Eighth Email- Christmas break begins...Skiing in Kirchberg

Sent 10.1.06


Happy 2006 to everyone! It has been a while since I last wrote, but I will be at no shortage of words the next few days. I had an awesome time over Christmas break travelling through Austria and Southern Germany, and brought a ton of memories and pictures back with me to Ireland. It was definitely one of the best trips I've ever taken. I plan on trying to talk about most of it, and post plenty of pictures to go along with the story. However, because I don't want to write a novel, I will probably break up the trip into a few separate emails, hopefully finishing them on a somewhat regular basis.

This seems so long ago to me, but I should obviously start from the beginning of the vacation. 24 hours before my flight from Dublin to Salzburg, I still had a paper to write and an exam to continue studying for. It was also a night where a few of my friends I've made were leaving for good. Even the next day was weird for me; I felt like I was leaving for a while but I would come back to Dublin and see a lot of the same faces. However, more than 30 kids from ND are no longer here along with several other friends I've made in the past semester. This thought struck me that night as I was working on my paper before leaving. It will be weird tomorrow when the new ND kids arrive in Dublin and I am the 'knowledgeable one' on all things Dublin.

So I finished the paper in time, and got a little studying in for my exam which was at 9 am. Of course, this didn't leave much time for sleep, so it had been a long night. However, the paper came together very nicely, and the exam seemed quite easy to me, there is even the possibility I didn't get a single question wrong. Not bad for pulling an all-nighter. I still had to pack my bag after I finished the exam, which is no small feat. Not only did I have to pack for 3 weeks, I also had to bring enough warm clothes and layers for skiing, while still having clothes for the rest of the trip. I also had to stuff a towel and some linens in there, since I don't enjoy paying for these at the youth hostels. I managed to fit everything quite nicely. I then headed off to the airport, where it was already getting dark at my 4 pm departure time.

Once I arrived in Salzburg, I had to make a train connection to get to Kirchberg, where I was staying for six days to ski. I'll explain this a bit more later. I had about an hour to get from the airport (Flughafen) to the train station (Bahnhof). Keep these factors in mind: I'm in a German speaking country and I can't speak a word, and it's dark. I managed to find the bus stop and get a ticket which got me to the train station, and there I bought a ticket to get to Kirchberg, with about 10 minutes to spare. It was nice to be back in a country that drives on the right, although I had gotten quite used to Ireland's wrong-side driving. It was also nice to see snow on the ground. I highly doubt Christmas in Dublin would have been white.

I'll try to quickly summarize this whole ski trip plan. There are a group of ND kids that study in Innsbruck, Austria. Every year for like the past 28 years, a group of ND students has descended upon this same hotel in Kirchberg. Up until 5 years ago, it was actually sanctioned by ND, but apparently liability made that a problem, so now it is organized by the kids studying in Innsbruck. I had heard about this trip from a friend who studied in Innsbruck 2 years ago, so I was looking forward to this throughout the fall semester. It is hard to beat being in the Alps for 6 days and skiing as much as you want.

So I eventually change trains and make my way to this ski village of Kirchberg. I am arriving at around 10:45 pm, so not a whole lot was happening in town. I started walking into the city centre to find a cab to get me where I needed to go. I told him the name of the hotel, and we proceeded to drive out of the town, down a road...and then turned onto a little mountain road completely covered in snow, and quite steep. The cab driver used the fishtailing van to his advantage to make his way up the mountain, and we soon arrived at the hotel. The cabs all charged flat rates by the destination, whether there is 1 person or 6. So I had to pay a nice €17 to get up to the hotel, but there wasn't a whole lot else I could do, besides walk in the middle of the night to a place I had no idea how to get to.

So I pay the fare, get my bag, and the cab pulls away. I go to open the hotel door, and...hmmm, it's locked. I figure it's late, so this isn't that weird, and maybe there is another door open somewhere. I don't find anything that looks better, so I come back and call the phone number on the door with my mobile. I hear it ringing inside, and eventually someone picks up and answers in German. Also expected, so I try to speak really slow English, saying something like "I am outside your door". And then I get hung up on. Great, I'm standing here on a mountain, locked out of my hotel.

I did notice when I was walking around the lights on in one second-floor room and voices coming from it. I listen a bit closer and it sure sounds like English to me. It has to be the group from ND. I get the ingenious idea to take advantage of the good packing snow surrounding me, and put together a good snowball. I only missed on the first try by a foot or so. Try number 5 was a success, hitting the glass on the window and making a loud enough noise that they heard it. I heard some clear English words saying something like "What the f*** was that", so at this point, I was fairly sure they spoke English. One of the people inside, Phil, came out on the balcony and started trying to talk to me in German. I just asked if he was from the ND group, and he responds in German and then says in English, "We can't let you in". Phil was ironically wearing an ND sweatshirt. Katie, the trips organizer, soon came out on the balcony and knew I was supposed to arrive that night, and she came down and let me in.

The group consisted of 8 people at this point, 9 if you include me. We had a good night just talking to each other, because most of us had never met. 4 people were there from the Innsbruck program, 3 from the Angers, France program, 1 from Athens, Greece, and me from Dublin. It was a really cool night of just hanging out with new people and drinking some nice Austrian beer. We ended up staying up pretty late because we had all just lost track of time. Once I was headed to bed, I realized that I had been awake without more than a 20 minute nap for almost 44 hours.

The next day I woke up to a good breakfast at the hotel, which was included for every day we were there. A group of us shared a cab and went down to get ski rentals after eating. The rental was an absolutely great deal: €54 for 6 days. That is $10 a day for a really good pair of skis, boots, and poles. We then decided to head out to the slopes. The lifts all close at 3:45 pm because it gets dark early in the mountains. However, we just wanted to get some skiing in because it was a beautiful day. The skiing was awesome. I hadn't done it in 2 years, but I was able to do just fine on the slopes and had a great day. I wanted to take complete advantage of skiing the next day, so I got up at 8 am so I could be on the lifts by 9 am.

Did I mention our hotel was only 100 metres or so from the ski slope? We could walk out the door with our skis, step on the slope, and ski down to the lift. At the end of the day, I could ski down the hill to our hotel, onto the snow-covered street, and finish right at the door. The run right by the hotel was a blue, or "easy" run. The colours go blue, red, and black, corresponding to easy, intermediate, and difficult. Let's just say the definition of a blue in the Alps covers a lot; for those of you from Grand Rapids, The Face at Cannonsburg would probably fit into the blue category. On the day I got up at 9 am, we started skiing on blue runs, but eventually moved on to some reds which were awesome. By the third day, I decided it was time to head to a black run and give it a shot. It was awesome. I'm never going to be able to ski at Cannonsburg again or for that matter, pretty much anywhere in Michigan.

Some of the runs here lasted over 10 minutes or more of straight skiing, and it's not just a gentle downhill slope. Many of them are quite challenging, and I have no idea how someone could learn to ski here. There are 56 ski lifts that your pass allows you to take, and I didn't even come close to touching most of these. I did cover a fair amount of runs, and it was hard to get bored as you could always go somewhere else to ski. The crowds were non-existent, even on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day, two of the busier days. You never waited more than 30 seconds to get on a ski lift. You could also ski pretty much every hill how you wanted to without worrying about running into other people or having big groups just sitting in the middle of the hill.

I skied most of the week with Stephanie from the Angers, France program. She is a sophomore; some of the other ND programs including Angers and Innsbruck tend to be more sophomores than juniors. She was right at my skill level, so both of us would keep pushing each other to try harder hills. It was a lot of fun, because I didn't want to be skiing in the Alps but not ski harder slopes because my partner couldn't or wouldn't.

During the 6 days in Kirchberg, the whole group (which eventually reached about 25 people) took a day trip to Salzburg. As I spent another day there later in my trip, I will talk about the daytrip when I send out that email. Another thing we did was take a horse-drawn sleigh ride in the mountain valley. It was really enjoyable although a bit cold, and before we did the return journey we stopped in a pub and had some Glühwein (pronounced glue-vine). This is a relatively sweet wine that is heated to near boiling. It really does the job in warming you up, and the return journey didn't feel quite as cold. During the ride we did have really think blankets covering us, so really only the feet got cold. The ride was a good way to talk to more people from the group and get to know them.

Another happening during the 6 days was the midnight Christmas Eve mass. This is done in most Austrian towns, to 'ring in' Christmas Day. The mass was at the Kirchberg church, and was done in German. Most older churches in Europe are not heated, and this was one of them. It wasn't quite as cold as outside, but it was cold enough that everyone inside kept their coats on and some were more bundled up in hats and gloves. It was interesting to hear a mass all in German.

It was sad to leave Kirchberg, because skiing was so enjoyable and I had just met so many of the people for the first time. However, I still had a lot of time to see and do things in Austria and Southern Germany. I should say at this point that I had decided to go to Salzburg for a night and Vienna for two. However, I really didn't plan the whole trip in advance like some people do; it was more just go where I want to go and leave when I've seen everything I want to.

I'll try to keep these emails coming every two days until I finish the trip, which shouldn't be too hard to do.

Keep in touch,

Dan McGee

Mobile: +353 87 056 4163