Adventure playground

It’s a tradition at Benjamin’s school that every year, each class takes a trip together.  In the older grades, the trips vary from a weekend spent camping to a week skiing in the Swiss Alps, but for the younger classes, a day-long field trip is typical.  Last spring, B’s class took their trip to an “adventure playground” called Robinsoninsel (Robinson Island).  I had no idea what to expect from an “adventure playground”, but B’s teacher had talked several times about how much she was looking forward to it, so I imagined it was going to be a pretty fun day.


As one of the parents who had volunteered in B’s class throughout the year (and, possibly, as the first to volunteer), I got to join them on their adventure playground trip.  I, too, was pretty excited when the big day arrived.  A whole day to play outside with my kid and his friends?  And it counts as school?  Sounds great!  Once we got there (after a tense moment when I almost missed the bus stop with my assigned group of first graders), I started to understand the excitement.  This was a really cool place.  It covered most of a city block and looked like the kind of “playground” a child would design of you let them — there were rope ladders, trees to climb, swings, hammocks, tree forts, rabbits, ducks, a pond with tadpoles, and a “smurf house”, made of living trees.



As always, one of my favorite things about being able to join in on these outings is that I get to spend the day with B.  But also, as I had been in the classroom every week and gotten to know each of his classmates as well, it was great fun to watch each of them explore their new environment in their own way.  There were actual goals to accomplish, like looking at bugs under microscopes and learning about different types of animal habitats, but most of the day was spent in a less structured type of learning — climbing, balancing, running, jumping, getting dirty and discovering on their own.

Though the day was gray and drizzly at times, we had a fantastic time (and, on the plus side, no one had to worry about sunscreen, including me).  It was a wonderful opportunity for a group of city kids to learn and play outside for the day, and I felt honored to be able to join them.



4th Viennaversary

We arrived here in early April of 2011, amid the persistent wind and intermittent rain that characterize what is still early spring here.  I remember standing outside of the airport in a cold drizzle wondering what I had gotten myself into and feeling slightly mystified that I had truly moved my family to another continent.

That feeling of mystification returns every year when the anniversary of our arrival passes.  Each time I have to double check my math — we’ve been here HOW long?  And this year was the same.  The weeks leading up to our “Viennaversary” were spent stressing about whether Dan’s new contract would really be signed, so then, suddenly, it was the beginning of April and I was again counting years on my fingers to ensure I hadn’t fumbled the math.  We really have been here 4 years.

This year, our “anniversary” fell on the Monday after Easter, so Dan had the day off of work and the boys were out of school, so we were able to do something to mark the occasion.  The weather was a bit chilly and breezy with lots of big, fluffy springtime clouds, but the sun that was getting through was bright and we had recently had temperatures which were some of the warmest we’d seen since the fall, so we (I) decided we should mark the occasion with a hike in the Vienna Woods to a part of Vienna we had yet to visit.

We had done the first part of this hike last spring, so the plan was to catch up with the trail (by bus) where we had left off and to complete the rest of the route, which was largely downhill.  To get to our starting point, we had to take the bus up to the hills overlooking the northwest of Vienna, and it would take us nearly an hour to get out there.  The kids were less enthusiastic than Dan and I, (when I say “hike”, the whining usually starts right away), but they, too, were suffering from a bit of Vienna winter stir craziness and were complaining more out of habit, I think, than actual objection.  They packed a few toys and supplies (i.e., candy from their Easter baskets) and dutifully suited up for the day’s adventure.

I had made a slight miscalculation, however.  While it had been breezy, sunny and warmish in the heart of the city, it was windy, solidly overcast and quite cold at the top of the hill.  We had brought hats and gloves, but we were dressed for 50 degrees and breezy with sun, not 30 degrees and windy with no sun.  We were all pretty cold, but wanted to make the most of our trip.  On the plus side, we were able to sneak a few peaks through the leafless branches, views that would have been obscured by greenery later in the spring or summer.  We were looking for crocuses and daffodils among the leaves, and attempting to keep the kids interested, which worked relatively well.  But by the time we’d been walking for 20 minutes, it has begun to snow.


I love being outdoors, and I’m up for a hike in almost any weather, but even I had to admit that this wasn’t quite what I’d meant to sign us all up for (nor was it what we’d come prepared for).  We trekked on down the hill to Kahlenberg, with a beautiful 1377(though cloudy) view over the city, and made it about another 100 yards before Liam began stridently complaining about his frozen face, and we all decided that perhaps this battle would best be fought another day.

In all, we lasted only about 45 minutes and about 1.2 miles before we gave up and headed for home.  We had walked the distance between two adjacent bus stops.

But, it was, as so much of this adventure has been, at least memorable.  I learned my lesson that marginal hiking conditions at 500 feet above sea level do not necessarily reflect acceptable hiking conditions at 1600 feet.  And, though it was brief, we did, indeed, see a part of Vienna we had not seen before.

We all went home to thaw out, and I was undaunted in my wish to one day finish the hike.  As for our 4th Viennaversary, however, we finished the celebration cozy at home.

Stadtwanderweg 1

074I’d been out there before, several times.  Enough that I no longer really remember the chronology.  I know that the first time, I couldn’t quite get from where I started to the trail with the stroller, so I spent an hour or so trying to find a way around.  And then when I finally figured it out, it was time to go back home again.  I know I went out there at least once when Jo was with us.  And I’m pretty sure I’ve been at least one other time, but that’s where my memory is less clear.  I could have sworn I’d been out there at least once with Dan and both of the kids, but he says he’d never been before.  I’m not sure.  But I do know that each of the times I’ve been before I’ve basically walked back and forth over the same mile of the 7 mile loop.  I’ve walked just far enough to arrive at the first of the vineyards, and then turned around.  Each successive time, I’ve actually made it one vineyard further along the trail before I turned around, but I’ve never made it very far.

079I love to walk and to hike.  I love to explore and to see a place on foot.  (On horseback is even better, but I haven’t had that chance for a few years now.)  It’s truly something I enjoy.  And Vienna understands me.  The city has 11 signed and maintained hiking/walking trails throughout the most scenic parts of the city.  Each is 6-10 miles long, none is completely stroller friendly, and since they are in scenic places, they also tend towards being quite isolated, so I’ve never gone far on one alone.  So, though these are exactly the kind of thing I’d love to explore, we’ve only done little pieces of 3 of the trails.

088This past Sunday was my turn to choose a family activity, so I decided to try for another piece of the Stadtwanderweg 1 (city hiking trail 1) — the one I’ve visited most often.  I had no illusions that we’d complete the whole thing, as it’s about 7 miles long.  The purpose wasn’t to complete the loop, but to go further than I had before.  We put on our sunscreen and our sturdy shoes, packed a picnic and headed out.

It was a lovely walk, with (as I’d seen before) some lovely views of the vineyards of Grinzing.  The kids were fascinated, at first, by every flower and bug, but after the first mile they became fixated on lunch instead (though it wasn’t yet 11).  It turns out that the section of trail I had chosen was almost entirely uphill, unfortunately.  We hiked a couple of miles before finding a suitable picnic spot, and the tentative plan was to turn around after that and head home.  I had covered 089almost a mile of new trail, the kids were happy to have had a picnic, and we all still had a bit of energy left.

Looking up the bus routes on my phone, though, we realized that it would be a much shorter, though more uphill, walk to the bus to continue along the trail.  And it also looked like there might be a restaurant up ahead, which might serve the ice cream Liam was really hoping for.  So we continued.  And though the walk got lovelier, and very shaded as we went truly into the woods (except for one section where there had been some logging), it also got steeper and rougher.  Less than an hour later, hot and grouchy, we did eventually pop out of the woods.  We found ourselves right at a bus stop (closer than the one on my map) AND at the foot of a driveway to a restaurant which served ice cream.  So, after our 4.3 mile trek, and over 2 hours of walking, we headed home.  It was a tough adventure, but a good one.


093And now, for next time, we know exactly which bus stop to head for in order to pick up the trail for the next (almost entirely downhill) section.  We may complete the first trail one day after all.

(As a note, though we did fine, I wouldn’t really recommend this part of the trail — clockwise around from Nußdorf to Sulzwiese — to families with small kids unless you have a very sturdy stroller or are prepared to carry the kids a lot.  We carried our boys most of the way.  It’s not an unpleasant walk at all, but it is long and truly almost entirely uphill.)

The National Trust

Along with our amazement of and appreciation for the public footpaths in Britain, we’ve gotten to experience a few parts of the National Trust — a program that preserves all sorts of historic, scenic or natural places all across the England, Wales and Ireland(Scotland has a separate National Trust, which we also visited and enjoyed), and opens them to the public.  It’s fascinating and wonderful, and we’ve included several parts of the National Trust as pieces of our adventures in the UK.


I first learned about the National Trust through my mom, but experiencing parts of it firsthand makes me appreciate its importance even more.  What’s interesting and different about the National Trust as opposed to regular National Parks (which also exist) is that a wide variety of kinds of places can be placed into the National Trust, not just the stunningly beautiful natural places you might expect (like the Giant’s Causeway), but even small places (gardens), functioning places (farms and pubs), things (such as historical artifacts) and whole villages (we’ve visited at least two of these — Buttermere, and tiny Watendlath which is FAR off the beaten path).  It felt like every time we went to explore somewhere new, we’d end up crossing paths with the National Trust.


Although I’m not 100% clear on how it all works, I do understand that it’s a pretty profound way to preserve and share so much of Britain’s essence.  The places that belong to the National Trust can’t be sold or developed, and they’re preserved, maintained and opened for everyone to share.  We’ve gotten to explore a tiny piece of these national treasures, and I think it’s so wonderful that they’re looked after in this way — we’ve certainly enjoyed them.

Outside seating!

I’ve always loved being outside.  I don’t mind the weather — getting cold or wet doesn’t bother me.  I don’t even mind the summer heat if I’m outside and can stay out of the sun.  When I was in middle school and high school and my friends and I would get bored, I always suggested going for a walk.  (Which also partly explains why I have so few interestingly wild stories from that era.)

So I wait, all winter.  During the coldest and darkest months of the year, I still get out a fair bit, but winter takes away one of my favorite pieces of European living — sitting in a sidewalk cafe.  Going out for a cup of coffee is a treat anytime of year, but getting to enjoy it on the sidewalks of a grand Viennese square, reading a good book and watching the horse-drawn carriages go by is especially sweet.  And going out to eat, especially with the kids, is much more relaxed and enjoyable under the stars, where volume matters less and there’s always a place for them to get down and play.

I don’t really know if I can adequately convey how much enjoyment I get from sitting in the open air, enjoying Vienna and soaking every bit of it in.  It is one of my favorite parts of living here.  I like it way more than is probably reasonable.  I think it’s fantastic and wonderful and it brings together so many things I like at the same time — being outside, drinking coffee, relaxing, great people-watching opportunities and getting to really BE in Europe (because the inside of cafes are pretty much the same anywhere).

And now, my long, indoor, winter hibernation is ending.  The cafes are spilling out onto the sidewalks again, the street side tables are out, the umbrellas are going up.  Vienna is preparing for spring, and I am so happy to be able to enjoy the city in this way again.

Sitting outside

It’s still chilly in Vienna.  When I went out to get coffee (and an hour to myself) this morning, it was about 40.  Not too bad, but not yet quite springlike (especially with the nearly ever present wind).  But it must be almost spring here, because when I got to Starbucks, they had set up the outdoor seating area.

I hadn’t expected it, so I wasn’t dressed for it — I was dressed to spend an hour sitting inside drinking tea, which calls for significantly different attire than sitting outside in the wind drinking tea.  But I got my chai and grabbed a spot outside — not under an umbrella — I wanted to absorb every small bit of sunlight that managed to straggle through the clouds.  (I was surprised and impressed at how popular the outdoor seats were.  I don’t know if the rest of Vienna is as glad as I am to be able to enjoy their coffee outdoors again, or if all the smokers are just grateful to be able to drink their coffee and smoke at the same time.)

I was cold.  By the end of my hour, I was wrapped in my coat, had pulled my wool hat on as far as it would go and struggled to turn the pages in my book with my thickly gloved hands.  But it was glorious.  I hadn’t realized just how much I missed getting to enjoy the center of the city with a cup of tea and a good book.  My hours spent on my own will be more therapeutic and restorative now that they get to take place in the open air.

I had forgotten, too, how quiet Vienna has been in the winter.  It’s like the city has been hibernating since Christmas.  The squares have been sparsely populated.  By contrast, today was bustling — tourists with cameras bumping in to each other to get the best shot of the dome of the Spanish Riding School; bicycles flying up and down the streets, with and against traffic; horse drawn carriages, full of bundled people taking in the sights.  It reminded me that this is just a fraction of the activity that will fill the square as the weather gets warmer.

Being out on the square, being able to take all of this in while I relax and enjoy the city, is really why I love being able to sit outside.  I feel like I’m able to see and experience so much more, and, since I’m just sitting, I’m able to quietly observe the sights, sounds, smells and feel of Vienna much more deeply.  Sitting outside at Michealerplatz every week is part of what helped me fall in love with living in Vienna, and I’m so excited to have that back.