Sojourning Through Central Europe – December 2015
Friday, 25 December 2015 – Arriving to Prague
Every Christmas season I get nostalgic for the Christmas markets of Europe. My absolute favorite thing there is to get a cup of Glühwein (hot mulled wine) and a bratwurst while wandering around the market. While we had to go later in the season than was optimal, the Christmas markets didn’t disappoint. I also was reintroduced to some cities that I had visited last as a young adult, so I learned to appreciate them anew as someone with a “couple” more years under his belt on this trip. Overall, I’d say it was a big success: no one got sick, we experienced no crime, and we only lost each other for brief moments.
Months prior, we had made our travel plans. Since the tickets to Europe were significantly cheaper leaving out of New York rather than Washington, DC (both cities have direct routes to Vienna on Austrian Air), I bused up to the city and met my good friend, Erica, and Erica’s mom Alane right on time inside the terminal near our departure gate. The flight over wasn’t bad at all, and I was sure to take as much opportunity as I could for the complementary red wine offered. Speaking about those who like their booze, we met some new “friends” in Vienna’s central train station (Haubtbahnhof) that had been evidently up all night celebrating Christmas, because they were making all sorts of noises and screaming at one another. My German came back to me rather well when one girl was using every curse word I knew (and many that I didn’t) to call out at one of her party. Luckily security came and asked them to disperse, so we could wait for our train to Prague in relative peace, even if we were all sitting around like zombies getting off a red-eye flight to Europe.
The plan was this: take a direct flight into Vienna, immediately take a train to Prague to really start our adventure there, plane it to Munich (because the train would take too long), train it back to Vienna for New Year’s, and fly out the day after. It actually worked our rather well. Having already bought all the tickets, I knew where and when we needed to be for our travel plans. I figured we’d be wandering around like zombies that first day, so the plan was to get immediately to Prague because I figured nothing would be open Christmas day. As we’re checking into our hotel in Prague, the young guy checking us in told us that the Czechs celebrate on the 24th, so yesterday had really been the holiday. That was good for us, because more things were open (including their Christmas market).
After looking at a map, we generally pointed ourselves toward the two main squares of Prague, Old Town Square and Wenceslas Square. We found the latter first, which is where a lot of major department stores are located. Even more convenient was the fact that not only was their Glühwein, but it cost something like $2 per glass. I’m going to like this place! We wandered around there a bit, checking out the stalls, but I knew the main action was in Old Town Square. More or less following the flow of people, we made our way to Old Town Square, which was lit beautifully and had a musician on the main stage blasting Christmas carols out to everyone. Not only are Christmas markets great themselves, but when you place them in a setting like Old Town Square, you’re in for a real treat! For some reason I wasn’t super excited to come back to Prague, but almost immediately I fell back in love with the city. I could easily move there and spend the rest of my days getting lost in its labyrinthine streets.
While Czech is obviously the most popular language there, we never once had an issue with anyone not speaking at least a little English. The first time I went to Prague—back in the mid-90s—German was definitely was more useful, but now English was everyone’s preferred backup language. Regardless, we found an outdoor café right on one corner of Old Town Square and ate an awesome meal; I had schnitzel, of course. One of many to come. I mention that it’s an outdoor café because remember, it’s the end of December at this point; it’s supposed to pretty damn cold out! Not so much, at least not at the beginning of our trip. This café had space heaters, so we were perfectly comfortable eating schnitzel outside and watching the people meander around us. What a great way to start this journey.
We obviously slept like babies that first night, since we’d been up for over 24 hours at this point. Our hotel is worth mentioning, because it was a big surprise to us all. Walking in it didn’t look overly fancy, but nice enough that I wouldn’t have to question whether they had actually changed the sheets since the last guest. Our room had a loft with a large bed and second full bathroom upstairs, so that really helped us three adjust to living in relative small quarters, since the girls had their own space upstairs. I got the pullout couch downstairs, and if I could have somehow stolen this couch from the hotel I gladly would have. Instead of you taking the pillows off the couch and pulling the folded mattress out, you pulled forward on the back cushions of the couch, which made the back fold forward onto the couch’s seat. You then continued to pull forward allowing all of those cushions do a summersault onto the floor and magically a bed appears. Not only does this method get rid of that center bar constantly jabbing you in a normal pullout couch, but it’s one easy movement to either stow or unfurl the bed. Pretty neat.
Saturday, 26 December 2015 – Prague Castle
As I mentioned, the hotel we stayed at—a Sheraton property—was pretty decent. Breakfast the next morning formally showed me the caliber of service we were dealing with. Although the breakfast area was smaller than the rush demanded at times, the staff always kept their cool and even smiled at you! It was amusing to hear Erica and Alane’s comments about personal space (people just running into you) and the fact that no one provided American caliber customer service. But that’s not the focus here, back to breakfast. There was a juice and coffee bar, which included a super fancy make-your-own-espresso drink machine that I need in my life. Further back there was a collection of crusty breads, yogurt, sliced cheeses and meats, and an omelet bar. Yeah, I could be happy here. The routine ended up that we’d load up on a big breakfast, usually find a light snack out somewhere, and then find a local restaurant along our journey for dinner. It generally worked out rather well.
Given that I didn’t have a specific game plan in mind for Prague, I asked Erica and Alane what they wanted to do for our sole full day to ourselves in Prague. Erica suggested that we go to the Prague Castle, so that’s where we went. My favorite way to explore a new city is to wander around and generally point to a destination. If your destination is a castle on the top of a hill, it’s rather easy to orient yourself in that direction, even if none of the streets run in a straight line. As we got closer to the Charles Bridge, which we’d have to cross in order to get to the castle, it got as crowded as Times Square. By the end of the day, I was feeling a tad murderous, but for now I was soaking it all in. Really what I was doing was reacquainting myself with an old friend. I had been to Prague multiple times before this trip, and every time I had come I truly fell in love with the city. That was no different this time. In fact, I think I was the saddest leaving Prague than any of the other cities we visited. In other words, Prague’s the kind of city I could see myself moving to and never returning.
Once we hiked up to the castle, it was a big cluster just to find out where we buy tour tickets. We had about an hour before the tour, so I naturally gravitated to the handful of Christmas market stalls right outside the main gate and ordered a Glühwein. Erica suggested we three share a couple of bratwursts, which was a brilliant idea (as brats and wein go well together), but what she returned with surprised me. German bratwursts are a mild pork sausage, something akin to the morning breakfast sausages you’ve probably had at home on the weekends. The sausages that Erica brought back, however, were much more like a Polish kielbasa. It was an interesting regional variation worthy of note. I suppose it’s just a form of Slavic comradery with one’s neighbor. After eating our kielbasa, it was time to go meet our tour guide and get this tour started!
The Prague Castle (or “Prasky hrad” in Czech) is the current home of the country’s president, at least that’s true for the newer side of the complex. The castle wraps itself around a huge cathedral in the middle, the cathedral of St. Vitus, which holds the seat for the Archbishop of Prague (even if something like 80% of the country considers itself atheist). We met our tour guide, Vaslav, and started in the cathedral, which has a great history. I won’t bore you with details here, but it’s interesting to note that the cathedral itself wasn’t completed until the 20th century. One of the more modern additions is a stained glass window painted by an early 20th century artist named Alfons Mucha. After a lap around the church and going down into the crypt, we made our way into the castle itself. Two things stand out during our tour here: 1) a woman asked what the big ceramic boxes were, and I knew right away that they were heaters for the large rooms because my mom had shared this piece of trivia with me the weekend before in the Philadelphia Museum of Art. 2) In a smaller room just off of the royal chapel, we saw the window where two Catholic regents were thrown out by means of defenestration that started the Thirty Years War. The view from the window of the city below is quite nice, though I imagine less so if you’re being pushed out from said window.
That night, after we had walked what felt like for eons, we wanted to grab dinner close to the hotel. Yelp worked just fine for us, and we found a local restaurant just around the corner. The menus were in Czech, German, Russian, and English. Nonetheless, I was able to use one of my handful of Czech words: “pivo” (beer). Instead of a fried pork chop like the previous night, I had a grilled pork chop smothered in a creamy green pepper sauce. God I love Central European food! More interestingly, though, was what the family next to us ordered. It was a couple, one of their mothers, and their younger child. Everyone except the kid had beers in front of them, and the family ordered what looked like the entire bone-in shoulder of a pig. They collectively and happily ate off of this giant hunk of animal. That was something to see.
Sunday, 27 December 2015 – Terezin/Theresienstadt
One of the suggestions my mom had made before going on this trip was to go see Theresienstadt, or Terezin as it’s known in Czech. Named after Maria Theresa (because it was originally built during her reign), it originally was a rather expansive fortress that cut off the one valley that the Prussians could have used to infiltrate into Austro-Hungarian lands. This was at a time when the Protestant Czechs had been rebelling against the very Catholic Austro-Hungarian rulers in Vienna, and I believe our tour guide also mentioned that Bavaria had temporarily succeeded from the empire at about this same time too. So Maria Theresa was keen on holding onto any and all land claims at that point and needed to “protect” them from outside invaders. But that’s not why Erica, Alane, and I wanted to tour Terezin. During World War II, Terezin was turned into a sort of concentration camp for Czech Jews.
To be clear, when I say concentration camp, I don’t necessarily mean extermination camp. And that’s the first surprise I had once we got to the compound. Our tour guide for the day, Pavel (another great Slavic name), dropped us off at a sort of art museum that greeted us with children’s drawings from those who were living in the camp. While there were scenes of ugliness, the pictures generally showed a society working. The Nazis weren’t explicitly killing the Jews here—at least not at the beginning—but were rounding them up to remove them from Czech society. Pavel started our tour by painting the picture, since it was a question of identity. What I’m asking is: what does it mean to be a Jew in Czechoslovakia during the time leading up to WWII? The society itself wasn’t very areligious, just like the Jews. According to Pavel, the Jews were more integrated into society than most other countries in Europe at that time, so it was even harder to remove them and send them away.
In Terezin, there was a functioning Jewish government led by upper class Jews, professionals such as doctors, lawyers, and professors. There were research health clinics and significant arts projects going on all the time. That’s not to say the Jews were free to move about and do as they please. Terezin was a kind of social experiment to see how the Jews would react to certain stimuli. The International Committee of the Red Cross, for instance, came by at one point for an inspection. As you’d imagine, everything was planned out to the smallest detail to make it look like the Nazis were, in fact, treating the Jews within these confines respectfully. One way or another, the ICRC bought it. Walking around the town now it’s eerily quiet, only because the few local residents are living in government housing.
The other side of Terezin, the side that scholars have historically called a political prisoner camp, is much more dreadful. That’s where the incinerators are, for instance. We walked around a small prison with a couple dozen bunk rooms where political prisoners were held. While traditionally it was thought that this population never comingled with the Jewish population, according to Pavel a handful of Jews would be sent over for “entertainment” purposes for the Nazi officers running both installations. An example of this would be to hold a Jew at one end of a long-ish courtyard. Along the side of the courtyard Nazis would be setup with their rifles. The Jew would be told that if he could run the length of the courtyard and survive, he’d be allowed to go back to his family in the village. Few survived the gauntlet, but if they did they were beaten to death, either by Nazis or the prisoners of the camp while the Nazis looked on. Other examples of this could be shared, but suffice it to say we left our tour of Terezin on a more somber note than we had coming into the experience.
Since it was our last night in Prague, Alane wanted to get some night pictures of the Christmas market in Old Town Square. We wandered along until we found an Italian restaurant right in the middle of the tourist section of the city, but we welcomed it after eating fried pork chops steadily for multiple days now. Things were surprisingly cheap in Prague. Glühwein, for example, was less than half of what it was going to be in the other cities we visited. Our collective bill for dinner was something like $30 for the three of us, except we had a problem. The restaurant didn’t accept credit cards, and we didn’t have enough koruna to pay the bill. Not a problem for our server, however! We paid what we could in koruna and then threw in the rest in euro and were set! Not only did the server do the math in his head, but his English was rather good. In fact, I was surprised at how much English was spoken throughout our time in Prague. There was only one time when we stopped for a bathroom break did the bathroom attendant, who was of an older generation, prefer German to English to communicate with foreigners.
Monday, 28 December 2015 – Hofbräuhaus
I was sad to leave Prague. I wasn’t very excited to go back there at the beginning of this trip for some reason, but after walking across the Charles Bridge I was hooked again. You could leave me there for the rest of my days without a bit of remorse on my part. The streets wind in all sorts of directions, and I like that Czech uses the Roman alphabet so I can randomly pick up words from signs. With that said, though, we had an adventure to continue! Flying from Prague to Munich, we heard all sorts of languages on the train and in the airport. We had a hotel car, an E class Mercedes, take us to the airport—“the only cab I’m ever going to ride in from now on” Erica told me.
Once we arrived to our hotel, about a block away from Munich’s main train station, we wandered our way to Marienplatz, the main square of Munich. This has been the main square of Munich since the 12th century, and just like then a lot of commerce happens there. As luck would have it, the Hofbräuhaus, one of Munich’s best known beer halls, was just on the other side of the plaza. We found a communal table in the back, ordered some beer and some snacks, and enjoyed taking it all in. One of the things that Munich is known for is Weißwurst, or white bratwursts. They come to you in a clear broth in a white and blue ceramic bowl. We had to have some of those, and we had to order a giant pretzel from the pretzel lady. While the beer and food were good, I couldn’t help feeling like this was a tourist trap. I thought to myself that we’d need to ask the hotel’s concierge for a more “authentic” dining experience for tomorrow. We had a couple days here, so I wasn’t too worried.
After getting back to the hotel, we decided to grab a drink at the hotel’s bar. Checking in I already knew that the caliber of service at this hotel was going to be phenomenal, so when Erica ordered a Pinot Grigio, I asked our server whether Germany grew any Pinot Grigio. Without skipping a beat, she said yes, but explained that it had a different name in German—Grauburgunder. I later learned that “grigio” means grey, which is the hue the grape takes on as it ripens, and that it’s a mutant variety of Pinot Noir, which is where the Burgundy reference comes into play. Having worked at a winery in Northern Virginia for 2½ years, I thought I knew my stuff. But really there are whole other wine worlds out there that I have barely the faintest knowledge about. Is that the universe telling me that I should be drinking wine professionally? But how? Or maybe it was just the booze talking.
Tuesday, 29 December 2015 – City Tour of Munich
Since neither Erica nor Alane had been to Munich before, I suggested that we play tourist for the day and buy one of those day passes where you can hop on and off a sightseeing bus that goes around the city. We found the closest bus stop easy enough and loaded onto our double-decker. After passing by the museum district on the western side of the city (with enough museums to rival the Smithsonian collection in Washington, DC), we decided to hop off at the Residenzmuseum (residence of the Duke/King of Bavaria during Hapsburg rule). It’s a palace smack dab in the middle of the city, so we could hit anything else we liked afterward. The best thing I got out of this experience is the resilience of the German people. Whole wings of this palace had been bombed during WWII, but nevertheless the Germans recreated the interiors. This is what, I believe, art historians would call restoration rather than preservation. It allowed the observer to note how these rooms were decorated and adorned at that time, rather than trying to preserve what was left of the building after the bombings. There was one noted exception, however, in one of chapels/concert halls. They hadn’t stucco-ed the walls, leaving the brick exposed, and you could easily note where the original brick ended and restored brick began. It was a neat effect that showed the multiple iterations this building had gone through.
After the Residenzmuseum we were close to the English Gardens, the largest outdoor park in the city. It was a nice enough day for a stroll, but moving with any kind of speed proved to be too much for us, so we cut that outing short. Erica suggested that we find a café to sit and rest for a while, but the closest café to our bus stop was completely overrun inside and out, so we hopped on our bus again and returned to the main train station where we started. Erica and Alane were taking the street car (S-Bahn) out to Dachau the next morning, so we bought them train tickets and showed them where the track was so that they’d be able to find it the next morning. Easy enough, but we were all beat. It was mid/late afternoon by this point, so we walked the block or two back to the hotel. We left Alane in the hotel room for a while, and Erica and I [naturally] headed to the hotel’s bar for a drink or two before dinner.
There, after making a toast with our newly acquired drinks, Erica and a made a friend that called himself Steffan. Steffan was doing business in town, but he was from the town of Bitburg (home of Bitburger beer). His English was about as good as my German, so we muddled through using both in a vain attempt to chat. It apparently worked well enough that he offered to do a shot with us. He asked the bartender to pour three shots of something he called Borgman. After taking the shot, I’d describe it as something akin to a high-end Jägermeister. It was good, so I asked my new friend where I could find it. Apparently it’s a highly exclusive item that’s allegedly only available at very exclusive hotels. It’s a shame we’re not still in Prague because we had all sorts of liquor stores not far from our hotel that I’d be happy to scour to see if I could find something similar.
Alane found us, so we headed out to dinner. The hotel’s concierge had reserved a spot for us at local German restaurant where all the patrons sit at communal tables. We even got a bite of the freshly fried doughy dessert from the table next to us! Alane and I ordered—are you ready for this—some sort of pork chop that came with sauerkraut and a potato dumpling, while Erica got a roast beef-type dish that was equally amazing. I don’t know if it was the liter of beer I had or the shot of schnapps we sipped afterward, but I highly enjoyed my meal that evening. Our walk took us back to the hotel took us through Marienplatz again, which held several street musicians and all sorts of people just milling about. A lot of the shops were surprisingly still open, so we lost Erica in a multiple story bookstore at one point. No one necessarily bought anything, but we had the time to mill about and enjoy ourselves before calling it a day. Yeah, I was really enjoying Munich too.
Wednesday, 30 December 2015 – BMW World
The next morning we got up and had our delicious continental breakfast once again, but then Erica and Alane departed for their day trip. I was in no rush, but I eventually headed out to what I thought was the correct subway stop. Unfortunately, the line that I thought I could take directly to BMW World didn’t seem to go through the main train station. I looked up another line that appeared to connect to a third line that would work, but by the time I got to the connecting station, it was evident that connecting line only ran on certain days. Great. Amazingly enough, though, my Verizon cell phone allowed me to use GPS on it, even though it wasn’t connected to any data network. I had downloaded a city map of Munich on my phone back at the hotel, so I could easily look up a destination on the saved Google map and figure out how to get there. I had about 2km to get to my destination, which didn’t faze me one bit because I had my headphones and a map that would get me there. It worked like a charm.
Two kilometers later, I made it to BMW World. That requires a little bit of explaining. Bavaria’s Motor Works (BMW) is headquartered in Munich, and not only is there a factory at the headquarters, but also a museum and that newest addition to the collection: BMW World. If you buy a BMW stateside and arrange to have it picked up at the factory, you’d come to this very architecturally interesting showroom. Unfortunately there’s not much for the everyday person to see, so I headed over to the museum to check that out. While the museum was rather interesting with the information it shared, I feel the way it was presented had a lot to be desired. For one, the path that the visitor takes can potentially send you in circles, if you decide to vary from the standard path they’ve lined up for you. Another thing, and this is inexcusable in my book, is that all displays were presented in German and English. That sounds great, except the English captions were printed in white lettering on a light grey background with powerful lights shown directly on it. In other words, it was exceedingly difficult to read any of the signage in English. Not the smartest move from a German car company that prides itself on thinking of every minute detail.
After the museum experience, I hopped on the original subway line I thought I’d be taking and headed back downtown, this time heading for one of the three original gates to the city walls. I remember seeing on our bus tour the other day a victuals market (Viktuellsmarkt) nearby that sounded interesting. As our tour guide had stated, the English word “victuals” means everyday grocery items, which is what this market appeared to be. Apparently the original wording described raw ingredients for beer production, which I suppose was an everyday foodstuff in Europe many years ago. Interestingly, once I got to the market, there was a large May pole that included the word “Reinheitsgebot,” which is the original German beer purity law stating that only barley, hops, and water. This law dates back to 1516, right around the time the North American continent was being discovered and explored. Since I already had my music blaring, I just wandered around to see what types of goods were being sold. Beyond farmer’s market-type goods, there was the requisite Glühwein stall, but I settled for the beer stall that was selling ½-liters of Löwenbräu for something like €3.50. Add a Weißwurst to the mix and my lunch cost me something like €5, adult beverage included! It was difficult to gather whether or not the foodstuffs at the market were a good deal because weights were measured in kilos, so everything appeared to be priced twice as much as I’d expect. Regardless, it was a neat experience to actually experience the market where beer was decreed into being and whatnot. On the way back to the hotel for meet Erica and Alane after their trek out yonder, I stopped off in the German equivalent to Macy’s, called Kaufhof. I remembered these stores from when my family and I lived in Germany some twenty years before this, so it was neat to see they were still around. Clothes and shoes seemed expensive, but housewares were rather reasonable. I bought some souvenirs and a 2016 calendar just because I could.
Since we had such a good time at German restaurant the night before, we asked our concierge to setup another reservation for a local favorite, and he did not disappoint! This time we went to a veritable German beer hall called the Augustiner Keller (cellar of the Augustine monks). Let’s just start with the fact that the logo of this beer hall states that it had been founded in 1328. The staff were surprisingly bubbly, even though things were always hectic in there. We nevertheless found a table and quickly had beers in hand. Schnitzel was on taps for us (clearly), and the service was quick and friendly. The only hiccup we had was when the table had been cleared and we asked for the check. Our server was clearly busy with other tables, but finally she came over, dropped off a tray of empty Biersteins, and pulled our tab out of her bra. Once we had settled up, Erica told me that it had been worth the wait just to experience that moment. Priceless.
Thursday, 31 December 2015 – The Hills Are Alive With…ABBA
One of my favorite things in Europe is their rail system. The first day we got here we took a train to Prague, but we all slept as best we could on the train, so I don’t really count that experience as anything more than getting from Point A to B. Leaving Munich, sadly, we walked the block or two to the train station, easily found our train, and got situated for the 4-ish hours it takes to get to Vienna. While I should have probably guessed, this train line goes through Salzburg and ultimately ends in Budapest. Salzburg was discussed when we first started planning this trip, but something had to get cut to make the whole thing manageable. I told Erica we’d just have to come back so we could skip through the fields belting out “The hills are aliiiiiiiiiiiive!” Traveling through the countryside made me feel at home, since as a child we took so many road trips. I loved seeing the small villages (always with a church steeple) whiz by with their terracotta roofs a stucco/plaster buildings. That hadn’t changed since before I was born, but one thing that did pop out as relatively new were the number of solar panels on most buildings. I wish these panels were as prevalent in the United States, especially in the southwest.
We easily grabbed a taxi from the Vienna main train station, where we had started this whole adventure a week before. Unbeknownst to us, our hotel was located a few blocks away from the Wiener Riesenrod, the wildly popular Ferris wheel I had seen as a child after taking my first overnight train to Vienna from Würzburg. The subway stop is called the Prater Stern, which used to be a rather Jewish neighborhood before WWII. (The Ferris wheel, incidentally, was designed and build for Franz Joseph I’s golden jubilee in 1897.) While our hotel wasn’t anything to write home about, it did give us easy access to downtown via two different subway lines that went through that station. We didn’t stay long in the neighborhood because, for one, not many things were open on account of it being New Year’s Eve, and also because we knew we only had a limited time in Vienna so we got downtown as quickly as possible. And boy, were we happy to check out the New Year’s festivities!
You could hear the music pumping from the subway station as walked out onto Ratzkellerplatz. This is the site of the biggest Christmas market (which was still going on) in Vienna, so we quickly found some Glühwein and Kartoffelnpuffen (potato pancakes) to tide us over until dinner. Aside from the castle-like façade of the city hall and the air filled with magic because of the holiday and the fact the Christmas markets were still open, the best thing about this whole scenario is the fact that an ABBA cover band has been playing on the main stage this whole time! Yes of “Dancing Queen” and “Mamma Mia” fame. Of COURSE we’re going to celebrate New Year’s in Europe with an ABBA cover band! The whole stage was sponsored by a local radio station, so I enjoyed hearing the announcements and commercials. Again, you could’ve left me in any of these cities. Have I mentioned that yet? After ABBA finished, we walked around the market. We stuck around to hear the start of a Stevie Wonder cover band, but the lead singer obviously couldn’t cut it in the States and is trying his luck in Europe. So we decided to wander nearby to see about some dinner.
After several nights of fried pork chops, I think we all could take a break to something else we all like: pasta. The quality of pasta in Europe, at least in the cities we hit, was phenomenal. This restaurant, in particular, had a great staff that was remarkably friendly with excellent English. In fact, we asked one of our servers about the pig-shaped ceramic mug in which we had received our Glühwein, and he matter-of-factly responded (as any good Austrian would), “Why, it’s the pig that’s rooting around in the Earth to find you good luck for the coming year!” and left it at that. Alrighty, well there you go. Now one of the four mugs I had collected from various Christmas markets is now shaped like a pig. That’s actually pretty cool, if you nerd it up for booze like I do!
The rest of the night was rather uneventful, except for all the people setting off fireworks outside our hotel window all night long. Let me take a step back: we were getting pretty damn cold out there listening to mediocre Stevie, so we took the subway back to the hotel. I figured we’d get either an MTV or a CNN that would have some sort of New Year’s program, but not so much. We found a TV channel that was airing an Aerosmith concert…and that was about it. Aerosmith it is. While Steve Tyler looks awful and scary, he can still belt out some music for the fans! After Aerosmith we saw some Katy Perry concert, and let me just say homegirl cannot perform live. She sounded awful! So after an hour of Katy, we had had enough. Luckily was almost midnight, so what did we do? We found some local, German language countdown show (Lederhosen included) and counted down with the live studio audience. It was a strange situation, but we celebrated with some bubbles I had bought at Kaufhof a couple days ago just for this moment. Here’s to 2016!
Friday, 1 January 2016 – Last Day in Country
With only one full day left on the European continent, we wanted to make the most of it. Except we hadn’t factored in one small detail: a lot of things were closed because it was New Year’s Day. Ironic how we thought we’d have that problem at the beginning with no such issue, while it wasn’t planned for at the end, and that’s when we wanted to really maximize our time in Vienna. Oh well, rolling with the punches is one of the first lessons you’ve got to learn while traveling. So we did some online research (thanks to all of these hotels having wifi) and realized that two major points of interest were open that day, the Schönbrunn Palace and Mozart’s house. Away we went!
We had tried to gather some information about tour times and the costs of admission on the Schönbrunn’s website, but that wasn’t very helpful. We arrived in the late morning thinking that there’s most likely be a tour at the noon or early afternoon hour. Nope! Not until 3:30 that day, so we did our own self-guided tour with handheld audio devices. While the information for each room was good, the tour was setup in a way that seemed haphazard. First you’d walk into the private study of Franz Joseph, then there’d be an impossibly-too-ornate-to-describe room that Maria Theresa had created as homage to her parents, then there’d be a room where some feeble heir died. They were all named Franz-Karl or Max-Anton, so who could keep up? I think my exacerbation with the tour came up because there was nothing at the beginning to put all of this into perspective. I’m sure it’s me as the lazy, fat tourist expecting this, but with such a magnificent home and a building so crucial to centuries of history, it would’ve helped me understand what we were looking at. I guess I’ll just have to go buy a book.
After successfully navigating out to Schönbrunn, we were equally successful directing ourselves to Mozart’s house. It was situated in the oldest part of town, right near the city’s main cathedral. This area would’ve been a joy to wander around for a day or two, if any of the shops or cafés were open. Oh well, we found our street and museum without much of an issue. Mozart lived in this house for only a few years, right at the height of his success, mostly due to the fact that he liked to bop around Europe moving every few years. I can appreciate that, since I like to bop around every few years too! In this house, Mozart created scores most notably for The Marriage of Figaro and The Magic Flute, though I believe it was the former that received a much greater reception when it debuted in Prague than in Vienna. This was a good reminder to illustrate that Prague and Vienna have been so closely linked for centuries. The apartment itself wasn’t too flashy. It was located in a building with multiple similar apartments on each floor, which have now been turned into a museum explaining the life and times of Mozart. What I liked about seeing the actual space was what it would’ve looked like in Mozart’s time, particularly the views out to the city surrounding the building. I liked that those views hadn’t changed much.
With not much else on our docket, Erica wanted to go back to the Christmas market we had seen the night before for one last time around (read: we needed more Glühwein). Actually, in all seriousness, I think Alane wanted one of our pig mugs, so her daughter was nice enough to oblige and have another drink just so mom could get her mug. The toils of being the daughter! Right near the subway stop stood a cute little café. What sealed the deal for me is that they were advertising Schnitzel on the chalkboard outside, so I suggested we check it out for our last dinner in Vienna. While Alane ordered goulash (something that was featured just about everywhere), Erica and I had to have our Wiener Schnitzel, and boy howdy was it good! What struck me about this experience was the general pleasantness of our server. She was a happy, quick-on-her-feet kind of lady, and I would’ve happily chatted with her about what she’s seen working right next to City Hall for God knows how long. A great meal to finish off the adventure. Vienna, you represented yourself well on this trip.
Saturday, 2 January 2016 – An Epic Trip Back (and Epilogue)
Although I got an email from the travel agency that had booked our plane tickets that the plane had been delayed, we taxied to the airport and found that everything was on time. The flight was back was surprisingly easy, though they’ve implanted this new electronic customs questionnaire procedure at JFK that made things unnecessarily chaotic. I’m not exactly the quickest on my feet, both literally and figuratively, after sitting in a tin can for ten hours. After gathering our bags and getting through customs, it was time for the Nadels and Noel to part ways. I was concerned about making my bus connection down to Virginia, so I scurried onto the New York subway to get into the city. Of course I boarded a local train (not an express), but I [barely] made it onto my bus before it left. Another 4 ½ hours of sitting in a tin can! Yay! That part of the journey was rather unpleasant, mostly due to the fact that the woman sitting next to me crammed me up next to the freezing window the entire journey back. But we made it home as planned, and I passed out immediately on my bed.
Ultimately I’d say this was a rather successful adventure. My friends got to experience that part of Europe for the first time, and I rediscovered my love of German culture. While it may be a while before I go back again to that part of the world, I know I’ll be back because it’s so wonderful. Erica really wants to hit Neuschwanstein, and I suggested that we tack on a trip to Prosecco while we’re playing in the Alps. I imagine a trip like that could be planned rather easily. But really, and I’ve said this all along, I could’ve spent weeks/months/years in any of these cities. Not only are they all great walking cities, but they all have such wonderful day or weekend trips from the city center that you could do to explore the greater areas surrounding them. What I also appreciated on this trip was the shared history that all of these cities had with one another. The Hapsburg Empire ruled for centuries and really brought together quite disparate groups of people under one crown. That Maria Theresa knew what she was doing. Now that this trip is over, it means I need to start planning the next one.