Saturday, January 29, 2011

Christmas 2010

Munich, Germany

Bill celebrated a significant birthday at Christmastime, so we decided to treat ourselves to a proper holiday, spending a few days in Munich followed by four days of cross-country skiing in the Austrian alps.

Munich is a beautiful city in the Bavarian region of southern Germany. Heavy bombing in World War II destroyed most of the city, but when they rebuilt they stayed true to the original architecture rather than that grim industrial post-war style that you see in other cities that were ravaged by the war.

December is a nice time of the year to visit Munich with its famous Christmas markets. In all the town squares and plazas these temporary stalls, shops and outdoor cafes set out their wares, and the streets are full of people shopping, socializing and drinking hot spiced wine called glühwein, or 'glow-wine'.

This market was set up like a medieval village with miniature wooden buildings.

Some of the stalls were beautifully decorated......

.....and the stall holders all dressed in medieval garb.

This stall specialised in little fairies and gnomes made from felt and floss.

Some nice architectural details on the buildings, like this funny waterspout.....

....and another waterspout that was somewhat sinister.

One of the markets was just for all kinds of food, with beautiful produce displays.

Exotic dragon fruits like small sculptures......

....and apples that were a work of art (achieved by sticking a small heart shape, with a smaller heart cut out of it, onto each apple. As the apple ripens the part that is covered stays yellow while the parts exposed to sunlight turn red. Clever!)

Seefeld, Austria
After two days in Munich we took a train 3 hours south to the Tyrolian region of Austria. These are the Austrian alps as seen from the train window.

Seefeld is about 10 miles from Innsbruck, host of the winter Olympics in 1976. The area is renowned for an excellent network of cross-country ski trails, with over 100 miles of well-marked trials in the mountains and valleys.

We rented a small apartment (with a kitchen) on the outskirts of the town.

The day we arrived we had time to rent ski equipment and get in a few hours on some nice easy trails. It had been 3 years since we were last on skis so we thought we might need some warming up, but it felt totally natural to be on the long boards again!

The next day we had more time to check out the town which was full of skiers and holiday-makers. Seefeld is snow-sports heaven, with downhill ski lifts dotted throughout the valley, and miles of walking trails that are cleared of snow daily. A real family-oriented place with something for everybody.

Many of the buildings are beautifully painted.

A small Christmas market in Seefeld

Out on the ski trails. Some days were gray and snowy (yay! fresh powder!)

Other days were crystal blue with great mountain views.

There are little huts in the mountains that sell hot foods and ice cold beers. These huts can be reached by cross-country trails, downhill ski lifts and cleared walking trails. After drinking one of those tall German beers at our lunch stop here, I proceeded to strap on my skis and very ungracefully fall right on my ass in front of everyone sitting outside - class.

Another way people get to the mountain cafes is by hiring a horse-drawn sleigh and driver.

There are a lot of little summer huts and cabins scattered through the Austrian alps - this tree hut was by far the coolest.

Munich Again
We returned to Munich for one more day before catching our flight early the next morning. We found this memorial to Michael Jackson on one of the city streets - all four faces of the monument are plastered with photos, poems and letters to him.

We had asked the hostel clerk to recommend something to see on our last day there, and he suggested the Residence, former home of Munich royalty for many centuries. It didn't look like much from the outside.

But inside, yowza! Ninety rooms of gilt, gold and decadent excess. And almost all of it rebuilt after WWII to look exactly the way it had looked before. This greatroom had an elaborately painted ceiling, no two panels alike.

A room where all of the decorations were made of seashells.

A 'giraffe' piano.

Another elaborate ceiling.

Inlaid stone and wood doorways.

And another fancy ceiling. Really, every room was a work of art and these photos represent just a tiny amount of the bling. After a while my eyes hurt from looking at it all, and I could not imagine living in a place like this.

The strangest room was near the end, and those who had bling-fatigue and bailed out early missed this. This room had a display of reliqueries - elaborate glass cases containing bones that supposedly belonged to saints. Wealthy people in those days believed that spending time near a saint's holy remains would help counter their own sins of greed and gluttony. This one contains hand and finger bones, supposedly of some saint.

A 'holy' leg bone.

The top of this reliquary contains an entire skull.

The king and queen bid us aufwiedersehen.

So what the heck is going on with Ireland's economy anyway?
I know the news is really dire out there, and yes, the economy has been on a steady downward slide since we arrived in 2008. But most people we know are still employed here, and those that aren't seem to get pretty good benefits (dole, rent relief, fuel allowance, medical card, etc) from the government. The safety net is still very wide here. On the other hand, young people can find no jobs and are emigrating to other English-speaking countries like Canada and Australia for work. Unemployment is about 14%, but unlike the US they actually count everyone who is unemployed, and not just those who are still looking for work.

Bill and I are still gainfully employed and doing fine. Seed Savers is actually doing quite well these days, with continued financial support from the Department of Agriculture, and some big grants we got recently to construct a new seed bank this summer. Seed sales and fruit tree sales are good as more people turn to growing food to cut their own costs. Bill has been tree planting, pruning, and installing a new landscape at a new train station this winter. He also has some indoor cabinetry work that he can do when it's very cold or raining.

An election has been called for March, but there is so little difference between the two big parties that it won't really change much. They even sound the same: Fianna Fail vs. Fine Gael. People are annoyed about the way the country's wealth was sucked up by those at the top (bankers, politicians and developers), but they don't seem too depressed about things. This is a country that has seen far more bad years than good over the centuries, so most people here are good at tightening the belts and doing what they need to get by, while still having the craic!