Skiing and Après-Skiing in Lech, Austria

Ahh, summertime… perfect time to reminisce about, what else?  Winter!  Yes, the warm, humid days of the Atlanta summer make me long for winter…  (Well, I have to say that it is not like we are in the midst of a heat wave (we are under 90F still) but a little drama doesn’t hurt when writing the intro for this post, right?)

So, in this post, I want to share of my time this past February skiing in Lech, in the Vorarlberg region of Austria – its westernmost region.  I have skied in Utah, Colorado, the Chilean Andes but had not skied in the Alps – an item in my bucket list.  I needed that to change and the opportunity arose to ski in Austria with a college friend.  After some research and word-of-mouth feedback, Lech seemed a great spot to check out, on the high-end of skiing towns in western Austria.

Driving to Lech

Driving into Lech from tiny Liechtenstein (where we had stopped on the way from Munich – a slight detour), the scenery along the S16 highway was amazing – trees and slopes covered with fresh snow.  The drive was not too long (2-3 hrs perhaps?) and soon enough we left the highway to get to Lech via Stuben and Zürs.  We hit some cool through-mountain and mountain-side “tunnels” and, eventually, approached Lech, all covered in fresh snow at around the time where the early “quitters” were leaving the slopes.drive, driving, Austria, Lech, Vorarlberg, winter, snow, road

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Tunnel through the mountains

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The “tunnels” to keep roads passable – and protected

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Entering Lech

Lodging in Lech

It took us a bit to find our destination for the first night in Zug, just a couple of kilometers off the main part of Lech.  We had a slight incident whereby our original pension (Stierfall) had overbooked itself and they got us booked in the place next door but that was not all a bad thing as the second place was nicer anyway (Stäfeli, Hotel-Garni).

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View from the hotel

Staying in Zug seemed less than ideal since we could not just walk to Lech (well, we could but the road was narrow, no sidewalks, potentially icy, etc.).  However, either we could drive down/up OR take advantage of the great shuttle buses that operate taking people in and out of Lech to neighboring villages.  We had a shuttle stop just down the small hill from our hotel which was cool and made it all easier.

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Tiny church right by the shuttle stop in Zug

Due to being high season that week we went (“spring break” in Austria and some other European countries), we were unable to find accommodations for two nights in a row.  So we checked out of the hotel the next day and later that day checked in to our second hotel in Lech.  This time, we were very lucky with the switch-a-roo.  Yes, we had another incident with overbooked places.  But, this time, not only was the place better but it was in PRIME location, pretty much at the end of the slopes that deposit skiers right in the heart of Lech.  All we had to do, was cross the main street and we were at our hotel, the Hotel Tannbergerhof.  It was not only a phenomenal location but the second story suite we were assigned to looked right at the end of the slopes and the street below.  Wow.  How I wished I had stayed there a whole week!

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View of the end of the slopes from my hotel window (notice the end is a mogul run)

Another option that I would recommend considering is staying in Oberlech, a series of hotels/inns in the midst of the slopes above the town of Lech (hence the area’s name).  It sure makes it easy to ski when you do not have to deal with shuttle buses and the like (not that I had to from my second hotel intown!).  Plus, easy to go for a quick re-charge nap and keep skiing later in the afternoon!  Oberlech offers plenty of places for refreshments in the middle of the skiing day which was very much to my liking!

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Oberlech area

Eating in Lech

Now, one thing we did not realize is that most people have their dinner at the hotel they stay at and those restaurants have just the tables needed for their guests. It felt like most or all restaurants we found were part of a hotel. If you don’t make reservations ahead of time for any possible open table, you find yourself (like we did) unable to just walk in to a restaurant and get a table. We lucked out eventually as one of the restaurants we walked into had just had a table cancel so we were able to eat a real meal.  At least, hunting for a restaurant allowed us to enjoy exploring the town at night – it was a winter wonderland indeed.

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Lech at night

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In the heart of the town by the Lech River

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The meal was worth trekking around town!

For the second night, we made reservations ahead of time. The hotel staff at Tannbergerhof had recommended a couple of places in Oberlech so we followed their advice. It was an adventure… We took the gondola up to the area and then walked trails (sometimes covered in ice at that time of night) roaming around a little lost until we finally found our place. We did a poor job of either listening to OR following the directions several people gave us and, apparently, got very close to the place without realizing it. It was dark and much colder than I expected (we were in higher altitude than in Lech and I was not prepared for that) and I was hungry! Anyway, we found the place eventually to my great relief. The meal, as anywhere else, was simply delicious.  The cool thing is that the staff was not just seasonal workers coming into the area. These were local folks, working the local restaurant near the farms that their family had owned for generations – pretty cool.

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This warmed me up after the cold hike to the restaurant!

During the day, having lunch was easy as people are out skiing and there are plenty of tables available.  We chose to have lunch in one of the hotels in Oberlech where I enjoyed a phenomenal schnitzel with a glass of wine.  The sun was bright and it was a good break from the skiing.

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Mmm!!!

And now, skiing Lech!

During that lunch, we met a couple from Munich who has an apartment in a nearby village and they come all the time since it is so close.  They explained how Lech and neighboring villages connect through ski runs/paths and the occasional lift/gondola (to eliminate the need for loading up in a shuttle).  They shared how they spend the whole day traversing the area from place to place skiing without ever walking or taking a shuttle.  Sounds phenomenal to me – wish I had had much more time there to do just that!

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Up towards the first run of the trip!

I had not skied in a few years but found my skiing legs, as usual, pretty quickly.  Blue runs quickly stopped being intimidating.  We went up high for our first run and ended up going slightly off track downhill on a slope between two runs, crossing a long pile of snow.  Don’t know how we got confused and got off the run but it was fun (after I was done with it).

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The side slope that I accidentally skied through – apparently not the only one to do so

It was not to be the only ‘confusion’… At the end of the slopes in Lech, one can take a sharp right turn down a normal run to end up across from my hotel OR one goes straight down a mogul course which is a shorter distance (see earlier photo taken from my hotel room). I had no idea it was a mogul run (blessed ignorance…) and went through it. At first I thought it was just a couple of bumps until I realized where I was. I decided to just go for it as if I knew how to tackle moguls (which, of course, I know because I have watched winter olympics on and off – and I have stayed in Holiday Inns).  I have to say, that I did actually quite well navigating the moguls.  Perhaps some unknown instinct within me?  I am glad I did it – it was fun!

The slopes were usually quite broad and the skiers not typically as rude or aggressive as they can be back home…  OK, some went REALLY fast but you could tell they knew what they were doing and not endangering others.  I will say, though, that most people there seemed to be seasoned skiers vs. the casual once-a-year or once-every-few-years skiers we have at home *myself included* which made me feel safer in my underskilled skier status.  They would know how to navigate around me should I stagger or fall and were not doing non-sensical things.  I had one epic fall and a minor one.  Nothing untoward happened to limbs or bones, thankfully – all good fun!

Après-ski and “during”-ski in Lech

But the best part of this are the stops to refresh oneself.  The first morning, we happened upon a small watering hole up high where a waitress had to help me with a stubborn jacket zipper that would not open (or would it??…).  There I discovered that a beverage of choice is seltzer water with white wine.  I took one of those as I figured the lower alcohol content was better since we were just starting the skiing.

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My first stop!

Later on, in Oberlech, we ran into a few places that were hopping with the lucky souls who get to ski there.  One had pumping music and great views so we plopped ourselves down at the bar for a beverage.

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View of Lech from Oberlech (my 2nd hotel in the middle of it all)

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Incredible setting for a beverage in Oberlech!

When we finished skiing, we ended up at the bar area in front of our hotel, right by the street.  A happening spot, it was right under our suite’s windows.  Being that it is right at the exit of the slopes across the street, the spot was teeming  with folks who had wrapped up their day.  An Aperol spritz was in order as was people-watching.  Ahh… I love skiing and I love doing it somewhere where there is a scene to take in!  Hope to return someday!!

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My Aperol beverage

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Pin this image to your travel board!!

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Going to Heaven’s Door – and a Challenge in Gender ID in Lake Titicaca

Based on the recommendation of the local contact at work, I decided to spend the weekend exploring Lake Titicaca and its islands (Uros, Amantani, and Taquile) with a boat tour.  I barely scratched the surface as I stayed within the Peruvian side of the lake (I really had wanted to go to Isla del Sol on the Bolivian side).  I joined, among others, folks from The Netherlands, Belgium, and China.

Venturing into the lake – The Touristy but Nevertheless Curious Uros Islands

To get out of the bay of Puno, you pass through the Uros Islands.  These islands are built on the reeds that grow naturally in the lake. The history of the islands – so we were told – is that the local people on the shores of Lake Titicaca were being attacked 600 yrs ago or so by the expanding Inca empire. They didn’t want to be subjugated so they moved to the lake itself.

The islands have as a base the 3ft-deep root system of the reeds. They pull and tie the reeds together to build the islands.  Then they add layer after layer of cut reed. Each layer crisscrosses the other. After about 3-6 feet of this, they have their island!  They replenish the top frequently as the bottom layers of reed soften up over time (the islands have a life span of 30 yrs).  The islands are big enough for several huts and other key spaces but are really not too big.  They even have a school floating island. By the way, they are called floating islands but they are anchored 🙂

Residents of the one of the Uros Islands waiting for us to land

When you visit the islands, of course, the locals sell arts and crafts they make so if you are looking for some souvenirs, this would be a good spot.  The visit is quite colorful though I am sure is the same thing repeated for every boat.  While it may seem that their way of life has been “adulterated” for tourism purposes, I do believe they have their right to earn their livelihood as best they can.  Getting to the islands from the boat in the low floating canoes makes for a thrill ride – and excellent photography as you are very close to water level!

Hanging down low on the canoe taking us to the island

Here is a short clip where the local women send the visitors off with a song-and-dance: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LIt7mJ29pZo.)

 

Further into the lake – Visiting Amantaní Island and Staying with a Local Family

After the visit to the Uros Islands we moved into the main part of the lake itself to visit a real island, called Amantaní (around 4,000 residents). We were going to stay overnight on this island as the lake waters apparently become dangerous after the mid-afternoon. Therefore, since there are no businesses in the island, much less hotels, visitors who stay overnight, stay with local families who are very poor and subsist on the food they grow in their lots.

Someone clued in that there was an opportunity here both for the locals (income) and for the tourists (staying with a local family).  Local families were trained on how to host tourists at their humble homes and they PROUDLY display their certificates.  In return for providing lodging and meals, they receive some income from the company organizing the visits and they get to sell their crafts to their captive audience – er, guests (GREAT deals though).  Guests are expected to bring a bag of rice, sugar or something similar as a gift to the host family.

Our hostess waiting for us

The family is trained on what food to prepare for their guests as guests have nowhere else to eat on the island.  The hosts prepare 2 meals for the guests:  dinner and breakfast.  All the houses served exactly the same menu for the meals we had (the group compared notes when we left the island) and the food was mild and of the low risk kind.

Our meal: a variety of potatoes and a fried cheese (and a bowl of some broth on the top left)

Challenged to Make a Gender ID

Upon arriving in the island, the group had been divided into the host families in groups of 2 or 3. The 3 of us who were traveling solo got grouped together with one family to share a massive bedroom with a few beds.  The beds were OK (I sleep on ALMOST anything) and with about 3 or 4 woolen blankets each (there was neither heat nor electricity available). I slept in my jeans with gloves and my traditional hat.

My heavenly bed…

For bathrooms, we had outdoor latrines which were fairly nice as far as latrines go, though I suspect these were built with the tourists in mind. They were “fairly nice” because the seating area wasn’t actually above the latrine hole but, instead, by pouring a bucket of water, the stuff was pushed through a pipe to the latrine hole proper a few feet away.  Having used regular latrines, I was happy for this improvement!

Who did I stay with?  A Belgian woman (who I still keep in touch with named Liesj) and… someone else.  No, not trying to be mysterious.  We had no idea if said person was a man or a woman.  The person was from China and the name was something we didn’t know if it was male or female (Chong, I believe).  By the person’s physique we could not tell either what gender the person was.  Adam’s apple, breasts, etc. were not perceptible.  Liesj and I had a moment alone after arriving at the home and we asked each other, almost at the same time, if the other knew what Chong was.  We both laughed and shrugged it off as we walked downstairs to have dinner served by the owners.  At different moments, we tried to ask Chong questions that we hoped would give us via her answer the right piece of data as to its gender.  We failed miserably.  For the moment…

So let me make a parenthesis here needed for the story:  Part of the entertainment for the evening is to have a little party where the boat’s guests get together, listen to local music, and buy a beer or two.  It also entails wearing some local attire:  a poncho for guys and a skirt & blouse for the women.  Remember this.

Back to the story… Liesj spoke Spanish and Chong didn’t.  I did most of the talking to the owners (whose main tongue is actually Quechua).  They were quite shy (perhaps somewhat uncomfortable hosting people from other countries? or perhaps simply their nature?) but I tried to ask questions to learn more about them.  Our hostess, it seems, was sharing Liesj’s and my struggle as she asked me during our conversation (how smart!) how many ponchos and how many skirts/blouses she needed to get for us.   I told her with a smile:  Ï don’t know (how smart!).  Liesj and I quickly had an aside in Spanish and we came up with a BRILLIANT plan:  we told the lady to bring two of each and THEN we would know what Chong was!

When the moment came to get ready, Chong volunteered that she didn’t feel like wearing the skirt and blouse so she would do the poncho!  We were thankful that Chong didn’t just take the poncho without that comment because that comment solved our riddle!

A Hike up to Heaven’s Very Doors

That afternoon we hiked to the top of the mountain to see pre-Inca temples and watch the sun set over the lake. The hike was hard as most of us hadn’t been in Puno a full day yet and we were hiking to 4100m… (Puno sits at 12,421 ft or 3,860 m).    At some point, a young woman from another boat asked me “Are you from Atlanta?”.  I was a little surprised that someone guessed and when I said that I was she said:  “Oh I work at Figo Pasta and I recognize you because you go there a lot.”  Guilty as charged and so amazed she could place me in such a different setting!!!  Me?  Oblivious…

Hiking up Amantani Island in Lake Tititcaca in Peru to watch sunset from a temple

Making our way up

The lake is a beautiful blue and the sky picture-perfect. You can see in the distance the high peaks on the Bolivian side of the lake covered with snow. Since it is so high there, the air is thinner and the color of nightfall seemed different.  The images will stay with me forever!

Sunset from the top of the island…

Sunset from the top of the island…

A Final Island to Visit – Taquile

As we left Amantaní we headed to neighboring Taquile Island which did have more of an infrastructure.  We went to the main square (a small hike but on a very pleasant path) and enjoyed a great lunch at a local restaurant.

Looking towards Amantaní from Taquile

I have to say that though Taquile has more of the comforts, Amantaní and the “realness” of the experience made it far more memorable for me!  While not a crazy adventure, staying in the quarters we did may not be for anyone but I actually recommend it if you normally do not things like that – it is only one night and it will give you stories of gender ID, latrines, or just about the beautiful night skies high up in Titicaca!

 

The Lake District in Austria

As I sat waiting for my haircut today, I looked around for a magazine to read. Usually, these places don’t have anything I particularly want to read but lo and behold, there was a National Geographic Traveler magazine. I felt maybe these 5 minutes of waiting for my turn would at least be tolerable.

An article they had caught my eye: the lake district in Austria near Salzburg. Wow, I had visited that area about 15 years ago. Cool. I proceeded to read the article and learn a few new things about the area and decided I should write about my visit to the area in 1994.

I traveled with my ex-college roommate, his wife and my newly baptized Godchild who was about 9 months old. We drove from Ludwigshafen, outside of Frankfurt, where the grandparents of the kid lived and where the baptism had just been held. On the way to Salzburg, we stopped to visit a relative of my roommate in Munich and enjoyed a wonderful Bavarian lunch!

Sound of Music land

The first stop in Austria was Salzburg, a really neat town to visit and enjoy. Almost like a display in a store or museum – tidy and beautiful. We had a majority rule vote between the 3 adults meaning 2 out of 3 agreeing to something meant we would all do it. I had heard about the Sound of Music tour which I realized was probably too cheesy but having gone that far, I had to try it. Overruled! No deliberation, no discussion. 2-1 NO. Not really greatly saddened by defeat, I offered to babysit one night so my friends could go for their own night out. Magnanimous of me, I say!

We visited various sites of interest in town, including the hilltop fort overlooking Salzburg (I recommend it), and right outside of town before heading to Bad Mittendorf where my friend’s parents had a timeshare apartment. The place was in the lake district, very conveniently located close to beautiful landscapes.

Picturesque Halstatt

From Bad Mittendorf, we visited a small town called Halstatt on the shore of the lake by the same name. Wow, talk about a picture perfect setting. The town was actually a road, a row of buildings and the rest was up the slope of a very steep mountainside. That is, the main (and only) drag in the town was nested between the mountain and the lake. Idyllic.

Driving around was quite pleasurable. My friend was in charge of driving and he greatly enjoyed driving on good curvy roads with lakes and mountains around us. We enjoyed being passengers because we could look out and see everything.

Upon getting home and showing a couple of folks pictures of my trip and using my travel book to show maps, one of my friends looked at one of my pictures and said “hey, isn’t that the same town in the cover of your travel book?”. I was thinking all towns probably look alike but upon opening the book and looking at the credits for the cover picture, indeed, it was the village of Halstatt that I had visited!

Reading the Traveler article, I realized how many more lakes and villages there are, how many more experiences to be had in that region. Our time, unfortunately, was short as we were also going to Vienna for 3 days. The 3 days we spent in Salzburg and the lake area were simply fantastic and, especially after being reminded by that article, I long to go back and explore a little more the small villages and the 75 other lakes in a future trip!

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