An Austrian Vacation
The days before…
I had been flirting with the notion of a trip to Austria for some time but knowing how much there is to see, I was waiting for a suitably long holiday. But long holidays are hard to come by, and other priorities always seem to take over. So here I am planning a five day trip, driving 2000 kms…..Mad!! I must be !!! I shoot off emails to tourist offices, demanding maps and brochures. I study hotel offers and city maps, my trusted Eyewitness Travel Guide and make my Master Plan including sights to see, timings, distances and the like. The hotels are booked, the car is ready in essence (I like the French word for petrol 🙂 and we are ready to set off.
The first day : a long drive to Salzburg
Quick facts : If driving in from the west, the quickest route may be through Munich. Most of the sights are within walking distance of the centre, this is the most convenient place for finding a hotel. Parking garages near the centre cost about 18 Euros a day but if you have the time, there are P & R garages on the outskirts which are priced low. Restaurants are abundant and very reasonably priced.
We set off at a reasonable time and I trustingly type in the destination into Ms.GPS. We zip along at a smart pace, cheerful in spite of the rain and gloom. My eternal optimism hopes for clearer weather at the other end of 670 kms, even in the face of dire predictions by the learned meteorological wizards. For those venturing out on 670 km drives, a word of warning – its long!! We whizz past Bern and Zurich, St Gallen and Bodensee, and a bit to my surprise, launch into a German autobahn driving at a smart pace towards Munich. Munich ? I look questioningly at the Ms.GPS, and finally open the European road map to peer long-sightedly to see what she plans for us. I confess, we are blind GPS followers. Once on the road, she is the Boss. We go wherever she says we should, and if she were to take us to the edge of a cliff, we would no doubt trustingly take her advice and do the lemming thing. Have you read those science fiction stories about machines taking over the world ? Well, if you are a machine and plotting along those lines, I strongly recommend that you get the GPSes to join your gang. You will have a good majority of human kind in your power with no effort at all !! But I digress. We trundle past Munich, curse all the roadwork going on in the German roads and finally arrived at Salzburg at nearly five in the evening.
The hotel is well-placed, just at the edge of the pedestrianized centre of town. After checking in, we wander into town, sitting down soon to an early dinner. It continues to drizzle but we are content enough in our rainwear. Salzburg has a charming and very strollable city centre. I read in my trusty guide book that 50% of the Austrian GDP is from tourism. 50% !! For the rest of the time in Austria, we classify everyone around us as either GDP contributors or GDP – what’s the opposite ? – benefiters perhaps? I am happy to report that the contributors seem to outnumber the benefiters by a good margin. And most of the locals we see are in any case involved in raising that 50% to something much higher. Take Salzburg. The streets are pretty, lined with attractive shops which call out to be explored and contributed to. Not just tourist junk, but shop windows lined with arts and crafts, stylish clothes and hats, books, mouth watering pastries and biscuits…the list continues. I am mystified by a shop selling the most exquisite painted eggs, thousands of them. Easter eggs in September ? Our wanderings tire us soon and we call it an early night.
The second day : The Sights of Salzburg
Quick facts : The not to miss sights are the Hohensalzburg Fortress, the Dom, St Peters Abbey, Mozart’s place of birth and the Hellbrunn Palace. Hellbrunn Palace is a 20-30 min ride from the city centre. The audio walking tour provided by the tourist office is good; it takes about 3 hrs if you don’t dawdle. I believe that the Sound of Music tour is very popular, but we didn’t go on it. The sights can be seen in a day if that’s all you have.
We start our tour with a funicular ride up to the 11h century Hohensalzburg Fortress which looms over Salzburg. Its a fine day, even a warm day. We were to have fine weather throughout our holiday. The views from the fortress are beautiful, the city laid out in grey roofs and spires, green domes and grey squares, with the river snaking its way through the city, silvery in the morning light. We take a walking tour through the fortress and then we walk through the rooms which house a military museum. Many statues, paintings and photographs display impressively moustachioed gentlemen, their carriage erect, eyes proud. They look not unlike the paintings of warrior kings I saw in Rajasthani fortresses. I am a bit amused by this Rajasthani-Austrian luxuriant moustache connection 🙂
We make our back to the city and get mp3 tours from the tourist office. Apple seems not be supreme in Austria, the tourist office gives us HP devices which, as an official gadget freak, I am happy to report worked well. Salzburg, as we see it today, owes its architecture to three archbishops who reigned between 1587 and 1683. They have done a good job. Salzburg’s most famous citizen was of course Mozart.
The tour leads us through squares and fountains, palaces and gardens, churches and graveyards, all picture perfect. We hear of Salome, the dear concubine of the archbishop with 10 children (!!) who no doubt inspired him to build many palaces. We hear of Mozart and his genius, and his failings. We see Mozart’s house and eat lunch at the café where he used to hang out, in the building where his sister used to live.
We wander through the palatial rooms of the Residenz, the seat of the government. We are much impressed by the monumental 8th century Dom (Cathedral) with its sumptuous decorations, the 13th century Franciscan church and the 7th century Benedictine Abbey of St Peter’s. I am much taken with the last, with its opulent interior. I do have a liking for the ornate!! We admire the Weinkeller Restaurant in its grounds, founded a 1000 years back (yes, its a 1000) where Charlemagne was supposed to have dined. I like this sense of continuity I feel in the presence of old buildings and old churches. But all this history has made us very tired and we finally call it a day, without really finishing the whole tour.
Collecting our car from the garage, we drive out to the Hellbrunn Palace just on the outskirts of Salzburg. We are just in time for a guided tour of its ‘trick’ fountains, which are quite amusing. It seems that the Archbishop Markus Sitticus was a man who liked to play practical jokes on his guests by squirting them with water at unexpected times !! There are fountains and grottos, moving tableaux and water-powered bird calls. We then wander into the garden and admire the gazebo which was used in the Sound of Music. By now our feet are begging us for mercy and with a sigh, we collapse gratefully into our seats and start the drive towards Vienna. Its an easy drive but rather boring and we arrive safely at our hotel after 3 hours.
Do we still have energy ? No, but we sure are hungry. Famished. My good man wants to eat Indian food and we are advised by the hotel reception that the best bet is in the city centre. We walk to the nearby underground station, buy ourselves a two day transport pass and head into town. Its Friday night and the city is abuzz. Lights, music, noise and GDP contributors throng the streets. We make our way to the Indian restaurant and I am happy to find a simple Thali which goes down real easy in my famished state. We finally totter our way back to the hotel, and I fleetingly wonder if the appendages attached to the low end of my legs are made of lead. But a question of this philosophical magnitude needs a keen intellect and much logical reasoning which is beyond me by this time. I shelve the thought for a brighter day.
The third day : The sights of Vienna
Quick facts : Vienna’s sights are also in the city centre, but its a big city. It is best to find a hotel close to an underground station. The transport pass, for one or more days, is very convenient and useful. Parking near the city centre is expensive, best to find a P & R near the outskirts for an extended stay. The not to be missed sights are the Schönbrunn Palace, the Cathedral, the Hofburg Palace complex, the Opera House, the Parliament and the Rathaus. If you can time a show at the Spanish Riding School, it looks as if it would be a good experience. The Kunsthistoriches museum is a must for anyone interested in art, but there are many more museums besides. Its very culturally active and there are many music performances and shows. The audio tour is good and it would take about 4 hrs to do it. There are innumerable restaurants and cafes, shops and boutiques for enjoying a relaxed holiday. A minimum of 3 days are required to even scratch the surface of Vienna’s offerings.
You will not be surprised, dear reader, to hear that we have had a slow start today. I must report however that the breakfast buffet served by the Mercure Westbahnhof is a true feast. We linger over it, waking slowly to the day. Our first port of call is the Schönbrunn Palace, the opulent palace of the Habsburgs. It strikes me with the same impressive vastness as Versailles, though it is smaller. It has ony(!) 1422 rooms. As we wait for our ticketed entry time, we peruse the Habsburg monarchs’ genealogy chart with interest. I am pleased to see a profusion of interestingly moustachioed gentlemen staring at me with hauteur. I pass time by mentally adorning them with multicoloured turbans and Indian regal jewellery. Over the day, I am to become well familiar with Emperor Franz Joseph I and his muttonchops and I develop a growing kindness for this gentleman.
The palace is crowded. Its a squeeze to get through from room to room and to find a spot to quietly listen to the audio guide. The palace is impressive but the crowds oppressive and I don’t feel like lingering. There are rooms upon rooms of splendour, and they all are merging in my mind’s eye until I can’t tell them apart. The ceilings are a joy to behold. I get a crick in my neck but continue walking and bumping into unsuspecting strangers who are also gazing upwards. My magpie like attraction to gilt leaves me blinking at the richness around me. I like the vieux-laque room in particular and also the Chinese cabinets, two rooms set with oriental lacquer panels which support blue and white porcelain from floor to ceiling. Apart from my friend Franz Joseph, his wife Sisi (Elizabeth) seems to be much admired and her likeness adorns many a wall. My dear man however has had enough of gilt and glitter and is not even pausing to see the decorations in each room. I hurry after him and we spend a relaxed half hour in the gardens at the back, enjoying the sun and the fact that we can take the weight off our feet !!
I wish we had the time to linger a while. As we exit I note that the crowd of tourists has swelled even more and employ my mathematically minded man to work out an estimate of GDP contribution per day earned by this Palace. Its not a small number. These royals no doubt (royally) exploited the masses in their time in building these enormous, luxurious palaces but they are paying dividends to a future generation of commoners.
After emerging from the palace, we make our way back to the city centre. The underground system is easy to use and fast. Over the many trips we make, we were never to wait for more than 5 minutes. We head towards the tourist office where we get, yes, another audio tour, again on HP gadgets. I like these tours…we can do it at our own pace and are not obliged to keep up with any group. There is a lot of information but if it all gets too much, we can listen to the essentials and switch off. It suits me well. Before we start our tour, we enjoy a light lunch in front of the Albertina.
The afternoon is spent in wandering through the streets of Vienna and admiring its beautiful architecture. A penfriend mentioned that benevolent despotism is sometimes good – and I am thinking that its perhaps true of Vienna. I do not know enough about Austria and its rulers to comment but seeing the beautiful wide ring road with one impressive structure after another, I wonder….
This afternoon, we peer into Stephansdom and scuttle out within minutes as there is a ceremony on. We admire the beautiful Opera house and the Albertina. We gaze admiringly at the Hofburg complex and check out the video outside the Spanish Riding School. We gaze greedily into the window at the royal confectionary, its mouth watering offerings seem very tempting. And then when our legs give up, we sit and wolf down an original Sachertorte in the Sacher cafe. Its quite delicious :) After that, we ride on a tram around the ring road where I spot some of the sights that I want to see the next day. Its relaxing to sit in a tram letting Vienna pass by outside our windows. We are ready to call it a day quite soon and head back to the hotel. We dine in a Chinese restaurant right next to our hotel. The service is businesslike but they rustle up a veggie meal for me, so I am content.
The fourth day : More on Vienna
I wake up energetic this morning. After a very nice breakfast, we head towards the Parliament. A Segway tour is training its participants on the its use. We watch the tour guide as he demonstrates how to manoeuvre the machine. I remember the Frasier episode where Dr.Crane goes whizzing around the apartment on one and I giggle to myself. My good man is determined to drag me onto one the next time we go anywhere !! I am not so sure..
The parliament building is impressive and after taking many pictures, we walk to the Rathaus (Town Hall) which is close by. A stunning building. There is a circus on in front of it and we peer through the back when the performers exit. I drag my man to see more nice buildings like the university and the museums but he says he will throttle me if I show any more nice buildings and I think I believe him!
I want to see the Kunsthistoriches museum, at least its collection of paintings but I am nervous about mentioning it to my man who is still looking longingly at the Segways. Finally taking courage into my hand, I demand to see at least the Vermeer if nothing else. For those unaware of my Quest (with a capital), it’s to see each of the 35 Vermeers which are displayed in museums around Europe and USA. I have seen 18 of them so far but some before my Quest commenced so I want to re-visit them. So I stand pleadingly outside the museum and my good man gives in gracefully to my puppy-wanting-a-treat expression. I am ‘allocated’ a time and appointing him time keeper, I whizz through the collection, just pausing in front of the few which pull me close. Even that takes an hour and a half. I do spend a few very satisfying moments before the Allegory of Painting, the Vermeer, a truly fantastic painting. I could wax lyrical for hours…what a Master !! What talent !! And as a bonus he looks like Colin Firth !! Didn’t you see a Girl with a Pearl Earring? Do. I am a true fan of the paintings and of Colin Firth….
I am finally dragged away by my time keeper and I promise myself that I will come back for a museum trip as there are others I wish to see as well. The museum building itself is a marvel and we spend a few minutes in the lobby, admiring its beautiful proportions. Finally we leave and make our way back to the hotel. A long drive to Innsbruck awaits us. Not much to say about this drive either..I doze on and off, happily dreaming of painting after painting.
We arrive at dinner time in Innsbruck and after dumping our bags in our hotel, we stroll to a Chinese restaurant we had seen as we drove up. We place our order with the young man who waits on us. Within a few minutes, his mother and owner of the restaurant comes to our table, a Chinese woman of middle years. She startles us by launching into a conversation in Hindi !! My good man has a nice surprise for she is from Kolkata, having migrated to Austria many years ago. She offers to make him chilli-chicken in the Indo-Chinese way which he adores, and he is in 7th heaven !! She makes me a very nice aubergine dish and we tuck in greedily. Its been years since we have eaten true Indo-Chinese food. After the meal she comes and sits at our table, talking of Kolkata, the Indian-Chinese community, bringing up children, running a restaurant…her life has been challenging but she is a woman with strength and grit. And a very warm personality. We are so very pleased to have entered the Waldorf restaurant.
The fifth day : A short visit to Innsbruck
Quick facts : The city centre can easily be seen on foot. A morning would suffice. However, its surroundings are beautiful and those looking for a relaxed holiday near the mountains would find it very pleasing to stay a few days.
Guidebook in hand, we set off for a quick exploration of Innsbruck before we head home. It has a small city centre and my guide book doesn’t have all that much to say so we manage this very quickly. One house in particular, with flamboyant rococo decoration, takes my fancy. We do not linger as the drive home looms long.
This time Ms.GPS takes us between and through the mountains. The 33km tunnel is an impressive engineering feat. Reminds me of the story I read about the tunnel engineer who committed suicide because after digging in from the two ends, the tunnel did not meet at the centre !! How horrible!! I feel a bit sorry for these beautiful mountains, immovably magnificent, which, if alive, would have shuddered to have their middles tunnelled through. We pass beside Bregenz and then are back to our familiar route home from Zurich. The holiday has come to an end.