(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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.