Month: February 2015

Lienz + Austrian Dolomites

On New Years Day, we packed up and drove to Austria for 4-days in the Alps.  Our proximity to the mountains is something we have enjoyed during our stay in Germany, it is our ideal weekend getaway. This time we were headed to a more distant part of Austria, the East Tirol.

We stayed near Lienz, a city that is nestled in a valley on the Austrian side of the Dolomites– not far from the border of Italy.  We stayed in a  frühstück pension (B&B) in the tiny village of Islesberg on the north side of the valley. Below is a view from our window, which overlooked the city of Lienz.

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Winter in Würzburg has absolutely been the mildest we have encountered. Temperatures have lingered around 1ºC (34ºF)  —- While at the same time our home in Saint Paul was  -18°C (-4ºF — brrr)!  Our friends in the Midwest may be rolling their eyes in disbelief, but by early January we were beginning to miss the familiar signs of winter.

As we passed Munich, we were enthused by the sight of fresh snowfall that continued through the Austrian ski village of Kitzbühel though Lienz was still 80 miles away on the opposite side of the mountain range.   To access the East Tirol we passed through a 3-mile mountain tunnel and unfortunately left the snow in the rearview mirror.

Even without snow, the Mölltaler valley surrounding Lienz was incredible—although we pondered where to ski.  The next morning we drove to Heiligenblut, which is in the neighboring mountain range. It faces Grossglockner (3,798 m), the tallest peak in Austria.

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Two years ago when we first skied in Austria we learned that the Alpine pistes are underrated by most North American comparisons.  Although the same ranking system is used, (beginner, intermediate, expert) many of the easy runs could satisfy a seasoned skier.  Derek is an experienced snowboarder and I began skiing in my 20s. I previously found the beginner Alpine pistes to be challenging, but not impossible.

The Alps have many more enticing runs for an experienced skier.  On trips together Derek has always willingly skied within my range of ability (thanks! 🙂 ) which I am grateful for because he typically enjoys a challenge.  This time, we saw that there was a panoramic restaurant at the summit, which for me was a nice alternative—  I spent the morning reading with Kaffee and Apfelstrudel near a sunny window while he hit the slopes.

I enjoyed Heiligenblut!  The village was remote and tiny, but there were a handful of restaurants and gift shops to keep a non-skier busy for an afternoon.  I observed that Austrians along with their German neighbors seem to take their dogs with them everywhere —- on the train, shopping, to the hair salon— We’ve even sat next to a dog at the bar. But this was the first time I had seen one on a ski hill!

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Lienz

Lienz is called die Sonnenstadt,  ‘the sun city’ of Austria, and serves as a hub for the surrounding valley. There are train connections to Lienz and buses to ski resorts in the area.  We didn’t find many activities there, but it was a nice place to spend a morning and pick up ski rentals.

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Hiking in Hohe Tauern

The valley was almost bare after two days near 40ºF which made hiking an easy choice for the next afternoon. A large area adjacent to Lienz is Hohe Tauern National Park and we were happy to see a hiking trail right behind our B&B in Iselsberg that offered an elevated view of the Lienzer Dolomiten.  The most unique aspect of the area around Lienz was its sense of remoteness. We were over two hours from Austria’s largest cities, and it felt much more isolated and rural than other places we have visited in Germany and Austria.

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Skiing Kals-Matrei

The forecasts predicted a day of steady snow a short distance from where we were staying, so we set out for another day of skiing.  Lifts connect the runs between the two villages of Kals and Matrei;  so while Derek snowboarded, I checked out the village.  Matrei was a little more gloomy than I anticipated, but the village had moments of charm– it is completely surrounded by mountains.  As I walked through its quiet streets there was a comforting smell of wood smoke in the air, and I appreciated its rugged presence within the mountains. I quickly remembered that it was Sunday, which meant that nearly everything was closed, I finally found an open bakery and was happy to warm up.

Derek was more enthusiastic about the ski conditions!   It was snowing higher in the mountains where he was and he found challenging runs and fresh powder.  Kals-Matrei is not an international tourist destination nor does it have the Après-ski scene that some Austrian villages are famous for. Overall, Derek was impressed with Kals-Matrei and found some of the best skiing he has had in a long time. We read this article from the Guardian during planning, which shares more about the resort.

 

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Where we stayed

Austrian ski villages can be pricey during the snowy months—   It is not hard to spend thousands of dollars for a week of lodging.   We’ve had to search, but have been lucky to find reasonable accommodations in Austria during ski season using sites like hostelworld and booking.com.  Both led us to home-style B&Bs in very small neighboring villages, and have since been two of our favorite places we have ever stayed!

Two years ago, we stayed here in a village that borders Sankt Anton am Arlberg. Getting to the ski hills without a car was no problem— the surrounding villages were connected to the resorts via shuttles.  This time, in Iselsberg we stayed here.  A car was definitely necessary in the areas around Lienz.

This portion of the Alps is higher and rockier than the Bavarian Alps, and more rural and open than the Arlberg. We are headed to the Montafon in late March, and are looking forward to another comparison!

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Links

East Tirol – Austria’s secret ski destination The Guardian UK

A Perfect Ski Day at Heiligenblut YouTube

24 Hours in East Tirol Blog Tirol

Soelden’s Snowy Spectre: James Bond Films in East Tirol  Daily Mail

Epiphany and the Sternsinger The German-Way

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Ski Jumping / Four Hills Tournament

One of the most exciting things we have taken part in was an invitation to accompany Derek’s colleague’s ski club on a 4- hour bus trip to the opening of the 63rd Vierschanzentournee  (translation: Four Hills Tournament) which is part of the Ski Jump World Cup.

Ski Jumping is one of the most anticipated winter spectator sports in Europe. Skispringer from all over the world take part in the tournament, and many are in training for the future olympics.

The tour takes place in four villages in the Alpine regions of Germany and Austria.  The opening event was in Oberstdorf, followed by Garmisch-Partenkirchen (we actually posted a photo of the ski jump arena in GaP earlier in the year!) Innsbruck, and Bischofshofen.

It was snowing when we arrived, and the views as we passed villages in the Allgäu  felt like scenes out of a snowglobe.  The arena was packed; Viewers start arriving on buses when the event gates open at noon and pitchers of hot Glühwein or punsch are the best bet for staying warm. The athletes had already warmed up once we arrived at 3pm, and a crowd-warming festival in the stands was well underway!  One glance around and we realized that we should have dressed a whole lot warmer!

 

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Leading up to the event is all of the entertainment and music you would hear at a lively German festival: The Zicke-Zacke chant and après-ski party songs like Amsterdam, and the universally loved song by Neil Diamond, Sweet Caroline.

It was exhilarating to watch!  Wind speeds are carefully metered and need to measure within a certain low range for each jump. By late afternoon, a few more inches of snow had fallen and the wind had picked up, which meant that the competitive jumps were slow to begin. There were many times when the broadcast screens would show the skier on the edge of their seat, ready-to-go, and he would need to slide off the bench.  It was a cycle of jumps and lengthy delays, until it seemed that the conditions would not abate and an announcement was made that the event would be postponed until the next day.

My feet have never felt so cold!

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Skispringen is well established in Germany and live broadcasts appear frequently through the winter. The next day, we watched the remainder of the competition in Oberstdorf  from our couch with a mug of hot cocoa, and my toes were happy!

Ski jumping has yet to reach the same high level of popularity in the United States.  There was a single qualifier from the USA team and he was unfortunately not able to advance.  This year, a broadcast deal was reached and next winter’s tournament will be televised in the USA for the first time!

Vierschanzentournee is a prestigious tournament for ski jumpers.  The overall winner was a 21-year old Austrian, Stefan Kraft.  Austrians are tremendously good skiers, it’s amazing to watch them perform.

Below are two videos from Oberstdorf —  The first was the best jump of the night!  You can see how revved up the crowd was.

 

This jump is a German skier, and he’s easier to spot in the video—

 

We had a great time at this event! Despite our frozen feet, it will certainly be a highlight from our time in Germany!

 

One of the après-ski party songs that is popular in Germany and Austria via You Tube
A-M-S-T-E-R-D-A-M
Here are the lyrics in english

 

 

Links

Vierschanzentournee Tickets and Official Website

How Ski Jumping is Scored Wikipedia

Press: EBU strikes deal with U.S. broadcasters for Austrian FIS Ski World Cups

 

A Czech Christmas in Prague

A little behind on this one! I was hoping to have this post wrapped up weeks ago, but sometimes that’s the way it goes, right? 🙂

We visited Prague just before Christmas, in part to see the holiday festival in the Old Town Square.   Architecturally, Prague is an impressive city.  I would absolutely agree with remarks that it is one of the most enchanting, beautiful cities in the world.

In the days leading up to Christmas, the city glimmered with lights. We visited during the winter solstice which meant that the shortest days of the year brought people together in the early evening for christmas carols and gatherings with friends at the outdoor markets.  On Saturday, our first night in Prague, there was a stadium-sized crowd of people in the areas around the Old Town Square. The festivity created a whirl of excitement, which was enlivened by the Moravian and Bohemian folk traditions of the Czech Republic.

The emphasis of the Czech markets is on handicrafts, music, sausages, and of course— hot wine!  We ate Pražská Klobása (kielbasa sausage) and stayed warm drinking medovina (mead, honey wine).  There are sweet and savory treats at the market, including the abundant and tourist-adored Trdelnik  that are sold throughout the city, as well as pečené gaštany— burnt chestnuts.

 

 

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And Carp. You can’t miss the carp stands in Prague at Christmas. The humble carp has an important role in the traditional Christmas Eve dinner. During the holiday season, live carp splash around in barrels on the street, where they are sold.  If you buy a fish— and it’s not quite Christmas— you can keep it fresh in your bathtub where it has ‘pet status’ until it is time to prepare dinner. I loved reading about this central European tradition here.   Above are perníčekhoney-spice gingerbread decorated as the iconic Christmas carp.

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Between the two of us we taste-tested just about everything.  We enjoyed bramborové spirály a spiral of potato chips deep-fried on a stick.  My favorite drink was the syrupy honey mead, medovina.

And sweets…

I mentioned Trdelnikwhich is a variation of the cinnamon roll.  I think we ate no less than four of these.  The pastry dough is wrapped around a spindle and coated with cinnamon, sugar, and almonds, and cooked over an open ember.  The second most common treat was perníček, honey-spiced gingerbread with lacy white icing.  At the market you can buy lots of seasonal goodies like Vanocka (a braided nut and raisin bread made at christmas), shortbread, and maslove pecivo – the christmas butter cookie with a candied cherry.

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Prague is only 4-hours from Würzburg, but crossing into the Czech Republic is a reminder that the neighboring countries have very different heritages. There are not rail connections from the area around Würzburg, so the most convenient mode of travel to Prague is by bus.  We used a service offered by DB Bahn — A Long-distance travel bus that departs daily from Nürnberg Hbf.

The European markets are one of my favorite aspects of living outside of the US.  For the most part, I spend the weekdays solo and the the ritual of walking through the market in Wurzburg is one of my preferred activities, there is always something happening.

The Czech market was a nice companion to the German markets that we have begun to know so well.  It had noticeable Hungarian, Slavic, and Bohemian influences in cuisine and artisanal aspects.  The regional influences are what make each market so unique and worth visiting.  I shared my observations about the nuances of the markets with Derek. And to share another perspective, he said ‘they’ve all felt pretty much the same’ to him.   🙂

 

The National Gallery in Prague

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A notable work of Czech art is the Slav Epic, which is installed at the National Gallery in Prague.   It is a series of large-scale canvases painted by Alfons Mucha, who was a prolific Art Nouveau contributor at the turn of the 20th C. The epic tells of the trials of the Slavic people in central Europe, and combines factual information with mythical imagery. The epic was conceived by Mucha and funded by an American businessman who was an avid “Slavophile” (we had not heard this word!)

We enjoyed this museum.  It is located on an obscure corner within the city in sort of a dreary, unassuming building.   Yet, for it’s relatively small size, around each new corner were selections from major artists like Klimt, Van Gogh, Cézanne, and Degas that you would only see in an art history textbook.  We enjoyed the galleries of Czech modern art, which we honestly knew nothing about— and some cohesive exhibits from the soviet era. Below, Derek is standing in an interactive exhibit on the European Fluxus Festivals of the 1960s.


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Our itinerary for Prague wasn’t as intense as other excursions. We spent each day lingering at the Christmas markets, The National Gallery, and the Neo Luxor Palace of Books , which made us a little giddy, because it had the largest selection of books in English that we have seen by far!  Last year Derek visited the city solo and enjoyed Prague castle, so he suggested another visit.  From the Old Town Square we walked across Charles Bridge, and arrived as they were beginning the changing of the guards, which tourists love, even though it is now just a tradition.  Within the castle grounds is the Eastern Orthodox Cathedral of St Vitus, which was so ornate and decorative.

Below is the market at Wenceslas Square, in the Nové Město– meaning New Town.

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Czech Beer!

The beer in the Czech Republic is legendary.  It is home to the original Budweiser, and to Pilsner Urquell— named for the city of Plzeň.  So, it may seem a little strange that our first stop was a Belgian beer bar.   We previously thought that living in Germany meant access to a good supply of Belgian brews from across the border, not so! Germans seem to love their domestic beers and we’ve found only a handful of imports.

For Czech beer, we headed across town to Zlý Časy (translation: Evil Times), which was highly recommended as a place to get awesome Czech microbrews in a true, dark and smokey Czech beer bar.   I rarely drink beer these days, but who could resist?!  We had a lot of fun.  And do you know how cheap beer is in the Czech Republic?  It’s less than a dollar.

Below:  Bruxx is located across from Church of St. Ludmila at Náměstí Míru ‘Peace Square’, where we discovered yet another Christmas market.

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There are so many great destinations across Europe that at times it can be challenging to name our favorites. This was one of my favorite posts to write.   For me, winter and the season of Light is an inspirational time of hope and peace.  In recent years, I had experienced first-hand how the many excesses of the holidays could be disillusioning and overwhelming.  This year, without the pressures of gift exchanges and to be in so many places at once, it was the first time in many years that I have felt present during this special time.

Germans had a long holiday break from December 20 through Epiphany (January 6), which meant almost three weeks off for Derek.  Once we were back in Würzburg, we attended a Christmas eve vigil at a chapel in our neighborhood.  We were surprised by how lovely the small, simple service was. The closing hymn was Stille Nacht / Silent Night and afterwards everyone was given a lit candle to light their walk home. We have attended other Christmas eve services, but this one gave us an unexpected sense of calm and happiness.

And finally,  Here is a short video of Czech christmas carols in the old-town market!

 

Links

In Slovakia, Christmas Dinner Starts In The Bathtub NPR

36 Hours in Prague New York Times

Travel on a Budget: Two-Days in Prague for under $100 Apartment Therapy

Listen to Czech and Moravian Christmas Carols You Tube

5 Great Czech MicroBrews and Where to Try Them

One of my favorite videos!
Watch Travel Insider Astronautalis take a Beer and Motorcycle tour of Prague