Road Trip to Austria

December, 2000

We were very excited about our very first ski trip ever. And what a place to start! The Austrian Alps, breeding ground for Olympic skiing champions. However, by arriving mere days before the beginning of the “season,” we were risking a snow deficit although we were saving wads of cash. Imagine our excitement, when shortly before the border crossing into Germany at Rozvadov, fluffy little flakes began to adorn our windshield.

Plzen

But I am getting ahead of myself. First we made our way through Plzen. You know you’ve reached Plzen coming from the eastern side of the city when you see the huge billboard announcing the “Hlavnรญ Mฤ›sta Piva!” (Capital City of Beer!) Plzen is supposed to be the birthplace of Pilsener-style beer, the light, hoppy brew most familiar to Americans. Of course the Czech version is vastly better than the American ones usually are.

The road through Plzen took us through the industrial heart of the city, alongside the train tracks. Crumbling Victorian mansions line the sides of the road. The bottom floors house everything from meat-and-potatoes restaurants to sex shops, and are often painted in bright pastel colors that contrast sharply with the coal-blackened floors above. Toward the western side of the city “night clubs” advertise prominently, with names like “Erotik City,” and “Club Vegas.” As you reach the outskirts, prostitutes in parkas and go-go boots stand at the roadside waving hopefully at trucks and cars with German license plates.

I am not sure whether prostitution is technically legal in the Czech Republic, but it is certainly legal in practice and a booming business in those towns which lie near the borders with the more socially conservative Austria and Germany. The oddest part of this scene the hookers standing side by side with respectable old ladies waiting for the tram, or children with school bags on the their backs. The only place I have ever seen this many ladies of the night was in downtown Washington, DC, and it certainly didn’t look anything like this! Capping it all off is the Gnome Store, a tidy little place selling cigarettes, liquor and dozens of brightly colored ceramic lawn statues of gnomes, aliens, and even Bill Clinton.

Past the outskirts of Plzen the highway is rapidly enveloped by kilometer after kilometer of pine forests. We occasionally drive to the military base in Vilseck, Germany to stock up the few items that we can’t find in Prague, particularly Mexican food. We all look forward to stopping at the MacDonalds shortly before the border for coffee or lunch. (Czech MacDonalds are way better than most American ones, by the way, with fresh, hot food and coffee and impeccably helpful personnel who often speak a few words of English.) A dark gray mist hovered over the road and the golden arches appeared on the horizon just as the snow began to fall. We knew then that someone up there wanted us to have a good time in Austria!

The German Border

At the border the guards don’t even look at the passports, they just peek in the car to make sure there are the same number of people as there are passports. The differences between Germany and the Czech Republic are not dramatic, but immediately apparent just the same. Bavaria is not entirely immaculate, but certainly does resemble the Amish areas of Pennsylvania, both in terrain and and in general tidiness. There is less litter on the sides of the road (although it’s not really all that bad in the Czech Republic either–no worse than in many American cities), and the fences are all well-tended. The style of houses is more or less the same in both countries: the German ones have just been painted more recently. Yellow stucco with red tile roofs predominate–very pretty with a dusting of snow!

I was eagerly anticipating my first ride on the Autobahn. Would it be just like the BMW commercials, with well-dressed businessmen in shiny cars whizzing past us? Alas, the first few cars were compacts toodling along even slower than our Honda. But wait! What was that in the rearview mirror? Sure enough, a gleaming silver Mercedes roared past us at well over 100 miles per hour. I was so happy.

As we continued further south into Bavaria we passed field after field of hop frames. Small, extremely vertical churches perched on hilltops surrounded by the ubiquitous red tile roofs. The houses cluster together for warmth in Europe. Even the telephone poles are funny little stucco houses perched up high, looking like medieval watchtowers. I half-expected a sentry to poke his head out and perhaps wave a crossbow in our general direction.

View of Leogang/Austria

Finally the Alps appeared suddenly in front of us, rising abruptly out of the plain. Whoa. They really are impressive, and I say this having lived in the Bolivian Andes for a year. The road follows glacial valleys, winding through the mountains with very few ups and downs. We shortly found ourselves in Austrian holiday country, with discreet little signs for pensions and gasthofs at every crossroads (Austria must have the world’s strictest zoning laws!) The houses take on a distinctive style, like something out of The Sound of Music. Huge pine beams form the skeleton of two-tiered, elaborately carved, capacious dwellings that look as if they will last a thousand years or more. The snow became deeper the higher we climbed, and by the time we reached Leogang, the tiny skiing village that was our destination, we were truly driving through a winter wonderland.

My five year old son commented that “Austria looks just like a train set-up!” I think that the country manages to be quaint without being cute, which is not an easy thing to accomplish.

Austrians, along with Germans, have a reputation for diffidence. I have to say that was not my experience, either in Leogang or later in Salzburg. The hotel staff was exceptionally friendly and accommodating of my two rowdy kids, as were the wait staff in all of the small restaurants. I kept telling my husband I wanted my own Austrian waiter for Christmas. Austrian kids on the slopes were eager to practice their English on us, and people on the street were all smiles. Must help to arrive at the beginning of the tourist season rather than the end!

I was a complete failure as a skier, and my humiliation was worsened by the sight of dozens of preschoolers toddling around on skis and gliding gracefully down the slopes. I couldn’t even make it up the lift without falling down and preschoolers were going all the way to the top over and over again! I saw a couple of parents giving them early training: the father holds the toddler upright between his legs and the pair of them zigzag down the slope together. I suppose this gives the kids early confidence and gets them used to heading downhill at breathtaking speeds before they know enough to be scared to death.

While my daughter and husband skied merrily down the slopes I put in many hours of sledding with my son. We had a great time, and the view from the side of the mountain was even more breathtaking every 10 minutes. We took the cable car to the very top, through mounds of creamy clouds, just to admire the view. As a person who avoids being suspended in mid-air whenever possible, even on airplanes, I had my heart in my throat the entire time, but it was well worth it.

Zell am See

When we could ski and sled no longer we drove to Zell am See, a breathtakingly expensive and thoroughly Yuppified little village on the shores of a frigid lake. On the way we passed through Saalfelden, a market town with several “big box” stores (or what passes for big box in Europe) which my son remarked “didn’t look very village-y.” We also passed the “Hotel Diskret” with a tasteful Greek nude posing out front adding a touch of class to the truck stop next door. Zell am See is very pretty, but on the whole I am glad that we chose a hotel that was further off the beaten track. It was nice to be the only Americans in town, even if I had to count on my husband’s college German for translation on many occasions.

We spent our last afternoon in Leogang enjoying the sauna facilities in the hotel. Odd little cartoons on the wall demonstrated the uses of the sauna, Turkish bath and frigidarium–apparently we were supposed to dance around naked at various intervals and whack each other with branches, but we decided to stick to the basics this time. I warned my daughter that some chubby naked people might show up and she wasn’t to make a big deal out of it. She thought this was hysterical of course, until a cheerful middle-aged couple surprised her by walking in to the sauna together in the buff. She immediately came out round-eyed, red-faced, and very impressed. My son thought the frigidarium looked like a great place to dive in–until he did and came out faster than I have ever seen him move before (which is saying a lot!)

Salzburg

We rounded out the trip with night in Salzburg, which can be summed up as like Prague, only cleaner. It is clearly a very up-market place, and it would be a terrific place to go shopping if it weren’t so heart-stoppingly expensive! The hotel wasn’t as nice–in fact it was a bit tatty–and the welcome wasn’t nearly as warm. But we had a great time exploring the Christkindlmarket in Cathedral Square. Central Europeans are devoted to standing around in subfreezing temperatures and drinking gluhvein, or mulled wine at Christmas time. In fact, since most of the merchandise at the Christmas markets is hopelessly repetitive, I think that must be the main reason they go to the market at all. I would have loved to have tried some, but my kids, not being as hardy as their Austrian brethren, weren’t interested in waiting around for me to do so. The market in Salzburg is nicer than most, though, with excellent gingerbread and other baked goods for sale, along with beautiful (and outrageously expensive), Christmas ornaments.

The next morning we went to the Spielzeugmuseum (Toy Museum) which is very attractive and well-kept, but not quite up to snuff in the button-pushing department. Based on a recommendation from a docent there, we went on to the Nature Museum which was much better for kids. Even thought I was unable to read most of the signs, which have just enough English sprinkled among them to be frustrating, there was enough interactive material to fascinate the whole family. I found that the hero of “The English Patient,” Count Lazlo Almasy, was actually a Hungarian born in Salzburg and later buried in the city’s cemetery. There was a comprehensive exhibit on his research into African cultures and folk art complete with a talking mannequin.

The Trip Home

Austria is so well-kept it is almost a relief to come back over the border into the Czech Republic where we feel more at home and can afford to eat! We followed a different, more easterly route home, and by the time we reached Neumarkt, near the Czech border, the houses had lost their Tyrolean look and had returned to the familiar stucco and red tile roofs. Mountains were replaced by rolling hills and pine forests. Several protest signs concerning the controversial Temelin nuclear power plant were in evidence, including one painted on hay bales announcing that we were entering the “death zone.” There are two border posts located about one kilometer apart–I imagine that the area between them was essentially a demilitarized zone 15 years ago.

As we crossed back into the Czech Republic we were greeted once again by advertisements for “nightclubs” with names like “Ekstasy,” “Bolero,” and my personal favorite, “The Sex-Tant.” One of them was surrounded by a chain-link fence with giant red neon hearts on it, just in case the names were too subtle for passers-by to grasp. The latter was located in a village by the name of Skoronice, which was my husband informs me translates as “almost a place.”

The unlighted roads were inky-black by 4:30 PM, on this, the shortest day of the year. Czechs are in the habit of planting trees, usually fruit trees, by the edges of the road and painting the trunks white. I imagine that under Communism this was the most affordable means of providing guard rails and showing where the steep drop off at the edge of the road was located under the snow. We made good time, fueled by Lynn August’s Zydeco band, R.E.M., and various Christmas carols. On the whole, we had a blast, and are already plotting how to get back next year. And next time, I’m learning how to ski!

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