Hiking in the Austrian Alps
A high point (literally) of the summer so far was Hannah’s and my few days in the mountains. We trained to Schladming to visit friends there and enjoy a hut-to-hut hike in the Austrian Alps. [Note: Read “hut” or “Hütte” as a rustic mountain lodge, complete with lederhosen-clad hut-owner, a full menu of Austrian drinks and dishes, and minimalist bunk space.] Although my fourth time in Schladming in five years, it was the first time to really get above the scenic hillsides with views of the mountains. This time, we were actually in the mountains!
Day 1 started with a gondola ride, saving us an initial big climb. We were on the trail by 9:00, loaded down with full backpacks but ready for a 4-day adventure. How could you not be excited when greeted by sunny skies and views of the Dachstein?
The trail started out easy, traversing a wooded path with lots of signage about birds, plants, etc. Also lots of benches. But, if we thought it was going to be just an amble in the woods, we were wrong! We popped out in an alpine meadow, met very friendly sheep, climbed to a little peak past beautiful and curious horses, signed a couple ledgers, got rained on and huddled under a rock to not get wetter, meandered through more rocks and past an alpine lake, and finally came out within view of our hut way below beside a big lake (full of fish, we saw later).
Our quarters at the hut were tight the first night — up a ladder to the loft shared by lots of other hikers (about 15 of us lined up like sardines). However, despite the lack of privacy, we slept quite well (everyone quiet by 10:00) and got up around 7:00.
The next day’s terrain included a very steep climb of switch-backs above a beautiful green valley. At the top, we discovered a large snow field to be traversed on the way down to another saddle before a long walk down to our next hut, situated in a valley below high peaks and the green bluffs we’d descended. Waterfalls. Cow bells. Familiar faces of hikers we’d shared accommodations with the night before. A long afternoon to read, snack, play cards, journal etc.
Day 3 was a real challenge…first another high saddle to cross with steep switch-backs and a couple of icy snow patches that played upon my fear of heights. Descending to the next valley, we could see the next pass high above — and the hikers like ants crawling across the snow covering the last 200 vertical meters below it. Climbing to the snow’s edge, we were reassured to find it of an impressionable variety, with fresh footsteps to guide us up the steep slope. Boy were we glad to reach the top — downright giggly with relief! (In this photo, you can see a couple Dutch hikers nearing the top, our trail winding way below and then back across the green to the hut where we rested late morning.)
Way back down in the next valley, we met a gorgeous horse pasture, where a young cold was frolicking. Our plodding footsteps brought us at last to our hut, where we enjoyed chatting with fellow hikers (2 middle-aged German guys, 4 young Dutchies, and another Dutch couple) and gobbling up hearty hut fare.
The next morning I was sad to say good-bye and head back to civilization. We took a detour to tour some famous cascades — only to find that the trail consisted of scores of stairs that seemed down right purgatorial after our climbs of the previous days. Back in Schladming, we crashed at Tobi and Beth’s place and enjoyed an evening of visiting and a long night of sleep.
Camping out in Venice
The contrast could hardly have been greater — the sparsely populated, wide vistas of the Austrian outback and then the hot, circuitous streets of Venice! Determined to “do Venice” on a budget, we opted to camp on the mainland a short bus ride from the old city. [Note: Rick Steves says you need 200 Euros a day for Venice, but I figured up I’d spent less than that on travel to and from, accommodations for 4 nights, food (lots of bread and cheese, pizza, and gelato), museums, and city transport (more walking that was comfortable and one day’s splurge on the vaporetto)!]
Quite the city. Impressions: A late supper of pizza on some unknown plaza and a thunderstorm sending us scurrying for shelter. Running into American acquaintances whom we’d met in Vienna and had no idea were also traveling to Venice. A side-street restaurant — authentic Italians enjoying dinner away from the tourist bustle, music playing, lights strung up over the street that doubled as a dance floor. Extravagant grandeur of the Doge’s Palace, lingering even as the columns have sunk over the centuries. Ludicrous tourist gimmicks hawked in front the medieval basilica. Bustling main streets and silent narrow alleys proffering unique signage (plaques, laminated paper, graffiti) pointing you to and from the main square. Endless array of decorative door frames and shuttered windows, right angles strikingly absent.
The second full day we decided to venture beyond the labyrinth of central Venice and visited three out-lying islands — San Michele, the cemetery island; Murano, famous for its marvelous glass; and Burano, with its centuries of delicate lace-making, leaning bell tour (the same 5° angle as Pisa), and quintessentially adorable houses in intense pastels. Burano was wonderfully quiet, and we sat for a long time next to one of the canals while Hannah painted and I read.
Our last full day in Italy, acquaintances Vittorio and Claudia (both from the Venice area, although we met them in Knoxville, where Vittorio was studying) showed us around the neighboring city of Padua and treated us to more tasty pizza. Home to Copernicus, Dante, Galileo, and Petrarch, Padua is obviously steeped in academic history. ((ts university was established in 1222.) The Romanesque basilica (San Antonio) stood out as one of the most intriguing church buildings I’ve seen — a rather unremarkable exterior and a decidedly remarkably interior, full of intricate, bright, well-preserved painting.
Cycling in the Wachau
Back home in Vienna, we put on the tour guide hats ourselves and welcomed my college roommate Kari for a few days’ visit. Besides lots of good conversation and laughter and Vienna sights, we enjoyed an excursion to the Wachau region along the Danube River. Our first stop was the Melk monastery, established 1000 years ago, although updated in the Baroque era. It was interesting to see how the tour expressed the builders’ attempt to use art and architecture as part of worship, as well as how elements of the gospel were woven into the tour (plus some rather funny legends about relics).
Mid-afternoon (when it was truly hot) we rented bikes and spent the rest of the afternoon covering the 40 kilometers to the town of Krems, back down the river toward Vienna. Our progress was interrupted by the necessity of taking lots of photos as we passed between small river-side towns, apricot orchards, and vineyards. We also passed a few fortresses, including a castle where Richard the Lionhearted was held captive in 1192!
…Now a couple days to catch our breath, be back at church for a Sunday, and work in a couple visits with acquaintances here before we leave again on Monday. Needless to say, Hannah’s visit is going all too quickly!