Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Innsbruck, Austria 2/11 - 2/15

Leaving Mürren, we spent an entire day traveling by train and dealing with ticket officers because of a confusing mix up with our ticket pricing. At any rate, it was amazing to travel by train through the mountains towards Innsbruck. I only wish we could visit the American mountain ranges in a similar fashion.

We highly recommend traveling by train in the Alps.
These precipitously positioned chalets are common in the Alps.
Map of our long train ride.
After five train transfers, we finally arrived at Innsbruck, Austria. We then met our host Margareth, whom we found through Airbnb. This was the first time we stayed with a host in a foreign country, which was exciting because we wanted to learn about the area and its culture from a local. Margareth owns a two-bedroom apartment and rents one of them while his son studies abroad. She uses the money from renting his vacant room to help pay for his tuition. Her hospitality was amazing. As soon as we were settled, she made us tea and told us about the area by showing us maps, things to do, and places to eat. Margareth told us about the local dishes such as wienerschnitzel, knödel, and apple strudel and traditional restaurants to find them. I am embarrassed to admit that we thought winerschnitzels were sausages at first because of the namesake fast food restaurant in the US.

Laure and a proper wienerschnitzel, which is actually a fried breaded veal dish.
Prior to planning this trip, we did not know much about Innsbruck or even Austria. But for a few years we had been wanting to visit one of its ski towns named Kitzbühel (more on that next time). This prompted us to research more about Austria's other cities, which brought us to Innsbruck located in the western area of the country. What got our attention was how this town of 200 thousand residents is located in a valley surrounded by beautiful mountains. There are many other alpine towns in the Alps, but most are either very small with only hundreds or a few thousand residents, or are big ski resort towns dedicated to snow sports and tourists. Innsbruck is different because it is a relatively sizable city with a range of industries apart from just skiing. It also contains good restaurants, museums, festivals, and a university.

Margareth kindly made us coffee every morning before leaving to work. Laure typically explored the city while I worked remotely from the apartment. At lunch and dinner time, I joined Laure in exploring Innsbruck.

Typical buildings in the old town center.
Zaha Hadid's subway entrance located in downtown Innsbruck.
The trains go directly from here to the Nordkette ski resort.

We serendipitously bumped into a local Mardi Gras festival where locals dressed up in costumes.
Another reason we liked Innsbruck is because of its bicycling culture and infrastructure like many other European cities. We were surprised to find cyclists riding on the streets as it snowed, sometimes even carrying skis over their shoulders!
Snow does not scare the urban cyclists of Innsbruck.
Austria also celebrates Valentine's day on February 14. Laure surprised me with a delicious chocolate cake.
Happy St. Valentin's day!
We quickly learned that people from Innsbruck are on average in pretty good shape. This is partly because they are surrounded by beautiful mountains that provide them with a lot of winter and summer activities including hiking, skiing, mountaineering, and mountain biking. Innsbruck has hosted the Winter Olympics twice since they are surrounded by many ski areas, nine of which are connected by trains and free buses.

We took the opportunity to visit the nearest local resort named Nordkette. This small ski resort has only four lifts, but it is a locals' favorite because of its location right at the edge of town. It was also the only ski resort in our European trip where we saw the off-piste completely tracked out.

Nordkette trail map.
Notice the train from downtown Innsbruck to the slopes.
When we first heard and read about Nordkette, I was a bit worried because the top area is rated extreme with a 70% slope! I was in disbelief when I read some very scary warnings online considering that snow barely sticks on slopes steeper than 60 degrees. Luckily, my worries turned out to be way overblown. I now realize that I was confusing 70% with 70 degrees because I am used to measuring ski slopes by their angles, not by percentage. In reality, a 70% slope is only 35 degrees in angle. Phew!

Nordkette's terrifying sign.
"Tact in audacity is knowing how far you can go without going too far."
-Jean Cocteau
The highest lift in Nordkette is Hafelekar, which took us up to the ridge. Most people ski down immediately from there, but there are also about four sets of tracks to higher or more remote areas within approximately 15 minutes of boot packing. One of those areas is the Bergsohne Summit, which is the highest peak in the vicinity. My summit fever got the best of me, so I had to pay it a visit and was rewarded with beautiful views of the surrounding peaks.
Bergsohne Summit in Nordkette.
Nordkette is at a relatively low altitude -- Hafelakar only goes up to 2,256 meters (7,402 feet). As a result, the snow is somewhat heavy compared to other ski resorts we visited in the Alps. On the other hand, we had beautiful views of Innsbruck at all times including when we enjoyed a delicious traditional lunch and drank mulled wine by the side of the hill. It was also amazing to reach the ski area within 10 minutes of leaving our apartment by walking and taking the bus. I suspect some people that live and work in Innsbruck go for a couple of runs in the morning before work every day. I know that is what I would do.
Laure with Innsbruck in the background.
Mulled wine with a view.
The Austrians know how to do it right.
At the end of our stay in Innsbruck, we talked to Margareth about the difference in cultures in different parts of the world. I like learning from other people as well as sharing with them some of our culture. Specifically, I want to make sure that others understand that American culture varies a lot by region and there are some of us that do not fit typical generalizations. That night, Margareth also explained that within Austria, which is a relatively small country with 8.4 million people, the culture and lifestyle can vary by region and demographic. For example, Innsbruck residents tend to be more into outdoors and sports than people in some other regions. This made me realize I should be more careful about making generalizations too.

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