After samples of Italy and France, what should be the next adventure?
I had been stationed in West Germany back in the late 1970’s, courtesy of the US military. During those two years I managed to get around, though my financial resources were a lot less than they are today. I stayed in cheap hotels and youth hostels, except for the two weeks that my parents came to visit for a whirlwind tour of southern Germany. Diane has not been to Germany, but she does not want me to repeat my sightseeing. She is kind, and this is an on-going discussion. For now at least, Germany is off the list. By the same token, Diane spent much time in England, also courtesy of the US military. I spent one weekend in London in those early days. Since we’ve both been there, at least for a taste, we’ve removed England from the list, at least for now.
So many people talk about visiting the central European line of capitols consisting of Prague, Vienna and Budapest. After much thought, I’ve decided I’d prefer to experience one country in detail rather than three capitols on single trip. Perhaps this is due to a mild but residual case of museum burn-out from Paris. I can only imagine how bad that burn-out could be after visiting three major cities’ worth of museums in one trip!
I took German language both in high school and in college – this could be useful in Austria. Austria’s currency is on the Euro, unlike the Czech Republic and Hungary, and I had somehow managed to accumulate a couple of hundred leftover euros after France – a small amount, to be sure, but still a consideration.
A brief study of Austria showed plenty to experience in a two week timeframe: Vienna, the Danube Valley, Salzburg and the Alps. Diane visited Austria once while on a ski trip in the 1980s, but had little memory of it beyond the skiing. Putting all of this information on the trip destination scale, the result weighed in for Austria!
Much like Paris in France, Vienna was another no-brainer. Vienna suffered from bombing while on the losing side of WW2, but most of the old town survived intact. With a fine reputation for its own café culture and the center of the once great Habsburg (Hapsburg) Empire, a few days in the city center would be time well spent. They also have the famous Lipizzaner Stallions of the Spanish Riding School. I saw the old movie “Miracle of the White Stallions” when I was a kid, so that was a must see for me.
Again I turned to Rick Steves and purchased the book specifically for Austria. The small towns along the Danube looked like a good place to relax after Vienna. I had enjoyed the similar respite in France by doing the slower pace of the Loire Valley after the grueling schedule of Paris. Although I have read more WW2 history than most, I decided against touring the nearby Mauthausen-Gusen Concentration Camp. I understand the need to have perspective on such, but at the same time I wanted this trip to be fun and lighthearted. Melk is the location that Rick recommends, and I saw no reason to change that despite reviewing other towns as options.
Salzburg also looked to be a great stop, with favored son Mozart and the remarkable skyline dominated by the Hohensalzburg Fortress. I was surprised to see the continued influence of the “Sound of Music” on the area, given that the movie was released in 1965. Perhaps there would be time for a side trip to Berchtesgaden in the Bavarian Alps, home of Hitler’s famous Eagles Nest.
There was time on the schedule for one more stop. While I was drawn to Innsbruck, I’m not a skier. The picturesque village of Hallstatt stood out as a must see. I studied ways to fit in some of the Tyrol area, but ultimately settled on simply staying in Hallstatt and visiting the nearby salt mine.
So I’m straying a bit from the idea of focusing on three major areas that I had followed for Italy and France by adding a fourth. Still, the two week schedule looked to be four nights in Vienna, three nights at Melk for the Danube Valley, three nights at Salzburg, squeezing in two nights at the small Hallstatt village before a last night back in Vienna for the flight home.
After being misled by the temperature forecasts for France, we decided to push this trip into the middle of September. It looked good for average temperatures and rainfall. My other best time to travel would be May, but that also happens to be the wettest average month in Vienna, while the rest of summer continues to have a higher than average chance of rain. So in hopes of fair temperatures, low rainfall and smaller crowds, September it would be.
This flight was going to be a bit more complex. I could not find any direct flights from the USA to Vienna, with most options being to fly into either Paris or Amsterdam followed by a connection to Vienna. Again I studied the pricing on the different airlines, and again I found that Delta was consistently cheapest. They were benefiting from their partnership with Air France and the Dutch KLM airline. After struggling with schedule, the result was Delta in Atlanta to Paris’ slightly familiar Charles de Gaulle (CDG), and then to Vienna. The return trip would vary slightly, flying from Vienna to Amsterdam’s Schipol airport and then home to Atlanta.
Vienna is where we were flying into, so again it seemed natural to go ahead and enjoy the city. Vienna would help us familiarize with the Austrian outlook before we rushed off into the country.
Since we had relative success avoiding rental cars in France, I decided to keep with the idea of using public transportation. Austria has a well-developed train system, and the overall thoughts on where to go meshed well with the train routes. The train-stop at the small town of Melk was basically on the way to Salzburg. The ride is only about an hour, so there’s no hurry leaving Vienna. Buses appear to be common in the Wachau Valley (the local name for that part of the Danube Valley), convenient for seeing the nearby villages of Krems and Durnstein, and day passes are available. No van tour is needed, since the local buses appear to run regularly and have stops at all the desirable locations.
Another relatively short train ride of 2.5 hours from Melk to Salzburg would do the next transportation job. Salzburg is known for its lovely countryside, and there is prolific local business in “Sound of Music” tours. Diane and my interest in that movie, good as it is, is minimal. A review of local attractions showed that the local bus network would be sufficient to see Salzburg and its environs.
Rick Steves book suggested that including a bus ride would be more scenic to make the journey from Salzburg to Hallstatt, so that became the plan. Take a bus ride to Bad Ischl, followed by a short local train from Bad Ischl to Hallstatt. I read what I could about Hallstatt and watched some videos, coming away comfortable with the feeling that we could fill a day and a half there.
Thus the final itinerary for our vacation to Austria, at the risk of being redundant, was:
Any Questions? For me, this trip was a refinement of the lessons learned from Italy and France. For the first time, there were no “Big Question” thoughts prior the journey. I knew that European trains could be relied on, barring disasters. I knew that buses and taxis would work despite language difficulties. I knew that I could count on most Europeans, especially the younger ones, to know at least enough English to get through the basics (unlike my German, the mention of which provides a good segue to the next topic).
How about the Language Thing?
Answer: Time to brush up on some German! I had enjoyed the Fluenz French language series so much that I did not hesitate to buy the German language add-on. With the help of Fluenz German, I dusted off my surviving college and high school brain cells and slowly started picking up some basics of the language. I kept at coursework right up until the trip, remembering my occasional communication struggles in France and Italy. Guten Tag!
: One of the problems with Delta on these longs flights is the copious amounts of food and drink that they offer to even those of us in the cheap seats. I had to be careful, after splurging on the wine the first few times. What can I say? We were in a festive mood, ready to start our Austrian adventure! That early festivity, along with the noise and atmosphere typical of a long flight, resulted in a mild headache by the sixth hour of our flight. Still, we were in good spirits as we landed at Paris.
: This was our first experience catching a connecting flight in Europe, so we weren’t certain what to expect. Logically, I suppose, I should have expected what happened when entering the European Union, which was to process through the funnel of customs there at Charles de Gaulle. Luckily we had plenty of time until our connecting flight to Vienna, so I was not overly concerned. The process still takes a while though, so I was relieved when we got our stamps and proceeded through the large and amazing airport.
: Lack of sleep was muddling my mind, but we still had no problem locating our gate for Vienna. It was with relief that we boarded our smaller Air France flight, and with surprise that the flight attendants addressed the passengers in English and German. I finally started nodding off during the roughly two hour flight to Vienna, comfortable in the knowledge that Phase One of the adventure, getting there, was a done deal.
: At this point, getting off the plane was just like getting off the plane in the USA: no customs, just get the bags and off we go. VIE had an understandably smaller feel to it than CDG, though it was still large enough to get lost in.
: As in Paris, I had toyed with the idea of taking the train from VIE to Vienna, but after the exhaustion that comes with an overnight flight the idea of simplicity becomes much more important. As we walked to the area where the taxis were waiting, an apparent driver requested that we let him be of service. I was leery at first, but I had done my homework and knew that legitimate taxis had a common suffix (TX) on their Austrian license plates. His indeed had that prefix, and the price he quoted was the expected 50 Euros. He spoke good English! He was eager to help with the bags! I was tired, and I was sold. He gave us a running commentary of Vienna as we drove into the city, though I think his NASCAR-worthy competitive driving had Diane fairly frazzled. Despite those frights, there is a certain joy in being deposited at the very door of your hotel that makes the hiring of a taxi worth it.
: The window of our modern fourth floor hotel room in the appropriately named Hotel am Stephanplatz faced the front of the famed Stephansdom cathedral. This central location in the Alt Stadt (old town) set the tone for our visit. The old town is set up as an extremely pedestrian friendly space, so we walked generous distances of traffic free sightseeing. Luckily Vienna’s old town survived the Allied bombing during the Second World War relatively intact, so there is plenty of amazing architecture to soak up. The famous cafes are everywhere with acres of outdoor seating under large umbrellas. The temperatures were comfortably cool, with occasional damp weather not dampening our spirits.
Based on the successes of purchasing “city pass” cards in Florence and Paris, I hunted down a vendor for the “Vienna City Pass” card that I had read about on-line. Most of the tours and tourist-oriented activities tend to be near the famous Opera House, so it was no surprise that I was able to purchase the card at a booth in that area. This card again proved a great success and well worth the price.
: The Vienna Pass card allowed unlimited hop-on, hop-off bus rides as well as numerous attraction entrance fees. These buses are everywhere in the touristy part of Vienna, and they proved to be incredibly convenient. I had planned on riding the city tram as part of an old city wall “Ringstrasse” mini tour, but somehow that never happened and we wound-up on the buses for everything not within easy walking distance. Granted those buses are ridiculously cheesy, but we gave into the notion of being ridiculous, cheesy tourists and enjoyed the buses immensely. They were comfortable and offered headsets to learn more about the sites as we passed by. Different colored bus lines covered the various destinations, and it proved to be a great way to see parts of the city that we otherwise might not have seen.
The buses were so easy to use that the only time we rode the famous Vienna subway (U-Bahn) was to get from the hotel to the main train station (Hauptbahnhof). It was painless, even with luggage, and emphasized how modern and convenient the public transportation system is in Vienna.
Not unlike the experience in traveling other large cities, the primary method of transportation in Vienna is your own two legs. Without using any sort of measuring device, I’m pretty sure that it averaged an equivalent to 10 miles a day. No doubt it can be done with less walking, but one of the joys of Vienna is strolling the streets and admiring the many sights. For instance, we were hiking our way from the Belvedere Palace back to Stephansplatz, and we happened upon the Soviet War Memorial. It brought home the reality of how Vienna was occupied at the end of World War II by the Allied powers as a combatant capital, similar to Berlin. The fountains were peaceful and being enjoyed by the locals (and a few surprised tourists), with time having subsided the power and menace that the memorial may have represented in the past. Vienna has so much to offer that hidden gems such as this are everywhere.
: The short train ride from Vienna to the village of Melk brought us to a paradigm shift of lifestyles similar to what we had experienced in France when we moved from Paris to Amboise. From the bustle of Vienna we were greeted with a small-town train station that had a single track each for west and east. After a short walk down hill through quiet streets we were greeted with the stunning view of the Melk Abbey. It sat atop the hill overlooking the small old-town area with an overpowering fortress-like presence. Melk turned out to be an excellent base to tour the rest of the villages in the Wachau Valley. After spending a day exploring Melk and the beautiful baroque Abbey, we followed the advice of Rick Steves and purchased the 10 Euro Wachauticket all-you-can-ride bus pass. For those of us who didn’t rent a car or feel like biking 40 km, this was the best way to get from one beautiful village to the next. The ticket can be purchased at the small Tourist Info (TI) office in Melk, located conveniently next to the bus stop.
Riding the buses (WL1 on the north bank, WL2 on the south bank) provided an opportunity see the many small towns nestled in the various folds of the valley. Local school children were taking the same buses to get back and forth to school. The lack of crime in the area was emphasized to us by the way the those children would leave their unlocked, unattended bicycles behind the various bus stops, trusting that those bicycles would still be there waiting at the end of the school day.
: There was a certain disappointment as we emerged from the train station in Salzburg. Arriving very much in the center of the newer city, there was a graffiti-inspired urban vibe to the first buildings I saw. Were we somehow in Cleveland? Where was Julie Andrews? No yodeling was to be heard? The train station also served as the main bus station, so we had to figure out which of the many platforms was going to get us to our hotel. Public transportation is a very real thing in Salzburg, and there are many public buses and overlapping bus routes. We eventually got close, though we still got off the bus three stops before we were supposed to.
Once we arrived in the Alt Stadt, there was no doubt as to why we were there. Beautiful architecture surrounded us, as did the Alpine terrain. We quickly feel in love with the many aspects of Salzburg, from hiking the surrounding hills to strolling the busy Getreidegasse in search of a good meal.
: A first for me in the planning of this trip was using a bus to get us and our luggage from Salzburg to Bad Ischl. When it was time to leave for Hallstatt, we made our way back to the graffiti at the main bus terminal in Salzburg. Dutifully we waited for Bus 150 to take us. When it was time to board, the driver looked at my ticket and simply said “No, next bus”. Apparently not all Bus 150’s go all the way to Bad Ischl (sigh). An hour later we loaded our luggage onto the cargo hold at the bottom of the correct bus. I left that cargo door open thinking that another passenger may want to put theirs in as well. When it was time for the bus to leave, the bus driver sternly spoke to us in German that I could not understand. One of the people on the platform awaiting another bus, hearing the driver, shook her head in apparent disgust and proceeded to close the cargo door that I had left open. My courteous notion of leaving the door open had apparently turned me into a rude passenger.
Weather had remained sketchy during our stay in Austria, with rain one day and sun the next. This travel day to Halstatt was one of the rainy days though even with the low clouds the views near the Wolfgangsee and Bad Ischl were picturesque. We caught the local train from Bad Ischl to Hallstatt as expected, surrounded by a bevy of Chinese tourists.
I had read that Hallstatt was popular in China as a wedding destination – so much so that the Chinese have built a replica of Hallstatt in the Guangdong province. As we walked the slippery trail from the tiny Hallstatt train stop to the boat launch for the ferry “Stephanie”, it was clear why this remote village is endearing. Even in less than optimal weather, the beautiful lines of the old town stood clearly against the mountain backdrop.
Stepping off the boat, I realized I wasn’t exactly sure where our accommodations, the Braugasthof Hallstatt, were. Dragging our luggage, we headed off to the right in what appeared to be the correct direction. Luckily Hallstatt is not large, and soon we reached the outskirts and realized our mistake. Time to re-evaluate! We trudged back towards the center of town, suitcases in tow. Eventually we found the Braugasthof, looking every bit as enchanting as we could have hoped. The skies cleared for our full day in Hallstatt the following morning, and we enjoyed a busy day seeing the sights.
: The day we left Hallstatt for our return to Vienna, the rain was coming down across most of Austria. As on the French experience, we stayed at a decently rated hotel next to the airport. We had a nice Austrian take on the hamburger, the Alpinburger, along with some good beer. Since the rain continued, it was nice to have a short walk from the hotel to the airport.
The flight back to the USA took us from Vienna, again on Air France, this time through Amsterdam. Schipol is a large, busy airport, and happily, the English signs were as prevalent as Dutch. Not so happily, the wait at customs for exiting the EU was unexpectedly long and unorganized. Luckily I had long layovers built into the itinerary, so the stress factor could have been much worse. Those less fortunate were forced to ask the officials for special consideration in order to make their connections.
I’m not sure I would spend the money to stay here again, as there are far more reasonable accommodations available in the old town. However, our time with the Hotel Schloss Monchstein was a unique and unforgettable experience. More than once Diane and I would get off the elevator at the museum and simply gaze out over the breathtaking view of the city, day or night. Splurging was good for unique memories, indeed.
It was our last night in Austria, so it was time to be near the airport. As I have mentioned before, I tend to choose Hilton chain hotels simply because I travel as part of my job and tend to build up status with Hilton. Unfortunately, the only Hilton hotels I could locate were downtown, and I do like staying near the airport to be as hassle free as possible for that early morning departure. Vienna’s airport has fewer hotel options than other big city airports like Charles de Gaulle, but the NH Vienna Airport Conference Center fit the bill nicely. It is very modern and is literally a few steps across the street to the airport. The weather had turned dismal for our last day in Austria, so we truly appreciated the clean and efficient restaurant and accommodation for our last night. The staff spoke English, though I had to chuckle when the clerk nonchalantly dropped the “F-bomb” when describing to us how the computer system was malfunctioning. I asked where he had learned his English, and was rewarded with more amusement when he replied that he had learned from the American rap music that he was fond of. If I ever return to Vienna, I will make this hotel my last stop.
: Vienna is one of Europe’s thriving capitals. Most of what you’ll want to see is probably in the Alt Stadt. As I discussed earlier, I found that the hop-on, hop-off buses included in the Vienna Pass card, along with these two feet, got me where I wanted to go. The Vienna Pass, much like the Florence and Paris versions, is well worth the money and allowed us to enjoy some attractions that I would not have probably taken the time to experience. I did have some trouble finding a vendor for the card but the Vienna State Opera is a good place to find all things touristy, including these cards. It was fun to buy the cards and then immediately hop on one of the convenient buses to start our touring with the otherwise hard-to-get-to Schonnbrunn Palace. While there, we used the card to enjoy the Strudel show – something I definitely would have skipped otherwise.
The Hofburg complex also housed two other attractions that Diane and I enjoyed very much. One was Augustinian Church, or Augustinerkirche. Following the guidance of my constant travel companion, Rick Steves, we made a point of attending Sunday morning Mass here. We were not disappointed. The choir was the best that I personally have ever heard, and the orchestra matched the quality as together they performed Joseph Haydn’s Solo Organ Mass (Orgelsolomesse). The interior of the church was lovely as well, creating a sensory time travel experience that was one of the highlights of this Austrian vacation.
The other Hofburg attraction is the famous Spanish Riding School. We booked early on in the planning process, and were rewarded with great seats. However, we almost didn’t get to use them. The entrance to the performance was not intuitive for me, being through what seemed to be a side door as opposed to the main entrance. By the time we figured out our dilemma and made it to our seats, the show was almost ready to begin. Our seats were in the center on the side, and we had no trouble seeing and enjoying the entire performance. Those who had waited too long to purchase tickets had to settle for standing room or seats with poor views. I’m not an equestrian kind of guy, but I did love the show and highly recommend it.
I was surprised to see a panhandler at the church entrance as we were leaving. Glancing back I noticed that two Austrian Polizei on bicycles “encouraging” the beggar to find another place to be.
A different form of begging can be seen throughout the Alt Stadt composed of teams of young men dressed in baroque clothing that have the mission of selling opera tickets every day. I could always count on be asked at least once whenever we were leaving our hotel as to whether I would like to purchase tickets for tonight’s show. The guys were always pleasant and never too pushy. As it happened, I had not made plans to attend the famous “Wiener Statsoper” – the Vienna State Opera. We saw the lines of generally overdressed hopefuls waiting in the standby line each evening at the back of the building. If that is important to you, then I highly recommend securing tickets well in advance. I’m sure that the building is amazing, but it simply didn’t score high enough with Diane or myself to make the effort to go. There is a large video display at the front of the Opera house, complete with a few benches, for those who wish to catch a few moments of the evening’s show. After watching for a couple of songs, as amazing as it was, I knew I had made the right choice by spending the time elsewhere.
Much like Paris, Vienna has so much to offer that it could consume an entire two weeks. Among the many items we missed were the world-class zoo, the Prater Park amusement area, the City Hall (Rathaus), the Karlskirche, and the Albertina art museum. As a modern history buff, I would also have liked to have seen some of the remaining “flakturm” buildings – massive anti-aircraft fortresses used during the Second World War, now either derelict or given to other uses. However, after three days of soaking up Vienna culture, I was ready for a change to the country.
: Much like the trip to France, the change from Vienna to Melk was a complete change of pace. Melk itself is very small, and the old village is even smaller. Again my buddy Rick Steves did not steer me wrong by suggesting Melk as a base of operations for seeing this area known as the Wachau Valley.
The powder blue and white tower of the Durnstein Abbey beckoned from across the river, but I could not see anything like a ferry on either bank. There was a small wooden pier with a cast iron bell, but that was all. As I stood there contemplating the situation, Diane found a gong for the bell and rang it, loudly. Soon there was the sound of a boat motor starting on the opposite bank, followed by the image of what appeared to be an oversized rowboat. As it came closer, it was clear that this dingy was the ferry shown on the map. The crewman was happy to take our Euros, and we were soon joined by several bicyclists who somehow managed to squeeze themselves and their transportation onto the small craft. The short ride across the river was pleasant, and the whole effort provided a dose of adventure.
The Abbey at Durnstein is not as overwhelming as the one in Melk, but it is still resplendent in its gilded baroque stylings and well worth the visit. The rest of the town has romantically medieval qualities that make it great for strolling and the previously mentioned castle restaurant with its picturesque views of the river.
: Have I mentioned the skyline in Salzburg? The massive Hohensalzburg Fortress reigns over the city like a protective father, ever watchful of the old town below. I have perhaps over-used the word “breathtaking” when describing Austria, but that is how I felt the first time I laid eyes on this skyline. Medieval bridges and buildings give the panoramic view from the north bank of the Salzach River a perfect blend of architecture and terrain. The newer parts of the city seem to merge effortlessly into the time capsule of the older town.
Much like the surrounding hills, the Salzburg area is very much alive with “Sound of Music” tours. The 1965 musical still resonates through much of the local attractions. I’ll even admit to watching the five Oscar winner as part of the spiritual preparation for this visit. However, as taken as I was as a young boy with the wholesomely attractive Julie Andrews, the movie was not a driving force in the planning of my three nights in Salzburg.
Hometown favorite son Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart is more deservedly the focus of much of the rest of the tourist industry here. His statue resides in the old town in his very own Mozartplatz, with his birthplace and childhood home is one of the city’s popular attractions. He even has his own chocolate balls, Mozartkugel, that can be found throughout Austria.
One of the first things we did in Salzburg was to purchase the 72 hour Salzburg Cards. As with the Vienna Pass, the Salzburg Card provided admission to most of the attractions in Salzburg. The city bus system is included in the card as well. The buses here, as I found throughout Austria, were clean and punctually reliable.
The Salzburg Museum, located across the platz from the Residenz, is likewise worth a good look. It has more of a hand’s on feel, with many musical instruments to listen to with headphones or actually try for yourself. I enjoyed the experience here, despite a full day of museum viewing.
As in larger Vienna, there were several attractions in Salzburg that we missed due to the time constraints of a three day visit. Mirabel Palace was closed for a wedding, as far as we could tell. We never actually went to Mozart’s birthplace, though I can say that we generally had the Mozart experience.
Salzburg, more so than any one location that Diane and I have visited, is the most likely location for a return visit. The people are generally friendly and helpful. The old city is beautiful. I’ve heard it’s a fun place to be at Christmas (wink, wink, nudge). We were sorry to leave, but the mountains (and our reservations) were calling.
: The beauty of Hallstatt is the village itself. When you get off the train and trundle your luggage down to the dock for Stephanie ferry, you get your first real look. Hallstatt is simply breathtaking (that word again), being situated as it is between the mountain and the lake. We were only here for two days, so we did what we could.
Our day with the salt mine started equally as wet. Taking the funicular to the top, we lost sight of the ground as we ascended into the fog. Once we were there, it was a short hike to the welcome center for the mine. It was fun watching Diane and the others in our small group pull on the blue overalls required by the tour. We soon were in the cool of the mine, and our well-spoken tour guide took us deeper and deeper. Perhaps this is not the best for folks with any inclination towards claustrophobia, but luckily Diane and I had no qualms. The tour included miner slides, so I was thankful for the overalls and the well-worn wood of the slides. The longest slide at the end has a camera and a speed-clocking device. We were clocked at 29 kph, and it felt like it. The ride out was the most exhilarating part of the tour, miner slides notwithstanding. Warned to keep our heads down and elbows in, we raced out of the mine on a single file rail shuttle. My eyes were watering from the speed as I shakily exited the shuttle, but I was happy for the rush. Best of all, the sun had magically replaced the clouds while we were in the mine!
The Bergrestaurant Rudolfsturm sits near the top of the funicular and had a nearby lookout platform with an amazing (breathtaking?) view of Hallstatt and the lake below. We enjoyed a salad and a goulasch with mélange as we sat at our table with roughly the same view as the platform.
Since the weather was so nice, we chose to hike down from the mine instead of taking the funicular. It was a long hike, but at least it was downhill. We had several gorgeous views through the trees as we descended, and we pitied those intrepid souls who were going the other direction.
The mine, the restaurant, the platform and the hike are all an adventure worth taking.
I was glad that we had made the time for Hallstatt. We did not have time for the popular ice caves, but I was satisfied with the great memories I was taking home from Austria in general and Hallstatt in particular.