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.

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Sommerrodelbahn

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.

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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!

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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!

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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.

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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.)

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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.

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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.

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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.)

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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.)

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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!)

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Back to school anxiety . . . for me

I spent part of Saturday looking through the elementary school curriculum for B’s new school (which is helpfully supplied online).  I had finished reading through the list of things which we need to bring to school and filling out the pile of forms required before school starts (emergency contacts, health history, school lunch forms, payment information, authorization for the administration of Potassium Iodide — gotta love life in Austria), and I thought I would take a quick look at what they’re actually going to be working on and trying to achieve this year.

First, let me say that I think teachers are AWESOME.  And I mean that literally — I am in awe of them.  Looking at this 134 page book on the elementary school curriculum, and realising that each teacher is basically trying to teach 1/7 of that book (the book covered pre-school, kindergarten and grades 1-5) to 30 whole kids every year was overwhelming.  *I* was overwhelmed, reading it, and I only have ONE kid to worry about.  I have no idea how they manage to teach all of that, plus have snack time, recess, lunch time, field trips, play time and so on . . . plus they deal with sick kids, field questions from parents and do 100 other things that I haven’t even thought of.  I don’t know how they do it.  (And this is at a well-funded private school with small class sizes.)

As parents do, I read the long list of tasks and goals for the year with Benjamin in mind (and, to a lesser extent, Liam — he’s not attending this school this year, but I’m keeping an eye on what they would be expecting of him at this school if he were going there).  I started with the language section, which includes reading, writing, speaking, information collection and use of technology.  These include some of the areas where I’m the most concerned about B keeping up with his class.  I don’t really have an idea of exactly what’s expected for entrants into first grade at this school, but compared to my friends’ kids of the same age in the US, he’s behind.  He’s not reading yet, his writing has only extended to single, capital letters (plus his name).  Most importantly, he doesn’t like working on reading or writing at this point.  I imagine that reading will sort itself out in the near future (I think that once he’s able to read, he’ll discover the joy of reading, and he’ll be off to the races), but I worry about it being a bit of an uphill battle, especially if he’s behind the curve.  (I don’t actually know that he is, though.  His school seems confident about his placement.)  So, I worry.

And then I took a look at the math curriculum.  In math, I’m not worried about him being behind.  I’ve always felt like this was a strong skill for him, but I didn’t have much idea of what’s typical for a kid his age.  But, he won’t be behind (he’s taught himself most of the skills through 2nd grade in the curriculum already).  (And, looking at the kindergarten chart, it looks like Liam’s ahead in math, too.)  And, that’s great.  But though I would have thought that I would be able to feel great about that, I’m surprised to find that I’m nearly as anxious about the areas he’s way ahead on as I am about the stuff he might be “behind” on.  Because, though I’m very impressed that he can add double digit numbers, and that’ he’s starting to do multiplication, now I worry about the challenge of keeping an exceptionally bright math brain (there, I said it) engaged and interested when he’s so far ahead.

I know I’m getting ahead of myself.  School hasn’t even started yet.  And, I expect to find that the teachers (who, as I’ve previously stated, are akin to super heroes in my eyes) have lots of experience and good strategies, for helping him with the stuff he needs to work on, and keeping him happy about the stuff he’s great at.  But, staring into the face of our first year of “real” school, this mom is feeling just a little intimidated by the magnitude of the tasks ahead.

Summertime

Other than the few weeks that we spent taking turns being sick around here, I’ve really loved the way we’ve spent our summer.  (And, even though I didn’t love being sick, I suppose the summer isn’t a particularly unpleasant time to be sick.)  Lately, I wake up in the mornings, at a leisurely hour of about 7:00, and I’m full of enthusiasm to start our day.

018Mostly, our days start with a relatively slow morning of breakfast and playing.  I might build some paper airplanes, wash a little laundry, or help to track down a missing toy.  Then, we go out for a walk, and usually end up at the playground for an hour or so.  As the weeks have gone on, the playground has become more and more shaded.  We’ve had more frequent rainy days, and the temperature has started to drop.  The ground has become gradually covered with a layer of leaves.  Yesterday, we spotted a mouse running across the playground, and we discovered him primarily because we heard him scurry across the fallen leaves.

034Most days, we don’t worry too much if the laundry all gets folded, if baths get done each day, or if we manage to get to bed at a “normal” hour every night.  We’ve let go of a lot of our schedule, relaxed a lot, and enjoyed the summer.  I’ve been having a great time.

Our summer started at the beginning of July with 2 weeks of vacation, and we followed that with about 2 weeks of being sick.  Then, it took me a few weeks to settle into this routine, so I feel like I’m just now getting the hang of this summer.  And it’s about to be over — school starts for Liam in 10 days, and for B in 11.  I can’t believe it went so fast.

High Alpine Road — day 2

It was our last full day in Heiligenblut, and since Liam had been the one steering our plans on the day of the “Cable car!” ride, and Dan & I had pretty much called the shots on the first day that we toured the High Alpine Road, we wanted to give B a chance to decide what we would do with our day.  And he had no doubts — he wanted to go back to the same playground we’d played at the day before.

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And so, we did.  We started our day out with a few hours at the same playground, with the great stuff to play on and the amazing view.  The boys climbed and slid and ziplined into a very happy state (and, unfortunately, into a few more splinters — there were a lot of splinters on this vacation).  Dan and I played alongside both of them, and we all enjoyed the gorgeous sights and the sounds of distant cowbells from the herds of cattle grazing on the side of the mountain.

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And then, since there were still many hours left in the day, we decided to take advantage of the beautiful weather and see if we could get another (clearer) view from Schareck at the top of the cable car line.

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982And we certainly did!  It was cool but sunny, and the boys entertained themselves by putting out sun chairs and resting with their stuffed animals in the mountaintop sunshine.  We hung out at the top and enjoyed the amazing scenery.  We had planned to take the cable car up to the top, and then to hike back down to where the car was parked along the High Alpine Road – it was supposed to be about an hour to an hour and a quarter hike, and all downhill and on well maintained paths.  But, we couldn’t — on our way up the mountain, we looked down at the path below us and realized that it was so snow covered at some points that we weren’t sure we’d be able to safely make it through without ending up knee-deep (or deeper, for the boys) in wet snow on the side of a windy mountain a few hours before sunset . . . never mind that it was July 4.  Upon further reflection, we decided to just take the cable car back down.

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But, we had the fun experience of riding the very last cable car back across the mountainside, and we hung out at the bottom to watch the process of collecting up the cable cars all up at the summit.  It was pretty neat.

Though the cable cars were closed for the night, there were still a few hours until sunset, so we decided to continue on down the High Alpine Road, in the hopes of checking out some of the road we hadn’t yet explored.  We made it all the way down to the Edelweissspitze, the highest overlook point on the whole of the High Alpine Road.  The view was fantastic . . . but the wind was so intense that B wouldn’t linger outside of the car for more than a few minutes (and Liam wouldn’t get out at all).  The wind was so strong that we struggled to make it back to the car when it was time to go.  It was intimidating and amazing.

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1099We headed back to our hotel to finish up our last evening in Heiligenblut, and as we were chatting with our hotel hosts, they complimented the boys on what great guests they’d been.  It was wonderful to hear.  As a family that travels a fair bit, we do our best to be good guests, wherever we go — we keep the noise down, try to use our best manners and try to always be considerate of the other visitors and of our hosts.  But, kids are kids, and things don’t always go as planned.  (We spent at least 15 minutes of our first evening at the hotel with Liam shrieking as we tried to get a splinter out of his finger.  So much for keeping the noise down.)  It was nice to hear that the boys had made a good impression.

Our time in Heiligenblut was just all around amazing.  The place was beautiful, the people were friendly, and there were so many fun things to see and to do.  (And, because we had the Kärtnen card, so much of what we did was FREE.  The card was included in our hotel stay, and apparently typically is included in summertime hotel visits throughout the region.  It was amazing.)  If the opportunity ever comes for us to go back, we will.

High Alpine Road — day 1

Our next morning in Heiligenblut started out with sunshine instead of rain, so we decided it was finally time to finally drive up the High Alpine Road, to see what there was to see.  Since the first time I’d heard about this place, I was eager to check it out — 30 miles through the high Alps, with information stops, playground, restaurants, overlooks, and even a glacier!  We truly didn’t know how it was going to go, though — how many spots along the road would we want to stop at, how long would we visit the various sites, how much would we really enjoy it, would there be fun stuff for the kids?

We headed out to find out.  The High Alpine Road is only open for a few months every year, because keeping it free of snow would be an impossible task, though some parts are accessible to skiers through the winter.  In the summer, you pay a fee to drive along the road, unless you have a Kärtnen card (which we did, thanks to our hotel) which makes entrance to the road, the cable cars, and lots of other things completely free.

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Right away, we knew we were not going to be disappointed.  The views along the road were beautiful.  We passed through mountain meadows and along steep cliff faces.  We passed under the cable car we’d ridden in the day before and saw several gorgeous waterfalls.  It was spectacular.

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525Our first actual stop was at the Pasterze glacier.  We had heard, from our hosts at the hotel, that the glacier had really melted a lot in recent years.  They weren’t kidding.  Although the view of the top of the Großglockner was truly impressive (as were the tracks we could see in the snow from the brave people who had climbed to the summit recently), seeing the size of the glacier, and beginning to understand the volume of ice that has been lost, was shocking and very sad.  Back in the 1960s, a funicular was constructed to allow tourists easy access to the actual glacier — you could take the funicular down from the parking lot area off of the High Alpine Road and actually walk right up to the glacier.  We only hiked down a little way, but a lot has changed in the last 50+ years.  Now, it takes a couple of hours of hiking from the end of the funicular in order to reach the actual glacier.  This little bit of ice, off in the distance, reached to where I was standing to take this picture only 44 years ago.  It used to fill up the entire valley, and now it has retreated to just one end.  The loss of ice and water in this one spot is absolutely stunning.  (And the pictures don’t even really convey the scope of the situation.  This valley is HUGE.  The little “puddle” down in the bottom is a massive lake.  I invite anyone who disbelieves human-cased climate change to visit a place like this, see the extent of ice loss, and see if it doesn’t change your mind.)

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It was beyond our energy and ability to hike down to the glacier with the kids (actually, I think we could have hiked DOWN just fine, but getting back might have been a challenge, because I think we would have had to carry them most of the way back up), so we satisfied ourselves with a quick walk down to get a good view of the glacier, and then we moved on along down the road.

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Our next stop for the day was at a great Alpine playground (which was co-located with a lovely restaurant, where we had lunch).  It was everything I love about Austrian playgrounds — lots of physical challenges for the boys, like zip lines, rope bridges and slides — but with an amazing view (we seem to find a lot of playgrounds with great views in our travels)!

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After wearing ourselves out for a few hours at the beautiful playground, we made a stop by our favorite snow spot (the same one from the day before, but this time we reached it by car) for another snowball fight.

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We drove on a bit further (as far as the kids’ patience allowed — it had already been a long day) and got the chance to stop at some overlooks and scenic viewpoints with absolutely unbelievable vistas.  It was an amazing place.  Everywhere we looked, there was another beautiful view that didn’t quite seem real.

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After a bit, we headed back to Heiligenblut, and then back out, far up the side of the valley, for a wonderful dinner (the best meal we had on our whole trip) with an amazing view of the town and the mountains.  After our first day on the High Alpine Road, I was thrilled with what we’d seen . . . and we’d only seen about 12 miles of the road so far!

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Cable car!

338From our hotel room window in picturesque Heiligenblut, we could see most of the town, including the 600 year old church and the summit of the Großglockner, Austria’s tallest mountain.  We could also see the cable cars filing up the hill towards the summit of Schareck, which sits on the opposite side of the valley from the Großglockner.  Liam was completely entranced.  Every time he saw one, he shouted, “Cable car!”  Every time.  (It was lucky for us and for the one other hotel guest that the cable cars didn’t start running until about 9:30 in the morning, so at least we all got some rest.)

357After breakfast our first morning in Heiligenblut (during which we learned that the Dutch put chocolate sprinkles and butter on their morning bread), there was no question about what Liam wanted to do with his day.  He was just so excited.  So, despite the drizzle and the fog and the knowledge that there would be zero view from the top, we decided to head up the mountain in the “cable car!”

The town was really quite small, so we opted to walk through town to the base of the cable car line.  We got a nice (if rainy) tour of the little town.  When we got to the cable car, Liam did not seem to be disappointed by the rain or the fog — he was delighted to be there.  (B was happy and excited, too, though not quite as thoroughly as Liam.)  As we went up and up, we passed over grazing cows and horses, crossed over part of the High Alpine Road, ascended through a thick cloud layer and went up above the tree line.  I’d seen snow at the tops of the highest mountains as we drove into town, but I was surprised by how much of it we passed over as we went up … and by how cold it was at the top.

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And, we were right — lots of fog and no view.  But, on the plus side, there were only two families up there at the top while we were there.  With not much to see, and a cold rain falling (that was very nearly snow), we opted for a quick stop and visit to the restaurant at the top of the mountain . . . and the kids wanted ice cream, of all things (I went for hot chocolate instead).  After a quick snack, we decided to visit the other cable car, which took us from the top of the mountain and then more across than down the other side.  Our destination was alongside the High Alpine Road (which we hadn’t yet gotten a chance to explore) and is in a spot that is only accessible by skiing (and, I guess, by cable car) from mid-October until May 1 of every year.

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At the base of that cable car line, we were able to fulfill one wish the kids had had, but which I wasn’t sure we were going to be able to deliver on — we found enough snow for a snowball fight.  The whole hillside was covered with large patches of unmelted snow — very slightly slushy, but still frozen enough to walk on top of (which was good, because we’d brought warm clothes, but not warm enough for the near-winter scenario we were faced with).  At one point during out snowball fight, I actually had the thought, “It’s really beautiful here.  Maybe we should come back in summer . . . wait . . . ”  I had completely forgotten that it was July 2nd, and this was, quite literally, as “summer” as it gets in the high Alps!

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After making our way back up to the summit, and then back down to the valley, we all had an awesome nap.  We didn’t get to enjoy the typical view from the summit, but we had gotten the mountain almost entirely to ourselves, and had a snowball fight in July.  It was a great day.

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491(And then, when we got back, after our splinter removing debacle from the evening before, B offered to check Liam’s feet for splinters.  These guys are just so sweet to each other.)

Heiligenblut

After our overly eventful day spent with horses the day before, we departed Maria Lankowitz to drive to one of my most anticipated destinations in all of Austria.  We were headed to the little town of Heiligenblut, nestled at the base of Austria’s highest mountain, at the edge of the massive Hohe Tauern National Park, and at the beginning of the High Alpine Road.  We’ve travelled to a few spots in the Austrian Alps before — Innsbruck, Reutte and Alpbach – but I was particularly excited to see Austria’s tallest mountain, the Großglockner, and to travel along the High Alpine Road.

"We're halfway there!"

“We’re halfway there!”

But our task for this day was to simply get to Heiligenblut, a 3 hour mountainous drive from Maria Lankowitz.  Unlike our first travel day to Maria Lankowitz, the novelty of being in the car had somewhat worn off, and though the kids were remarkably patient, they weren’t quite as enthusiastic as they had been the first day.  It was a beautiful drive, with lots of mountain views, some rain, some sun, and a little getting lost (not too badly, though).We did well.  Road trips in Europe are different than at home.  Every single time we travel in Europe (not counting the UK, which is very slightly more similar to travelling in the US), the most challenging part of our trip is finding a place to eat.  In the U.S., this is not a problem.  Major highways are well populated with fast food drive through restaurants and rest areas to stop.  Large and medium sized towns can also be counted on to be full of drive through fast food, or at least quick-service chain restaurants.  None of that exists here.  (There are drive through fast food restaurants in Austria, but they are extremely rare and I’ve never been through one.  We did go to one in Germany, once, and we were so excited about it.)  When it’s time for lunch on the road, we have to figure out which local Gasthaus we’d like to stop at.  Inevitably, even a “simple” lunch will take an hour (more likely two) and there’s very little way to tell, before we stop, whether the meal will be any good (though most are).  Seriously, I love the fact that Austrians are less obsessed with fast food than Americans are . . . except when we’re on a road trip.

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265269277By the time we had gotten ourselves some lunch, and taken a trip through some very long tunnels through the mountains (the longest one we went through, the Oswaldiberg tunnel, was over 4km — about 2.5 miles — which is long enough to be a bit disconcerting), we were almost there.  We started to see snow-covered mountaintops nearby (even though it was July 1), and we impulsively stopped at a beautiful waterfall just a few miles from our destination.  THIS is the kind of thing I was excited to go see!  Waterfalls and snow in the mountains in July!

299But, even given the amazing scenery along the way, Heiligenblut managed to be even more beautiful than I had expected.  It looked exactly like every single postcard I’d ever seen (or even imagined) from the Austrian Alps.  The little town is loosely arranged around a 600 year old church, with ski lifts and cow fields peppered on the hillsides.  The Großglockner iteself stands imposing and snow covered just behind the town.  I was instantly in love, and only happier to find that our hotel (Hotel Kaiservilla) was gorgeous and run by a very kind and friendly Dutch couple who absolutely adore kids.  Even better — the hotel was to be nearly empty for the days we were staying there, and they had given us a huge room with the best view in the place.  It was everything I wanted it to be!

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After getting settled and enjoying the view for a bit (the kids got out their binoculars to give it a closer inspection), we headed out for dinner (getting slightly lost along the way — Heiligenblut is a tiny town, but there are lots of equally tiny mountain roads winding through and around the area . . . and very few of them have signs . . . and several didn’t exist according to our GPS).  We ate in a little restaurant/hotel combination across the valley from where we were staying.  We had a lovely, simple Austrian meal, and while we waited for the food to arrive (and then after we had finished) the boys played outside in the playground on the edge of the forest, and visited with the resident bunny rabbit.  As they were finishing their playtime, I noticed some animals grazing high up on the steep mountainside.  I watched them, trying to figure out what they might be (remembering our wild mountain goat experience from last fall) when I finally realized that they were horses!  I was trying to imagine how anyone ever got up there to get them down when they suddenly decided to make their way down the mountain and into the neighboring field.  (Looks like a pretty great place to be a horse, but I wouldn’t want the job of bringing one in that didn’t want to be caught!)

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It was a great day.  I was so excited to get on with exploring this part of Austria, and so thrilled to be exactly where I was.  (Unfortunately, we finished our evening out by attempting . . . and failing . . . to remove a splinter from poor Liam’s finger.  That’s the down side to all of the great, rustic, wooden playground equipment in Austria.)

Lipizzaner tour — Piber

Day 2 of our vacation was all about horses.  I had wanted to visit the Lipizzaner Stud at Piber since coming to Vienna, but I didn’t know exactly what to expect.  The farm is in a beautiful spot with a great view, so that was a good start.  We arrived, got our tickets, and followed the suggested self-guided tour, even though I was anxious to actually spend some time near the world famous Lipizzaners!

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Here in Vienna, I’d already been to a performance of the Lipizzaners, been to see the babies and their moms when they grazed in the Burggarten last summer, and, most recently, taken the “behind the scenes” stable tour.  I was excited to see this last remaining part — the brood mares, the stallions, the young horses and the foals.

095The tour was mildly interesting for the kids, but otherwise not really noteworthy.  But getting to visit the horses was FANTASTIC.  Unlike in Vienna, where there are many rules and physical barriers designed to keep visitors at a distance from the horses, there’s nothing like that at Piber.  We were allowed to wander through the stables at our leisure, visiting, photographing, and even patting the horses.  Liam decided that every single horse we met was named “Willow”.  (I have no idea where he got that.)  It was absolutely worth the trip.  (Though the boys liked meeting the horses, their favorite parts of the day were the ice cream and the playground.)

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After spending several hours at the stud farm, and seeing all there was to see, we waffled on whether to spend the extra time and money on the other available tour — a visit to the mountain pastures where the young stallions (ages 1-3) are turned out to frolic and roam for the summer.  It was a wet and chilly day, and the temperature was only about 6 degrees Celsius at the mountain pasture, which was also a half an hour drive from the main farm.  But, I figured, if not now, when?  So, we bought our tickets and trekked up to the meeting spot on the mountain.

We ran into a bit of trouble, though.  First, the signs were a bit confusing and just enough different from what we were told to expect that we nearly missed the spot entirely.  Second, there was no good place to park, which was a little confusing.  The directions lead to a gravel driveway on a tiny mountain road, far from anything, and the driveway has a chain and barbed wire across it.  We left the car on a narrow gravel strip along the road.  (t was only big enough for one car, so I have to wonder what they do when more than one family signs up for the tour!)  We weren’t really sure we were in the right place … and of course there was no cell signal, so we couldn’t call and ask.  It was our best bet, though, so we waited at the “meeting point”, as it was called in our printed directions.

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I’m waiting by the sign

We arrived about 10 minutes before the tour was supposed to start.  Our directions had brought us to this spot, and they had also mentioned that after arriving at the meeting point, we were still a 10 minute walk from the mountain pastures.  So, we waited.  And we waited.  And waited.  In the cold and the wind, on the side of the mountain, with 2 tired kids.  I eventually sent Dan and the boys back to wait in the car.  After half an hour, we had to decide — give up, or assume that our directions were wrong and hike on up the driveway for 10 minutes to see if we could find anyone.

I was determined, and figured we were already invested.  We’d waited half an hour in the cold, and we’d paid for our tickets.  The main office was already closed for the day, and we were leaving town the next morning.  So, it was continue on, or give the money and time up for lost.  So, we walked past the uninviting barbed wired gate and started to climb up the driveway, uncertain as to whether we were even in the right place.

We walked for about 10-15 minutes, very much steeply uphill.  We found a summer camp, and then, a large barn.  We were met by a barking dog, and saw a few people from a distance, but nothing that looked too promising.  Not easily thwarted, we asked (in our sub-par German), and discovered that we were, unbelievably, actually in the right place.

229The main draw of the “mountain pastures” tour is to be able to watch the young horses running and playing in relative freedom in the huge mountain pastures.  By the time we arrived, they had all been brought in to a large barn for the night.  So, we pretty much missed the main reason to have gone, and instead, for our ticket price, we got to stand in the cold for half an hour, hike up a cold mountain and NOT see the horses in the mountain pastures.  BUT . . . we did get to visit with the horses for a bit.  The kids were allowed to climb up on the gate and pat the horses that happily came over for some love and attention.  It wasn’t at all the moment I expected it to be, but seeing the boys pat and talk with these beautiful horses, some of whom will be performing around the world in a few years, was pretty special.  (B in particular was truly captivated.  The horses’ caretaker even commented that B had the “spirit” of horses in him.)

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After a little while, we trekked back down the mountain and managed a much needed and very hectic 6 minute grocery shopping trip (we got there just before closing) — extra impressive in an unfamiliar store.  What a day!

It was great to visit with the horses at Piber.  It was pretty cool to get to spend some time with them up on the mountain, too, though not exactly what we signed up for.  But we’ll certainly never forget it.

For anyone who reads this who is thinking about going — I would recommend the whole thing — the stable tour and the mountain tour.  Just know that the English directions are wrong.  The place that you’re told to “meet” is not a meeting point, just the end of the driveway you’re meant to walk up.  Don’t wait — no one is coming.  Just walk on up and see the horses.  Take the driveway all the way to the end — past where it looks like you’re supposed to — and you’ll get there.

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The directions we were given . . .