Getting lost on purpose

20121018-221426.jpgWhen we travel, I try to remember to plan in some free time. I’ve found that two “on” days (days with fixed plans and schedules and activities for which the kids have to “behave”, or travel days) followed by one “off” day is about right.

An off day doesn’t have to be a lazy day or a sit-around-and-do-nothing day, though. It just means we won’t make any concrete plans, we’ll sleep as late as we like, we’ll rest for at least part of the day and we don’t have anything we’re trying to accomplish. Today was an “off” day, so we slept in, had a leisurely morning, and then went for a drive with no particular purpose.

20121018-221704.jpgWe drove back to a beautiful lake, called Plansee, that we saw the other day on our way in to town, and B and I got out to explore (Liam was napping so we let him rest). After that, we got in the car and just started to drive. We have a GPS, so we know we can always get home, so we just drove and let ourselves get lost.

Along the way, Liam woke up, we drove to Germany, and we started seeing signs for Schloss Linderhof, another of King Ludwig’s castles. We decided to go check it out.

20121018-221812.jpgIt was beautiful, very elegant, very wooded, and very Bavarian looking. After tormenting the boys (and ourselves) yesterday with the tour of Neuschwanstein, we opted to skip the tour, and just wandered around the grounds. We didn’t last long, but that’s ok — that’s part of having a quiet day.

20121018-221902.jpgWe finished our visit with lunch and ice cream. The boys had their ice cream popsicles while Dan & I finished our lunch, and then we had our own cones. This was a bad idea. Not only did our kids eat half our ice cream (after having their own) but we looked like the worst parents EVER — eating our ice cream cones while our children pathetically asked for “just a bite”. Ah, well. It was a good day anyway.

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Neuschwanstein Castle

20121017-233624.jpgWhen we decided to move to Europe, we made a wish list of places we wanted to visit while we were here. At the top of my list was Neuschwanstein Castle in the Bavarian Alps. It was “Mad King Ludwig’s” castle, and the inspiration for Disney’s Sleeping Beauty Castle. It was a large part of our motivation for planning this trip to Bavaria and Tirol in the first place.

20121017-233720.jpgWe went to see it today! And it was truly beautiful. It fits with its surroundings so perfectly, and is absolutely a romantic inspiration. It is nestled high on the mountainside and surrounded by golden-green foliage. The air was cool and crisp today, and perfect for a walk in the woods. It was exactly what I’d imagined it would be.

20121017-233857.jpgWe had reserved our tickets for an English tour ahead of time. When we arrived, the signs weren’t particularly clear, but we figured it out (parking lot 3 is closest to the ticket office, but that isn’t where we parked). I’d heard that they’re very strict about arrival times for the tour, so we were feeling a bit rushed as we made our way up the mountain. Strollers aren’t allowed in the castle, so we left ours in the car, but since we didn’t want to exhaust the boys by hiking up the mountain before the tour, we opted to take the bus up the hill. (The buses only run every 20 minutes, but we were lucky and got one at just the right time.)

I’d heard that the views from Marienbr├╝cke (Mary’s Bridge) are fantastic, but the bridge was closed, so we had to skip that. That turned out to be for the best, though, because even though the bus dropped us off with 25 minutes to spare, after stopping for a few pictures, we almost didn’t make it — it was a surprisingly long walk from the bus stop.

20121017-233746.jpgThe tour itself was pretty unsatisfying. The castle is beautiful, and very interesting, but the tour is rushed, done by audio guide, and the tour guide (more like a chaperone) was completely disinterested and uninvolved. Trying to do the tour, with the audio guide in one hand and a child in the other, while climbing tons of stairs and trying to keep the kids from touching anything was a disaster. It wasn’t worth the effort.

20121017-233941.jpgThe views from the castle grounds, and of the castle itself, though, were fantastic. The boys were mostly bored (a little post-tour ice cream helped) but we all enjoyed the walk back down the mountain through the lovely autumn woods.

We had a good day, and we got to experience a beautiful castle. I’m very glad we went, but next time I’d certainly skip the tour.

Audi Factory tour

Mostly, I plan our vacations. Generally, Dan helps me pick where in the world we go, but once the destination is selected, I pretty much decide which towns we’re going to go to, which sights we’re going to see, and how long we’ll stay in each place.

There’s usually one thing Dan wants to see on each trip — when we went to Paris, it was the Eiffel Tower; in England he wanted to “see a castle”. For this trip, our barely-Germany trip, Dan requested a stop at the Audi Factory in Ingolstadt.

Today, that’s what we did. We had to hustle to get out of snow-covered St. Koloman in order to get into Germany (yay!) and up past Munich in time for the once-weekly English language tours.

20121017-163339.jpgI went into this mostly to indulge Dan — it was not expensive and only about an hour out of our way — but I really enjoyed it. We saw the press shop (where they use massive machines to stamp metal sheets into parts of cars), the assembly line (which is partly automated with cool robots and partly run by people with a lot of well thought out mechanical assistance) and watched a video on the painting process (the cars get flipped — albeit very slowly — through the paint to ensure that no bubbles form).

It was really cool.

20121017-163355.jpgThe entire process of manufacturing the cars is incredibly precise and yet completely flexible. They make different types of cars on a single assembly line, and a computer system ensures that the right parts and tools are available when and where they’re needed. Efficiency and ergonomics are the priority, and every little detail has been well thought out. Where heavy lifting is required, robots do or assist in the work. Where a human eye or touch is needed, that’s who they use, and no one has to bend or stretch or lift very far. The cars are lifted up and transported overhead to allow the floor to be open for people and machines to move the parts. The facility is massive (larger than the country of Monaco) and they employ over 30,000 people. It was impressive.

The part of my mind that loves order, organization and efficiency was thrilled, and the part of me that likes to see cool engineering was very satisfied. I’d love to see a more detailed tour of another part of the factory (I’d also love to see how a different company, like Honda, addresses the same processes.)

20121017-163320.jpgThe kids did great. Audi provides strollers for the tour (it was a long walk, and also not the kind of place that kids should run around). The boys loved it — the robots were fascinating and seeing a car come from a stack of metal sheets was pretty neat.

20121017-163430.jpgAlso, to get there, we drove on the autobahn, which was an interesting experience. Most cars drive at pretty normal speeds, but every so often we had a car (or a short line of cars) blow past us like we were standing still. There really is no speed limit, except where the electronic sign slows everyone down to 120 or 130 km/h (75 or 80 mph). It works because everyone strictly follows the rules. We finished our day with a drive south, back to Austria. We had a great day. It was a pleasantly unexpected surprise.

Milk with snow

20121015-230522.jpgToday dawned chilly and rainy, and, looking out the window, it appeared that someone had stolen all of the neighboring mountain peaks during the night — only the ridge opposite us, the closest one, was still fully visible through the mist.

Hiking didn’t seem like the right choice for today, given the weather, so we climbed into the car instead for some “car hiking” on and around the mountains near where we’re staying.

20121015-230558.jpgWe first started choosing turns at random, and found ourselves on the Trattberg mountain, climbing up a winding, switchback filled road. We would have been treated to some great views as we climbed up to about 5000 feet of elevation, but as it was, the vistas in front of us were just mountain, edge, and then gray, mist-filled nothingness. When it started to snow, we turned around and headed back down the hill. It wasn’t much snow, but at nearly 1 mile up, in a rented car without winter tires, it was enough to send us back down to the valleys.

We journeyed back, past our hotel, and down into the valley in search of something to eat. We found a snack and fixed a blown fuse in the car, all in the town where Silent Night was written — pretty cool. And then we continued exploring.

We investigated Gasteig, a teeny town pressed right up against the sheer mountain face. And, long after we ran out of roads recognized by our GPS, we found ourselves staring up at some massive mountains only about 2 miles from the German border (but a significant portion of that straight up).

20121015-230652.jpgWe wandered further down the valley to cute Golling, and back through the winding streets beyond, lured by signs for a waterfall. When we finally arrived, B had fallen asleep, so Liam and I hiked through the woods to see the beautiful waterfall. The path was steep, rocky and slippery in the rain, but we didn’t have any trouble until it was time to head back. Liam didn’t want to go back — he kept trying to clamber further up the hill, and attempted to convince me several times to go “That way!” even though “that way” was up the mountain or across a swift river. We made it back to the car, wet and tired but happy, and then drove home to dry off and enjoy a relaxing amend to the afternoon.

Dan went out later to pick up pizza for dinner, and came back with a report of falling snow. We’d seen little bits of spitting snow earlier, and that was what I imagined . . . until the thunder started. We looked out across the balcony to see lightning crackling and heavy, wet snowflakes pouring down. The thunder rolled and echoed for long moments across the mountain ridges.

When Dan went to ask our hostess for some fresh milk for morning, she hiked out to the barn and brought us “milk with snow” (her words — extra impressive because she doesn’t really speak much English). (We didn’t realize we were sending her out into the snow to get it!)

20121015-231134.jpgThe snow fell for a few hours. The two boys who live here (6 and 10) played enthusiastically in it as it fell. We went outside later to find roads, grass and cars lightly coated in wet slushy snow (B made some serious snowballs from the stuff). Our host poked his head out to tell say, “It’s wonderful!” as we played in the falling snow. We came back in to find the skylight in Liam’s room completely coated. (We’re not sure yet, but if this keeps up, we may have to rethink some of our travel plans for tomorrow.)

We could not have asked for a better day or a more wonderful experience here. I was so pleasantly surprised to see everyone here celebrate and enjoy the first snow of the season — here, where snow is so common that you might expect it to seem tedious or mundane. It was really special for us, too.

Twinkle twinkle

Yesterday, in the evening, after dinner but before bath time, we took the kids out for some stargazing. It was chilly, and my poor little city boys were a little freaked out by the depth of the darkness (Liam said, “I scared!”, and when I asked why, he said, “Dark!”). We didn’t stay out long, but even on a partly cloudy evening, we could tell the sky was full of more visible stars than we are used to. B was even able to pick out a few stars that shone with a slightly different color than their neighbors.

But then, later in the evening, after the kids were asleep, Dan and I stepped out onto the balcony to a clear sky absolutely full of bright, twinkling points of light. I was awed by the number of stars, their clarity, and the extent to which they twinkled. It was pretty amazing. We were even treated to a shooting star in the first few moments we were out there.

I bundled up in my heavy coat and stayed out until I got too cold. I’m hoping for another clear night tonight, because I hope to get to sit out and stare at the stars again. (And this time, we’re making hot chocolate.)

Well, I think we found autumn

20121013-221611.jpgWe left Vienna today on our way to Salzburg. What a beautiful train ride! I really like traveling with the kids by train. Austria has a great rail system which allows us a ton of flexibility in scheduling, and we can get up, move around, eat, use the bathroom and enjoy the scenery during the entire trip.

And for this trip, the scenery was particularly lovely. We got to take in all the beauty of the rolling hills, the cuteness of the Austrian villages, the yellows and golds of autumn and the stark slopes of the Alps, all on a trip that took less than 3 hours.

20121013-221645.jpgAnd things only got better once we arrived. We’re staying in the mountains outside of Salzburg, on a working, organic farm. We’re situated most of the way up a mountain, looking across a little valley at some very large, snow-dusted peaks, surrounded by the colors of fall as well as chickens, cats, cows and tons of rabbits. Our entertainment this afternoon consisted of watching our hostess milk the cows — and later, enjoying the resultant milk as a snack.

20121013-221709.jpgAfter dark, we took a short walk to gaze at the stars (which were brighter and more numerous than I’ve seen in a long while, even on a cloudy night) and then took a short drive (Benjamin’s idea) to peer down at the sprinkle of lights that mark the town down in the valley.

It’s chilly out here. I felt silly for packing parkas, boots and hats when we left a reasonably warm Vienna (60 degrees) this morning. But being out here, where autumn has definitely arrived, it makes sense.

So far, I am loving this trip. And we haven’t even seen anything of Salzburg but the train station.