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Hello From Austria – An Excursion To Slovenia And Italy – Monte Lussari

After yesterday’s exciting outing to Graz we were planning an even bigger outing today: an excursion to the so-called “Drei-Länderecke”, an area where Austria, Italy and Slovenia come together. So we left early in the morning to drive from my home province of Styria along the A2 Highway to the Austrian province of Carinthia. The drive across the mountains of Western Styria is extremely scenic and the pleasant panoramas continued into the picturesque province of Carinthia (“Kä...

Austria, Carinthia, Wörthersee, Ossiacher See, Millstätter See, Weißensee, Mangart, Tarvisio

After yesterday’s exciting outing to Graz we were planning an even bigger outing today: an excursion to the so-called “Drei-Länderecke”, an area where Austria, Italy and Slovenia come together. So we left early in the morning to drive from my home province of Styria along the A2 Highway to the Austrian province of Carinthia. The drive across the mountains of Western Styria is extremely scenic and the pleasant panoramas continued into the picturesque province of Carinthia (“Kärnten” in German).

The province of Carinthia is the southernmost Austrian province; it is close to 280 km long, but in some areas only 45 to 50 km wide. The western part of the province is characterized by the Austrian High Alps while the eastern part features wider valleys and medium-altitude mountains. Carinthia is an extremely popular tourist destination, in particular the scenic lakes (e.g. Wörthersee, Ossiacher See, Millstätter See, Weißensee and many others) are a huge tourist draw in the summer, and in winter this province features several excellent ski areas for Alpine skiing enthusiasts.

Our destination for today was a mountain called “Mangart” which is located in Slovenia and at 2679 m the fourth-highest peak of the Julian Alps. This part of the Alps extends from north-eastern Italy into Slovenia and was named after Julius Cesar. The predominant mineral in this area is limestone which features many prominent and jagged mountain peaks.

The Mangart mountain is most easily reached from the Italian side, so we crossed the Austrian-Italian border at Thörl-Maglern. Because Austria and Italy are both EU member countries, we did not even have to show our passports any more and continued into the border town of Tarvisio and turned left into a mountain river valley that would take us to our destination. Our drive took us through quaint mountain villages that seemed rather remote and secluded, and less than half an hour from Tarvis we reached the beautiful “Predil Lake”, a gorgeous lake with green and turquoise waters that is surrounded by an imposing mountain panorama. We stopped for a brief picture break and continued our ascent up the Julian Alps past various switchbacks and leftover fortifications dating back to World War I. Many mountains in this area were actually scenes of the mountain warfare that characterized the First World War. Major military operations took place in this area right in the high mountains between the middle of 1915 and late 1917 and more than 300,000 Austro-Hungarian and Italian soldiers perished in these battles.

Finally we reached the Italian-Slovenian border and we still had to present our passports. We continued further up on the flanks of the Mangart Mountain, but our vehicle started to overheat. My brother stopped and opened the hood, and we started to conclude that the engine cooling fan was not working. As a result, we would be unable to continue climbing up the steep roads and had to turn around and head back into the valley.

All of us were a little disappointed since we were not able to reach our mountain destination, but we were quick on our feet and decided to think of an alternate location to visit. My brother suggested to head back to the Tarvisio area in Italy and to take the cable car up Monte San Lussari. Since the road was either downhill or even, our vehicle was able to cool down and we were able to continue our trip on fairly flat terrain.

South of Tarvisio we drove through the village of Camporosso whose name is said to go back to red toads that were said to populate the area. We stopped at the base station of the Monte Lussari cable car and then the three of us took a ride up in one of the 91 cabins. We were able to take my brother’s dog with us and enjoyed the eleven minute long ride up the mountain. As we ascended the mountain vistas got more impressive.

We exited at the top and I was surprised to see a tiny mountain village on top of the mountain which actually has been a popular pilgrimage destination for more than 600 years. Legends say that in 1360 a shepherd was looking for stray sheep and found them, kneeling next to a shrub and when he came closer, he saw that there was a wooden image of Mother Mary with Baby Jesus. He picked up the wooden image and took it down to the village to give it to the parish priest. But the next day the image was on the mountain again, surrounded by kneeling sheep. This miraculous event repeated itself for the third time and then a senior church official issued the instruction to build a chapel at the location where the image was found.

Several buildings surround this chapel, and almost all of them house either restaurants or retail stores where you can pick up souvenirs and religious trinkets. Several restaurants feature outdoor patios or balconies that provide an unforgettable view. We walked through the small market area and hiked up just a few meters to the summit area of Monte Lussari from where we had a beautiful 360 degree of the surrounding mountains.

Lunch time had arrived and we decided to sit down on one of the balconies looking southwards into the Italian Alps. On this gorgeous clear day the view was astounding, and our appetite was stimulated by the crisp Alpine air. We each ordered a dish called “Tris” which consisted of three types of pasta and also featured porcini mushrooms and a local sheep cheese. The imposing mountain in our view was the Cima di Cacciatore (Hunter’s Mountain). Neither one of us could finish this hearty lunch and we decided to walk it off a bit with another walk in the summit area before we took the cable car down into the valley.

We drove back to Tarvisio where we stopped for about an hour and checked out the local market. Tarvisio is the main town in the Val Canale area of Italy, a very unique region since it is the only area where Europe's major language families, the Germanic, Slavic and Romance-language speakers, meet, a unique constellation. Tarvisio itself used to be part of Austria-Hungary until 1918 and the town used to be mostly German-speaking. For many years it was an important market town and benefited from the border traffic with Austria and the former Yugoslavia, and respectively today’s Slovenia. Even today there is still a significant amount of shopping activity going on on weekends.

As the afternoon was rapidly coming to a close we decided to start our drive back to the eastern part of Austria which would take about three hours. Near the Carinthian city of Klagenfurt we happened upon a traffic jam on the highway and the constant stop and go action brought our car close to overheating again. As we started to ascend the mountain chain between Carinthia and Styria, we drove onto a parking lot where we let the vehicle cool down again to make sure we’d be able to get across the mountains. Finally in the late afternoon we had reached our home town of Weiz and my brother and sister-in-law were looking forward to resting and relaxing after a somewhat stressful drive.

Well, I had had a bit of a snooze in the car, so I was ready to keep exploring. I hopped into my rental car and decided to continue with some local explorations. I drove through the picturesque Weiz Gorge along the Weiz River into the mountain highlands that frame my hometown. I drove up into the region of Sommeralm which is a landscape characterized by high-altitude alpine meadows, located at about 1200 m. Most of the area is above the tree-line and cows graze freely on wide open spaces. I watched a local farmer feed the cows and continued driving along the narrow road that connects the Sommeralm with the adjacent region of Teichalm (the word "Alm" refers to "Alpine meadow or pasture".)

Some years ago seven small local municipalities came together to form a region called “Almenland”, a designated natural park region that offers opportunities for hiking, biking, skiing as well as wonderful mountain vistas. Several restaurants and bed and breakfasts provide opportunities for hearty Austrian dining and accommodation, and a small local lake features pedal boats. I parked my car at the “Teichwirt”, a large local restaurant, and started my walk around the lake.

At the southern end of the lake is an over-sized statue of an Alpine ox, a symbol of the successful local free-grazing cattle operations that sell their products to numerous restaurants in the region. Every summer more than 4000 Alpine oxen graze in this area and apparently the meat that they produce is the most popular brand in all of Austria.

I walked past the very rustic restaurant and local entertainment centre called the “Latschenhütte”, a place that features Alpine disco parties every Tuesday and "Over-30" parties every Friday. Typical Styrian live music is also offered regularly and this complex of wooden structures is a popular entertainment destination for people from the surrounding region. Just next to it I stopped to watch a group of grazing cows and was entertained by a duo of bovine creatures that were “horsing around” (or should it be “cowing around”?) with one another. They were snuggling up to one another, occasionally one tried to jump the other and all around they seemed to have a good time.

The sun was now setting and the air was getting cool, so I started my drive home past the mountain villages of Fladnitz and Passail, two major villages in the Passail Basin, a high-altitude plateau that is framed on all sides by mountaineous terrain. I definitely had had a full day today and was looking forward to new adventures tomorrow.

 

Hello From Austria – Classical Music, Hiking & Summer Tobogganing & Two Delicious Backyard Feasts I

After just a gorgeous day on the Alpine peaks at the Austrian / Italian / Slovenian border, the weather gods were not as kind yesterday. It rained and drizzled pretty much the whole day and I spent a relaxing day in my home town, visiting with friends and doing errands. The big excitement was reserved for the evening: a live concert at the Kunsthaus Weiz, a recently constructed multi-purpose performance venue. My sister-in-law Anneliese and I got ready for an evening of class...

Austria, Europe, styria, Graz, Schöckel, Alpes, Weiz, Riegersburg

After just a gorgeous day on the Alpine peaks at the Austrian / Italian / Slovenian border, the weather gods were not as kind yesterday. It rained and drizzled pretty much the whole day and I spent a relaxing day in my home town, visiting with friends and doing errands. The big excitement was reserved for the evening: a live concert at the Kunsthaus Weiz, a recently constructed multi-purpose performance venue. My sister-in-law Anneliese and I got ready for an evening of classical music that would feature works by Mozart, Strauss and Verdi.

Just before 7:30 pm we strolled into the concert hall and were just able to find two separate seats in a packed venue. Many local dignitaries were present, and this was an important event in Weiz’ social calendar. The concert was organized by the Weiz Lions Club as a fundraising event and the concert featured the AIMS Festival Orchestra and Soloists. AIMS stands for “American Institute of Musical Studies”, a Graz-based organization that offers six-week long programs in Vocal Lessons, Opera and Lieder Coaching, Master Classes, Foreign Language Diction, Conversational German and career-related courses for professional musicians, pianists and singers.

Twelve young sopranos, two mezzo-sopranos, two baritones and six tenors performed pieces from Mozart’s “The Magic Flute”, Johann Strauss’ “Die Fledermaus” and Giuseppe Verdi’s “La Traviata”. The music that these young artists produced was indeed magical and we marveled at the talent of the singers, none of whom seemed to be much older than 25 years of age. The emcee, Andrea Huber, an American of Swiss heritage, took us through the evening. Andrea herself is a highly respected soprano who is now based in Germany and also teaches for AIMS.

The orchestra was directed by Edoardo Müller, a renowned conductor who has conducted in many of pre-eminent opera and concert houses around the world, including those of Paris, Rome, Barcelona, Munich as well as Tokyo and Santiago de Chile. His North American assignments include the New York City Opera, the Lyric Opera of Chicago, the Dallas Opera, the Seattle Opera and the San Francisco Opera. Most of the musicians in the orchestra were also in their early twenties.

The beauty of this music deeply touched me, and in addition I was elated by the notion that all these international music students, most of whom hailed from the United States, came together in Europe to hone their craft and pursue their passion. As I found out by talking to some of the AIMS performers after the concert, the AIMS program not only provides a great opportunity for elite musical training, but also a cross-cultural experience that will create memories of a lifetime. In my conversations with five or six of the AIMS students I found out that they come from places such as Boston, California, Rochester and even as far away as China. They all confirmed that they were extremely well-received in Graz and that they were having the time of their life, hoping that this European experience will kick-start their careers in classical music.

In total the concert had raised 15,000 Euros for local needy families, and the event was a resounding fundraising success. I even ran into one of my old high school teachers, a sports and geography teacher, who was extremely popular with the students. I had not seen him for close to 30 years, but recognized him immediately. He still had the same bright smile as he did three decades ago, and although I had to jog his memory a bit, his face lit up when he started remembering our class. Anneliese and I left the concert on a high and celebrated the experience with a night cap in a local café called Weberhaus. I mused that a small town like Weiz, with a population of less than 10,000, would offer such high caliber programming whose quality was truly at an international level.

So after an evening of high culture, a more physical and culinary program was on the menu today. I started the day off with another photo safari through my home town of Weiz, and explored the Taborkirche, which is dedicated to St. Thomas of Canterbury. The Romanesque church was first mentioned in a document in 1188 and expanded in the late 1300s with a Gothic altar area.

Until the late 1600s imposing walls and watchtowers were surrounding the church, giving it a defensive character and making it possible for the local population to find safety within the complex, which was particularly important during the Turkish invasions during the 1500s. The church yard features several gravestones from the Roman era, indicating that this area was actively settled more than 2,000 years ago although much older pre-historic remains were found in the surrounding regions as well. The so-called Celtic Village on the nearby Kulm Mountain is the first outdoor pre-history museum in the province of Styria and illustrates that this area has been inhabited since pre-historic times.

During a stroll through the Main Square of Weiz I ran across two old acquaintances, my neighbours’ mother, who I had not seen for at least 20 years and a friend from my former volleyball team who I had not seen for more than two decades as well. It’s now almost 21 years that I have been living in Toronto, but it was great to see these familiar faces again and to reconnect after such a long time.

 

Hello From Austria – Classical Music, Hiking & Summer Tobogganing & Two Delicious Backyard Feasts II

At 9:30 am I went to visit Klaudia, one of my best friends from high school, at her parent’s house. Our other school mate Doris was already there and it was great to see both of them again, more than 23 years after we graduated from high school. After the initial hugs and kisses and how-are-yous we started walking onto the local hill, the Weizberg. Our stroll took us through the local cemetery where we admired a very famous grave: the last resting place of Aurelia Schwarzeneg...

Austria, Europe, styria, Graz, Schöckel, Alpes, Weiz, Riegersburg

At 9:30 am I went to visit Klaudia, one of my best friends from high school, at her parent’s house. Our other school mate Doris was already there and it was great to see both of them again, more than 23 years after we graduated from high school. After the initial hugs and kisses and how-are-yous we started walking onto the local hill, the Weizberg. Our stroll took us through the local cemetery where we admired a very famous grave: the last resting place of Aurelia Schwarzenegger, Arnold’s mother, who was a long-time resident of Weiz.

Klaudia even mentioned that her father happened to encounter Mrs. Schwarzenegger at the cemetery a number of years ago, but she had collapsed due to a heart attack. My friend’s father called the ambulance which gave her emergency treatment and took her to the hospital. She passed away shortly after and Arnold Schwarzenegger sent a thank you letter to the ambulance employees as well as to Klaudia’s father, to thank him for getting help for his mother. Proof that in this town real celebrity connections are just steps away…

Right next to the church is the so-called “Kräutergarten” (herb garden) that was created by a group of local residents (including Klaudia’s mom) that features a wide variety of local herbs, many of which are used in the regional cuisine. Then we took the romantic stairs down the hill, a pathway that we had walked many times as children. Our local stroll took us past our former high school, where we discussed fond memories of our school years.

One of the highlights of our high school careers were two choir trips to Germany, to our partner school in Offenburg, where the two school choirs jointly performed classical songs. We most fondly recalled the actual concert where for the finale both school choirs appeared together to jointly sing the last song. Screaming our lungs out among 120 singers from two different countries was an exhilarating experience, and not surprisingly my passions for cross-cultural exchanges were kindled at an early age.

After our return to Klaudia’s parents Doris left and the rest of us started preparing a hearty meal, and I, by no means gifted in the kitchen, donned the apron and started cutting and chopping whatever needed to be done. (Good thing I was not in charge of any really important tasks…) Klaudia’s mom whipped up a delicious meal for 10+ people in next to no time and we soon sat down in the garden to have some Austrian specialties: we savoured a “Bröselknödelsuppe” (breadcrumb dumplings in a clear beef broth), stuffed green peppers and delicious mashed potatoes with caramelized onions.

Given this delicious yet substantial calory injection, we had to do a work-out and decided to do a hike up onto the Schöckel, at over 1400 m the highest local mountain. Around 2 pm we met up with Doris again and all three of us broke out our Nordic walking poles and we attacked the mountain from its steepest side. Doris, an experienced hiker, led the group at a rather hellish pace, and the two of us clambered behind her. Some areas were so steep we had to use our hands to brace ourselves climbing up between the rocks. But our walking sticks definitely aided in the ascent and about an hour later we were rewarded with an astounding 360 degree view over the Styrian hills and mountains.

The Schöckel is also referred to as the “Grazer Hausberg” or local mountain of Graz, and we had great views down into the Styrian capital and the Mur Valley. To the south the Austrian and Slovenian plains were stretching out, looking east and right saw the foothills of Eastern and Western Styria, and to the north we took in the panorama of the more imposing mountains of the Styrian Alps. We also saw several ramps for hang-gliders, a popular activity in this region.

We walked past some peaceful cows that were grazing on the mountain pastures and reached the summit area which is the location of the upper station of the cable car, of a couple of restaurants and a summer tobogganing course. The weather today was brilliant and many serious hikers, mountain bikers and tourists were congregating at the mountain top. We were quite fascinated by the summer tobogganing and Doris suggested that I should try it.

Well, I have always been a bit of a daredevil and she did not have to say it twice. She even sprang for my Euro 2.50 round, and a couple of minutes later I was sitting in the steel “buggy of death”, ready for my hair-raising descent down the serpentine curves of the course. Actually, the ride was a lot tamer than I expected, and I only occasionally pulled the brakes, but it was still an very entertaining experience. I figured if I did it again I would probably try to go down the course without breaking at all.

Once the lift had pulled my buggy back up to the summit plateau we started walking past the Stubenberghaus, a large mountain restaurant and inn, towards the summit cross which provides a beautiful view northwards into the mountainous area of Upper Styria. I have always loved mountains, and to see peak after peak after peak was just a great experience. We then started hiking back to the car and our trek back down was considerably easier than the torturous climb up. We stopped at Doris’ beautiful country house on the way back where we admired her recently created garden pond and her new dog. Equipped with some gorgeous ripe Styrian peaches from Doris’ family’s farm we returned to Weiz and I dropped Klaudia off.

About an hour later we reunited when Klaudia, her husband and two children, her parents, her sister Andrea and her daughters Nina and Katja arrived at my brother’s place. Tonight we would all get together for a great barbecue, and my brother Ewald, the passionate chef, had a few special treats waiting for us. Anneliese, my sister-in-law, had been helping all afternoon with the preparations.

After some initial chit-chatting we started off with a savoury vegetable soup, and then my brother started preparing the main course: 13 whole artic chars were waiting to be grilled in a large pan on an open fire. Ewald had already been marinating the fish in a special blend of herbs and spices the whole day. Tender young potatoes were to accompany the fish, and a solid Styrian salad with pumpkin seed oil rounded out the main course. A scrumptious raspberry parfait provided the sweet final note to our culinary symphony.

So despite a bit of rainy weather yesterday, I had had a fantastic couple of days which included classical music, hiking, a reunion with good friends and an amazing array of gastronomic delicacies. Now there is only one more full day left of my trip to Austria, and tomorrow we will explore one of the medieval treasures of Styria: the Riegersburg, a massive fortress on a basaltic outcrop dating back to the 10th century, often referred to as the “strongest fortress of Christianity” because it was never conquered.

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