Reflections on Alpbach

I’ll post a more thorough review of our trip soon — where we stayed, what we did, what we would have done differently — but for now, I’m a little weary after two days of (exhausting, semi-torturous) skiing and a 4+ hour train journey today, so I’m just going to share some thoughts about our latest adventure.

182First, train travel is awesome with kids.  I really think it’s the way to go.  Our trip was 4 1/2 hours each way (it actually ended up being a bit longer on the way there, due to delays because of the snow).  The kids did great.  It was easy to keep them contained, keep them entertained, feed all of us, get some rest and just generally arrive relatively happy.  This was our first trip with a compartment (as opposed to just seats).  It was fantastic.  It is easy, fun, and relatively low stress.  When you consider how far ahead of a flight you typically have to arrive at the airport, plus the fact that in Vienna, the airport is further outside of town than the train station, I think it actually took us less time to take the train than it would to fly.  It was win/win.

145Second, skiing with kids is hard.  After just collecting our skis, boots and poles, getting onto the right bus and getting TO the ski area, we were about ready to quit.  But, we really did have fun, and I’m glad we stuck it out.  I think it’s like anything — there are so many little tricks and compromises that make the whole thing a lot easier, and you just have to watch the people who know what they’re doing, and ask questions, and you’ll get better.  The skiing itself is really fun, it’s just that getting everyone suited up, to the lift, and ready to ski is a lot of work.  Also, we had to accept that Liam didn’t want to ski.  If we’d tried to force him, we all would have been miserable.  Maybe he’ll try it next time, maybe not.  Either is ok.  But to really enjoy ourselves, we really had to let go of any expectations — it was going to “work”, or not; the kids were going to have fun, or not; we were going to get to ski, or not.  We showed up, we gave it a good try, we had a good time.  But so much of us enjoying this weekend came from measuring it by the experience we were having in the moment, rather than by measuring it against what we thought was going to happen.

166Finally, no matter how much preparation, thought and consideration go into planning a trip, it’ll be the unexpected little moments that really make it wonderful.  Watching B discover and enjoy skiing was amazing, without a doubt, but I think our collective favorite part of the trip was yesterday evening when we went out for an impromptu walk after dinner and ended up sledding with B in the dark and then walking up a dark hiking trail (at Liam’s urging) into a clearing overlooking the village and the valley.  That moment, of all standing together on the hillside in the moonlight, marvelling at the beauty of our surroundings, was something that I will never forget.

Ski time!

20130117-234003.jpgWe woke up this morning to several fresh inches of snow in Vienna, and more falling. It was a perfect day for heading to the Alps to go skiing . . . which works out, because that’s exactly what we had planned for this weekend. It was pretty exciting to have plans that agreed so well with the weather.

We finished the packing and trekked snowily off to the train station. (Apparently there was enough snow today to snarl Vienna’s roads, and the mountains were even worse — glad we were taking the train!)

It was a perfect day for an Austrian train adventure. We were all nice & cozy on the train while we watched the snowy world go by. Although there was so much snow falling, on the ground and being kicked up by the train, that certain parts of the trip just looked like white on white.

20130117-234021.jpgWe’re pretty seasoned in train travel with the kids, but we had never ridden in an enclosed compartment, which we got to try today. It was excellent. The compartment had 6 seats, and unless there was not a single other seat on the train, it was pretty unlikely that anyone was going to choose the empty spot in our compartment. So, we got a whole little room to ourselves for the entire trip. We could talk, the boys got to watch some shows on the iPad and play angry birds (with sound!). We even played catch for a little while. And when Liam fell asleep, we were all quiet so he could rest. It was nearly a 5 hour trip, but it was the best and easiest train trip we’ve had so far.

20130117-234046.jpgUntil the part at the end, when Dan, who was repacking everything in the suitcases, hit his head on a reading light and cut himself. (Requiring our first task in Alpbach to be finding a doctor to glue Dan’s forehead back together. He really is fine now.)

From what we can tell (in the dark), Alpbach is darling and surrounded by mountains . . . which we will be sliding down tomorrow. I’m a little freaked out. They still have their Christmas lights up here, which is awesome.

It’s certainly been an adventure so far.

Italia with a side of Mina

Italy is a place I’ve always dreamed of going.  Even back when the thought of travelling outside of the US was scarier to me than it was exciting, Italy was on the (very short) list of places I knew I wanted to go . . . someday.  I think my enthusiasm grew from my interest in the Renaissance and Reformation eras of history and a fascination with the art in and from Italy (even though I really know nothing about art).  That, and pizza.  It seemed like if all that good stuff came from one place, it would be worth checking out.

But, after spending our first summer here in Vienna, I was pretty certain I was not going to venture any further south in the summer months, unless it involved sitting on a beach somewhere.  The European notions of handling summer heat, largely without air conditioning, don’t work very well for me, and I figured that if I couldn’t handle that at a northern latitude, venturing to Italy during warm weather didn’t make a lot of sense.

Our initial plan had been to see Italy this past December, so we could enjoy the festivity of Rome and the Vatican once everything was done up for Christmas.  Though when I sat down to plan that trip, back in the fall, I realized that December is one of my favorite months of the whole year HERE, so why would I want to leave?

But now, we’re really going.  The trip to Italy has been planned.  We’re going in February (cool weather, few crowds).  We started off (as we often do) with an overly ambitious wish list of destinations:  Rome, Florence, Siena, the Cinque Terre, Venice.  From experience, I’ve learned that trying to manage that in a week, with the kids, would be miserable for all of us.  So, we narrowed it down to three, and then decided to limit ourselves to just two, so we can really enjoy them, slow down, relax and have a great time, with no pressure.

So, we’re going to Rome, and then to Venice.  Because I can’t imagine a trip to Italy that didn’t include Rome, and Venice seems so beautiful, and so romantic that I didn’t want to miss it (not to mention we literally have to travel through it to get anywhere else in Italy).  We’re taking the train the entire way — the overnight train (our first) from Vienna to Rome, a train from Rome to Venice and then the overnight home to Vienna.  We have plans to see a lot of the sights in Rome, to ride on a gondola in Venice, and to eat a ton of Italian food.  (Benjamin is overjoyed that we are going to the country that invented pizza.  We’ve promised him pizza and gelato every day.)  I am super excited.

And, we get to bring Jo along with us on this adventure.  And then, to make it all even more exciting, my sister, Amanda (or “Mina”, to the kids) is coming over to join us for our trip.  We are all so excited.  The kids did a happy dance (quite literally) when I told them she was coming.  Seeing Italy is a dream come true, and being able to do it with my family makes it even better.  Looking forward to Italy!


005Today we took the train to a very small town called Retz, which is apparently world famous for its Pumpkin Festival.  It was a long train ride which took us well beyond Vienna — we were about 5 km from the Czech border when we arrived at the Retz train station.  We had a great time at the Am Himmel festival last weekend, so we thought we’d give this one (which was supposed to be bigger) a try as well.  From Retz, we took a shuttle bus (three fully loaded tour buses ran every hour) to Obermarkersdorf.

It was certainly bigger.  There were nearly 60 shops, kiosks and food stands, several marching bands, a couple of regular bands, floats, a carousel, a bouncy house (actually, a bouncy fire station), a pumpkin maze and (according to the brochure) over 1000 carved jack-o-lanterns (I think that’s a very conservative estimate).

011The town is darling.  It’s the epitome of a little Austrian town, with narrow winding streets, cute little homes and a stream running through the middle, crossed by several footbridges.  In this case, the front yard and windows of each home was adorned with a pumpkin scene.  The theme this year is “around the world” so each home chose a country or region of the world and decorated based on that theme.  Some of the displays were stunningly elaborate.  We saw the North Pole, the Orient Express (accompanied by pumpkin Japanese Lanterns), the Loch Ness (Pumpkin) Monster, a bull and a matador, the Eiffel Tower, a pumpkin blacksmith who was actually moving, a massive pumpkin pyramid, a very long pumpkin train, and a pumpkin gondolier along with his pumpkin customers — all of whom were actually in a gondola, floating in a pond.

016We met up with some friends on the way, and some more when we got there, and together (and separately) tried a variety of fun (and, in most cases, pumpkin inspired) dishes.  My favorites from today were small apple/pumpkin fritters, coated in powdered sugar, and also the pumpkin cappuccino.  We also successfully scoured the festival for another jar of pumpkin seed pesto (because the jar we purchased last weekend is already gone).

Benjamin and I took part in several of the kid’s activities — we got through the pumpkin maze (actually a hay bale maze with pumpkins) easily and then decorated a glass lantern which we then lit and carried through the festival, hanging from the stroller.  (Yet a few more for the long list of things you’d never do in the States:  decorate a glass lantern with a 3 year old, light a lantern for a 3 year old, attach said lantern to the stroller and walk 060through a festival crowded with people.)  Decorating the lantern with B was fun (he opted for lantern making over pumpkin carving) and we’ll be keeping it to use for trick or treat . . . or just late night trips in the wagon.  (Liam, unfortunately, chose the time when we were in the kid’s section to sleep, so he missed out on that part.)

We had a great time.  We saw lots of fun things, we ate good food, we hung out with fun friends, we did fun activities . . . and then it was time to go home.  We caught the shuttle bus back to the train station . . . and then discovered that we had over an hour wait for our train.  In the cold.  With two kids.  Who didn’t get real naps today.  And were hungry.

065But, amazingly, we finished our day with a great hour in the train station and a nice ride home.  At the train station, Benjamin made a few friends (some adults and another kid), showed off his speed and spinning ability, and challenged the other little boy to several races back and forth.  Liam practiced his walking.  Once on the train, Liam took a good nap with Dan while Benjamin and I talked about our day and looked at the pictures we took.  In all seriousness, the grumpiest person at the end of the day was me.  My kids were amazing.  They enjoyed the day enthusiastically and kept their good spirits throughout.  I am amazed and impressed by them.

Retz’s renown for putting on a good Pumpkin Festival is well deserved.  We all had a lovely day in the Austrian countryside and we’re all feeling thoroughly festive and geared up for Halloween.


009We’ve been in Austria for nearly 5 months, and there’s been something lacking from our experience so far:  mountains.  Today, we rectified that omission.

We headed out this morning — we were trying for “first thing” this morning, but didn’t actually leave the house until nearly 11.  As it always seems to happen with kids, the preparation and departure took far longer than expected.  We took the U-bahn to the train station and boarded a train (a big, double decker one) that took us an hour and a half southwest of Vienna.  We were a little concerned about two hours of train travel with the kids, but it actually went fine.  The scenery was varied enough to keep B busy for a while, and Liam promptly fell asleep.  I was planning on using my iPhone to entertain B if necessary, but I didn’t need to.  The time passed really quickly.  After we left Vienna, we were quickly in the countryside, and 016the hills and plains gave way to mountains and valleys — it was beautiful.  The mountains in this area seem to be very large, green and steep . . . less rolling than the Blue Ridge at home, and bigger, too (I think).

Our train dropped us off at a tiny train station outside of a tiny town, and we hopped on a bus.  The little town we rode through was beautiful.  Surrounded by huge mountains, full of cute little Austrian houses with pink and purple flowers spilling out of the flower boxes, a crystal clear stream running through the town.  I rode on the bus, looking foolish with my mouth popped open nearly the entire way.

018After our short bus ride, we got out, climbed up a very steep set of steps and bought our tickets for our gondola ride up the mountain.  We explained to Benjamin that it was kind of like a flying train car — which turned out to be quite apt.  I’ve been on ski lifts before, so I expected this to be like that, only larger and enclosed.  And, it was, roughly.  But in a whole different league.  This thing zoomed up the mountain, bumping and swaying.  There are windows all around, so you can see gorgeous mountain views, all while being whisked up about a mile in just over 5 minutes.  I had not really expected how high this mountain was — we just kept going up and up an up!  The three hours in transit were almost worth the gondola ride alone.


But, then we got to the top and stepped out and were stunned by the views, by the feeling of the air, by everything.  It was exactly what I wanted it to be — gorgeous, cool, crisp and fresh.  The air felt and tasted like early spring and smelled like Christmas.  Benjamin immediately requested his sweatshirt (which he shortly abandoned, once we started actually walking).  We could see down into the valley we had just come out of, as well as look across at huge mountains we had been gazing up at from the valley floor just a few moments before.


After appreciating the vistas, we decided to go for a short hike.  The trail map listed a loop that went from where we started, up a “moderate” slope, to a little cafe about 35 minutes walk away, and then back again (another 35 minutes).  Not in a hurry, and 033-MOTIONwanting to enjoy ourselves, we figured that even with Liam in the Ergo and Benjamin walking, we could probably do the walk in an hour or so.  We set off, up the hill, through the meadows of mountain laurel and forests of perfect Christmas trees..  About 90 seconds into the hike, Benjamin was asking for a break.  We continued a little further, found a picnic bench and took a break, and then continued on, still climbing.  We actually climbed high enough that we realized, looking around, and looking across at the other mountains, that we had, apparently, reached the top of the tree line.  We still had lots of ground plants and even a few stunted pine trees (pine bushes?) but no more trees.  We walked and we walked, up and up.

There were two things wrong with our “hike to the cafe” plan.  1.  The 35 minute walk that was described was estimated by an Austrian.  They walk faster, and are generally in better shape than Americans.  They take their walking, particularly mountain walking, very seriously.  (It’s not uncommon to see people walking through Vienna — which is pretty flat — with what look like ski poles.  It’s apparently called “nordic walking”.  Up on the mountain, nearly everyone had these ski poles/walking sticks.)  2.  The “moderate slope” bit was also, I imagine, described by an Austrian.  We were not, at any point, in danger of falling to our deaths, and neither were we required to rappel up or down anything.  So, I guess that means it’s moderate.  (In their defence, there were a lot of people doing this walk who did appear to find it only moderate, including quite a few who were probably twice my age and at least one young man with an artificial leg.  So, again, I suspect the issue is that my American idea of “moderate” does not match with an Austrian idea.)

It didn’t matter — we had a great time.  We probably got about halfway to the cafe (we estimate) in about 45 minutes.  We sat at another picnic table to rest, and to feed and change Liam, and decided not to go on any further.  Benjamin had a great time playing on the mountainside.  Dan and I enjoyed the views.  Liam wanted to get down and crawl around (we limited his independent mountain exploration to the blanket we brought for him).

042After soaking in the sun, the air and the sights, we decided to head back, and opted for an “off the trail” trail that we were sure would parallel and join up shortly with the well marked, well worn and well travelled trail we had come up on.  It didn’t.  We hadn’t gone far when we realized that instead of going steeply (sorry, “moderately”) downhill, as we should be, we were staying level . . . or maybe even climbing very slightly.  Hmm.  We came out from a wooded section of our trail, and my stomach did a little flip when I looked down, several hundred yards, to see the trail we had been aiming for, and no apparent way to get to where we wanted to be.  We didn’t panic, but I admit to being a bit concerned and having pieces of episodes of “Survivorman” and “I Shouldn’t Be Alive” run through my head.  We had our bearings, though, and continued on, choosing paths that brought us closer and closer to where we needed to be.  We came out into another clearing (which actually turned out to be a cleared area under a ski lift) and found we were now only about 50 yards (of “moderate” slope, full of weeds and undergrowth but nothing too bad) above our path.  Woo hoo!

We made it back and treated ourselves to ice cream (me and Benjamin) and coffee (me and Dan) before heading back down on the gondola.  (Which goes down faster than it comes up, creating a definite roller coaster feeling of leaving your stomach behind).


It took us about twice as long to get there as we actually spent on the mountain, but it was totally worth it.  We trekked out of Vienna, got up to the top (kind of) of the mountain, hiked around, got lost, found our way, and made it back home.  Our kids are tired, but happy.  That’s definitely a success.  I also impressed myself (and probably Dan, too) by going with the flow.  I actually let him make the travel plans, and I didn’t once stress about what time we had to be anywhere.  This is very much unlike me, but I’m finding that the energy I spend trying to make things work out perfectly really gets in the way of having a good time, and doesn’t gain me much in terms of the experience.  I’m discovering that it’s worth risking having to spend an hour standing around in a beautiful location because I didn’t optimize my train/bus connection if it means that I’m not watching the clock the entire time and stressing out about what’s supposed to happen next instead of enjoying what’s happening in the moment.

We had a great day.  I don’t know if the hills are alive, but we really enjoyed them.