Thursday, 16 January 2014

Vienna Pt Two; Snow, Schnapps and Schnitzel.

We were here!!

Hands down, one of the highlights of our trip.
Craig Writes;
1st January 2014
It's 6.30am and Nora, Anastas and Ana are back from their holiday in Dubai. They have great tales to tell of a city of towering architectural wonders, lavishly chromed Italian sports cars and of Anastas being held captive for five hours by customs officials .They thought him a potential spy for trying to bring his camera mounted Gyrocopter into the country. Not as bad as it sounds but it makes a nice little story.
Over zealous customs officials aside, Dubai sounds a very interesting place and another to add to our list.

They're naturally a bit tired having flown through the night but they stay up to enjoy a delicious Christina breakfast of baked eggs with smoked salmon, sour cream and chopped chives.  This was followed by my favourite cake of all time, a chocolate, cherry and walnut masterpiece. After breakfast Anastas decides to take the offending Gyrocopter for a spin and show us what all the fuss was about. 

It looks very 'James Bond'
It is a very impressive little toy with the potential to take some amazing footage. I guess I can see why in such a paranoid world some authorities may question a 'toy' with the capacity to fly to 2000 metres, be GPS guided and have the ability to have all sorts of little 'goodies' attached to it.

2nd January 2014
Today we headed off to Bad Kleinkircheim in the southern Carinthia region of Austria.  Our destination was The Kirchheimerhof Hotel, or for the mono lingual among us, The Harmony. It was a very pleasant four hour drive through the long tunnels and snowy valleys of the Alpine Alps.

It wasn't that Bad

A stunning drive of sepia tones

One view from our balcony 

The other view

It has over 2000 sq metres of pools, steam rooms, saunas and relaxation rooms to cater for the guests. Ideal for those arriving back chilled to the bone from their hours hitting the icy slopes. 
When your not busting your groove on the mountain you can be sweating your arse off in the Turkish Harman or rubbing an exotic salt scrub into your body in the steam sauna. Perhaps you make like to bake yourself like a potato in the dry sauna then go run around in the snow.

There is a whole section that is strictly adults only.  Children and clothing are banned.   The adults only relaxation area upstairs is the official quiet zone, R and R only. No one talks. It is lie down, take in the amazing view, read or nap. 

We met Noras mum, Marieta and her husband Oggi today.  Apparently Oggi worked for Marieta as her bodyguard. She was being stalked by a psychotic fan while on a world wide singing tour and it was his job to protect her. He saved her from mortal danger during a dress rehearsal in Vegas, she was grateful, they got close and.....Hang on, I might be getting that bit mixed up. But he actually was her bodyguard.

3rd January 2014
The others have arrived from Vienna. The ski equipment is hired, the lessons are booked and off we go. At first it was going to be the boys in one class and us in another but as good fortune would have it, our ski instructor, Margoose, bundled us together with a young Brazilian girl. It was as good as a private lesson but at half the price.
There was plenty of falling over, plenty of laughs and, surprisingly, plenty of progress.
We spent the first lesson learning the most important part of skiing, how to stop. By the end of the two and a half hour lesson we could snow plough with the best of them and make slow gradual turns to the left and the right.  Margoose was very proud.

This is us making gradual turns, no land speed records here.

4th January 2014
We decided on a second ski lesson, which in retrospect was a good idea. It would seem that stopping and turning are just the start of things and the moment you get a bit of speed up things can change dramatically. Margoose was the perfect teacher. A hard task master who made you work for your praise.   To complete the experience, finally, we got snowed on.  Not tens of centimetres but enough for a light dusting of fluffy white powder.
We worked hard for our lesson and by the end we had all mastered the slopes of Kiddieland. We could take the gradual decline at reasonable speed and although not as technically proficient as Margoose would like, we could all turn and stop. 

Thats Margoose in the green pants
We felt we were ready to move onto bigger and faster things. We said goodbye to Margoose and told him we would be fine from here. He didn't seem convinced but wished us good luck anyway. By the end of the lesson the snow had given way to a constant slow drizzle and people were slowing starting to drift off the mountain.  But not us.  Not yet.
At least not until we had given our new found confidence a bit of a thrashing on the adjacent Red slope.
Unfortunately they don't have the more gentle Green runs here, but hey, you have to work with what you've got.  Besides it didn't look that bad from down the bottom.

After a break for hot chocolates and hot dogs we grabbed our skis and headed for the lifts. The ride up was fun but the view was a lot different from the top.  We stood there for several minutes watching the dads with their four year old kids dismount from the lift and in one fluid motion glide to the top of the slope, deposit ski poles neatly under their arms and head off like mini ninjas down the mountain.
With gritted teeth and white knuckled grips Callum, Christina and I edged forward, peered down the slope to the tiny people at the bottom and adopt the full maximum snow plough position. Inch by inch we started to slip across the face of the mountain and all was well, until we had to turn. The speed you pick up in just that one little motion is instantaneous and utterly surprising. By the time your back in your full plough position your at the other side and having to turn again. Your now going much faster. Your hard won technique has vanished and your confidence is suddenly falling quicker than the drizzly rain around you.
By the next turn your basically out of control and looking for somewhere to crash where you cant be used as a ski jump by the guy behind you.
The next turn is more an upright fall.  It is your last, you know it and the guy who just flew past you shaking his head knows it.  As Margoose would say, it is now time to "make small' and take the fall. Which basically means crouch low and throw yourself into a face plant.  Not elegant but the best way of minimizing any breakages.
Callum and I did eventually manage to make it down to the bottom  and defying all reason decided to go back and have a second go.  Then a third and a fourth and a fifth.  Actually managing to stay upright for the entire journey on a couple of occasions. Callum more so than me.
Christina made a valiant effort but fell at the 20 metre mark where she made a judgment call to walk the little way back to the top and call it quits. Charlie, the star on the smaller slopes, was weary and would save his energy for another day.

Unfortunately the rain would continue and most of the snow we had was washed away. There is a forecast for 30cm of snow tomorrow.  Lets see.

5th January 2014
The day was a complete wash out, literally.  The rain had washed most of the snow away and today was a drizzly affair which was best dealt with by retreating to the spa area. The kids hit the swimming pool. Miraculously the snow began to fall while we were in the spa. Iv'e heard about those hardy Europeans who bake themselves in a sauna then go throw themselves in the snow. It sounded like a great idea and what a delicious experience it was.
It was now 4pm and the day had all but ebbed away.  We all looked skyward for the first sign of Gods dandruff and just like that, down it came. Big fat white flakes showered down, thick and fast, exactly what was required for a perfect days skiing.  We just needed about ten hours of it. Unfortunately, just as we sat enjoying the last of our delicious dinner discussing what a magnificent fall it was and what a tremendous days skiing we would all have tomorrow, it stopped.  And it didn't come back.

Try as we did we just couldn't convince that snow to keep falling

The good news was there was plenty of fresh powder for our planned after dinner snowball fight. Although hopelessly outnumbered it would be fair to say that Bulgaria was just outgunned by a determined and decidedly sneaker Aussie contingent.

Charlie about to cop a sneaky one from Callum

Pummelled, pounded and frozen.  Great fun.

To finish the night, and to our absolute delight, Anastas, a proud Bulgarian man who has embraced the traditional Bulgarian art of playing the Gaida,treated Callum and I to a late night rendition of some traditional Bulgarian music.  It was a real treat.  The Gaida is an ancient Balkan bagpipe made from either sheep or goat skin and takes considerable skill to master.

6th January 2014
This morning we looked out our window hoping to see a fresh blanket of white powder but instead saw only the trampled remains of our battle from the night before.

Yes, we did that
We had plans to stay an extra night if the snow had arrived but sadly, it had not.  We had a chat over breakfast with Nora and Anastas and a peek at the snow cams further up on the mountain.  It didn't look great but it looked better than in the valley where we were.  The decision was made.  We would go up the mountain for one last attempt to put our ski lessons to their test.

The sun was shining, there was snow on the ground, not a lot but enough, and the slope was beginner friendly. Our dear friends, who could have single skied it backwards, declined to go to the more challenging slope next door and stayed to baby us. It made it so much more enjoyable having them there.

Happy Campers

While not masters of the slopes - more like indentured slaves- The CVW'S would have loved to have spent longer perfecting those whipping turns and aerial moves but alas our time here was drawing to a close. But, to paraphrase that other famous Austrian,
'we'll be back'.

We had a short time to bask in the afterglow of our skiing triumph and chose to sit in some canvas loungers watching the throng of pre schoolers attack the slopes while we sipped hot Ameratto topped with whipped cream and dusted with a sprinkle of cinnamon. Austrian tradition demanded that we follow this up with a large hot chocolate liberally laced with dark rum, and more whipped cream.

Anastas,'I'll have two more: Christina, 'I love em, get me three'

With our cheeks reddened by the sun and the warm rum rushing through our veins, we reluctantly packed our gear and headed back to The Harmony Lodge for a quick lunch before the four hour white knuckle night drive back to Vienna.

Lunch at the Inn

Finally back home in Vienna we settled in for a simple dinner of red wine, cheese and fresh bread to dip into a delicious garlic chilli balsamic dip created by Anastas. Then it was a couple of puffs on Nora's Shisha. What's a Shisha you ask.  It's a traditional Bulgarian smoking  pipe that looks like it belongs on the set of 1001 Arabian Nights or a Cheech and Chong movie. It starts with a mixture of a tobacco and fruit jelly that sits over a small bed of hot charcoal in a small alfoil wrapped bowl. 

The smoke is drawn in through a long hose over a small amount of water that bubbles like a bong when you do it right. Unlike a bong, you don't inhale. You hold the fruity smoke in your mouth for a moment then blow it out. It's not an unpleasant taste but I managed to drawback on two of my three attempts and that is not pleasant.
Can't say it swayed me but Nora and Anastas love it. Thankfully the smoke is not pungent or offensive and seemed to dissipate into the air easily without the need for an open window. Just another of those unexpected experiences that travel can throw at you.

7th January 2014
Our last day in Vienna and besides a trip out to our favourite kebab kiosk for lunch it was a catch up day around the house. 

Five times. Says it all.

We packed, journalled and generally chilled out. Christina and Nora went out for a last ditch go at the New Year Sales later in the afternoon and then the whole lot of us took off to Prater to a favoured Mexican restaurant renown for it's ribs. Huge serves - always a good start- with a tasty garlic marinade.  A tad overcooked but delicious.
After dinner the girls took the kids of into Vienna for icecream while Anastas took me to the Admiral Casino where some of his work as a 3D artist for the gaming machines was on display. He produces those small screen eye catching videos that lure you in to sit in front of the slot machines and empty your wallet.  And judging by the number of people doing exactly that on a late chilly Tuesday night, he's very good at what he does.

Well, just like that our time in this most beautiful city has come to an end. Tomorrow morning we are on a 10am flight to Oslo and on our way to see one of the worlds great natural wonders, The Aurora Borealis.  Nora, Anastas and Ana will be following us in a days time.

Friday, 10 January 2014

Vienna; Still dreaming of a White Christmas.

Craig Writes;
19th December 2013 
We have just finished seven weeks of beachside living on arguably one of the most stunning coastlines on the planet. We were home, as in back in Perth W.A, but still managing to live in a suspended state of reality because 'home' was in fact a lovely apartment at Observation Rise on the Scarborough beach front. 

Sand, surf and shark sirens

Our real home is still leased out to a couple of corporate high-flyers sadly intent on treating our home like it was a holiday cottage on Rottnest Island. Quite disappointing really. 
Since our return we have been dipping our toes back into the pond of our pre-adventure world and trying to be 'normal' again. Early morning runs up to Trigg Point in the deep crunchy sand, the occasional paddle on my Mini Mal and a newly acquired fondness for bike riding have occupied most of my mornings. Mid morning coffees on the terrace of our apartment were often spent listening to the shrill scream of the shark alarm and the heavy whoop whooping of the Surf Life Saving Chopper. The boys slipped back into a school routine like they had never even left and Christina's social calendar was promptly filled. 
Catch ups down Matilda Bay, The OBH and drinks on our terrace with our 'besties' were a pleasant reminder of the things that we hold dear about this city we call home.

One of the few things I missed, a cold beer with good food and great friends

A Smedley masterpiece. No words needed.

This past seven weeks has blown by so quickly. We have just seen off the first heat wave of summer with a succession of 100 degree + days and watched England lose the Ashes at the WACA. I shall have fond memories of laying on the couch, one eye on the lazy waves of the Indian Ocean closing out on the Scarborough sandbar, the other on Mitch Johnson sending thunder bolts down at the hapless Englishmen trying desperately to make runs while literally trying to keep their heads about them. 

Twenty four hours ago Christina and I were having a final cuppa on the terrace, contemplating the contents of our over stuffed cases for the tenth time and enjoying the slowly warming glow of another perfect West Coast day. What a difference a day makes.
In those twenty four little hours we have gone from the sun and the surf to the icy fog of the Viennese tarmac. The promise of snow hangs heavy in the air. The second we left the warm cocoon of the Austria Air flight onto the shaky passenger gangway you felt the icy wisps of air that crept through the gaps sucking the warmth of our bodies through our thin jackets.

We have just driven in a taxi van through a fog that thick that the shape of the surrounding city buildings were completely lost, their very existence defined only by the erratic bright fluorescent dots of their glowing office lights. The city scape looked like one massive join the dots puzzle. 

20th December 2014 
We finally arrived at our friends, Nora and Anastas in Grinzing, at 7am to be greeted with warm hugs, hot coffee, freshly baked croissants and Nora's delicious sweet and florally quince and fig jams. This is home for us for the next twelve days while they fly off to seek the heat of the Middle East and we settle in for a bone chilling White Christmas. At 10am we helped pack their bags into the car as they head to the airport. Christina and I decided to donn jackets and gloves and head out into the frost while the boys swaddled themselves in the warmth of central heating. Less than five minutes walk away is a small strip of restaurants, shops and bars.

This fairy tale was our local shopping precinct

Within seconds I regretted not changing from my thin cotton "Dumphies" into jeans and popping a beanie on. By the time we found a restaurant and settled in for roast sausage, chicken schnitzel, bacon and cabbage and hot Gluhwein, I couldn't feel my ears and the movement in my legs was frozen to a gum boot shuffle. No snow yet but the biting cold suggests it's up there somewhere. 

22nd December 2013 
They throw small crushed pebbles on the footpaths here to help with the traction. It's that cold that any moisture on the path freezes to a thin layer of ice and would become dangerous without it. 
On day two we've wised up to the necessary number of layers needed to keep the chill out. It is many. But fortunately we have come prepared. Our mornings now start with a gradual unravelling from the warm doonas and a hot cup of tea. The layering process usually starts somewhere around eleven after a cup of coffee then we're out the door by twelve. The city of Vienna is such a lovely place. The Christmas lights are up, the Christmas markets are in full swing and the hot Gluehwien can be found on most corners. 

Forget the hot coffee, give me an orange, apricot or plum Gluehwien anyday

Just one of the many Christmas markets

The streets are busy but not insanely so like in Perth. There is no manicness, rudeness or attitude, just people going about there business, all rugged, scarfed and gloved up. 

24th December 2013
Here we are, Christmas Eve in Vienna, Austria. And we all find ourselves asking the same question. Where's our bloody snow? If I wanted cold I could have stayed in Perth and cruised the frozen goods section in my budgie smugglers. Still, we are not complaining, Vienna is a truly beautiful city and we are so pleased to be here sharing the home of our good friends Nora and Anastas. 

Every street, every corner. offers something lovely

Perhaps the fanciest coffee shop in the world
Posh coffee and cake

And, we have something very special planned to celebrate our first northern hemisphere Christmas. A concert at the famed Schonbrunn Palace. A magnificent 1400 room Palace built in the early to mid 17th century. It has magnificent gardens, an astonishing maze and the Orangery that has provided the outstanding acoustics for concerts down through the centuries must be at least two hundred metres long. It was in this same venue that the great Mozart competed with one of his most revered rivals of the day, Antonio Salieri, in a musical contest of the giants. I'm not sure who won but I did have to google the spelling of Salieri.

The Famous arched ceiling of the Orangerie

It's claim to fame in respect to modern folklore was as the meeting place for that pivotal moment in the Cold War where John F Kennedy and Nikita Khrushchev met in 1961 to decided whether or not to start World War Three. For us though the high vaulted Baroque ceiling of the legendary Schonbrunn Orangery was to be the venue for a classic concert featuring the Schonbrunn Palace Orchestra playing the classics of Mozart and Strauss. They were to be accompanied by a soprano, a baritone and two dancers dressed in the authentic costumes of the day. Vienna is so easy to get around. 

A quick bus ride dropped us right outside the train station. After a very short wait we jumped on a train and were promptly delivered right to the doorstep to the Palace. We decided to browse the Christmas markets that fill the front courtyard of the Palace before heading in for the concert. The markets were a bustling mass of late shoppers pouring over the many stalls that were selling the most stunning range of goodies. Everything from Christmas decorations to cheeses, hats and gloves, beautifully carved wooden toys, delicious waffles, tasty sausages and hot orange gluehwein. 

Schonenberg Palace Christmas Markets

Sausage art

Although the seating for the concert was not very comfortable and we were a bit further back than I thought $500 would have got us, I thought it was a triumph. Unfortunately it may have just been a little bit of a cultural overload and at half time the vote was 3 to 1 that we draw our Viennese evening of opera, ballet and symphonics to an end. It was still a tremendous experience and one that the boys will hopefully appreciate down the track....somewhere.

25th December 2013 
CHRISTMAS DAY!! We were all ready for a bit of a change from the familiar Christmas routine and what a way to make a break from the past and start to forge some new traditions. Thanks to the miracle of modern technology we still got to have some face to face time with Christinas mum and dad as they lunched on the standard fare with Christinas sister and her family all the way back in Perth.
For us though, there was to be nothing standard about it at all. Not a turkey nor a spoonful of stuffing to be seen. Not a chipolata or a mango salad in sight. For us it was sausage and sauerkraut, chicken and spatzel and panacotta with raspberry chocolate sauce washed down with a chilled Piper Heidsiek. Bloody fantastic. 

Oh Christina, you are a wonder

And just to prove a point, she does this.

We bought presents with us so the boys were happy. We even managed to pick up some bits and pieces for ourselves at some of the many beautiful Christmas markets. It was a brilliant Christmas Day. 

Mozart chocolate balls. Not the originals of course.

Finally the price for a 4.30am start is starting to be extracted. The yawns start around 7pm and by some miracle the boys make it through to 9pm before I pour them into bed. Christina has long departed and I am not far behind. It has been a Very Merry Christmas indeed. 

26th December 2013 
We celebrated Boxing Day by upholding the time honoured tradition of hanging around the house, eating, reading and playing games. Back in Perth it would normally be prawn sandwiches sitting in front of the forth cricket Test but seeing as cricket is just something that eats your grass over here, that wasn't going to happen. It was still a wonderful day of nothingness. 

27th December 2013 
It was time to break the cycle of food induced slothfulness, throw a few layers of clothing on and go out to see what was happening in the world. What better way than to go open air ice skating. We caught a bus/train combo and once again found ourselves conveniently deposited less than 100 metres from our destination, the Wiener Eislauf- Verein outdoor ice skating rink. I haven't been skating for probably 30 years, Christina about 26 years and Charlie... never. Callum was the only one amongst us who had any recent experience courtesy of some timely school excursions.

I will not fall, I will not fall, I will not faaallll.

Negotiating who should let go first.

Located just behind the Intercontinental Hotel and only a short ten minute walk from the centre of the city lies 6,000 square metres of slippery icy cold fun. Callum slipped onto the ice, confident and in control while Charlie and I clung desperately to the side railing trying to make our way down to the beginners section without falling on our arses. We slipped, we slided, we zigged and zagged till finally, slowly, we weaned ourselves from the safety of the edge and ventured out into the traffic. We were not fast, we were not graceful, but, for the most part we were upright and... we had a lot of fun. Christina swapped skates with Callum and made her way to the ice. We have photographic evidence to prove it. Callum was a star and even at the end when I was channelling my inner Torvill and Dean, I couldn't catch him. So much fun. 

We did it
A slow walk through the beautiful backstreets of this amazing city and we were right back in the main shopping hub. People were everywhere. It was time to head back home where we dropped the boys off and headed down to one of our local restaurants, The Grinzinger Brau, for a couple of hot fruit punches and the most massive plate of ribs I have ever seen. Think Fred Flintstone. 

Yabba dabba doo

My god, when will the eating stop? 

28th December 2013 
It was back to our favourite Viennese palace today, Schonbrunn. We had booked tickets for the Marionettentheatre Schloss Schonbrunn to see their production of Mozarts last opera, The Magic Flute. He died just nine weeks after it was first staged. The Christmas markets were still set up in the Palace grounds and we made sure we were there in plenty of time to cruise, eat and get some more of that delicious hot orange Punsch. 

I thought they were quiches. They're candles.

These however are perfectly edible

As you'd expect the post Christmas crowds were a lot lighter which made checking out the stalls so much more enjoyable.

The history of the Marionette show in Vienna goes back to the early 18th century. This particular theatre is in an old part of the palace and built over some ancient Roman ruins. It was renovated and reopened back in 1994. It is a charming old place, and with only 50 seats, definitely what you would call intimate.

It was always going to be a big ask to get the boys to sit through two hours of Opera even it was being presented in the form of a puppet show. It didn't help that the boys had crap seats and couldn't see a damn thing over the heads of the adults in front of them. It didn't help that the entire thing was in German - although we must have seen that coming- and it didn't help that the seats were really really uncomfortable. The booking information stated that kids would get priority viewing seating, that didn't happen. 

And quite frankly, while the singing was excellent, I found the acting a little wooden.

So once more we found ourselves out in the parking lot at intermission- half time deserters yet again. Having said that, I am in no way concerned for the cultural souls of our boys. I have no doubt that when I was their age I couldn't have sat though two hours of Opera either. It was worth a shot though.

30th December 2013 
Time to go shopping. We always give the boys the option of going and the result is always predictable. 
So, videos-check-, food and water- check-, exit strategy in case of fire- check. Then lock em in and off we go. 
Firstly let me say how totally impressed with the public transport system of this amazing city we are. You never have to wait more than nine minutes for a bus, train or tram. You can forget the Swiss with their silly unreliable perpetual motion watches and claims to the crown of preciseness. The Viennese are kings. 
We strolled the streets and shops with a warm familiarity. It was only back in July when we were first here and the memories are still very strong. The post Chrissy sales were on and we were determined to get a Vienna bargain. It wasn't hard. The quality of the merchandise here is outstanding and the prices are remarkable. Wait till you see my two new hats. A peacock blue fedora with a feather in it - don't judge till you've seen it- and another light tan beauty with a contrasting chocolate brown band. Superb. 

Now that's a hat.
Unfortunately I left them both at the Oslo airport. Gone forever. So sad.

Jackets, ski pants, gloves and jocks completed the stash. It was so nice for just the two of us to spend the day together. The kids were square eyed but fine by the time we returned. As a treat, and an attempt to get them to breathe some fresh air, we went out to Ninos for pizza where we met a large crazy local man. 
We had barely sat down when he wandered up to us, well dressed and full of Christmas cheer. He asked where we were from then proceeded to insist on buying us all a drink. Why not I thought. I let him buy me a beer and we chatted briefly until a new patron walked in and caught his eye. Off he went, chatting and buying more drinks. Not content with with sharing his large personality and open wallet with one and all he decides the waitress could do with a hand and unceremoniously picks her up in his arms and carts her around the restaurant. It all seemed good natured and there was no agro, just a few nervous laughs. His whole visit was probably no more than ten minutes but it was memorable and certainly entertaining and hey, I got a free beer. Oh and the pizza was sensational.

31st December 2013 New Years Eve. 
There was talk of heading into town for a look see at the planned celebrations but it's bitterly cold, raining and we have to clean up and pack up as Nora and Anastas are back nice and early tomorrow morning. The next day we're all of...TO THE SNOW !!!! So, it's a yummy home made pasta and another bottle of French bubbles as we bid farewell to 2013 and say hello to 2014.