Now, this part of the trip was really supposed to be about Eastern Europe and other lesser seen lands, but after deciding to go to Vienna and reading about Austria – I guess I got a bit carried away planning in things to do there.
And let’s face it, Austria plays little brother to Germany quite a lot. I mean, what does one really know about Austria besides the Sound of Music and yodeling? (click the link for some excellent audio samples) We wanted to find out more.
We hired a car in Vienna. That was the first challenge – turned out the office was located in a parking garage outside the city, but we found it. Second challenge, Jenn’s US license expired on Jan 8 this year. Luckily, they read it the European way as 1 Aug. The car hire lady commented “So, your license expires…today?!” I said yes, but explained in the US you have to renew it often, and it’s really just a formality and a way to take $30 off you. I showed her my website print out receipt of the renewal. Granted, it was all a bit dodgy sounding. But she seemed ready to make the deal and just warned “Well, I hope the Austrian police understand too.” I vowed in my mind, to not go so much as one mile over the speed limit.
First stop: Graz
Austrian’s second largest city: Graz. Its Old Town is UNESCO listed for its collection of buildings from different epochs coexisting alongside one another. It’s located in the state of Styria which is famous for two things: hot springs and as the birthplace of California Governator: Arnold Schwarzenegger. Along the way, we traveled through some gentle rolling hills and stopped for a bagette which we thought was a sandwich but in reality was a sort of open-faced garlic bread/pizza thing. We continued to run into this same meal time and time again in Austria, much to our chagrin.
We checked into our hostel – to find out I’d book two ladies rooms. Chris got moved to the men’s dorm with 2 others. I ended up with no one in mine and was quite pleased about that.
The town itself was nice and followed the model of most European towns with a square and impressive Rathaus (town hall) at the centre, with boulevards and smaller streets leading off it. It was raining again, but we meandered around it – trying to get a sense of the place. But I have to be honest and stop you here – in spite of it’s obvious charm and fast flowing river which was mesmerizing to watch, Graz wasn’t easy. Firstly, it’s where I had my first argument ever in German. After which, the story of Graz sort of ended for me.
Our first night there, we settled on a little restaurant hidden in a private courtyard, recommended in our guide book. As it was still warm, we bore the rain under a huge outdoor umbrella – as were many others. Our waitress was heavily pregnant, and I thought her working there was just too risky, as the cobbles in the courtyard were uneven and wet. We ordered, then she came over later to ask me directly what I ordered again. I told her, then she walked off. My food comes, Chris’ doesn’t. I ask some other woman inside, if it can be brought. Our waitress returns, saying in German how she asked me and she brought what I asked for. I explained my German wasn’t good, and that she only asked me so I’d assumed she remembered Chris’ order from the first time, as she didn’t ask him but only me. In the end, she brought the food. But then, she didn’t bring the bill for ages after I’d asked for it. I had to ask the manager for it again…and by this point I think we all knew that this situation wasn’t going to get any better for either party.
The next morning we were also frustrated by the hostel staff who sent us on a wild goose chase for an internet cafe that was in fact out of business – only to neglect telling us about the 3 literally around the corner, as they ‘weren’t as nice.’ Seriously, who the frick cares if they are nice? Does one exist? Where is it? Seriously, I was so annoyed with Graz by then, I just wanted to get the heck out.
Onwards and upwards to Lesachtal
We carried on deeper into southwest Austria, up into lush mountains and heart-stopping gorges carved out by rivers. Our destination: the Lesachtal Valley, known for it’s great hikes. The most famous one is the Carnic Peace Trail. Running along the top of the Alps – the trail was named in honor of the Austrians and Italians who fought and died along it’s ridge in WWI. You can hike along, stopping for food and a sleep at a series of Hütte (huts). We didn’t have time to do the whole trail, but wanted to do at least a full day’s hike and say at one Hütte – which had about 19 beds and 10 ’emergency beds.’ I figured the latter was basically a spot on the floor, tho Chris seemed to find the idea of getting one of these ’emergency beds’ a hilarious prospect.
Enroute, we stopped off for a break and a small lunch of rye bread, cheese and apple by the Wörthersee, a huge lake popular with holiday-makers. We spotted swimmers, para-sailing, wind surfing, water skiing and sailboats.
The road continued, becoming a single track along cliffs, and just as I thought my nerves would go – we arrived. With help of a local who seemed thrilled with the fact he’d recognised my accent as American, found our bed & breakfast in the small village of St. Lorenzen. The Obernosterer family who ran the place were incredibly nice, as was our room with it’s unobstructed view of the surrounding mountains. We immediately decided to book an extra night there, and ditch the hütte. Our hostess brought up coffee and slices of sweet bread. A bit more settled, we did a mini-hike around the village hills, and had a nice dinner at the one restaurant in town.
Next day, full from a breakfast of boiled egg, museli, yoghurt and milk fresh from the family’s cow – we popped into the information centre in the neighbouring town of Leising, and got confirmation that the hike we’d chosen to from Birnbaum to Wolayersee (a lake in the mountains) was indeed a 2.5hr hike, easily do-able in a day (in reality it took us 8 hrs, but hey…who’s counting). We drove on, along a winding road that soon turned from paved to dirt until we found the parking place.
10am and the day was already heating up, but our spirits were high and we were greeted by lovely meadows of wild flowers and a following a river where we cooled our faces. There were a couple of small cottages as well as the remnants of a foundation for one long since abandoned, and I was left wondering who lived there? What were their lives like? Winter must have been difficult. Did they farm, and use the river nearby? Lately I’ve wondered about living in a more natural as opposed to man-build environment, and this awakened the notion.
The path then began to become more steep. We passed a waterfall whose powerful force produced a cool mist that helped cool us off again. I took the chance to fill up my water bottle (with filter attachment), which was a really wonderful feeling, being able to drink directly from such an amazing water source.
Higher and higher we went, stopping to have a sandwich and drink water from time to time. Eventually, we couldn’t see where we started from below, as we’d gone around the mountain’s side – which only revealed even higher peaks. We carried on, not knowing really how far we’d come or still had ahead of us. Chris tired to use his gps/sat nav iPhone app a bit to help. We began to notice patches of white on the mountain. We were curious – were they ice or snow – or maybe veins in the rock? They were much too far away to know.
We then came to a gate and sign which had a jovial looking cow poster on it, tho the text written below warned us to keep our distance. Sure enough, we spotted the cows who seemed peaceable, if not a bit too near to close to the path for comfort. We saw the biggest house yet, with huge barn and pretty horses with chestnut fur and blonde manes. There was an old woman sitting outside, speaking to some hikers. Posted on her gate was a little poem, and I was sorry my German wasn’t good enough to really appreciate its meaning – though I think the jist of it was that if you were thirsty to come have a drink.
We were really getting tired now, but as there was a man much older than us ahead and also with a walking stick, we didn’t feel sorry for ourselves for long. Up one more hill, then down again – we spotted more cows in another meadow of dark green. We zig-zagged our way up another hill and then, there it was…the Wolayersee.
Up so high, the clouds were literally touching us and it felt like reaching heaven. But our legs were weary and we made for the hütte for some tea, pasta and more cheese. I had a little chat with a woman sitting near us about the long hike. They were from Linz, and we each spoke about our holidays in the area. Somewhat revived, we walked around the small lake. One side was green and full of colourful flowers of blue, pink, white and yellow – all in bloom. While the other side was grey stone, rocks and pebbles with some of the mysterious white stuff in one corner.
I took a few minutes to sit peacefully by the water’s edge, meditating about where I was and just be in the moment. Chris investigated the white stuff – it was snow! Melting from beneath, we could see straight under it as if a cave was forming made of ice. It was so icy, we could see the cold air whisking off of it. It was amazing.
We then came to a small man-built double wall. There was small opening, and on the other side – another hut and an Italian flag! This was the wall built during WWI, and the sight of many days of war and battle. Chris wanted to have a coffee on the Italian side, and I have to say, that side did have better coffee.
We then made our way down, and the clouds seemed to be taking a turn for the worst. They were literally following us down, just above our heads, lower and lower. I stopped for a pee break, and we spotted little furry creatures hopping around – Alpine marmots. They were really cute and looked like baggy rabbits. But Chris warned that we’d better hurry up, or pretty soon we’d literally be inside a thunderstorm! Down and down we went, all the while saying how far down it was and that we couldn’t believe we’d walked up so far. We saw a few wooden look-out huts, maybe used during the war. And also noticed that near the waterfall on the cliff, a face of a military commander had been carved and painted. Things never look the same going down as they do going up, do they?
We finally made it to the first parking area, but still had a ways to go to where we were parked. We saw a car pulling out – and out popped the lady I’d chatted to at the hütte! She offered us a ride, and I was so pleased to have made a friend using my German. We gladly accepted, chatting about our long trip and also learning about how Heinz had a sister in San Diego and loved visiting, especially San Francisco. Regina had been to London and her daughter did a big trip around Asia too and really loved it. We got a little lost finding our car – but Chris’ trusty GPS led us back and we parted with our new friends with big waves and smiles.
Totally beat, but elated at the same time – we had a nice dinner of local dumpings (filled with polenta and cheese) and made it back to our room just to witness the thunderstorm of a lifetime. Lightening all around, right in front of our faces in all directions…it was impressive and humbling. Chris took on the challenge of trying to capture it with his camera…and did!
We went to sleep, happy and tired and full.
The sounds of Salzburg
Next day, we drove onwards to Salzburg. The drive was also very picturesque and mountainous, and we drove through lots of tunnels that went straight through the mountains and surrounding rock. One tunnel charged us €10. I pointed to our window sticker (which the car hire place said was valid everywhere, except the tallest mountain in Austria). I guess this was it then?!
We arrived in Salzburg a bit late, but with enough time to change to get ready for our big Mozart Dinner Concert in honor of the cities most famous son. Originally, I’d wanted to attend one of the performances happening that week as part of the Festspiele, but they were sold out. This offered lots of Mozart, dinner and costumes! Tucked away inside a peach coloured courtyard, we walked down a long hallway into an ornate baroque ballroom with over a dozen tables. Ours was all English-speakers (from Canada and the UK), which was likely intentionally arranged to promote conversation between performances, which followed each course. We heard bits from Don Quixote and The Magic Flute – played by a small chamber orchestra of 1st & 2nd violn, viola, cello and bass with a male and female opera singer. The food was great, and we both enjoyed the music of course.
We strolled around the town that evening and also the next morning – and were struck how out of time it felt. Bits of the squares were not paved, but just had earth with small pebbles. There were horses around, and no modern buildings in sight. Without any cars allowed, it really didn’t seem much changed in the last century. In fact, The Old Town is entirely UNESCO listed, and one can tell why, as it is a real gem.
I was a little sad to see so many high street shops within the buildings, but there were also a few traditional crafts people such as the original Mozart Kugel maker Paul Fürst – who invented this famous treat of marzipan, nougat and chocolate.
The next morning we quickly pasted by Mozart’s birth house and then onto his Wohnenhaus where he lived from 17 and onwards. We didn’t have time to go into either one, but in the gift shop of the latter both read his life history from one of their books. It gave lots of ‘facts’ about his skills and compositions, as well as where he lived. But the fact that he racked-up huge debts, was generally disliked by other musicians and found it difficult to get work – hinted to a life of being unaccepted and unappreciated. It’s funny today, as without Mozart it seems Salzburg wouldn’t have much of an identity. His image and name is everywhere and he’s the reason so many go – as everyone wants to touch a bit of genius. But the reality is, he was buried in a pauper’s grave and in spite of his talents, his life was still difficult.
Leaving these questions unanswered, we went back to Vienna to leave the car and our friends Florian and Miki before collecting our bicycles for the Danube Bike Trail trip…