Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Christmas Plans

It's been almost exactly a month since my last post which is reason enough for me to write something, even if there's not much to say. I am clearly a negligent blogger.
In exactly 9 days I will be somewhere up high, probably over the Atlantic, and headed for Houston. The last time I spent Christmas in the States was in 2006, so it's time for me to head that direction again. Christmas in Austria is nice with the outdoor markets, mulled wine, candles on the tree and snowy landscapes, but it's always nice to be back "home" this time of year. Christmas in Houston for me means driving around to see the lights, shopping at the Galleria, hanging handmade stockings, eating Tex-Mex food, rearranging gifts under the tree, seeing friends and family and lighting a fire in the fireplace on Christmas morning whether it's 20 degrees or 80!
This year's Christmas shopping is about 90% done, but the wrapping will have to wait since the airlines make you unwrap everything anyway so they can see what you're hauling. My man and I are currently working on a couple of final ideas which may involve more research and effort than we originally thought. When you live overseas, the big challenge every year is to come up with original gifts that could only be found in Europe, even if the recipients don't necessarily expect that. Presents of Christmases past have ranged from Austrian schnapps to Swarovski crystal to whistling marmots.
This may be my last post for a while so I'd like to wish everyone (that means all three of you!) an enjoyable holiday season, wherever you may be celebrating! I look forward to seeing you in the new year.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Carnival Season

Today, 11/11 at 11:11, signals the start of the carnival season. This is a HUGE deal in Austria, where carnival (or "Fasching" as it's called in German) is actually considered "the fifth season" of the year. It lasts for about 3 and a half months, usually ending somewhere around the end of February in a climax of parties, balls and parades before everyone gets down to the seriousness of Lent. It's a time for people to let loose, celebrating and laughing their way through the winter months. Those of you familiar with Mardi Gras know what I'm talking about!
I've discovered that, in Vorarlberg, people either love Fasching or they hate it. There are those people who go to every possible dance, watch every parade and join in all of the festivities, even dressing in costume to get the full effect. At the other end of the spectrum are those who choose to ignore all of the craziness, preferring instead to continue life as usual and, in doing so, to give the Fasching "fools" (in German "Narren") a wide berth. Although I do enjoy watching the occasional parade, not having grown up in Austria I probably fall into the latter category.
But one thing I do really like about this time of year are the "Faschingskrapfen", which are basically jelly-filled doughnuts sprinkled with powdered sugar. The real "Krapfen" should have apricot jelly and are sold not only in grocery stores and bakeries, but also at the outdoor Christmas markets. Beware, though, because they are addictive!
I'll certainly be back with tales of other Austrian winter traditions. In the meantime, if you feel like getting a little crazy, just blame it on carnival!

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Hohe Kugel Mountain

About once a year my man convinces me to dig out my hiking boots and head out for a real hike (although, what a man from the Alps and a woman from the flattest city on Earth consider to be a real hike must certainly differ). This fall the destination was the Hohe Kugel mountain, whose summit is at 1,645 meters above sea level.
We started our hike at a height of 820 meters, in the village of Fraxern. From that point it takes about an hour and a half to reach the summit, as long as you keep up a pretty good pace, which I think we did. You pass through forests, go along rocky trails and occasionally you see someone heading back down at a pretty fast clip compared to your uphill pace (I sometimes feel like tripping these folks with their smug smiles that just scream, "I've already made it to the top and you're just starting out? Good luck with that!).
About 200 meters from the summit you reach a pretty nasty section which is not only steep but also features a trail which can no longer reasonably be called a trail. Since we've had some snow in the mountains this fall, and that snow has started to melt, resulting in a stream of mud in an already marshy area, there's no hope of coming out clean on the other side. While sloshing through the mud and the muck (and by muck I do indeed mean cow manure), you're just glad to get the next foothold.
After surviving this section, you're finally able to see the summit cross ahead of you. I'm not sure about the history of these crosses, but at the summit of most major mountains in Austria there is a large wooden or aluminum cross marking the very top. When we reached the end of our hike we had a fantastic view of the tri-country area lying at our feet: Austria, Switzerland and Germany. Apparently, on a clear day, you can see as far away as Stuttgart. Unfortunately, it was a pretty hazy day so we weren't even able to see the Lake of Constance, but it was still a breathtaking view. After spending about 15 minutes taking pictures (to be posted later) and looking through the binoculars, we started our descent. Back through the mud, along rocky trails, under the pine trees, with smug smiles on our faces for those last few hikers making their way uphill. "What, you're just starting out? You know it'll be dark soon? Good luck with that."

Friday, October 9, 2009


There's a prize for anyone who can pronounce today's post's title correctly! Okay, not really, but it made you try, didn't it? "Käsknöpfle", also called "Kässpätzle", is a local Vorarlberg specialty which can also be found in parts of Germany and Switzerland. Translated literally, the words mean "little cheesy buttons" or "little sparrows". There really is no English equivalent, and in Europe, English speakers refer to them as noodles, pasta or dumplings. I consider them to be a high-class, Austrian version of macaroni and cheese.
The "knöpfle" or "spätzle" themselves are made quite simply with flour, eggs, salt and water. They can be made with regular flour or a special "spätzle" flour, which is what we tend to use. You mix the ingredients to form a batter and in the meantime boil some water. There are different kinds of utensils you can use to form the "spätzle". We have what looks like a flat strainer with holes about 1/4 of an inch in diameter. You place the strainer on top of the pot of boiling water, pour the batter onto the strainer then use a knife or other flat-edged utensil to spread out the batter, pushing it through the holes so that it falls into the water. As with pasta, you should leave the "spätzle" in the water for 3-5 minutes until they have the right consistency, then drain. They can be served as a side dish and are the perfect complement to wild game.
Even better than eating them plain, however, is to combine them with cheese, bake for a few minutes and serve topped with roasted oninons. Of course in Vorarlberg, it is absolutely vital to combine at least 3 different types of cheese, each adding its own special flavor. These "käsknöpfle" are, without a doubt, my favorite Austrian food, and are especially popular in the fall and winter. Those of you who have visited me have certainly had the chance to enjoy this wonderful specialty. And those of you who haven't, well, here's one more reason to cross the pond.

Thursday, October 1, 2009

Be Back Soon

I don't like to post just for the heck of it- the way I see it, if you've got nothing to say, just keep your mouth shut. However, I don't want to neglect the handfull of readers I have, so I'm just putting in a request to hang in there until next week. We're headed to Italy this weekend which hopefully means that I'll have something interesting to write about when we get back! Have a great weekend wherever in the world you are...

Friday, September 18, 2009


So, it's that time of year - pumpkin season. When I first moved to Austria more than 9 years ago pumpkins were pretty rare. Occasionally you'd see one sitting outside someone's front door; not a jack-o'-lantern, mind you, just a plain old pumpkin. Now, however, the stores have started selling pumpkins in all shapes and sizes as early as the beginning of September. There are so many things you can do with pumpkins, either as decorations or for cooking. Just last week I made a couple dozen pumpkin-raisin cookies (thanks for the recipe, mom). And soon I have to pull out the pumpkin bread recipe, which is a must in the fall and has recently been requested by my guy.
When most Americans want to cook or bake with pumpkin, they simply pick up a couple of cans on their next trip to the grocery store. Unfortunately, there is no such thing in Austria, at least not yet - anyone interested in starting a canned pumpkin export business?? Here you actually have to buy a pumpkin, peel it, then bake or steam the flesh to get it to a point where you can work with it. Or, if you're lucky, you can occasionally find packages of pumpkin pieces where someone else has already done the hard work.
In the past, I've made pumpkin cookies, pumpkin bread, mashed potatoes with pumpkin and pumpkin risotto. This year my goal is to try pumpkin cream soup, which is a local specialty and can be found in most restaurants from September to November. If anyone else would like to share their experiences with pumpkin, please do so!

Monday, September 7, 2009

Fresh Apple Cider

One of my favorite things about September, aside from the fact that it signals the beginning of fall, is the fresh apple cider. The whole process starts in the spring when the apple trees are full of beautiful pink and white blossoms. As early as June you start to see tiny fruit replacing the blossoms. And in August the apples start to drop to the ground, forming a sweet-smelling carpet that attracts the attention of every bee and wasp in the area. At the beginning of September, the local farmers start to produce apple cider. In my town, one producer even goes so far as to set up an outdoor fridge which he keeps stocked with bottles of apple cider that you can purchase any time, day or night. It works on the honor system - there's a little cash box next to the fridge, and (if you're a good person) you simply drop in your €1.50, grab a bottle and go. My man and I were really excited this past weekend to see that the cider fridge is back! There's even a little sign hanging overhead with the word "Süssmost" - sweet cider. We immediately bought two bottles, both of which were empty by Sunday evening. Such a fantastic flavor and no chemicals...just pure apple goodness. I can't wait to pick up another bottle on the way home today.

Friday, August 28, 2009


Today's place of interest is the town of Quentin in Switzerland. If you drive from our place in Vorarlberg towards Zurich (usually done taking someone to the airport in our case), you'll pass the Walensee. This is a beautiful Swiss lake surrounded by mountains and displaying a range of colors from steel gray to turquoise blue, depending on the weather. A nice summer day brings out all the sailboats, and on such a day a couple of years ago we decided to take a ferry ride over to the town of Quentin, a tiny town on the other side of the lake. The "town" of Quentin has a population of only about 60 people, but the tourists come in droves in the summer, mostly to eat at one of the two or three fantastic fish restaurants. Because of Quentin's unique location, it actually has its own special microclimate with lots of sun and beautiful vegetation. There are even vineyards clinging to the mountains, and a glass of Quentin white wine is a must when enjoying a meal of fish and potatoes on the terrace of one of the restaurants. Should you ever make it to Switzerland, make sure you work the Walensee and the town of Quentin into your visit!

Sunday, August 16, 2009

Fall Plans

Since summer is winding down here in the Alps, it's time to start thinking about how to enjoy the fall. I know everyone loves it when the wildflowers start to bloom in the spring, or when the smell of summer barbecues fills the air, but for me, fall is the most beautiful season. I'm happy to live in a place where fall actually IS a season. There's nothing like the crystal clear air, deep blue skies and brilliant foliage. And even though summer dresses and sandals may be more fun, who doesn't love putting on a cozy sweater and going for a walk on a fantastic fall day? I know we Texans live for that first cold snap which actually justifies dressing like it's no longer summer.

In central Europe fall is a wonderful time of year. This is the season for grape harvesting, roasted chestnuts and mountain hikes. My man and I always try to take a long weekend trip in the fall and our favorite destination is South Tyrol in northern Italy. For us it's a mere three hours away, but it's like entering another world. Usually we go to the town of Meran, but last year we discovered the area around Bozen and all it has to offer. Probably our number one discovery was the Steidler Hof in the village of St. Magdalena. The Steidler Hof is a farm and vineyard run by the Gasser family. They produce their own wine, which is best enjoyed on their terrace overlooking the town of Bozen. We've been there several times now and can't get enough of their fine wine, great home-cooking and unbelievable hospitality. I'm sure that St. Magdalena and the Steidler Hof will be real contenders for this year's fall trip!
The Steidler Hof in St. Magdalena, near Bozen

Monday, August 10, 2009

Beer Garden

One of the best things about living in central Europe is being able to enjoy a nice, cold beer in a real beer garden. Of course, I'm pretty sure the concept originated in Germany, but Austrian breweries do a pretty good job of keeping up with their neighbors. Probably our favorite local beer garden is at the Sternbräu in the town of Rankweil, just 15 minutes from our house. They serve their own beer as well as a wide range of international beers. I always order a "kleines Dunkles" (a small dark beer). Yesterday, after our weekend visitors from Munich left, my guy and I took advantage of the fall-like weather and spent a relaxing hour chatting over a Sternbräu beer (or two) and nibbling on a freshly baked soft pretzel. There's really no better way to wind down the weekend.

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Keeping Cool

For all of you suffering through the Texas summer heat, here's an Austrian spring image to keep you cool. Although, I could just as easily have posted a picture of our summer because it's been more like spring this year - lots of rain and low temps. Makes you want to get out of town, doesn't it?
This is the view from our balcony. The snowcapped mountain in the background is called the Three Sisters.

Monday, August 3, 2009

Russian Voices

This weekend I attended a church concert put on by the Cossack Ensemble Ciolkovitch (now try saying THAT 5 times in a row!) in the town of Götzis. A friend of mine, Irina, is a Russian trainer from the Ukraine and is the one who organized this concert. The pieces were all in Russian, but nonetheless very moving, even for someone who didn't understand a word. The first half focused on sacred music and the second, more lighthearted half included traditional folk music from Russia and the Ukraine. There were only 7 men in the group but what a sound! And if you've never heard a basso profondo perform live, well, there's just nothing like it. He (I think his name is Dmitri) could have just sung "blah, blah, blah" and I still would have been mesmerized. I'm including a link to their website here, but keep in mind it's only in German: At least it's worth taking a look at the basso profondo, the tall drink of water (can I say that about a Russian?) in the middle of the back row - wow!

Another thing worth mentioning is the location of the concert. Now, when I heard that the performance would take place at the St. Ulrich church in the town of Götzis (population 10,000) I thought, no problem, should be pretty easy to find. Not so! Turns out that in a town which is probably the size of some neighborhoods in Houston, there are actually TWO churches with the exact same name. That's right, there's a "new" St. Ulrich and an "old" St. Ulrich. Naturally, I went to the wrong one first and had to ask a lady there for help. Fortunately, she was very helpful and even offered to walk over with me (the old church is just down the street from the new one). This usage of the same names for similar types of buildings is typical in Vorarlberg. Every town seems to have restaurants with the same names: Kreuz (cross), Adler (eagle), Krone (crown), Hirschen (deer), and, as I've now learned, churches get the same treatment.

Friday, July 31, 2009

The Color Purple

Purple (any hue or shade thereof) has long been my favorite color. Surprisingly, though, it's not a color I've worn much...until now. A couple of months ago I went to the Swarovski museum near Innsbruck, Austria. You know Swarovski - Austrian crystal shaped into cute little figurines, fancy Christmas ornaments and elegant jewelry. Even in these hard economic times they manage to survive, thanks in large part to the huge selection of jewelry they have in the shop just beyond the museum's exit. As I entered the shop, it became clear to me why everyone else had been rushing through the museum itself. The shop is GIGANTIC! You could really drop a bundle in there, but I chose to be a conservative spender (it's in my blood) and spent no more than 50 Euros on a purple crystal pendant and matching stud earrings. They are, quite simply, beautiful. And to top it all off, I recently found the perfect blouse to round it all off. Today I'm wearing the whole ensemble and feeling, well, rather royal, in spite of my denim capri pants. Even my guy mentioned how "hübsch" I look today (that's "pretty" for you non-German speakers), which is very nice to hear, especially when it's taken several months to put together the perfect outfit...

Thursday, July 30, 2009


I'm not a writer, nor have I ever claimed to be. It's just not one of my talents. So don't expect to find any literary masterpieces in my ramblings on these pages. There are several blogs that I follow regularly and I've decided to join the ranks. As a Texas girl living in Austria, I'm hoping this blog will give me the chance to keep my family and friends up-to-date on my daily life and experiences. Happy reading!