Wednesday, July 13, 2011

A Spot of Hiking, Then?

Monday we waited in the lobby for our hotel guide who would take us on a free hike. Lee bounded in with shorts and a t-shirt on and a smile on his face. He gathered our group and we headed up the mountain behind the hotel. The trail wound up through the village and soon entered intermittent forests and ski slopes. The steep incline coupled with the thin mountain air soon had us panting. The sun warmed the air such that I took off my long sleeves and unzipped the legs from my adventure pants. Beautiful views of the valley, river, and surrounding mountains opened up as we climbed higher. We even saw Maria in a field, no doubt preparing to burst into song. At the top, a restaurant located primarily for skiiers in the winter opened to serve us sausage and beer. Lee took off his shirt to reveal a rock-hard physique that seemed impossible for a 55 year old Malaysian. While refueling, we struck up a conversation with Simon and Carol, an English couple on their first holiday without their kids. Even through we were on opposite ends of our vacationing lives, we struck up friendly conversation. Soon we discovered Carol was a dentist and our friendship was cemented. They invited us to drive up higher in the Alps to hike on Wednesday, and we accepted.  Our return to the hotel was followed by a dip in the pool and a leisurely evening of pizza and Barberani wine. The only footnote: my German failed me when I misread the menu and ended up with mussels, clams, and squid on my pizza.

The next day we woke up early to catch the train to Salzburg. Upon arrival in the city we walked to Mirabell castle to observe the beautiful gardens where Maria sang "Do, Ra, Mi." From there we passed by Mozart's house and crossed the river to the old town. Unfortunately, it seemed that much of Salzburg was destroyed during the war, robbing it of its historical character. The old shopping street remained rich. Large, ornate hanging signs proclaimed each store and the architecture was primarily new classical.  Even the windows harkened to yesteryear, with many arrays of leather suspendered pants and flowery long dress of old design. At the end of the street we found an elevator up the side of the cliff which lined the riverbank and took it to see the view.  We ordered two beers at the restaurant for the modern art museum and gazed out on the hills and spires of the town. We returned to the old town and found a beer garden claiming its opening date in the 17th century. The garden was already 100 years old when Mozart enjoyed a beer there. I tucked in to my first weiner schnitzel, an Austrian favorite, and we waited out a brief rainstorm. We wandered on through the winding streets, passing Mozart's place of birth and the town square. We toured the ornate, rebuilt Cathedral. Tired from our previous day, we stopped again for coffee and a piece of chocolate cake from an old chocolate cafe. We returned to the train by way of a path along the river.  Back in St. Johann, we went in search of a Donner Kabab, which is similar to a Gyro but better. The discovered version was a disappointment, but the hottub again lifted our spirits and we slept soundly. Overall, Salzburg was not our favorite town.

We met Simon and Carol the next morning and jumped in their car for the drive up the mountain. Fortified with Bonine, we were prepared to turn our heads on the windy mountain roads. After entering a national park the road continued nearly straight up, switching back and forth as the rocky mountains rose around us. Snow melt created small rivers which cascaded off the rocks and lept away into space to form waterfalls.  Soon trees gave way to scrub brush and as we topped out over 8000 feet, the brush was replaced by rocky dirt and patches of snow.

As we climbed we passed many bikers peddling their way up the steep slope. At the top we discovered the interest. The Tour of Austria was completing the highest portion of their race today, due to crest the mountain around noon on our road. We found a place to park at a bar at the top, and awaited the bikers. Soon the entourage of police escorts and support vehicles laden with bikes on racks appeared. The bikes soon zinged out of a tunnel before entering the last portion of their steep climb. A handful led the pack substantially, and soon crested the peak. I waited to see the pack, dozens of bikers powering up the hill while jockeying for position in a tight formation. But the real sight came after they crested the hill. The pack spread slightly as bikers reached the top milliseconds apart, but was still entirely too dense for the rocket-like speed it soon obtained. More amazing still, as bikers shot past, they let go of BOTH handlebars to drink water, adjust their glasses, eat power bars, and even put on jackets. These were feats I would not attempt at any speed on a bike, much less fifty miles and hour. We watched the pack carreen much faster than I would drive a car down the curvey road falling from us, but in fact being chased by cars moving the same unsafe velocity. As the stragglers peddled valiantly by, we began a steep hike up to see the view and wait out the emptying of the parking lot. I expressed my hunger, and Simon assured me that if there was one truth about Austria, it was that there was a bar at the top of every accessable peak. As promised, we were soon enjoying Austrian goulash, dumplings, and delicious beer. We hiked back down and jumped in the car to continue our journey to the next mountain.

There we hiked in and out of six tunnels on a flat path along a ridge which afforded us amazing views of the highest peak and the longest glacier in Austria. The huge mass of ice looked like a cracked, dirty blanket over the massive valley it had torn through the mountain when, in the last ice age, it was much larger. The noise of rushing, flowing water filled our ears, which likely was caused by the glacier and the numerous small rivers and waterfalls formed by the melting snow from the mountain peak. Uninterested in driving the windy roads after dark, Simon suggested we head home.

The evening brought another trip to the hot tub, of course. After showers, we shared another bottle of Barberani wine with the Brits and ventured out to find dinner. In the shadow of the cathedral we ate more Italian food of a much lower quality than we had enjoyed during the previous week, but the conversation and wine made up for the food. After dinner we swapped emails with our new friends and walked back to the room to pack up for our next leg. Our Austrian trip was action packed, but at the same time relaxing, and we saw stunningly beautiful scenery.

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