Category Archives: Austria

From Vienna to Budapest, and Refugees at the Border

On our way back to the bus after our city tour, I glimpsed what looked like an amazing group of statuary around a column visible at the end of a narrow street. As we drew closer, its details became more distinct. The figures surrounding the column were amazing; angels and saints near the top where dwelled  the Trinity while at the bottom, piteous figures held out their hands. The Ramblers learned that this was the famous   Pestsäule, or Plague Column that was built in the 17th century to commemorate both the end of  the Great Plague, and the impact it had on Vienna.

Amazing sculpture around column and of course, gilding at the top.
Amazing sculpture around column and of course, gilding at the top.

The plague came late to Vienna. The Black Death, as it was called, had already resulted in the deaths of millions of Europeans, depopulating whole areas of Europe, beginning in the 14th century. This  feared “Black Death” was carried by migrant black rats who lived in the filthy conditions of cities without sewers and garbage collection  Vienna, in 1679, was just as filthy as any other city of the time, perhaps more so. Although the plague was still deadly, 200 years later, religious men and women who ran most of the hospitals at the time, had learned a little about the disease. The Brotherhood of the Holy Trinity, a Catholic religious order, created special hospitals to care for plague victims. The simple nursing care they provided was far better than any other Viennese medical facilities of the time, Thus the Viennese plague was not as deadly as it could have been. The 69 ft. high Pestsäule was built to commemorate those who died and those who worked to save plague victims.

We saw yet another uniquely Viennese building on the way back to  the bus.

Was not sure just what this building was at first, a church bu also a burial place.
Was not sure just what this building was at first, a church bu also a burial place.

This was the Kaisergruft or the Imperial Crypt. In this modest Capuchin Church dedicated in 1633, lie the bones of 145 members of Hapsburg royalty along with a few urns containing ashes and hearts of others.

The Austrian flags tell you this is not just an ordinary church.
The Austrian flags tell you this is not just an ordinary church.

The  Capuchin friars still care for the crypt which is open to the public. FYI The Capuchin’s got their name from the hood which is part of their brown Franciscan habit.  The latest Hapsburg family member was entombed in 2011. Needless to say, this is just the kind of weird exhibit that would intrigue the Rambler, but it was not to be. The Kaisergruft was not on our schedule. It became just one of the many fascinating  spots in Vienna we had no time to explore.

Dinner that night would be on our own, and we decided to go back to the Cafe Schwarzenberg.  We had enjoyed the atmosphere, it was close and the food was tasty. However, before eating, the Ramblers wanted to change some of their Euros into Forints. We would be traveling to Budapest by bus tomorrow, and our schedule seemed a busy one. Might as well take advantage of some free time to visit a bank. First we checked with the Ritz concierge, but we learned they did not exchange currency in the hotel. She suggested visiting the Bank of Austria which had a branch nearby. So we did, only to find that the Bank of Austria had no Forints to exchange. To complicate matters, it was Friday afternoon and many banks had closed early. Fortunately, we found another bank that was open, don’t remember its name, but they had lots of Forints and were happy to make the exchange.

Walking back to the Ritz after finding our Forints.
Walking back to the Ritz after finding our Forints.

Mission accomplished, we enjoyed an early dinner in the delightful wood-paneled cafe which first opened in 1861. It is considered a concert cafe, as a musician plays the grand piano prominently displayed in the middle of the cafe in the evenings. We were too early for the music, but I would be going to another kind of concert later that evening. The senior Rambler took a pass, as he is not a fan of concerts of any kind.

Several river cruise lines including Uniworld offer a chamber music concert for their passengers on the evening their boats are docked in Vienna. On the Christmas Markets cruise, the concert was one of the included tours, however on European Jewels, it was an option. I had decided not to attend, since I had gone to the Christmas one, and it was fairly expensive, 75 Euros. Uniworld changed my mind for me. Because we had to leave the Maria Theresa due to low water, they made the concert to an included event. I was only too happy to take advantage of this special option. It is really a treat to hear a chamber orchestra of talented musicians play in a small hall with excellent acoustics. The program was, as before composed of Mozart and Strauss music performed with much skill and enthusiasm by less than a dozen fine musicians. Uniworld has a contract with Waltz in Vienna which provides these programs which include musicians and dancers for a number of occasions.

This place is a photographer's nightmare. The lights reflect off the beautiful paneling But you get the idea. The photos in their brochure are not much better.
This place is a photographer’s nightmare. The lights reflect off the beautiful paneling But you get the idea. The photos in their brochure are not much better.

.  The concerts are held in the beautiful  19th century hall of the Austrian Engineers and Architects which was recently renovated and has wonderful acoustics in an intimate setting. It isn’t often that one gets to attend a private concert and it was a fitting end to our stay in Vienna. Of course, the final encore was a stirring rendition of the Radetsky March, which is traditionally played at the end of classical music concerts in Vienna and involves much clapping to the stirring march.

Back at the Ritz, the Ramblers packed their bags, since we would be leaving early the next morning for Budapest. Unfortunately we would be able to spend only a long Saturday in Budapest as we had to be at the Budapest Airport at 4 AM Sunday morning. All along we had been hearing news stories about the Syrian refugees who were trying to get into Austria but didn’t realize that we would tangentially get caught up in this unfortunate situation.

After  breakfast, we boarded our busses and headed out for Budapest. We had little time to hang out with our friends from the cruise as we were going to be staying at different hotels once we got to Budapest. Although the Hungarian capital has many excellent hotels, none was able to take in so many people at such short notice. The Ramblers were staying at the Sofitel Chain Bridge, which seemed to be an excellent location. However we wouldn’t get there until much later in the day.

Since Austria and Hungary are both members of the European Union, there would be no  check when we reached the border. However, when we got there, we were startled by what we saw on the highway going towards Austria.

There was a lot going on, but I was on the wrong side of the bus this time. You can see the traffic backed up tho and the truck driver staring wistfully at us.
There was a lot going on, but I was on the wrong side of the bus this time. You can see the traffic backed up tho and the truck driver staring wistfully at us.

There was a gigantic back-up of cars, trucks and busses, and dozens of people milling about. We learned that the police were checking the credentials of everyone trying to cross the border on the interstate-like highway. They had brought in extra personnel, but they were not having much success in keeping the traffic moving. The Ramblers  could see busses from other cruise and tour lines caught up in the mess on the other side of the road, along with other busses which seemed to be filled with refugees. Our bus did not stop and we were able to move along quickly. I would have liked to take some photos of this historic event but unfortunately I was sitting on the curb side, not the street side.

After trying a shot or two, I decided to give up the attempt and just observe history in the making. We later saw a number of groups of refugees, mostly young men,  marching along towards the border for  miles after we crossed it. The traffic jam extended for miles  as well.

There were several people who probably got good photos but none I knew well enough to ask  if they would send them to me. I did, however, get a picture of the Hungarian rest area where we stopped briefly.

The McDonald's, Neat and nicely landscaped and not very crowded.
The McDonald’s, Neat and nicely landscaped and not very crowded.

It featured a McDonald’s’ and you can be sure some of our bunch stopped for a snack.

On to Budapest!


Salzburg: Mozart vs. The Sound of Music

As we prepared to embark on our Uniworld tour of Salzburg, the Ramblers recalled our first visit there 17 years ago. We used one of my week-ends while teaching history to Georgia students in Metz, France and traveled there by train.  A married couple in my class had gone to Salzburg the preceding week, and highly recommended it so we decided to go as well. It was  a wonderful week-end. On their recommendation, we stayed at a marvelous Inn,  the Romantic Hotel Gmachl, up in the green hills surrounding Salzburg,  which has been in the same family for over 500 years. The Ramblers  hoped that the Uniworld tour would be just as much fun.This time we wouldn’t  have to spend the night trying to sleep in a first-class train compartment, but would ride in a brand-new Uniworld bus.

In 1998, Eurail sold a pass that covered almost all of Europe. It was good for a certain number of 24 hour days of travel so it had to be used judiciously, and often involved traveling at night. Both students and faculty  were issued rail passes which were used for field trips as well as independent travel   Lengthy field trips were reserved for Thursdays. After the educational part was over, everyone, students and faculty, split for  week-end trips of their own. Classes resumed on Mondays. These  passes are no longer available and using a rail pass requires even more planning today.

The Beatrice had docked in Linz, Austria around 3 am. However, we wouldn’t  see much of Austria’s third largest city and largest Danube port.  Our expedition to Salzburg was to last a full day. Linz did sound like a fascinating place with  a 13th century main square surrounded by restored Gothic houses.

By the time we got back to Linz we could only see their Christmas lights
By the time we got back to Linz we could only see their Christmas lights

Not only had Mozart composed a symphony there, but it was also a popular spot for many other musicians, especially  the composer Anton Bruckner. Bruckner served as the Linz’ cathedral organist for more than 10 years in the 19th century. To sweeten the pot, the city is also the home of the delicious Linzertorte which prominently features almonds and raspberry jam. Hope we get back there someday.

However, even the Ramblers haven’t mastered the art of being in two places at once. We had made our choice and were off to Salzburg at 8:45 am. Despite the cloudy skies and chilly weather yet again ( high 39′, low 36′) the Ramblers enjoyed the drive. We traveled through a varied landscape of farms, field, woods, a lake or two and an increasing number of foothills on the excellent Austrian roads. Half-way through the  3 hour drive, we stopped at a rest area  for several kinds of refreshment.

View from the rest area
View from the rest area

The rest area was crowded with tourists as three Viking busses had also pulled in, along with assorted cars and vans. There were long lines for both men and women’s toilets, but no one was left behind. This Rambler was much impressed with the quality of the rest area. We have stopped at hundreds in our travels over the US and Canada, and this was one of the nicest. Instead of the vending machines that are standard in the US, it included a shop that sold a variety of local products as well as drinks and tasty snacks. No wonder it was crowded!

Salzburg, the fourth largest city in Austria, and the capital of the Austrian federal state of Salzburg, has one of the best-preserved city centers north of the Alps.  It has been a UNESCO World Heritage site since 1998 Salzburg is also home to three universities. However, most tourists come here for two reasons. to visit the birthplace of Mozart and because parts of The Sound of Music, celebrating its 50th anniversary in 2015,  were filmed there.

Cold looking tourists walking in the Mirabell Gardens
Cold looking tourists walking in the Mirabell Gardens, no fountain frolicking today

Although I might sound like a Philistine, the Rambler believes that most American tourists visit Salzburg  because of The Sound of Music, and I expect, not a few  folks from other parts of the world do as well. This is not the place to discuss WHY this musical is so popular, but just to admit that it is. Actually it was a contributing factor to  our choice of Salzburg in 1998. We even took a Sound of Music tour, somewhat disappointing as we had a terrible guide and it was raining, yet we were eager to visiting this magical city again.

Our group was dropped off on the outskirts of the Aldstadt (old town) in a somewhat nondescript spot. I carefully noted the the street names on the map we were given, so we could find it later. It is no fun to be lost in an unfamiliar place. Our guide, unfortunately, was the worst( again, no luck in Salzburg with tour guides) we had on the whole cruise.

Cold looking statues bordering the Mirabel gardens.
Cold looking statues bordering the Mirabell gardens.

Fortunately  the tour itself was relatively short, then we could spend the rest of the day on our own. Of course, the first site our guide pointed out related to the Sound of Music. the Mirabell Gardens, still green in December.

We then crossed  the river on Salzburg’s lock bridge to the Aldstadt. The Ramblers later learned that the lock bridge was a modern phenomenon and lock bridges were now everywhere, but we dutifully checked out some of the locks. Actually the custom dates back over 100 years, but became somewhat of a fad in the 2000’s. Countless pairs of lovers have vowed their love by clipping a padlock on a bridge and throwing the key in the river. Don’t know what they do if they use a combination lock??? Some cities encourage this, others consider the locks a form of litter and remove them.

Zither player on bridge of locks
Zither player on bridge of locks

Crossing the bridge, we saw our first and only street musician, a zither player. He was bundled up against the chilly wind that blew down the Salzach river. Fortunately zithers are played sitting down which must have helped a little. I couldn’t tell if he was playing Mozart, as I had to hustle to keep with our group. He certainly wasn’t playing anything from Sound of Music!

On to the Alstadt!

Krems and the Wachau Valley

The small Austrian  city of Krems (population, 25,000) was named a UNESCO world heritage site in 1990. One of the oldest cities in lower Austria, Krems and its twin city Stein have many attractive restored homes build over a span of 1000 years. In addition it is the eastern gateway to the Wachau Valley of the Danube River, famous for its wines and its apricots or Marille, as well as its  tidy vineyards and farms.

On the way back from Gottweig Abbey, we got off the bus close to the Krems  medieval gate, the Stein Tor (stone tower)walking thru city gates one of two  dating to the middle of the 15th century.  This was in walking distance of the River Beatrice. From there we wandered the streets simply enjoying the scene. Krems has several museums and an art gallery as well as a town hall, but the Ramblers were content to look from outside. It was not a museum kind of day.

It was very pleasant to stroll around enjoying the weak December sun. Yes, the sun actually came out for a while. We did some window shopping and had the opportunity to visit yet another Christmas Market. It was not large but had many locally-made items , small enough in size to tuck into my carry on.

Entrance  to Christmas Market, with St. Nicholas on right.
Entrance to Christmas Market, with St. Nicholas on right.

Luckily I had enough Euro’s to purchase several attractive gift items. The ladies in charge were smiling and helpful, many wearing traditional Austrian dress.(more about this later) They carefully wrapped our treasures for their journey to the States.

Our next to the last stop was a  store selling the wine and schnapps produced in the area. Here again I was lucky to find sets of small bottles of the various liquors produced in the Wachau Valley.  Again, easy to stow in our checked bag. The most famous schnapps produced here is made of apricots (Marille). It is not like the apricot brandy you find in your local liquor store which often has little apricot flavor. Marille  liquor  is absolutely delicious tasting strongly of apricots.. Unfortunately it is hard to find in the US. Wachau Valley apricots must have a much better flavor than those sold at home in Georgia considering the wonderful end product. Austrians  use the apricots not only in schnapps but in syrup, as jam, and in cakes, strudels, dumplings etc.

Although the area produces fine white wines, I didn’t buy any, too expensive to ship. Fortunately  wines from each region we cruised through  both white and red were served on the Beatrice, so I did get to try them. Unfortunately many of the wines made by the smaller wineries never find their way to the United States

Since we had to be back on board by 1:15, we wandered back to the boat; by now we had worked up an appetite. However, the Rambler made one more stop. Near the dock I had spotted a promising  building which offered  tourist information, a small gift shop and even a restaurant. The gifts in the shop were just what I had been looking for; St. Nicholas chocolates, and more apricot schnapps in different sized bottles.They were also priced well, for local tourists not for river cruisers.  Since it was December 4th only two days before  St. Nicholas day, December 6th, the shop displayed an array of of favors featuring the 4th century Catholic bishop.  St. Nicholas leaves gifts for good children the night of the 5th, and is also revered by people of many lands, both Catholic and Protestant.

On board, we enjoyed a relaxing afternoon of cruising; No land tours were scheduled . Instead we were captivated by a series of villages we saw on both sides of the river as the Beatrice glided by. I wondered how the people who lived in the village and towns that lined the banks of the Danube got to the other side. There were no bridges for miles along this stretch of the river.

cable ferry for crossing the Danube
cable ferry for crossing the Danube

Then I noticed a dock and cable ferry on one side. They obviously  use a simple cable-drawn ferry to get themselves and a car or two at the time across the river when they need to cross.

Ruined castles were often  spotted on the highest hills; the most famous being the Burg-ruine Durnstein, where Richard the Lionhearted, the English warrior king was briefly imprisoned when he was first captured by the Austrian Duke.  The  remains of Durnstein Castle (Burg-ruine Durnstein)still brood above the small town of the same name.

Durnstein with Burg-ruine Durnstein in the distance
Durnstein with Burg-ruine Durnstein in the distance

Richard was later moved to Trifels castle in Franconia.

In German, there are two words for castle, burg and schloss.  A burg is generally a castle that was built for defense, while a schloss refers to a castle that was built as a ruler’s palace. Unfortunately, even in German, the words are sometimes used incorrectly, which can be confusing. This is one time English does it better, using only one word, castle.

Finally to enliven our afternoon, chef de cuisine Michael had set up a strudel-making demonstration. The strudel would be made by his pastry chef and samples would be handed out to the spectators.

Chef Michael leads the strudel making demonstration.
Chef Michael leads the strudel making demonstration.

I was a little skeptical about the demonstration. My mother made dozens of strudels during her lifetime, stretching a ball of dough of the size used for a large pizza, paper thin. By the time she was done, it covered the white cloth which which she had spread on our dining room table. Strudel dough has few ingredients; just  water flour,and salt, it is not a rich pastry. The rich ingredients are placed on top of the dough and it is rolled up and baked. Real strudel is delicious when done correctly. However,many restaurants and bakeries make a fake strudel with  with phyllo dough which is simply not the same.

I should have know that the Beatrice’ pastry chef would know how to make a real strudel. Not only did he make the correct dough but he quickly stretched it to a paper thickness, even whirling it around like a pizza.  Bravo!