Travel theme: Energy

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Ailsa’s travel theme this week is Energy (click here to see more entries). Back in September last year, I travelled to Austria for a week to visit family. One day, we caught the gondola up to Muttereralm, primarily to check out the mountain carting that is taking over as the popular sport during the summer months when there is no snow to ski on. However, there are lots of cool things to do and see on the mountain, including a series of waterwheels, sluices and other obstacles that the stream runs through on its way down the hill. I was there with my nephew and eldest niece, and they were both fascinated by the interactive elements that helped them learn about the power and movement of water. My nephew was a typical boy about it. He wanted to build up as much water as possible, and then see what happened when he let it go. My niece, on the other hand, takes after my dad (he’s a physicist). She naturally understands how things work, and methodically went along the machines one by one to confirm what she already knew. It was great fun to watch them explore.

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Playing on the mountain in Austria

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As you know, it is one of my missions to try at least one new activity every year. I’m fortunate to say that I usually get through a few before winter comes around.

Sometimes you plan new activities months in advance. They’re dreams, items to tick off your bucketlist. You’ve read articles about them, heard accounts of experiences from other people and you can’t wait to try them for yourself.

DSC_0578And sometimes, new activities get thrust upon you by surprise. That’s what happened to me last week when I was in Austria visiting family. Muttereralm, just outside of the city of Innsbruck, is home to a 5km toboggan run in the winter. Ever efficient, the local Austrians couldn’t just let the track sit there all summer not being used, so they’ve turned it into a mountain carting track. My brother has three young children, and had been wanting to try out the carting with the eldest two for a while. However, the logistics of looking after three children between two adults meant that he hadn’t been able to. So, when I arrived, he asked me if I would come along and have a go too. I’d never heard of mountain carting, I had no idea what it was or what I was required to do, so of course I said yes straight away.

The carts, or buggies, are fairly basic, just a frame with three wheels, two brakes and a DSC_0678low seat. After some safety instruction from one of the team at the top of the mountain, we were off. I had my niece on my knee and my brother was in front of us with my nephew.

I’m not really an adrenaline junkie, but I have to say this experience was so much fun. I will warn you that it’s a bumpy ride, in fact I’m convinced that they dig out extra ruts in the track for the buggies because I’m sure the toboggan run in the winter is much smoother. My niece, holding on tight to the cross bar, was bouncing up and down on my knee as we bumped along the off-road path and negotiated hairpin turns. She was also laughing her head off all the way down, and I am so grateful that I got to share such an amazing and fun experience with her.

DSC_0889At only 10 euros each, I think mountain carting at Muttereralm is really good value for money. It works out about the same as catching the gondola back down the mountain.

Whilst I was in Austria, I also got to go rock climbing with my niece and nephew. Climbing is not a new activity for me, and pretty much everyone in our family has climbing experience, but we never get to do it together. Sharing a sunny afternoon together and having fun was a highlight of the trip for me. As an added bonus, my mum also joined in with the climbing. Climbing with my mum is another first for me, and I never thought I would get to say that I belayed my mum!

Travel theme: Deep

Ailsa’s travel theme this week is Deep. Click here to see more entries.

Probably the deepest thing I have ever seen is the Grand Canyon. It’s so big that it was almost too much for my mind to take in, I still felt like I was looking at a picture.

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Melissani Lake in Kefalonia is one of the most entrancing places I have ever been. Although the lake itself is very shallow, it sits at the bottom of a deep cave. Sunlight streams through a hole in the top of the cave and turns the water to an incredible turqoise blue.

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And finally, trying to snow shoe walk in deep snow at Seefeld in Austria, with hilarious consequences.

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Beautiful Austria

These days, the only reason I visit Austria is to see my family. As I used to live there, I wouldn’t choose to go there on holiday, and out of all the places I worked it isn’t my favourite. Every time I go there, though, I am still astounded by the scenery, especially in Innsbruck where my brother and his family live. The city is right in the middle of the mountains, and wherever you are you only have to glance up to see the imposing Alps towering over you.

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Unlike a lot of cities in the Alps, Innsbruck has maintained a lot of it’s traditional charm.

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And the way of life there is still distinctly Tyrolean.

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Living Plant-based, Austrian Style

Recently, I read an article by Doug Lisle on the Forks over Knives newsletter about how living plant-based will one day be the norm, but as with every major change that humans make, it takes time and unfortunately will not be in my lifetime. Although those of us who are already plant-based find it frustrating to watch people stuffing their faces with junk food and processed chemicals, especially when it is parents feeding their children, we have to accept that change will not happen over night. As Doug Lisle says in his article:

‘Think in terms of the march of human enlightenment, and it can help you relax. A hundred years ago, women weren’t allowed to vote. We are only about fifty years since the civil rights movement. Today, we look back in amazement at the primitive thinking of the average citizen in previous eras. Cultural perceptions can change — and usually in the right direction.’

My family have always been fairly supportive of my food and lifestyle choices. Althought they are all omnivores, they cook vegan food for everyone to enjoy when I visit and take my diet into consideration when we eat out. They’ve even admitted to seeing the benefits in living plant-based – mainly that they are ill all the time and I very rarely am. However, they still hold with the idea that was planted in their head as children that they should eat other animals, although they’re never able to explain why. My mum in particular likes to drag me into conversations about my diet, then when I don’t agree with her on something she accuses me of being narrow-minded and tells me that I need to learn to respect other peoples’ beliefs. Although my personal belief now is that humans are meant to eat plant-based food, I do respect the fact that everyone chooses what they eat and what they feed their children. I never preach about being plant-based or try convert everyone to eating vegan, but I’m happy to discuss it with people and answer their questions if they ask.

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Last Sunday, I attended my niece and her cousin’s naming ceremony in Innsbruck. It being Austria, the food consisted of a lot of meat and dairy. Even before I became plant-based, I found the dairy too much in Austria. As soon as I said I was vegetarian, people would give me huge portions of pasta with cheese, pizza with yet more cheese and sometimes just a plate of cheese with a sliced tomato on the side. During my first summer there, years before I was plant-based, I actually chose to switch to soya milk at home just to have a break from all the dairy.

Anyway, back to Sunday. All three families present had lots of questions about what I eat and how easy it is for me to find food, and they were genuinely concerned that there would be nothing for me. I happily answered their questions, and reassured them that as I had already survived two years as a plant eater, travelling around various countries, a day in the Alps shouldn’t be too difficult.

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My sister-in-law had kindly gone to the supermarket before I arrived and picked up a few things for me, including some gluten-free bread. That, along with some zucchini/courgette, corn and potatoes off the grill, olives and salad (with the feta cheese picked out) made more than a substantial plate. I also had a bowl of piping hot carrot soup that my sister-in-law’s mum made. It was delicious. My home-made carrot soup certainly isn’t going to taste as nice now. I would have taken a photo to show you, but I did my usual trick of getting distracted by the food and only remembering my camera after I’d finished.

If all else failed, I could always survive on corn
If all else failed, I could always survive on the corn growing next to the garden

The general response from people was ‘Wow, you really did find enough to eat without choosing the meat’. And for dessert? Handily, the garden we were using for the ceremony is full of pear trees, and the fruit was constantly falling around us throughout the day. How much easier can you get than food literally falling into your hands?

Can you spot the butterfly trying to steal my dessert?
Can you spot the butterfly trying to steal my dessert?

A Bit of a Diversion

As a general rule, I like travelling. I don’t just mean visiting lots of countries and exploring different cultures. That’s a given. What I mean is, I actually like the travelling bit. Train, plane and boat journeys are part of the adventure for me. I don’t dread having to spend two hours in an airport waiting for a flight or sleeping on a night ferry for nine hours, I relish it. On occasion, however, there are journeys that push even me over the edge. Getting from my home in Cardiff, South Wales to Innsbruck, Austria last weekend was one that definitely comes under that category.

I visit Austria fairly regularly. I used to live there myself, and now my brother lives in Innsbruck with his family. So, when I was invited over for my youngest neice’s naming ceremony, I booked a return flight with Lufthansa, flying out from Heathrow on Friday and returning on Monday.

Although we have an airport near (not actually in) Cardiff (the only international airport in the whole country), unless you want to fly to Jersey, Spain or Greece for a week, it’s not much good to you. In good traffic (I always try to book early morning flights to ensure this), Heathrow is only 2 hours down the motorway. Airport parking is reasonable and well organised in the London airports, so all-in-all it’s normally a fairly smooth journey. I usually encounter some kind of diversion on the M4 motorway. In fact, I do wonder if there is ever a night that the entire motorway is open. This time the diversion was through Bristol, a route which I know quite well and the roads were quiet so it didn’t cost me too much time. So far, so good.

Before the days of sat navs and GPS, road diversions in the UK were well signposted. You were given plenty of warning about a change in your route, and lots of clear yellow signs would guide you around the obstacle and back onto the right path. Nowadays, the assumption seems to be that everyone has a small electronic device sat on their dashboard instructing them based on up-to-the-minute traffic and travel information. As I was living in Greece when sat navs became popular, I’ve never used one. Well, when you live on a small island in the middle of the Mediterranean, an annoying electronic voice telling you that you’re lost on a goat track isn’t really helpful. So, I still depend on maps and diversion signs. Sorry, I know, I’m archaic and old-fashioned. The first warning I got that the entrance to Heathrow Terminals 1,2 & 3 was closed was a row of traffic cones across the road blocking my path. I could see Heathrow, but these small, bright orange plastic nemeses were keeping me from reaching it. Dutifully, I followed the diversion signs. I followed them back onto the M4 motorway, past Heathrow to the next junction, round the roundabout and back onto the M4 again, where I drove past Heathrow again, onto the M25 motorway, past the other side of the airport, where the signs directed me to turn off at the next junction, double back on myself AGAIN, drive back past Heathrow AGAIN, and take the next exit. I found myself back at the exact same spot where I had started, the line of traffic cones still taunting me, and the bright yellow sign still instructing me to follow the diversion. Realising I must have missed something, I set off again. In my defense, there were a lot of yellow signs for a few different diversions and directions to new housing estates (who decided it was a good idea to make those signs in yellow as well?). On the next junction, below the diversion sign that I had followed the first time, I noticed another teeny, tiny sign that was tilted back and had a light shining on it, making it almost impossible to read. Luckily there were no other cars about at 2.30am, as I had to stop the car dead in the middle of a four-lane roundabout to see what was written on it. I could barely contain my excitement when I read those magic words – ‘Heathrow T1, T2 & T3’. Twenty minutes later, after driving right the way through the middle of the airport (well, they’d already taken me around the outside twice, it would be rude not to take the full tour) I eventually found my way to the long stay car park.

Cardiff's Magic Roundabout would have been easier to follow than the Heathrow diversion!
Cardiff’s Magic Roundabout would have been easier to follow than the Heathrow diversion!

Apologies if I’m ranting by this point, but I really do feel that I need to get this all out. Please feel free to skip to tomorrow’s post if you want to read about beautiful scenery in Austria.

My nightmare journey didn’t end there. As I was only visiting Innsbruck for a few days, a direct flight was out of the question. Usually, I fly there via Munich or Franfurt, both very well organised business-orientated airpiorts where I encounter very few problems. (There was an incident at Franfurt once where my boarding pass set off all the alarms as the gate and I thought the desk clerk was going to rugby tackle me to the floor, but I’ll forgive them for that one). This time, I was diverted via Vienna. I’ve visited Vienna city before, but this was my first encounter with the airport. I accept that it is a relatively big, international airport, the Austrian equivalent of Heathrow really, but… well, it’s Austria. You expect things to be reliable and extremely well organised and efficient to the last minute detail. Because that’s what Austrians are good at.

Our Austrian Airlines flight (they’re part of the Alianz group along with Lufthansa) was put in a holding pattern above Vienna. My suspisions about the communication we were being given arose when the pilot announced in German that we would be delayed for ten minutes, then repeated the same message in English, only the delay was now 5-7 minutes. I figured he was either taking into account the different perceptions of British and European passengers, or he was just making it up and didn’t expect anyone on board to pay attention to both languages. As we came in to land at Vienna, the flight attendant informed us that the passengers connecting to the Innsbruck flight would have to go straight to the gate so as not to miss the connection. Now, I know I’m not great at maths, but see if you can figure this one out. Vienna airport apparently allows for a minimum of 25 minutes to get between connecting flights. Had we landed on time, we would have had exactly 25 minutes between landing and taking off. There were 5 or 6 of us trying to make the connection to Innsbruck, and all of us ran through security and to the gate. By the time we got there, the plane had already left. Don’t get me wrong, I’m no Usain Bolt, but I can run a 5k in under 32 minutes. How is a person of average fitness supposed to make it to the gate in time?

None of the Austrian Airways staff at Vienna seemed at all surprised that we’d missed the flight, which lead me to believe that this happens a lot. I then overheard another passenger informing the customer service desk that she had made it to the gate whilst it was still open, but hadn’t been allowed on to the plane because she wasn’t on the flight manifest. Could it be that they never intended to put us on that Innsbruck flight at all?

I understand that there are a lot of problems that occur in airports. I used to work in airports a lot when I worked in the travel industry. In fact, I worked at Innsbruck airport and Austrian Airlines was one of our suppliers. However, having worked in the industry, I also know when someone is fobbing me off. The staff at Vienna gave us all sorts of excuses, and eventually came to the conclusion that it was the airport’s fault and not theirs. The only time we got an apology was when one of the other passengers complained that no-one had said sorry.

I did discover one advantage to flying via Vienna, especially when you encounter a delay. In the seating areas, they have these cool beds/sofas where you can relax and have a quick nap if you need to.

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Three hours later than scheduled, I made it to Innsbruck. Unfortunately I had to endure a very turbulent landing first. I always used to make fun out of my guests who complained about the landing at Innsbruck. ‘It can’t be that bad’ I used to tell them. That was until I had to actually land at Innsbruck myself. This landing was definitely one of the worst. Had I been on a British flight, I think the pilot would have taken one look at the clouds and said ‘Not a chance, we’re diverting to Munich’. Austrian and German pilots are pretty hardcore, I’ve seen them land in full-on thunder storms before. I felt so sick that I was convinced the apple that the flight attendant had given me for my snack was going to make a reappearance. Luckily it didn’t, and I got there in one piece, relieved that I had booked my return flight via Frankfurt.

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Cross-Country Skiing Part 1

As I mentioned yesterday, I’m lucky to be able to say that I’ve worked in some fantastic ski resorts during my career overseas. Although they are usually called ‘ski’ resorts, though, it’s not all about the skiing. One of the benefits of my job was that I got to try out some of the other winter sports that go on in the mountains and add lots of ‘new activities’ to my list.

First and foremost, I am an alpine skier. When I first learnt to ski, snowboarding was becoming increasingly fashionable, but I decided I wanted to learn to ski first as people told me it’s easier to go from skiing to snowboarding than vice versa. I have since learnt to snowboard, I wouldn’t call it ‘snowboarding’ but I can at least get down the mountain on a board. I just don’t like my feet being strapped to the same board, though, and I have to say that personally I prefer to be on my skis.

Snow-blading proved to be a good way to improve my balance on my normal skis. If you lean too far forward or too far back on these, there’s nothing to stop you cartwheeling down the hill, as demonstrated by my colleague Simon when we guided a snow-blading day together. We also had two snowboarders in our group, who proved the theory right that it’s easier to go from two boards to one than the other way around. They so weren’t used to their feet moving independently of each other on the snow, and ended up looking like Bambi on snow-blades!

Whilst working in Seefeld, the snow-shoe guide Mary asked me to help her guide an unusually large group of guests one week. It sounds like the easiest thing in the world, a sport where essentially all you have to do is walk. You’ve been walking since you were two years old, right? How hard can it be? I was supposed to be assisting anybody who fell over, but I was too busy laughing along with the guests and taking photos of them to be of much use. It was so much fun!

Snow-shoe walking in Seefeld – it’s not as easy as Mary made it look

Putting me in charge of anything with an engine probably isn’t a good idea, but I have also tried skidooing/snowmobiling. Tearing around the countryside in the dark, trying desperately to follow the tiny light on the back of the skidoo in front of me, I felt like I was in a James Bond movie. I also apologise profusely to Inghams for breaking their ten-year safety record by crashing my skidoo into a stream. Don’t worry, nobody was hurt and a helpful Irish holidaymaker came past and helped me to pull it back out again.

The one winter sport that I surprised myself by really liking is cross-country skiing, or langlaufen as it is known in German-speaking countries. As an alpine skier, I’d always considered langlaufen to be something people did who…. Well, to be honest, I’d never really thought about who did it or why. They just always seemed to be there, usually at the bottom of a valley, skating round in circles. There are two types of langlaufen, classic and skating. Classic langlaufen is where you propel yourself along in specially prepared parallel tracks in the snow. Skating, as the name implies, is a much freer style. Skaters ski alongside the tracks on groomed snow. Langlaufen skis are very different to other types of skis. They are long, very narrow and lightweight. You wear small, sneaker-like shoes that clip into the ski binding at the front of the shoe, and you use very long ski poles to help you keep yourself going forward. Langlaufen has never been the most fashionable of winter sports, but I imagine that since Pippa Middleton’s participation in a langlaufen race, it may suddenly experience a resurgence in the near future.
Before working in Seefeld, I’d had one experience on cross-country skis. I’d previously worked in a ski shop in Whistler BC, Canada. Part of my job was to rent out cross-country equipment, in particular for the cross-country taster that was held every week in aid of a local charity. I’d confidently guide the customers on how to use the equipment and advise them of the conditions of the cross-country track. In all honesty, I did not have a clue about cross-country skiing. To this day I could not even tell you where the cross-country track in Whistler is. Whilst not really paying attention in a weekly staff meeting, my ears pricked up when I heard my boss mention the company’s famous annual cross-country race. As I’d never heard of this famous race, I was even more surprised when my supervisor assured our boss that our team had been in training for weeks. More than a little concerned, I pulled my supervisor aside and explained that I’d never actually been on cross-country skis. He told me not to worry, and was so confident in my abilities that I didn’t put a pair of cross-country skis on my feet until the start of the race a couple of weeks later. Unfortunately, to add to my challenge, we’d had very little snow that season and the actual cross-country track was already a cycle path. Don’t panic, my ever-confident supervisor announced, we’ll use one of the slopes instead. It wasn’t even a nursery slope that they picked. We drove halfway up the mountain and sneaked onto an intermediate downhill run that was pretty icy even for an alpine slope. One of my colleagues put me into my equipment and before I knew it I was in the middle of a cross-country relay race. I tried desperately to at least keep going forward up a very steep, very icy slope that was only ever intended to be used to go down. Think trying to roller-blade on ice and you’ll get the picture.
Once I reached the turn around point, I was given a drink to down, and then one of my colleagues literally had to turn me round on my skis. Those things have no edges, how are you supposed to turn on them? He pointed me downhill, told me to keep my skis straight, and let me go. I did as I was told, and thankfully another colleague caught me at the bottom before I disappeared off into the back-country. It would be a few years before I put cross-country skis on my feet again.
Finding myself working in Seefeld, a mecca for langlaufen, it would have been rude not to give it another go. I got the equipment I needed from the ski shop, booked myself into a beginners lesson with some of my guests, and I was all ready to go. Well, almost. My colleague Gabi, an experienced cross-country skier, looked at me in despair.
‘Do you not own any leisure pants?’ she asked.
‘Do I look like someone who would own leisure pants?’ I replied. As a freestyle skier, a helmet and belt were higher up on my list of things to pack.
‘Well, at least try not to look so baggy.’ Gabi advised. ‘You’ll only get yourself caught in something. Remove some layers as well, it’ll be warm out there.’
Twenty minutes later, I was glad of the advice. No wonder cross-country skiers always look so slim. It feels like you sweat your body weight after the first 100m. Even with Gabi’s advice, though, and no matter how hard I try to fit in, I think I’ll always look like an alpine skier on cross-country skis.

Some graceful skaters in Seefeld village. Please note: I definitely do not look like this on langlaufen skis.

Coming up in Cross-Country Skiing Part 2… A giant leap forward in my langlaufen training – Gabi decides I’m ready for an intermediate loipe (cross-country trail) and I answer the question ‘Is it possible to wipe out on a cross-country track?’

Innsbruck to Pisa

After three days visiting my family in Innsbruck, Austria last week, the time came for me to continue on to one of my ‘new places’. Although I have visited Italy before, my journeys there have mainly been to make use of the ski slopes in the Alps or for a change of scenery on a day trip when I lived in Austria. This would be the first time that I was visiting Italy as a proper tourist, with the purpose of sightseeing and taking in the culture.

Before I could enjoy Pisa, my final destination, I had a day of train travel ahead of me. My sister-in-law and two nieces waved me off at the train station in Kematen-in-Tirol, from where I would travel into the main train station at Innsbruck. Then came the longest part of my journey, over the border via Brenner into Italy. At Bologna I had to change trains to Florence, and then finally a regional service would take me the last leg of my journey to Pisa.

When I left Innsbruck, the weather was very similar to that of the UK the previous few weeks, Austria being the victim of a bad weather front that had attacked from the south. The sky was heavy with rain clouds that slowly soaked our clothes through, and the mountains that give Innsbruck its famous beautiful scenery were hidden behind thick clouds. I boarded the train damp, sniffling and concerned that my four days in Italy would be a washout.

As I always instruct my godson to do on our summer camping trips in Wales, I began to make ‘sunshine wishes’. Fortunately, my magic did not fail me on this occasion. Although I couldn’t shake the cold that I had caught in Austria, as we crossed the border into Italy the sun was shining.

As the train stopped briefly in each town we passed through, there were more and more mopeds parked alongside each train station, a sure sign we were heading in the right direction. Further on, vineyards lined the railway track on either side. Oh yes, we were definitely in the right place. Every available space in this region of Italy is covered in vines, and steppes are cut in to mountainsides to create even more room. The mountains are only left natural where they are simply too steep to do anything else with.

Spending a day on a train is an odd experience. Essentially, you are trapped in a metal box with a bunch of complete strangers, forming your own temporary community where you must learn to adapt and co-exist for the sake of everyone’s comfort. I’d managed to reserve a seat for my first two trains to Florence, so I had the luxury of sitting back and enjoying the landscape as we whizzed by. The only less than comfortable part of the journey was the leg from Florence to Pisa. As it was a regional train, I was unable to reserve a seat. On top of that, I’d hit Florence at rush hour and there were hundreds of commuters trying to board the same train as me. Only they weren’t carrying a 40 litre backpack and a daypack. After an hour spent holding the door open for other passengers (the only place to stand was at the end of a carriage, next to the door, and it was either hold it open or get whacked in the face every time someone walked through it) I finally arrived in Pisa. And it was soooo warm! If that is the temperature at 7pm on an October evening, the place must be an oven in the middle of summer. A short, and sweaty, walk later I arrived at my hostel, excited about the next morning and my first full day in Pisa.