Zell am See

This is a link to the most photos yet, and believe it or not, there were tons more I didn't even include: https://photos.app.goo.gl/9KWe2QBmKBXtZe318

It wasn't long after returning from Copenhagen that we began planning for another trip. Before we set out on our fall break adventures, we had some important appointments in the last week of September. Firstly, we had to officially register our address as citizens of Rostock, which went smoothly, thanks to the help of one of the English teachers, Ireen. More excitingly for me, officially being a citizen of Rostock allowed me to go get my library card—the only official status I really needed, after all. This also meant that I could finally set up a German bank account through which I will eventually be paid. Hopefully…someday…some bureaucracy and miscommunication means I haven't actually gotten paid yet, but I have faith it will happen soon.

Happy bookworm
I was as thrilled to be a member of the library behind me as I look

Adam was recovering from a little cold he had picked up in Copenhagen (and yes, it was just a cold—we got him tested just to be safe. It turns out masks protect you from more than just COVID!) so we didn't head for Hamburg till Saturday. By then he was feeling much better, and we boarded the train for the first leg of the long journey south to Austria.

We were headed to Maggie's house—another Fulbrighter who happens to be friends with my cousin Ian, and a big hiker and general adventure-seeker. Who better to plan a trip to the Alps with? We were anticipating a nice afternoon of exploring Hamburg before getting to bed early so we could wake up at 3:30 the next morning, in order to walk back to the train station and be on board our early morning express train towards Zell am See, our final alpine destination. But alas, things did not go as planned.

Adam and I were half an hour from Lübeck, which is about halfway to Hamburg, when there was an announcement that there had been an accident on the tracks ahead (I think I heard something about animals on the tracks?) the train couldn't go onwards and we all had to get off. We were in Herrnburg, which I overheard a fellow passenger call "irgendwo im niergendwo" which is the German equivalent of the middle of nowhere. We were told there would be a special bus coming to take us the rest of the way to Lübeck, or else we could take the regular city bus. So we followed the herd toward the bus stop, dubious as to how an entire trainload of people would fit onto a single bus…

Train to bus kerfuffle
So many passengers, and no transportation

It turned out we didn't need to answer that question for quite a while, since it was nearly an hour before a bus of any kind showed up. In the meantime we looked up what a taxi to Lübeck Hauptbahnhof (and our next train connection to Hamburg) would be, but when we discovered it would cost more than the entire train ride from Rostock to Hamburg, we just couldn't do it. So we sat back to wait with everyone else. There were kids running around playing tag, people breaking out the snacks, and someone even had some speakers, which provoked a mini dance party, so it wasn't all bad.

Eventually a city bus came, and since there had been no sign of our promised special bus, we all pretty much decided to go for it and cram ourselves onto the (mercifully empty) bus. The dance partiers and the families with strollers decided they would wait it out, after there were already nearly 100 of us jammed into the double length bus.

At one point during the ride I was standing on one foot, with my backpack under me, wedged between Adam and the seat next to me, trying not to fall over… I always find it interesting how social rules bend in those kinds of situations. Normally, Germans are not the type to strike up conversations with strangers on public transportation, but all of that pretty much goes out the window when you are "packed in cheek-to-jowl" as my grandma would put it. The driver announced that we all had to have valid train tickets to Lübeck, and there was a chorus of "Yep, we have them!" echoing through the bus. The woman next to me just rolled her eyes and said "What, is he going to check?" which did make me laugh—we could all barely manage to turn around; so the idea of anyone trying to walk the length of the bus checking tickets really was comical, and would probably have started a minor revolt if it had been attempted.

The driver promised us he wouldn't be doing his normal route, since no one else could fit on the bus anyway. But somehow wasn't what happened, and we did indeed pull over every block or so only to open the doors to some shocked commuters asking "What's going on?" A few brave souls did try to push their way aboard, which caused a fair bit of grumbling (at some point there really is just no more room.) We eventually made it to Lübeck Hauptbahnhof (having been instructed to get off and get on a slightly less packed bus at a certain point) where we were able to catch the next train to Hamburg without any more issues.

After navigating to her apartment in an already dark Hamburg, we had a low-key dinner at a Thai place in Maggie's neighborhood. We got to know each other a bit, discussing favorite books and figuring out how she had met Ian (the climbing gym, where else?) before heading to bed. Or "heading to floor" in our case—Adam was gallant enough to let me sleep on her one sleeping pad.

When we woke up it could hardly be called morning, but we dragged ourselves and our minimal luggage to the station. We arrived at the Hauptbahnhof well before the sun, in plenty of time to grab some breakfast sandwiches and board the train. We attempted to go back to sleep, at least until the sun rose. We had a quick transfer in Nürnberg, then a slightly longer one in Munich, where I naturally had to buy the pretzel that was bigger than my head and the smaller one covered in cheese. I am sad to say that my north-German pretzels experiences have thus far been sadly lacking compared to their southern counterparts. Thus replenished, we continued our journey southward, where we crossed into Austria in the early afternoon. We changed trains one more time in Wörgle, where we quickly became overwhelmed as we gaped at the stunning alpine vistas that sped by the train windows.

Zell am See really knows how to impress right off the bat, since you walk out of the main train station straight towards this view:

Beautiful Zell
It felt like stepping into paradise

We were lucky enough to have the full compliment of sunshine to fully display the splendor of the lake and mountains in the background.

After walking uphill (we would end up doing a lot of that!) to our airbnb, and getting a quick tour, we dropped our bags and Adam and I relaxed a bit while Maggie went for her daily run. When she returned, we retraced some of her steps and found a nice little beach where Maggie and I went for a swim. I splashed in quickly so no one would notice that I din't exactly have on a proper swimming suit… It was quite shallow, and not as cold as expected, considering it is fed by mountain streams that I can only assume are partly fed by snowmelt themselves. Also it was already October. But since we both grew up in the Great Lakes region, our cold water tolerance is quite high. Since we couldn't convince him to join us, Adam was our on-shore documentarian. Despite the chill, it was a gloriously refreshing experience: watching the occasional sailboat drift by, and spinning around and around, marveling at the mountains on all sides, as the sun sank lower in the sky.

After drying off and changing back into dry clothes, we strolled a bit more before stopping at an Italian restaurant for some pizza, pasta and risotto. A lengthy debate ensued over dinner about the merits of spoons vs forks vs chop-sticks, and the appropriate use-cases of each. It got rather heated at times.

After finishing our food, we went in search of a grocery store for some hiking snacks for the next day. The only store open on a Sunday evening was a little Middle-Eastern grocery, where we picked up some humus and pitas and apples. We then went back to the apartment to plan which hike we would do. Maggie's thirst for hiking adventure really led this charge, especially since she had all the relevant trail-searching apps. We talked her out of the 20 mile hike, since Adam and my fitness levels where nowhere near hers, and we eventually settled on a 12 mile route before heading to bed.

We were up and on the first bus from Zell am See to neighboring Kaprun by 7 the next morning. We saw the sun rise on a slightly cloudy (but not rainy!) day from the bus. Next stop was the grocery store for some more snacks. We got some sturdy seed-filled bread, cherry tomatoes in a squish-resistant carton, "Bergkäse" (we had to buy the mountain cheese for our mountain adventure,) some trail mix (which is called "Studenten Fütter" in German, meaning "student feed") and of course, lastly and most importantly: 3 kinds of chocolate. We also grabbed some morning pastries at the bakery and then set off on the extensive uphill walk to get to the trailhead where our actual hike would begin. I had 10,000 steps before 10 am that day.

Maggie quickly sped ahead of Adam and I, as we puffed laboriously up the mountain. I used the stunning scenery and scraggly flowers and mushrooms as excuses to stop and take pictures extremely frequently (but really I just had to catch my breath.) The consequence was that I ended up with multiple hundreds of pictures to document the hike. After a particularly loud groan as I stood up from taking a picture, Adam did eventually suggest that repeatedly doing squats in order to frame my favorite kind of shots (flower in the foreground, view in the background) was actually probably not helping me rest my legs effectively. He had a point, but it was hard to resist the brightly colored alpine flowers and the endless supply of "Schöne Blick(s)" (beautiful views) that surrounded us at every turn.

Please, Not So Fast!
"Please, Not So Fast!" is what my legs were screaming at me

The colors alone were stunning. The low reddish bushes that turned out to be blueberries, the browns and greens of the grasses, the variegated green of the pines blending their way up the neighboring mountain, the distant blues and grays, with caps of white on the far-off peaks, and the occasional bright yellow, orange, purple or pink of the little flowers that forged their way in that harsh landscape made each aching step worth it. We followed the red, white, red patches of paint striped on trees and then rocks as the trees fell away, imagining what it must have been like to lug paint cans and brushes all that way up the mountain in order to paint the Austrian flag like a beacon of the trail to follow. My mind was really blown when I finally struggled my way to a ridge-top and gasped "What?" in sheer awe of the glacier that had just come into view. Then I looked down and saw that the muddy ground had been churned up by a herd's worth of hoof prints! If I could barely drag myself and my tiny backpack up here, how had an entire herd of cows done it?! It really started to make sense why all the marketing on everything from yogurt to milk-chocolate made such a big deal about the alpine milk contained in the product: these are some very accomplished cows!

Pretty Poop
I had to photograph the astonishing fact that even the bird poop was pretty up there! All those blueberries meant it matched my shoe.

After a ton of breaks and even more photos, we finally made it to the summit! We rewarded ourselves with a feast of the provisions we had lugged up there. Not necessarily all together, though there were some inventive combinations. Anything tastes delicious when you've worked hard to drag it to 8,104 ft of elevation, especially when you're enjoying it while marveling at the stunning view. I might even be tempted to try Bergkäse and Nutella at sea-level though, it was surprisingly tasty.

Rings, sweat, stained hands
My brass and copper rings did not do well on my sweaty, swollen fingers

We took some much deserved rest, food, water and the obligatory pictures. Then, the one fellow hiker we had seen (not counting the austere farmer/herder we passed early on, smoking as he stalked past us, carrying an impressively large spiked stick) showed us how to open the tiny door in the side of the metal cross that stood on the peak, and extract the little book to add our names to the record of those who had made it to the top. Given how long it had taken us to get that far, and how much daylight remained, we decided to forgo the other peaks we had planned to summit, and begin the descent.

view from the summit
The pictures never quite do scenery like this justice. Which I guess is exactly why people climb mountains!

The first bit wasn't bad, as we were able to chat (Adam and I could finally keep up with Maggie) so we swapped stories we had read/heard about of gruesome wilderness disasters and rescues. After a rest and recalculation, once we got among the trees again, we decided we should take another "bail-out trail" in order to be sure of making the last bus out of Kaprun back to Zell am See, and avoiding an hour-and-a-half walk back. This is when my knees and noodle-legs began to catch up with me. I had been fantasizing about going downhill when struggling up the mountain only an hour before, but I had forgotten that downhill would mean I would have to keep using my exhausted leg muscles to take tiny steps and avoid sliding down the mountain on my butt. I was mostly, but not completely successful at this. Though I never would have thought it possible while striving towards the peak, I began looking forward to the uphill sections to give my knees a brief respite. It wouldn't have been so bad, except that we realized upon further time checks that we really didn't have a moment to spare if we wanted to make the last bus. So I wobbled my way on my worn-out legs with very few breaks down the steep mountainside.

We made the bus with seconds to spare. We weren't exactly sure where the stop was, so thankfully Adam followed his gut up to where it actually pulled up, while Maggie and I were exploring the parking lot below. We actually ran back uphill the last few feet, while Adam attempted to stall the (thankfully patient) driver with his lack of German.

We stopped at the grocery store for some dinner ingredients before hobbling back up the hill to start cooking our feast: pesto pasta with zucchini, tomatoes and some white beans for protein. To this day (nearly a month later) there are still faint bruises under my big toenail from my feet sliding forward in my too-small tennis shoes as I slipped my way down the mountain, and that was the least of my aches. So needless to say I was "worn slick" to quote my grandma again, that evening. It was an early night after an exhausting but rewarding day.

The next day proved to be more cloudy and rainy, but not quite as wet as we had feared, so we decided to take the cable-car up another peak and stroll around there. Well, hobble in my case. The uphills were actually ok, but I clutched the railing when we had to descend any stairs, for fear of my still noodle-y legs giving out on me and pitching me headfirst to the bottom. My burning shins informed me of even the tiniest downhill slope. We had a nice time though—taking more pictures, and being glad our big hike had been the day before, since the distant peaks were all mist-shrouded that day, and the views from the top we had gotten would have been impossible a day later. We were able to make out where we had been yesterday though, which was neat.

We had another picnic where we discussed cultural appropriation and the various classes we had all taken in college, before strolling over to the chair lift that would take us down another route. We even discovered a child-less playground with slides that followed the contour of the hill, and a zip-line which we had to make use of. The slide time was a speedy 7 seconds of whooshing before it shot you out at the bottom. It's good to embrace your inner child every once in a while. They also had informative signs about the alpine flora and fauna, as well as some giant wood carvings of animals along the path, which was fun.

The chair lift down was cooler than the cable-car ride up, because you didn't have reflective glass or other people interfering with the views, and plenty of fresh mountain air. We eventually made it back to the apartment, and made another delicious meal of curry with spinach, garbanzo beans, peas and coconut milk. The rainy night encouraged us to stay in again. Although Maggie and I did venture out in hopes of catching the sunset, it was unfortunately too cloudy to see much of anything.

It was a properly rainy day when we woke up the next morning, and even Maggie only went for a short run if I remember correctly. Adam and I slept in, then lounged around the house and I read my book—every vacation has to have some lazy time, right? Maggie did not agree, and went to the pool to swim laps. After she got back, we set off on a relaxing stroll around the lake, despite the rain.

Adam's kneed started hurting when we were about halfway around the lake, even though there had been no pin-point-able injury. Unfortunately, it started really hurting when we were taking a mountain path as a detour up and around some road construction. We did see some cool signs about famous Austrians along the trail though, along with some interesting sculptures. We also got a better lookout over the cloudy peaks across the lake, where the day's rain had been snow at the higher elevation, and the line of white was noticeably farther down the mountain. We patted ourselves on the back once again for getting our hike in on the last possible day.

Unfortunately for Adam, there was no bus that would have taken him back around the lake, so there was nothing left to do but limp through the 8 mile round trip. It was nearly dark by the time we made it back to Zell and the apartment. Our curried fried rice was not quite as delicious as the curry and pesto pasta had been on the previous nights (we didn't want to buy a whole bottle of soy sauce we would just have to leave behind…) but we were proud to have used up almost exactly all of the food we had bought for the trip. We resolved the complex web of debt, payed up, and made plans for the next morning's check-out before packing up and heading to bed.

Maggie headed out early in the morning, saying farewell and promising to make plans of future adventures to come. She had to catch a train to Tübingin, where she would visit her study-abroad pals. Adam and I finished up in the apartment and headed out a few hours later to catch our own train to Pforzheim.

My first and last photos of the train station in Zell are noticeably different. Autumn had made it's mark in the redder leaves and lowered snow-line on the mountains, even in the few days we were there. It was a wonderful trip, in the nick of time.