On my recent trip to Vienna, Austria I had the opportunity to visit the oldest zoo in the world. The Tiergarten Schönbrunn (the Schönbrunn Zoo) was founded in 1752 by orders of Holy Roman Emperor Francis I. It was built near the Schloss Schönbrunn, the imperial palace of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. A smaller zoo had existed on the site since 1540.
The zoo was opened to the public in 1779 and admission was free. Today, it’s no longer free (what is these days?), but it makes for a nice and easy trip by train and tram from the center of Vienna.
When I got there on a muggy summer day it was threatening to rain. I was hoping to make my way through the exhibits before a thunderstorm rolled in.
When I got to the elephant’s enclosure, there were no elephants in sight. They were locked in their room while the zookeeper brought out bales of grass. I hung around for a few minutes until he was out of the area. Soon several elephants of all different sizes came lumbering quickly to get to the new grass. It was snack time!
I spent quite a while watching these cheetah cubs. They were romping around the enclosure with each other, and one of them repeatedly jumped on his mother’s head. She took it all in stride and ignored him. Just another day with the kids.
The Schönbrunn Zoo is one of the better zoos I have visited. The views were good and the distance to the animals was close. It’s certainly a good choice of an activity when visiting Vienna with children (how many old buildings and museums can they put up with?), and is even fun for us old-timers…
One hundred years ago Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his pregnant wife Duchess Sophie left Vienna, Austria to visit the provincial capital of Sarajevo, Bosnia. Franz Ferdinand was the nephew of Franz Joseph, the Emperor of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, and at 50 years old was the heir to the Habsburg throne.
There was a lot of unrest in the empire. Various factions in far flung regions wanted independence from Austrian rule. One group in Serbia, called the Black Hand, was formed by Serbian army officers with the purpose of liberating Serbs living under Austro-Hungarian occupation. The Black Hand decided that they would assassinate the Archduke. They recruited three young Bosnians to carry out their plan.
The royal couple were on their way to a civic reception at Sarajevo’s city hall when the violence began with a conspirator tossing a homemade bomb from a bridge over the Miljacka River. It bounced off the folded convertible cover of the Archduke’s car and bounced under the vehicle traveling immediately behind them before exploding. The Archduke and his wife were unhurt but occupants of that car suffered injuries.
After speeches at the city hall, the couple left the reception to go to the hospital to visit people wounded in the bombing attempt. With the Archduke in a military tunic and helmet, and the duchess in a dress of white filigreed lace with a matching hat and parasol, they headed back along the original route through the city and straight to their fateful encounter with a young man named Gavrilo Princip, one of the young Bosnians.
After learning that the first assassination attempt had failed, Princip thought about where he might make another attempt. He waited outside a place called Schiller’s Delicatessen near the Latin Bridge over the Miljacka River. On the drive from the city hall to the hospital, the driver of the Archduke’s car made a wrong turn. The driver stopped the car to correct his mistake. However, there was no reverse gear in the car, so security men had to push the car backwards. Unfortunately for millions of people, the car had stopped right in front of Schiller’s Delicatessen.
Princip stepped forward and fired twice with a pistol from a distance of only five feet away. He hit Franz Ferdinand in the jugular vein, and Sophie in the abdomen. Both died in the car on the way to the hospital.
The assassination set off a chain reaction of events that led to the Great War of 1914-1918. Millions of people died, empires crumbled, and 20th century history started down a dark path which lasted for the next 70 years.
On the day of the crimes Princip was 27 days short of being 20 years old, so by law he couldn’t be charged with the death penalty. Instead he was sentenced to 20 years in prison. However, he died three years later in prison of tuberculosis and malnutrition.
While in Vienna I read that the Museum of Military History (the Heeresgeschichtliches Museum opened a new wing of the museum devoted to telling the story of World War I and commemorating the 100 year anniversary of the start of the conflict. As a history buff, and especially a 20th century military history buff, I knew I had to pay a visit to this somewhat obscure Austrian museum.
After a subway ride, a tram ride, and a rainy hike through a park, I finally made it to the Museum. The new World War I exhibits were excellent. I highly recommend a visit to this museum if you like history and find yourself in Vienna someday.
The Museum also has a longstanding exhibit about the assassination. The car that Franz Ferdinand and Sophie were riding in is displayed. The car is a 1911 Gräf & Stift Double Phaeton convertible luxury limousine. It was owned by Count Franz von Harrach, who was in the front seat of the car at the time of the assassination.
The exhibit also includes the military uniform that Franz Ferdinand was wearing (complete with original blood stains!), Sophie’s clothes, the chaise lounge on which he was declared dead, and the pistol used by Princip that changed the world.
We were barreling down the Autobahn in southern Austria at 170 km/hr (106 mph). I was pushing the little Mini as fast as it would go in order to not be devoured by the bigger Audis and the BMWs. We had left Bolzano, Italy (in search of Oetzi the Iceman) that morning and were heading back to Munich. After surviving the Swiss mountain pass (see Trouble in Switzerland), we had enjoyed several wonderful days in Nice (View of Vieux Ville in Nice), and endured painful road construction on the Italian Autostrada near Milan and Genoa. We were now in the Austrian Alps south of Innsbruck and the views were fabulous.
“I have to go to the bathroom,” said my daughter, who was crammed into the miniature back seat of the Mini.
“So do I,” said my wife.
“OK, I’ll take the next exit to make a bathroom stop,” I replied.
At the next exit I got off the Autobahn to find a rest stop, gas station, or restaurant where we might find the proper facilities. Instead I found more road construction.
I followed the detour signs and wound the Mini through multiple hairpin turns down a narrow road until we arrived at what looked like a truck stop. At least it used to be a truck stop. Currently all of the buildings were closed and the parking lot was empty except for a couple of trucks.
“You two are going to have to hold it. Everything looks closed. Maybe it’s because of the road construction. Let’s get out of here.”
I drove around the area looking for a way out and back to the Autobahn. We couldn’t go out the way we came in because it was a one way temporary road. After several minutes of searching I determined the only way out of the area was through a gate. I pulled up to the gate and checked the control box. Everything was in German. It looked like I needed to insert a special card into the machine in order for the gate to go up and let us out. This I did not have. I am not a trucker on the Milan to Munich route.
I backed out of the gate lane about 50 meters and turned the car off. We had three choices. Drive the wrong way up the narrow one way road with the hairpin turns and gamble that we wouldn’t run into a semi, wait for one of the sleeping truckers to wake up and need his espresso, or ram the gate with the Mini.
Door #1 sounded too risky to me. I had no confidence in the Mini’s ability to withstand a head-on collision with a semi. Option C also seemed like a bad idea, especially since it was a rental car and I would have to pay for the damages. It would have to be Plan B. We would have to wait it out.
Luckily, it wasn’t long before one of the trucks lumbered toward the gate. As the truck reached the gate, I snuck in behind it. As the barrier went up, I followed the truck through the gate to freedom.
The road took a convoluted route up, down, and around but eventually sent us back onto the Autobahn. I waited to get off the Autobahn until I found an official rest stop. The ladies did their business and on we went to Munich.
Several months later I saw a charge from Sixt, the German car rental company, on my credit card statement. It was a mystery to me, since it had been a long time since I rented the Mini. After some communications with Sixt, I learned that the Austrian and Italian roadway bureaucracies had collectively determined that I had defrauded them of a toll fee. According to the Italians, I had gotten on the Italian Autostrada through a toll booth and never exited. I had vanished from the Autostrada without paying the toll.
The Italians told the Austrians, who in true Teutonic efficiency then tracked the Mini to Sixt. I was billed for the missing toll fee, an extra fee for losing the toll slip, a fine for driving on the road without paying the toll, and administrative fees for the various agencies to handle all of this business. It totaled $184.
I didn’t even think about disputing these charges. I would lose any effort to battle the European bureaucracy (for example, see the Swiss Train Chief). It was an expensive bathroom stop, and the bladders stayed full throughout.
“Do you think I should wear a fur coat like that guy? What about a man-purse?”
I asked my wife as we strolled along Bahnhofstrasse, one of the main streets of the ski town of Seefeld, Austria. The man had on a full length mink coat, and the obligatory fancy leather man-purse on a strap around his shoulder, but was bare-headed despite the cold. I heard him speak Russian to his companions. I’d been told the town was currently overrun by rich Russians. Perhaps it was the winter convention of the Russian Mafia?
“No, you would look gay,” she replied.
“But this guy is pushing a stroller. He probably isn’t gay.” I said. However, I couldn’t see a woman who might be his wife, girlfriend, escort, concubine, or czarina among the crowd on this busy street.
The mink coat man stopped to look in the window of the Swarovski store. As we moved past him I glanced back at the stroller. It held two small dogs.
We were invited to Seefeld by friends who were staying for a week’s vacation to enjoy the brisk, refreshing mountain air and to go skiing. We hopped the train in Munich and headed south. The train was full of city people with their skis, heading to the mountains to enjoy the newly fallen snow.We met a young American man on the train who worked for the US ski team. He told us there was a ski event being held in Seefeld that weekend. He wasn’t an athlete but part of the team’s support staff. He encouraged us to watch the event and cheer on the Americans.
After arriving at the train station in the little mountain town, I noticed a poster advertising the ski event. It was called a Nordic Combined competition for the World Cup professional ski tour. The only thing I know about ski competitions I learned from watching the Olympics for an hour and a half every four years. I also remember watching ABC’s Wide World of Sports when I was kid. Seared into my memory is the endlessly repeated clip of the ski jumper getting mangled in a horrific crash as the announcer intoned “the agony of defeat.”
The Nordic Combined has two parts, a ski jump and a 10km cross-country race. At the scheduled time we walked to the edge of town to the ski jump hill and joined the international crowd cheering on the athletes. One after another each jumper sped down the ski jump and launched themselves high into the air. They seemed to hang there for a few seconds, leaning forward to be as aerodynamic as possible, with their toes pointed out and their ski tips up. Then they abruptly changed position for a graceful landing. The crowd roared for every jumper.
The cross-country race was held a couple of hours later. The order and start time of the skiers were determined by their scores in the jumping competition. The fifty contestants were spread out over a couple of minutes of race time. The race track was 1.4 km long. It was built into the bottom of the hillside and looped around through the forest. The finish line was at the base of the ski jump hill. Each time a skier from a particular country came around the loop in front of the crowd, his countrymen and countrywomen shouted encouragement in their language. There were at least Austrians, Germans, Swiss, French, Norwegians, Danes, and Americans in the race and in the crowd.
In the end, a German skier won the race. He had come from six or seven places behind at the start of the race to break the tape. The large number of Germans present were ecstatic and proceeded to celebrate their victory in the bars and cafes of this usually sleepy little alpine town.
The next day we took to the slopes. I hadn’t skied in over ten years. The last time I skied I couldn’t walk the next day because my knees hurt so badly. I was determined to take it easy and enjoy the afternoon.
The afternoon was perfect for skiing. There were plenty of blue skies, light winds, and fresh snow. The mountain was full of children bombing down the slopes like bottle rockets. Other children skied in a zigzag line, following their ski school teacher. They were mastering the rudimentary snow plow technique at a very young age.
I was surprised to see two young girls all alone at the very top of the mountain. No adults or guardians were in sight. In the U.S., we would call the start of this run “double diamond.” That’s the toughest ski run, for experts only. I thought it was incredibly steep. Yet it didn’t intimidate these native Austrian girls. Off they went into the void.
Instead of skiing from this point, I went back down on the gondola. I needed to be able to walk to work on Monday.
I knew by looking at the map that it was going to be difficult driving out of Vienna to go the direction we needed to go. Vienna, being such an old city, has no proper outer ring freeway, no straight streets, no grid, no obvious commuter routes, and lots of pedestrian zones, squares, and one way streets. I won’t say we were lost, because I thought I knew where we were most of the time, but I couldn’t figure out how to get there from here most of the time. Eventually we escaped the confusion and got on the right road out of the city. It wasn’t the autobahn that we needed, but generally in the right direction. After zig-zagging through the villages and wine country of northern Austria, we linked up with the freeway.
When we got to the border of the Czech Republic, there were police there to check our passports. I didn’t think they did that anymore after the Czech Republic joined the EU. After a few minutes delay, we were on our way. (The thing happened at the Polish border) There is a marked difference in the quality of the roads around here. The German roads were superior in every way. The autobahns and other roads have smooth, new surfaces, easy to read signs, and rest stops, gas stations, and restaurants every few miles. The Austrian roads were not quite as good. The Czech roads were bumpy, and typically under construction with lengthy detours through small towns. We were hungry for lunch, and couldn’t find anywhere to stop to eat other than getting candy bars in a gas station.
Once we got into Poland, we drove on a smooth new highway from Ciescen towards Bielsko. But after that, we turned off onto an old, bumpy road. We navigated our way to the small village of Laka, where my extended family lives. I was pretty sure how to get there, but knew we would have to look carefully at the street signs once we got close. As we slowed down coming in to Laka, there was my niece Dorota on the side of the road waving at us! She had come down their street to look for us just a couple of minutes before.
The rest of the day was a blur of food, conversation, food, more conversation, food, and more food.