Bad Kleinkirchheim: Capodanno in Austria, Quarta Parte / New Year’s Eve in Austria, Part 4

The final day of 2017. We’re in Austria for the festivities. But before I cover this new locale, I would like to reprise a few observations from Santa Fosca, high in the Dolomites, since I last left my readers at the night of our arrival amid the snowstorm.

We learned on Friday evening at dinner that the snowstorm had in fact trapped any number of drivers in their vehicles who spent the night wedged in various snowdrifts or stopped at unsafe angles alongside the road, awaiting daylight and the arrival of a snowplow with five-foot chained tires, so we felt triply thankful to have safely arrived.

Our hotel, Garni la Stua, was small and family-run, and clean as a whistle. It was 2,500 steps from the ski school and sled run. (Never got the kids into ski school here, but they are finishing up their first lesson ever down on the hill with Steffi as we speak.)

On the upper Veneto:

I am always struck by how hygienic all spaces are in northern Italy. Like, insanely so. After prolonged periods in Firenze, where the valley captures all the air pollution and exhaust from buses, trains, cars, motorini and motocicli, and the front doors open directly onto narrow and busy streets, thus depositing much grime and dust on every available surface, the sparkling surfaces of the upper Veneto impress.

These people know how to build and heat a house. The comforters are down. The pillows are down. The sheets are pristine. And the heat. The heat works, and the space is insulated. After our shivering winters in Arezzo and Firenze, I just cannot get over this.

The accent shift is significant. Or is it a dialect? Not quite sure, but I really had no idea what they were saying to me in the gastronomia on Wednesday night. To be fair, I am pretty sure she was covering the local specialities available on the menu. On the sled hill, overhearing a mamma bellunese on her phone, and the vowel slide to “Va bon” from “va bene.” (Is this really a thing?)

Refugio becomes baita, all cheese is fried, as is the polenta, meat is everywhere on the menu, and butter seems to be the sauce base of choice. The thick white cheese is everywhere. The place names all sound like they came from a science fiction novel. The Italian, aside from melting into dialect, is slower and sounds more like German, thus being easier for me to follow.

The locals are completely without guile, compared to the Florentines. They are genuinely nice and not at all jaded. I initially attributed this to tourism, but then realized that such has been the case with Firenze for centuries.

Every bar maintains a collection of clear glass decanters which I quickly realized were grappa flavored with local flora like raspberries, blueberries, and hazelnuts. We asked for one at the hotel bar one evening, and were served generous tazze of the elixir, the faded blueberries and raspberries drifting on the bottom. We both slept well that night!

The valley was breathtaking as the heavy storm of Wednesday gave way to blue skies on Thursday, and glittering snow fields on Friday. We had he best room in the hotel – large and warm, snug under the topmost eaves, with a view down into the valley with its small parish church that caught my eye and of which I must have taken twenty pictures. Friday evening we met up with our friend Tommaso and his family in the small hamlet of Belvedere, at a bar and grill positioned precariously off the side of a Dolomite. Eleanor was delighted they brought their mild Jack Russell, Yuki, and Victor quickly joined the kids’ table to eat pasta and play Uno. We shared plates of primi and secondi, then bade our farewells and drove back to our hotel one last time on the now well-plowed and sanded strada provinciale.

After we returned our rented sleds on Saturday morning, we packed the car and the kids, taking care to check off all items so as to not leave behind further valuables as we had done on Wednesday leaving Firenze. The day was sunny and bright. Our plan was to drive up and over the Giau Pass, down into Cortina d’Ampezzo, through Dobbiaco and to our Bad Kleinkirchheim. Our Italian friends on Friday evening all roundly approved of our choice, as this part of Austria is a popular destination for Italian holidaymakers. There are thermal baths, and outdoor sport year-round depending on the season.

At the turnoff for the south side of the Giau Pass, the sign indicated that 29 hairpins awaited us in just over eight kilometers. I feared the worst. But the kids were in great moods, and Victor joyfully called out the numbers that marked each switchback. We pulled over at least twice to make way for lumbering urban buses that seemed out of place in the plowed and sanded single lane on the face of the mountain. We passed two ski resorts full of people. At the top of the pass, a half dozen people were skiing with parasails, letting the wind pull them up the mountain after each run.

We crossed the pass, and began our descent through more switchbacks, and in shade, as we were now on the north side of the pass. The nausea demon began to clutch at my temples again and I started to turn my fifty shades of green. Victor and Eleanor began to bicker and ask for more help, so I crawled into the back seat, which proved my final and most fatal error in the battle against motion sickness. Wedged between two small children, in about eight lateral inches of seat space, in the back of a car speeding around switchbacks at high elevation …

By the time we arrived in Cortina I could no longer speak. Jason suggested that I eat a banana. “It is way past that,” I groaned. I climbed back into the front seat (relative travel advantage of being in the second percentile for adult woman size.) Cortina was stuffed full of tourists, pedestrians, skiers, and drivers. Their streets were unplowed and remained lumpy with dirty snow moguls. No wonder their mayor was so outraged during and after the Wednesday storm.

We stopped in Dobbiaco for lunch and got lucky in a lovely little pizzeria attached to an adjacent spa hotel. Vic and Eleanor oohed and aahed at the pizzaiuolo who threw his dough with extra flair for them. We continued on our way to Austria, stopping at a local gas station to buy the vignete. Last year we neglected to do this before we arrived in Austria and almost cancelled our entire holiday as a result, in the midst of the after-dark literal highway extortion that ensued by uniformed Slovenia officials.

The route to Bad Kleinkirchheim followed a narrow valley, with steep walls rising on each side, filled with grey clouds. A small village punctuated the landscape every few kilometers, with a white stucco parish church at each center.

The town was thronged with skiers, tourists, patrons of the thermal baths, and service workers. We arrived just as it was getting dark, so missed out on sledding yesterday. Our hotel is a kinderhotel, full of families and children, with a full pension, which means they provide three meals a day in the dining room. The ski school is on the hotel grounds, and is full of ski students. Sleds are free and provided by the hotel. Do you find yourself accidentally on the outside of the hotel? Don’t worry, there is a bistrot right there at the bottom of the bunny hill.

The clientele here seem to be mostly Austrian, and I will confess that my heart skips a beat each time the employees cheerfully wish me “Gruess Gott!” Our German is getting a minor workout here. I have busted out many a hallo and stimmt so and hallo and Enschuldigung, but also begging people to speak English to me when their German took off on a tear, The hotel staff seem less up on Italian, as I saw last night when a flustered older Italian man left the dining room to alert the manager o
n staff that their waiter did not speak any Italian.

Victor and Eleanor had their first ski lesson today.
We rented them each a full kit, where we learned that the smallest ski boot available is size 24, which Eleanor can just fit. Helmets are mandatory for kids under 16.
We went out to the pista to find out instructor, Steffi.
She was a perfect fit for Victor, her principal student, as she reminded me much of Caitie, Victor’s favorite babysitter from Norman. Sweet, calm, reassuring, in control. Victor quickly picked up the basic skills.
Eleanor pouted on the sidelines until we clipped her into her skis.
Soon she was riding up the bunny hill conveyor belt behind Victor and following him down the small hill.
They both liked it – Eleanor loved it. “I’m not afraid,” she told everyone. “I’m not scared.”
“I am,” said Vic, “a little bit.”
But even so he was soon stopping and turning like a boy who’d been on the slopes many times before.
Meanwhile Eleanor was skiing down the bunny hill under the firm grasp of either Jason or me.
They have both been enrolled in class for tomorrow.
It was a perfect finish to 2017, true to type for the entire family cast.

[The wifi in this hotel is not superb, so I am not going to be able to upload photos for this post at the moment, but will do as soon as I am able.]

Veneto: Natale in Italia, Terza Parte / Christmas in Italy, Part 3

The kids and I woke up at the very civil hour of 8:30 on Wednesday morning, but Jason had already had his coffee and left. I assumed he had gone to the gommista for new snow tires, as he had been talking about it the past few days, while keeping a nervous eye on the weather.

A flurry of texts from him after we were up and about confirmed as much, indicating that his situation had become ever more compromised as he stood in line with about twenty Italians at one of the only open gommista in town. Everyone was worried about the weather. Everyone wanted new snow tires. There was no room to haggle, much less converse. Signore Gommista was smiling as he made a fine profit that day, the best day to sell snow tires: December 27 as half the city emptied out to head north to enjoy snow concurrent with a winter storm warning.

I tried to mitigate total apartment destruction and pack for me and the kids until Jason returned home, annoyed but reassured.
“You don’t even want to know how much I spent,” he muttered.
“I actually do,” I said. Not out of any penny pinch but more morbid curiosity.
“He said he could not sell me chains for the tires because the chains would not fit in the wheelcase.”
“Oh?”
“But the fee also includes off-season tire storage.”
“Oh.”
We were still trying to pack and organize as the kids zoomed around in high spirits.
“I’ll tell you later,” he said, “how much.”

We herded the team down to the car, along with a collection of suitcases, toy bags, snack bags, diaper bags … we are very much in the Napoleonic army mode of travel. Staging everything in the foyer until Jason could bring the car around from the other side of the piazza, we watched the rain fall on the wet flagstones in front of the palazzo. We quickly shoveled all small people, bags, and accoutrements into our wagon, and got on the road under grey clouds. Eleanor fell asleep quickly, before the A1 autostrada split into ‘panoramica’ and ‘direttissima.’ This drive is always a challenge for me, because the route between Firenze and Bologna is twisting and steep, tunneling through the Apennines. I typically am a shade of green, well before Bologna. But the grey skies and ruta diretissima worked in my favor, and when we emerged before Bologna I was feeling fine. The flat plain of Emilia Romagna rolled out before us, under more clouds and rain. In fact, the rain never stopped.

As we crossed over into the Veneto, the rain picked up. Victor and Eleanor chattered in the back seat. We turned north to climb into the Dolomites, and saw the waterfalls coming off the mountains were forming large icicles and walls of ice. “Oooh, pretty,” we cooed. Infrequent vertical ice gave way to freezing rain, then heavy snowflakes. We were nowhere near our final destination, and it was getting dark fast. Snow started sticking to the ground, first as a low cover, then in larger mounds. The climb was no joke, either. Every few kilometers felt like we gained another one to two hundred meters. This was like driving the highway in Colorado, where you turn south from I-70 because someone in the car thought it would be fun to drive to Leadville. The road was blasted out of solid rock.

Fortunately, we were driving north, so we had the inside lane that was not covered in ice leading to a 600-meter spill and a quick death. Jason kept the car in second and took the turns slowly as my palms began to sweat. I started to feel like one of those Reader’s Digest “Drama in Real Life” stories that I used to read at my grandma’s house as a kid, where the mom capriciously tosses a box of Nilla Wafers into the trunk just before they set out on a roadtrip that will evolve into a struggle for life. I mentally catalogued the contents of our snack bag.

Victor and Eleanor began to bicker. I asked them to hush, but Jason set his jaw and said it was better, that he preferred background noise when driving like this. It felt like a bit of divine retribution, or at least a Campbellian test, for a person who had been celebrating the successful passage of his written Italian driver’s test just a week before. “Maybe we should go back to Belluno and stay there, instead,” he said under his breath.

We rolled into Forno a Zoldo, a small town with a uniformed Protezione Civile officer at the one intersection, holding a lollipop. She was watching out for all the drivers on this dark, snowy night out on the SP 251.

We waited in line with a few other stopped cars as she lollipopped through drivers with chains on their tires. Jason rolled down the window and she stuck her head in.

“You got chains?”
“No,” Jason replied.
“Is this car 4×4?”
“No.”
She shrugged. “Then you can’t pass.”
“We have a reservation in Santa Fosca.”
She shrugged again.
“I just bought these new snow tires today.”
She rolled her eyes. “Look, if you want to try it, and I do NOT recommend it, but leaving town here is a steep hill with a sharp curve. If you slide, turn around and come straight back; you won’t ever make it to Santa Fosca. But if you can make it up that hill, continue, and with care.”

We thanked her and drove away from the intersection, up the hill, up up up, and around the steep curve, still in second. We did not slip.

So we continued. It got darker, and the snow was blowing hard. The road was not good. This was a major winter storm even for the locals. The twisting mountain road was hard to discern in the headlights and the driving snow. We climbed, and climbed, hairpin after hairpin, and the weather got worse, and worse.

“How far back is Forno?” I asked.
“It’s been about four miles,” Jason replied. It felt like at least ten miles to me.
I could not believe we were doing this.
Jason continued to round the hairpins in second at increasing elevations.
Victor and Eleanor had stopped talking.
“Daddy, how much further is it?” Victor finally said in a small voice.
“A ways, guys. A ways.”
I intermittently monitored the max defrost button, which raised the temperature in the car to something like 100F. The ice accumulated quickly.

Finally, we reached the Passo di Staulanza, just after a town amusingly named Dont. It was a dismal scene. Snow was blowing sideways in sheets across the road. The signage indicated that six steep turns lay ahead before we arrived in our valley. The first turn was easy enough, but we fishtailed on the second one. I was trying hard to remain calm without much success. We made it safely down the next four turns, in first and second gear, without slippage. Finally we saw the lights of Pescul, and, just beyond it, our destination: Santa Fosca.

The roads were a mess. The snow had been falling so fast that no plow could keep up with it. We saw our first turnoff, and immediately got stuck, so backed out.

We continued forward. I started to whimper, “please let’s just call the hotel and explain to them what is happening.” But Jason was resolute. Our turnoff appeared again under the same name on a subsequent right, which we were able to access, although the ascent was steep and the road a lumpy, snowy mess.

We finally pulled into our hotel. It was still snowing hard.
“I wish we had taken this holiday in Sicily,” I grumbled. Jason laughed.

He got out of the car. The kids were still wearing their Florentine clothes.
“Where’s the big bag of their winterwear?” he asked me from the back.
“Their what?” I said.
“A huge bag of their winterwear.”
“It’s all in the suitcase,” I said.
“No, there is a huge bag … oh my god did we leave it at home.”

Apparently, we had. We carried the kids in their city clothes down into the hotel. Jason immediately made a trip out to buy them boots and gloves. I declined his offer to purchase boots for me, saying that mine were super and I loved them. Some of the wint
erwear was, in fact, in their suitcase; just not all of it. The critical pieces remained in our foyer in Florence in a huge recyclable shopping bag.

The kids now fully bundled, we trudged back down the snowy hill to a gastronomia for dinner. I slipped on the packed snow and bent my right wrist back and hard, cursing my boots for their lack of tread, making mental note to buy myself a new pair promptly the next morning.

Kids trotting off to the gastronomia in the storm.

Eleanor, initially irate at the snowpants situation, realized on the walk down the hill how incredible snow is. She’d never seen it before. Victor, ever the big brother, commented, “I’ve seen snow, but it didn’t look like this.” You got that right, kid.

Mom and dad had an adult beverage each while the kids devoured pizza and French fries. The gastronomia staff were sympathetic and doting, speaking in an accent and dialect that I could only guess.

We headed back into our snug, warm hotel room and quickly fell asleep after a trip from Firenze that had turned out to be much more than we’d bargained for.

In the end, we both agreed that the 700 euros for the ultra high performance snow tires had been well worth it.

We watched the storm continue from our balcony after we checked in.
The total snowfall was well over a foot.

There are more relaxing aspects of our days in Santa Fosca that I will record next for my reading public. Tomorrow we head to Austria, for more snow and sledding. Hopefully the drive will be a fraction as harrowing.