Storm in the mountains

After our fantastic experience with Sommerrodelbahn, we did the only thing we really could have the next day — we went back!  This time, we did 5 whole round trips, and we were becoming pretty well expert at the whole process.  Liam still wanted to ride with me, and B wanted to ride with Dan, so that’s how we did it again the second day.  We all got braver and went even faster — I only used the brakes when Liam told me to, and Dan actually let B drive for several of their trips down.  It was just as much fun the second time.

1366This time, though, I opted not to bring my phone (I spent much of the first day worried that it would skip out of my pocket on either the way up on the lift, or on the way down in the sled), so instead I’ll share a few pictures of the big thunderstorms that came through later that afternoon . . . and a picture of B playing with a cat, because it’s cute.  (I’m really grateful that we didn’t get caught up on the chairlift in that weather!)

It was quite an experience to watch the storm roll in to the northwestern edge of the valley, and then move across towards us at the southeastern end.  At first we could see the rain falling as it approached, but as the storm moved closer, we gradually lost sight of more and more of the distant mountains, then the valley, and then everything that wasn’t right in front of us.  Behind the storm, the air got cold, so unlike our first few days in Sankt Koloman, where we were trying to keep cool in the evenings by staying out on the balcony, this night I had to come inside after just a little while, because I couldn’t keep warm.






The first time I heard about “summer sledding” (Sommerrodelbahn) was before I came to Austria.  Back when we were preparing to move here (and I knew nothing about Austria other than apple strudel and ‘The Sound of Music’), we watched a Rick Steves show about Vienna and the surrounding areas, and he mentioned it.  I really knew nothing about it, and I came away with the impression of it being something done on luge tracks or something, but during the summer months.

Then we moved here, and I remember reading something about it again.  Whatever it was that I read about it gave me a slightly better idea of what it was about (and I remember reading that it was “fun for the whole family!” or something like that), but it still sounded very fast and a little scary, and I came away with the idea that it was something we might be able to do with the kids one day, if we stayed here long enough for them to be a bit bigger.

Then, last spring, during a visit with our pediatrician, we were chatting about our respective plans for the summer, and I mentioned that we were going back (again) to one of our favorite places near Salzburg.  “You’ve done Sommerrodelbahn, right?”, she asked.  I was surprised, because I had a definite impression of it being for bigger kids, but my pediatrician obviously knows how old my kids are, and she told me that she’s taken her 4 year old twins summer sledding before, too.  She assured me that it was age-appropriate, and that we would all love it.  Based on that recommendation, I decided we should give it a try.

I knew that the area in the mountains near Salzburg was well known for good summer sledding locations, and I looked up 2 places near where we were staying.  I still really had no idea what to expect, but when I looked it up, it seemed a little expensive for what I expected it to be.  Still, I thought we’d give it a try.


Ski lifts in the summer are weird

We drove over to the other side of the valley, very nearly to the German border (as in, it was a few hundred yards away down that same road) to the place we had chosen.  We waited in line and bought our tickets.  I had no idea whether we were going to like it, and since it was a little expensive, we just bought a single trip up and down for each of us.  I still really didn’t know what was going on, what to expect or what to do next.  But, it looked like everyone else was waiting in line for the ski lift, so that was what we did, too.  (You’d be amazed at how many of your actions are determined by what other people are doing when you live in a foreign country.)  I’ve never ridden on an open-style chair lift with my kids, so that was intimidating enough (we’ve done lots of cable car/gondola style lifts, and once a drag lift when we were skiing, but never a chair lift).  I spent the first trip up with my arms wrapped around Benjamin, fearful that he’d slip out, or that he’d do something crazy, not understanding the potential danger.  (Neither of those things happened.  We had a lovely — if a little sunny — ride up and got an amazing view of the valley.  I’m guessing that a sunny ski lift is a bonus in January.  In July, it’s just 20 minutes of sitting in the sun without any shade, which I had never thought about.)  On the way up, we got a few quick glimpses of people “sledding” down, and I began to see why I hadn’t really understood the concept before.  Sommerrodelbahn translates as ‘summer toboggan run’, and the little sleds do look a lot like large, plastic toboggans, so I see where the “sledding” part comes in.  But the “sleds” run on a metal track (so there’s no need to steer), which is, I think, where the “luge” concept kind of comes in.  I was thoroughly intrigued, and a little freaked out — they looked like they got going pretty fast!



We got to the top and were treated to an amazing view.  We followed some signs which led us (oddly) into and through a restaurant, down some stairs, and out the bottom of the restaurant, where we waited in another line, and where we could watch as other people climbed aboard their sleds.  The sleds came down the line, and an operator collected the sled and helped to park it while the rider (or riders — it was very common for small children to sit on their parent’s lap, which was what we intended to do) climbed in.  The rider got seatbelted in, waited for the green light to signal that there was enough free space between them and the rider ahead, and off they went!


I was grateful that we’d gotten to see a few people go through the process before it was our turn.  We decided that Dan would go down first, because there was no question that he’d be going faster than I would be.  B chose who he wanted to ride with (Dan, and I figured the boys would both prefer to ride with him, because he’d probably go faster), so he & Dan were up first.  They climbed in, got seatbelted (there was even a special double seatbelt for kids riding in laps!) and headed off down the hill.  Liam and I followed right behind.

I was nervous, and overly cautious.  The only control we had was a lever that we pushed forward to go faster and pulled on to slow down.  At periodic intervals along the track, there were signs that signaled that it was time to apply the brakes, and I dutifully followed the directions (although I didn’t get going fast enough to really need them on that first run).  Though it looked like a cross between a sled and a luge, the sensation was most similar to being on a very small, individually controlled roller coaster.  We snaked down the hill, through the woods and then out into the clearings again, under the ski lift, down some steep drops and through a tunnel.

It was fantastic.



Benjamin and Dan greeted us excitedly at the bottom of the hill.  Benjamin’s exclamation of, “Holy schnitzel, that was fun!” was maybe the most perfect description possible for the experience.  Without question, we waited in line for another round of 1330tickets — and this time, we bought 3 round trips.  Again, B & I rode up together (I felt safer having Dan ride with Liam, who is wigglier) but, I was pleasantly surprised (actually, I was thrilled) that when it was Liam’s turn to pick a riding partner for the next trip down, he elected to stay with me.  We went down for the second time, and it was even better — in part because I was less fearful, and actually let it go a bit on the straight sections.  (We did end up stuck behind a REALLY cautious woman and her daughter on one trip down, which was both a little frustrating and a little dangerous — she didn’t just slow down, but came to frequent complete stops on the track, leading to a bit of a pileup behind her.)  The sleds are limited to a certain speed, so you can’t get going too fast, but they go fast enough to get a bit of a thrill.

1342(After our second trip, we decided to actually stop in the restaurant at the top to get some lunch.  I knew we were close to the German border, so I looked it up while we were waiting for our food . . . and discovered that we were, quite literally, ON the border.  I actually don’t know which country we had lunch in.  That is a pretty strange sensation, as is the fact that crossing international borders has become completely routine.  When we first moved here, I was attached to my passport like it was some kind of life preserver.  I didn’t leave the house without it . . . no kidding.  I remember that when mine expired, after we’d been here about a year, I had some massive anxiety about being without it for a few days while it was being replaced.  Now, though I do travel with it — because you never know — I don’t worry about it all that much, and I’ve made several international border crossings without it.  Including, it seems, a few times on foot.)



We made our last few trips down (each time, I rode up with B, and down with Liam), and each time, we went a little faster.  We got pretty brave about it.  This definitely goes on the list of great experiences we’ve had while living in Austria, and I would say that it’s something not to be missed if you ever get the chance to do it.  No exaggeration, it was one of the most fun things I’ve ever done.

Leaving Heiligenblut

Back to our adventures from our summer vacation

We had spent 4 lovely days in Heiligenblut.  We had ridden on cable cars, seen Austria’s tallest mountain, visited a shrinking glacier, had several snowball fights, driven through the high Alps and generally fallen in love with the beautiful town.  We were sad to be leaving, but excited to go to one of our favorite vacation spots in Austria — a tranquil mountainside farm, just outside of Salzburg.  Besides, to get there, we’d have to drive on the High Alpine Road one more time.


We finished packing, said goodbye to an overcast Heiligenblut, and headed up the mountain once more.  But, what started as a cloudy morning in the valley became an intensely foggy one up in the higher elevations.  Like, “I really hope there’s a road out there somewhere” foggy.  So, we weren’t treated to any of the spectacular views we’d enjoyed earlier in the week, but we did discover our favorite playground ever (well, my favorite, at least) when we were almost down the other side.




It had swings, climbing ropes and other normal stuff, but it also had stuff to dig and “pan for gold” (something that the area is known for) and, in one corner of the playground, a little spring-fed mountain stream trickled in.  The playground had all of these great basins, drains, chutes and canals to contain, redirect and channel the water.  The boys and I spent a few hours sending the water through a house, under a bridge and through a water wheel.  It was a ton of fun, and the whole setup encouraged the boys to plan and strategize, and then to be patient as the water filled up the basins enough to follow whatever route they had chosen.  I absolutely loved it.  (And, like everything in that area, the view was amazing.)




After finally getting under way again, and stopping for lunch at the only food truck I’ve ever seen in Austria (Der Burger Baron), we made our way though the mountains towards Salzburg.  The mountains, though still large and imposing, looked different from those we’d grown accustomed to in our few days along the High Alpine Road — as B said, “If there’s no snow, it’s not a mountain.”  (Even though it was early July!  Our perspective had definitely been altered.)


We finally made our way to Sankt Koloman, our destination.  We had made it back to one of our favorite spots in all of Austria, and we were truly happy to be there again.  (I even got to see a fireworks display down in the valley that night, like a slightly delayed July 4th celebration!)


And . . . we’re back!

We had a great vacation.  We saw some new (to us) places in Austria, had some amazing experiences (including one of the most fun things I’ve ever done — sommerrodelbahn) and actually got a chance to relax and recharge as a family, for maybe the first time.  (We’ve vacationed before, but I don’t think we’ve ever really achieved “relaxation” before as a family.)  It was truly a fantastic trip, and I’m going to write all about it, very, very soon (not like last year’s vacation, which I’m still working on writing about . . . and which I will also get back to soon).

But, for today, we’re back, we’re on a new schedule, and I suddenly feel like I don’t know how to be a stay-at-home parent anymore.

In retrospect, planning a pediatrician appointment for today, our first day “back to normal” (and it’s a new normal) was not the wisest plan.  But, we were gone the last two weeks, our pediatrician leaves on Friday for her vacation, and this is one of those things that we wanted to get done during the summer, so here we are.  (We also have a dentist appointment on Thursday, and at least 3 other doctor’s appointments to try to get in this summer.)  Besides the pediatrician appointment, though, I just feel like I don’t know what I’m doing.  I’m home, with the kids, just me & them all day.  And though I’ve been a stay-at-home mom for almost 6 years now, I suddenly feel like this is all very new again.  How does this all work?  How do I get things done?  How do I shower?  How do I go out for a run?  How do I get the groceries?  How do I manage both boys safely at the playground?  How do I fold the laundry, go to the bathroom, or prepare a meal without someone getting hurt?  I used to do this all the time — why don’t I remember how to make this happen???


But, of course, the challenge is that it’s not the same as it’s ever been before.  Liam was never in school before this year, so this is the first time I’ve had him at home full time since he’s gotten used to that schedule.  B isn’t napping anymore, so this is the first time I’ve tried to get Liam down for a nap while B is doing other things.  Both boys are bigger and more energetic.  They both have more need to expend their extra energy and more ability to injure each other while they’re playing.  While they’re old enough to reason with (more or less) they’re also old enough to require a bit more substantive mental stimulation.  And, for the first time, I’d gotten used to having some time on my own every day, so the loss of it is uncomfortable for me.

It’s fine, though.  We’ll figure it out — we always have before.  And I know that I’m not alone in this feeling.  Parents everywhere are suddenly faced with the same dilemma — “Why is my house suddenly overrun by these short, demanding people, and what am I supposed to do with them?!?”


For our last full day in the Alps south of Salzburg, we decided to drive up a mountain close to the farm where we were staying.  Twice before, we’ve stayed at this farm, and each time, we’ve attempted to drive up this mountain.  Both times before, we were thwarted by snow.

108The first time (last October), what was a gentle drizzle at the farm became an icy mess and furious flurries with seriously obscured visibility as we made our way almost to the top.  The second time (late last March), the road was simply impassable due to heavy amounts of snow.  But, the third time is theoretically the charm, so we decided to try again.  The weather was relatively warm (nearly 60 at the farm — closer to 40 at the top) and although there had been snow several days before, the forecast was for clear skies.  We went to the grocery store, selected picnic items, and set off.


Unlike our previous attempts, this time the visibility was good, and we got to enjoy the view.  Every time we go up into the Alps, I’m amazed by the vastness of the expanse of peaks we can see marching off into the distance — although the valleys in between are cozy, with tiny towns, the mountains are jagged and gray and, even in mid-October, mostly snow covered.  They are intimidating, they are wild, and we were driving up the side of one of them.


In addition to a criss-cross of stone, wood and wire fencing used to section off cattle who graze up here in the summer, Trattbergalm has lots of hiking/cross country skiing trails (all marked as “moderate” or “significant” challenges — in other words, not for hiking with the kids), several parking areas, and even a few mountain hut restaurants.  We found a parking area with a scenic spot nearby (with extra credit for the fences situated between us and the edge) and enjoyed our picnic overlooking a stretch of the central Austrian Alps.

131On our way back to the car, we were intrigued by a large-ish, furry looking, black and white shape coming down from the peak behind a couple of hikers.  Was it a dog?  It looked too big.  Was it a cow?  It moved pretty quickly for a cow on the kind of slope, and besides, they would have all gone back down to their valley or mountainside farms at the end of the summer.  Honestly, I was thinking it was a pony or maybe a small donkey, until it came farther down the slope and we saw that it was a (for real) mountain goat, with a black front half, a white back half and massive horns.


After watching it descend the hill and wander towards the parking lot, we retreated to the car, but kept watching.  (None of my many pictures came out very well — I felt like I was trying to photograph the Loch Ness Monster.)  It wandered around the parking area for a bit, and then walked off down the road.  According to the hikers we saw coming down with it, they had climbed to the top of the mountain, and started back down when they suddenly realized there was this sizable goat following right behind them.  (That must have been pretty nerve-wracking!)


After a bit, and a short way (away from the goat), we got back in the car and drove on (after the goat) and eventually came to end of the road.  We parked again and followed the path (and some signs) to a mountain restaurant where we enjoyed mugs of hot 148chocolate while the kids played on the playground and washed their hands in mountain spring water.  It had gotten quite chilly as the sun set behind the peak, and we soon headed back to the car to warm up.

We had a great day — and I’m glad we finally made it up the mountain as far as we could drive.  So many of the things we’ve seen on these adventures seem so perfect, so lovely and exactly what we’d wish to see, that it’s hard to remember at times that they aren’t just a put on for the tourists.  The mountain goat, the Alpine view, the hot chocolate from the hut at the top of the snow-dotted mountain, the fresh mountain spring, the cattle grids for the cows that spend the hot summers on the top of the cool mountain … that’s just how it is there.  You start to 158wonder if there isn’t someone in the background saying, “Cue the goat!”, but it’s really just life in this part of the world.  We just happened to visit and get to enjoy it on a (relatively) warm Monday in October.

On the way back to the farm, we drove through a tiny town whose church bells were ringing the hour and past a pair of deer grazing along the side of the road without concern, neither of which did anything to erase the impression of too-perfectness.  But that’s how it was.  Just almost too perfect, and a wonderful end to this adventure in the mountains.

City mice

When I was little, I spent a few years living in the country.  And for my entire childhood (as best as I remember) I was happy to play in the dirt, walk barefoot in the grass, roll down hillsides, jump in leaf piles and splash in muddy puddles.  I don’t know if those early years living in the country set me on the path of being comfortable with nature, or if that was just always who I was going to be.  Certainly, as the years went on and I became completely enamored of and quite involved in the world of horses, I became even more comfortable with all of the things that outdoor life includes — dirt, bugs, heat, cold, splinters, mosquito bites, an occasional wild animal, and a rare but real need to be capable of some level of first aid and crisis management.

032In my vision of life as a parent, I always imagined my kids would be like me.  Dirt, bugs, weather, outdoors — no problem.

Not so.

Although I’ve done so far (I think) an amazing job of raising kids who are great travelers, have open minds, and who really know how to roll with it when things don’t go according to plan, they are, in different degrees, not so much down with “nature”.  Don’t get me wrong — they like playing outside and generally being outdoors, but only as long as there is not too much dirt, too many animals (wild or domesticated, but dogs are ok) or pretty much any bugs at all.

033I think it’s all the city living.  Sure, we VISIT the countryside — we hike, and play, and stay on working farms — but we come back to our attic apartment in the chic downtown of one of the cleanest, nicest and safest cities I’ve ever seen.  While at home in the US, there would have been trips to the barn to visit the horses, pumpkin patches in the fall and berry picking in the spring, outdoor swimming pools, camping trips and even just visits to Grandpa’s house (which has a yard and a very cool tire swing), here there is none of that.  Pumpkins and Christmas trees have been picked and cut before we buy them, the swimming pools are indoors, horses pull carriages and are not to be touched, and camping is something we do in our living room.

034This most recent trip to Sankt Koloman reminded me of how much my boys are “city mice”.  The farm we stayed on is a working organic farm.  They have cats (including a kitten who was a big hit with the kids), rabbits, chickens (Benjamin collected the eggs for our breakfast one day), goat and cows.  Both boys were intrigued by the animals (watching the cows get milked was the highlight of Benjamin’s trip, and Liam keeps asking where the kitten is) but they were not fond of the mud on their boots nor the inevitable bees and flies that come from being in the country in nice weather.

040I suspect this will change on its own after we go back to the US.  Before we left, our lives in the States included experiencing a lot more of nature, more regularly, than we do now.  I imagine it will again.  I really hope my boys will learn that the bees and bugs and dirt are all a small price to pay for the joy of being outdoors.  Really, I know they will — and I suspect that in a few years, when I’m pulling dead beetles out of the lint filter on the dryer, I’ll laugh at myself for ever thinking that they might not.


After our chaotic first day of our most recent trip to the Salzburg area, I was really looking forward to doing something fun.  Our plan for the second day was to visit Hallstatt, a tiny, ancient town in the Salzkammergut.


Golling, on the way to Hallstatt from Sankt Koloman

Hallstatt has been on my list of places to visit since we first began to even consider a move to Austria.  One of the first things we did when we started pondering our relocation was to watch Rick Steves’ program about Austria.  That first information inspired many of our early explorations here (including our bike trip along the Danube last year).  I came away truly charmed by the idea of Hallstatt, and I knew we’d want to go while we were here.  So far, it was the last remaining place on that first list we made of places to see, and it was actually the main inspiration behind this particular weekend away.  I didn’t want to risk NOT seeing it while we live in Austria, especially since I’ve truly been looking forward to it from the beginning.

074It lived up to every expectation.

We were in the mountains, to be sure.  It was several degrees colder when we got out of the car than it had been when we got in, and the height of the peaks, coupled with the already decreasing height of the sun’s arc through the sky meant that the sun set and rose again several times during our visit.

We started (as we so often do) with a stop in the playground in the neighboring town of Lahn.  Vehicular traffic is severely limited within Hallstatt, so you have to park in the next town over and walk.  Along the way, we were greeted by swans, and we were completely charmed by our lakeside stroll to a town that looks more genuinely “Austrian” than any we’ve seen.


It’s not hard to believe that Hallstatt has been there a long time.  As Rick Steves points out, “There was a Hallstatt before there was a Rome”, although train service there didn’t begin until the late 1800s.  The labyrinth of winding, narrow streets, lined by gabled r087oofs and wooden-shuttered windows fronted by flower boxes full of pink, purple, white and red, and nearly absent of cars, made us feel like we’d stepped into another time.  Walking along the lake edge (there are only two streets that really cut lengthwise through the town — one along the lake, one up on the hillside) we were followed by hopeful swans, and we ended up in the main square, which was probably the most picturesque we’ve found in all of our travels.

I absolutely loved Hallstatt.  I loved the smell of the wood smoke, the gurgle of the waterfall the falls from the mountaintop behind the town, the rush of the crystal clear streams that rush through the town (and beneath many of the houses).  We spent a beautiful day there.  I’m so 091glad we went.

We ended our day at the docks, looking back over the town and dangling our (booted) feet in the water (trying to convince the ducks and swans that our rubber boots were not good to eat).  The moon rose over the mountain, and it got very chilly as the autumn evening fell, but it was perfect, beautiful and peaceful in Hallstatt.  (Of course, my phone ran out of battery about halfway through the day, so I don’t have nearly as many pictures as I’d like.  That’s ok.  I don’t think I’ll forget.)


The lost day

I had a plan.  (I always have a plan.)  The dog sitter was coming at 8:30 to pick up Bailey, Dan needed to pick up the car, we would have some last-minute packing to do, we all needed to have breakfast, and Dan and I each needed a shower.  I set my alarm for 7:30, with a goal of leaving the house at 10:00, but I really wanted to be on the road to Salzburg by 11:00.  We’d have a busy morning, but not a crazy one.

But, things did not go according to plan.  Dan, who was in charge of packing for this trip, left everything until the last minute.  The morning became a flurry of tracking down boots (Dan had packed two right foot boots in two different sizes for Liam), finding winter clothes and accessories not yet unearthed from last winter, and keeping the kids out of piles of semi-organized but as yet unpacked clothes.  But the last-minute packing was to be the smallest of our delays for the day.

Running only a little late (the 10:00 departure time was now impossible, but leaving at 11:00 was still a reasonable goal), Dan left to pick up the rental car from the other side of central Vienna.  And then he came right back, because he realized that he had booked the car for the wrong dates.  A somewhat frantic Germenglish phone call to the rental car company later, and he was off again, with a new car reserved.  Except that when he got there, it wasn’t there.  They had arranged to have the car brought over from another location (at the airport) but it wouldn’t be there … until noon.

Our schedule was quickly slipping away.  But Dan managed to get the car, install the two rented car seats, and get back to us by shortly after 12:30.  We were late, but it was still manageable.  We could still arrive by late afternoon, with time to relax before dinner.  We gathered up our things, got the shoes on the kids and went downstairs to pack the car … only to discover we had the wrong car seat for Benjamin.

We’ve run into this before.  B is quite small and light for his age, so when we reserve the correct seat for him and also provide his age, they second-guess us and provide him with a booster (appropriate for a bigger child, but also technically ok for a 5 year old).  Of course, he saw it and was so excited to have a “big kid” seat, so I was the most unpopular mommy (and wife) when I insisted we take it back and switch it for a regular car seat.

Of course, the original rental place didn’t have an appropriate seat, so we had to pick it up at yet another rental location.  The one *they* had was too small for B, though, so we had to switch Liam to the new seat and put B in the one that had been “Liam’s”.  Sigh.

At this point, we were exhausted, starving, and still in Vienna.  What’s another 40 minutes, though?  So we stopped for lunch.

At 3:45, we were finally all in the car, strapped into appropriate seats, fed, and on our way.  Nearly 6 hours after we had planned to leave.  6 hours late for a just-over-3-hour trip (really, closer to 4 hours with several bathroom breaks).  We could have almost driven to Salzburg and back in the time it took us to get out the door.

In all, it felt like the day that we didn’t have on our trip.  Instead of a leisurely drive, stopping as we liked along the way, we instead started out tired and wishing we were already at our destination.  Instead of having time to play and shop for groceries when we arrived, it was a stop at McDonald’s for dinner and then nearly straight to bed.

This was a hard one.  I try to be flexible.  I try not to let circumstances, mistakes or other frustrations take away from my experience of the moment.  I try to stay mindful of the fact that although our day did not go as intended, nothing actually bad happened.  I try to remember that we will remember this as a great, fun, relaxing trip, and that if remember the day spent watching tv and wandering through Vienna at all, it will probably be with humor.  It truly was a fine day.  At the end, we were safe and happy and where we wanted to be.  But this was a tough one for me in terms of staying positive and choosing to be happy.  I managed, but it wasn’t easy.

Alpine toys!

A couple of weeks ago, when we were in Salzburg, we stopped by a little town near our hotel for dinner.  On the way back to our car, Benjamin and Liam froze, wide-eyed and completely captivated by a window display of a toy store.  As a parent of a 4 year old and a 2 year old, this is nothing new.  I was preparing to round them up and herd them back down the sidewalk when I took a closer look at the display.

It was an entire window display scene of Playmobil dolls and toys, all very clearly set in the Alps.  And it was fantastically cool.


There were mountain cable cars, perfect little Alpine homes and restaurants, mountain climbers, mountain rescue helicopters, hikers (with the type of walking sticks I’ve only ever seen in this part of Europe), cows with wreaths of flowers, and dolls in dirndls and lederhosen.  They all looked just so perfectly Austrian.  I’d never really seen anything quite like it. I was as enthralled and giggly as the boys, gazing at the display and discovering tiny details.

After getting home and doing some research, I came to find out that Playmobil is a German company (which I didn’t know, because I was familiar with them in the US, and had never seen any toys which particularly gave away their origins) and that they usually release their toys first in this part of Europe (Germany, Austria, Switzerland, etc.).  Then some (but not all) types are released in the rest of the world, including in the US.  So, although I’m skeptical that these Alpine toys will ever be released in the US, if they ever are, it won’t be until next year at the earliest.

I’m kind of glad that the shop wasn’t open, because I suspect I would have gone in and gone on a little Austrian toy shopping binge that probably wasn’t necessary.  I do think, though, that the boys may receive a few of these for their birthdays, or maybe for Christmas, this year.  I think they’re fantastically cute, and I think they’ll probably be a great way of helping the kids hold on to some of the memories of their experiences here.  (And, at the very least, Mommy wants to play!)

Vienna to Salzburg by train: ÖBB vs. Westbahn

For our trip to Salzburg this weekend, we weighed the options, in terms of time and money, and ended up taking the “Westbahn” train from Vienna to Salzburg. This is a relatively new train service, and we’d never taken it before — for travel inside of Austria, we’d only ever used the ÖBB service. Using something new is always a little stressful, especially traveling with the kids — an adult might take a setback or an inconvenience with mild frustration and see it as a lesson learned, but for a little kid, it might create a ton of unhappiness (for everyone). So, armed with a recommendation from a friend, and the consolation that whatever happened, it was at least the cheapest option, we headed off to catch our Westbahn train at the Westbahnhof station in Vienna.

It was fantastic.

In addition to being cheaper (which was actually only true because Jo was traveling with us — Dan and I have ÖBB discount cards which would have reduced our fares), it was actually a lot more functional for our purposes.

The very best part is that the access to the train is at ground level — we just pushed the stroller right on board. On most of the ÖBB trains (except for the Regional Express), there are a few steep stairs. Trying to get the kids and the stroller into the train quickly and safely is always stressful and difficult. Then there was a large luggage rack right inside the door, so once we were on, we stowed all of our bags, folded up the stroller, and made our way up to our reserved seats on the upper deck (being upstairs was fun for the kids and gave us a nice view, too). When we were boarding, we saw a special car along the train that looked to be set up for families — we didn’t know anything about that, but we’ll look into it for our next trip.

Once upstairs, we found our seats and got comfortable. The seats aren’t numbered, so rather than having specific seats reserved, there was an entire table roped off for us. Since we were 5, rather than 4, that meant Jo didn’t get to sit immediately next to us on the way home, but she was guaranteed a seat on the upper deck of the same car (and I’m sure we could have asked people to switch seats if it had been an issue). There wasn’t any room at the seats for luggage (which was the only negative we encountered) but they did have coat hooks. The tables were very functional, with no places for pinched fingers. On the other hand, almost all of the seats are at tables, which might be more awkward for someone traveling alone. The seats were easily adjustable with a tiny bit of recline (standard for what we’ve seen in terms of the angle of reclining, but easier to adjust). And, it was so convenient to have power outlets between the seats for recharging . . . especially because there was also free Wi-Fi on the train! It was great — it was no problem to entertain the kids on the trip. We had access to games, tv, everything, for the entire ride. And the ride itself was relatively short (about 2.5 hours to Salzburg, slightly faster than the ÖBB Railjet).

There was a self-service café located in every-other car, which was great, because although having a full-service café car is nice, it can sometimes be tough (and occasionally impossible) to actually reach it and then get safely back to your seat. This was easy. And, each car has its own attendant, so there’s always someone to ask if a question or an issue comes up.

20130326-163100.jpgThe bathroom signs get extra points for humor. I also found the bathroom clean, and I witnessed the ladies’ room being cleaned mid-journey, which is always a plus.

Overall, we loved it. It was much more functional for our purposes and less expensive. I’m so glad we gave it a try!