Winter Break With Big Brother Jon!

For nearly a year, plans were in the works for my big brother Jon to come visit us in Europe for his 40th birthday. This was an extra special trip as (with his family of 9) Jon has never been able to visit us in our time living all over the US and abroad. We wanted to harness this last opportunity to be together, make some memories, and let Jonny have a little peek into the window of our military life.

After a somewhat tense series of last minute changes to travel plans that ended up squarely in our favor, we collected my big brother Jon and niece Annamarie from the Salzburg airport and headed west to Garmisch-Partenkirchen, Germany. Edelweiss Resort, a military-run facility, is nestled in the Bavarian Alps below a series of mountains including Zugspitze, the tallest peak in Germany. It is a lovely place to make a “home base” – especially when skiing is on the menu! We happened to be there during some renovations, so some of the facilities weren’t up and running as usual, but at least the pool was operational and the kids got good use out of that every day.

We gave thanks that the stomach bugs the girls had the week before the trip had run their course and everyone stayed *mostly* healthy and injury-free the entire trip! We were extra careful about washing hands and sanitizing as well as being mindful about general germ safety, given the situation with the Coronavirus in the far East. We were so thankful that everything went smoothly and we handled hiccups with ease and flexibility. We make a good team!

Skiing the German Alps!

The first day – which was also Jon and Annamarie’s first full day in Europe – turned out to be a wild and crazy snowstorm up on the mountain. We had arranged for the kids to take lessons so we were waiting for the instructors at the top of the mountain, huddled in together to avoid the wind gusts and blowing snow, when we got word that they were shutting down the mountain. “Too windy,” they told us, “lifts are dangerous!” So, we made it back down the mountain after a little over an hour, but we realized pretty quickly that this was probably for the best. One more day to acclimate, plus having rented our equipment already and scoped out the way lessons work turned out very useful in the next 2 days of skiing. Our tickets and lessons transferred over which was a huge win, so we celebrated with lager and various schnitzel at our favorite restaurant near the mountain, Lodge Am Hausberg.

The next day was much better, especially since the mountain had just been dumped on the day before by the storm. The kids enjoyed their time in their group lessons, although I think they were also pretty happy to be free to cut through the trails on their own in the afternoon.

The final day of skiing was incredible! We were awed by the perfect weather and mountain conditions and were thrilled to see every lift and run was open. It was worth the wait! Views were impeccable, snow was perfect, and we practically closed the place down skiing all day! We were so impressed by the kids who handled all levels of terrain. Even Willow refused to have help this time, fearlessly making turns and cutting through the Hexenkessel runs. As this was the only chance we had to ski this season, we were thrilled and soaked in every moment!

What a view!

The top of the Alpspitz was a great place to take a break and soak in the views…

Snow bunnies!
The Alps in all their glory from the peak of the Alpspitz

After that perfect day on the slopes it was time to hightail it to Italy! We crossed off a bunch of bucketlist items for Jon and Annamarie over the course of just a few days. [See Italy blog here.] Then we headed back through Slovenia towards Hungary for the remainder of their stay.

Slovenian wine

All packed in tight!

Derek had to work the week of school break, so we traveled through Italy just the six of us. We were well packed in and had rest stop and pitstop protocol down to a science! After a successful navigation of Italy exploring Rome and Venice with quick stops in Orvieto, Florence and Bologna, we headed back east towards our home in Hungary. About 90 minutes outside of Venice, just inside the border of Slovenia, lies our best kept secret in wine: Batič Winery in Šempas. The Batič family of the Vipava wine region epitomizes the Slovenian qualities of respect for science and a spiritual connection with the Earth on top of generous hospitality and grace. I had given Jon a little briefing of what to expect from a visit to Batič as this was my third time visiting for a tasting and to stock up on wine, and they certainly didn’t disappoint!

Miha Batič (pictured below) is the main owner and operator of the winery, along with his father who taught him everything there is to know about biodynamic growing and organic bottling processes. Just when I thought I had tried all the wines from the last two visits (when I was hosted by Miha’s mother and wife), he brought out special reserves and new versions of old favorites to try. Truly, it is impossible to visit without being completely wowed by the amazingness of these wines, let alone the family and winery that has been operating since the 1500’s. We are huge fans! Jon left on cloud nine (not just because of the wine) and plotted for the next 3 days how he would manage to fit 12+ bottles of Batič in his checked luggage. Incredibly, he made it work!

Highway robbery! A selection of Batič wine – Jon’s and mine combined.

Thank you family Batič for once again knocking our socks off! If you have the good fortune of passing through Šempas on a weekday, stop into Batič. If you think you’re in the wrong place when you arrive, then you’ve made it! We pulled into their driveway, knocked on the door to their home and were welcomed into their family dining room. While our kids played outside with the cats and their children frolicked in the vineyard, we sat and visited and they brought us plates of meats, cheeses and breads as we tasted the wines. There was no rush at all, and it was an absolute delight. They were very generous about giving us a discount for our bulk order (cash only) and helped us load the wine into our vehicle. For anyone who can’t visit the winery itself – it’s a shame to be in Slovenia and miss out on the experience, let alone the awesome deal on the wine – top restaurants serve Batič, including the award-winning Hiša Franko in Kobarid, Slovenia. The wine can also be purchased in select specialty shops or with 2 suppliers in the coastal US, but there is a considerable markup and they’re often sold out. This is award-winning stuff! We fully intend to stock up on Batič before moving back home to the states. But until then, we’ll make due with 20 or so bottles…

Hanging in Hungary

It was a welcome relief to arrive home in Papa after going hard on the road for over a week, and take some time to relax together. We didn’t have any major agenda for a couple of days so we just took the time to recoup, explore Papa, taste some classic Hungarian cuisine, hit up our favorite thermals, and get a little manicure! On the night of our arrival, Jon tried doner-kebabs (a hit in our house) and liked them! We were all pretty zonked after our travels so after a movie, we hit the hay.

What a spread!

The next day the kids made a most impressive breakfast of pancakes, eggs, toast, fruit salad and a smoothie! We were all set for a day of wandering around Papa. We had drinks at HeloVelo cafe before splitting up. The girls had flavored lemonades – popular in Hungary – and Jon tried his first melange coffee.

Enjoying lunch at one of our favorite cafes, HeloVelo

While we ladies were getting our nails done, Derek took Jon and Beau to base to finally get a tour of a C17. The plane was being inspected, so it was in unusual condition (in various stages of being disassembled) and Derek mentioned he had never seen it like that before! Still it was very special to be able to share a tiny piece of his job with his brother in law. They sported their trusty hats and safety gear and got a feel for what it’s like inside the cockpit! Jon recalled a time in Aroostook County when a C17, piloted by a northern Maine airman, was doing training runs at the Presque Isle airport – a very rare and special occurrence! This “inside scoop” was a whole different perspective on the impressive Globemaster. So glad it all worked out!

Meanwhile, the ladies were getting pampered. Agi, our (very patient) manicurist took good care of the girls, even surprising Willow with a “Toothless dragon” themed paint job! Lucky Lolo!

We walked around the colorful Papa square and checked out Szent Istvan’s Cathedral. Then we had a delicious meal of goulash soup (Annamarie liked it too!) and headed back home so the girls could get ready for aerial ballet class together, which happened to be a special “Carnivale” themed party! Super fun!

The walking street of Papa
Mmmm goulash soup!

The girls got into costume and had so much fun at aerial ballet class together. Annamarie even won a prize in one of the many games they played that night! It is clear these girls are naturals – strong and flexible! I think it might be time to hang an aerial ring from the ceiling at home, huh Jonny?

The last day in Papa we headed to Sarvar to the thermal pool where we spent the whole day splashing around, riding water slides (Annamarie said these were her first and she LOVED them!), and eating yummy new hits – Hungarian porkolt and paprikas! Of course we didn’t leave without gelato, too. #gelatovacations! Jon managed to bang his foot on one of the big slides pretty hard, but didn’t let that stop him from his last couple days of exploring in Austro-Hungary!

Budapest

We couldn’t let Jon come to visit us here and not experience our FAVORITE city – even if it was just for a day trip! Budapest was calling our name, so we packed up and headed out early to get the most out of the Paris of the East. We parked near the Four Seasons and walked along the Danube River, past the Shoes on the Danube memorial towards Parliament. From there we passed the infamous Ronald Regan statue through the park, circling back around to St. Stephen’s Cathedral. From there we snagged some incredible Rosa Gelato and went inside the cathedral to see St. Stephen’s mummified hand relic. “That’s kinda gross,” said the kids. Ha! The skies were blue and beautiful as we made our way around Karoly utca, snagging coffees at 9 Bar, kurtoskalacs off the street, and burek at Mlinar cafe. Yum! You know it’s good when Annamarie likes all of it!

We bopped in and out of souvenir shops and hit up the market in the Jewish District, full of unique and artsy collections of items. From there we bolted up to the Buda side of the city to see the marvelous Fisherman’s Bastion. This is my favorite place in the city, where views of Parliament are unparallel and the architecture is captivating! On the way back to the car we even got to walk across the chain bridge – pure Budapest magic!

Vienna

Amazing Vittorio Swiss Chocolates! 52% is the BEST.

With nearly all of the souvenirs checked off Jon’s shopping list, we headed straight to Vienna for one last shot at bringing home the goods. I promised him the finest 52% dark chocolate I’ve ever had at Vittorio Swiss Chocolates, and he said LETS GO! We made it there in time to sample all kinds of their chocolate varieties and Jon stocked up on a big bag of coffee beans and salted chocolate for his wife. When you know, you know! We didn’t spent too much time downtown but did manage to show Jon and Annamarie Michaelerplatz and The Hofburg at night. Just driving through the city of Vienna gives you a feel for it – we commented on the high standards for aesthetics and the generally clean, white facades of buildings, which was a stark contrast to the more rusty Budapest. I like to describe the two cities as beer and champagne, respectively.

Michaelerplatz

The next morning, Jon and Annamarie awoke at dawn to head to the 7:30 AM mass (in German) at St. Stephen’s Cathedral in the center of the city. Although they didn’t understand all of it, it was an extra special gift for them to punctuate a trip like this with international worship in a medieval Gothic cathedral. We had a nice breakfast together atop the Hilton Danube Waterfront Hotel’s executive lounge and then dropped the daddy-daughter duo off at the Vienna airport for the long journey home. Didi shed a few tears on the way back to Papa…this was a gift to be able to bond with her cousin in such an exclusive way. They were inseparable the whole time! “I’m glad we’re moving back to Maine next year!” She said. Derek and I looked at each other and smiled, knowing we were both thinking the same thing: “Me too.” Traveling the world is an exhilarating gift! But life without family is meaningless. As Dave Matthews says, “it’s not where but who you’re with that truly matters!” Amen! Until we all meet again, Blanchards!

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