Friday, May 18, 2012

Excursions in and around Austria

My trip has come to an end.  I sit drafting this blog on the train back to Constanta. (That was over 3 weeks ago and I’m just getting around to finishing this up.)  When I left off, I’d told you all about my Easter in Dambau, a village in Mures County, in Transylvania.  I had one day left of my stay, so I’ll start there.  

The night before (the day when the boys came around with perfume), Timea and Laszlo had returned to Cluj-Napoca, where they live with Judith, because Timea had to go back to work.  Judith stayed in Dambau longer and showed Josi and I around on our last day there.  We got to sleep in and then we spent the afternoon walking in the hills around the village (whose name fittingly means hill).  The weather was beautiful, and we got some really great pictures.

Our Four Star Hotel.  It doesn't all that amazing from this angle in the rain, but I promise it's top notch.
The next morning--a Wednesday—Judith’s father drove Josi and I, bright and early, to Targu Mures, where we took a microbuz (the same thing as a maxi taxi, except for long distances) to Bucuresti’s big airport, Otopeni (AKA Henri Coanda).  From there we flew to Vienna.  It was delightful to be travelling with Josi in Austria, because she can speak with everyone there in German (even if the accent and some words are different).  We made it from the airport to our hotel.  Our hotel was a four star accommodation.  It had a fancy lobby, fancy rooms, comfy beds, a sauna, a steam room, and an exceptional location near the great palace in Vienna, Schloss Schoenbrunn.  How did we afford such a nice place?  We got lucky.  Josi found the one night available for an extreme discount of 40 euros, which was cheaper for us to stay in than about half of the hostels (over 20 euros/person for one night).  Our general rule was “as cheap as possible” on our trip, so this was a big treat.  Josi was travelling with her father’s enormous, Army-green backpack, so we couldn’t help but feel a little bit out of place as we walked through this lobby and as the bellhop loaded Josi’s backpack and my suitcase onto the luggage cart.  That evening we went to the big cathedral in the downtown area and had some drinks at a cafe.

A blurry me in front of the cathedral, which was lit with colored projections.

This market specializes in Austrian and Bulgarian food.
Since we were so close to the elaborate palace, we visited Schloss Schonbrunn the next day.  It is an enormous building sprawled across a large estate with hours of gardens to explore.  We stuck to the inside tour, since it was raining out and a bit pricey.  It is preserved and decorated very beautifully.  The palace’s most famous resident is probably Empress Maria Theresa.  Afterwards we checked out of our luxury hotel and transferred our luggage to our new accommodation—a hostel.  We had an early dinner at an Austrian restaurant; I had a Wiener Schnitzel.  (FYI: Wiener=Viennese, so wiener schnitzel= Viennese fried chicken breast.)
A view of a small portion of the garden.

The ceiling of one of the great halls in the palace Schonbrunn

There are mountains just sitting in the middle of Salzburg.
After dinner we went to the main train station (also a shopping center) to figure out how to get to our next destination…and WHAT our next destination would be.  We wanted somewhere we could get cheaply, that was relatively close to the German border.  The guy at the information desk was very helpful and helped us figure out how to get to an acceptable destination.  After also verifying we could find cheap accommodation, we settled on Salzburg, the birthplace of Mozart, the setting of the Sound of Music, and generally “the City of Music”.  When people heard that we bought the super-cheap, only-take-the-slow-train tickets, they were shocked; who would want to spend 6 hours travelling by train!  But after using trains to travel Romania (our trip to Dambau was a 9 hour trip, as was our trip to Suceava), it didn’t really seem that long to us.

The walkway surrounding a cemetery.
When we arrived in Salzburg we were picked up at the train station.  “By whom?”  I’m sure you are wondering.  By Josi’s dad, Joerg!  This was the reason we wanted to choose a destination for our weekend trip that was near the German border.  Even though Josi is from the north of Germany, her dad was doing a special training session in the Alps for a few weeks (he’s in the Army), only 3 hours from Salzburg, so he was able to join us for the weekend.  We visited the city that evening and the next day (Friday and Saturday), focusing on the beautiful historic part.  The weather was overcast and a bit drizzly most of the time, so we didn’t get to see the full grandeur of this city, which is nestled in the mountains.  Josi and her dad spent Friday night at a concert of one of their favorite bands; while I spent waaaay too much time poking around online, but certainly enjoying myself. 

The skyline of the Old Town of Salzburg

The castle.  We didn't go inside because it was too expensive.

Zesty and delicious Nepalese food.
Saturday was tragic.  I accidentally deleted all my photos (around 10,000!) from my computer.  I fretted all over a delicious dinner at a Nepali restaurant (Josi and I have been a bit starved for high-quality Asian food and made eating Asian food a high-priority item on our to-do list while in Austria.)  I found a free undelete program online and was able to recover about 75% of my deleted files, but they were all recovered into one giant, unorganized heap, which I have yet to fully sort.  About two pictures from the time in Vienna I’ve mentioned and from our first night in Salzburg made it, and I hadn’t given copies to Josi, as I had with all the other photos from our trip, so there’s a bit of a gap in the photo record.

The Catholic church I attended in Salburg.
Sunday was a special day, because it was my 23rd birthday.  (April 15th, so you know when to send gifts.)  I started off the day wandering towards a church spire I’d been promised was a Catholic church having mass that morning.  I found it and settled in.  I’m not sure if it’s just a delightfully youthful and vibrant parish or if it was a bit of an aberration since they were celebrating the sacrament of First Eucharist (and maybe Confirmation, too, I have awful German, by which I mean nearly non-existent) for many children, but there was standing-room only and probably ¾ of the families had children with them.  They also had a very good folksy sort of choir, full of teenagers.  It was a refreshing start to my day.  I rejoined with Josi and her dad at the hostel/hotel where we were staying and we drove outside of the city to a salt mine.

This salt mine was very different from the salt mine I visited when I went to Cluj.  This was a museum that preserved the historical mine feel of the place and gave lots of historical information.  We wore the least flattering white jumpsuits imaginable, to protect our clothes (and damage all our self-esteem, since they made you look about 50 lbs. heavier once you put them on over your jacket (the mine was cold inside).  The tour began by riding on a little mine train-thing (there must be an official name for it, but I lack the motivation to look it up).  It was interspersed with videos, a boat ride over an underground lake, two slides of the variety actually used by miners, and an underground border crossing.  The mountain the mine is dug out of is shared by Germany and Austria, so even though the entrance to the mine is in Austria, parts of the underground caverns are located under Germany territory. 

The little train into the salt mine.

The wooden slides for going down to different levels in the mine.

Crossing the border of Austria and Germany...looking enormous.
Over the border, in Bavaria.
After our mine tour we visited some of Germany topsoil.  It was a very anti-climactic border crossing.  Because of the European Union’s Schengen Zone, you can freely pass from one country in the zone to another, the system operating on the assumption that when you first arrive in a Schengen country from a non-Schengen country, your credentials and whatnot were thoroughly scrutinized.  (Romania and Bulgaria are trying their very hardest to be allowed in the Schengen Zone now.  At the airport in Bucuresti they even have the signs all ready to go.  When you disembark from your plane there’s a sad little sign poorly covered up directing arrivals from Schengen Zone countries to bypass the standard customs area, in anticipation of the day Romania will belong.)  So since there’s nothing to check when you cross the border, you just pass a modest sign welcoming you to the Bavaria region of Germany.  It was about as exciting as crossing a state border in the US.  Still, I was cool to add another country to my list.  We walked around a town a bit and had lunch at a restaurant with Bavarian cuisine.  I ordered something particularly German-sounding and received a sampler platter I could have shared with two friends, piled with four types of meat, a giant dumpling, and gravy.  After lunch Josi gave me my gift, which a bunch of people pitched in for: a handmade, embroidered purse I had been admiring at a gift shop back in Constanta.  Josi went and bought one day after I’d talked about how much I liked it and how I wanted to go back for it at the end of my stay if I still had any money.  It’s really pretty and I’m thrilled to get a gift that is exactly what I wanted.  And kudos to Josi for carting it around on our trip so she could give it to me on my actual birthday.  Josi’s dad had to go back that afternoon, so Josi and I were on our own back in Salzburg for the evening.  As a continuation of the birthday festivities we bought an ice cream log and ransacked the pastry shops, walking the streets of historic Salzburg in the rain (without umbrellas) for two hours.  It was decadently delicious and totally justified, cuz it was my birthday.
My Bavarian lunch, complete with Bavarian flag.

Bright and early the next day we returned to Vienna, again on the slow but cheap train.  We got to stay at the luxury hotel again at the same cheapo rate.  We went to Vienna’s most popular open-air food market—Naschmarkt—and bought some food, which we ate in, after a relaxing evening trying out the steam room and sauna.  We might have stayed longer in the steam room, but a naked couple went in, and we just couldn’t muster ourselves to join some nude strangers.

Just one of the sweets we enjoyed for my birthday.

The Naschmarkt.
In front of the Hrad in Bratislava.
The following morning was Tuesday and we went in the morning to Bratislava, Slovakia.  Only 50 km from Vienna, Bratislava and Vienna are the closest capitals, geographically (I think Rome and Vatican City don’t count or something…)  So we took the bus, and had an only-slightly more exciting border crossing.  We passed a border check area that seems to only function as an information center or rest area now, but must have been quite the happening place in the past.  Prior to this, I had been struck over the head that Bratislava is the same city as Pressburg, which has historical significance and which no one ever told me was an alternative name for Bratislava.  There I was, thinking nothing of great importance had really ever happened in Bratislava, but it was significant, particularly when it was part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire.

When we arrived in Bratislava we were deposited at a bus station…somewhere.  We hadn’t looked up directions on how to get to our hostel and the taxi were all unmarked, none of the drivers spoken English, and they wanted to completely rip us off, so we decide to be brave explorers and wander in the direction we thought our hostel was in.  We had an address and knew it was a 5minute walk from the castle and the historical center of the city, so we got a local to point us in the direction of the old city and then followed road signs to “Centrum”, once asking for help from a street vendor.  We found the cobbled streets, which filled us with hope and then we saw it—a glorious beacon—a sign for a tourist information center!  We slugged out way to it, I pulling 50lbs of bag across cobble stones and Josi lugging about 35 lbs. on her back.  They gave us a map and gave us directions to our hostel, which was only a 10 minute walk away, even with our luggage.  Josi and I traded bags for the walk to the hostel and got there in one piece.  Somehow we had miraculously wandered in completely the correct direction of our hostel from the bus station, which was in a particularly communist-looking area of the city.
Overlooking the city.

Looking up at the castle.

But the old city astounded us.  It was breathtakingly beautiful.  Josi and I both loved Bratislava.  The weather was beautiful, the architecture was amazing, and we both agreed we wanted to take people to this city which just doesn’t get enough credit.  We spent the night and returned to Vienna the next evening.
The main square in Bratislava's old town.
In the U-Bahn in Vienna.
 We were leaving Austria to return to Romania the next morning and spent our last evening in Austria at an amusement park on an island in the Danube in Vienna.  We were only there a short time and didn’t go on any rides, but it was really nice to see.  And we got a great story out of it.  On our way to this park, we were stopped on the U-Bahn (subway) by the controllers (who were all quite attractive young men, not at all looking like the sort who catch unsuspecting free-riders.)  Josi and I had punched a day pass for each of us earlier that day, when we took the U-Bahn to our hostel.  I had taken ownership of the tickets and tucked them into my purse for safe-keeping.  At the hostel I had decided it was a brilliant idea to switch purses and had left the tickets behind.  So when the controller came by, we had no ticket.  Our hearts were racing as we used a feverish combination of English and German to explain that we had bought and validated a ticket, but forgotten it, desperately trying to avoid a fine of 90 Euros per person.  He must have taken pity on the two blonde tourists, frantic because they lost their tickets, because he believed us and let us off the hook.  The next day our fortune was reversed. 

1 comment:

  1. Seriously, you can't leave us hanging like this!!! Peg