Our Whirlwind Tour of Europe

There’s an old joke about Americans’ whirlwind tours of Europe:
Son: Where are we Dad?
Dad: (Consulting itinerary) Well it’s Tuesday, so this must be France.

It’s funny. But it’s not really a joke at all. With so few vacation days, Americans tend to overdo their schedules and under-do their understanding. As a nation, we’re terrible at geography and foreign languages (including, some might say, English). So I couldn’t help but chuckle at our upcoming European road-trip: five German-speaking countries in 10 days, with notable gaps in our language (neither of us sprechen deutsch) and route planning (how exactly would we cross the Dolomites)?

Our first stop was Munich, Germany – at 6:30 a.m. The car rental process at the airport was very quick. The car packing process was not. We had too much luggage and too many kids. So we made a difficult decision and gave Kiva to the parking lot attendant. Just kidding. It took a while to get used to manual transmission again, and the hidden ‘pull the ring up to go into reverse’ gearshift provided me with a nice opportunity to embarrass myself at the DHL office (where Nori had shipped a multi-country sim card).

Nori had found a great airbnb apartment in the West End, an area that neither of us had visited previously. We probably should have taken a nap. But with only one day in Munich before we drove to Austria, the urge to explore was too great. So first we had a walk around the pleasant little neighborhood: stopping for fresh-baked pretzels (this, together with gummy bears and schnitzel, were the boys’ favorite foods of the trip), enjoying classic cocktails (Aperol Spritz, Hugo) at al fresco bars and marveling at the modern-traditional Bavarian clothing at Angermaier. After lunch, we headed downtown to walk through Marienplatz. But our real goal was the high temple of beer.

  

This was my third visit to the Hofbrauhaus. The first was during my post-college, post-break-up solo tour of Europe. (My heartache vanished shortly after arrival in Paris.) The second was when I was a young investment banker, chaperoning the management of a Detroit auto parts manufacturer on their IPO roadshow. Would my wife and kids find anything amusing about a cavernous hall filled with giant beer steins and dirndl-clad maidens? The question never crossed my mind. We were going for sure!

Thankfully, the waiters at the Hofbrauhaus have seen everything, from out-of-control stag parties to flag-waving Chinese tourist mobs. As soon as we sat down, they flung four sets of crayons and beer-themed activity books at the boys. I ordered two large apple juices for the boys, and they were served four kiddie steins of beer-colored liquid. Nori had to use both hands to drink her weiss beer and I struggled to lift my pilsner with one. The people at the adjacent tables were laughing and taking photos. We looked like one big, happy, beer-drinking family!

***
Our 3-hour journey from Munich to Großarl, Austria started and finished in heavy rain. As we drove into the little town, I could see the ‘bunny slopes’ on the right. They were already slushy, with pools of standing water. In fact, the bottom third of the mountain was mostly bare. Only a few areas still had snow, thanks to the orange snow machines staggered along the runs. The weather forecast called for three more days of rain. The skiing outlook did not look good.

The Waldhof ‘Kinderhotel’ however, was extraordinary. Typically, our arrival at hotels and restaurants generates a lot of interest and quite a few disapproving looks. But our family of six was nothing special at the Waldhof. Everything from the room to the meals to the activities was designed to keep kids entertained and happy. Yet amazingly, this hotel literally bursting with kids wasn’t a madhouse! Adults weren’t ignored either; on our first night they greeted us with local bubbly and complimentary red and white wines with dinner. Every evening there was a big buffet (cold cuts, cheeses, soups, salads), but we always had four a la carte choices for dinner.

  

Unfortunately, it was still raining the next morning. Was this going to be a total wash-out? The ski school called to inform us that they had moved the classes to the top of the mountain. So we got all four boys and their gear into the chairlift (not easy) and hoped for the best.

At the top, it was just wow, Wow, WOW. Blue skies, jagged peaks and fresh snow. The main lodge was warm, decorated with stuffed foxes and smelled of pretzels, strudels and schnitzels. Outside next to the wooden ski racks there were two little semi-enclosed beer halls. When the sun came up, they untied the stays and the canopy folded up like umbrella – instant outdoor biergarten! And on a terrace with a spectacular Alpine panorama they had put out a dozen beach chairs. It was sun and snow worship. “Let’s move here,” I begged Nori.

The ski instructors had cordoned off a little area next to the tow lift. That’s where the students practiced shuffling sideways uphill (“keep both your skis straight!”) and then snow-plowing downhill (they called it ‘making a pizza slice.’) Once a kid had demonstrated even modest braking ability, they got him straight on the tow rope and up the slope. Tai had a brief but tearful whinge about the cold (“I’m freezing! I’m freezing!”) before practicing studiously. Logan’s athleticism and fearlessness had him on the tow rope first. But our little boys – Drake and Kiva (five years old) – were struggling.

Once the boys were at the ski school, we had five hours to explore the mountain. This was my first time skiing in Europe and I loved it. The views of the Alps caused me to catch an edge and crash more than once. Nori and I loved taking mid-run breaks at the little huts that dotted the mountain: should we have a raedler (beer and Sprite), a shot of schnapps with fresh raspberries, or just a hot chocolate? And while US ski resorts are full of young punks (mostly snowboarders) wearing attention-grabbing gear and launching off everything, the scene at Großarl was all about skiing and family.

A lot of things can go wrong with a first-time skiing holiday. Some kids just don’t like skiing. Kids from hot climates can easily get sick. And, of course, kids (and adults) hurt themselves skiing all the time. Miraculously, none of that happened to us. The boys stayed healthy and they all loved skiing. Of course, getting all the boys’ gear on and off each time was exhausting. But by the third day our ‘assembly line’ was uber-efficient. Thankfully, after a few days of one-on-one instruction, Drake and Kiva were skiing too!

  

Our last day of skiing was the best. Logan won his age group in the slalom race and was ecstatic about his trophy. Tai crashed just before the finish but got up and crossed the line on one ski. But the best thing for me was skiing down the mountain with Tai, Logan and Kiva and congratulating their skiing success with Coca-Cola and candy bars at one of the huts!

***
But how to get to Bolzano, Italy from Großarl? Google Maps advised us to drive back to Salzburg and then into Germany in order to join highways that would rocket us south back through Austria and over the Brenner Pass into Italy. At just under 4 hours, that would be the quickest route. But scenery isn’t part of Google’s calculations and I hate back-tracking, so I mapped out an alternative path that I thought would deliver big mountain views.

We left Großarl at 10:00 a.m. Nine hours later, we limped into Bolzano with two carsick kids, having crossed over six Alpine passes. Even by own absurd standards, this had been an ambitious drive. But it had also been insanely beautiful, with huge mountains everywhere. We followed minor highways south through the Felbertauern Tunnel to Lienz and then headed west along the Drava Valley. It was there that we stumbled upon the Loacker Factory – our favorite wafer cookies – in Heinfels. After buying bags of hazelnut and cappuccino cream-filled goodies at their tempting retail shop, we continued west, crossing into Italy ten minutes later.

  

The Dolomites are some of the most stunning mountains in the world. And the road crossing south through the Tre Cime (Three Peaks) National Park was an amazing introduction to their rugged, castle-like beauty. We had a quick walk through the chic resort town of Cortina d’Ampezzo, and then turned west to switchback our way up and down a succession of passes (Falgarzo, Campolongo, Pordoi, Costalunga), each crowned with incredible peaks and small-scale ski resorts.

The Alto Adige/Sudtirol region of Italy doesn’t match your typical image of Tuscan farmhouses, rolling hills and cypress-flanked country roads. It’s more Sound of Music than La Dolce Vita. The people speak a mixture of Italian and German; the towns all have two names (Bolzano/Bozen); the cities have an Italian flair, but up in the mountains it’s all classic Alpine homes and barns. In fact, the region only became a part of Italy after World War I; for hundreds of years before it was part of Austria-Hungary and its predecessors.

Surrounded by mountains and wineries, Bolzano has a lot to offer visitors. But our kids were ‘passed out’ and below the legal drinking age so we had to find other attractions. We spent two hours at the nearby Castle Roncolo/Runkelstein, where the boys enjoyed touching the suits of chain-mail armor and looking at frescoes of knights jousting.

  

Then we returned to the city and visited the intriguing South Tyrol Museum of Archaeology. Almost the entire museum is dedicated to one man – Otzi, also known as “Frozen Fritz”. Fritz was murdered in the mountains near the Italy-Austria border more than 5,000 years ago and his body buried in snow and ice. The story of his discovery in 1991 and the massive (and ongoing) research to understand Fritz’ life, death and environment is riveting even for kids. “Daddy! Are these Frozen Fritz’ arrows? Did Frozen Fritz wear these pants?” The exhibits were exciting and informative, there was even a little platform that lifted the boys up so that they could see Fritz’ actual body!
***
Liechtenstein is tiny: 20 kilometers tall (north-south) by 5 kilometers wide (east-west), making it the 6th-smallest country on Earth. It’s also rich: thanks to its tax-haven status, it is the 3rd-wealthiest country on Earth on a GDP per person basis. But unlike other tiny/rich nations (Luxembourg, Singapore), Liechtenstein is wildly beautiful. It’s an Alpine shard sharing half a valley with Switzerland and half a mountain range with Austria. As we drove up from the valley floor towards our guesthouse in the slope-side village of Triesenberg, I kept gasping at the views.
What is there to do in Liechtenstein? Perhaps surprisingly, a lot. There are centuries-old castles, an excellent modern art museum, wine-tasting at the Prince of Liechtenstein winery, skiing in Malbun and hiking just about everywhere. On our first morning we drove to the southern end of the country, parked our car and walked across the bridge. At the halfway point we entered Switzerland (very briefly)! I’d been worried that the ‘Little Country with the Long Name” (copyright: me) would be an anticlimax. Instead, it was an exciting end to an extraordinary European adventure.

  

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