The Austro-Hungarian Imperial Tour


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May 20th 2010
Published: May 23rd 2010
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As we stood under the jet of the shower in our hostel in Austria we were struck by the analogy with the country - a short and powerful jet of water aggressively fires at us for 30 seconds and then stops. We push the button again and the process is repeated. So it is efficient, does not encourage us to linger for relaxation and is therefore very environmentally sound but just a little impersonal.

Vienna is beautiful, well ordered and manicured. The CBD is entirely made up of old buildings now housing modern shops. We are struck by the strangeness of a city not filled with construction but rather renovation and restoration.

There is a charming practice in Europe to shroud the ancient monument under renovation with a facade with a life size photo of the building over the scaffolding - very considerate given how often these monuments require upkeep! We are still a little disappointed however when some of our most looked forward to buildings are thusly wrapped.

Such was the case with the intriguing Stephansdom. This 13th century gothic cathedral is the centre point of the city. The south tower is reminiscent of the melting wax look of Gaudi's cathedral in Barcelona. We fool- hardily come back on our last day to climb the 343 steps to view the city from it's spire. Within, the space is defined by the magnificent vaulted ceilings that put our contemporary building methods to shame. On the front wall are grooves which we find out were once used to indicate the standard size of a loaf of bread! So you could bring down your loaf to make sure it was regulation size. Such practical evidence of the medieval churchs central role in daily life.

Our first full day in Vienna took us by train to the small town of Melk. From here we would be taking a leisurely cruise down the Danube through the UNESCO listed Wachou region. First stop was the Stift Melk or Bennedictine abbey. Nobody worshipping in that church could fail to be impressed by the wealth and power of the catholic church. To be honest we found some of the decorations a bit gaudy but it is magnificent none the less. Apparently Umberto Eco set his famous The Name of the Rose in this abbey.

The cruise took us past no less than 8 castles which greatly added to our tally! The region is so beautiful with riverside villages and churches overlooked by dramatic castle fortresses. Our favourite town was Durnstein. The castle overlooking was where Richard the Lionheart was a ╦Łguest" on his way back from the Crusades.

That night we ventured into the city and walked the old streets. We jagged organ practice in the Stephansdom and in the candlelit gothic interior it was incredibly atmospheric.

We spent a very enjoyable time in the Haus der Musik a five story interactive museum devoted to all things musical including the great Viennese composers, reliving the sounds of the womb and conducting the Viennese symphony orchestra! This was followed by a very traditional Chinese restaurant visit for Szechuan Austrian style.

The following day, our last in Vienna, was a mammoth 15 hour sightseeing orgy! We started with the stunning Schloss Schonbrunn - the summer palace of the ruling Hapsburg imperial family. We signed up for the 40 room Grand tour. The interiors of the apartments were decorated in the baroque style and were lavishly appointed.

Before we left we took in the famous Apfel strudel show where a chef showed us how to make this Viennese classic from the original 300 year old recipe. Mmmmmmm strudel! Naturally Leah managed to get herself picked as guest kitchen hand. So much fun.

But enough dilly dallying - we had a city to explore. Next stop was to secure tickets to a show. In Vienna tourists can choose from a range of classical music concerts performed in one of the palaces or state concert and opera halls. We selected a program of Mozart and Strauss and parted with many Euros - note that Vienna is not a budget destination!

Next stop was Leah's pick of kaffeehouse - the wondrous Demels which has been serving kaffee and exquisite pastries to patrons continuously since 1786! Rhubarb strudel and the most glorious vanilla slice ever tasted provided a reviving respite from museums and palaces. Evan enjoyed himself tremendously with a Vienna coffee and an English newspaper. Seriously you have to go here if you are ever in the neighbourhood.

Hofburg next which was the main "every day" palace of the Emperors. We toured the extensive silver museum which displays the dinner settings and elaborate table centrepieces actually used. Wow. So embarrassed that our guests get such shabby plates back home!

We toured the imperial family apartments and saw significant rooms such as where JFK and Kruschev held their famous first meeting which directly contributed to the Cuban missile crisis!

The fascinating Sissi museum charted the life of Empress Elizabeth the wife of emperor Franz Joseph. Together they had sixteen children which they married off to the royalty of the world. Interestingly she was the mother of Marie Antoinette. It was quite sobering to see where she grew up - and know of her eventual fate.

Sissi was betrothed at 15 and married at 16. She was shy and overwhelmed by court life. She was obsessed by her appearance and weighed herself every morning and was always trying diets and beauty treatments. She was melancholic, hated crowds and her lack of freedom. Sounds like an early princess Di hey?

Strolling through the streets we formed the view that the Viennese are masters of "hope couture". Unbelievably most streets seemed to have at least one fancy swim wear shop. Where in this land locked country are they needing more swim wear retailers per capita than Sydney has? These Austrians are crazy!

Can I highly recommend arriving at a city by water? Seriously it is a far superior prospect than getting spat out at a metro station in the centre of town. Instead, you arrive grandly, and in a city that has relied on a river as long as Buda and Pest have, the vista that awaits the traveller arriving via the river is dramatic and beautiful. The castles and major buildings - such as the extraordinary Parliament - are lined up, looking their best, as if on parade inspection for you. So impressive is the visage that UNESCO has listed the entire Budapest Danube waterfront as being an area of cultural and historical significance.

Such was our experience when we arrived in Budapest from Vienna. Evan had passionately advocated a dramatic sounding 5.5 hour journey via hydrofoil down the Danube . All just a bit James Bond hey? And the experience certainly didnt disappoint.

The small taste of the beauty of the Danube river valley gained in Austria did not prepare us for the scale of the river further upstream. The river is WIDE and VAST. Seriously we Australians have no real idea about rivers compared to Europe. There is a LOT of water over here people.

We stopped to pick up a passenger in Bratislavia, the capital of Slovakia - part of the former Czechoslovakia (and for the record we do now consider that we have visited Slovakia!)

The most amazing part of the journey was the Danube Bend. We figured we had seen bends in rivers in our time and wondered what the big deal was. But oh.my.goodness. This is no ordinary bend. The entire massive river takes this hairpin turn (I have attached a picture from the onboard navigation display to demonstrate) and gorgeous castles and villages overlook it from above. Extraordinary!

The journey included traversing two locks which was very exciting - particularly after our visit to the Panama Canal where we got to see huge ships pass in and out of the locks as the water levels adjusted. It is very strange to be sitting there in a large pen, watching as the water level drops quite dramatically and then for the massive lock doors to open and your craft just merrily sails through some several metres lower than when we entered the lock.

Finally we were heading into Budapest (which is in fact two separate cities - Buda and Pest - on opposite sides of the river). After visiting several museums we can advise that the two cities officially became one in 1872! Hope that helps somebody win a trivia night one day. The city was instantly warm and welcoming and intriguing and we couldnt wait to get off the boat and start exploring. It is definitely our favourite city so far.

Accommodation wise we have hit the jackpot. We had booked a Club Apartment off the internet and it is essentially an apartment with shared kitchen area and about four lockable bedrooms with ensuites, table and chairs, tv and a little fridge. The location is absolutely sublime - in a quiet street smack bang in the middle of everything. The building is an old apartment building with the old style lifts and has loads of shabby charm.

Our first stop after checking in was the Tourist office to purchase our Budapest Card - which for a reasonable price gives you free public transport, discounted museum entries and a range of other benefits. Evan has determined that we will from now onwards only visit places listed in the book to make sure we get our money back!

Fortunately for us the House of Terror was on the list. This was a museum we had wanted to see since first planning our trip. Rather than a traditional amusement park attraction this House of Terror was much more frightening. Located in the former headquarters of the Hungarian Nazi and later Soviet run Secret Police bureau it charts the experiences of the Hungarian people under both regimes. The chilling interrogation rooms and prison cells have been restored and there are films of survivors recounting their experiences of their so called crimes against the state apparatus - that is not fully supporting the Soviet regime. Quite a harrowing but essential experience. Definitely one of the best museums we have ever visited. In some ways it is more an art installation than a museum but some how much more effective.

After the end of WW2, the Hungarians had backed the wrong horse (ie the Germans) and had been 'occupied' by the Soviets since 1945. Back in 1956, after the death of Stalin, the people of Hungary rebelled against Soviet control. The brave, brave people of Hungary declared themselves a democracy, installed a Prime Minister and ousted the occupying Soviet troops. Unfortunately their freedom lasted only 11 days. On the 12th day, 5000 Soviet tanks rolled back in to quell the revolution and reinstate their rule. The Prime Minister and other key leaders were arrested, tried and executed. There is still so much emotion about this time which is evident in the many museums and the language used to describe the time before and after. Bloody amazing how ordinary people just found the strength to stand up during that time though.

Affected emotionally and very tired from all our walking we retired to the thermal baths at the Gellert Hotel for some much needed TLC. Tip for the traveller - Hungarians are not big on signage. We wandered the back alleys of change rooms bewildered and lost and not at all sure what we were supposed to be doing half the time but it was still wonderful to just relax in the medicinal waters!

We have decided to try and save some money by making our own breakfast each day. First step was to buy a box of cereal (easy peasy) and some milk (yeah we thought that was easy too!). Day one of the economy drive saw us eating cornflakes with pure cream, day two was a runny yoghurt drink which did not make Evans coffee taste very nice at all. It was only day three that we cracked the linguistic code!

Our second day and we headed up to Buda Castle via the fabulous old style funicular. The castle gave great views of the city and an excellent museum. It was here that Leah met and fell in love with a local specialty called Funnel Cake which is dough wrapped around a funnel and deep fried and rolled in cinnamon sugar. Sooo evil and good.
We took it easy for the rest of the day, having a wonderful dinner next to our apartment. Our final day in Budapest started off with a visit to the Great Market Hall (must visit - shopping mecca!)

Naturally Ev enjoyed the opportunity to catch up on his handicraft shopping. Next stop was the bizarre Monument Park. After Hungary gained independence after the fall of the Soviet Union in the early 1990s they hauled all the old Soviet style statues and monuments out to a wasteland on the edge of town and it is now a tourist attraction! Bizarre but good fun.

Back to town for some much needed thermal bath action at the City Park Baths. There were by our count 14 baths all different temperatures ranging from 18 degree plunge pools to 40 degree soaking baths. Wow. Such a wonderfully relaxing experience.

That night we headed to a local folk club in the suburbs for a bit of Hungarian gypsy music. Toe tapping fun and a fitting farewell to the city we had come to love over the few precious days we were here.

Well we are off to Belgrade next via train - a relaxing 7 hour trip! Hope you are all well.

Best wishes,
Ev and Leah.

PS Official tallies:

Evan

Beer - not as many varieties but just as many litres!
Sausages - 6
Chinese restaurants (for Chen) - 10 (every country so far!)


Leah

Castles - nearly lost count - an extra 15
Strudels - really coming into their own 9 - apple, rhubarb, cheese, cheese and sour cherry, sour cherry, apricot and cheese, poppy seed and sour cherry and poppy seed!







Additional photos below
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23rd May 2010

The Hills are Alive???????
Ok I AM disappointed, you were in Vienna and there was NO reference to or photos of Sound of Music anything!!!! LEAH! But loved the pics, scary spooky castle...why did the europeans build so many castles!
26th May 2010

sissi
sissi - the peoples princess... And those showers are exactly the same as Navy showers hahahahaha how funny is that????

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