off the path

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

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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

Wanderlust: Kreuzberg Monastery, Biergarten (and a 13-mile wander)

At the beginning of September there is a multi-day pilgrimage from Würzburg when the faithful walk over 100 km to the region’s holy place, Kreuzberg monastery. The journey is along Marienweg, a trail that connects nearly 50 religious places throughout Franconia.  Aside from news of the yearly pilgrimage, we received recommendations from the web and friends that it was time to make our way to the biergarten at Kloster Kreuzburg.

The Monastery sits at the top of a hill and overlooks the surrounding valley of german moors. The monastic brewery was founded in 1731.  Today the beer is brewed offsite but the biergarten and traditional food pulls a hearty crowd on a Saturday afternoon. As beer was the main attraction, we looked for accommodations (overnight guests can actually rent a room at the monastery!).   Unintentionally, Our hotel was sort of in the middle of the woods: 6km from the nearby village of Bischofsheim an der Rhön… and 9km from the monastery.

It turned out the area was good for hiking! We decided to partake in the german tradition of wander, and set out on a weekend pilgrimage of our own: a 6-mile hike to the monastery on the Hochrhöner trail. The area, known as the Rhön, was filled with grazing livestock and is known for cross-country skiing in the winter.  And we got close to our first live german Schnecke! A snail.

Hiking the scenic loop through the valley lasted all day which gave us plenty of time to record our journey to and from Kreuzburg!

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Our oasis! We ordered half-liters of beer and the traditional fare. For me- lentil noodle soup and for Derek- schweinebraten with potato dumpling and red cabbage.

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On our return trip we added the Zubringer Hochrhöner loop through the village of Bischofsheim a.d. Rhön to cover some new ground, and we stopped there to warm up. I would guess that hiking often begins near here, in Haselbach, a 2km walk up through quiet woods to the monastery.

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By this time the weather had turned steadily more foggy and then to a persistent drizzle. Our buzz from the biergarten was long-gone and our spirits were beginning to dampen. The ground was completely wet. and muddy. and cold.  We walked, and we walked. It was about three hours before we arrived at our starting point, near Schwedenwall (a trench used by the Swedes during the 30 years war). We were content with a hot shower and spent the rest of the rainy night vegged-out, eating pretzels and cheese crackers, and watching old german movies without subtitles on tv.

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The next morning we awoke refreshed and to clear skies. Our day-long hike through the drizzly moors (with a stop at the biergarten) was clarifying and just what we needed.

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And also, we parked next to this vintage baby-blue VW in the parking lot of our hotel!

 

 

Weekend in the Black Forest


A long holiday weekend was approaching near the end of June, giving us a couple of extra days. Perfect for a trip to the Black Forest.   Derek researched and planned the trip to the Schwarzwald (he is much better than I am at planning rural/mountain getaways). I think he found the most beautiful spot in the hills of the Southern Black Forest.  We didn’t know much about the area, only that our guidebook told us the most dramatic elevation stretched east of Freiberg and down to the Swiss border. We knew that we wanted to be within a few km of Kandal, the highest point in the area, then looked at an elevation map to find the valley that looked most interesting and started looking for hotels in the area.

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And that is how we ended up in Simonswald for a couple of days, a small rural gem with a church, a bakery, a town hall, and quite a few B&Bs!  The Simonswalder valley was simply beyond words, the roads in the area wind through the valley for a drive that is completely enchanting.  Similar to the formations we see near the Great Lakes, this valley was formed by glaciers. We arrived on Thursday afternoon with plenty of daylight to spare.

 

On our first day we hiked the hills south of Simonswald for a couple of hours and found ourselves immersed in the quiet forest.

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The stories of the Black Forest were fresh in my memory as we hiked around, Grimm’s Fairytales: Snow White, Cinderella, Little Red Riding Hood, Rapunzel, and of course Hansel and Gretel!  The Grimm Brothers were from the state of Baden-Württemberg, home of the Schwarzwald. They traveled the area and took inspiration from the lore of the forest.  The stories are now public domain; you can download an e-book of Grimm’s Brothers fairytales (free!) from Project Gutenberg.

 

 

Aside from having the vibe of a small traditional german inn, our pension Krone Post had a restaurant with a tasty menu of Schwarzwald specialties.  They had fresh trout delivered (we saw the fish man with live trout in the back of his truck!). I ordered smoked trout with toast and horseradish sauce- delish! Also staying at the hotel was a lively motorcycle club from Cologne; There they are on the patio!

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After dinner we drove to Kandal to watch the late sunset.  Kandal is about 4000ft, and gave us a spectacular view of the western horizon.

 

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Below is the view from Kandal facing east.   The sign is pointing to Bergwacht, the rescue station operated by the Deutsche Rote Kreuz (just out of view).blkforest10

 

 

Friday— Biking! We brought our bikes at the last minute and were glad we did.  We biked the routes around Simonswald, and then into the eastern side of the valley to overlook the town.   It was a cool and cloudy morning, perfect for a restorative morning ride.
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Next, to Triberg, the city of Cuckoo Clocks and home of Germany’s longest waterfall.  We got tickets to what Derek called the “waterfall themepark” and hiked to the top.

 

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We couldn’t leave Triberg without a piece of schwarzwälder torte, Black Forest Cake: Chocolate, cherry, cream, and a little bit of schnapps.

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Freiberg
On Saturday morning after breakfast at Krone Post, we made a stop in Freiberg, the capitol of the Schwarzwald, and walked through their cobbled old-town to the weekend market. Freiberg is about 30km from the French border, and aspects of French culture and restaurants were visible in this area.

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A very cool part of Freiberg was the ground! The pavement is a mosaic of small stones.  In front of the buildings were markers showing the type of establishment (historically) located within. Though the most interesting part might have been the Freiburg Bächle, canals/gutters that run alongside the roads. Historically (12th C.), they were urban fountains intended to direct fresh drinking water through the city, the water leaving the city was likely used to irrigate fields.  We saw light wooden boats for sale at the market and children floating their boats in the canals. Here is a video of the canals.

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A couple of days in the Black Forest and we were relaxed, rejuvenated, and also beat. When we returned to Würzburg I realized I had a fever of 103, and spent the next few days recovering!

 

You can read about the rest of June here!

 

Hirschhorn

The train from Heidelberg to Würzburg stops along the Neckar River.  We stepped off at Hirschhorn, 19km from Heidelberg. The geographic location is sehr schön! Hirschhorn is a tiny historic (restored) medieval half-timber town situated at a bend in the Neckar river, surrounded by the hills of the Odenwald.

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Sunday was the ideal day to be in Hirschhorn, the weather was nice, visitors were drinking wine at cobblestone cafés, and the river bend sparkled in the sunshine.  It was totally dreamy.

From the town center there is a footpath that leads to a once fortified castle/monastery that overlooks the valley: Burg Hirschhorn.  I guess comparatively, Burg Hirschhorn is what you might call a ‘smaller’ castle (ha!), built by the Knights of Hirschhorn in 1250.  A Carmelite monastery was added in 1406.

 

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Modern: In the 1950’s, the castle grounds were converted to a hotel and restaurant, which is where we stopped for lunch and both ordered Currywurst and hiked around the surrounding forested paths.

 

Lunch overlooking the Neckar river. #Hirschhorn

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(click to enlarge)

 

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Hirschhorn has expanded from it’s tiny medieval town-center and is now a modern city where people live and work.