Wednesday, February 3, 2016

personal | honeymoon part three - switzerland

This week I present you with the final leg of our honeymoon and probably my favorite part - Switzerland! I had dreams of what Switzerland would look like - jagged snow-covered peaks, a bit of old-world charm, tiny villages...and I was pretty spot on with that. Switzerland to me, is a dream. If somebody told me I had to pick up all of my things and move there tomorrow I wouldn't even hesitate. The country is just plain gorgeous! We got there via train from St. Anton and the train ride itself had me sold. I stared out the window as we passed by quaint mountain villages, the towering peaks of the Alps, and glittering lakes. Our train took us through Zurich before we headed down to our snowboarding destination of Andermatt. The Zurich train station was beautiful! An enormous Christmas tree adorned with glittering Swarovski crystal ornaments was the centerpiece of the station, surrounded by its own Christmas market that included shops filled with ornaments, gingerbread, and our beloved gluhwein. We hopped on another train that took us through the mountain town of Göschenen and then it was 10 minute ride to Andermatt via the Matterhorn Gotthardbahn, a tiny red train that's made for climbing! The train traveled slowly through the mountains, passing through tunnels so narrow there were just inches between us and the walls. We arrived in Andermatt late in the afternoon with just enough time to check into the Alpenhotel Schlüssel where we would spend the next four nights and explore the town.

The village of Andermatt is adorably quaint. It was hands-down my favorite place that we visited. Missing the larger touristy attractions, this place is made for people that are there for some big-mountain riding and challenging skiing. There's less of the crazy European apres-ski scene and more small, family-owned eateries and not much night life. We did find one pub that had a night club thing going on but of course the effects of jet lag still had us going to bed at 9:00. C'est la vie.

Our first experiences in Andermatt were interesting. While we had been traveling in German-speaking areas for our whole trip so far, we discovered a twist with our new location - people were speaking Italian. It had been hard enough for us to blunder through the few German phrases we knew yet alone adding Italian to the mix. A plus side of all of this? Amazing Italian food! Switzerland is interesting in that the country is basically split into three sections - the German side, the French side, and the Italian side. Each section has its own flair as it has adopted both the neighboring country's language and culture making Switzerland quite a diverse country! It also made me very envious of all the languages that everyone there simply knows how to speak. The bartender at our favorite pub in town spoke SEVEN languages! If only we put more emphasis on language learning here in the US :(

So Andermatt was seeming super great so far. The only problem? It hadn't snowed in weeks. And isn't that the truth? Plan a snowboarding trip and it won't snow for you, right? Anyway, we got a feel of what the mountain is like. The resort is 100% north-facing, which means that it gets barely any sun. While this might seem inconvenient and cold, it actually made for some incredible snowboarding. There is one tram that takes you the entire 5,000 feet from bottom to top at Andermatt and makes a stop mid-mountain. We spent our three days riding there lapping the few runs that were open on the upper half of the mountain. If there had been snow, this place would have been one amazing little paradise, with an endless amount of terrain to ride on the glacier and opportunities for some great touring. We did make the best of it though, finding some off-piste zones that still held some amazing powder despite the lack of recent snowfall. Thank you, north facing resort!

There were several things that just stole my heart in this little mountain paradise. One? The shack selling beer and sausage at the mid-mountain tram station. The friendly older man that ran the tiny eatery would just grill up your choice of sausage and serve it with a slice of bread and a variety of dipping sauces. This was not only affordable but it was such a tasty treat! Plus we couldn't get over how friendly he was. We ended up buying a beanie from him for David's little sister and we found out that his wife makes the hats by hand. So cute! I also love love loved how you could buy a bottle of French wine that would normally cost $60 in the States for just $15. Châteauneuf-du-Pape anyone? I guess it makes a difference when it doesn't have to travel so far! My favorite thing after a day of snowboarding was sitting out on our room's balcony, soaking up the sunshine and enjoying a glass of beautiful wine and some cheese and crackers that we got at the market downstairs. Also, the mountain is amazing. It is steep, has a huge amount of vertical, and appears to be a powder paradise when it snows. All of that plus the tiny red train you take to get there wraps up into one darling little Swiss village! While there are a lot of plans to be adding some new hotels and build newer lifts, I hope this place never loses its charm.

Our final stop of the trip was one night in Zurich. While it wasn't a lot of time, we really did get a great sense of what the city was all about. We stayed just across the street from the train station at Walhalla Hotel. It was a beautiful hotel and we walked into the room to find a complimentary bottle of champagne. Our hotel room had a beautiful view of the city and we drank our bubbles and people-watched. That evening was incredibly fun. We started out wandering through the old-town area of Zurich, known as the Niederdorf district. There were darling shops and eateries lining the cobblestone streets and everything was decked out for Christmas which was just a few days away at this point. Our favorite place ended up being the Christmas shops at the train station. After a long night of shopping we finished our trip with one last meal of traditional Swiss rösti, basically a big pancake of hash browns that gets topped with assorted meats, cheeses and vegetables. The next day it was one long plane ride back to the States.

It was one incredible trip that we will never forget! Now if only we can figure out how to get back there soon...

Friday, January 22, 2016

personal | honeymoon part two - st. anton, austria

After those first couple of days in a crowded city, we were more than happy to move on and head deep into the Alps. Our route to Austria would take about three hours where we would eventually land at St. Anton, part of the Arlberg region, and also what inspired this trip as a whole. The train station was somewhat easy to navigate once we figured out those video boards and we hopped aboard the first leg of our journey to Innsbruck.

The ride was incredibly comfortable and it was a beautiful day making for some amazing sightseeing right from the train window. I can honestly say that I’m really impressed with Europe’s whole train situation. Oh, how I long I wish we had that here! The thought of being able to hop on a train and end up somewhere in the mountains is quite romantic to me.

Once arrived in Innsbruck, we got off to wait for our next train, about a 20 minute wait in which we were able to soak in the sights of the towering mountains around. It was at that point that my heart was won over by the Alps! Another 1.5 hour train ride passing through mountain towns and villages surrounded by stunning snow-covered peaks had me swooning. Soon enough we were in St. Anton.

A village just shy of the size of what you would find in Whistler awaited us. We checked into our guest hourse, Hotel Kirchplatz early in the afternoon and were able to spend the rest of the day relaxing (thanks to our hosts for the free champagne!). Dinner was traditional Tyrolean fare and we instantly fell in love with the bacon dumpling soup. (While I’ve since been able to replicate the dumpling back home I’m still not sure how they make such yummy broth!) We ended up spending that night at a Mexican restaurant called Bobo’s that had a DJ and dancing late into the evening. We made friends with a guy named Oliver who was from England and chatted about traveling, skiing, and of course the ultimate question of why Smirnoff Ice was so popular at this particular establishment.

The next day was or first day of riding in St. Anton. The place is just as enormous as it looks on the maze of a trail map, with pistes connecting nearby towns and miles and miles of amazing skiable terrain. While the conditions weren’t ideal, we had an amazing time soaking up the endless views of the snowy mountains and valleys that seem to go on forever. We finished up our day of riding with food and beer at The Krazy Kangaruh, what is typically a crazy happening après ski scene. Unfortunately at that time of year, there wasn’t enough snow to ski right in, thus resulting in an empty restaurant in a place that typically has people hanging off the railings.

The second day of riding in St. Anton resembled much of what we had the disdain of riding last season in the Northwest. Rain at the bottom, snow at the top with some insanely heavy and wet conditions. You couldn’t make one run without feeling like you needed windshield wipers on your goggles. We did end up discovering one somewhat lame piste that took us to one really amazing little spot called St. Cristoph. While there isn’t really much to St. Christoph, maybe a couple of hotels and a hospital, there was Hospiz Alm. The dark little oasis was filled with cozy tables, firepits, and some of the best gluhwein I had the entire trip. We ended up socializing with a group of guys who were there for some sort of brotherhood meeting which was pretty entertaining. After we had enough gluhwein we headed back up the chairlift to make our way back to St. Anton for yet another stop at the Krazy Kangaruh. Not sure if it was the sweet Scottish waitress that kept us going back (refreshing to find someone consistently speaking English!) or the amazing Kasespatzle (like a German mac and cheese), but it definitely was a great little hangout spot.

The final day of riding was back to blue skies! We were pleasantly surprised to find some spectacular snow off of the Schindlergrat chairlift, a little two-seater that creaks its way all the way to the top of a craggy peak. We finally got our first taste of the off-piste riding and took a super soft run down the bowl off of the top. The rest of the day the snow got pretty heavy but the views were seriously hard to beat!

That night was our last night in St. Anton and we finished it off with small appetizers and wine at a little wine bar. This of course was preceded by some time in the sauna that was provided at our guest house. What a great finish to four days in an amazing place we had been dreaming of for years.

Tips on St. Anton:

- December is too early for great snow. Most of the locals told us the best snow is February-March.
- If you go off piste (aka off of the groomed runs), bring your avalanche gear! It seems as if nothing ever gets controlled by the ski patrol there so riding off of the groomed runs is kind of fair game for avalanches. They don’t really have boundaries and gates like we do here in the US. While there wasn’t even enough snow on the ground for avalanches to really exist when we were there, this is definitely something we will keep in mind when we return.
- Always order the bacon dumpling (semmelknoedel) in the beef broth. You will not be disappointed ☺

Here are a few more images I took pre-snowboarding one morning: