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Austrian New Year 26 January 2011

Posted by uggclogs in Christmas, Travelling.
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On Christmas Eve, two twenty-something, bright-eyed, bushy-tailed tourists drove through the mountain passes in the south of Bavaria into Tirol, Austria. Another country neither one of us had ever been to. Another snow-covered, picturesque adventure awaited.

First stop was Wattens, the Swarowski factory and museum. Personally, it was a little out there for me, there was just too much glitter, sparkle and neon. But there were also some beautiful things: my favourite part was the Alexander McQueen/ Tord Boontje Christmas Tree, which was obviously most appropriate for Christmas Eve.

Image courtesy of the internet.

After frolicking in the vast expanse of glittery opulence that is Swarovski, we went on to Mayrhofen, a ski resort town where we had booked 3 nights accommodation to celebrate Christmas. We stayed at a wonderful chalet in the valley which was walking distance to the Penkenbahn, which is the main cable car that takes you up to Penken ski area.

My partner took a lesson on the first day to relearn the tricks of the trade, and I must admit that I took a while to get used to the long flat sticks on my feet, too. At one point standing at the top of a red slope and watching an older American man fall and fly head first all the way down the mountain, I could literally feel my knees knock together, and I felt fear for the first time in my life while skiing.

When younger, I never even thought twice. Back then, I would bounce back up after a fall. I used to ski all the time. And, the big clincher, I had never heard of anyone dying from a skiing accident. Now, older, more brittle, and with a few more skiing horror stories under my belt, I am not as confident. But slowly and surely, I regained my confidence. My partner reminded me of the technique, and soon, I was back to my old tricks, and it was fun again.

The second day of skiing, we had wonderful blue skies, fresh snow, and we found a fantastically fun slope with small cottages selling lunch in the middle of them. You literally skied around the cottages to go down, so we stopped off at one for Goulash Soup and beer. We left our skis on the slope and climbed to the top of a hill (snow boots and all) to get a better vantage point, and to take pictures of the gorgeous backdrop. Many people refused to believe that it was real when we later shared the photos. We sat there together for a while, in the snow, eating snickers bars and watching the sun hit the mountains opposite. Magical.

For my Christmas present, I was given a beautiful scarf (which I had plenty of opportunities to wear in the cold) as well as a trip on the Zillertalbahn, an old steam train going up and down the Zillertal. I love trains. I always did enjoy train rides and seeing old trains, so my partner decided to spoil me by taking me to Jenbach on a local train (which is quite fast) and then back again on the steam train (which is slow and very smelly, but mighty fun). The carriages are also all wooden and quaint, so I was in heaven. While riding, I walked the whole way from one end to the other, and we took lots of photos of each other hanging out of windows and standing behind the locomotive. Good times.

We then decided to drive through the Gerlospass, which is a mountain pass through the alps with more picturesque viewing spots and lovely scenery. We took this way, as we all of a sudden had one extra day (somewhere in the planning, I missed the 28th) and we thought we could do the Grossglockner Road. Driving along, the road started showing up on signs, but crossed out. In Zell am See, we pulled into a petrol station to ask about this, and we were told that this particular road, famous for it’s windy trail through the mountains, is closed for winter, from October to May. Thank you, Lonely Planet, for not mentioning this!

So, my partner suggests that the old farmstead he wanted to stay at should be somewhere nearby. He gives them a call to ask if they can take us. We are in luck, they have a vacancy. So where is it exactly? Turns out that Taxhof is literally 2 km away, up the mountainside. From Taxhof, we could see the petrol station where we had stopped and called them in the valley!

Taxhof, by the way, I will recommend to all who will listen. A real gem that we discovered via the New York Times. It was fantastic food, a relaxed atmosphere, friendly guests who greeted you when you went anywhere and the two sisters running the place are wonderful. The farm has been in the hands of the family for 300 something years, and it was completely different from anywhere I’ve ever stayed before. The barn had a number of donkeys and cows, and while we were there, a calf was born.

In the morning, after there being more snow falling all night, we drove to the start of the Grossglockner Road, and walked up along it to look at the amazing scenery, the snow covered trees and the curtains of icicles tumbling down along the rock face. We threw snowballs at each other and took (more) pictures, and generally amused ourselves by looking for deer (none spotted, but we found plenty of tracks).

After two dreamy nights, feeling most relaxed by now, we continued to Salzburg, where the kitsch and faux-glamour made us cringe. I am sure this is not what Mozart had intended for himself! We went to his birth place and ate copious amounts of Mozartkugln, but it all felt a bit off.

The highlight of Salzburg, however, was our accommodation, which was our Christmas present from my partner’s parents: a stay in Moenchstein castle for a night! That same evening we went to a concert in the Marble Hall in Mirabell Castle, which was quite decadent and wonderful. We ate sandwiches in an Italian pub around the corner.

The next day we continued in one go to Vienna, where we returned the hire car, and went sightseeing. Vienna was truly gearing up to New Years’ Eve, with a festive air throughout the city. We stayed in a private apartment (rented via a sub-let website) for two nights and discovered the delights of the city. We had more sausage (they have fantastic ones filled with cheese in Vienna!) as well as more gluhwein and hot chocolate.

New Year’s Eve we first went to the Statsoper (the National Opera) and saw Die Fledermaus, which was very romantic, although some of the people on stage were ad libbing in German, meaning that we had no idea why everyone else was laughing so hard! After the opera, we had Sachertorte (apparently a must, so we stood in line to get a table) and then we walked to the Heldenplatz for the midnight fireworks.

In Austria, everyone is still allowed to buy and set off their own fireworks, just like when I was little, so I was thrilled about being on a large open space with a 360 degree fireworks display overhead. Kissing each other at midnight with cheers and jubilation, and lots of fireworks… What could be a better way to usher in the new year?

After the fireworks, we walked along with the crowds returning home, calling our parents (his being nine hours ahead and already far into the new day, and mine being an hour behind, preparing to celebrate their own entry into 2011) and generally grinning from ear to ear.

Best holiday ever.

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Three Castles and a Monastery 25 January 2011

Posted by uggclogs in Christmas, Happiness, Travelling, Travels.
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As flights were delayed and cancelled all around Europe, we were worried that we would not be able to travel onwards from Warsaw. I was checking the weather forecasts (and the news about the Christmas tree in Japan being lit up with the electricity generated by an eel) anxiously as we awoke on the Monday morning to snow twirling outside of the windows. We were in luck, however, both Warsaw and Munich airports seem to have heard of this winter phenomenon (“snow”) before, and neither one was seemingly having much trouble. Our flight ended up being only 30 minutes delayed.

We arrived in Munich after dark, and took the train to Marienplatz, where we had found a place to stay. The underground at Marienplatz was cold, grey, and uninviting, though not as cold as the weather had been in Poland. Yet stepping out onto the market square (albeit with suitcases hobbing along behind us) was like stepping into a Christmas romance. The Christkindlmarkt (Christmas Market) there is quite famous, and as we emerged from under ground, there were carollers lined up along the balcony of the Town Hall, singing. Fairy lights, Christmas decorations, sausage stands and other booths selling anything you might need at a Christmas market made us determined to drop off the bags as quickly as possible, and return to drink in the delights of European Christmas.

Image courtesy of the Internet

A most refreshing thing is that the Christmas markets seem to not only be filled with tourists like us, but the locals come out as well to try their hand at the famous gluhwein. Groups of smiling people gathering around standing tables with their real cups (upon return to the stand, you would receive a deposit back), all wrapped up in scarves and gloves, breathing frosty air and enjoying the Christmas spirit together.

Although I must admit that the gluhwein of Poland has a far more potent kick to it than the one in Germany, (who would have thought?) I never thought I could consume this much of it. But everywhere we went, it was a complete must, and we enjoyed letting our spectacles fog up from the cups containing the boiling liquid. For dinner? Currywurst with bread ordered in my most atrocious German. Currywurst is a famous (and delicious) sausage, which, it appears, also has a museum dedicated to it in Berlin. Let the sausage diet begin.

Bavaria has much to offer, but getting around is not easy. The “Romantic Road” is serviced by a number of tour bus companies in summer, but in winter, you are hard pressed to find one. Trains are available, but afford little or no flexibility in general. As we are terrible at deciding in advance what we wish to do on our holidays, flexibility is a must, so we rented a car.

We joined the Romantic Road towards the end of it (at Landsberg am Lech) where we had a break to look at the church and the town in general. Churches in Bavaria (mostly Catholic) are gilded with gold, and have fantastic frescoes. Most of them are open to the public, and shelter a weary traveller somewhat from the cold outside, although they are generally not heated.

From there, we went on to stay at Irseer Klosterbrau, which is an old monastery/ beer brewery which had been recommended to us. It is like stepping back in time, with the rooms entirely fashioned to look like (a modernised and idealised version of) the middle ages; think knights and maidens and eating meat and drinking beer in front of a fire. The beer brewed on site is fantastic, and served in huge steins, or beer mugs. This side trip alone made it totally worth it having the car!

The next day, we did as many castles as we could possibly stomach:

Hohenswangau, a castle built by Maximillian II near the Austrian border. We were taken on a highly efficient but fun tour through the rooms, by a very knowledgeable guide called Wolfgang.

Neuschwanstein, the unfinished castle started by Ludwig II, but stopped after his sudden (and suspicious) death. The famous Disney castle apparently was inspired by this castle. We missed out on going on a horse carriage on the way up to the castle, but we did catch one back down.

Linderhof, which we saw only after closing time, as getting there takes you into Austria, then back into Germany, and is a small mountain road with a lot of snow. Seeing the snow-covered mountains and the icy lakes was a serene and beautiful experience in itself, but driving a small car through them was exhausting. I haven’t done any winter driving for years, so it took a bit of getting used to, especially with giant trucks coming the other way. So getting there took longer than expected, but I don’t think we could have processed the opulence of (yet another) castle had we been there before closing. Walking through the gardens was enough.

That evening we continued to Garmish-Partenkirchen, a mountain town that anyone who follows winter sports will be familiar with (at least by name): I spent every New Year’s Day of my youth with the television on in the back ground showing the annual ski-jumping contest. Cue for more gluhwein, sausage, Christmas markets, cheese fondue, raclette and skiing!

And with that, we ended our Bavarian adventure, as we headed onwards into Austria the next day. Only half-way through our holidays, we were stoked that everything was so perfect!