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AUSTRIA | Friday, 23 December 2011 | Views [639]

On 23 December, Hermann accompanied us on the train to Munich and saw us safely on the train to Passau, where we were met at the station by my son, Len, and his brother-in-law, Markus. We drove the 20 minutes to Andorf where Markus, his wife Claudia, and their two children, Marco and Lara were our hosts in their 150 year old house. It was originally built as an orphanage then used as a convent. Markus' father lives on the main floor and the young family occupies the two upper floors.

We had barely arrived when Claudia asked if I wanted to accompany her and the children to the town hall where the Bethlehem candle was being presented. They have a lovely tradition where a candle that was brought from Bethlehem, much like the Olympic torch, is presented to the Bürgermeister (Mayor) and he then uses it to re-light candles that householders have brought from home in hurricane lanterns. The original candle is brought up the street in a horse drawn carriage, with a lot of eager anticipation from the locals. Little Marco rushed to the front of the crowd to get his family's candle lit and, with much pride, carried it home.

Markus used to be a baker and Claudia teaches nutrition. The food was amazing! Markus would have 3 different kinds of freshly baked bread for us every morning. Claudia, very much into organic ingredients, made the most amazing dishes – and all of them super healthy! Muesli with fresh nuts and dried fruits, yogurt, cheeses (what we Canadians would consider as gourmet but for the Austrians it is 'just cheese'), hams, procuitto (so lean it was heavenly), homemade jams and jellies, organic nutella, fresh ground horseradish, fresh fruit and fruit juice, and coffee so strong and tasty it would be a sin to add milk or sugar. This was only for breakfast!

Christmas Eve is the big 'stay at home with immediate family day' in Austria. Claudia spent the day in the kitchen preparing. In the late afternoon, everyone (except Claudia, who had secret children preparations) went to the Catholic Church to watch the Children Christmas Pageant – Marco & Lara did not participate. It is a massive church built in 1350, with an interior that matches the era it was built. Although we didn't understand the words, Michaela translated later as there was one particularly funny part where the Angel goes to the shepherds and announces the Christ Child's birth. (The Christ Child has no gender here) The Angel speaks high German and the shepherds don't quite understand but don't want to admit it. (Much like Shakespearean English and common English). It was a short and sweet mass, as the children's pageant pretty much said everything the priest would have tried to convey.

Back at the house, the tree was up and ready to be decorated. Again, we found the decorations to be elegantly simple. Cleverly, Christmas Eve dinner consisted of numerous plates, trays and platters of super delicious finger foods, as the children were squirming, eager to run away and open presents. It was nice to see the children happy with 2 or 3 gifts each. They were shocked when we told them how children in Canada get so many gifts it takes an hour or more to open them all. It was a quiet and lovely evening.

Christmas day we had a huge dinner at the Markus' father's, with Markus' brothers and their families. Unfortunately, we had to rush off to catch the train to Wels, where Michaela's mother met us at the station. We went to her house where we had yet another huge meal and yet more schnapps and wine. After a brief visit at the mother's, we were picked up by her father, taken to his house and, you guessed it, more food, schnapps and wine.

Vali, Len, Anna, Michaela   Ivan, Len, Thomas, Jubica, Michaela, Michaela

If you are getting the idea that all we did was eat and drink, you are correct. But to say the food was delicious is a gross understatement and to say the different alcohols were tasty is just rude! We were treated to homemade wines and schnapps that were amazing. We found out that nearly everyone in Croatia (where Michaela's family originates) makes their own concoctions of alcohols and they are all unique and amazingly delicious. Even Ed, who hates walnuts, had more than a few of the green walnut schnapps – and it smelled and tasted like walnuts. We had no idea that knudels (like a dumpling) have so many variations, literally from soups to desserts and everything in between. The meats, cheeses, cookies, soups, knudels, absolutely everything was homemade. Oh my God, what a feast!! We early on decided that trying to be vegetarian was just going to have to go on the shelf for the next 10 days and I'm glad we did, because otherwise we would have missed a huge part of how they celebrate Christmas.


For the next 3 days we bounced back and forth between Michaela's Mom and Dad's. Michaela's step sister graciously let us use her brand new apartment to stay in. We did spend one afternoon walking around Wels, where Michaela showed us where she grew up, where she went to school, her Grandmother's old apartment - where Michaela and her sister would go after school, where they played, etc. It was a beautiful insight to my daughter-in-law's former days. Meeting her family and spending time in her childhood town really rounded out the lovely lady who we have the good fortune to call our daughter-in-law and soon to be mother of our grandchild. That's right! They announced the good news on Christmas Eve.

Michaela's father treated us to a day at the ThermoSpa nearby. It was a massive complex with your typical family water slides and pools on the main level. Upstairs and outside were hot tubs, saunas and steam rooms of various temperatures ranging from 10 to 35 degrees. There were specialized quiet lounging areas offering music therapy, fireplaces, etc. These upper and outdoor areas tended to be adults only. The hot tubs, saunas and steam rooms are NOT clothing optional. You could wrap a towel around yourself but your bathing suit was a definite no-no. It doesn't take long to lose one's modesty.

We spent an afternoon in Scharding. It is a picturesque town on the Inn River with Germany sharing the other bank. The shops are all brilliantly coloured, as they were in most of Austria, but this one had a plaza that really had the shops stand out. We found out that in former times these colours had meaning. If one wanted to go to the butcher shop it was the blue building, for example. The tailor was the peach building, etc. Also in former times, the sign hanging from the shop depicted what the shop was all about; a boot for the shoemaker, a mortar and pestal for the pharmacy, etc.

Because the river sometimes floods due to run off from the Alps, there is a gate near the river that records the high water marks from years gone by. Some of the marks were three stories high! Standing there and looking back into the plaza it is not hard to realize that most of the shops and houses have been flooded, the most recent being 2002 – although that was only about 3 meters, with 1954 being at about 10 meters.


Claudia insisted that we have dinner in a fabulous little Italian restaurant, La Cucina. I'm only mentioning it here because I want to remember the name for the next time I go to Scharding. It was excellent!

Another Austrian (and Bavarian) custom is that no one goes back to work after Christmas until the arrival of the Three Kings, Melchior, Caspar and Balthazar. Kids dress up like the Maji and show up at homes, sing a song, leave their initials above the door to bestow blessings on the household for the up coming year then collect a donation for a local charity.

We headed back to Andorf on the 29th, spent the night at Claudia & Murkus' then took another train to Salzburg on the 30th. Nestled right in the Alps, this old city decorated in traditional ways was breathtaking. That same night we went to Castle Mirabell where Leopold Mozart used to put on performances with his wife and children. Although the hall had been mostly damaged by a fire decades ago, the main staircase remained intact with the Marble Hall being restored to almost original grandeur. We sat only a meter away from the lead violinist performing some of Mozart's greatest compositions. I am not ashamed to admit I had tears in my eyes for nearly the entire performance and tear up now writing this. How can I describe the emotion that we felt, sitting in the very room where the great master once performed? The wall murals, the marble floor, the high windows, the Christmas tree, and the acoustics perfect. To close our eyes and imagine Mozart sitting where we now sit? The lead violinist so in tune with his instrument that we got the impression that he was not playing the violin, but that the violin was playing him. His eyes closed, swaying and moving with the music, his cheek caressing the violin, his hand gently holding the bow that that seemed to have a life of its own as it stroked the strings, his fingers dancing on the stem. It was magical!

After the performance, we walked around, looking in shop windows and basically getting a feel of the town.

The next day we did a tour of the house where Mozart was born as well as the house the family moved into later. It was very interesting in that both places explained the family history, original letters written to family members, original music sheets, original instruments, but also a lot of history on early Salzburg life. We wanted to do a bit of shopping, but since it was New Year's Eve, all the shops closed early so we continued to wander through the streets of the old city, in the snow. Again, the snow only added to the atmosphere of holidays in an ancient Alps city filled with history. As a note here, there are by-laws that ensure the cities keep their historical nature, and even grants or subsidies to property owners. New buildings must be built to maintain the esthetic theme as well.

We went into the Salzburg Cathedral. The original church dates back to 774 and went through 2 more building phases, the most recent in the 1600's, which is what we see today. These grand old buildings still hold the magic of olden times and it makes one's heart ache to realize that many of these elegant works of art were purposely bombed during the war to damage the moral of the locals. Thankfully, there are people who aggressively work to restore them, as close as possible, to their original state which in turn brings millions of tourist dollars to the area. History repeats itself wrapped in a different coat. The same thing is still going on in the middle east with the Americans destroying for the sake of oil then making money on 'restoring' the country. OK, off the soapbox......

We were getting cold and wet and were getting ready to head back to the hotel for a rest before the night time celebrations when there was a series of very loud bangs. They were shooting off cannons from the castle that dominates the city from its high perch on the hill. The shots reverberated through the hills and mountains and into the city. We were not sure what that was all about, and were ready to leave again, when we came face to face with a procession of historically dressed guards coming up the street, pulling a cannon. Even though we had no idea what was going on, we followed the crowd that was following the guards. They came to a nearby ancient part of the city, did some kind of presentation with the cannon, some fancy salutes with their swords, stood with great pride and pomp in the heavy snow, then it was all over. Even though we had no idea what was going on, we feel privileged to have witnessed it.

We went to a restaurant that used to be an ice house and then a beer cellar for dinner. At least now we were in a bit more control over the quantity of food, and although delicious it did not hold a candle to Michaela's family's home cooking. From there were tried to find a taxi to take us back to the old city so we could partake in the New Year's eve celebrations. The snow that was falling all day had turned to rain and there was a biting wind. We quickly decided to forgo the fireworks in favour of being dry and warm. Back at the hotel, we sat in the lobby having some wine and were content when the fireworks started. It had nearly stopped raining so we went outside to have a better look. No matter which way we looked, there were fireworks. Householders were shooting off smaller ones, hotels and businesses larger ones, and of course the biggest and best were from the castle on the hill. It was a show we are not likely to forget. Just a note: Michaela did not have one drink of alcohol the entire trip and was feeling morning sickness most of everyday. Even the most tasty morsels and sweets had her wrinkling her nose and shaking her head.

Alas, on New Year's Day we had to say farewell to Len and Michaela as they had to return to London and we had to return to Munich. Now it was my turn to experience the tears that only days before Michaela's family shed upon her farewell from them.

Hermann collected us from the train station then we went for a brief to visit his daughter and her family. It was an early night for all of us, as we had a 7:20 plane to catch to Delhi.


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