Grüsse aus Österreich

Greetings from Austria. Posting has been light on the blog, and now I am on vacation visiting my wife’s family in Europe (*). I had prepared a few photos of Kauai to post remotely, but I haven’t even gotten around to those yet. But a friend on Kauai said he wanted to see my pictures of Austria anyway, so here you are. I’m going to spare you the details about the strange toilets and the cool little cars and stick to what I know, the great outdoors.

Toto, I don’t think we’re in Kaua’i anymore, and it doesn’t look like Kansas either. This is the flat land around Vienna:

I love the landscape of Europe, where in most cases, houses are still clustered into towns, the fields in between are still farmed by local farmers with a variety of crops, and patches of forest remain, harvested for wood and accessible for hiking and biking.

Springtime is a great season to visit, there are flowers everywhere. This is the little town where my wife grew up and where her parents and many of her friends still live. Those are solar panels near the church, they date back to the 1980’s when the town installed a lot of solar demonstration projects. Like most of Europe, the town is an odd mix of old and new, sometimes it looks good, sometimes it doesn’t.

Not all people live in villages, the countryside is dotted with small hamlets and houses. I thought the new houses were built by city dwellers moving to the nearby countryside, but my wife assures me they belong to the well-to-do farmers and their families who work the adjacent land. One detail I noticed is that they’re always by a country lane, not in big fenced-off yards or private estates. This photo shows a Maypole which the local volunteer fireman of each town erect and decorate as a sort of fundraiser.

In between all the fields, forests, and farmhouses, there is a network of country lanes, dirt roads and forest paths that are ideal for biking. One day, I went for a 15-mile ride with my 80-year old father-in-law and I think we saw more hikers and bikers than cars. And with only one exception, every paved road, no matter how small, is in such great shape you could rollerblade on it.

And in between the villages and farmhouses, there are roadside shrines and chapels. Austria used to be a very Catholic country, and my theory is that the religion took some of the edge off the Germanic culture, in a good way. Nowadays, like all over Europe, the churches are mostly filled with older people.
Because it is springtime, everthing is green here. Not the deep, lush green of Kaua’i’s North Shore, but the exuberant green of new leaves in the bright sun. The hillsides are filled with yellow and white flowers, but I must confess, I didn’t hear the sound of music anywhere.
Actually some of the green hilly pastures remind me of the beautiful backroads on Kauai, specifically that little green valley you go through on Kainahola road between Kawaihau and Hauiki roads, inland of Kapaa.
Here in south-eastern Austria, near the city of Graz, these are the foothills of the Alps, and from the hilltops you can see the higher mountains to the north. Even though I’m not an islander by birth and I’ve lived in the mountains before, I was still surprised to not see the ocean and instead see the rolling land extend out to the horizon.
One day, we drove to the mountains, up to about 3500 feet, about the same altitude as Kokee. From there we could see the real mountains even further north and still covered in snow. This picuture shows a traditional wooden farmhouse and the lower hills back to the south.

Like the biking trails, there are countless hiking trails throughout the country. Many of these are networked into cross-country routes with clear signage all along the way. Up in the high mountains, you can hike from hut to hut, where you get a warm meal and a soft bunk bed every night. Here in the lowlands, you hike between inns and guest-houses, and even if you’re just day-hiking, it seems like there’s a outdoor café or restaurant at the end of every hike.

We went for a hike in a small gorge carved through some layers of limestone by a stream coming down from the nearby mountains. Behind me, you can see the trail marker painted on the rock, three stripes of red, white, and red that mimic the Austrian flag.

You almost never have to ford a river on these trails, and indeed there were several bridges to cross the stream whenever it was impossible to continue on one side. I heard the bridges were washed out in a flood 3 years ago and rebuilt the same year. This year a windstorm knocked down hundreds of trees less than 3 months ago, and the trail was already cleared by chain-sawing the trunks or rerouting the trail around them.

Somehow, this photo sums up many of the small details I liked about Austria: along one section of this cross-country trail, at a junction deep in a scenic ravine, the sign on the left clearly maps out a side trail up to a hamlet, while the sign on the right invites the hiker to eat at the small restaurant there, “only 45 minutes away.” Further up the side trail, another sign for the same restaurant advertises the menu.

I know I’ve made a lot of comparisons that sound unfavorable to “how they do things back home” on Kaua’i, but it’s hard not to like Austria, and as a visitor I only see the good things. I know from my in-laws that people here have to work hard to preserve what they’ve got, and from what I can read in the newspapers, politics here are like politics everywhere.

(*) True story: when I met my future wife in California, she always used to send mail home addressed as “Austria/Europe.” I have never had any post office anywhere mess up my mail in any way, so I thought she was being obtuse. But she said that she started writing addresses that way when a birthday card she had sent arrived a month late and postmarked through Australia.

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