Our trip to the Alps’ region in August-September of 2014 spurred our interest in visiting some countries in Central Europe this year. Last year, beginning in scenic Berchtesgarten, Bavaria, where Hitler had his second seat of command planning all the terror of the Nazis, we learned so much more about the insidiousness of that regime. In traveling through the Salzkamergut, the lake region south of Salzburg, we visited Bad Ischl where Franz Josef and his wife Elizabeth, “Sisi”, of the famous Hapsburg Empire, spent their summers in a sumptuous villa, and where he signed the edict of war which began World War I.
As we moved through the dramatic Dolomites of Italy, expecting to hear Italian, we began to witness more about the reach of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, with its vestiges reflected in the German language, customs, architecture, and cuisine which remain so long after the break-up of the “empire” following World War I. We saw traces of that mighty Empire extending into Switzerland, where several mountain roads had been constructed by the Austrians. From previous travels to France, Spain, Italy, etc., we had learned that the tentacles of the Hapsburg Empire reached far and wide. Learning more about these time periods, plus the extent of the Nazi regime and the Soviet domination, and the effects on the countries we would visit, motivated us to travel to Central Europe. Traveling through all the gorgeous beauty of the Alps stimulated a lot of historical questions.
We began this TR intending it to be brief, but as we got into it, we found that there were too many experiences for brevity. The report serves as a memory of our trip, and we hope that some others will find it of interest.
We normally plan our own travel, as we like the freedom and independence it provides. If we’re visiting more than one area, we prefer driving. Train transportation is not our thing, unless it’s just for a short excursion or a day trip. Compared to our trip of 2014 where had a rental car and were traveling through dramatic scenery, we knew that this trip to Central Europe wasn’t so much for natural beauty, as for a traveling history lesson, with exploration of beautiful cities, and learning about their backgrounds and cultures. Our intention was to visit the capitals and just get a flavor for the countries.
As we began to work on plans, we soon realized that this involved more complexities (and time) than we realized. One big obstacle was language: Hungarian, Polish, Czech . . . very different and having no relation to other languages. A rental car would present several difficulties: among them reading road signs, driving/parking in big cities. While in our local AAA office for something totally unrelated, one employee asked if we had any travel plans on the horizon, and when we mentioned Central Europe, suggested that they had a tour which covered most of what we wanted.
We are not “tour people". We discussed what we thought might be the pros and cons, and decided that, for this trip, it might be worth giving a try to a tour. We chose to travel with “Insight Vacations”, recommended by AAA. The trip would begin in Vienna, a city which we have visited only briefly in the past, and travel to Budapest, Hungary, Cracow & Warsaw, Poland, Berlin, Germany, and Prague and Cesky Krumlov in the Czech Republic.
At the conclusion of our report, we’ll detail the experiences of the tour. But for now, we’ll just say that, in general, we felt that it was a good decision for visiting this area of Europe. Maybe we just lucked out, but the tour director was excellent, the “coach” driver was terrific, the coach itself was very comfortable, the hotels were good and well-located, and we felt fortunate to have a generally compatible group of people. We did not feel constrained to always stick with the group, and were able to enjoy time on our own in each location.
So here we go sharing 2 ½ weeks of our travel. We hope that some will come along for the adventure.
TUESDAY, WEDNESDAY, September 1- 2, 2015
Travel Travails; Evening in Vienna, Austria
Our travel plans seemed good in that we could leave our home at noon on the 1st of September, allowing us to arrive 3 hours early for international travel: a direct flight from Cincinnati to Paris. Our only concern was the short time to make connections in Paris (CDG); however, the travel agent had already booked the tickets, and it would have been costly to change. So we decided to deal with it. We found out as much as we could about CDG Terminals, even having maps and directions. Fodorites were very helpful. Our luggage would be checked straight through to Vienna, so we focused on making our carry-on stuff very compact so we could get through CDG as quickly as possible.
We booked Premium Economy seats for the 8 1/2 hour flight, hoping that these provide more leg room, and be closer to the front of the plane for de-boarding. We tried to sleep, but were able only to rest, at best. Overall, it was an uneventful flight.
We touched down a few minutes early, but that is not the end of the story. Paris airport is HUGE, and it took 15 minutes+ just to taxi to the gate. It was now September 2nd and we were in the Paris Airport. (Unfortunately, we didn't have time to stay in one of our fav cities!)
Our worry did work to the negative side as our flight into Charles De Gaulle Airport allowed only 55 minutes from arrival at Terminal 2E (M Hall, which is the farthest walk), go through immigration, and make it to Terminal 2F for our flight to Vienna. After de-planing, the issue was to make the long walk as fast as possible to immigration, only to join a long line waiting to go through passport control for the entry into the EU country, part of the “Schengen Area”. We rushed, but there was no avoiding that line at Immigration. Our appeal to a supervisor was of no avail, as she said many people in the line had close connections. After finally passing immigration, we walked as fast as we could to Terminal F, without mowing people down, missing our connection by a hair.
Utterly disappointed, we learned that we needed to find our way to desk 25A to get our tickets changed for a later flight. The Air France agent was very friendly. However, the next flight out to Vienna, at 10 AM, was full, so the earliest flight we could get was 1:30! So a long wait!
The terminals in CDG have long halls between them and the gates within the terminals are lined with tons of shops, mostly high-end, making the stretch between gates very long. (Note the repetition of "long" when describing CDG). There are few areas for a casual bite to eat. We found a Chez Paul and purchased several croissants and a couple of coffees. Finding seats was a challenge, but we were invited by a friendly guy Peter to join him. A highlight of the day was talking with Peter, a Swede, who was returning home after working in Central Africa. Over breakfast, we enjoyed a great discussion.
Struggling through our documents, we needed to find the phone number to call, in order to notify our transport in Vienna that we’d be arriving on a later flight. With Peter’s help, and phone, we contacted the AAA office to arrange a later pick-up. Lots of other people missed their connections. Some expressed palpable anger. We became resigned to missing our first day in Vienna by our later arrival. And a 5+ hour wait in CDG!
Finally, it was time to board; however, it was announced that the flight to Vienna had a 45 minute delay. So more waiting. Boarding involved a trek down multiple steps and onto a bus of people squeezed sardine-like, being driven around the expanse of CDG terminals, and then finally climbing stairs to board the Airbus 320 with 3x3 seating. We were seated in different locations for the 2 hour flight.
The flight time passed more quickly for Margie as she had a delightful seatmate: a girl who lived in Vienna, had just graduated high school, and who spoke impeccable English. “Good teachers”, she said. She shared a lot of info about her city, and other details about life in Austria. She was excited about beginning her studies at the University which she happily explained were free.
Upon arrival at baggage in Vienna, we discovered that one of our two bags was missing; unfortunately Margie’s! Then more time was wasted as we waited in line at the lost baggage to submit a claim. That task accomplished, we searched, to no avail, for that transport with our name on a sign. What to do?
Plan B: A stop at the Info desk quickly got Tom interested in catching a CAT (City Austria Train) for 12 euros each to get to Stadt, the square near our hotel. Margie grudgingly went along, remembering that to catch trains often requires going down stairs several levels and walking long halls. Amazing that Tom hoisted his 50 lb. luggage up and down the stairs of the station, and up the steps in the train, considering the fatiguing day! The train ride into the city didn’t allow for much viewing of the surroundings, as it was part in tunnels and part with concrete walls on each side of the track. But, considering that we were arriving at the main rush hour in a big city, the train did get us to our destination within 15 minutes.
After exiting the train, more walking, walking, down halls and up more stairs to reach the first floor level. We crossed through a mall and onto a square. Then it was, thankfully, only another two blocks or so to our Hilton Hotel. Finally, we arrived!!! But without Margie’s luggage!
The Hilton lobby was very welcoming. Check-in was easy. We graciously accepted the offer of a toothbrush from the receptionist, although we had such, and that was the least of our concerns. Fortunately, Margie had two days’ worth of shirts; however, most of our needed supplies were in her bag. Oh well! “Make the best of it”, we thought. It was a nice hotel, and, after getting settled in our room, we headed out to dinner. Unfortunately, it had begun to rain. Of course, the umbrellas and rain jackets were in Margie’s luggage! So we popped into the little shop next door and picked up a rain poncho for Margie.
There were many little sidewalk cafes around the Hilton, but they quickly closed as the rain continued. A restaurant which appealed to us was an Italian place. Vapiano, about two blocks away. A unique concept: all fresh pasta of your choice, including the sauces, made-to-order as you watched, pizza of all kinds, salads, drinks, desserts. We shared a small mista salad and bolognese sauce with fusilli and a couple “vom Fass” (draught) beers. Vapiano’s also had a unique concept for paying. Upon entering, you were given a plastic “credit card”, and as you approached each station, you just placed that card on an electronic strip and an employee entered the charge. The total charges on the card were then submitted to the cashier for payment as you exited
Vapiano’s was very crowded, but Margie spotted a little table as two ladies were leaving. Sitting next to us were a very friendly local lady, Gaby, and her daughter, who kept us alive via discussions over her yearly Greek Islands’ vacation and her New York visit. Her daughter will attend the university (free) next year hoping to be a primary education teacher. Gaby seemed eager to offer information about Vienna, and highly recommended Stadtwirt Restaurant, a local place a few blocks away, for good wiener schnitzel. Gaby even gave us her cell phone number in case we wanted help in Vienna. She and her daughter were among the first of the many friendly, helpful people we would meet. We knew we would visit Gaby’s restaurant recommendation tomorrow evening.
The rain had slowed to a drizzle as we walked the couple blocks back to the Hilton and turned in about 10 pm. The bed felt great after that travel day filled with frustrations, but ending happily with our experience in Vapiano’s.
We had purposely planned two extra nights in Vienna, hoping to take a daytrip to the Wachau Valley before joining the tour. But the travel delay and lost luggage would cause us to change those plans.
THURSDAY, Sept. 3, 2015 VIENNA EXPLORATION DAY
We set the alarm for 6:30 to practice for group tour endurance. The included breakfast buffet, in the main Hilton dining room, was a fabulous spread, including an omelette station and outstanding pastries, fruits, etc., etc., everything that one might want. Today was to be our full-day trip to the Wachau Valley with a visit to the monastery at Melk, perched high above the Danube, and a cruise on a section of the Danube, thought by many to be one of the most beautiful areas of that river. However, not having the previous day to explore Vienna as we had planned, and having anxiety about Margie’s missing luggage, we decided to stay in Vienna city proper. Awakening to cloudy skies further helped us forego our plans for a day-trip to the Wachau Valley, although the clouds lifted and it turned out to be a beautiful day.
We decided to get an overview of central Vienna on the Hop On, Hop Off bus, which included an English language audio guide. Today we were going for “easy”. We could purchase tickets in our hotel, and the boarding spot was right across the street. Margie could forget about her lost luggage, in hopes that, by the end of the day, it would arrive at the hotel.
Our day focused on the “Ringstrasse”, the 190 foot wide boulevard, arcing three miles around the city’s core, lined with many trees and grand buildings. In the 1860’s, the Hapsburg Emperor, Franz Josef, had the city’s medieval wall, which surrounded the inner city, torn down, and had it replaced with this boulevard. The bus proved to be a convenient way to delve right into the exploration of Vienna, one of Europe’s grandest cities of the past, as well as a vibrant city today.
We enjoyed seeing so many of the beautiful buildings, and exited at several points, one being just across the Danube Canal (Donaukanal), constructed to prevent flooding from the Danube River. There were many cafes and kiosks in this area, but we chose to take a popular walking street, Rottenturm Strasse, up to the massive St. Stephen Cathedral. The street was lined with coffee shops and stores; the walk took us quite some time.
Stephansdom, as the cathedral is called, is Austria’s finest Gothic cathedral. Austria’s population is said to be over 90% Roman Catholic, and St. Stephen Cathedral is the national church. It’s one of Vienna’s most prominent landmarks, with its spire dominating the city. The original construction of the cathedral dates back to 1147, and was Romanesque in style. Over the years, it has had several renovations, with Gothic additions. After having suffered severe damage from World War II, it has had ongoing repair.
The cathedral has so many impressive features, both inside and out. And there is so much history connected with it. Mozart was married there, and his funeral was there also, as was Emperor Franz Josef’s. We spent a good hour taking in the features of the interior; so much interesting detail that it would take hours to appreciate. Among many features, we were particularly struck by the many altars, and the ornate Gothic pulpit. carved from three blocks of sandstone, with a spiral staircase winding up to the lectern. The sides of the staircase have carvings of four church fathers, form the
support structure for the stairs.
St. Stephen Cathedral, surrounded by a huge square, dominate the city center. We found a quaint lunch spot facing Stephansdom at Café D’Europa. What do you eat for lunch in Austria? Bernerwirstel, plus “vom Fass”. Lots of “people watching” as this area seems to be a hub for visitors.
Having enjoyed the interior of the cathedral, while having lunch we could enjoy the exterior, which was equally stunning. We especially admired the colorful mosaic tiles on the roof, arranged in intricate patterns. Interesting that part of the design is an eagle, supposedly the symbol of the Hapsburgs.
We did some window shopping in the many stores surrounding the cathedral area, and in keeping with Austrian tradition, later made a stop for cappuccinos at a coffee house: Gutenberg Café.
From Stephansdom, we headed to the neo-Renaissance Opera House, which attracts music lovers from around the world.
As Paris had attracted many artists, Vienna was a hub for composers: among them, Mozart, Beethoven, Haydn, Schubert, Brahms, Vivaldi, and of course, Strauss. As we would witness in our ongoing travels, many buildings of architectural beauty, such as opera houses, museums, houses of Parliament, etc., were destroyed or heavily damaged by bombings in World War II, and have since been re-built. Such was also the case with the Vienna Opera House. Admiring the exterior beauty of the Opera House, we could only imagine the beauty of the interior with its sumptuous halls and grand staircase. Unfortunately, we were not able to catch a tour and had to satisfy ourselves with pictures.
Feeling ready for an afternoon break, we headed to the famous Hotel Sacher, famous for their Sacher Torte. We were fortunate to get an outside table, and enjoy that most popular dessert while viewing another side of the Opera House. Sacher Torte, a tasty chocolate cake, with a layer of fruit, and chocolate icing, topped with whipped cream and a chocolate wafer, (truly decadent!,) originated at this old but prestigious Hotel Sacher. Coupled with cappuccinos, this stop was perfect. Following this, we did visit the first floor of the beautiful hotel.
Our first day in Vienna included a lot of imbibing of the atmosphere of this wonderful city, a needed relief from the hectic rush and frustration of yesterday. We had eyed the Hofsburg Palace Complex as one area for exploration tomorrow.
After a bit more meandering, we headed back to our hotel, arriving about 6. And a big relief! Margie’s luggage had been found and was safely in our room! This made her day! To think of spending hours the following day doing extensive shopping was not our idea of enjoying Vienna. And it would have been nearly impossible to replace all the various and sundry items needed for travel. So we were happy campers! After a little freshening up, we were ready for dinner.
Following the recommendation of Gaby, whom we had met last evening in Vapiano’s, we walked the few blocks to Stadtwirt Restaurant and had a tasty meal of wiener schnitzel. The veal was tender, the potatoes were great, as was the beer and wine. And how could we not end the meal with apfel strudel and cappuccino? The owner knew Gaby and treated us well, with a big discount for eating at her recommended spot. The atmosphere of the restaurant was very pleasant. It seemed like the diners were mostly locals. We were back at our hotel about 10 pm. Good day!
FRIDAY, September 4, 2015 2nd Day in VIENNA
Up at 6:40 and down to the dining room for a repeat omelette breakfast. Today it is crowded with lots of travelers.
This is our last chance to enjoy Vienna before meeting up with the tour at 5:30. We wanted to explore a little of the “outer ring”, so we used our remaining time with the HO-HO bus for that venture. The travel time was about an hour, but a convenient way to venture farther to the outskirts of the city.
We saw the United Nations’ building having 4000 employees here in Vienna. We passed their large amusement park with a gambling casino, concert venue, typical rides and a Ferris wheel, etc. We were told that it preceded Las Vegas. Who knows? These were part of Vienna’s largest park, Prater. A large part of it included grassy areas along the Danube Canal where many citizens enjoy biking, jogging, picnicking etc.
We crossed the real Danube River, with a fee boats moored along the shore and several smaller ships cruising. Near the river was the very large Art Nouveau St. Francis of Assisi Basilica, built between 1898 and 1910, to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the reign of Franz Josef I. We were told that it is the parish of the English speaking Vienna community. It is just one of many, many churches in Vienna.
Although the outer ring doesn’t contain the number of architecturally beautiful structures of the so-called “inner ring”, it was interesting to witness the city in its full context. We enjoyed seeing the Danube River, 1777 miles long, which extends from the Black Forest in Germany to the Black Sea, and borders ten European countries. We were interested in the color of this mighty river, so romanticized by Johann Strauss, and witness for ourselves that the color isn’t blue, but a brownish-green, like our rivers in the US Midwest. But Strauss’ music is wonderful, and we do love “The Blue Danube” waltz!
Having satisfied our curiosity regarding the outskirts of Vienna, we returned to the Palace Museum Square where the central focus was a huge monument to Maria Theresa, the most important Hapsburg figure in the 1700’s Empire. She not only had 16 children, but married her children into other royal families to expand the Empire. Among other achievements, she instituted many building projects, promoted financial and educational reforms, and greatly increased the strength of the military: all of which helped extend the reach of the Hapsburgs. Very interesting to note that Maria Theresa didn’t have a real title. It was her husband Francis I who had the titles, but Maria Theresa executed the real powers of his positions. Nothing new about the idea of a competent woman leader!!!
In the Museum Square Area surrounding the Maria Theresa monument, are two very impressive museums which we would like to have visited, but we had to pace ourselves. We definitely wanted to tour the Hofsburg Palace, the main home of the Hapsburgs. So we headed in that direction, across the busy Burgring Strasse, and were amazed as we entered the grand archway to view the sprawling, lavish complex of buildings of the Hofsburg Palace.
We paid the 12 euros to walk up the magnificent Emperor Staircase leading to the 19 lavish state and private rooms of Emperor Franz Josef and Empress Elizabeth, gorgeously appointed with lots of gold, crystal chandeliers, etc. One could witnesss not only the stately splendor of the Hapsburg monarchy, but get a glimpse into the personal lives of the occupants.
We found it fascinating was to learn more about Franz Josef’s wife, Elizabeth,“Sisi”, the controversial queen, who was from a Bavarian royal family. Apparently, in her childhood, her family had a great love for the outdoors, and she experienced happy times. Living in the palace, she suffered great loneliness and depression. A 19th century Princess Diana? In some ways.
One of the first rooms was devoted to pictures and information about Sisi’s early life. Sisi spent hours a day having her prized long hair fixed, and had exercise equipment to maintain her slim shape. She had a love for learning, especially Greek mythology. She read and wrote poetry. Included in the tour were dresses and jewels worn by Sisi, as well as writings and artwork of hers.
Sisi had fostered a love for Hungary and its people, living there for months at a time, and was responsible for encouraging the extension of the Hapsburg Empire into that country, creating the Austro-Hungarian Empire. This was especially interesting to us as we would be heading into Budapest tomorrow. In order to escape palace life, Sisi loved to travel, often incognito. While on a short trip to Geneva from Montreux, her life ended tragically as she was assassinated by an Italian anarchist who discovered her identity.
The visit provided interesting insight into the life of Franz Josef, who had had a stern upbringing. He kept a busy schedule, rising very early, often eating breakfast at this desk. He reserved certain times for receiving citizens and hearing their concerns, but always stood so as to move the people quickly. His days were spent with many meetings with representatives throughout the empire.
While this visit to the Hofsburg Palace was extremely interesting, after an hour and half of standing and listening to audiotape explanations, we were feeling hungry. Lunch was at nearby café consisting of another sausage, but with a fancy name and presentation, but the vom Fass beer was great. We had an enjoyable conversation with a Canadian couple from Toronto who were visiting their daughter and son-in-law, both musicians, living in Vienna.
Since this was the day that our tour was to begin, we had to be aware of time as we were to meet the group about 5:30. We walked around palace grounds for a bit more, interested in all the tents and bandstand being erected for a festival. We returned to the Hilton Hotel area by about 4:00, wanting to walk through the lovely Stadtpark, one of Vienna’s major parks, located directly across the street from our hotel.
Stadtpark is a world of gardens with many paved walks lined with benches, containing memorials to musicians throughout. A focal point at one end is a small lake with a fountain. Near it, we visited the impressive monument to Johann Strauss. Located on the outskirts of the park was the lovely Kursalon Palace, in which Strauss performed, and which has since entertained audiences with concerts and waltzes. We had enjoyed a concert there on a former visit several years back.
Following our walk in the park, we returned to the Hilton and freshened up for the 5:30 meeting of the tour group in the hotel lobby. We met Erin, our tour director, who gave initial tour information. We would have 38 people with 40 seats on the bus. Our luggage would be picked up outside our room each morning and transported to the coach, etc., etc.
We expected the initial meeting to be drinks and appetizers in the hotel lobby. Instead, we boarded the Insight Vacations coach, and traveled to the Café Restaurant Angarten, an updated hunting lodge, located in a large woods formerly used by the royalty for hunting. We had passed this woods as we did our excursion into the inner city. The lodge restaurant was quite nice. Food and drinks were good: chicken schnitzel, potatoes, soup, beer, wine, apfel strudel etc. Since this was our initial meeting with the group, we felt a bit uneasy. We enjoyed talking with Nick, a young tour director who was preparing to lead a tour. He had a lot of knowledge about the lead up to World War 1 which we enjoyed hearing.
Back to the Hilton about 8:30. Early rising tomorrow. Lots of packing after 3 days in Vienna. We have to be ready for a long day. On the agenda is a visit to the Schonbrunn Palace, the summer home of the Hapsburgs, followed by lunch in central Vienna and a little more time to enjoy the city. Then we’re off to Budapest, Hungary.
As we turned in for the night, we discussed the fact that we never intended to spend so much time in Vienna. However, we agreed that it is a beautiful city with much to enjoy, and we’re glad that we took the opportunity to explore some of it.
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CAPITALIZING ON THE CAPITALS: Central Europe