This is the third in a series of posts about a trip to Europe in the summer of 2016.
The Czech countryside is pretty, yes. But the Austrian one is another league altogether. With verdant hills sloping lazily into the valley below and the road winding through sudden bursts of tulip fields, driving was literally hazardous. Because it was THAT pretty.
But I’ll let you in on a little secret… Vienna has all that you would expect of a decent MAIN city in Western Europe – the spectacular squares, the history, the culture, the aristocratic air, the opulence, the elegance- but it doesn’t have SPUNK. It will fulfill your strictly European vacation fantasy. But it won’t hit the nerve. Sure you’ll get to go to the best opera and have the creamiest gelato, but will it really feel you have really explored something unique? Nopes. You have been a tourist, not a traveler.
In Vienna, we chose Hahn apartments, near the Jewish quarter. They were a bit old but very clean and functional. Only issue was that since we checked in on Sunday, the key was left in the mailbox. There was no one at the reception to tend to any of our issues – like suddenly freezing water in the middle of the bath. When we complained, they didn’t really seem to care. Ah yes, one huge issue that we faced across the board in all the apartments we stayed in is this- that the beds are tiny. A double bed means one inch bigger than queen size. Also, at times a double bed means two tiny single beds placed next to each other. Which turned out to be a HUGE issue when there was a tiny tot sleeping on the dividing line. In Vienna the beds were super light and easily push-apart-able (this word sounds so legit even though I just made it up). So we pushed both of them against one wall and placed a desk and a chair and both side tables against the other side. Manual labor after a long drive.
So in Vienna, in the interest of time we did the Sightseeing bus tour as well as the walking tour. We tried to pay as much attention to the Hapsburgs and their opulent ways as our toddler would allow. We were really pushing the little guy. One tip: While on vacation in Europe with a toddler, try and nap when the toddler naps. Also, don’t waste time doing the laundry yourself. Hand it to a landromat which has a dryer. It’s not that expensive and conserves time and energy (both of which are too valuable when there is loads of sightseeing to do and energy to conserve). Most of the apartments that tout a ‘washing machine’ don’t have a dryer. So please don’t make the unsuspecting apartment furniture a victim of your soaking wet laundry (unless you haven’t got half of what you paid for, then revenge is justified, to an extent).
But I digress, back to Vienna. One very nice memory I’d like to share. There was the usual ‘crossing the bridge’ route from our rented accommodation to the city center. One day, out of the blue, I asked my travel companion, (the husband, the father of my child) to take the longer route. Basically, to walk a little further ahead and take the next bridge. It was nice to be all Robert Frosty in general, but in this instance in particular, very much so. Just towards the end of the bridge we passed under a massive blackberry tree. The ground was strewn, nay SPLATTERED with thick juicy blackberries. Guess what we did? We plucked to our hearts content. All the blackberries within reach went from our greedy hands to the depths of our (pretty full of breakfast) stomachs within seconds. And Friends, oh friends, ah friends, the joy of plucking a sweet berry off a tree and having it as is. The contentment, the natural, wholesome beauty of it stayed with us for some time. I’d worn a white shirt that day and I tried to save it, but in that moment my brain did not connect with my sensibilities in the least. It had a single minded purpose, above all else my brain worked to prevent any shy blackberry successful at evading the imminent end of its hanging-from-tree career. So, what I am trying to say, in all my verbosity is, we had a BALL plucking and eating those darn blackberries. If you ever get such a chance, RUN WITH IT.
One particular place that struck my fancy was the Plague Column in the city center (strollable distance from St. Stephen’s Cathedral). In the ‘you-hold-the-baby-now-please game’ that the husband and I played during the walking tour, I was (somehow miraculously) able to zero in on this part of the tour and hear out the story. Read more on that here.
What more can I say about Vienna? It’s the quintessential city bustling with people and cars on one side and offering the right mix of history, art and culture on the other. One visit per lifetime is a must.
From Vienna we headed to Salzburg with a brief stop at Mondsee. Now if you happen to look at the map Salzburg is way east and a bit out of the way (on the way to Ljubljana), but the road trip through the Julian Alps was spectacular and so worth the detour. Plus Salzburg is where Mozart was born. Plus Sound of Music was one huge reason to head east. If the name of the movie immediately conjures up Julie Andrews in a pinafore shrieking ‘The hills are alliiiiiiiiiive…’ you have grown up watching that movie a zillion times. Right? Cotcha! So before we went to Salzburg we hit Mondsee. A glistening lake nestled within mountains with private lakeside beachy parks all around. We paid 3 euros each for entrance to a park and here the ambiance was superb. Parents lazing around, kids frolicking in the sand and on floats in the water, diving, splashing. It was obvious these Europeans were soaking up the sun as best as they could. We had lunch here and of course a gelato before heading out to Salzburg. Quite a few scenes of the movie were actually shot in Mondsee (a half hour car ride from Salzburg proper). There were Sound of Music bus tours that take you to specific parts of town where the movie was shot (we didn’t have the gift of time or the luxury with a toddler).
Salzburg is also very strollable from one end to the other. What set it somewhat apart from other such cozy little European towns with narrow cobbled lanes is… you would be surprised at the answer – it’s very fancy wrought iron lamp posts. Yes, these are hard to miss and every few steps is a completely uniquely pretty lamppost, some of them sporting a filigree design. It really was love at first sight. Europe makes you want to drown in the beauty. And it’s not just your average girl-next-door type of beauty, that after a while you come to expect. Each city and each town is different in that it has such a wealth of character. It doesn’t leave you with a drab moment. Salzburg offered quite a few surprises. One side of the river was the old town dotted with cafes and shops, leading up to the castle fortress, flooded with tourists. The other side of the rover was lined with massive trees where college students and backpackers sprawled the entire day (or days) playing chess and smoking up. There was something on offer for everyone; the hurried and the hassled (like us, rushing back to the hotel when it started to rain and when the toddler got suddenly drowsy) and the relaxed, bemused hippie taking in the city bit by bit.
I do have one massive complaint and this is regarding all the countries we visited in Europe: the discontents of globalization. It really takes away from the organic experience. Just to quote one example: Imagine the courtyard in front of the abbey where Fräulein Maria is running around and the feeling it evokes. Now imagine a Nescafe stall bang in the middle of it with a fixed platform for tables and chairs. The brands and their ubiquitous logos literally smother the art and the wholesomeness of that idyllic scene. I am not even entering the debate about how advertising needs to be discrete/subliminal and not splat in your face. But this was just sad.
All in all Austria was the westernmost country in the bunch of European countries we did and it surely did not disappoint. Onwards to Slovenia from here.