Category Archives: Austria

Vienna, Salzburg…and Prague on a Whim

(Vienna & Prague – 22 May 2014) We have now traveled to Vienna and Prague. I would call these two of the Great Old Cities of Europe. And now that we’ve seen them, I feel emboldened to label them “sister cities.” (I know, heads are exploding all across Europe.)

Different languages, different ethnic backgrounds, different foods, dress and customs…. but to our American eyes, they kinda look similar. Both are rich with mighty old buildings, speckled with extraordinary works of art, and each has a big river that weaves directly through its middle– the Danube splits Vienna and the Vltava River runs through Prague’s historic center.

Finding Vienna

Coming to Austria was a dream of Jessica’s ever since she watched the Sound of Music over and over again as a child (and adult). That story (of the Von Trapp family) is centered in Salzburg, Austria, not Vienna. Nevertheless, that movie clearly served as an awesome ambassador for the whole country. The iconic scene of Julie Andrews, arms stretched wide and twirling atop a high Austrian meadow, while singing, the hills are alive with the sound of music, will be etched into the world’s consciousness for generations to come.

The train ride from our beloved Slovenia into Austria was seamless. We would hardly have noticed a change at all were it not for the crew substitution at the town closest to the border. Your tickets, please, turning from Slovak to German once in Austria. Deeper inside Austria, the landscape turned more distinct and dramatic…more “Austrian.” From our train window, we saw strong, snow-covered mountaintops hovering over green rolling hills, many with storybook villages seated on top. Looks like a nice life.

Our train carried us to a station on the edge of Vienna, but very near to where our hostel was located. (It was far cheaper not staying in the city’s center.) Our hostel was located half-way up the side of a hill. On top of that our own room was on the sixth-floor giving us a great view of this huge city.

The Heart of Vienna

The heart of Vienna beats inside and around its central ring. It’s where many of Vienna’s most impressive buildings and monuments lay waiting. I call it a ring, because that’s what they call it, the Ringstrasse. We toured it by public tram while listening to one of Rick Steve’s audio guides. It was tricky to know when to start and stop the audio and we may have missed half the sights because of poor timing. In retrospect, we should have walked the Ringstrasse instead. It might have taken two hours on foot, but there was a lot to see and the speed of the tram had our heads on a swivel trying to take it all in.

Once our tram had made its full circle around the Ringstrasse, we hopped off and explored a little more of the area by foot. Daylight was almost gone at that point, but downtown Vienna shows well even at night.

Loved this statue dedicated to the life of Mozart. You cannot see it from the picture, but the back side of the pedestal had a relief of a young Mozart playing the piano.

Perhaps the grandest city hall building in the world.

Colorful lighting dresses up this columned entry gate. (I’m not sure what happened to me with this pose.)

An opera themed bathroom? Only in Vienna.

We found a Saturday food festival in Stadtspark, located on the ring’s edge. Rows of perfect white-tented booths were set up for catering a wide variety of sausages, cheeses, breads & pastries, and lots of wine. It was a beautiful day and the orderly people of Vienna flooded that park. The atmosphere was one of sophistication and luxury, though it felt normal, not snooty. Many carried glasses of wine as they strolled the tree-shaded walkways or found spots on the grassy areas where they could smile and laugh with family and friends.

In Vienna, it’s never too early for a glass of wine. (Though it could be juice.)

Vienna is home to many opulent palaces. We visited the gardens of Belvedere Palace and garnered inspiration for the day we have a backyard once again.

Nice water feature.

Trimmed up and ready for a backyard BBQ.

20140715-115337.jpgAustria’s symbol for Pedestrian Crossing looked more like Watch Out for Pervy Cowboys. It was painted on the sidewalks all over town, too.

Little fun details like this are what we’ll remember about Austria just as much as we remember the fabulous buildings, parks and monuments.

Prague on a Whim

We applaud those who’ve been paying attention to our travels enough to notice we went to a place NOT on our original itinerary– Prague in the Czech Republic. We kept hearing, Prague is great. You should go to Prague. Don’t miss Prague. Flexing our flexibility muscles, we went.

The train ride from Vienna to Prague was about 6 hours. Unless you’re in a particular hurry, that’s nothing. So comfortable are those trains that it feels like a nice relaxing treat every time we hop on board. Jessica and I have had 18 different conversations about how we wish train travel like this existed in the US.

The Czech countryside was full of bright yellow fields like this one.

I heard Prague is sometimes called the city of a thousand spires. So true.

There is hardly an ordinary building among the lot.

We’d come to expect cobblestone streets, since they are prevalent throughout old Europe. However, unique to Prague were the (mostly) black and white stone patterns in all the sidewalks. Typical were simple geometric patterns based on the square, but still so many creative designs. Check out this webpage. It does a great job of showing what I’m talking about.

Street food in Prague! These twisty little numbers were sweet and tasty. It was dough wrapped around a cylinder and baked over an open flame. We’d never seen anything like it.

The Charles Bridge may be the coolest bridge in Europe. Incredible statues line the stone-paved behemoth on both sides.

The Charles Bridge as seen from Mala Strana park, a hilltop park that overlooks the entire city.

Prague in full view.

Centered in the Prague Castle complex was the giant St. Vitus Gothic-styled cathedral.

Check out the entrance to the Presidential palace. The clear message is, Don’t mess with the Prez.

The oldest continuously working Astronomical Clock in the world! (Notice the sidewalk design here; not based on the square, but rather reflective of the clock tower it fronts.)

Jessica celebrates Wenceslas Square.

Experiencing what the world eats is part of our trip, too. Jessica tries a Czech favorite- Goulash, potatoes and a warm mug of wine.

Prague Insights

Many of our photos were taken during a guided walking tour. Good sights, but even better stories. Our guide explained how much Prague has changed since the fall of communism. Changed from what to what, I asked? One thing she told us was that under the communist system, everyone had to work. If you didn’t have a job, you would be thrown in jail. Imagine if for some reason you were to get fired from your job. You’d find yourself living in fear as you tried to find your next job; at any time the authorities could approach you on the street and ask for your employment card. Talk about a stressful job search.

Our guide also talked about the many stunning churches found in Prague. During the 41 years of communist rule, churches were closed by order of the state. While there are no bans on church-going today, multiple generations of Czech citizens grew up without the ritual of going to church. As a consequence, nearly all of the churches in present-day Prague function only as architectural magnets for tourism or classical music concert venues- prized for their heavenly acoustics.

It’s been 25 years since the velvet revolution, that’s what they call the fall of communism here because it involved no bloodshed. Supposedly, you can still find some that yearn for the ‘good ol’ days’ of communism, but I doubt there are many coming to that party these days. Unrestricted travel, name-brand clothing stores, and Starbucks are all here to stay. Freedom for the win!

Called the “Lennon Wall” (as in John Lennon), this concrete canvas was a quiet but powerful symbol of resistance during the communist era. Authorities could not suppress the peoples’ will to express itself through graffiti. The wall today is still alive, changing and growing through the time.

No Coincidence, No Story, No Charlie

Two of the friends we met last year while hiking the Inca Trail were Caroline and Patrick from Montreal, Canada. Like a couple of normal people, they returned to their homes and jobs after their vacation in Peru. We continued traveling, but have loosely kept in touch with them via email. Our last night in Prague we received a Hey, how you doin? email from Caroline. In that email she casually mentioned that her daughter (Charlie) was traveling in Europe with several friends. She listed the 7 or so cities on their itinerary and Prague was among them.

Interesting?! “We’re in Prague right now,” we replied. Her next email told us the name of her daughter’s hostel. A look at the map found she was only a five-minute walk away. See where this is going….?

Dashing northward to Prague for three days was a great choice. Surprising our friends’ daughter was the icing on an already delicious cake.

Sunny Side of Salzburg

After Prague we dipped back to the south for our final stop in Austria- a visit to Salzburg. Jessica was eager to see the city where the Sound of Music phenomenon originated. Just days before we were scheduled to arrive, she even began reading the book (written by Maria Von Trapp) that inspired the musical and movie.

Sound of Music sights aside, Salzburg is a city with spectacular charm and appeal. One of the first things we noticed upon entering the city’s heart was the Salzach River. Actually, it wasn’t the river itself that caught our attention, it was its green grassy banks filled with Salzburg’s youthful citizens that impressed. People were sunning themselves (on the sunny side), listening to music, reading books, playing cards, and sleeping. The sidewalks and bike lanes astride the river were filled to capacity, too. And, it was a Tuesday! (Particularly brilliant weather may have been to blame.)


The whole scene was a testament to living well. Salzburg radiated good energy and we were all too happy to soak it up.

Zooming in on the golden globe that occupies one of Salzburg’s main squares.

Sights of the Sound of Music in Salzburg

As nearly everyone knows, Sound of Music is based on the real life, World War II – era tale, of the Von Trapp Family Singers. First came the memoir written by Maria Von Trapp (the one Jessica read). Next up (in 1959) was the Rogers and Hammerstein Broadway hit musical. And finally, in 1965, Hollywood released the movie that spread their story around the globe. Did you also know that Sound of Music won the Oscar for Best Picture in 1965?

To illustrate just how much the Sound of Music is still alive and well in Salzburg, there is a hostel in town that shows the movie every night at 7 pm. We even tried to stay there, but, alas, that hostel was fully booked.

20140715-114805.jpg I am significantly less touched by the Sound of Music magic than Jessica is. (Honestly, I have never seen the movie all the way through.) However, I am not one to turn down a city-tour bus ride either.

Jessica gains “confidence” as she channels Julie Andrews (channelling Maria Von Trapp).

Remember the scene where Maria and the kids fall out of the boat and into the lake?

Montage pics from and of the actual abbey where the real life Maria lived before becoming a Von Trapp. It wasn’t used in the movie, but still a big part of the story.

All from scenes used in the song, “Do Re Mi,” where Maria teaches the children how to sing and go wild at the same time.

The world’s most famous gazebo!

The Von Trapp family home used in the movie. We think the building is currently used as a music school. How appropriate!

Much of the tour’s commentary was lost on me, but it was still a great overview of the city and of the many sites used during the movie’s filming. Jessica had plenty of I remember that! moments as the tour progressed. She also realized how much she’s forgotten about the movie. Time to see it again!

We weren’t in Austria all that long. In fact, it was less time than we had originally scheduled due to our decision to dash over the Prague for 3 days. Nevertheless, we saw a good bit of the country- Vienna and Salzburg plus our multi-day bike ride down the Danube River. (Read all about the bike ride, HERE.) All was very positive with the exception of some inclement weather.

Next up is Switzerland. The forecast indicates better weather, but also higher prices. We hear Switzerland is one of the most expensive countries in the world. Look out! Check out the next post to see how it all turns out.

Vienna and the Four Day Bike Ride

(Vienna, Austria – 16 May 2014) What were we thinking? Neither Jessica nor I are hard-core “cyclists.” We both enjoy riding our bikes around the neighborhood on a Sunday morning, but even then our butts wind up annoyed. So what got into our heads to bike for four straight days in Austria? Simple, in Austria biking is a thing. People travel here from all over the world to experience riding their bikes along side the curvaceous and beautiful Danube river. Typical cycling vacation packages are 7 days long and cover 355 km (210 miles) from Passau to Vienna. That is far more than we wanted. But it did sound good. Here’s what one of the brochures said about it-

An easy and relaxing bicycle tour along the meandering banks of the Danube River, from village to village on quiet bike paths – the ideal way to explore the rich art, history and architecture of the Austrian Empire.

Another said:

This is an easy ride, downstream, predominately downhill, on level riverside pathways and quiet roads.

Our response to these pitches was to piece together our own do-it-yourself, shorter, and less expensive version of the same. Instead of biking from Passau to Vienna, like the 7 day tour said, we chose to begin in Linz, a small Austrian city located on the Danube about 150 miles east of Vienna. Still a long way, but assuming we ride at a reasonable pace, it would only take us four days to reach Vienna. Stops along the way would include three little villages between Linz and Vienna where our butts could rest up between rides- Persenbeug, Aggsbach Markt, and Tulln. (I know it looks like some vowels were lost in those names, but that is how they’re spelled.)

Laughing at the Rain

Our first day of riding would be the longest. According to the maps, we had 47 miles to cover that first day. Quite a lot for non-cycling people like us.

The best thing that happened to us on day one was our impeccable timing vis-a-vis the rain. We heard that riders can almost always expect to get catch rain at some point along the ride. There were indeed rain clouds in the area. We’d even felt a few light drops here and there between good stretches of sunshine.

Lunch in the town of Grein was our first meaningful goal that first day. We crossed the Danube from south to north and entered Grein on the north bank’s cycle path just as light raindrops began to fall. Suddenly those little drops thickened and multiplied. A restaurant popped into view and we raced our bikes up to the rack and locked ’em up in a flash. The skies opened up in full, but we dove into the restaurant just before getting soaked. Seated in an enclosed glass patio, we watched the rain fall about us and laughed while enjoying our delicious lunch… nice and dry.

The rains were heavy and didn’t quit easily. Maybe if we calmly share a dessert the rains will tire and decide to leave us alone. It worked! By the time we finished our beautiful cherry ice cream sundae, rays of sunlight were finding their way back.

The final piece of our first day’s journey was dry, but still very tough on our legs and asses. Rolling into Persenbeug and finding our room was a triumph of will. Jessica was as exhausted as she was relieved to be done for the day. Everyone knows I’m a tough guy, right? But I too was extremely thankful that long ride was o-v-a-h, OVAH!

47 miles? As if! I used my phone’s GPS to get a more accurate tracking our our day’s distance. Turns out we peddled a whopping 53!

Monks of Melk Be Crazy

Our second day of biking was far more reasonable, only 24 miles. Plus, the ride was split into two chunks because of a planned visit to the Benedictine Abbey in the town of Melk.

What a huge place! Monastery life was guided by three leading disciplines– Work. Read. Pray. (I’m wondering, where’s the Fun in that?) Clearly, these monks had been hard at work for centuries.

At least the Monks had a lovely view.

The reception room and a view of its skillfully painted ceiling:


The library: No photos, please. So, imagine a room where every wall is filled from bottom to top with identically bound manuscripts. Impressive, but is anyone reading them? Uh, I didn’t see it happening.

The chapel. (Where did the monks find so much gold?):

The gardens:

Day 2 was a shorter day of riding, but we still covered about 24 miles. Maybe we should have rented a pair of e-bikes instead. The e means the bikes are fitted with little electric motors; not to replace your peddling, but certainly to make it easier. On one part of our ride, an older couple cruised past us riding their e-bikes and filled us with envy to the point that we wanted to throw things at them.

Aggsbach Markt

Our room in the village of Aggsbach Markt was 300 years old, explained Elisabeth, our host. Thankfully, it had been renovated a few times over the years and did not look it’s age. The one structural aspect of the building that gave a good indication of its age was the thickness of the walls. Constructed of huge stones and a full three feet thick, this building was ready to stand for another 300 years. Looking out the window was like looking through a short tunnel.

Elisabeth not only had a great place, but she was especially friendly and nice. She even asked us if we’d like to join her and her husband (Herman) for dinner out. Not wanting to miss out on an authentic Austrian cultural experience, we eagerly accepted.

The place they took us for dinner was about two villages over. A small tree branch with a red ribbon on it hung above the door, an indicator that the restaurant was open for business. This particular restaurant was licensed only to serve cold food, homemade wine and juices, which we found curious. Then we learned the restaurant belonged to a vineyard and therefore had to follow stricter food service rules, (for whatever reason). There were numerous vineyards in the area and that’s how they did things.

We ate our cold lunch meats, veggies and cheeses like regular Austrian folk. Jessica enjoyed some of the vineyard’s excellent white wine while I had some of the freshest tasting grape juice I’ve ever had. Our hosts ordered a dessert on our behalf that was strange and wonderful. Three white scoops of what looked like ice cream sat on a plate smothered with apricot sauce. But it wasn’t ice cream at all. It was shockingly delicious cheese!

The dessert menu. Ours was the first one listed.

Half Bike, Half Train

We were beginning our third day of biking and rains were again in the neighborhood. Though none was falling when we said our good-byes to Elisabeth and Herman, light, off and on sprinkles soon caught up to us. The previous day’s forecast said significant and dangerous storms were a real possibility, but that’s not what we were experiencing. However, that forecast did prompt us to figure out where to catch a train, in case we had to bail out of our bike ride.

From Aggsbach Markt, we rode a good 1 1/2 hours through several more quiet villages and many more vineyards before cruising into the slightly larger town of Spitz. Light sprinkles no more. By this time it was flat out raining.

Having no interest in riding several more hours in the rain, Jessica was eager for a train ride. Not silly ol’ me. I wasn’t ready to let go of my Austrian biking adventure just yet. I would meet up with her in Tullln, our next stop on the path back to Vienna.

One thing about Jessica and I riding bikes together is that we both don’t go at the same pace. Now that we had diverged, I would get to have a different experience. I put it in high gear and peddled on through the rain.

It didn’t rain constantly between Spitz and Tulln, but close to it. It was cold, too. Conditions were miserable, yet… I was not. It was my time alone with the elements. Some parts of the route veered away from the Danube and through the little farming towns that dotted the entire area, but most of it ran immediately alongside the river, built on what used to be “tow paths” used by teams of horses for pulling barges up-river. Those must have been miserable times.

By the time I rolled into Tulln and found the hostel, Jessica was thoroughly settled in. I hung my soaked clothes on hangers for drying and fell into a nice hot shower. My legs were worn out from the 43 wet but satisfying miles I’d just completed.

Scenes from the ride.

Train, Train Go Away

Unfortunately, the rains continued into our fourth day of scheduled riding. I’d already had my rainy day ride experience and wasn’t eager for another. Jessica’s interest in biking for several hours in the cold rain was less than zero. This meant the only biking we would do on day four was the short ride from our hostel to the Tulln train station.

We shot about a 25 short videos throughout our journey. I have pieced them together here for your amusement.

Watch Video

In the end, I will say that our Austrian bike-riding adventure was a little bit of a bust. By no means a total bust, but the disagreeable weather really cut into our good times and the overall mood of the adventure. The best riding was through the many quaint little villages, sometimes spaced only a stone’s throw apart. Riding along the more secluded sections of the pathway were also enjoyable for all of the swallows that darted about. Those birds are unquestionably some of the best flyers in the winged kingdom. They would dart and swoop all around our bikes on their way to or from skimming over the river water.

Back in Vienna by train, we turned in our bikes to the rental place. Now that our ride was complete, our butts were ready to stop hurting. The next day we would make our first real unplanned detour and head to Prague in the Czech Republic. Everyone says Prague is fantastic so why not check it out for ourselves while we are a mere 6 hours away by train. Find out how that went on the next post.