uniquely exhilarating seconds later, we reach the end. My mouth is wide open in a silent scream the entire wild ride.

The track often appears, from the sled, to be a narrow tube, and as I fearfully look wide-eyed ahead, I see steel bars that seem so impossibly low in front of us that I am convinced that we will be decapitated. Adding to the fright is that at 70 mph, the decapitation bar approaches in a blurry instant.

Somehow, we shoot under these menacing bars without result.

I now know what it is like to be a cannonball being fired out of a cannon.

And I terribly regret how brief, yet unforgettable, my bobsled ride has been.

My last day in the Austrian Alps is a treat. Our bus takes us to the famed St. Anton ski resort. An enormous mountain with a bewildering number of runs and lifts that would take months to explore fully.

Most amusing on this day was to see a dog who apparently “works” at St Anton hop onto a chair lift just in front of us and ride happily to the top of the mountain.

I finish this glorious day with a glass of white Austrian wine at après ski near the St Anton main lift at the bottom of the mountain.

To put an exclamation point on the trip, I end my Innsbruck stay with a wild night of dancing at the dance bar down the street.

Some parting thoughts about the trip:

First, I find that the Innsbruck ski runs are more demanding than those in the US. Steeper, less well signed.

Interestingly, even though Innsbruck ski areas, like other European ski mountains I have been on, provide the challenge of a modest number of tiny ski run signs (which is frowned on in litigation-crazed America), the runs in Innsbruck are astonishingly wide in many cases.

Sadly, the snow this year was WAY below normal for Innsbruck. Since I had such a joyously good time, it scares me to think how much more enjoyable it must be with normal snowfall.

The language barrier in Innsbruck is much less of a problem than expected. I was delighted to be able to master “danke shen” to thank those who helped me (and for me to be reasonably polite).

The city of Innsbruck, much to my extreme delight and admiration, seems to have nearly a complete absence of emergency vehicle sirens. By stark contrast, I live in a city which over-uses sirens so regularly that my nerves are frayed and I feel like I live in a war zone. I am therefore thoroughly able to appreciate the calm, quiet, sleepy ambience that Innsbruck projects. My hat is off to the Innsbruck leadership.

This YouTube video shows more photos I shot while on this ski trip:  http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FIpBiP3nBAk

Categories: 2001-2010, Skiing | Tags: , , , | Leave a comment

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