ALL THE THINGS
HIRSH AND SARAH'S ADVENTURES THROUGH "GREATER EUROPE"
WHERE WE HOPE TO EAT, SEE, AND DO
ALL THE THINGS THIS BEAUTIFUL LIFE HAS TO OFFER
Today was spent wandering around Salzburg, which we quickly realized is like a smaller version of our beloved Vienna. The weather has been really unpredictable lately, having rained at some point almost every day for the last week or so. Our first priority was to tour the gardens while the sun was still out so we could enjoy them in all their glory. Well, actually, our first priority was to find lunch. Since we couldn't find any casual sandwich stands near the gardens, we had no choice but to have ice cream for lunch. We did splurge by each getting our very own cone (a first on this trip)! It was our meal, after all.
We did plenty of wandering along the river and through town...
We found a parade. Rather, the parade found us...
Hirsh found the house where Mozart was born in 1756...
Sarah found the beautiful St. Peter's Cemetery. It's the oldest cemetery in Salzburg, but there are quite a few more recent burials. One that caught our eye was the grave of United States Army Major General Harry J. Collins, who died in 1963. General Collins commanded the 42nd Infantry Division during World War II, the same division which liberated the infamous Dachau concentration camp. This was but one of many accomplishments in his storied career.
Hirsh found a very very very old restaurant, dating back to 803 AD...
There was ice cream for dessert. You know, after our ice cream for lunch...
And Hirsh briefly lost Sarah, but knew well enough where to find her. Hint: If you ever lose Sarah in a public place, just look for the animals. You will always find Sarah talking to the animals.
Our sole mission today was to visit a town Pinterest dreams are made of: Hallstatt, Austria. It rains often here, and we actually changed our entire itinerary around for Germany/Austria/Slovenia so we would be sure to visit Hallstatt on a sunny day. The pictures look so perfect, you're just certain the reality won't measure up. Well, it does!
The best view is from the middle of the lake with the perfect lighting. It's not an easy shot to get, so the Internet comes to the rescue, once again.
We had a relaxing lunch at Bräugasthof, right on the water. Securing all these great tables is not just good luck - we aggressively scout them out and stalk them the way we did in our college dining halls. It's not uncommon for us to move tables once or twice at one restaurant so we can inch closer to the best view and take over tables when other people leave. It was worth the wait for the view!
We wandered around town a bit...
We found and fed the municipal swans. The town of Hallstatt has really outdone itself and procured a gaggle of ten swans!
And we rented an electric boat for an hour to cruise around the lake.
We spent nearly six hours in Hallstatt. It's a tiny town with literally nothing to do other than eat, shop, and maybe take a boat out on the lake (which was truly a highlight for us). The town is so idyllic, we simply didn't want to leave.
We eventually did leave to drive to our next Airbnb outside of Salzburg, with a brief stop in Bad Ischl along the way. Bad Ischl is the spa town where Emperor Franz Josef used to "summer." It's nice, but it's no Baden-Baden.
We left Ljubljana this morning to drive about an hour and a half to Škocjan Caves in Divača, Slovenia. A UNESCO World Heritage site since 1986, this is the largest cave system in Europe. The Reka River flows through the cave and during heavy rains, the river rises high enough to wash out the pedestrian walkways inside. Since photos aren't allowed inside the cave (probably to keep people from falling to their death while taking selfies), check out these Internet images of the cave's interior with the elevated walkways. It's really massive and worth a visit, as long as you aren't afraid of heights!
After spending about two hours at the cave, we drove to the picturesque mountain town of Bled. This town is known for its beautiful lake and the church perched on the island in the middle. Legend has it that if a groom carries his bride up the 99 stone steps to the church on their wedding day, then rings the church bell and makes a wish, they will be blessed with good luck. The Rick Steves video covering Bled has coverage of actual couples doing just that on their wedding day, and it's quite entertaining.
Unfortunately, we visited this pretty little town on a dreary, rainy day. We still had fun though, and even with grey skies we could see the beautiful turquoise hue of the clean and clear mountain water.
Hirsh found the "municipal swan."
Instead of making you imagine the town on a sunny day, enjoy this borrowed Google image...
That was all the sightseeing for this day. We got back on the road for what was supposed to be a 2.5 hour drive to our hotel in Forstau, Austria. What we didn't expect was the 6 hour cluster of a drive it turned into, with massive traffic delays getting through the single lane border tunnel and across into Austria. All's well that ends well, because we made it to our comfortable family-run ski lodge, Alpengasthof Draxler, and received the warmest welcome from hosts that were entirely too forgiving of us showing up 2 hours after check-in closed. 😄
The view from our room!
We stayed one night longer than originally planned in Vienna because we loved it so much. This gave us an extra morning to wander around the city and revisit Café Central!
What we didn't assume when we planned to stay an extra night was that this day was a holiday, Feast of the Assumption, or something like that. Consequently, it was like Sunday all over again and most of the stores were closed. We took this opportunity to spend more time in the magnificent rose garden, fully conscious this time.
And we took another loop around the city on our bike. Notice how I said bike. When we were in Paris two years ago, we discovered that we could share one of those clunky rentable city bikes (called the "Velib" in Paris) to save money and energy - well, Sarah saves energy while Hirsh expends for both of us. Many large cities have similar rentable bikes, so we've made a habit of finding a "Velib" wherever we can. Sarah sits precariously on the seat and holds onto Hirsh's shirt while Hirsh stands on the pedals and does all the work. It requires lots of balance, trust, and recklessness, but we see so much more than we would otherwise. We get plenty of envious and confused looks, but most people seem amused. Finally today, for the first time ever, we were scolded by a police officer. That won't stop us from trying again in the next city though!
We made one last brief food tour before leaving town. Käsekrainer is a cheese-infused sausage served either sliced or in a bun, and it's THE favorite street food of the Viennese. Eat all the things!
We topped that off with iced coffee at Café Hawelka, another of Vienna's famous cafes. Managed by a very charismatic, very in-charge head waiter, when we asked for a menu, he said "I am the menu." When we asked for sugar for our iced coffee, he said "no" and walked away. He basically told us it was perfect as-is and we would drink it and like it. And we did.
We left the heart of the city, picked up our car, and drove to one of Vienna's most popular tourist sites, Schönbrunn Palace. Built as the summer residence for the ruling Habsburg family, the palace and gardens are enormous and beautiful. It's tremendously busy in the summer, so it's important to book tickets in advance, but definitely worth a visit. Once again, photos are not allowed inside the palace, but we got a couple overlooking the pristine gardens.
Our last stop in Vienna was the Zentralfriedhof ("Central Cemetery"). Sarah's a bit of a cemetery aficionado, so this was definitely her choice. This is one of the largest cemeteries in the world with over 3 million interments! We got there with one hour to spare before they locked the gates for the night, subsequently got lost in the massive maze of graves, and made it out just as they were closing the gates. But we did manage to find the graves of Beethoven and Strauss, and a memorial to Mozart, though he is buried elsewhere in a pauper's grave.
Some random graveyard beauty...
After the cemetery, it was on to Hungary and one of the relative newbies on the hot travel circuit, Budapest!
After a fair amount of resistance and eye rolling, Hirsh agreed to take a Segway tour of the city. Sarah had done this once, years before, in Washington DC and has talked about it fondly ever since. It looks goofy but it's really lots of fun! We had a great guide, Max, who took us to all the major sights and provided witty history lessons along the way. Our group also consisted of two young professional women from London and a mother and her teenage daughter from Tel Aviv. An unexpected highlight of the three hour tour was stopping to have coffee with all of them and discussing world affairs. One of the best things about traveling is meeting other people from other places and realizing how similar we all are. Max told us how the fabric of the Viennese culture is quickly changing due to overwhelming immigration, the Brits expressed their disappointment in but understanding of Brexit, and the Israelis asked us about our presidential election, of course.
We chose the right day to do the Segway tour because the weather was beautiful and because just about everything is closed on Sunday in Vienna. The restaurants and some cheesy tourist trinket shops are open, but not much else. We had lunch at Trzesniewski, a well known casual restaurant famous for its gourmet finger sandwiches. A Rick Steves recommendation, too! We know you're all shocked by this.
Then we took a nap in the grass of this gorgeous rose garden, one of our favorite spots in the city. Don't worry, everyone does it.
And a little more walking around/looking around...
We also took a guided tour of the famous Vienna Opera House. It wasn't really high on our list, but it was something to fill the time when nearly everything else was closed. The big surprise was how fascinating it was. The tour is offered every hour in multiple languages, and our group was so big that it had to be divided in two. That tells you how popular this tour is! We learned about the staff of 300+ who work at the opera house to manage the business and assemble and dismantle the sets. During the season, they don't repeat any one show on consecutive nights. This means they are breaking down and setting up entire sets every single day, and they start early enough in the morning to leave time for dress rehearsal from 10am-2pm. It's quite a production.
Here's a picture of Hirsh backstage
And a picture of a picture of the annual Viennese debutante ball. There's a very involved application process to be presented here, including proving you can dance the Viennese Waltz with the unconventional left turn. And you thought Carolina Country Club was fancy!
Our Segway guide, Max, had pointed out some of his favorite eateries during the tour. One of these is a restaurant called Figlmüller, serving what he said was the best Wiener schnitzel. We had wanted to try schnitzel but until now had always been distracted by more obviously delicious things, like French crepes. As this was our last night in Vienna, it was our only chance. We called early in the evening to make a reservation, but they said they were fully booked and quickly hung up on us. Feeling hangry and determined, we decided to try another method. We got to the restaurant and through Sarah's...we'll call it charm and ingenuity...managed to snag the last table of the night. The deliciousness of the schnitzel and potato salad helped assuage our guilt.
Believe it or not, this picture was taken before Hirsh took a single sip of wine. True story.
Then there was more gelato at Zanoni & Zanoni, conveniently located just next door.
And drinks at the fancy Do & Co bar overlooking the impressive St. Stephens cathedral.
This day was a really big deal in Sarah's life - a day she had been looking forward to since she became a horse-crazy little girl in the third grade and learned that this place existed. This was the day Sarah saw the world famous Lipizzaner stallions perform at the Spanish Riding School. But first, coffee!
When we arrived in Vienna Friday afternoon, we walked by what was clearly a very popular cafe. We did a little research and decided to have breakfast here this morning to kick off our fancy-pants day. Café Central has been in business since 1876 and is an institution in the traditional Viennese coffee culture scene. Sigmund Freud and Leon Trotsky were regulars. The Viennese take their coffee very seriously and they know what they're doing. There are a couple of Starbucks in town, but one has recently closed because it can't compete with the real deal.
After a very nice breakfast - where we were given a choice table because we dressed up for the occasion - we walked just two blocks over to the Spanish Riding School for the main event. In fact, because we had both been to Vienna before, a chance to see this performance was the main reason we returned to the city on this trip. Hirsh had little interest in the horses, so we decided our money would be better spent on one amazing seat for Sarah. Ground level, first row, slightly off center for the perfect view! We purchased the ticket online two days before, and at that time there were only four seats available in the entire venue for this performance. Because we're planning our itinerary as we go, we really couldn't buy a ticket much further out. Needless to say, we were very lucky to get this seat and it seemed like the stars aligned.
After Hirsh dropped me off and made sure there were no issues with the ticket at will call, I sat in my amazing seat and admired this exquisite hall and almost had to pinch myself. I may or may not have gotten a little misty eyed because I thought this would always just be a dream for me. The performance was wonderful! No pictures allowed during the show, and that's just as well. It would be a shame to view such unique and beautiful art through a viewfinder or behind a phone screen. Better to just take it in and enjoy.
After the show, I met Hirsh back at the apartment and we ventured out for lunch at the Naschmarkt. This open air market is filled with restaurants and food stalls of every variety you could imagine, and we had a fun and relaxing lunch in the sunshine. This was followed by a rest in one of the city's beautiful parks.
Unlike many of our meals, dinner this night had not been researched and planned to death in advance. When we were riding the bike around the city, we just followed the music until we came upon a film festival right in the heart of town, near the university. For the entire summer, the city of Vienna hosts this festival and plays a different movie every night. This night was a screening of a performance of some unknown (to us) musician who reminded us of a cross between Elton John and Meatloaf. The locals seemed to love it though because the place was packed. Again, there were food vendors of every type, from Viennese to Thai to American to Australian to Hungarian to French...you name it. We shared a delicious crepe. It was a very fun vibe and made us fall even deeper in love with this city.
To end the night, we had coffee and dessert at another of Vienna's famous coffee shops, Landtmann.
We just spent the night in the outskirts of Munich this time, since we'll be returning in a week to actually explore the city. So we got up early and started the drive to Vienna - about a 4.5 hour journey.
It was yet another rainy, dreary day, which was fine for a heavy driving day. We did manage to find a museum-ish educational sight along the way - the Melk Abbey in Austria. Located on the banks of the Danube River, it's a UNESCO World Heritage Site and a popular stop for those Viking River Cruises you see advertised so heavily in the States. As such, it's overwhelmed with tourists, with guided tours leaving every hour in multiple languages.
There's a long boring history to the place that doesn't need repeating here. The most interesting thing about this monastery is that it's still in operation housing monks and providing education to around 900 students. We were hoping to get a glimpse of the daily life of its current inhabitants, but no such luck. The tour consisted mostly of an underwhelming museum, but we did get to walk through the impressive monastic library (no photos allowed) and the excessively gaudy Baroque-style cathedral. It's what Jesus would have wanted?
We both agreed this site wasn't our favorite, but now we know.
On to the carrot at the end of this stick of a long and frustrating drive - Vienna! We have both been to Vienna before, albeit briefly. We were excited to return and really get to know this beautiful and elegant city. We arrived in time to settle into our spacious and centrally located Airbnb apartment, a total steal of a deal. After freshening up, we headed out for a very local-style and "cheapfully delicious" (Hirsh's phrase, of course) kebab dinner on the waterfront. While this photo may look like a Coca-Cola advertisement, there's really kebab in there!
And obviously there was gelato from THE gelato place in Vienna.