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).

Lech, Vorarlberg, ski, skiing, Austria, lift, slope, snow, blue sky

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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Photo of the Week – The Alps of Transylvania

This scene was what we were rewarded with after arriving at the Cabana Curmatura in the Transylvanian Alps in Romania and hiking on for another hour.  I dream of returning to amazing Transylvania.  Too bad people’s only notion of it is the legend of Dracula:  there is SO much to enjoy and explore there!

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A Quick Switzerland Sampler Trip

Back in the times when I lived in Paris, a fellow expat and I decided it would be a great idea to leave Paris a Friday afternoon and head down to Switzerland by car for the weekend.  It was actually crazy and last minute but most definitely worthwhile, even if rushed.  We realized we would only be scratching the surface of what western Switzerland has to offer but we kept talking about it as a “research trip” to see how Switzerland was.  A sampler trip if you will.

We departed Paris in the late afternoon and drove a few hours to our planned overnight stop at Besançon.  We stayed at a small hotel close to the casino.  We mistakenly thought it may be interesting to enter the casino but it was way too smoky so we just walked around town and grabbed dinner at a run-of-the-mill cafè.  What struck us was that Besançon itself could have been a destination as the city looked like it had areas to explore.  A visit for some other time…

Besançon was close to the Swiss border so Saturday morning it did not take us long to make it to Switzerland proper.  At the border we had to buy a sticker to allow us to drive a foreign car on Swiss roads – something we were not aware of until we got to the border.  We drove in the Jura region which had beautiful scenery (not an uncommon thing in Switzerland!) until we made it to Lausanne.  We were not planning on exploring it on this trip so we it was strictly a drive-by.  It looked like a town worth checking out but our goal was to get to Bern where we had planned to stay overnight and visit Interlaken that afternoon.

We wanted to see Interlaken that afternoon but since we had no hotel reservations for Saturday night, we drove into Bern first, went to the tourist info office, and got a hotel room.  I have to say the tourist info office was fantastic and efficient in helping us secure accommodations.  Why am I not surprised or am I stereotyping? 🙂   The small hotel was in the town center and we had fun driving to get to that part of town.  Bern is set in an enclave surrounded by the Aar River on 3 sides.  One of the best views of the town is actually from the opposite site of the river where you can take in the town’s setting and charming architecture.

After checking in, we quickly departed Bern to hit Interlaken before it was too late in the day.  The drive south to Interlaken was very short and, again, beautiful.  I remember listening to Billy Joel during the drive but don’t ask me what that has to do with anything; the memory just came up as I typed…  Interlaken is, as the name suggests, between lakes and the setting could not be more spectacular.  Of course, the tourist shops take away from the scenery a little bit so we walked away from that part of the town (after having a beer!) to find a place to eat that would not be at the heart of the tourist zone (yet, we were tourists – the irony, huh?).  We found a nice place and had a great meal.  Highlight of the meal was these two young women who were tourists who after the meal ordered what they thought was a dessert and it turned out to be this massive bowl of some sort of soup.  They kept giggling and since they were speaking English we asked them what was up.  They were embarrassed but we all laughed together at this example of the fun experiences one can have when one explores.

That night in Bern we went out to check out some of the night scene.  We ended up sitting outdoors in some bar that seemed happening.  We enjoyed sitting out there soaking in the scene before calling it a night.

Sunday came too fast (what did we expect?) and time to head back to Paris.  We decided to make our way back via Lucerne where we stopped to have lunch lakeside before the long road ahead.  We left Switzerland near Basel and made it “home” safely.

Though the trip was way too short, we enjoyed sampling some of what Switzerland has to offer.  And the research trip clearly yielded a desire to go back and spend more time.

Does anyone have recommendations on unique things in Lausanne, Bern, Interlaken or Lucerne to see or do?  How about any small towns in that part of the country that are picturesque/worth seeing?

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!

A short happy life on the Tour de Mont Blanc (TMB)

Mont BlancA guest post by Chris Sanders.

Ok, I confess – this post has almost nothing in common with Hemingway‘s short story about Francis Macomber… and that’s probably a good thing!  But I thought a “short happy life” was the best way to describe a recent adventure that ended all too soon…

Last August, my wife Wendy and I embarked on a three week vacation to the Alps, with the full intention of hiking the Tour de Mont Blanc.

The tour de Mont Blanc (or “TMB” for short) is a spectacular Alpine hike on trails that circumnavigate Mont Blanc – Europe’s highest mountain. Over the course of ~12-14 days, hikers venture across ~ 100 miles of trail and traverse parts of three countries: Switzerland, France, and Italy. The TBM is demanding (the accumulated height gain and loss is ~32,800′) but the views are spectacular and the experience exhilarating! Nearly 10,000 people complete the TMB every year – the majority of whom are European.

TMB

Although Wendy and I trained (I use that word loosely) to complete the entire TMB, sadly, we only hiked for 4 days – 4 long and arduous days – before succumbing to a variety of ailments including tendinitis, sprained knees, and the unexplainable desire to lounge around in the vineyards of Switzerland… we do plan to return one day and complete the TMB – it is truely unique and wonderful experience – plenty of “the-hills-are-alive-with-the-sound-of-music” type moments, but next time, we’ll hike much slower and travel much lighter!

Anyway, here are a few memories from our short happy life…

  • Getting there and getting started – Most people begin the TMB in Les Houches, France (not far from Chamonix). Les Houches is most easily accessed by flying into Geneva and taking a ~45min-1 hour shuttle bus to Les Houches. There are several shuttle bus services that pick up from Geneva airport you can book ahead. Wendy and I did not book ahead but easily found a ride with a shuttle that was going to Chamonix and had only one person aboard. Les Houches is a small village but given its popularity as a winter ski village and its connection with the TMB, there are plenty of accommodations.
  • The accommodations – for our first night in Les Houches, we booked ahead via the internet at a cozy place called Hotel du Bois (http://www.hotel-du-bois.com/). Our second night was our first in a refuge – a dormitory style accommodation in the mountains called La Roselette. We shared a dorm room with two large families who were traveling via van with their children – actually, it was pretty quiet as the children went to sleep early. At La Roselette, we ate dinner at a communal table, which consisted of soup and turkey curry (not exactly typical regional food, but good nonetheless). Our third night was in a nice and cozy refuge called Nant Borrant (http://www.lescontamines.com/refugenantborrant/). The owners – an older couple- were super nice, the place was packed. Wendy and I enjoyed a couple of beers in the outside garden. At dinners, again served in a communal setting, we met an older couple from Montserrat – they invited Wendy and I to visit them… The forth night we opted for a small hotel outside of Les Contamines called Le Mont Joly (http://www.montjoly.com/). We recommend all the places we stayed!
  • Chamonix and Courmayeur– Both of these towns are on the TMB, though we arrived via bus on the fifth day of our trip. We could have done without Chamonix – ultra touristy and teeming with Europeans on holiday…in the winter time, Chamonix is a great ski resort, but in the summertime, its a “tourist trap” kind of place – where all the restaurants are the same, the food is mediocre, and so on…Now, Courmayeur- which is just a short bus ride through a tunnel under Mont Blanc is a totally different scene! Courmeyeur is in Italy – in fact it is an elite Italian resort village that was  largely undiscovered by the common man until the recent tunnel highway. Wendy and I stayed in Courmayeur a few days in order to get our Italian fix.
  • Mont Blanc– Ok, so we didn’t hike up Mont Blanc, but we did something almost as spectacular – we took the cable car (actually three of them) up to a look out station just below the summit! Truely incredible..freezing cold up there. We took a hot chocolate in the tiny bar at the lookout station…there was a picture of Pope Benedict, who had recently made the same cable car trip! This is one activity you must do if you ever find yourself anywhere near Chamonix or Courmayeur!

Ok, so I have many more memories of the short happy life on the TMB…if you want to know more, just ask! Or better yet, share your memories from the TMB…Ciao for now!

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