Austria Part 3- the last leg

Splendid Graz

There is always a point at the beginning of the trip when you feel like it stretches endlessly ahead of you, and then you blink and it’s nearly over. This happened as we sadly left our wonderful guesthouse in Kirschberg and headed towards Graz. We would spend two nights in Graz before spending the last night near the airport, as we had an early flight. Another consideration was getting our PCR test 72 hours prior to the flight home; I figured that being in a city would make that easier to achieve.

Another consideration for staying in Graz was a chance to meet a Facebook friend. Marjorie and I somehow became friends, through mutual acquaintances in the FB English teachers’ community and I thought that having a local show us around would be fun. So we would spend our first day exploring alone and the second day we would meet her. How exciting to meet someone you have only chatted to on the Internet, right? Anyway we arrived in Graz and headed to my first address for getting the free PCR. There was nothing at the address.. nada.. zilch. Ok we’ll head for the next one- a shopping mall called Murpark. After finding the way in to the parking lot we easily found the testing centre. Sadly, though, and contrary to my information, this test was only free for locals, not for tourists. There was a free testing centre, the nice lad said, but it was somewhere downtown, where we would need to pay for parking. Never mind, we decided to get the stupid test done, despite the cost and get it over with. I really wanted to get the result back before we left Graz. The lad very kindly escorted us to the pharmacy where we had to pay, which was in another part of the mall, and waited with us to take us back again. A half hour later it was done and dusted so we headed back to the car park and thence to the wonderful NH City Graz, recommended by Marjorie. Slap bang in the centre of old Graz, and with a half price parking arrangement.

We settled in to our room and then went out to explore the town. A few minutes’ walk from the hotel we found what D was to refer to as “hot dog square”, the main Hauptplatz, with all the wonderful historic buildings and little alleyways. We found a splendid place to eat dinner too- a little Italian place where we had excellent pizza and pasta, and a fine glass of wine. I don’t remember the name but there are lots of lovely little restaurants just off the main square. It was even warm enough to sit outside.

The next morning we were going to explore some more, before meeting Marjorie for the afternoon, to get our insiders’ view of Graz. We kicked off with a splendid breakfast in the park right behind our hotel, at a splendid place called Das Promenade

Breakfast at Das Promenade

We then decided to head towards the river, which is always a good thing to do in a city. So we walked gradually in that direction, admiring the wonderful buildings all around, till we reached the river, and crossed over a bridge, past the very strange Art museum building, to the area near the Mariahilferkirche. We enjoyed the walk, the views and the whole ambiance. There was lots to see and enjoy- the area across the bridge felt more laid-back, studenty and offbeat than the downtown area near the hotel. We also enjoyed walking across the Murinsel, a strange floating structure in the middle of the river.

We found a little market square and then as we turned back to the river direction again, we saw the incredible sight of the Uhrturm, the medieval clock tower perched up above the town, and knew we had to climb up. Well, it’s only 260 steps up after all, not much to get a splendid view of the town on such a beautiful day, right?

The climb was really not bad at all, with lots of places to pause and revel in the fantastic view.

We had just reached the top when Marjorie texted to say she was on her way over. Perfect timing. We made our way back down (it seemed a lot easier than up) and in 10 minutes we were back at the hotel- D even managed to get his sought after hotdog, in “hotdog square” of course. He pronounced it “okay, but not as good as the Viennese one”.

We met up with Marjorie in the hotel lobby and she then very kindly took us to see some interesting spots around town. First we saw an inscription in Hebrew of a 14th century tombstone ( of the the merchant Rabbi Nissim bar Aharon who died in 1387 ) on the wall of the federal government building.

Tombstone

Next we saw the famous double staircase in the municipal buildings. And then we stepped inside the magnificent Graz cathedral with its baroque interior.

Then we took a lovely walk through the park, which was really lovely, stepping in to a few lovely courtyards along the way. We really enjoyed Graz very much, and can totally see why Marjorie enjoys living there.

We had a short walk around town again the next morning before departing to our extremely odd airport hotel, the Moxy which was more like a cross between a youth hostel and a “house of ill repute” than an airport hotel. I understand it was trying to cater to the young, hispter crowd. I found it loud,both in volume and decor, and the room had some kind of weird mauve disco lights on the side tables and even under the bed, with a huge screen tv, but no telephone, complimentary soap or kettle. In the morning at 6am when we departed, one lift had a “do not use sign ” on it but refused to stop going up and down, whilst the other one refused to move at all. Despite all these faults, it was 800 m walk to the airport terminal, so that was fine.I omitted to mention a slight scare we had on returning our car to the extremely patient Gabor. First we could not find how to drive into the hotel car park where we had arranged to meet him, so I texted him that we would deliver the car in the Billa supermarket parking lot. Then after we found him, D seemed to think he had lost his mobile phone, only to discover after a frantic 30 minute search (in which we BOTH failed to see it) , it was retrieved lurking under the dashboard all along. All’s well that ends well, eh?

Going home

Up, Up and away Part 2

From Kitzbuhel onwards to Carinthia….

Before leaving Kitzbuhel we visited a waterfall within the Hohe Tauern National park called the Krimml Falls. I underestimated the size of this national park, and thought we would just drive to the park, walk in and take a short hike. This park, however is enormous, and stretches over the whole of the Tyrol area, and there are hundreds of entrances. We went to an information centre and asked where we could do a nice hike in the region, and got a lovely hiking map all in German with lots of sites marked on it. The nice girl there told us that the Krimml Falls were only a short drive away and we could go there. The Falls were indeed only a half hour drive away and we had a lovely morning hiking up to the top of the falls and down again, only meeting one group of Israeli kids (from Jerusalem) en route.

It was a a splendid day. And we were also greeted by this interesting sign at the end:

At the Krimml Falls

And so after two lovely days in the Kitbuhel area we set off to our next stop, Heiligenblut am Grossglockner, a very small village (pop. 1,020) a mere 131 km drive from the Kitz Garni hotel. Or so I thought. To say I had not done this part of the homework well would be a gross understatement. You see, I checked the distance, and the driving time according to Google maps, an easy two hours and four minutes. Add onto that resting time, eating etc I figured it would be a doddle to get to the hotel, especially when checkout is 9 am. Well here’s the thing. The road, innocently labelled B107, also has another name- the High Alpine Road. Ah, so there we have it- two key words, “high” and “alpine”. And after we had been driving for about an hour, (when I say “we” I of course mean D and not me) I observed casually that the road ahead looked rather windy. (as in bendy, not with high winds, thank goodness). This turned out to be something of an understatement. We then arrived at a toll gate. The nice lady said we had to pay 27.50 Euro. But we have already paid our highway toll pass to the rental company , we informed her confidently. No, she said this road is “special” not a highway. Not included in your pass. Then she glanced at our tires and said “But you don’t have winter tires”. This should have been a clear message to us. We are just getting to our hotel, we said, in Heiligenblut. This is the road that leads there. Is there another way? Yes, she said helpfully, 3.5 hours around the mountain. Can we drive the road without winter tires? Well, she said, there is snow on the road, you will have to drive carefully. We drove carefully. Very, very carefully. The road was spectacular. Fortunately we had started our journey very early in the morning. We managed to get to Heiligenblut at 4pm. Yes, you got it. We drove 131 km and it took us approximately 7 hours. It was worth it. The views were unforgettable. It was a little hard to capture in the photos, because of the endless curves up and down the mountain. The signposts continually told us the height, and I believe the maximum was over 2,700 m.

I really find it difficult to give you a clear idea of the view at the top of this Alpine Road. It was just 360 degrees of astonishing scenery. At the very top there is an observation point where you can rest and catch your breath. Ideally you should be stopping at all the points mentioned in the audio visual guide. But then the drive would really take all day and we wanted to get to our hotel before nightfall. As a general rule in Austria it appeared one should get where one is going around 4-5 pm if one wanted any supper. So for more views of the pass you can probably find a Youtube video or a webcam. But nothing can of course capture the splendor like seeing it with your own eyes.

And so we reached Landhaus Alpenrose Heiligenblut, which I had booked for three nights, thinking it would be a great place to hike, relax and have a rest from driving. (which of course was pretty necessary after the road leading there) . The village possessed a church, two restaurants (one right under the church) a ski lift and a small minimarket. C’est tout. It was tiny and quiet and surrounded by green meadows and towering snowy peaks. Fabulous we thought. There was one other family consisting of a Hungarian couple and their elderly mother. The landlady at checkin said something in weird English about the heating that I didn’t quite grasp, except for the word “kaput”. I assumed that the previous guest had had some trouble which had then been fixed. After all she would not be putting us in a room with no heating in October, right? On arrival in our huge apartment, (living room, double bedroom and kids’ room with bunks) we discovered that the living room radiator worked, the bathroom heater worked but the bedroom heater did not. She had thought it was fine to just leave the doors between the rooms open and let the heat circulate. We immediately contacted the owner (by Skype message- there was no phone in the room) and informed them that this was unacceptable. The husband appeared with his teenage son as a translator, schlepping an electric fan heater which stank and made a whirring noise. I informed him via his interpreter that this was no good. He returned with an electric radiator and said it would be fine. It was ok and the next day when we came back the heater was gone which we took to be a sign that the heating had been fixed (which it had).

Fortunately for us both restaurants in the village were great, but one was greater than the other. Plainly put, Casa Antica was the restaurant of my dreams. We ate there three times and everything was perfect. They had about 30 different types of pizza on the menu, and various salads and pasta dishes all better than anything I have eaten in Italy. The chocolate profiteroles… well you can imagine. And the wine was also wonderful. This was just as well because there was nothing else open on the Sunday for miles around. One day we spent just exploring the area around the village, walking along the river bank and enjoying encounters with the rural inhabitants. One day we spent driving into nearby Lienz and visiting a castle, and moseying along the banks of the Drava River. It was all extremely picturesque and charming.

After three wonderful days in this peaceful place it was time to move to our next stop, Feldkirschen in Carinthia, where we would stay only one night at the incredible Erlebnishaus Spiess Guesthouse, possibly the most wonderful place we have ever stayed. A more comfortable, welcoming guest house for such a modest price you cannot hope to find. I instantly wished we had taken 3 nights here and only one in the previous place, but hindsight is such a useful thing, isn’t it. From the initial welcome by the kindly Melitta and Manfred and their daughter and granddaughter, we felt at home. Everything was super comfortable and clean and the guest house had cows right across the road, and a stunning view.

So now it’s time to take a breather before we continue on to the city of Graz. Stay tuned!

Up, up and away! (at last) Part 1 The Lakes and Kitzbuhel

After being grounded by this wretched virus since November 2019, and armed with our certificates in two languages proclaiming our thrice vaxxed status, we finally braved an international jaunt. The destination was chosen using totally different criteria than PC. (Pre Corona) travel . In the past I had always gone for slightly edgy, off the beaten track destinations and a chance to hang with locals. This time a short flight with no connections, and a country with a high rate of vaccination and where covid distancing rules would be observed seemed a good idea. Austria- a small country, with lots of nature, lakes and mountains, seemed like a good option. This trip we would be avoiding museums, concerts, pubs and other crowded venues, so sadly we decided to avoid Salzburg (we had already visited Vienna in a previous trip) . I know it seems insane to go to Austria and avoid those two wonderful cities, but with public transportation off the table, and no visiting of cultural institutions there didn’t seem to be any point in venturing into those places.

Sitting in the plane waiting for takeoff I felt as excited as a first time flier, and realized how I had missed that feeling. The flight passed quickly, and except for the horrid food ( compared to previous flights in recent years) did not seem different at all, despite wearing a ffp2 mask, as required by Austrian Airlines.

Our route was to be a sort of ellipse beginning and ending at Vienna International Airport, via the city of Graz (more on this later) but without entering the city of Vienna at all. We would stay at various places in the towns of Gmunden, Kitzbuhel, Heiligenblut, Feldkirschen and Graz. We collected our rental car from the wonderful Abrix Slovakian rental agency recommended by my friend Rachel, whose employees were indeed very helpful and efficient. The guy was waiting outside the McDonalds as promised. We then set off for our first stop at the pretty town of Gmunden on the lake called Traunsee. The idea was to go round several lakes in this area before headed up to the Tyrol the next day.

Gmunden was divine, if deserted due to the season. We walked around the lake and met a local fellow who was most excited that we were from Israel, since he turned out to be some kind of Jehovah’s witness. But not the pushy kind. He was chatty insofar as his English permitted. We wandered around the lake area enjoying the scenery and then became peckish. There was no food to be had anywhere, except at the hotel restaurant where we were staying, the lovely Seehotel Schwann right on the lake itself. So we ate there, and enjoyed the view some more. I was a little sad we were staying there only one night. But the Tyrol beckoned. Next morning we departed Gmunden and headed up to the Tirol where we would stay a couple of nights in Kitzbuhel, well known for its skiing pistes and swanky crowd, but of course not in October .The plan to visit a number of lakes on the way was somewhat sabotaged by the heavy rain that fell next day almost non stop. However it meant that all the lakes we saw were extremely misty, and frankly, once you’ve seen one misty lake, you’ve seen them all. At one point we attempted to buy some soda water at a grocery store, but the grocery store that Google maps directed us to turned out to be a dairy. There was a machine to buy milk or yoghurt, but nothing else. A man in white wearing galoshes appeared, and pointed to the cows sitting quietly nearby. We realized that the cows probably did not sell cold water, ( He did offer to fill a milk bottle with water) and so we drove on.

Main square of Gmunden, right outside hotel

The hotel I had picked for Kitzbuhel, the Kitz Garni , was just outside the town, and we were the only guests I think. It also had a sauna. The views out the window and all around the hotel were just sublime. It was just … PASTORAL to the extreme. The lady in reception told us that she had made her traditional Tyrolean costume herself, during corona times.

We had planned to go up on the ski lifts and look at the magnificent peaks, but as the skies were still really cloudy we wouldn’t have had very good visibility so we just drove around a few villages and enjoyed the magnificent peaks and cute little villages with their typical Tyrolean wooden facades and copious geraniums. The town of Kitzbuhel itself was also rather charming, with lots of great architecture.

There were lots of statues and signs on the buildings showing the symbol of the town, the mountain ibex, and most houses also seemed to have antlers on their facades. In fact, cows and sheep were far more prevalent than humans. Also everything seemed to shut down around 5pm. We quickly figured out that if we wanted anything to eat we would have to get it fairly early on in the evening. Everything is geared to the tourist season, so off season, many places were just closed (or maybe Covid has had its effect too).

Facade in centre of Kitzbuhel shopping street

The whole area was just so wonderful. Everywhere the snow capped mountains rose up at the end of the road, and every view was more stunning than the one before. The scenery is just breath taking. There were waterfalls and rivers on all sides.

We got lost a few times just going up village roads at random, so I can’t actually tell you which villages we saw, but I think they are all absolutely gorgeous, so I don’t think it matters a whole lot. I think just picking a direction and looking around is the way to go. You are not looking to tick places off your tourist map. The whole area IS the destination.You can also accidentally drive over into Germany without noticing and nobody will ask for your passport or your covid certificate.

Thus ends part 1. The continuation towards our next stop at the village of Heiligenblut was a little “eventful”, so it will wait for part 2. Stay tuned!