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Today, of course is the feast of Our Lady of Lourdes.

Two and a half years ago, we spent a few days at Lourdes, as part of our 2012 Grand Tour.

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We had just spent a few days at a gite near Montignac and the next stop would be another rental in the Pyrenees.

I didn’t know what to expect, since much of what I had read treated Lourdes with a dismissive air, describing it as “Catholic Disneyland.”

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It’s amazing to realize that Lourdes has been a pilgrimage site for a century and a half.  If you ever get a chance, read a good history of the apparition and its consequences and uses by various parties within France and the Church.  It’s really one of the most fascinating events of modern Catholicism in which every aspect of this crazy, mysterious life on God’s earth comes to bear: God’s unexpected grace and movement among us; God’s power; our receptivity; our temptation to manipulate and distort; our fears; our hopes – answered in God’s grace.  Full circle.

(Also, if you have time and the inclination, peruse Zola’s Lourdes. Yes, he has his point of view, but as an account of what 19th century pilgrimage to Lourdes was like, it’s fascinating.)

Anyway, the town of Lourdes isn’t that bad.  Yes, close to the shrine, the religious souvenir shops selling the exact same goods (always a mystery to me) are crammed in shoulder to shoulder – but that’s what you find at Assisi and Rome around St. Peter’s as well. No different, just more concentrated here. The town, as I told someone going the next year, isn’t at all picturesque – if that’s what you’re expecting, forget it.  It’s a busy, ordinary modern mid-sized French town, not a picture-book charming village tucked in the mountains.

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The view from the hotel roof, looking down on the river and the (mostly) hotels lining it. The green-lit building on the bridge was a bar, inhabited by Irish football fans – there for a match v. a Lourdes team – until *very* late.

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But then the shrine.

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I pointed out to the boys the presence of the sick and the pride of place given them.  For every Mass, every procession, every prayer service, the sick are brought in first by the volunteer attendants.  On the walkways, there are specially marked lanes for wheelchairs.  One night, we saw an older man in a wheelchair (being pushed by a young man) get so frustrated with an unaware pedestrian strolling along in the marked lane, he almost poked him with a cane, and would have if the walker hadn’t been alerted Monsieur, pour les malades by someone (er…me).

When I mentioned the place of les malades to the boys, they asked me, “Why?”  I was startled that I had to explain – well, I said, besides being simply polite and compassionate, it’s also a response to the presence of Jesus in those in need, it’s honoring that presence and obeying his command to see him there.  It’s a living expression of what Jesus said: the last shall be first – the sick and weak – like Bernadette herself –  being the last in the world’s eyes.

Les Malades.

They are first to the waters, first to the light, first to the Body because in their physical condition, we can see them, we Christ, and we can even see ourselves.  For we are all the sick, we are all weak, crippled, deaf, paralyzed, suffering, in pain, we are all dying and every one of us yearn to be whole.

And so every night at Lourdes, the darkness illuminated by our thousands of tiny lights, we walk, shuffle, stride, limp and are pushed toward that water. We go on, just as we have always done across time, everywhere  led by the One who bound Himself to this weak, suffering Flesh, awash in the womb of a mother

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This was the line to go into the grotto. Just as he got there…this fellow was turned away. Pas du chien.

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I bought the picture below at a shop well off the beaten path.  The artist made pictures like this and hand-crafted rosaries.  She said to me, “Now you can say that you bought

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There’s a little fare war going on right now from JFK and EWR to Milan.  The fares seem to apply mostly to buying two tickets (sparked by an Emirates sale), but as of this writing, you can still get over there (if you buy 2 tix, as I said) for around 450 apiece for spring travel.

Well worth it.  In fact, I’m tempted.

We were there four years ago, inspired by a similar, even more awesome sale – our tickets from New York to Milan were (wait for it) 250 apiece.  Two hundred and fifty dollars.

So yes, if you are in the NY area and can swing it – try Milan.  It’s not as heavily touristed as other Italian cities, and is a bit more of a challenge to navigate since it is not as compact.  Nor does it have a medieval or renaissance center – in fact there’s hardly any pre-19th century architecture readily seen, mostly because Milan, as the capital of Lombardy, has been the object of invasion and conquest and various other battles since Roman times.

(The Last Supper barely survived Allied bombing in World War II)

So, some photos and blog posts from that great trip.

(This is the apartment where we stayed)

The Duomo, of course.

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From the roof of the Milan Duomo

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On the Duomo roof

First blog post:

We were there for the 150th anniversary of Italian unification

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Under the duomo – where Ambrose baptized Augustine.

The natural history museum

Day trip to Stresa, on Lago Maggiore

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A Sunday afternoon in Pavia 

…and all for probably less than some people spent for a week at Disney World….

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At Castle Sforzesco – see what happens when you buy a cheap umbrella from a street vendor?

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Gelato at Castle Sforzesco at night

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Fantastic Archimboldo exhibit. A complete surprise, and the boys loved it.

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Many thanks to Lisa Hendey for the opportunity to talk about one of my favorite subjects: travel.  You can read the interview here.

There was a question in the interview that I didn’t answer over there:

Have you ever had any travel “disasters?”

I told Lisa that yes, there was something, and it was an incident I’d been intending to blog about since it happened, but I kept forgetting, and then waiting for the right opportunity again, and then forgetting…but now’s my chance!

So..yes.  There has been one real disaster – only one so far, and while what happened wasn’t as bad as being stranded in an airport for three days or suffering an accident or serious illness far from home, it was traumatic enough. And potentially far worse than it was.

So, yes, it was actually one of the worst moments..of..my life. Second worst, I’d say. Yup. That bad. So here you go….

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In the Pyrenees

Two and a half years ago, the boys and I had the amazing experience of spending three months in Europe.  If you were reading me back then you know that the course of our journey took us to France for two months – we spend most of September in western France, around Montignac, in Lourdes and then Provence, and then October was Paris.

We left Paris in early November, the plan being to spend most of that month in Italy, and then heading back home after Thanksgiving.

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Doing what they do – run – in Lausanne. In front of the Olympic Museum (which was closed)

After a few days in Lausanne, Switzerland (the only place in Europe I experienced sticker shock – expensive!) , we took the train to Padua, which was the first stage of the Italian segment.  Padua for almost a week, then Assisi for a few days, then finally Rome for two weeks.

It was to be an all-day train ride from Lausanne to Padua, via Milan.  There were several stops, the longest being Milan.

It was a lovely trip, first through the Alps, then to northern Italy, and onto Padua.  We looked out the windows, ate snacks, read, and some of us were probably praying our mother never hauled us to Europe during (American) football season again.

And…here we go!  Padua!  St. Anthony, here we come!

I should mention that of course, we were traveling with all of our luggage.  I’m committed to packing light, and  I had already sent some of our stuff back to the States with a friend from Birmingham who had spent a week with us in Paris, but still…we each had a suitcase, plus a backpack.  And remember, the boys were two years younger then – Michael was seven and Joseph, twelve.  My point being that getting these suitcases in and out of trains without letting gravity pull an overloaded child determined that I CAN DO IT MYSELF under the tracks was…a challenge that required speed, negotiation skills, and balance.

As we pulled into the station, I knew that we would only have a couple of minutes, since trains don’t spend much time at all on these stops. I also didn’t want anyone – especially Michael – to take a tumble as they struggled with luggage.

So I told them, as we gathered near the door, that what I wanted them to do was get off, stand on the platform and take the suitcases as I handed them down to them. Sounds good.

The train stopped.  The door slid open.  The boys got out. I handed one suitcase down.  Check.  I reached for the other.

The doors shut.

There was some sort of green button next to the door.  I pushed it.  Then punched it.

The train started to move.

I punched and started shouting. I tried to will the doors back open.

The train sped up.  As trains do.

And the last thing I saw as we slipped away, doors shut tight, was Joseph on the platform, arms outstretched, trying to run but being held back by someone, crying out, “MOM!”

Even now, thinking about that moment, tears come to my eyes, even though I (and you) know it all turned out fine.

But at that moment, I was as frantic and panicked as I’d ever been in my life.  I raced up and down the train cars, looking for someone – anyone who was in a uniform.  Finally, I found one, but he spoke no English, and neither did his colleague, but it didn’t take long for him to grasp my point:  Bambini – in Padua!

What to do?

The next stop was Mestre, the first Venice station, and so of course, what I would do is just get off (with the damn suitcases), and find a train right back.  I was confident that the boys knew what to do – to stay put, because we had talked about it often in Paris in relation to the Metro, which could be crazy crowded, with plenty of times we were squeezed on at the last minute before the doors shut.

What do you do if you all get on the train, and I don’t?

We get off at the next stop and wait for you.

What do you do if I get on the train, but you get left behind?

We stay where we are and wait for you.

So I knew they’d stay there. Well, that’s comforting. They’ll stay! In Padua! Italy! By themselves!

Finally – finally  – the train employee reached the Padua station by telephone and ascertained that the boys were safe – they had been taken to the police office at the train station and would, of course, wait until my return.

As I said, it was a barely-thirty minute ride to Venice, but those were certainly the longest thirty minutes of my life.  Our trip had gone so well, and had been such a rich experience, but now, every doubt I’d had about me taking these two kids to Europe by myself returned and echoed with added embellishments of guilt about my  carelessness.

As we pulled into Mestre, an older man who, with his wife, had boarded in Milan and had been seated across from us and seen all of it happen, approached  and offered to help me find the return train to Padua.  So grateful, of course I said yes, and together, we pulled those two remaining suitcases out of the train and found the platform for a Padua train that would, thank goodness, be coming in only a matter of minutes.  We got to that platform, I thanked him profusely, but before he left, he glanced around, found a woman of about my age, and explained to her (in Italian) what had happened.  All I could understand was bambini and his dramatic re-enactment of “Mama! Mama!” But that was enough, and he handed me over.

Another excruciating thirty minutes, attempting to converse with the sweet woman who’d been appointed my guardian, when finally I was back in Padua.  Off the train, to the police offices…and there they were.  Mi bambini.

Oh, my.

I am so, so sorry.  So, so sorry. 

The officers were quite kind as they took my information and made copies of our passports.  The boys said that some bystanders had been under the impression that they were supposed to be going to Venice and asked if they wanted to take the next train, but they knew better, and said, “No, our Mom will be coming back. We know it.”

As we got the taxi to our apartment, Michael – who was naturally far more frightened by the experience than Joseph – muttered, “I’m never riding a train again.”

I told him, as nicely as I could that I totally understood, but we certainly weren’t going to be walking to Assisi, and the whole thing was totally my fault and it wasn’t going to happen again.  I promise. I’d learned my lesson, and from now on, we’d do as I finally woke up and observed the Europeans doing – crowding at the train door, luggage in hand, ready to jump out as soon as they open, and not taking any time to gather anything, because there isn’t.  Time.

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The street in Padua where our apartment was located.

We finally got to our apartment, after I’d called the owner from the police offices to tell her that we would be late meeting her.  As we settled in and I told the owner the story of why we were late, she gasped and shook her head and murmured at intervals, “Mama Mia.. Mama Mia.” And I remember thinking amid the remnants of my breathless panic, Huh. They really do say that.

Sometimes I think back on that horrid hour of our lives and think, It really wasn’t that bad.  They were immediately taken care of by the authorities.  It was fine. 

But then I think again…what if someone evil had been there and taken advantage of the situation, and offered…

And I can’t think anymore.  It’s too terrible. I can’t fool myself.  It could have been much, much worse, and thank God and Saint Anthony and all the good people there that it wasn’t.

Coda:

A few days later, we were leaving Padua. Michael had accepted the facts of life and was okay with the train – considering he’d ridden it twice to Venice during our week, that wasn’t surprising.

But our departure and final visit to the Padua station wasn’t drama-free, either.

As we were checking out that day, a big protest parade marched passed our apartment.  The owner shrugged and said, "amy welborn"“Students.  We protested back in our day, now they do.” No big deal.

Right?

Well, it turned out to be sort of a big deal.  The protests built as our taxi made its way to the station, and by the time we arrived it was a mess, for the plaza in front of the station was the final destination of the protest, the police had gathered and the students were approaching.  They’d closed off the front of the station. I looked at the driver, he shrugged helplessly, and so we got out anyway.  With, of course, our suitcases.

A bystander warned us that we should probably get away – “The students are going to start running, probably, and there will be tear gas,” he said.

(There were, in fact, injuries.  The protests were one of the many anti-austerity protests around Europe that fall.  As this news article relates, there were two policeman injured by firecrackers – which we heard.)

But we couldn’t enter the station….the doors were locked, and the police stood guard…or could we?

I watched to see what other people were doing, and it seemed pretty clear to me that there must be a back entrance, for I saw a steady stream heading down a side street away and back towards the station.  I have to wonder why our taxi driver didn’t just  take us there for indeed, as we found out after a ten minute walk, there was a back entrance, and it was open and inside, everything was quiet and calm.

Almost there. Almost.

I set the boys at a table at the doorway of a grocery store in the station and I dashed in to get snacks and drinks.  When I returned five minutes later, their eyes were wide with excitement.

“Mom! We saw someone GET ARRESTED! And it was the same police lady who helped us the other day!”

Ciao, Padua!

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Shrine of St. Anthony, Padua

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Seriously – loved Padua, despite a rough beginning and weird end.

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Time flies so quickly, doesn’t it?  Two weeks ago, I was getting ready for us to travel to Germany.  A week ago, I was in Germany, getting ready to leave, and now, here I am.

Traveling – hours and hours on the plane, the stress of making connections – gives us plenty to complain about, but I confess when I am in the midst of it, I try hard not to do so.  I’m still so bowled over by the reality of waking up on one side of the ocean and going to sleep on the other that in my soul, I really don’t think I have the right to complain (much) about an inconvenience here or there.

(And there were a couple…the lesson is, I suppose, with all of these code-shared flights now, just make sure, if there are changes made, that they are made across the board. What happened, in short, was that a couple of weeks before we left, I noticed that our final Atlanta-Birmingham leg had been changed.What? Why? I don’t know, but it had been changed so that we would be sitting in the Atlanta airport for SIX HOURS waiting to connect to come home. The original flight still existed and there were seats, but we weren’t on it anymore. Weird. . So I called Air France – which was where the communication on which I’d noted this change had come from – and it was changed back.  The customer service rep had no idea why my original reservation had been changed, and worked hard to fix it. All was well until we arrived at the Munich airport last Sunday.  I guess…we weren’t on the plane.  We were but we weren’t? I never really understood. For a few minutes it was iffy, but I wasn’t worried because, well, I knew we’d get home eventually, and if it was later…oh well.  I was curious as to why it happened though, and the explanation I got was that since the change had been made with Air France, it hadn’t gotten into the Delta or KLM system. That seems….odd. What are you supposed to do, call all three every time you need to make a change? Anyway, it worked out, and we got home just fine.)

Random notes:

  • The weather was great.  I had anticipated being frozen, and indeed, had inquired of a skiing friend here  about the possibility of borrowing some of her outerwear.  I’m glad I didn’t end up doing so, for in the end, what we had was more than adequate.  I stepped off the train in Garmisch, expecting to shiver, but the fact was, I had to take my coat off.  Immediately. The highs were in the 50’s every day we were there except for the last one, it never rained, – and yes, we froze in Munich, but again…we were in Munich!  And we could go inside when we needed to! No complaints.
  • I have never been a fan of German food.  I don’t hate it, but nor do I love it, and I wasn’t particularly looking forward to the food part of the trip, and, as usual, I wondered how the boys would deal.  Well, I should have remembered that every country seems to have its version of the “pounded, breaded and fried cutlet” so yes, it was Schnitzel almost every meal for them, and that was fine.  For our sit-down dinners, I ended up with an excellent pork roast once, a great salad one night and that lovely Turkish meal.  The other nights we ended up snacking on cured meats and cheeses, for the most part.  I had a good goulash soup for lunch in Oberammergau and for our first meal, my daughter took us to her favorite doner kebab shop in Garmisch.  At other meals, the boys had brats or pizza.  But seriously – schnitzel in Germany, chicken Milanese in Italy….they even unearthed it on a menu in this seafood place in Progreso, Mexico earlier this year – and loved it so much, they ordered seconds. (That was a crazy meal.  It was the best food we had in Mexico, and it was fantastic, and it was a lot, and I paid 14 bucks for it all.)
  • I have no background in the German language at all, and was mildly irritated by the fact that I couldn’t look at signs and such and sort out the meaning, as I generally can with Romance languages.  It’s just a whole lot of consonants to me.  Oh, I know, it makes sense.  Someone explained the logic of German to me – words are just added to in order to make new words? Or something?  I will say, though, that all those amusing videos about the purported harshness of German seem to me to be rather unfair now –  hearing it spoken all around me for a week, it came across as much gentler than I expected.
  • All the public transportation ran like clockwork.  We rode buses all around Garmisch – had a free traveler’s pass – and trains from Munich and back, and a train to Innsbruck. My daughter says it’s so prompt that if a bus or train is, by some chance, late, she gets worried that someone died.

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Well, we’re back, and already super busy, so a quick wrap-up.

Saturday morning, we all (including my daughter) took the train up to Munich.  We’d be flying out on Sunday morning, she’d go back to her home in the south at the same time.

We arrived in Munich about 10:30, found our hotel, checked our bags, and set out into the very cold Munich morning. That day was the coldest we’d experienced – including our time on the Zugspitze, it felt at times. I didn’t have big plans for the day, which is good, since it was so cold, our program  quickly evolved into: Walk in one direction, duck into a warm place, venture out again, walk…find warmth. Now. 

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What did we see?  The lovely architecture of the very clean city of Munich. Mobs of people.  By early evening, the streets were more crowded and challenging to navigate than Times Square.

The New Town Hall – with the glockenspiel wedding feast revolving at noon, and then carolers at 5:30.

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Christkindl markets everywhere. More sausages, schnitzel and gluhwein.

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The Medieval Market:

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We eventually found our way to the Alte Pinkothek Museum, much of which was under renovation, but the open sections of which had some wonderful works of late Medieval and Renaissance art. It was warm, too.

The major task after that was to find Mass.  We would be leaving too early in the morning to go on Sunday, and I really didn’t want to wait until Birmingham at 6pm to go. I had attempted to find Saturday evening Masses in Munich before we left, but without real conviction, since I didn’t know the city and didn’t know where we’d be in the early evening.  I just rested my hopes on the fact that there are lots of Catholic churches in Munich, and the odds are that we’d be near one or two of them around 5 or 6 o’clock.

And we were – St. Peter’s Church, the oldest parish in Munich. 

Mass celebrated ad orientem, Communion at the altar rail – some received kneeling, others standing.  The music was marvelous.  A male schola sang, mostly a cappella. There was little chant and no Latin, but the music was solid, substantive German liturgical music. It just shows, I supposed, what “inculturation” can mean when there’s, you know, an actual culture to build on.

We got some pizza for the boys, and then headed back to the hotel.  My daughter and I would eat at the Thai restaurant I said I’d seen across the street from the hotel. What? No German food? Well….I’d been eating German food all week.  My daughter lives in Germany. I figured she’d appreciate a change, and she agreed.

Trouble was….it wasn’t a Thai restaurant I’d seen.  It was a Thai grocery.  

So now, at 8:40 pm, we are faced with the task of finding an open restaurant outside the city center. Not as easy as it sounds in Munich.  We walked down one street, then another, found a couple of Italian restaurants which didn’t interest us, passed another small Christkindl market, saw a McDonald’s in the distance, shuddered, and then, in the nick of time, found a tiny little Turkish restaurant called TuDoRa…and it was great. 

Marvelous server. Other customers who greeted each other warmly with hugs and great shouts of joy. A fellow who picked the lute on display off the wall and started to play.

The menu was in Turkish, so I asked the waitress to recommend something.  She asked me if I preferred meat or vegetables, and I said the latter,so she brought me a lovely plate of grilled and wrapped things, brought my daughter falafel,and it was all quite wonderful – one of the best meals I had in Germany.

…..

We got ourselves up the next morning, arrived at the airport in plenty of time, took off at 9:45 am (Munich time), and were in Atlanta by 2 (Eastern) where we watched a drug dog at the Atlanta baggage claim dig into a wrapped-up box owned by a man who looked like a cross between Owen Wilson and Dolph Lungren and who told the agent that the box contained what everyone brings from Munich – herbal tea bags and whole chili peppers.

And then back in Alabama by 4, where we were driven home by a taxi driver with an 18-inch monitor propped up in the front passenger seat, on which he was watching the NFL.  While driving.

Welcome home!

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The main activity of the day was a hike through, above and down around the Partnach Gorge. 

First, we rode the bus to the Olympic ski stadium  – Garmisch-Partenkirchen.  Hitler forced the two towns to consolidate in order to strengthen his bid to host the 1936 Winter Olympics in the area – there weren’t enough hotel rooms in either one alone. It worked.  The town was to host the 1940 Games as well, but of course starting World War II ended that idea.

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You walk around to the right, and start walking up a road/path. Past goats.

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Past this.

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By then, you’re walking by flowing water, and before too long you arrive at a ticket booth, where you pay a few Euros, and start walking through the gorge, which gets deeper (or higher) as you go on.  It’s quite something, and I’d also love to see it in the winter.

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Most people get through and then retrace their steps, but at my daughter’s advice, we took a rather strenuous twenty-minute hike up the mountain, where we stopped, had a snack at the restaurant up top, saw the hotel that’s being constructed, and then started back down another way that took us across the Gorge this time.

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This picture cannot in any way do the height justice.  I’m usually pretty okay with heights, but this was a little….high.

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Can’t capture the scale from this angle and with my camera.

And then back down, back past the goats, then back here to shop, pack up, eat, pack up some more, and get ready…..

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Waiting for the bus at the Ski Stadium.

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Today was Innsbruck day.  My daughter was working, and she’s already been once, so it was good day for us to go.

We originally thought we’d take the bus.  Daughter said it was cheap, faster than the train and there was free wi-fi.  But when I finally got around to looking up tickets, the soonest we could leave was noon.  It turned out that the train, while a little longer (about 80 minutes) was just a euro more expensive total, round trip for us.

So, after returning the rental car…

(what preceded returning said rental car? Well….getting car out of the overnight parking lot under a grocery store down the street, taking daughter to her workplace/residence, remembering…”OH! GAS!”…finding a gas station, figuring out the pump and what kind of gas, filling up, returning the car, walking back to the apartment, grabbing breakfast pastries….all by 9 am)

….we walked to the train station, bought tickets, found our train at the platform, and settled in.

So what to do in Innsbruck?

Yes, there are a few things to do – there are historic sites, nice churches, Olympics things (although the ski jump is closed for the season…not that we’d jump, but I guess you can go see it and maybe there’s a museum) and an Old Town section…the first thing on our docket was…

…the zoo.

I’d read about it last night, but not mentally committed to it until we pulled into Innsbruck.  I’d not mentioned it to anyone, either, until someone finally asked, “Hey.  What are we going to do in Innsbruck, anyway?”

So yes, there’s the difference between traveling with kids and without.  I just felt, at that moment, for that afternoon, the leg-stretching and freedom afforded by a zoo visit was important.

It’s the Alpenzoo, and it’s fairly interesting, the population being composed only of Alpine animals.  Plus, it’s built on the side of a mountain, lending not only authenticity, but…exercise.

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The views were spectacular.

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The structure to the left-center – the large cobra-like thing? The Olympic ski jump (1964 & 1976)

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You can get there any number of ways. It’s not far from the city, so you can certainly walk it, especially in this part of the world where people out for an evening stroll do so with walking sticks in hand. You can take the bus, but you can also take the funicular – so we did.

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The funicular station as seen from the zoo entrance.

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The funicular descending.

(The funicular continues up to the top of this mountain, and we considered doing that, but by the time we finished at the zoo, it was 3pm, we’d already done the Zugspitze anyway, so…nah.)

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(Not shown: a lynx up in a tree, wolves, a bear, beavers, bison, otters, various other mountain goat creatures and lots of birds, newts, salamanders and such. Marmosets were hibernating.)

For the rest of our time, we strolled around the Christkindl Markets – Innsbruck has several, spread through the Old Town. The boys ate schnitzel, I had a cup of guhlwein, we walked.

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I was intrigued by the juxtaposition of imagery…the Blessed Virgin , a steak house and Geox…

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Part of the town was decorated with these rather odd, sometimes creepy and crudely-made fairy and folk-tale reliefs.  Along with light projections.

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It’s a great atmosphere, although about 99% secular. I also learned that my expectations of finding unique hand-made items at a Christmas market were, at least in this case…way off.

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But if I was looking for a cannoli-like thing almost as big as my head…they had me covered.

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