Alps

Hike in the Alps with Molly and Alex

Molly and Alex were our first visitors of the year and stayed with us for nine days at the end of March!  We knew that they would be great companions for an all-day hike in the mountains so we began planning a short getaway to the Alps.

The morning after they arrived we packed-up the car and headed south for what was expected to be a spring-like weekend in the Montafon valley of Austria. It was Molly and Alex’s first visit to the Alps, and our first to the Vorarlberg.

This corner of Austria shares a border with Germany, Switzerland, and Lichtenstein and is a popular area for skiing and winter activities. We stayed in Bartholomäberg, a mountainside village that overlooks the small city of Schruns in the valley. The hills of Bartholomaeberg are grassy pastureland that are home to residences and several small farms. Higher there are wooded hiking trails with rocky terrain near the top.  It had several options for Winterwandern ‘winter hiking’ (snowshoe trails and groomed winter hiking paths) which made it the perfect base for the next few days.

 

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We were there during the last week of March, a quiet time to visit.  Some of the Alpine Huttes and Gastofs that serve as hiking destinations were closed for a week of ‘spring break’ before re-opening for the summer tourism season.   We were in search of a traditional Austrian house to stay in and found a cozy two-bedroom apartment in the lower level of a country home. The family operates a small farm with cows and small animals. They gave us a genuine welcome and shared that we were their first visitors from the USA!  It was an extra treat when Sabine baked us the most amazing loaf of spelt bread on our last night.

 

Hiking Day 1: Wannaköpfle

The next morning we packed lunches and set off early for a day-long hike. We began from the town center of Bartholomaeberg (1087 m) and reached the peak at Wannaköpfle (2031m) a few hours later.   The valley was clear of snow so we decided on a snowshoe trail that would take us through the most scenic hiking areas.

There was snow sooner than we expected!! We alternated taking the lead to forge a path for our not-so-waterproof hiking boots.  The snow was losing it’s density from the morning thaw and the unpredictable depth created a number of humorous challenges and surprises!   The winter trails stopped with the peak in sight, so we finished our climb through unchartered snowbanks.

We were the first ‘spring’ hikers to Wannaköpfle!

Really, our “hike” was a lot of climbing through snow drifts and the tripping, falling, and laughing that goes with it — or Molly helping me rescue my foot from a deep snow well.  (Snow shoes should have been essential at this point!)   Thanks to the thaw we were able to walk on gravel part of the way which was a nice break for our damp feet.

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(Below) Halfway there— Time for a rest and a snack.

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Wannaköpfle (2031m)

Our destination! We found some mossy rocks where the snow had melted and made it our seat for lunch and munched while we took in the surroundings.

It was one of the mildest days of the month, and though we were surrounded by snow, the midday sun made the mountain perch a warm oasis. It was sunny, breezy, and nearly 60°F. We snapped photos and watched paragliders float over the valley.  It was a memorable moment for all of us — the views were completely worth the climb!


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Hiking (+ Beers) Day 2 

The next day, we all slept in. With sore legs and sopping wet boots, we opted for an easier ascent by taking the St. Gallenkirch Valiserabahn (a ski gondola) to another scenic Winterwandern path.  We were now on the other side of the valley in a ski area.  The path turned out to be less than 1km of hiking so we decided to spend the afternoon drinking beer at the Alpine Huttes!

We met a lively German man who took our group photo and recalled his trip to California as a young man in the 1970’s.  When he was there he bought a Mercury convertible to drive along the coast.  He laughed at his impulse because he had no idea how he would ship his new car back to Germany, but it all worked out and the week prior he had been cruising from his home near Lake Constance through the Alps!  🙂

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NachtRodeln 

Afterwards we rented Rodel, the traditional wooden Austrian toboggan. One winter attraction of the Montafon is a place that offers NachtRodeln a few evenings during the week, where you buy an inexpensive chairlift pass and ride to the top of  a 5km toboggan run.   We rented our Rodel on site where the tradition is to drink a shot of Schnapps before you set out.  You can watch a few clips of the action in Molly’s video below!

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Relaxing in Bartholomaeberg

Our accommodations were in a serene, quiet part of Bartholomaeberg. The village is referred to as the sun balcony of Montafon because of its southern exposure. The location had nice panorama views of the valley and we could have happily camped out there for the rest of the week!  For Derek and I, it was our last visit to the Alps for the foreseeable future which made it all the more special.  We were happy that we were able to share this memorable time with family.

After our trip to the Alps, we spent the next few days in Würzburg with Molly and Alex. They are a ton of fun and we loved having them as visitors!!

 

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(Above) Photos by the wonderfully talented– Molly and Alex

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

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.

Ski Jump World Cup! #deutschland #oberstdorf #63Vierschanzentournee #fourhills #skijumpworldcup

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

Ski Jump World Cup, #Oberstdorf #63Vierschanzentournee #deutschland #danielwenig #allgäu #alps

A post shared by Kate (@_inspirekate) on

 

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

 

July: Bavarian Alps + Neuschwanstein

A couple of years ago we visited a stretch of Alps in Austria, but had never seen the German portion. This range is so beautiful, we will take every chance we can get to see more of it, and also to show it to visitors.  It is a 3.5hr drive from Würzburg to the Bavarian Alps and to the most known of it’s cities: Garmisch-Partenkirchen (2362 ft).

 

The drive to Garmisch-Partenkirchen (GaP) passes through the farmlands of the Allgäu, an area of southern Germany with sloping glacial-made pastures where dairy farming reigns.  We pulled into a farm so that Derek could make a phone call– I couldn’t resist a photo. Then on to our destination.

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 Garmisch-Partenkirchen

We had bursts of stormy weather during our trip to GaP, heavy rain and fog obscured the top of the Zugspitze.  The rain provided a restful indoor experience (waking to mountain rain, enjoying warm croissants and coffee). It seemed to clear up at the moment we wanted to be outside, which felt like a miracle. We were able to enjoy most of the activities we had planned.

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We stayed in a rental apartment through VRBO.  Our host, Christoph, was friendly and generous.  He seemed to be everywhere – Always looking out for us when we seemed turned around (hiking recommendations, food recommendations, where to park, and even how to use the key to the apartment!)   He and his family own a building in Garmisch, which houses their business on the lower floor and renovated apartments above where he and his family live.  The top apartment is a rental with a balcony view of the Zugspitze, which is where we stayed. We would recommend this place wholeheartedly to anyone planning a trip to Garmisch-Partenkirchen! This is the VRBO site.

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With the reading material that Christoph offered, we learned that the best time to hike Partnachklamm “Partnach Gorge” is in the morning when the light is prevalent.  We walked through stone walkways along the gorge and were stunned with it’s natural beauty- as a bonus, the heavy rain from the day before had swelled the gorge.  It was really movin’ that day.  Derek’s mom took this video:

july at #partnachklamm

A post shared by Kate (@_inspirekate) on

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From Partnach Gorge we split ways. Derek and I hiked another 1-1/2hrs to the Eckbauer elevation (4085 ft).  Derek’s parents went another direction in search of a cable car.  They didn’t find the car they were looking for- but ended up at one of the mountain huttes for beer – which made their walk more exciting! Below is the lookout from Eckbauer. There is a restaurant, accommodations, and most notably–  the Eckbauerbahn, a cable car down to the town. Here is a look at their webcam.

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1936 Winter Olympics

Garmisch-Partenkirchen was initially two separate fashionable resort towns for Alpine skiing and winter enthusiasts. The two towns were merged by Adolph Hitler to make Germany a viable host for the 1936 Winter Olympics.  Several of the sites are still accessible. We saw the stadium for ski jumps and a bobsled run. This area is located in a pristine mountain valley, it is quite nice in the summer: A restful retreat and a good place to hike. It is not far from Germany’s highest mountain, the Zugspitze (9,718 ft). Or from Munich (hourly trains, 1.5hr) if you happen to be in that area.

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Details
Around every corner in Garmisch-Partenkirchen are unexpected, thoughtful architectural details that nod to German Alpine tradition.

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Neuschwanstein

Next, we set off toward Füssen to see the ‘cash cow’ of Germany’s Bavarian castles— Neuschwanstein “New Swan-on-the-Rock castle”.   We waited to buy tickets for the 3:15 tour and climbed the castle’s lengthy walkway.  Ludwig II of Bavaria (1850) was an eccentric king.  He was disgruntled by his lack of power as he was only an emblem for the state.  As a child he had looked to the high cliff above his parent’s home Castle Hohenschwangau near the Schwansee (Swan Lake) and dreamt of his own stately castle overlooking the valley.   He poured his funds into the building of Neuschwanstein– a sort of fantasy playground for himself.

 

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He was also involved with the composer Richard Wagner, serving as his benefactor and friend. Ludwig built separate quarters in the castle for him to live. His dream never came to fruition, as less than 10 rooms of the elaborate Medieval-style interior were completed before Ludwig mysteriously drowned.  We have all seen replicas of this castle in popular American culture— it is the model for Disney’s Sleeping Beauty castle! I have to say– the full size model was pretty cool.  All visits to the interior are led by a guide- The tour was more interesting than we thought it would be! Photos of the interior are on Wikipedia.

And the neighbors—–
Below is a nice view of Castle Hohenschwangau, Ludwig II’s childhood home in the valley.

Schwangau valley overlooking Schloss #Hohenschwangau #allgaü #alps #bavaria #bayern

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 Links

+ Alpinestyle56: Alpine Lifestyle, Heritage and Fashion
This blogger and former ski-racer posts vintage photos of the Alps. My favorite find.

+ This National Geographic photo of a hiker in the Bavarian Alps at Garmisch-Partenkirchen

+  Germany Holidays: Hut-hiking in the Alps 
A guide and link to the overnight Alpine huttes

 

A Late-Summer Update

Hello!  It feels like a long time since I have written a blog post. We’ve been back in Würzburg for a little over a week after a trip to the states to celebrate with my sister on her wedding day!

 

JULY

Summer lured me away from blogging, and thankfully it did.  It is a nice season in Germany, with even more open-air markets, festivals, and every cafe is full.  I’ve mentioned before how leisurely this region is, the pace of those around me reminds me to slow down and enjoy the details. The students have two separate school breaks during this time and many businesses close for the month of August.  It is the most common time to take vacation, and nearly everyone does.  So, now on to my two month update! July. Okay, let’s see where I left off.

In early July we prepped for our second visitors, Derek’s parents!

July in Bavaria tends to be warm and humid, with most days in the mid-to-upper 80s.   But the first week of July was an oddball. Damp cool weather and overcast skies.  Derek’s parents flew in after the 4th. On their first night in town, we went to a busy place that we have wanted to try – Alte Mainmühle – “Old Mill on the Main” a restaurant on the pedestrian bridge that crosses into the Altstadt “Old Town”.  The restaurant has terrace seating over the river, amazing food, and endless Franconian wine.  The best part: They have a street walk-up window where you can order wine from 9am til 10pm and stand on the bridge among tourists and locals, drinking wine, watching people, and listening to musicians who set up and play.  It is my favorite kind of happy hour 🙂

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We drove to Garmisch-Partenkirchen for a few days mid-week to see the Bavarian Alps and to visit one of Germany’s most famous landmarks, Neuschwanstein: the Fairytale Castle of King Ludwig II of Bavaria. Wow to both. read more here

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Weltmeisters! World Champs!

Germany won the World Cup in July!!!!! This is the fourth time they have won.  The Germans were subtly content.

Fans decorated the city with hints of enthusiasm. It was TOTALLY an exciting time to be in the country as nearly every game is televised and crowds cheers (or groans) could be heard through the night.

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The remainder of the month, we kicked-back in Würzburg.   We biked to Würzburg’s public city pool a mile or two away.  This place could be a model for what cities should aim to create with their public spaces.  Dallenbergbad is nice. A spacious park, picnic area and pool. The pools were surrounded by grassy spaces, sand volleyball courts, and enough open space to kick around a Fußball.  Carryins allowed! so a social BYOB is totally cool.

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A Driver’s License

Unabashedly, a big part of our summer has been… duh duh duh da… the Führerschein. So here is how it works: there is grace period for US drivers licenses, meaning Derek was able to drive with his MN license on German roads for 6-months from time of arrival.  We knew his license would be expiring in early August, so in JUNE, he began preparing for a German translation of his license and the subsequent driver’s test. The process was postponed for 3 weeks because there is one person that completes foreign translations for Bavaria, and that person was on holiday most of July. The translation came after the cutoff date, and his test was two weeks away. He turned in his keys and started carpooling with a very nice coworker who lives nearby.

He studied his butt off for this test, taking notes, using their online practice questions and simulations.  There are close to 1000 possible questions, tricky backwards questions, and only 30 on the test.

And he failed by one point.  ONE POINT.

So he rescheduled the test, and studied again. He took it again this week and PASSED!! Whooo!  This man is as happy as a 16-year old.

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AUGUST

In early August, we celebrated Derek’s birthday with a long weekend in the northern Hanseatic cities of Hamburg and Bremen–  more coming soon.

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USA 

My flight to Atlanta departed at 11am on Friday 8.15.  Seems like a pretty easy morning, as far as flights are concerned, right?  Sorta. The fast ICE trains to Frankfurt begin after 6am. I ended up taking one of the sporadic late night 2.5hr regional trains to the airport departing at 4:20 am. I don’t usually go to the Bahnhof at this time so I thought it would be pretty quiet. Well, I was pleasantly surprised to have company–  There were quite a few other travelers and lots of highschoolers heading home from the clubs.

Actually, This is one example of what I love about Germany, even in the middle of the night, most of the train stations are profoundly safe. I must have appeared determined (or weary?) with my 75 lbs of luggage in tow (essentials!)- because two early morning commuters offered to help me with my bags.  Germans are quite good-natured.

 

It was nice to be in America! My first hour in the Atlanta airport was amazing, I could hear what people where saying and interact with language for the first time in 6 months. I ordered a crispy Chick-fil-a and a lemonade and soaked it all in until my flight to Milwaukee.  On Thursday Derek arrived and most of the wedding fun began. I went biking with my dad and this is a photo he took of me at the harbor of my hometown on Lake Michigan. It’s a cheesy shot, but check out those amazing colors.

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After the wedding we stayed a few days with my sister in Northeast Minneapolis.  I went for a run around Lake Calhoun and took in some Uptown, we made a stop at Bun & Isles bakery, Spyhouse Coffee and ate lunch at Colossal Cafe.  We drove by our house in Saint Paul and enjoyed a cookout with some pals.  With a fresh perspective, we immediately noticed how outdated our infrastructure seemed compared to German cities and the impeccably maintained autobahn.  If you were new to the area you would be surprised that the Twin Cities is a prosperous area and a nice place to visit if you only drove along it’s crumbling roads and sidewalks.

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To wrap up our trip, we spent a day with Derek’s parents in Door County Wisconsin before heading toward Milwaukee.  Our flight home was together- which was awesome! We have flown separately the handful of times we’ve been abroad.

 

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With the arrival of September, we are savoring experiences that we will have only once.  Just one ‘Fall’ in Germany and looking ahead we have a few fun excursions planned. In a couple of weeks we will be taking part in a grape harvest at a friend’s family vineyard.  I am sooooo excited!  For future travelers to Lower Franconia, this week has been absolutely gorgeous. We now have 11 months left in Germany, less than a year! Can you believe it? The kids here go back to school in a week (we live next to a school), my day always involves a direct hit of school letting out en masse.

Planning to blog more in the coming months with bits of daily life, hope this will be interesting. So much to share.