Tuesday, 8 April 2008

Skiing in Tyrol

Last week I went on a ski trip to the Austrian Alps. Yes I know, I feel as if I’ve been on a bit of Alps overload over the past year. I’ve now driven through them in four different countries and just the previous weekend I had taken a train through the Goddard Pass to Venice. This was supposed to be the year of Southern Europe!

We started our journey by flying to Munich, another place I’ve been way too many times. It’s a beautiful city though, I must admit, though I still find Bavarians a little off-putting. We spent one night in the city and then drove our rental car down to Sőlden, the resort in the Ötz valley where we skied. On the way we stopped at Neuschwanstein Castle, the fairy tale palace built by mad King Ludwig, the second to last king of Bavaria, in the mid 19th century.

In high school I did a bus tour with my school band, traveling from Vienna to Salzburg and then to Munich and Nuremberg playing for old folks homes across the two countries (why old folks homes? I have no idea). On the way we stopped at Newschwanstein, and I remember being quite enchanted with it. I bought a poster and it hung in my room at home for years and years after that. So it was quite a treat to go again. But I have to say now that I'm a bit older, it does seem kind of silly. After all, the castle was never even lived in. It was built by Ludvig as a giant homage to Wagner, but he died before its completion and when it was finished it was immediately opened as a tourist destination. It actually feels like you’ve stepped into a Wagner opera, or to be more descriptive, like Tristan und Isolde exploded all over the walls of someone’s house. It’s actually a tad creepy considering the Teutonic romantic movement that inspired the castle eventually inspired the holocaust as well. But it’s easy to get swept up in the romance. And why not, I suppose.

As we continued our journey and drove into Austria I realized that this was actually the first time I had driven from one Schengen Zone country to another (as opposed to on a train or plane). Sure enough there was no border crossing, just a tiny sign indicating you had entered Austria that was, according to my GPS, actually about 40 feet before the real border.

Running East-West across the Austrian Alps is the majestic Inn Valley in which lies Innsbruck – literally ‘the bridge over the Inn.' Off of this valley run several smaller valleys going from north to South, and the Ötz Valley, where we went skiing, is one of those. Just to the East of the Ötz Valley is the Brenner Pass, which runs South from Innsbruck to Italy and is the lowest pass through the Alps. Apparently it’s possible to drive to Italy through the Ötz Valley to Italy as well but we didn’t try it, since apparently the road runs along some jagged cliffs and we had unfortunately been given a ‘mini-bus’ with which to drive through the Alps (the car we had reserved wasn’t available).

Skiing was quite interesting, they don’t mess around in the Alps! This was actually my first time skiing outside of New England, and there was really no comparison (no offense Vermont). Some of the trails are really narrow and are next to cliffs that just drop off. Others go through mountain passes where it feels as if you’re just skiing in an open downhill plain. And I went through my first ski tunnel! It was really beautiful.

We also indulged in some more aquatic activities by going to the Aqua Dome, which we had seen advertised all over the valley. It was actually really cool, a series of heated outdoor pools overlooking the mountains. We decided we liked the salt water pool the best and stayed in there as the sun set. As it got dark the whole thing started to light up in different colors, and combined with the new age music wistfully emanating from the speakers, it was quite a relaxing experience. That is, if you ignored all the Austrians making out around the edges. It was kind of like AlpeMare near my dad's house in Switzerland, although without the slides and not on a cliff. Actually Alpe Mare isn't really all that relaxing to be honest, so it was nothing like that!

For the weekend we drove up to Innsbruck, which was a very charming city. Completely surrounded by snow-capped peaks, one can see why this was such a good spot to host the winter Olympics multiple times in the 60’s and 70’s. Innsbruck was also an important center for the Habsburg dynasty and turned into the core of the Habsburg empire for a period. As the capital of Tyrol it ruled over the entire area (present day Austrian Tyrol and Italian Tyrol) and in the fifteenth century Maximilian I moved the Holy Roman Empire imperial court to Innsbruck.

If there was ever a city that highlights the importance of location, its Innsbruck. Looking at a large map of Europe you’d be hard pressed to figure out why Innsbruck, located in the center of the continent’s highest mountain range, would have been a center of European politics and culture. But by controlling the entrance to the Brenner pass, as well as the lucrative salt trade in the area, it could not be ignored.

Flying back in to Heathrow Sunday night was absolutely hellish. We must have still been experiencing the offshoot of the T5 chaos, combined with delays caused by the snowstorm in the UK over the weekend. Our flight was quite delayed, and when we arrived the passport check line was absolutely massive (for both the EU and World lines). God how I wish the UK would sign up to Schengen border-free zone. After 45 minutes of waiting in the passport check line we thought for sure our luggage would be ready and waiting for us in the reclaim. But it wasn’t. In fact it took a whole hour for our luggage to emerge. After a week of German efficiency, it was a bit frustrating to say the least! But I feel like I go through this rude awakening every time I return from a trip to the Germanic world.

Overall the trip was quite fun, we got a good mix of activities. I always forget to put on sun screen when skiing though, and I’m definitely paying for it this week. My face is pretty much falling off all over the place, it’s quite gross.

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