Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Who Knew an Ice Cave Would Be Cold?

We are now back in the US. I have a large backlog of blogs, and I will release them over a few days, so as not to overwhelm. Back to Austria.

Despite our confirmed reservation at a hotel in the Alps near the largest ice cave in the world, we failed, when packing, to register our possible clothing needs due to the temperature decrease. The evening of our arrival, we went out in town to enjoy the summer festival. I found if I wore all of my clothes in layers, I was warm enough to brave the street, leaving me with one outfit for the entire five days.

A few Austrian beers later, I was nice and toasty. Anna tried an Austrian approach to a Mojito, but was dissapointed to watch the bartender include lime peels and mint stems in his muddle. To counteract the bitterness, he shoveled brown sugar into the beverage until it assumed an odd, brown tint. His failure to include soda, and the impossiblity of the sugar dissolving in large quantity left a grainy, bitter, rummy drink. The moral of the story, when in Austria, stick to beer.

We stopped for dinner at a traditional restaurant with live oompa music and a special of giant hog leg grilled bone in with sauerkraut and bread. Amazing. The festival had four stages and the streets were lined with beer and liquor vendors. Even compared with New Orleans, we were amazed at the ratio of alcohol-to-food stands, skewed heavily in favor of booze. The affect was demonstrated by the groups of trashed fourteen-year-olds stumbling about hugging one another and dancing wildly to the techno music blaring from two of the four stages. We ventured into this middle school area only once, where Anna recognized the song and demonstrated a dance routine she recalled from her middle school days. Impressive.

Even more impressive was the light display. The large church and the buildings surrounding the festival were highlighted with projected images and splashes of color which moved in and out and changed in slow rhythm. The images traced the contours of windows and doors such that the buildings seemed to come alive as they moved. We watched the display and listened to the band playing Austrian reggae. An odd choice, so we moved to the last stage, where the band played crowd favorites in German and English, including Sweet Home Alabama and Summer of '69. About to drop after two days of travel, we headed to bed.

After sleeping very late, we once again donned every item of clothing that we had brought and caught the train to Werfen to see the ice cave. The towns were along the Salz river valley at about 3300 feet. To make the trip to the cave, we rode the train, took a bus, walked a short hike, rode a funicular almost vetically, and took another hike to end up above the tree line at about 6600 feet. Due to the length of our trip and a late bus, we waited at the top for the last guide of the day, chatting with a student from San Francisco named Matt. The guide arrived and passed out small gas lanterns to everyone.  He opened a door in the cave mouth and an icy blast of air struck us at high velocity, exposing the inadequacy of our clothing. Fortunately, we soon began walking up 770 stairs which warmed us against the zero degree celcius temperature. The beginning of the cave was a large, dark, upwardly sloping cavern with a river of ice pouring down the middle. Occasionally frozen waterfalls oozed from side cracks and icy stalagtites protruded from the ceiling. As we climbed higher, the ice surrounded us on all sides.  Soon we were walking through an ice tunnel, stratified layers identifying seasons of thaw and freeze, revealing the oldest ice to be from 5000 years ago. The guide lit magnesium flares to reveal magnificent ice sickle overhangs which resembled frozen sculptures, and I expected around every turn to see Luke hanging from the ceiling reaching for his lightsaber while the ominous footsteps of a yeti approached.

After an hour in the freezer, we were happy to head back to the welcoming spa of our hotel, complete with jacuzzi, steam room, and sauna. We grabbed pizza and pasta at one of the five Italian restaurants in our small town, and headed off to sleep.

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