Claustrophobic in Vienna

After breakfast we attempted to navigate the public transport system of Vienna.  Since we were staying on the outskirts of the city, we had to make our way to the city center.  We rode a bus, then a tram (streetcar), and finally another tram that went around the “inner ring” of the old town.  Our first stop was the Hofburg, the winter residence of the Emperor of Austria.  We bought tickets for the Imperial Apartments, which was a combined ticket with the Sisi Museum and the Silver Treasury.  The layout of the tour caused us to visit the Silver Treasury first.  This consisted of hundreds of silver and gold plates, candlesticks, and other assorted royal stuff.  Not very interesting.  Next was a sequence of rooms with displays telling about the life of Empress Elizabeth (“Sisi”).  She was the wife of Emperor Franz Joseph in the mid to late 1800s.  She died tragically in 1898, assassinated by an anarchist.  Her claim to fame seems to be her beauty and her 21 inch waist, which she kept into her 50s.

Unfortunately, this part of the tour was very crowded.  We got stuck behind a large tour group from Poland.  They would stop in a room and the tour guide starting explaining things.  Meanwhile, all of the tourists behind this group kept filling in the space behind them.  It was a classic traffic situation.  I started to understand the feeling of claustrophobia.  It was very hot and stuffy in these small, maze-like museum rooms, with so many people that you couldn’t move.

I was glad to get out of there and into the Imperial Apartments.  The crowd was more dispersed there.  We saw the desk where the Emperor worked on bureaucratic paperwork for 14 hours a day.  He was a dull workaholic.  Overall, I would have rather seen the Treasury, where the crowns and jewels were displayed, but after this tour we had seen enough of palaces.

Next, we walked through the park to the Vienna Opera House.  We waited for an English language tour starting at 2pm.  This was an excellent and informative tour.  The guide told us all about how productions are staged.  We sat in the best seats of the house, the ones used by the Prime Minister of Austria for special performances.  Since it was August, there were no performances scheduled (the season of 300 performances runs from September to June), so we got to go backstage.  The stage was enormous.  In fact, there are three stages:  1) the main stage, which usually hosts the first act; 2) a side stage for the second act; and 3) a back stage, for the third act.  The stages were on hydraulics, so they could be switched in as little as 40 seconds.

The good seats at the Vienna Opera House

There are up to 55 different operas being performed, with some having as little as three or four performances.    All of the sets are stored offsite at a nearby warehouse, and trucked in each day by the crew.  Sometimes they would have a rehearsal for one opera with one set in the afternoon, and a performance for another opera with a different set in the evening.  The schedule and all logistics are set up more than one year in advance.  The star performers are paid as much as 20,000 euros per performance!

After the tour we wandered down the Karnterstrasse, the main pedestrian shopping street.  It was a Sunday, so all the shops were closed.  There was a large crowd of people at the main square, near the St. Stephen’s Cathedral.  A group of street performers were doing a hip hop dance routine for tips.  One guy did a hand stand on one hand and was hopping around.

Vienna architecture

We walked next to the Rathaus (town hall) park, where there was a large video screen and hundreds of chairs set up.  During each night of the summer concert films are played on the big screen.  Nearby was about 20 food stalls.  We weren’t hungry yet, but Allison wanted to find an Internet café.  We asked one guy for directions.  He told us to walk to the corner, take a left, and then walk “about three minutes/blocks/hundreds of meters.”  We weren’t sure.

After walking for blocks and not finding it, we stopped and asked a group of guys playing a game on the sidewalk.  They told us it was the other direction, back the way we had come. So we walked back.  And couldn’t find it.  Next, we went into the McDonalds we found there and asked.  This time, a guy gave us directions and a specific address.  It was the way we walked at first, but we hadn’t walked far enough.  So back we went.

We walked and walked and walked.  We were tired.  We found the address.  It was not an Internet café.  A few doors down was a computer store, but since it was Sunday, it was closed.  We gave up, but luckily we were able to ride the tram back to the Rathaus Park.

One of the food stalls featured Mexican food, which struck me as something I would not have expected to find in Vienna.  We took a chance on that, and it wasn’t very good, but it filled us up for the ride back to the hotel.

And now, time for another brief aside about beds here…

Why is it that there is a thick quilt on each bed, but no sheet or blanket?  With a thick quilt you have a choice: either use it and get too hot, or not use it and have nothing and get cold.

Crashing the Local Wine Garden in Vienna

Today was cold and rainy.  We walked around Salzburg’s old town, but the girls were cold and didn’t enjoy it.  Plus, we have seen a few shopping areas already on this trip.  We had lunch in a deli, and bought two mini sacher tortes at Demel’s chocolate and cake store.  By mid-afternoon we got in the car for the 3 ½ hour drive to Vienna.  It poured the whole way.

Cafe Mozart in Salzburg, Austria

Our destination was a small country hotel called Fuhrgassl-Huber in a village on the outskirts of Vienna.  The hotel also makes their own wine from the vineyard behind the hotel.  For dinner we walked down the street to a traditional Viennese wine garden restaurant.  The décor is like an old hunting lodge, with thick dark timbers and low booths and wood tables.  It was very crowded with locals.  We figured out that the ordering was cafeteria/deli style, where you take your tray up to the counter and pick out what you want to eat from the display cases.  They had many different deli vegetable dishes, as well as pork ribs, chicken, and fish.  This place had simple local food at cheap prices, only 15 Euros for our entire meal.  There was only one table open in the entire restaurant, upstairs in the mezzanine area.  So we took that table, only to be told (in an unfriendly way) by the waitress that the table was reserved.  Ooops.  We didn’t know.  We’re tourists from out of town.  There wasn’t a sign.  We stayed put.  The upstairs area was very hot and stuffy, and the kitchen heat and stray smoke rose to gather under the peak of the building.  It was an authentic gastronomic experience.

Mad Ludwig vs. Mozart Tag Match

Despite the cold weather and rain, we made our way up the narrow main street in the village to the bus stop for the trip up to Mad Ludwig’s Castle.  The crush of tourists had not shown up yet; they were still having breakfast in Munich, Salzburg, and Innsbruck, and their bus drivers were beginning to idle their engines on the huge touring buses.  The bus ride was short, zig-zagging up the mountain, but I wouldn’t have wanted to walk up that incline for very long.  The bus stopped at Marienbrucke (Mary’s Bridge), a bridge across a steep and deep valley that overlooks a waterfall and the castle.  It is a great spot for taking photos of the castle and viewing the surrounding valley and Alpine lakes.  Unfortunately for our photos, today is grey and dark.

We walked down the path through the forest to the castle.  In the front courtyard, groups of tourists were already standing in a crowd waiting their turn to get in for their tour.  I had read that there were very few finished rooms to tour inside this castle, and it wasn’t worth the wait.  It took 17 years to build the castle for Ludwig, and by the time it was (almost) finished in 1888, he was considered insane by the other leaders and deposed.  He only lived in the castle for a few months.  It is a magnificent ideal of a castle though, built from white stone, with towers everywhere.  We had a walk around the two courtyards, and then headed back to the village via horse wagon with a group of Japanese ladies.  The youngest woman, about 18 or so, was fully equipped with all of the gadgets and baubles of the young Japanese rich, including not one but two cell phones, cameras, music players, designer purse, and fake nails an inch long.

A dreary day at Neuschwanstein Castle

Ludwig lived most of his life in Hohenschwangau Castle.  It looks like a small castle from the outside, but really is more of a country mansion/hunting lodge built on the hill overlooking the Alpsee (another Alpine lake).  We had a tour of the king and queen’s rooms by an English speaking boy who told the story of Ludwig’s life.  The guy explained how there was a heater in each room, fed with wood or coal by servants in the hallway so the servant didn’t have to go in the room and disturb the royalty.  The living rooms had fantastic views across the surrounding mountains, lakes, and valleys.

We left the crowded village and drove to the neighboring town of Fussen for lunch.  After some more Italian food (there are a lot of pizzerias in this part of Germany, because of the proximity to Italy?), we briefly wandered the pedestrian area of Fussen.  Peter wanted to visit the local skate shop.  The proprietor had recently been in Canada, and even had been to Portland to skateboard at the semi-famous skate part under the Burnside Bridge in downtown Portland.

With the exception of the cashier at the Burger King on the Autobahn on the first day of our trip, everyone we have come into contact here has spoken English.  Even at a gas station in a small village near the Austrian border, an old woman running the cash register spoke a little English.  Unlike the snooty French, who don’t want to speak French to you, in Germany everyone instantly speaks English to us.  On a couple of occasions, someone has asked me if I speak English.  That question made me feel pretty good, that I wasn’t so obviously American.  Although every other time, it’s not “Gutan Tag”, but “Hello, how are you?”

The drive through the Alps was very beautiful, despite the cold and dreary weather.  We were looking for another alpine slide in a small village off the highway.  We found the place, nestled at the bottom of two mountains.  There were many ski runs on the mountain.  Just then the sun came out for our ride up the chairlift.  This luge is the longest in the area, at almost a mile long.  We had a great and fast ride down.  I had to keep breaking or I would have flown off the track and crashed in the meadow.

Stopped in time on the Alpine slide in Austria

No matter where you drive in the world, in the summer there is road construction.  On our drive from Innsbruck to Salzburg, we must have hit a dozen construction sites.  At each one, the lanes narrowed to barely the width of the car.  This delayed us, so that by the time we got to the hotel in the old part of Salzburg, we had to rush dinner to get to the theater in time for our show.  The show was our attempt at being exposed to some musical culture while in Salzburg, a city famous for Mozart.  This show was a little less cultured, consisting of several singers and a piano player playing music from “the Sound of Music” interspersed with video clips of the real Maria von Trapp telling her life story, plus Austrian folk songs, and famous opera parts.  A little too “touristy” for my taste, and I am not an opera fan by any means.  Plus I was tired from the mountain and autobahn driving.

Tomorrow we’ll do some more walking around Salzburg, before driving to Vienna.