Category Archives: Austria

How to Plan the Perfect Weekend Trip

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The view over Salzburg, Austria

So far this year I haven’t had time to cover them, but I’ve been on a few weekend trips both in the Netherlands and abroad.  One of the main reasons I wanted to move to Europe back in the day was the allure of the weekend trip- I knew I wanted to do my astronomy PhD which is definitely more than a full time job if you look at the hours (or how often one posts to her blog), but I also wanted to spend a decent fraction of my weekends exploring and that is a lot easier to do here.  It’s part the scale of things- it was a 2.5 hour drive from Cleveland to Pittsburgh with nothing in between, here that amount of time puts you in Cologne or Brussels- and part the infrastructure of public transport and budget flights is so much better.  And gee, having to pick a weekend in London versus Barcelona is much more interesting than Columbus or Buffalo!

Valkenburg Castle- the only castle built on a hill in the Netherlands

Valkenburg Castle- the only castle built on a hill in the Netherlands (pretty much on the border in the south with Belgium and Germany)

That said, I have a slight reputation now amongst my friends on my weekend trip planning, so I promised to write down a few tips.  Mind, a lot of these points and websites work outside of Europe too, but how well really varies depending where you are- one nice thing in Europe for example is I have never had to think about transportation at a given destination (as I have yet to be proven wrong in my assumption that there will be excellent public transportation), but you certainly can’t always make that assumption in much of the USA.

Climbing the city walls in gorgeous York, England

Climbing the city walls in gorgeous York, England

1) Planning ahead. I have many hobbies, and I like to joke that one of them is planning trips I might not necessarily take because I can only be in once place at a time.  And this is in many ways true, because unlike the many reasons people travel if you’re just going for a weekend you likely don’t care where you are going specifically on a particular weekend.  Sure, I have my list of places to visit, but I don’t usually care if I visit a particular place in a particular month within reason.

Maastricht, Netherlands- about as far south as you can get and still be in the country, with definite French influences!

Maastricht, Netherlands- about as far south as you can get and still be in the country, with definite French influences!

To take advantage of this I know of two good websites to see what’s good on a given weekend.  The first is Google Flights, where you enter your given dates, starting airport, and all parameters you want (time, price, connections), and it generates a map of all the flights that meet your criteria and the prices that match.  The second is Zap Travel, a site where you enter your details from a starting destination (“weekend skiing in March” or “long weekend Germany 3 star hotels” or what have you- you can do longer trips as well) and it returns to you a list of places that fit your criteria with flights and hotels.  Both are quite useful but in different ways.

Beer Hall in Salzburg- you grabbed a stein off the shelf, washed it and then got beer poured straight from the barrel!

Beer Hall in Salzburg- you grabbed a stein off the shelf, washed it and then got beer poured straight from the barrel!

2) Try to get in by dinner on Friday night if at all possible, even if it’s a late dinner.  This is because a weekend is a really short time- you often barely show up before it’s time to leave again- but somehow psychologically there is a world of difference between showing up near midnight and collapsing into bed and waking up early Saturday and briefly going out and trying a local dish (and then collapsing into bed).  It just somehow makes the entire weekend seem that much longer.

Ruins of St. Mary's Monastery in York- once the wealthiest monastery in northern England, it was shuttered by Henry VIII during his dissolution of the monasteries.

Ruins of St. Mary’s Monastery in York- once the wealthiest monastery in northern England, it was shuttered by Henry VIII during his dissolution of the monasteries.

3) Don’t take the Monday morning flight.  I think everyone learns this the hard way- when you first start the weekend trips you see that 6am Monday morning flight home, and think how much nicer two full days in a location would be instead of rushing to the airport on Sunday.  But it’s a trap!  A 6am flight means you have to be at the airport at 5am, meaning in many cities you have to leave where you’re staying at 4am, meaning you’re not enjoying your Sunday night cause you’re trying to sleep so you can pay for an outrageously expensive taxi cause public transport isn’t running that early. (Plus, honestly, even if you stay up Sunday night is rarely interesting anywhere if you’ve just lived through Friday and Saturday nights.) You still get into work on time- heck often earlier than anyone else if you’re an astronomer like me and no one shows up before 10am anyway- but heaven help you if your job requires thinking and you woke up at 4am that day.

This isn’t to say I don’t take Monday morning flights still- I will if visiting a place with friends or family for example, as time with loved once is precious, or if there is an absurd price difference that is over the cost of an extra night.  But if I’m just going on my own I now get home by Sunday.

"Are you telling me that my children have been running around Salzburg dressed in nothing but some old DRAPES?!"

“Are you telling me that my children have been running around Salzburg dressed in nothing but some old DRAPES?!”

4) In a city, stay at a place near the train station.  Or metro line that brought you from the airport, or wherever.  I normally wouldn’t, as train stations are rarely located in super interesting areas in themselves, but they are central and a big place requires navigating public transport instead of walking anyway.  Much better to dump your bag and hop onto one of many options from the station to see something you want to see then spend an a long time getting somewhere with your bag just to dump it… and then do the same thing Sunday in reverse.

The Bridges of Valkenburg in the southern Netherlands

The Bridges of Valkenburg in the southern Netherlands

5) Beware the budget airport.  Now this depends how much disposable income you have to devote to your traveling habit, and often going is better than not going at all even if you are spending an extra two hours traveling each direction, but things that are worth schlepping out for a week away make rapidly less sense when we’re just talking about a few days.

Hellbrunn Castle near Salzburg, Austria

Ok, that’s all I’ve got for now… and I will now post this before I have even more weekend trips’ pictures to post!  But don’t worry, I’m jetting off yet again tomorrow on a bit of an adventure that I’m sure to post many things about.

Photo: Austrian Ski Slopes

Taken March 18, 2009

Snow is in the forecast for tonight here in Cleveland, which doesn’t particularly excite me in itself but does give me an excuse to start checking snow reports at the ski resorts.  Because I have no idea how someone could look at a vista like the one above (taken in Kitzbuhel, Austria) and not want to be a skier!

Summary of Austria

I came to Austria to ski so I can’t pretend to have a full grasp of the country, but I liked what I saw-

Highlights-

– I really liked Kitzbuhel.  Seeing as I was working on the advice of my parents who visited here over 25 years ago, I suppose it runs in the family.  The skiing was great too.

– Speaking of skiing, I almost feel like I need to write a ”how to ski on less than a hundred dollars a day” guide because had I not rented my equipment I could have done it easily!  Ok, so in the grand scheme of things it was still more than I would have spent over several days whilst in Asia just a few days prior, but 30 Euros for lodging and 35 Euros a day for the ticket… Seeing as you spend about 50 Euros a day in Europe anyway (ok, I do) my little skiing adventure was pretty much the equivalent of two days in Europe otherwise.  Not bad at all.

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– I really liked the hostel I stayed at, Snowbunnys, particularly because the owner Dave is really an awesome guy.  Both personality-wise and giving me my own room once the weekend crowd was gone-wise… And this is, by the way, a picture of one of Dave’s cats (who is one of the first cats I’ve met who is fatter than my cat).  Apparently he doesn’t like guests much but he took a liking to me.

– Getting my sundog photos onto spaceweather.com!  Because who doesn’t like getting their photographs international exposure?

img_4312Lowlights:

– To German guys who go on vacation in Austria: please try to be a little more normal.  Not only do I have a new candidate for the worst pick-up line ever from the one who asked every girl in the hostel ”so, are you a lesbian?” (no, but when you put it like that…), there was another guy who was propositioning everyone after about five minutes of casual conversation.  I mean dude, at least buy the party girls a drink first… He ended up spending the night being reassured by the first German guy that all the girls weren’t into guys anyway.

To be completely fair to German guys the ones I met in Asia and their own country were perfectly normal souls, so maybe it’s just the ones in Kitzbuhel who had issues.

– The weather really could have been better- the first day was rainy at the bottom and snow at the top, the second was dreary until well into the afternoon, and the third had the lunchtime snow shower.  Obviously one can’t prepare against such things (and hey, wasn’t it not too long ago I thought precipitation was a far-fetched concept?), but as my brother pointed out this is probably all so I have a variety of things to talk about.

And with this Austrian experience I headed on to the rolling hills of Italy, which will be discussed once I have a moment to do so.  Ciao!

Journey to Hollersbach

One thing that is important to note about skiing in Europe versus North America is how the aim is somehow a little different.  In the US and Canada we tend to ski in wilderness on trecherous slopes with one little ski village at the bottom if that, whereas in Europe all the mountains were already filled with little villages and resthouses on the slope.  As a result, skiing in Europe almost feels more like a mode of transportation to get between villages than something for its own sake (heck, I had locals commuting by gondola with me a few times!), meaning there is often an extensive ski network over several mountains to explore.

As such, when Dave of Snowbunnys mentioned to me offhand it was possible to ski all the way to Hollersbach, a town approximately 20km away, I obviously had to do it.  The journey traverses seven peaks according to the map, taking in at minimum two gondolas, an areal tram, 13 chairlifts, and one T-bar.  Gotta say, it’s a long day too…

img_4298Because people who pay 28 Euro a night for accomodation do not exactly get ski-in real estate, I got to walk about ten minutes every day to the gondola. (And for my brother and dad, I did this with lots of gusto actually because I discovered it’s easy to carry your skis when the bindings actually work!) Kitzbuhel itself is a nice little town to walk through as seen above, and I particularly liked this florist next to a bakery.

For the sake of seeing just how long it took me to ski the seven peaks, the time onto the gondola was 9:28am.  I don’t know what I was doing up that early on a ski holiday either.

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The top of the world.  Or at least that’s that’s what it felt like.  Looking here from peak number 2 to number 3.

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And this is one of the main reasons why 20km might sound like a lot but surprisingly isn’t- the 3S bahn!  Opened only five years ago, this tram goes 3.8km in about five minutes.  To top it off there is also only one support beam along the way, meaning one can’t help but feel a little giddy suspended a few hundred meters above the mountain valley at the halfway point.  Especially the one time when it stopped right in the middle for me, and while I trust engineers and all all I can think of at that point is how a jet plane accidentally cut an aerial tram’s line a few years ago, killing all those in the tram.  Once you get over that though, it’s pretty sweet.

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An advertisement I rather liked in the tram terminal.  They advertise the 3S by saying it’s like flying, if that makes more sense.

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The view from the other side of the 3S, which is mainly skiing above the tree line.  Perhaps because it already felt like the top of the world and there isn’t much oxygen at 2000m, but somewhere along the way I started referring to going to the end of the ski field as going to ”the end of the world.”  Sort of in the sense that old explorers fully expected to find one.

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Avalanche!  So this happened not in the ski area but rather on the 3,000m peak overlooking it, but it definitely happened sometime in a 24 hour period because it hadn’t been there the day before.  There are several such remnants on this mountain actually, this is just the most prominent one… This is also noteworthy because I never found Kitzbuhel to be a particularly challenging mountain- I only turned down two runs as too difficult and I’m not that good- but I was told later this is in part because they don’t allow huge moguls to form on the black runs this time of year.  Turns out you don’t want a lot of clumpy snow just waiting to slide and kill skiers, a move I approve of.

img_4286The last bit of skiable terrain, in the town of Hollersbach!  And when Yvette saw her skiing domain she wept, for there were no more mountains to conquer… Until she realized she still had to go back so it was time to get going!

Time at reaching Hollersbach: 12:24, or just under three hours of skiing to reach it.  I feel a little more hard core now.

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Unfortunately the way back was not quite as photogenic- a brief snowstorm popped up, throwing stinging snow into your face, so I holed up in one of the many resthouses for the worst part of it.  I am a bit in love with such Austrian establishments because besides the awesome and cheap schnitzel and strudel diet every single one has a giant ceramic oven from which all the warmth comes from.  They have these in Hungary too, and the little corner you can wedge yourself into where it’s extr-warm is called the kucko, and there is nothing quite like coming in all cold from skiing, draping your wet mittens onto the warm tiles, and feeling yourself warming up.  Really, can we please import these to ski places in the United States already?

img_4296Finally the snow let up, so I skied the last bit home.  By this point it was getting pretty late (I stopped skiing around 4pm) so I ran into these local kids from the Kitzbuhel ski club on the last bit.  At this time of year the bottom of the mountain is pretty cruddy- one day it was all slush, the next day all ice, the day after slush and ice- but these kids were going down on one ski each.  Better than I can ski on two actually.  Probably why they don’t make the bottom part of the mountain any easier to ski, unlike us mortals all the locals could do it on one when they were eight!

And that was my ski journey.  Needless to say by the time I got back to Snowbunnys I went straight to my bunk and spent a long time staring at the bunk above me.  What a great day.

Sundogs on Spaceweather!

All you geeks in the audience officially fail at your status.  Why?  Because yesterday my sundog pictures were linked from the main page of spaceweather.com and no one mentioned it to me!  I had to rely on the explosion in my inbox when I came online to learn about such matters!

For those who were never silly enough to call themselves geeks in the first place, spaceweather.com is a NASA website whereby they report on solar activity and other random current events in astronomy.  You can submit pictures and getting yours on the site is sort of a geek badge of pride- I did it once before in New Zealand.  Man, is there anything that little camera can’t do?!

Kitzbuhel

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I realize I’m a bit behind on blogging and pretty much anything on the Internet.   Forgive me.   The reason for this is  by nature of my activities these past few days I am dead tired by the end of the day-

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That’s right, time for some spring skiing!   My family loves to ski, and so when I started considering a mini ski holiday within the  framework  of my trip I asked my parents if they knew of a good place to ski around Austria.   “Kitzbuhel!” was the immediate reply- my parents spent their first Christmas together in this town and loved it, and that was more than enough endorsement for me.   Plus it turns out skiing in Kitzbuhel is pretty cheap- 35 Euro (US$47) a day for a ticket!   I challenge you to find a mountain even half as good in the US for that price.

Plus Kitzbuhel is really photogenic in its loveliness-image498

And before I forget, yes, I did find a place to celebrate St. Patrick’s Day yesterday-image337

The bar was jam-packed with Irish people, of course, which is entertaining as the Irish pub in town is owned by an Englishman.  Another interesting thing about Kitzbuhel- I am the only American here, to the point of being a novelty.  If you’re doing a ski holiday in our part of the world you just go West after all, right?  And I must say, the minor celebrity status is kind of fun.

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My hostel in Kitzbuhel is called Snowbunnys.  You either know why this is hilarious or you don’t.  Snowbunnys is run by the expat Kiwi named Dave and his Austrian wife, and Dave has the sort of personality I can only describe as “cowboy reincarnate.”  You know, the sort of person who is rough around the edges, but once you gain his respect he is the sort of person you want on your side in a showdown.  Dave proves this by letting his guests spread out in the hostel so after the weekend crowd leaves everyone has their own room even when only paying the dorm bed price (it’s the very end of the season, most hotels close down this weekend).  In hosteling Europe, this is an unexpected luxury.

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And because I have no other place to put it, there have been some great sundogs around here! (As in, see that rainbow right above my mitten?) Overall the weather has been great- the first day was one of those ugly “rain in the village, snow on the mountain” affairs that you wouldn’t step out in if it wasn’t your first day, after that it was mainly sun on each day.  Which was good, as it’s not like one comes with full ski apparatus when in the middle of a trip around the world.

And that is what I have been up to.  Of course, the tiredness is catching up with me again so I will leave the actual ski tales until later.  Cheers!