Hiking in Geistal
Austria has a little over 8 million people who enjoy an average income equivalent to that of Canadians. Although the country is small, it is about three times the size of Vancouver Island, it's natural landscape exudes a feeling of immensity. Its mountainous landscape shares many similarities to the huge natural vistas that are found in British Columbia. Perhaps these similiarities are what makes this area so inviting. Nevertheless there are many differences that I also find attractive. One way in which Austria and British Columbia differ is on the scale and extent of infrastructure available for outdoor recreation. According to one website I read, Austria has 50,000 kilometers of hiking trails. This may not be an accurate figure but there is no doubt from what we have seen the amount of biking and hiking trails are truly staggering. What is just as impressive are the services and facilities available on these paths. It may not be a recipe for getting away from it all, but it certainly makes hiking and walking an attractive and comfortable activity for all when there is a "hut" serving full lunches complete with tasty dessert every hour or two along the trail.
Muriel and I went off hiking in the Geistal area, a 15 minute drive from our apartment, while the kids hung out at home. This recreational area consists of two mountain ranges bordering a narrow river valley. The valley has some meadowland and farmland that gives way to soaring peaks on either side. Muriel and I were not out to conquer any mountain peaks we just wanted to walk the valley and venture a few hundred meters up the valley walls. There were several maps for us to consult with various level of details and orientation so it took a while to get oriented. We ended up taking a bit of a detour from our intended route but didn't feel too badly as we were among several other hikers who could not reconcile trail signage with maps.
Our difficulties lead us to conference with a German couple and a couple from New Hampshire. We had several maps between us and after some comparisons were able to get reoriented. We spent a while chatting with the American couple. They had just flown in from the US the day before and were already looking to hike some of the lower peaks. They were both retired (she just the week before) and appeared to be avid hikers and travellers. They had hiked in this area of Austria several times and found June a great time of year since it was a low season of sorts. They were surprised to meet other English speakers, since their experience has been that few non German speakers venture into the small towns of Austria. We both expressed enthusiatic agreement that visiting the small towns and villages of Europe has consistently proven to be the most enjoyable travel strategy to avoids tour bus culture and the larger international travel crowds.
As with others we have spoken with, our New Hampshire acquaintances were a little taken aback to learn that we had been on the road for seven months and still had two months left for more travel. As soon as they heard we had teenagers along, they exclaimed that the kids could never learn as much in school as they could on the sort of trip we are taking. They will be transformed! The woman also said our girls were very likely to go off and live halfway around the world, a comment both Muriel and I chose to ignore as best we could not wanting to believe that we are unwittingly preparing our kids to live as far away from us as physically possible. When you think about it for any length of time, forcing two teenage kids to live in close quarters with their parents and denying them a social life is probably a sure fire recipe for driving them away, but I digress.
We have frequently heard the refrain that our kids lives will be radically changed by this travel experience. I am pretty sure they don't me irreversibly scarred, but today Muriel and I made the mental note that it has always been the prognostication of other adults that this crazy travel adventure is paradigm shifting event. Our kids probably have the right to be a bit irritated by this conclusion. Muriel and I think it will take at least ten years before Hannah and Abby will be able to report and reflect whether this adult wisdom is indeed true. They are enjoying the trip but are not going to be yelling anytime soon from the mountain tops that their lives, values and beliefs have been radically transformed by the experience. That sounds more like the talk of parents who are looking for ways to justify taking their kids out of school and away from their friends and all their creature comforts. We would like to think we are doing nothing but good for our kids, but Hannah and Abby are really the only ones who can say for sure and likely only sometime in the distant future.
Hiking in Geistal
We bade farewell to our New Hampshire friends; leaving with quite a few things to ponder. In addition to thinking about the legacy this trip will ultimately have for us and our kids, we reflected on what we need to do to be in shape for future trekking over the mountainsides like the two 65 year olds we had just talked to were doing. The latter thought about physical fitness was further underlined when we saw a very elderly nun trekking up the mountainside in a pair of sturdy boots with two hiking poles and a pack while still sporting a traditional grey dress, black stockings and white headscarf.
I am embarrassed to report that Muriel and I can be attention deficit when it comes to the topic of health and nutrition. When we arrived at the Geistailalm trail hut (hut in this case is a large apline lodge complete with full service restaurant) our thoughts immediately switched to the recommendation we were given to order kuchen at this very location. We sat down at a very comfortable bench and table that was on an outdoor patio overlooking the valley and the mountain range on the opposite side. In no time a waitress had taken our order and returned with two extraordinarily large pieces of cake. One slice was carrot and the other was traditional German chocolate cake. We now had one more thing to ruminate about. How to stay in hiking form and still have dessert. We definitely wanted our kuchen and eat it too!
After our delicious snack we committed to a couple more hours of trail walking to compensate for any ill effects. Along the way we met many hikers coming from the opposite direction. Traditional Austrian garb like trousers, knickers, long wool socks and hats complete with a jaunty feather were interspersed with the latest in trail fashion. All these hikers would greet us on the trail. Gutten tag was the only greeting we knew and began to feel self conscious because we never heard those words in return. The words were always the same but they were said so quickly that we weren't quite sure we had heard it correctly. We finely figured out that everyone was saying Grüß Gott, which literally translated means God bless. It is the common casual greeting of southern Germany and Austria. We figured this out because Edith, one our blog readers used this very phrase in a blog comment about a week ago.
Cemetery in Geistal
The sentiment of Grüß Gott seems to be central to Austrian culture in this region. Along alpine trails, in front of houses, and along road sides are numerous well maintained shrines and chapels of which many are very recent creations. We stopped by a country church on our way back to our apartment and were stunned by the cemetery surrounding it. Each plot was immaculately maintained and ornately decorated. Each grave was a mini garden and all of it seemed to invite God's blessing on the souls of those who had departed this world. The plain but smart exterior of the church was starkly contrasted by a baroque interior that once again earnestly pleaded for God's blessing.
I take to heart the greetings of my fellow Austrian trail walkers. I am reminded how fortunate we are to be able to take such long and beautiful journey. I would like to extend this same greeting to you as well. It need not be taken as a Christian or religious greeting but as a wish that life go well with you and your families. Grüß Gott.