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."