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 on 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.]