Saturday, September 28, 2013

It's Salzburg in the Rain

Yes. I did go there.  Your ear worm for the day.

The day began early, as in we had to be at the tour start at 730.  The plan was for a trip to Salzburg and back.  Unbeknownst to us, that’s 350km.  One way.  The tour guide, who was definitely Austria’s best and most opinionated cheerleader, endeavored to make the journey as informative as possible.  In English.  And Spanish.  And German.  And, at times, Russian.  (Note: I am in awe of anyone who can master one language, let alone 4!)  He gave us a short history of Austria. And, a short history of Vienna.  And, and short history of the politics of modern Austria.  And, last but not least, a hefty dose of why it is good to be Austrian (Everybody is happy.  Everyone is working for the good of all.  Austria has the most clean air, water and soil anywhere.  Austria doesn’t send people to war.  It all sort of made me want to start humming the “Marsiellaise.”)

Curiosity:  After a certain number of minutes driving, Austrian bus drivers are required to  take a half hour to 45 minute break.  Conveniently at a roadside rest stop, which I came to think of as Schtukey’s.  While these stops are intended to make our journeys safer, they do slow down forward progress.

The tour guide, whose name I never got, wanted to show us a real Austrian village.  No other guide does this, said he.  It’s not the most beautiful village in Austria, but it’s typical, he remarked.  This is going to sound really bad and very cynical:  after about 10 minutes, I almost said to Lori “I’ve been to Leavenworth, let’s just get going.” It was a beautiful little place, on the shores of Moon Lake (not River.  And, I think that’s a record.  Two ear worms in one post!).  

On the road again (three!), we passed through beautiful villages, hamlets and farms.  It really is beautiful and looks just like a post card if the post card photo was taken from a fully open fire hose.  Lori and I have a new frame of reference for rain volume:  is it Salzburg?  What that means is, has it soaked through your umbrella and rain coat in under 10 minutes?  If not, it’s just Vienna.  Upon arrival in Salzburg, we toured the Mirabell Garden, where the “Do, Re, Mi” scene from “The Sound of Music” was filmed.  It’s not nearly as big as you think.  Maybe the rain had something to do with it.  Then, TG walked us across the bridge into the Old Town, and pretty much let us loose.  

The old town isn’t that different from other old town sections of other European cities. Narrow winding lanes opening onto small squares with fountains, shops tucked into nooks and crannies, beautiful old buildings on cobblestone streets.  Each city has it’s own personality and unique little jewels, and Salzburg is no exception.  It’s tucked up against a very steep mountainside, with the castle down the river a bit but in view of the town.  We didn’t get to the castle, but we did get to the University.  And, that is significant for two primary reasons:  One, the University Church, whose interior is almost totally white plaster and beautifully decorated and, two, the pickle sculpture.  See  photos.

Eventually, we boarded the bus for the return.  It took forever, but we finally made it back to the hotel a little after 9, only an hour and half late.  Dinner of Austrian tapas and off to bed for all of us.

Tomorrow:  Walking through Vienna and We Say Goodbye to L and J

PS: Rob had a great day floating the Danube and looking at the Austrian efforts to return it to some semblance of natural.

Last Waltz in Vienna

The day dawned drear and cold.  No, that’s not a typo, it really was rainy and dreary, but, even a rainy day on vacation is better than a sunny one at work.  Rob had the last of the conference to attend, and the three of us were signed up for a walking tour of Old Town Vienna.  

"Bambi's" birthplace
Our group consisted of about 20 or so people, and our guide was determined to give us as much information as she possibly could.  In fact, when she learned that none of us had an afternoon schedule, she actually went an hour over.  We saw the site of the old Roman fortifications, and the site of the village that supported the fort.  We saw the Hapsburgs and more Hapsburgs.  A rose garden, where the locals can rent a bush for two years and have the privilege of cutting roses from it whenever they want.  (Cool idea!)  We walked through (not in) the Hofburg Palace, and we even saw where “Bambi” was written.  We had a fascinating, albeit soggy, morning and when we were finished, we returned to the hotel and met Rob for lunch. 

After lunch, Lori and Joel headed for the airport and Maui, while we went back to the
Tack Room at the Spanish Riding School
Spanish Riding School for the guided tour.  Rob didn’t get to see morning exercises with us, so he wanted to at least do the tour.  I am really glad we did.  We got to see the horses in their stables, and as one incredibly self-centered woman found out, you don’t touch them.  This twit had insisted on touching the tack in the tack room and had been upbraided for it, and then even argued with the stable master when she was caught petting one of the horses.  I am ashamed to admit that she is American.  
Ring, Spanish Riding School

Anyway, we very much enjoyed the tour and seeing the horses relaxing.  Several of them seem to enjoy rolling around in the sawdust on the floors of their stalls, as they were covered in sawdust.  One seemed to prefer hay and his stall was at least a third filled with it.  We even got to see Justin Horsie!  Still “tudey,” he let out a snicker as the group passed.  We said goodbye to the horses and set off trinketing.  

That evening, we had dinner in a local Austrian restaurant recommended by the hotel concierge.  The food was delightful and the atmosphere of the restaurant was wonderful.  

Vienna is a wonderful city, very proud of its’ heritage and culture.  The Viennese people we encountered were very helpful and quite accommodating to our utter lack of German.  
Detail of Memorial to Plague Victims

Next:  Off to Hungary!

Sunday, September 15, 2013

Day Three: In Which We See The Horsies and “Lose” Rob

When Lori and I started putting together the plans for our time in Vienna (OK, full disclosure:  When Lori started putting together the itinerary.)  one of the things all four of us wanted to see was the Spanish Riding School (Lippizaner Stallions).  Rob was going to be at the conference most of the days, and the horses only perform on the weekends, so we had to settle for second best:  Morning Exercises with Music.  The school is at the Hofbrau Palace, which is pretty much in the middle of the Old Town, so it’s not difficult to find.  The morning exercises are about two hours of different groups of five horses working with their riders, mostly just to get  the horses a bit of exercise.  They live in stables, in the middle of the city, so exercise is important.  Okay, they live for two months at a time in the city, then they go back to their mother farm in the south of Austria.  
Entrance to the Spanish Riding School,
Hofburg Palace

Anyway, we watched two groups of horses go through their paces and then they brought out a couple of younguns with three mature adults.  How do we know?  It would seem that Lippazaners are born black or dark brown and as they mature, they become the iconic white that we all think of.  In this case, there was one dappled grey one who was pretty well behaved and who did what was asked of him.  And, then, there was Justin Horsie.  Lovely dark grey, with a few dapples of white, and a full white mane, with a full forelock falling completely over his eyes.  Bad enough that he looked like an 8th grade boy, but his behavior reeked of adolescence.  When asked to do something, he would snort or nicker in objection.  Rider wants to go forward?  Nice suggestion, but I think I’ll go this other way instead.  Sideways?  When I get around to it. I’m pretty sure I know what his stall looks like.  Bedding all over the place, old stinky horseshoes scattered all over the floor, saddle blanket in one corner, posters of young fillies on the wall.  He eventually settled down, sort of.  We were told that only the horses that showed a willingness to work with people and who had potential were brought to Vienna from the farm, so my guess is that he will wind up being a spectacular horse, he just needs to get through the hormones.  And, clean up his stall. 

Exterior of the Schonbrunn Palace
During the planning, Lori had figured out that we could take a bus tour of the city, ending at the Schonbrun Palace (Schonnbrun, Shoenbrunn, pick any spelling you like).  There, we would meet Rob and have dinner and go to a concert.  The bus tour was interesting and the tour of the Schonbrun was quite fascinating.  The Palace was originally the summer residence for the Hapsburg Emperors (with the Hofburg as the main seat), but when Maria Theresa came to the throne, she moved everything out to the Schonbrun.  She didn’t seem to like living in town much, and with 11 daughters and 5 sons, I suspect she wanted some room for all those little princes and princesses to run around.  Yes, the Hofburg has more than twice the rooms (something like 2,400) but it really has no grounds to speak of.  What we saw  at the Schonbrun  was room after room after room of gilded opulence.  There’s one room called the “Million Dollar Room,” and judging from the amount of gold, not to mention all the Moghul paintings they chopped up into bits, $1,000,000 might be on the low side.  The beautiful parquet floors in the palace  are so old that they sound like walking across a bowl of Rice Krispies.  Sorry there are no pictures, but they sort of made it sound like they might borrow a guillotine from the French for you if you were caught taking pictures of the inside.  I get it.  The paintings, Flemish tapestries and other works of art are very precious and they are trying very hard to preserve them for future generations.   

After the tour, we had some time to kill before we were supposed to meet Rob and do the dinner/concert thing.  We walked through the garden for a while and then  decided this would be a good time to run over to the Orangerie and get the tickets.  Ha!  First of all, the Orangerie (part of the palace) is a very big place.  Do we go to the garden?  The street side?  Inside? Second of all, our voucher had absolutely no other directions other than “The Orangerie.”  Third, when Joel called the contact number on the voucher, the tour director had absolutely no idea where we were supposed to go, other than “The Orangerie.”  Danke, lady.  Danke. 
The gardens at the Schonbrun

This was about the time the panic began to set in.  Rob was supposed to meet us, but we had no way to contact him and tell him where.  It was decided that Lori and Joel would go in search of the elusive blue-eyed dinner tickets while I waited at the entrance to the palace.  As we rounded the corner of the palace, who should be sitting at the cafe, but Rob, quaffing a beer. He had spoken to someone who knew where dinner was and off we went for dinner.  Joel went off on what can best be described as a scavenger hunt but it probably was more like leaping down rabbit holes and he seemed to get bad information from just about anyone he asked.  He finally, through the sheer force of his will I think, found and acquired said tickets and we settled in for dinner.  

The main course was “Viennese Boiled Beef.”  Sounds yummy, doesn’t it?  The image that came to mind was some soggy, stringy glop but what was on the plate was quite different.  Tender and flavorful, all four of us enjoyed dinner very much.  After dinner, we were supposed to go to the Mozart concert but by the time we got there, none of us were in any mind to sit for 2 hours listening to Mozart and Strauss.  I’m sure they were very good, but a glass of wine at the hotel bar sounded much more appealing.  Thank the lord for cheap taxis.
Schonbrunn at night

A word about my nuew bff:  Gruner Veltliner wine (imagine the umlaut over the ‘u’, I don’t know how to put it in). The server at the hotel bar introduced us and it is yummy.  Crisp, with apple tones, it’s almost like apple juice.  Okay.  Enough said or I shall have to order up a glass right now.  

Tomorrow:  The Long Road To Salzburg and Back, or No, We Did Not See the von Trapps (They Live In New Hampshire)

Saturday, September 14, 2013


(Dedicated to L and J who share my affinity)

One of life's greatest pleasures; indeed, one of humanities greatest inventions is the sausage.  Pretty much no one does sausage like the Central Europeans.   Each culture has their signature sausage, and they are equally delicious.    Vienna, being a cultural crossroads is kind of a one-stop shop for all of them.  

We checked into our hotel without incident, took showers and had a nap and waited for our friends, Lori and Joel to come in. When they did make it in and got settled, we agreed it was time for lunch.  They had been to Vienna before and knew just the place, Cafe Mozart.  The cafe is in the Old Town, in the middle of all sorts of great things to see. The menu has many delicious things but there was only one item that spoke, nay, sang to me: the sausage plate.  Four different examples of encased ground meat deliciousness:  one looked like our hot links, one looked like a super-sized Hormel  Vienna sausage (resemblance ends there), a smoky cheese sausage and a pair of tiny little almost kielbasa sausages.  I was in heaven!   They were so rich, though, I couldn't finish and had to let Rob, who had elected for a more healthy prosciutto salad, to eat the rest.  

Appetites sated, it was time for sightseeing.  There's a great pedestrian-only shopping area which Lori and I naturally gravitated to.  In an attempt to make a nod at culture, we did tour St. Stephens Cathedral, a beautiful and awe-inspiring Gothic cathedral.  It never ceases to amaze me how people with the crudest of tools, armed with a vision and a tremendous faith built such delicate looking structures.   St. Stephens is just gorgeous.  The roof is tiled in colored lozenges that we decided had to be Medieval Neko wafers.  

Sisi toy tea set.  Chocolates also available.
Kultchur out of the way it was time to hit the trinketerias.  Vienna is no stranger to the craptastic. Happy little plastic children lederhosen. Snow globes. Christmas ornaments.  Googly-eyed plastic palm trees bearing the inscription, "Vienna."  But, they also have chocolate shops galore.  You want chocolate named for buildings?  Check.  Chocolate named for fictional characters? Got it.  Chocolate bearing the name and likeness of pre-cursor to The Sainted Martyr Diana, Princess of Wales?  Sisi is EVERYWHERE. The woman has been dead for over a century and yet they still make chocolate for her.  (Hear that, Lady Di?  A crappy statue at Harrods is nothing compared to Sisi.)

History lesson, skip if you wish.

Sisi, or Empress Elizabeth, (1837-1898) appears to have been something of a tragic, but nutty figure in Austrian history.  A great beauty in her day, she spent most of her time being beautiful.  She dressed lavishly and her servants often spent an entire day washing and drying her floor length hair.  When she was stabbed to death in 1898, much of the public showed their adoration and that adoration continues to this day.  

The 3D Bald Eagle was a special favorite for us.
Rob mentioned that we were looking for beer steins, which set Joel off on a quest.  We soon discovered that there are a whole lot of incredibly cheesy beer steins out there, all made in...China.  So much for local souvenirs.  We did, however, finally a very nice shop that satisfied  most of our standards and we headed back to the hotel for dinner and bed.  Our hotel specializes in Austrian tapas (don't think about it. Your head will explode.) which were quite delicious and off to bed we went.  

Tomorrow,  an adolescent Lippazaner, house-hunting among the Hapsburgs and Joel goes on a scavenger hunt.  

Ravings of an Exhausted Mind Or, My Encounter with The Space Invader 

Flying just ain't what it used to be.  Yes, some things have improved, such as the creation of smoke-free flights.  Built-in in-flight entertainment.  And...nope.  That's about it. 

Back in the good old days, you had room to be mostly comfortable.   At least when my sibs got their squirmies on, they didn't poke me unless they meant to, which would have brought down the wrath of Dad and Mom from the smoking section, in the row behind us.  

The airwaves and inner tubes are awash with complaints about flying, and this is going to be an addition to that.  Plus, some other things. 

Our flight to Newark was completely uneventful.  We had emergency row seats, which meant that I didn't actually mind being in the middle seat as much.  Here's something for the UN to work on, something that would bring humanitarian relief to suffering millions the world over: how about a member treaty mandating that if you have to sit in a middle seat you own the armrests?  But, I digress.  We arrived in Newark a bit early and the limo driver we had hired to take us to JFK to pick up a rental car was there.   Very polite and helpful, but not  crystal clear on where the rental cars were.  Note:  paying someone else to drive across New York City was worth every penny.  We did wind up doing two entire tours around JFK before Mahmoud found the way into the rental car area, so we saw that airport from a whole new perspective.  

From there, we headed out to my cousin's house in the middle of Connecticut.  We got out of the New York area while it was still somewhat light, but rural Connecticut, on roads you don't know, in the dark, is an adventure, to say the least.  We only got lost once!  

We had a wonderful day+ with my cousin and her fiancĂ© and then it was time to head back to JFK.  We set out with more than three hours before we had to be there and arrived with about 20 minutes to spare.  A wreck at some bridge had traffic backed up for about 45 minutes, and then once the traffic broke loose, so did all hell.  Perhaps New York cars are required to spend a certain amount of time being driven like Indian taxis.  Perhaps New York is where Indian drivers come to train (or, vice-versa?), or maybe it's simply that New Yorkers have a communal death wish, I don't really know. What I do know is that I spent a lot of time looking at things on my phone so that I wouldn't have to see our deaths approaching.   

Turns out that New York isn't any better at airport security.  After we checked in on Austrian Air and the polite but brusque ticket agent had affixed a sticker to one piece of each of our carry ons saying, "Hand Luggage Austrian Air," (No idea why, or why only one, those crazy Austrians are just like that, I guess), we girded our loins for the giant sea of human misery that is TSA.  We found the line, and got into it, then suddenly, a walkie-talkie wielding agent began directing people to a different line.  This happened three more times, with no apparent rhyme or reason, just whoever looked right, I guess.  One agent did let parents with a newborn ahead of everyone, saying "People with newborns shouldn't have to stand in long lines" Then, she impishly added sotto voce, "Or, they could just leave the damn baby with grandma!" 

And, now we come to the main subject of this post: flying sucks and the only things that would make it less so are being in first class or copious amounts of alcohol.   I thought I had scored when I got an aisle seat in one of those four-across rows and the only other person was on the opposite aisle.  He let out a squeal of jubilation when they shut the doors and the two middle seats were empty.  "Maybe 7+ hours to Vienna won't be so bad," I thought to myself.  And they weren't, for about two hours.  I'd just settled in with a glass of wine and "Monsters University," when a guy asked if he could sit next to me.  Apparently,  turbulence farther back was getting to him. I couldn't very well say no, could I?  I should have listened to my inner bitch.  Mr. Space Invader started out pleasantly enough, but pretty soon he was poking me in the side with his elbow, spreading his legs into my space (Eww.  I don't like sitting thigh to thigh with a total stranger.)  Then, things got even better when I tried to get a nap.  He COULD NOT sit still.  My mother instincts very nearly clapped my hand on his leg and threatened to make him walk from here to Austria, but I didn't want to wake anyone who was fortunate enough to be asleep.  

Before you decide that I was completely miserable the entire flight, let me provide you with this moment of hilarity.  I needed to pee.   But, I could only find one shoe, so I did some quick troubleshooting and concluded that I could make a path in the toilet using hand towels.  No problem there.   The problem was how to pick them up without A) touching them and B) touching to rest of the wet floor.  I looked like Jennifer Anniston (I wish) doing her neurotic thing,  standing with both feet on one towel while I used clean ones to pick up the gross ones. I almost used hand sanitizer on my feet but decided that was probably more OCD than I was willing to be.  

I checked the flight tracker when I returned to my seat and saw that we had just two hours left before our 830 AM arrival.  Breakfast soon!  As we sped toward morning,  the Space Invader decided to take this opportunity to stretch out on the empty seats and nap.  He took off his shoes and seat belt, leaned over with his back to me and presented me with what shall forever be seared into my mind as....

The Butt Crack of Dawn.  

Wednesday, September 4, 2013

On The Road Again!

Cue Willie Nelson,  we're headed out on another adventure in a few days, this time to central and eastern Europe.  Specifically, we start in Vienna and then go by train to Budapest for a few days.  Then, we climb aboard the Danube Express for 4 days and 3 nights through the Carpathians to Istanbul.  The company call the route "The Transylvanian East."  Doesn't that sound like an adventure?

Barring an encounter with Vlad the Impaler (we will be visiting the village that he reportedly called home), we plan on having a great time exploring a part of Europe that we hadn't really planned on seeing until we took the Orient Express and read about one of their trips that goes to Istanbul.  Voila!  An adventure was born!