Monday, October 6, 2014

Vienna

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We arrived in Vienna by train from Prague, not long after noon.  After locating the apartment we were renting together, we found a place to eat lunch, and encountered Berner-Würstel for the first—but certainly not the last—time.  Vas ist das?  It’s cheese-stuffed sausage, which is then wrapped in bacon.  It originates in Austria, and we kept coming back to it—it’s extremely tasty, if we even need to clarify that.  Cheese stuffed bacon wrapped sausages--how could it not?

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After some initial exploration of the city center, inside the ring road (the Ringstraße is a road system that was built where the original city walls once stood), we ventured outside the ring to the south, to the Naschmarkt, or night market, where we browsed for a picnic dinner.  We had no shortage of tasty options!

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David got up early that next morning and headed out for groceries, so we could make breakfast, since we had a full kitchen.  We’d tried the night before, but the closest grocery was closed by 6:30 pm.  Unfortunately, David discovered that the grocery was still closed, and would be closed all day (it was Sunday).  After visiting two other grocery chains, he concluded it was a local thing—in fact, basically every business in town is closed on Sunday except some restaurants.  That was the first sour note for Vienna.  We went out for breakfast instead, and then joined a walking tour of the city.  The tour was quite interesting, and the city was beautiful.  Back in their prime, the Viennese did not allow cargo to pass through the city, along the Danube river, but required it to be sold to merchants there, who would then re-sell it at a mark-up for transit on past Vienna.  We also visited Heldenplatz (Heroes Square) and Hofburg Palace, pictured below.

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In the afternoon, we tackled our food problem—we really wanted to cook for ourselves, since we had a kitchen.  After some online research, we located the single grocery store in the old city that is open on Sunday, and we set off for it.  It was a pleasant walk, but when we arrived, it was clear that everyone in Vienna still shopped for groceries on Sunday, but they all had to come to this one store.  The picture above doesn’t do justice to the crowds.  If you held the Superbowl the day before Thanksgiving, and that happened to be the day before a forecast hurricane or blizzard, you’d see lines like this.  It was really hard to find anything, because the full length of every aisle was packed with people waiting in line for the checkout lanes.  However, we found enough for dinner and breakfast, and finally got out.  We really felt badly for the staff—they looked stressed.  Happily, we made a great dinner, and we had found small, raw Berner-Würstel that we cooked up for an awesome breakfast the next morning.

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After our fabulous breakfast, we headed out for a bicycle tour of the Wachau valley, and its wineries.  Our guide, Esther, was a young Hungarian woman with a quirky sense of humor, and she took us by train about an hour west of Vienna to Krems, where we picked up cruiser bikes, and started riding.

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We visited three wineries, and unlike most of the tour group, the three of us restrained our tasting to sips, knowing we had a lot more cobblestone to pedal over.  The wine was quite good—even David enjoyed some of it, and he’s not a wine person.  The riding was a very gentle uphill slope, through vineyards and hamlets; it was very scenic.  As much as David is not a wine person, Nicole is not a bike person, and she was a little nervous about this adventure, but the bikes were very stable and well maintained, and the morning ride uphill was relaxed and low speed.

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We stopped for lunch in Dürnstein and chatted with a really interesting and friendly brother and sister who were on the tour with us (she took the picture below), who were Lebanese, and Canadian, but living in Abu Dhabi.

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After lunch, we had some free time, and we hiked up to the ruins of the castle on the hilltop over town where King Richard the Lionheart had been held prisoner.

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We also had time to wander the tiny town.  The local tradition is to plant flower beds over grave sites, which seems like a cheerful approach.

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We rode further up the valley to Weißenkirchen in der Wachau for our final winery, on a terraced hillside.  The only traffic we saw was a tractor and a few other cyclists.

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We crossed the river on a cable guided ferry.  The cable is strung across the river, and the ferry is tethered to it.  The pilot then angles the boat into the current to propel the boat towards the far shore.  It was completely silent—a neat system!  Once across, we rode back down the valley on the far side of the river, stopping to admire Dürnstein along the way, and catching the train back to Vienna at Krems.  Esther gave us some good suggestions for sightseeing on our last day in Vienna while we were on the train.

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We liked Vienna; we ate great food, and saw wonderful things there, but it suffered in comparison and recent experience to the other three awesome cities we’d just been to.  It was an interesting parallel to our experience in Thailand, after travelling through Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos;  Vienna was certainly the most westernized and touristy of the Central European cities we visited, though we felt it was less "westernized" than Thailand.  It didn’t help that some Austrians had a not too subtle we-are-better-than-Germans/everyone else attitude. Their sense of humor is a little “off” what we tend to think is funny, and they have the brusqueness of western Europeans in their approach to tourists.  However, we certainly enjoyed our time there, and would recommend it to others—just not as highly as we’d recommend Budapest, Prague or Krakow.

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Vienna was also the last bit of our trip with our friend Nicole. We had enjoyed traveling with her immensely, and sincerely hope to do so again. Not only did she make it such an easy part of our year by booking great accommodations and tours, but her company was so enjoyable and fun. Traveling with friends (either old, or newly met) is very refreshing after traveling as a couple; friends bring new perspectives and conversations, and they are interested in seeing things you wouldn’t think of, but enjoy being introduced to.  We felt very lucky that we were able to travel with as many friends as we did. At this point we knew the end point of our trip was only a couple of weeks away, but we headed into those last weeks with a vivid reminder of the good things that were in store for us at home.