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A 4 Week Home Exchange in Vienna, Austria. Trip Report

A 4 Week Home Exchange in Vienna, Austria. Trip Report

Aug 4th, 2007, 05:28 PM
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A 4 Week Home Exchange in Vienna, Austria. Trip Report

From July 5, 2007, to August 1, 2007, I was based in Vienna, Austria, on my 33rd home exchange with the H Family. The apartment was located on Sechsenhauserstrasse near the Gumpendorferstrasse U-bahn stop. It was a large apartment that could have slept 6, but in the apartment was just me and, for the first two weeks, a girlfriend from graduate school days too many years ago to count. We had one of those deep bath tubs with the shower thing that you use (no shower curtain). The hot water tank was very small. There was a washer but no electric clothes dryer. We just hung things up in the apartment and they dried quickly. I had the use of a computer and email while I was there and I actually handled some work from the office (one of the penalties of computer access) while I was there.

My girlfriend and I had an agreement that either of us could ask to split up during the day meeting for meals and/or evening activities in advance. When it became obvious that my girlfriend’s agenda did not agree with mine, we did most things separately meeting at a prearranged time and/or place for evening activities. It worked. Both of us had a good time and both of us agreed that this was a better arrangement than one of us grudgingly going along with what the other wanted to do. My girlfriend enjoys shopping and I think that is utterly pointless. Mind you, I will purchase things if I see something I want, but I will not go in and out of stores looking for things to buy. I am old enough to have a house full of things I shouldn’t have bought and do not need more. I am also more interested in culture and history than my girlfriend was. Any agreement to travel together with anyone should include an agreement for personal time to do things one wants to do if the other person isn’t interested.

From July 5-10 we were in Vienna. July 10-13 we went to Budapest by train. My girlfriend got a good deal on the Art Hotel on the Buda side. It was a nice quiet hotel, but, if I were to do it again, I would stay on the Pest side. July 13-15 we were again in Vienna. July 15-16 we went to see “Wiener Blut” at the Seefestspiele in Morbisch, Austria, near the Hungarian border. We stayed overnight at the Sport Hotel in Rust. The hotel was OK. We hadn’t booked and just stopped and they had a room. If I were to do it again, I would try to book the See Hotel in Rust. I have to say that “Wiener Blut” was the absolute highlight of our trip and, yet, so few Americans know about it. Most Americans define Austria as Vienna and Salzburg and there is a lot more to see and do than that.

July 16 we drove back to Vienna. My girlfriend went home on July 17. July 20-22, 2007, I was based in St. Florian, Austria, a small town near Linz, where I was invited by the mother of one of my home exchangers. She has a farmhouse there (not much of a farm, just the house) and it was lovely to get out of the city. After my sojourn in St. Florian and a visit to the salt mine near Salzburg that is open for tourists and Berchtesgarten, I drove back to Vienna and remained based there until I flew home on August 1st.

As part of the exchange, I had the use of the home exchangers’ car. It was an older manual transmission Ford Sierra but gave me no trouble. It took regular unleaded gas and I had to fill the tank twice. I drove about 1435 kilometers on the trip. I only used the car for trips out of Vienna. Finding my way back from trips out of the city was a challenge at first, but things got easier as the home exchange progressed. Of course, when I finally learned how to find my way even if I made a wrong turn, it was time to come home. Parking was on the street and that was a challenge at times. Again, I got the hang of it after awhile.

I did not keep a journal on this trip and reconstructing the trip day to day is not how I am going to do this trip report.

I am not a gourmet and in Vienna, I generally ate where I happened to be. There were plenty of stops for cake and coffee in the tourist area around Stephansdom. I ate at Demel 3 times and Gerbaud once. I also found my way to Café Sperl on my last night. I did not go to any gourmet restaurants; I did not eat a sacher torte but had plenty of apple strudel. I had a nice Greek meal at Ella, a restaurant on Judenplatz that I would recommend. I had two excellent meals in Budapest at Appetito on Castle Hill and Jardin de Paris (right behind the Art Hotel on the Buda side). I did have cake at Gerbaud in Budapest.

Participation in evening entertainment and culture was extensive. Here is the list in Austria

“The Magic Flute” in the Schonbrunn Marionnetten Theater*
“Fleidermaus” at the palace theater at Schonbrunn
A Mozart concert at the Staatoper*
“La Finta Simplice” at Theater an der Wien
“Wiener Blut” at Seefestspiele in Moerbisch*
Concert by Regensburg, Germany, cathedral choir at Stephansdom
Filmfest at the Rathausplatz (entertainment on a giant TV screen with a huge assortment of food stands where you can buy food; free every night in July and August except for whatever food you purchase)
Organ recital at the Abbey in St. Florian (free half hour performances every day at 2:30pm during the summer)

Here is the list from Budapest:

Concert at the National Concert Hall with Andreas Schiff both conducting and playing
The musical “Elisabeth” based on the life of Emperor Franz Josef’s very strange wife. The musical is in Hungarian but has English surtitles.*
Hungarian folk dance performance*

The items with a “*” are things my girlfriend and I did together. The others I went by myself.

A partial list of the things I saw or did in Vienna (I could never remember them all) included:

Schoenbrunn Palace
Hofburg Palace
Crown Jewels
Kunsthistorisches Museum (art gallery with old masters)
Natural History Museum
Leopold Museum in Museum Quarter
Belevedere Museum (upper museum with the Klimt paintings)
Augustiner Church
National Library special exhibit
Exhibit on the Chinese soldiers from Sian
Kaiser Gruft (where they are all buried)
4 hour cruise on the Danube going through 2 locks
Grinzing for meals (but I never got there late at night for the oompah music)
Kalenburg hill for the view (location from which Polish troops poured down into Vienna to defeat the Turks in 1648).
Haus der Musik
2 Jewish themed walking tours (schedule of walking tours is available from tourist information opposite Stephansdom or opposite the Albertina Museum)
Ruins of a medieval Jewish synagogue
St. Peter’s Church (elevator to the dome and then a few flights up walking for the view)
Nachmarket on Saturday morning (there is food every day but Sunday and a flea market on Saturday moring)
Session Building (Beethoven frieze by Klimt)
One and a half hour city tour on the red bus (catch the bus by the Albertina Museum by the Hotel Sacher)

Day trips from Vienna:

Mayerling (where Crown Prince Rudolph committed suicide)
Heilingenkreuz Abbey
Klosterburg Abbey
Schloss Esterhazy (Eisenstadt on the way to Moerbisch)
Hayden’s birthplace (Eisenstadt on the way to Moerbisch)
Roman ruins in Carnuntum
Melk Abbey and the Wachau (drove along the Danube)
Durnstein (saw ruins of the castle in which Richard the Lionheart was held prisoner but did not climb up to them; there is no road and it is a hard climb up)

I went to Mauthausen concentration camp on the way to St. Florian. It was an emotional experience for me as a Jew. It was satisfying to see groups of German speaking teenagers, presumably from Austria, being taken through the camp. They “lock” them in the gas chamber during the tour. Many people were weeping and, in general, had difficulty coping with the experience.

In St. Florian, my hostess took me to the ice cave in Dachstein in the Salzkammergut region as well as Mammuthole. The latter is supposed to be the largest cave open for viewing in Austria. We have many like it in the US. I would recommend anyone considering an outing to Dachstein just do the ice cave. The caves have over 500 steps up and down each. Needless to say, I was exhausted doing both of them. Later the same day we went to Hallstadt and took a boat from Obertraum to get there. I was too exhausted to climb up to the church to see the painted skulls. The following day I went to the Abbey in St. Florian (which had a stack of skulls in the crypt, but they were not painted; Austria has some very strange burial customs). I also saw some local museums in St. Florian.

On the 22nd, when I left St. Florian, I went to the salt mine and Berchtesgarten. The later proved very hard to find. There are NO directional signs including the name “Eagle’s Nest”, the name by which Hitler’s retreat is known in English. It is called the Kehlsteinhaus in German. This created a lot of confusion for me. While there is some sort of museum/memorial below, Hitler’s home has been turned into a restaurant. The view is wonderful, but, had I known there was no museum at the top of the mountain, I probably would not have gone. The museum should be on the top. When you get to the parking lot for the Kehlsteinhaus, you do see a sign there for the Eagle’s Nest, but that is the only one I saw trying to find the place. When you take the bus to the top of the mountain, you are told to stamp your ticket for a bus down about 2 hours later. You end up eating in the restaurant because, after taking your photos and seeing the small photographic display available, there is nothing else to do. In view of what went on there during World War II, there should be a memorial there By the time I got down from the mountain, whatever was down below was about to close and I could not go in. The use of the site was very disappointing to me.

In Budapest, I saw almost all the major tourist sites but did not get to the baths either to view them or use them. I did see both special exhibits going on this summer on Genghis Khan and the Incas before Peru. There are explanations in English for those. Signage in English in Budapest can be spotty. I visited the House of Terror and the new Holocaust Museum.

Over the course of the entire trip, I used exactly ONE taxi. That was to get from the hotel in Budapest to the train station when it was time to go. There is work on the subway line from the train station to Deak Ter this summer meaning you must take a bus to Deak Ter before getting on the subway. This should only affect you when you are trying to get to and from your hotel from the train station. After arriving at the hotel, we never needed to use that piece of the line again during our stay.

For travel in Budapest we used the subway or walked. In Vienna I used the U-bahn or buses. I did have helpful explanations from my home exchangers. I bought tickets that had 8 fares on them and used those. I did not find the day passes or the 3 day Vienna card to be a good deal financially. I used single tickets in Budapest but purchased a few of them at once. When asking for tickets, you can just hold up fingers for the number you want and that will work. They will write the amount you owe down if you need that. They are used to many people not speaking Hungarian.

English is widely spoken in Vienna as a second language. In Budapest that is less true. The first foreign language most children study there is German. If you look confused, they will speak German to you before English is tried. I speak some German but it is at a very low level. In St. Florian, my hostess spoke about as little English as I speak German. Nevertheless, with the help of a dictionary and our hands we managed.

The funniest thing that happened on the trip: For several weeks before leaving, I banged away at an hour long Hungarian CD. I concentrated on the numbers and a few simple phrases. I find that learning to count is the most important thing you can do in any language to have a minimum of function. OK, I learned how to count. I got to Budapest and my cheap travel watch with the broken clasp finally fell off and I had to replace it. I go into an appropriate shop selling cheap watches. The guy is taking the links off the watch so it will fit my wrist. His mother is standing there and she asks him whether it is “3” [thousand forints—Hungarian money]. The kid says, “No four.” This is all in Hungarian. What happened is that they were charging me the foreigner price of 4,000 forints rather than 3,000 forints. I was so stunned that I understood what they were doing, that I said nothing. The amount of money in question was about $5 and I was in a hurry. So much for my functional Hungarian. You have to remember to use it when you are being cheated! Duh.

I did not go to Bratislava from Vienna. There is a high speed catamaran that goes to Bratislava from Vienna several times a day. I wanted to book the early morning one and come back on the late one to get a full day in Bratislava. I was unable to do so as the boats all get booked up by day tours. The tours either leave in the morning and come back midday or leave midday and come back in the early evening. You probably get 2-3 hours in Bratislava at most. Of course, I could have driven the car, but the last thing I wanted was to have to drive in another city. While I could also have easily taken the train, ultimately I decided not to go because there was so much I wanted to do in Vienna.

I did not go into Salzburg. If I wanted to do that I would have taken the train from Vienna because the car would have been a hassle. Since I had done the 3 day trip to Budapest, I did not want to start running around spending more money on hotels when there was so much to be seen in Vienna. Salzburg is closer to Munich. Someday I will get a home exchange in Munich. When I do, I will do a 3 day trip to Salzburg. The purpose of doing a home exchange is to save money on accommodations. When you start staying in hotels, the point of home exchanging is lost. I have been exchanging for years. Each time you see a small slice of Europe but very intensely. It is much less stressful than running hither and yon trying to see it all—not that any European trip is exactly restful.

By the way, including airfare, I think I spent about $3,500 for the month in Europe—which is why I home exchange. In hotels, the figure would be 3x that figure. I bought a necklace in Vienna that qualified for a VAT refund. I also bought a pin in Budapest. Other than that, I bought things like key chains that were easy to throw in the suitcase. I didn’t buy any kitch souvenirs with Franz Josef, Empress Elizabeth, or Mozart on them. I did buy a number of CD’s from places I visited.
FauxSteMarie is offline  
Aug 4th, 2007, 08:41 PM
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Interesting report. Thanks for posting it.
Holly_uncasdewar is offline  
Aug 4th, 2007, 11:52 PM
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You certainly saw and did a lot. Very nice trip, thanks for sharing your experiences with us.

MarkvonKramer is offline  
Aug 5th, 2007, 02:43 PM
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Thank you for your nice comments. I hope my experiences will give others ideas for their trips to Austria. I pretty much did all the day trips from Vienna that the tour buses do and then some, but with the car. If you look at those tours, they are quite expensive. Most of them, such as Grinzing, you can do on your own by taking the U-bahn and then the bus (For Grinzing: Take the line to Heiligenstadt and then bus 38A to Kahlenberg; I had instructions from my exchangers on this). The city tours will pick you up at the hotel and take you to these places, but, compared to public transportation, they are quite expensive. I tried to use public transportation as much as possible, as driving the car in the city was stressful (not to mention the "crap shoot" finding street parking when I finally got back).

This was a very successful home exchange. My Austrian exchangers were very nice people and interesting people as well. They both spoke English fluently, as they were teachers. They had a 7 year old son and friends near my house (so he had friends while he was here--always nice for children).

Anyone exchanging for a place in Europe from North America, NEVER gets a place as nice as he has at home. Europe is a densely packed place and Europeans live in much smaller places with fewer amenities than North Americans have. So long as you accept that that is the situation, you can have a very successful home exchange.
FauxSteMarie is offline  
Aug 5th, 2007, 03:49 PM
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By the way, and before anyone asks, yes, I did ride the ferris wheel in the Prater. In my opinion, that was entirely overrated because the view of Vienna from other locations was more spectacular. You chiefly ride the ferris wheel for the view. If you don't have a lot of time in Vienna, you will probably not make it up to the Kahlenberg, so that is why people ride the ferris wheel--not to mention that it is on everyone's list as a "must do". I didn't get over there until towards the end of my stay.
FauxSteMarie is offline  
Aug 5th, 2007, 06:17 PM
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I suspect the salt mine you visited was where Goering stored all his purloined art to keep it away from Allied bombers. I read it took weeks for the army trucks to empty it. Interesting book about the looted masters from throughout Europe.
tomboy is offline  
Aug 6th, 2007, 12:10 PM
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I don't know about Goering. The salt mine was very near Berchtesgarten south of Salzburg in Bad Durrnberg near Hallein. I did not have time for the Celtic Museum in Hallein or for Schloss Hellbrunn nearby with the famous ornamental fountains.
FauxSteMarie is offline  
Aug 6th, 2007, 01:12 PM
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Thanks for the interesting report. I will save your restaurant and evening enetertainment suggestions!
wanderfrau is offline  
Aug 6th, 2007, 01:45 PM
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The ferris wheel n Prater is a must only for lovers of "The third man".
The place is just a beer garden - not worth a visit.

A short day trip to Baden ( 26 km, by street car) is a nice change from the city.
Also interesting place to visit : Hudertwasser house and Kunsthouse museum - great fun.
danon is offline  
Aug 6th, 2007, 01:54 PM
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Interesting report. You really did see an amazing amount! I'm curious about where you live in the States, as I'm wondering what attracted the Viennese to your town.
Pegontheroad is offline  
Aug 6th, 2007, 02:34 PM
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Thanks for the report!
Your list of Vienna activities is great and will help me greatly in planning our trip next May.
Did you utilize a particular guidebook or websight for all the concerts/plays?
TexasAggie is offline  
Aug 6th, 2007, 04:46 PM
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To respond to some of the questions and observations:

I did see the Hundertwasser House but that was no big deal to me. It is just an apartment building with unusual architecture. You cannot go in because people live there. It is just another excuse for places selling souvenirs (and they are all over). That you can visit.

By the way, for anyone interested in Art Nouveau (called "Session" in Vienna), Vienna is full of it. There are some marvelous buildings and Art Nouveau touches almost everywhere you look.

There are several sites selling tickets to Vienna events. I used Vienna Classic for the opera ticket at Theater an der Wien. For the marionnettes at Schoenbrunn, I contacted them directly via the website (you get a reservation and can pick up the tickets just before the performance and pay). It is definitely not necessary to book tickets to any of the Mozart concerts in traditional costume ahead of time, although we used Vienna Classic for those as well.

The ticket to "Fleidermaus" at the Schoenbrunn Palace Theater was bought by calling the theater while I was in Vienna. However, I definitely do not recommend this. The theater has no air conditioning. The night I went, it was a sauna in the theater--or "sitz and schvitz"--and I left after the second act due to the heat. If you are going to go to the Schoenbrunn Palace Theater, do not make reservations in summer.

The tickets for "Wiener Blut" were bought directly from the Seefestspiele website, although you can use Vienna Classic for those as well. Anyone contemplating going to Morbisch for the festival should buy their ticket well ahead of time. This always sells out and is very big with Austrian groups of retirees, some of whom make the excursion every year. If it rains performances can get canceled and I did hear from stories. We lucked out--warm, but not a drop in the sky. You get your money back on the tickets if it rains according to what others told me.

The ticket to the concert at Stephansdom was simply bought at Stephansdom a couple of days before when I saw they were selling tickets to something and asked. It was, at 15 euros, a bargain.

For the Rathausplatz Film Fest, there are no reserved seats. You just show up and sit wherever you can find a seat. People come and go throughout the performance. They also talk through the entire thing. For the Viennese it is just another excuse to party.

For the concert at the National Concert Hall in Budapest, I booked the concert ticket through the website Jegymester (which means Ticketmaster in Hungarian).

For the musical "Elisabeth", I just went to the box office and bought tickets. It is fairly well sold--if not sold out. I think I got some tickets that had been turned in. I would have booked that one ahead of time, but I did not know it was available. It simply did not turn up in my web searches.

The ticket to the Hungarian folk dancing performance was bought on the day of the performance. The group was performing in a building less than a minute's walk from the hotel. There are folk dancing performances for tourists most weeknights during the summer in different locations. For this, you can just ask at your hotel.

I do agree that the Prater is not a "must see" experience.

I live in the Washington, DC, suburbs and have no trouble attracting people to my location. The Viennese also had friends living in the next town up the road, so that factored in why they were interested in my house. I have exchanged 14 times in Europe and have done 33 exchanges over all. The 34th is in the works now for Brisbane, Australia, for August 2008. A wrinkle has developed because my exchangers' son is getting married and picked a date which means we have to redo a few things. I do expect the deal to go to finality (which means everyone buys nonrefundable tickets) sometime before January.
FauxSteMarie is offline  
Aug 6th, 2007, 05:01 PM
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For guidebooks, I had the Eyewitness guidebooks to Austria and Vienna with me. My girlfriend bought an entire library of guidebooks with her (way too much). We used the Fodors book on Vienna quite a bit for directions to places; the specific driving instructions were exellent! The rest of them were hardly looked at and certainly not worth schlepping.

My girlfriend was in charge of Budapest guidebooks. I actually do not have one. A friend of mine had been there many times and helped me with suggestions and, of course, I researched online. I knew, for example, in advance about the special exhibits on Peru before the Incas and Genghis Khan.

We used some of the itinerary laid out by my friend, but his itinerary had too much in it for us to do it all. There is only so much you can do in a few days.

I had a phrase book for Eastern European languages--purchased for the Hungarian. My German is basic but good enough to get along without a phrase book. I did have a hand held translation device but was not used much.

Even if I have many guidebooks at home for trip preparation, I do not schelp many of them with me. Whatever you bring, you have to carry.
FauxSteMarie is offline  
Aug 7th, 2007, 12:11 PM
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Thank you for the detailed information, I really appreciate it greatly. Our visit will be in mid-May so perhaps the lack of AC wouldn't be a huge problem at the Schoenbrunn Palace Theater...?
TexasAggie is offline  
Aug 7th, 2007, 02:15 PM
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In May I would think you would not have a problem with the temperature. However, you might want to wait until you get there to see before buying tickets to unairconditioned theaters. I will tell you that Theater an der Wien is airconditioned. The walls of Stephansdom are so thick, it should be tolerable inside if you go to anything inside.

For a May trip, I would look into booking the Vienna Choir Boys or the horses. You need to book way ahead to see those. I did run into a former Vienna choir boy at a local restaurant where I was staying. He told me that the boys' general education really suffers and they all have problems after their choir years were over. He said that they are kept on tour too much and do too little general education (aside from music). I just thought I would mention that tidbit. He seemed to have a lot of resentment that he had been used to make money for others. He said, and this is a quote, "Most people do not know the dirty secrets about the Vienna Choir boys [when it comes to education]."
FauxSteMarie is offline  
Aug 17th, 2007, 04:32 PM
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I realized I neglect to mention that I visited the Military Museum (located near the Sudbahnhof; look for a sign as you exit the station; you will go to the right. The Belvedere (with "The Kiss" by Klimt) is in the opposite direction, by the way). The real reason that I went there is that there is an entire room devoted to the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife Sophie. They actually have the car in which he was riding as well as the tunic he was wearing when he was shot. You can see the bullet hole. That was quite fascinating as the assassination sort of marks the dividing line between the old order and the twentieth century even if it occurred in 1914. As someone very interested in history, I had to see that.

The entire Military Museum was fascinating as all of Austrian history was there. Remember, Vienna was once the capital of the Holy Roman Empire! So, as usual for me when I do a museum, I spent more time there than I had planned.

The Military Museum is one I would recommend if you are more inclined towards history than art. Of course, in a month, I had time to see plenty of everything.
FauxSteMarie is offline  

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