Birthday Bliss in the Austrian Alps

I’m pretty sure that a few years ago I joked about celebrating my 30th birthday with a heli-skiing trip, so waking up in the Austrian Alps on my birthday last month, surrounded by people who know just happy skiing makes me, was a fantastic feeling… the helicopter can wait until my 40th! Staying just outside the alpine town of Zell Am See provided convenient access to the two ski resorts in the area – the glacier at Kitzsteinhorn and mountain of Schmittenhöhe that overlooked the town and its lake. Over the three days of skiing, we enjoyed the incredible Alps views from both resorts and savored hearty Austrian cuisine. I can also assure you that we all departed Zell Am See with our bones intact.

We covered a lot of ground off the ski slopes too, with Dan and me making a stop in Munich before reconvening with my parents back in Brussels. I had a full itinerary planned for their remaining “vacation” which included traversing northern Belgium in a bus on a day trip to Amsterdam and then driving south to Bastogne and the Luxembourg border the following day. We concluded their stay with an informative visit in Brussels, the de facto capital of the European Union, before sending them on their way back to the US and enjoying a couple of weekends at home after a very busy month of travel. Not a bad way to start the New Year!

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A wonderful birthday of skiing at Schmittenhöhe

After our New Year celebration in Zell Am See, we weren’t exactly up at the crack of dawn the next day, admittedly, it was a slow start to our first day of skiing. When we finally made it out the door, we shuffled down the hill towards the bus stop, having to reacquaint ourselves with the ski boot “swagger” as one does on their first day back in those confining boots after a hiatus. With our arms full of tangled skis and poles, we could only watch when, at a short distance from the bus stop, one of the free transit buses drove by and we were left in its dust. Waiting for an undetermined amount of time in ski gear is nobody’s favorite past time and I’m sure that some comedy movie out there has accurately depicted our real life roadside bad luck. Another bus did come around and we piled inside with the other skiers headed to the base of the Kitzsteinhorn Mountain. From the base, the gondola ascended up the mountain, finally delivering us to the glacier; with the satisfying click of our boots locking into bindings, we began our day with stunning views over the Alps.

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Eagerly awaiting our first day of skiing while on the gondola at Kitzsteinhorn Mountain

We were certainly not the only ones who had a slow start after celebrating the New Year because the slopes never got too crowded and we didn’t experience long lift lines that day. Skiing on a glacier definitely felt different when compared to the terrain that we skied on in the Colorado Rockies. Instead of cruising amongst spruce and pine trees, we careened down wide pitches without much in the way as obstacles, aside from our fellow skiers. There may not have been fresh powder, but the views were hard to beat.

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Alps view from Kitzsteinhorn Mountain with the fog settling over the valley

At the end of our first day, the bus dropped us off at our stop and we retraced our earlier steps, this time shuffling back up the hill to the apartment all the while looking forward to a relaxing evening in. Before getting too comfortable, we walked back down the hill to the grocery store to pick up ingredients for an unpretentious spaghetti dinner, but upon arriving at the store, found that it was closed for the holiday. A man came by at the same time that we were discussing what to do next and because he was also plotting out alternative shopping arrangements, offered to drive us to the grocery store in the adjacent town that he knew was open for another half hour. He said it was no problem to take us there to do our shopping and then drop us back off on his way home. Without our own car and no other stores nearby, this was our only viable option, so we gratefully accepted his offer and climbed into his vehicle. With 20 minutes before the store closed, we finished our supermarket spree in record time and thanked our driver when he returned us to our destination. With some improvising, we were able to dine on spaghetti with sausage and finish the meal with Christmas cookies from the dwindling supply. Before going to bed, we decided to try our skis on Schmittenhöhe Mountain the following day.

Our ambitious goal of getting an earlier start on the mountain the next day backfired when we tried to catch the bus going the opposite direction as the day before, only to watch four completely packed buses drove right by us without slowing down.  We waited with increasing annoyance for 45 minutes wondering what to do until an empty bus finally arrived and opened its doors for us – yet another scene straight out of a comedy… only it wasn’t too funny at the time. When the bus stopped a couple blocks down to pick up more skiers, we realized that we weren’t the only ones with transit issues on account of being so close to the end of the route. Unfortunately, our late start on the Schmittenhöhe Mountain that morning meant busy lift lines at the bottom. When we finally did reach the summit, our reward was more beautiful views over the Alps and the town of Zell Am See. A thick fog was still hovering over the Lake Zell but it lifted as the day progressed and the temperature rose.

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Kaitlan on Schmittenhöhe Mountain

Hoping to put some distance between us and the crowds, we sought out the more remote runs on the adjacent peak and were pleased with our success. As the sun emerged from the clouds before midday, I started to work up a sweat while navigating the varied terrain of Schmittenhöhe. We paused for lunch in the afternoon and snagged a prime outdoor dining spot at the Sonnkogel chalet. Our picnic table at the end of the patio offered a panoramic view while I enjoyed my soup and apfelstrudel.

After finishing our day on the slopes, Dan and I even squeezed in a run into Zell Am See where the reward was finding a spectacular spot to admire the town and lake as the sun set on another great day of skiing. Our group opted for another relaxing evening at the apartment with pizza for dinner.

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Kaitlan on her run to Lake Zell at sunset

Our final day of skiing was also my birthday, so I was especially determined to make it a full day on the slopes of Schmittenhöhe. Instead of being neglected by the full buses and left disappointed on the side of the road, we decided to be proactive by hiring a cab to get us to the mountain. This decision paid off since we arrived at the lifts before the hordes and were able to enjoy a number of runs without worrying about colliding with the descending masses.

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Birthday backbends on Schmittenhöhe

We knew exactly where we wanted to take our lunch break that day and were happy to sit on the patio in the sun once again while we dined on Austrian cuisine. After lunch we headed back to the slopes for some competitive racing. My mom and I both took a stab at the miniature slalom course, weaving our way between the flags while the clock kept track of attempt. I was feeling especially competitive since I could see the times of those who raced before us and wanted to come away with the gold.

We ended our final day on the hill happy to have all walked away injury free despite a couple of falls and sore shins. For my birthday dinner that evening, we walked five minutes down the hill to Restaurant Zum Saustall housed in a typical Austrian guesthouse. We were seated comfortably in a corner booth, surrounded by two large groups of locals who seemed to know how to enjoy themselves. After an instruction on how to say correctly say “wiener schnitzel”, we tucked into our respective meals. While everyone else opted for the traditional schnitzel, I tried the goulash and barely had room for my apfelstrudel (apple strudel) dessert. The other three tried the Austrian classic kaiserschmarrn, which consist of fluffy, shredded pancakes served with a jam. We rolled ourselves back up the hill after dinner where I received a rousing round of Happy Birthday back at the apartment.

The next morning, we said our short-term good-byes at the Zell Am See train station before my parents boarded their train to Salzburg and Dan and I boarded ours to Munich. While Dan and I were exploring Munich for the day before flying back to Brussels, my parents would be visiting Salzburg and the Munich area before flying into Brussels for a couple days prior to their return to the US.

Dan and I arrived in Munich a couple hours later and dropped our luggage off at the hotel. With less than 24 hours in the city, we established a game plan before setting off in search of sites and lunch. Our first stop on our walk into city center was the famed Marienplatz that has been the main square of the city since 1158. It’s home to the Glockenspiel clock whose characters re-enact two stories twice daily to the amusement of many a tourist.

Just off Marienplatz is St. Peter’s Church with its bell tower rising above the old city center. After paying the small fee, we assembled in line to climb the almost 15 flights of stairs that aren’t even wide enough to accommodate two-way traffic. The staircase seemed to narrow even further as we reached the top floor at the top of the hour, and we ascended the last few steps to the tolling of the bells reverberating inside the tower. I’m not usually afraid of heights but when we stepped outside onto the crowded viewing platform, I realized that the movement of the ringing bells was causing the tower to actually sway. It was slight, but still perceptible, and when combined with the wind whipping around the corners of the tower, made me just a bit uneasy, so I gripped the railing extra tight.  Having acquired my ledge legs, we walked around the tower to take in the panoramic views as bells rhythmically chimed across the city.

With our stomachs alerting us to the lunch hour, we headed to the outdoor market of Viktualienmarkt in search of comforting cuisine. I spotted the cozy Münchner Suppenküche where we were able to find two seats together in the heated tent so we could savor our warm soup in comfort. I particularly liked the casual but welcoming environment of the soup kitchen and enjoyed observing patrons gladly share vacant seats at their tables so others had a place to sit and partake in their meal.

From the market we headed to the famous Hofbräuhaus to have a look around the quintessential tavern and restaurant. This 16th century beer hall was larger than I remembered from my last visit in 2011 but no less, if not more, crowded. We, like the many others couldn’t find a vacant seat in the massive hall, paused to listen to the traditional Bavarian band and watch as stein after stein of beer was delivered to tables of rowdy tourists and locals donned in their lederhosen and wool Alpine hat.

This being Munich and there being no shortage of places to drink beer, we decided we’d seek out another tavern or brewery that wasn’t as busy or touristy, so we rented the “understated” Uber Jump bikes and pedaled to the huge urban park known as the English Garden. Our January bike ride wasn’t exactly toasty but we did eventually find ourselves a snug spot to sip on beverages amongst furry friends. The Mini Hofbräuhaus is an outdoor beer garden during the warmer summer months, but during the winter is converted to a tiny tavern thanks to a heated tent. It seemed to us to be the local hangout where the neighbors gather for drinks and sports on TV while their dogs mingle and search the floor for scraps.

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Kaitlan with her red Uber Jump bike in The English Garden of Munich

We utilized the efficient and easily navigable German public transportation to stop back to our hotel before our dinner at an authentic German eatery, Zum Brünnstein. This time I had the schnitzel, accompanied by one of my favorite comfort foods – Käsespätzle (spätzle). As we were enjoying dessert, we remarked on the cultural differences resulting from the more regimented and early dining hours in Germany versus the late advent of dinner across much of southern Europe. A week earlier in Spain, the locals weren’t starting their dinner until close to 8 PM, but in Munich, our waitress stopped by our table around 8:15 PM and asked us if there was anything else she could get for us that evening, otherwise she was done working and going to close out. She wasn’t being rude, but it struck me as a perfect example of the Germans’ adherence to punctuality and practical approach to communication.

Dan and I flew back to Brussels the next morning and my parents arrived in town a day later, still up for more sightseeing in the three days remaining before they flew back to Wisconsin. We took an early bus north to Amsterdam for the day so they could see the canals, eclectic neighborhoods, and Rijksmuseum. The next day I drove us south to Bastogne in Wallonia, for a guided tour of some of the locations significant to the Battle of the Bulge. I even made sure they crossed the nearby border into Luxembourg before we headed home that evening.

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Our “substitute” guide for our visit to Bastogne who filled in after our original guide had to cancel on us

On their final day, we got to see a place that was new to me – the European Parliament. While Strasbourg, France hosts 12 plenary sessions annually, Brussels is the official seat of the European Parliament. Sessions of parliament are held in the Hemicycle which is open to visitors, along with the Parlamentarium and House of European History. For a foreigner who has limited knowledge of the inner workings of the EU, I found the interactive and informative visit to be worth it, it’s free after all!

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A visit to the European Parliament Hemicycle in Brussels where parliament sessions are held

Celebrating a milestone birthday while the four of us experienced skiing in the Alps for the first time was a memorable way to start the new decade. Kudos to Dan for planning and my parents for making the trek over for this epic “surprise” trip so we could all partake in one of my favorite activities. I’m glad the visit didn’t end there though as showing family and friends around Belgium is very rewarding. With our impending move back the US later this year, I’m embracing the remaining opportunities to welcome visitors to Belgium and partake in new experiences with our friends and family while we call Brussels home.

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