Switzerland: The Complete Series

I know, I know. You have been without an update from me for a whole week. The suspense must be killing you. What amazing adventures could I possibly be having that would keep me away from writing for so long? I must be out of the hostel for over 12 hours a day and come back just long enough to maybe shower and crash into bed for a few blissful hours before bounding out of the door again in the morning. There must be thousands of pictures by now of all the incredible things I see every day, countless stories of the people I meet and the profound cultural sharing that I am participating in. Right? Right??

Unfortunately, no. My reasons for radio silence are not nearly that grand.

Basically it comes down to three things:

  1. I honestly did not do much in Zurich (the first time) or Bern so I didn’t feel like writing individual posts for those places was worthwhile.
  2. I have been sick. Just a head cold with some wonderful throat+ear drainage happening. I’ve been grumpy and in no mood to write.
  3. I have been enjoying some time in the company of apathy and melancholy. I’m sure much of this was health and weather related, but no matter the cause, the result was the same. Namely that I could not bring myself to write.

Well now my time in Switzerland is about to come to a close. I only have one more full day here, back in Zurich, before I hop the train north and find some dear friends in Germany. My health is improving (though still not optimal), the weather has been better (but I think a thunderstorm just started), and I did some pretty awesome things in Interlaken that are definitely worth sharing.

So buckle up, there’s a lot to cover in this post. Maybe make sure you have a snack and some water, and take that pee break now because there are no exits between here and the destination.

ZURICH (the first time):

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I did not have much fun in Zurich. The hostel was in a good location, right in the middle of the old city and a short walk from the main train station. But it was small, had terrible internet, the kitchens always smelled, you had to pay for sheets (which I did not do since I brought my own sleeping sheet-bag thing for situations like this), and the girl that slept under me on the bunk snored so badly I spent half my first night imagining hitting her over the head with various objects. I spent most of my morning booking hostels for later parts of my trip, something I had been neglecting. In the afternoon I did take myself for a leisurely walk around the old city and down by the lake, which was pleasant. There is a fountain that is (floating??) in the lake and goes off every 20 minutes or so. It was nice to sit on the pier and watch that, the mist created a very lovely rainbow. But mostly I just wandered around for a couple hours before heading back to my hostel thinking I would just watch a movie and call it a night. Luckily the Universe decided I deserved a friend, and a nice young man in my hostel struck up a conversation with me and we spent the evening chatting on the roof deck with a bottle of wine. The next day we met for breakfast at a place called the Äss Bar. I’m not kidding. They served day-old pastries at discount prices under the slogan “yesterday’s food fresh today”. Eric, my new friend, made way too many indelicate jokes about this, but I really couldn’t blame him, they were just way too easy. We then walked along the lake on the opposite bank I had done the previous day. The wind was freezing and we whined the whole way back to the hostel. Basically we were just grumpy company for each other since that was better than being alone. Like I said, my time in Zurich was not thrilling.

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BERN:

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My hostel in Bern was really nice. So nice I wanted to move in for a while. There was a lovely kitchen with a large, sunny dining area. The shower room was private and the floor stayed dry. I maybe abused the privilege a little bit. And while my room had six beds there were only two other people until my very last night and they were behind a dividing wall. It was like having my own room. So swanky.

I only had one full day in Bern and I spent it going on a small out of town trip to a place called Papiliorama. This is a small ecological center whose main purpose is to conduct conservation work in Central America, but they use their base in Switzerland for a really interesting kind of immersion education. The center consists mostly of three bio-domes that are each structured like the tropical house at a zoo and they each have their own specific purpose. The first, called papiliorama, is strictly for butterflies. They have a case that houses rows of chrysalides until the butterflies emerge. I was lucky enough to see a staff member removing mature butterflies and giving a short interpretation for visitors. What made it more impressive is that he gave his information first in German, then French, and finally in English!

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The whole dome is a tropical butterfly paradise with countless flowing trees and shrubs in addition to the trays with prepared fruits and shallow dishes of water. It was certainly much larger than any other butterfly garden I had ever seen before in zoo. Usually places like this mix their butterflies into their regular tropical house, but here the butterflies ruled this tiny kingdom all on their own.

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The next dome in the center is called nocturama. When I looked up Papiliorama online I was a little confused about their nocturama exhibit. Initially I thought it was something that was only open at night so I was surprised to find it open during the day. After just taking two steps inside I knew this strange dome would be my favorite experience in a zoo setting. The whole dome is dark with only black lights illuminating the path and certain parts of the enclosures. While this is unnerving and a little frustrating at first, you soon realize that the gloom rewards your struggle by showing you the wide awake behaviors of nocturnal animals. In any other zoo during the day these animals would be sound asleep. But Papiliorama has successfully flipped their sleep cycles through lighting so that the animals are awake during the day so that visitors can observe foraging and social behaviors. The ocelot was up exploring, crab-eating raccoons were washing their dinner in their little stream, a six-banded armadillo was strutting a snuffling about, I even watched a two-toed sloth gracefully move from one side of its enclosure to the other. And there were bats flying everywhere. There were prehensile tailed porcupines up in branches in several places. Though you would never get an in-color detailed look at any of these animals tis way, you still got to see them up and active which was a real treat.

The last dome is called jungle trek and is meant to be a copy of the rainforest where the Papiliorama base in Belize is located. There are a few animal enclosures around the edges of this dome, and there is a really cool elevated walkway, but mostly the idea is to expose visitors to the kinds of plants and microclimates that exist in Belize that Papiliorama is working to preserve.

Outside, on the wooded slope in front of the center, they have a tiny farm set up with several breeds of heritage goats, hogs, rabbits, and poultry. Visitors can enter the whole space and touch pretty much anything that lets them get close. Except for the hogs. They were huge and I was just fine having a fence between me and them. They also had a pond that was designed to be a natural habitat for some locally threatened species of turtles and frogs. A huge netted tent was their “bug big top” where in the summer bees and other flying insects could be observed with information about their nesting and feeding habits. Off in a corner of this outdoor space was a play space with several climbing structures and sand pits. The whole center was designed with children and families in mind, to encourage active learning and creative outdoor play.

I was pretty lazy for the rest of my time in Bern. I did go walking around the old city for a little while which was nice. The symbol for the city is the brown bear and they have a few in residence down by the river. They have a breeding pair and kept one of the cubs from a litter born a few years ago. Each bear has a name and a plaque describing when and where they were born plus notes about their personality. The bears are obviously very loved.

A few sights around town:

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Lovely old clock tower with moving parts. Sorry the picture is so terrible..

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What city doesn’t need a pair of disembodied, four-toed feet?

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One thing did confuse me about Bern, and the same can be said for Interlaken as well: they do not have pedestrian crosswalks. People just wander into the street wherever they like. While this is allows pedestrians to truly go where they please, it creates no small amount of chaos with people going every which way and cars and trams attempting not to hit them. It is very fortunate that pedestrians have the right of way and vehicles are very conscientious and polite. But it makes the average road look something like this:

Yep, that’s a dude just strolling down the trolly tracks.

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I was very happy when my time in Bern was over and I could finally go to Interlaken, the one place in Switzerland I was really looking forward to.

INTERLAKEN:

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If there is a word for Interlaken, it is ADVENTURE. If there is a second word for Interlaken, it is MOUNTAINS. This little town has a perfect location for any outdoor activity you can imagine. The flat valley floor provides space for walking and biking, and a few happy cows in their lush pastures.

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But no matter which way you turn here there are mountains. The kind of mountains you can sit all day and stare at because you will never understand just how high they are. I did sit and stare my second day in town, but I’ll get to that later.

When I arrived the sky was thickly overcast and it was unpleasantly chilly. I did go for a walk around town. Not difficult to do since the town is so small, but I was hoping the next day would bring better weather since I wanted to go explore those amazing mountains and was hoping for a good view. Thankfully the weather was on my side and the next morning was bright and sunny. Though to be honest I was up before the sun had reached the valley. I was bound for the 6:35am train leaving from Interlaken heading up to the Jungfraujoch (“j” sounds like “y”). The Jungfraujoch is the highest train station in Europe at around 3,500 meters above sea level. To get there you have to hop on a series of trains that climb ever higher along the mountains before finally tunneling directly into the mountain because the weather and cliff face are too extreme. The building of this railway occurred in the late 1800s and took 16 years to complete. It is truly impressive to think of the engineering skill and grueling physical labor it took to create this marvel. I took so many pictures of the climb up the mountain, but most of those pictures are terrible since they were taken through the train window. Watching the sun come up and slowly light the mountains was a wonderful sight.

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It was so fascinating to watch the landscape change from warm, green valley, or thinning tree line, to nothing but rock and snow. There were a few places along the trip, once we were in the mountain tunnel, where we were allowed to get off the train and look out through large windows at the peaks we would soon be above.

Eventually we arrived at the final stop. The complex at the top of the mountain is a giant network of tunnels with a few buildings carefully attached to the mountainside. While most of the people who visit the Jungfraujoch are tourists, there is a very important climatology research center there as well. The position of this particular notch in the mountains is very special in that it receives winds from many directions and allows scientists to track not only large scale weather patterns but various environmental indicators as well. As a visitor, the whole place is a series of long passageways that look something like this:

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There is an observation deck that, along with some climate science equipment, provides a really awesome view of the surrounding mountains and even parts of southern Germany and France if the sky is especially clear.

Observation tower called the Sphinx

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View north toward Germany

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I stayed out on the deck until my fingers started to freeze. I have way to many pictures of snow covered mountains now. But it was totally worth it.

Back down in the tunnels I made my way to the ice palace that is carved inside the mountain. While it was not as grand as I thought it would be, the sculptures were still awesome and there was one really narrow tunnel that was fun to go through a few times.

Long entrance tunnel. Everything, except for the railing, is ice. Even the floor!

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Ice penguins!

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There is also another overlook plateau with the Swiss flag that was pretty cool. It’s the closest you can actually get to the top of the actual Jungfrau mountain. Again, I took way too many pictures until my fingers started to freeze.

Top of Europe!

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Some meteorological equipment with evidence of the extreme weather up this high. Jungfrau mountain is in the background.

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Once I had been everywhere inside the tunnels I decided to head out on the one walking path that is safe for all visitors. It did not look that long and the map said it would only take 45 minutes to reach the cabin restaurant at the other end. What I did not account for was altitude and the decreased oxygen content of the air that comes along with it. I had never been that high on a mountain before and walking was very difficult, especially on the few rising slopes in the path. I had to take a lot of breaks otherwise I got very lightheaded. Also the sun was very strong. So there I am, walking in the snow on top of a mountain, sweating like crazy because my body is working so hard to breathe and the alpine sun is beating down mercilessly. But I loved every minute.

View back toward Jungfrau and the Sphinx (can you find it?? Hint: it’s perched on top of the lowest peak) from the path.

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There are amazing views all along the path, of the mountains and of the Aletsch Glacier, which is the flat expanse below the mountains.

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As a bit of a side note, I had noticed that there were a lot of people on the train going up the mountain that had skies and what looked like ice climbing equipment. This was all explained when I started walking on the path outside the Jungfraujoch. Those brave souls were skiing down from the Jungfraujoch onto the glacier, then climbing back up another slope, before skiing back down. This whole process must take each group several hours. I tried to take a picture of their route, but it was so far away that all you can see is a thin line and a few black dots against the snow.

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Here is a group of them before they took the initial slope down to the glacier. They all had packs filled with supplies, ropes, and ice picks. Way more intense than anything I would ever do. But it was certainly a good day to spend on the mountain.

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After nearly four hours on the mountain, I decided it was time to head back down. The train ride was just as lovely, though I was much more aware of the pressure change. my head cold had lessened while I was up on the mountain and now it came back with a vengeance, unfortunately. I knew I would have to take it easy the next day if I had any hope of getting better soon.

So that is exactly what I did. I took a walk by one of the lakes, found a comfortable bench, and just read my book for a while. It was a pleasant sunny day. Ducks and the occasional swan passed by and kept me company. It was a good recovery day.

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As I walked back to my hostel, I passed by the park where the tandem paragliders landed. I had been seeing them in the sky all day and it certainly looked like fun. I was not totally sure I had the guts to make the fee worthwhile. But before the afternoon was over I had convinced myself that, since I was here, I might as well see the mountains in as many ways as possible before I left. I scheduled a pickup for 9:30 the next morning, that way I would have plenty of time to go flying before catching the train back to Zurich in the afternoon.

I was nervous in the morning. I was not sure I could trust a complete stranger enough to fly over mountains with nothing but a chute keeping us in the air. But the pilots were all very friendly and the guy I got paired with was very amiable and chatty. He had over 20 years experience, had started flying as a hobby, and did various other adventure sports. He obviously knew what he was doing and put me right at ease.

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What an exhilarating experience. I was laughing the whole time. My pilot was having a great time pointing things out to me, including the birds and explaining how we were flying just like them by catching the upswell of warm air coming off the ground. After we did several circles to catch the best air and gain some height, we flew straight to get over the lakes and the town. The view was amazing. Once we were over the town my pilot asked if I would like to do a few tricks. Of course I said yes! Soon we were swinging and spinning in crazy circles. All too quickly we were back on the ground and all I wanted to do was go back up. I’ll have to keep an eye out for paragliding schools that I can take lessons at someday. I would love to go flying on my own!

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Finally, it was time to say goodbye to Interlaken, that magical mountain town. I was very sad to leave such a wonderful place, but it was the perfect end to the first part of my trip. Soon I will be heading to Germany where I will be staying with friends. There I will have my own room (sort of) and most importantly there will be kittens! I have long thought about my time in Germany as the midpoint for my time in mainland Europe. I am a month into this journey and am starting to settle into the routine of travel. But it will be nice to spend a little time away from hostels and in the company of good friends that know me well. There will be many more adventures to come, but no more mountains. So here is one last look at Jungfrau, that snow covered beauty:

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ZURICH (the second time):

Felt ill and tired. Rained the whole time. Hardly left the hostel. Go read the part about Interlaken again.

So that’s it. That is how I spent the last week in Switzerland. I survived and am learning to take better care of myself. By taking a nap today, for example, when my walk by the lake got rained out. I have been tired all day and I want to make sure that I have good energy tomorrow for the train ride to Germany. Also I’m hoping another day of rest will help take care of this damn cold that still insists on sticking around. Plus the food at the hostel is pretty good and there’s plenty of it for a not so terrible price, so I really have no reason to go anywhere.

I will do my best to not go so long between posts again. I really do not like having to write so much all at once and I know you would like more regular updates. I will try harder from now on. Until next time!

An Ode to Austria

Forgive the flowery bit of sentiment you are about to read. I was amazed and inspired by the countryside I saw on the train ride from Salzburg to Zurich. This is the best way I could express those feelings:

Traveling through the mountain lands of Austria to Switzerland is incredible. Great waves of earth toss their white capped heads high into the sky as they crash into the flat plain of the valley. No soft roll of hills can be found. You are either clinging to the mountainside or standing on the even plain of the valley floor.

It is here your train rolls along, unimpressed by the sheer majesty surrounding it. The sheer size of the mountains. The sheer, stone cliffs where trees dare not go. The sheer endlessness of  your chosen path. This corridor of tectonic splendor presses to close upon you, forcing your path, you are not sure if you are being led upward to the golden sky that now only winks at you from behind rock and snow, or if you will suddenly find yourself deep in the bowels of the earth where only trolls and dwarves dare to go.

Farms and villages nest here, how I do not know. They seem utterly unconcerned that they are just fragile birds, in white and emerald, perched on the shoulders of giants. Air and earth are but one element that flows below as it does above. Bridges, tunnels, rail tracks carved into the mountain. Do we travel on steel wheels or the hooves of mountain goats, flexing to meet our terrain? Small streams fling themselves from rocky cliffs to find their rocky bed below. The deep green needles of the forest fortress play hid-n-seek with pure white snow.

The eyes absorb the splendor, the emotions rise to meet the awe, the words fail to capture the eternity.

All the Walking, and then a Bus

It feels strange to be leaving this small and comfortable city. I have had a wonderfully balanced time here in Salzburg. I spent my days having pleasantly relaxed adventures, and my evenings drinking and chatting with fellow travelers in my hostel. It has been my first taste of the community culture of long distance travel where people really reach out and get to know each other. The city is so lovely, easy to get around, and this time of year not overly crowded by tour groups. It is truly a charming place that invites you to sit and relax and enjoy the scenery, wherever you are.

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But before I get too sentimental, I should let you know what I’ve been up to the last couple of days.

Sunday was very quiet. I woke up around 7:00am, no idea why, and was out of the hostel by 8:00. I knew it was going to be a warm day so I decided to get a hike in while it was still cool out. The hill opposite from the fortress, called Kapuzinergerg, has several good walking paths and is fairly quiet since it’s used mostly by locals and not tourists. Like all the hills around here, it is a pretty steep climb, but so worth it. The views I was rewarded with were incredible. Since the trees have not leafed out yet, you can see all around even if you are not at a specific lookout point. My favorite was coming upon a place where the fortress is perfectly framed by the mountain behind it.

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It was the most perfect fairytale scene, so lovely it was almost painful. With a light breeze, birds singing, and glorious sunshine all around it was a perfect place to spend the morning. The church bells started ringing at 9:00 it felt like they did not stop for an hour. There is a peace and a grace to this place I had not encountered in the other cities I have visited so far.

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Once I finished my hike, I went back to the hostel for a bit of a rest before catching the bus to Schloss Hellbrunn again to do some more exploring. Part of the gardens for the palace is basically a medieval water park. It is called Wasserspiele and is a series of ingeniously designed trick fountains where you are never sure where the water will be coming from. All of the mechanisms still run on water pressure and gravity, just like they did when they were first designed several hundred years ago. The original wooden pipes have been exchanged for longer lasting metal, but electric motors were never added. To go through the water park you must have a tour guide who explains the history, mechanism, and artistic design of the fountains. The guide is also the one who turns on the individual components and has a good laugh at your expense while you frantically try to dodge the water that is suddenly spraying you in the face or back, or soaking your shoes. There is even a banquet table where jets of water come up out of the seats and another jet catches you as you leap back out of the chair. It was very good fun, especially watching the children  who were thoroughly enjoying themselves.

Once the water tour was over, I went into the palace itself to check out the museum there. I honestly was not paying that much attention to either the audioguide or the written information, but I got the gist that the palace was built by a Prince-Archbishop, who may or may not have been crazy, and that the sole purpose of the place was to a be playground for him and his wealthy guests. The palace is indeed lovely and the grounds are massive, encompassing not just decorative ponds and manicured gardens, but open groves of trees and parkland. Not to mention a hill where I’m sure the more adventurous sportsmen used to hunt. The view of the surrounding farmland from this vantage point is quite lovely as well.

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Eventually I caught the bus back to Salzburg and had another nice evening chatting with people in my hostel.

The next day, Tuesday, was my last day in Salzburg and I thought I might as well do something Sound of Music related. I’d seen most of the old city and other nearby attractions so it felt like time to do something that truly pandered to tourists. The hostel offered a discount on a specific tour so I just signed up for that. It did not start until the early afternoon so I spent the morning going on one last walk around the city. Waiting in the lobby of the hostel, I met a couple college girls from the states that were studying in Europe, specifically Heidelberg and Nottingham. The tour was a lot more intense than I anticipated. It lasted for four hours and took us out into the countryside and a couple of the small villages where certain scenes were shot for the movie. The tour guide and driver were great fun, they had a wonderful deadpan humor that I appreciated. There was one village where the wedding scene was located that was just gorgeous. The church was lovely as well but I really loved the mountains.

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One other stop, on the way to this village, was just to show us another lake that was part of the beginning scene where the camera just pans over the Swiss landscape. So many beautiful mountains. I just wanted to find a small cottage in the village and live there.

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The tour got us back to Salzburg just around 6:00pm. Happy hour at the hostel! One more evening with friends. There was a Brazilian couple and the guy found a guitar and played for us most of the night. There was a large group of us around one table and we traded travel stories for a long time. It was nice to have a moment of community.

I loved Salzburg. The city is quiet but the landscape is the real focal point. Going for long walks and enjoying the mountains seemed like a good way to spend a life. If I ever get back to Austria I will definitely find more ways to get into the mountains. But for now I must say goodbye and hope that I find just as amazing landscape in Switzerland.

 

A Morning in a Castle

In my last post I mentioned, and had plenty of pictures of, the castle on the hill overlooking Salzburg. It is called Festung Hohensalzburg and was the fortress home of the Archbishop-Princes who ruled Salzburg through the middle ages. It’s a very impressive structure and you can see it pretty much from anywhere in the city. Yesterday I set aside the morning to explore it. To get to the entrance you have to climb a very steep road. There is is railcar that makes the castle accessible to more visitors, but I didn’t want to spend the money and having to hike made it feel like a more authentic experience.

Once inside the fortress, you are in a very large courtyard that is a bit confusing to navigate. Since the fortress was built over so many decades and by different people, buildings are kind of piled on top of each other.

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There are a series of small museums inside the main keep of the fortress. The exhibits were simple but well done and gave just enough information. Some of the exhibit design was really ingenious; like this set up to display armor and weapons:

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The very best thing about being in the fortress is that you get amazing views of the valley. Plus overlooks where you can see the architecture of the fortress itself which is simple but lovely.

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Once I had explored every passageway open to the public, I made my way to the roads just below the fortress on the mountain intending to walk to a brewery that I heard about. Not quite halfway there I bumped into a new friend I had made the night before. We spent the rest of the afternoon wandering around downtown before heading back to the hostel for a pre-dinner rest. My hostel has really cheap beer and surprisingly good pizza so that’s how we spent the rest of the evening.

Not the most exciting day, but it was pleasant all the same. Now I’m of to new adventures that I will report later.

Salzburg: The First Days

I’ve been in Salzburg since Thursday the 31st and so much has happened. I have not uploaded pictures from today so I will just be writing about my first two days for now. Don’t worry, I only went to the castle and wandered around with a new friend, the previous two days were more interesting.

I arrived in Salzburg from Vienna just after 1:00pm. The hostel was really easy to find which was very nice. Just a ten minute walk with few turns and I was there. The city in general is easy to navigate and is quite small, at least the old city center, so it does not take long to get anywhere. I dropped my bags, made my bed, and headed for the historic neighborhoods. Every building is crisp, clean, and neat. It is a lovely little city. There are lots of bridges that span the Salzach river that runs through the city, separating the old city from the newer districts. There are lovely views to be had from either bank. Though, of course, in one direction you can look up at the Festung Hohensalzburg, the fortress that sits on a mountain overlooking the city.

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I spent the afternoon meandering through the streets. The map provided by the hostel had some very nice walking tours marked out that took me past most of the important sights around the city. And some that are less important (see picture of me with giant pickle sculpture). There are cafes and beer gardens everywhere. People here have a very relaxed air about them. Except for some of the cyclists. They seem determined to cause casualties. There are dark alleys off of nearly every street that let out into wonderfully bright courtyards. Some are residential and others have restaurants tucked away into corners.

Salzburg Dom, largest church in Salzburg.

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Fountain in a main square next to the Dom. Also pretty sure this is where Maria sang about confidence.

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Franciscan church in the background.

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Tours by horse carriage are all over the old city. To the right are the festival halls where the VonTrapps evaded the Nazis (in the movie anyway).

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As promised, me looking skeptical of a giant pickle. There were several of them in a line. Part of a public art installation. I read the description but the only part I remember is “a gherkin is a gherkin is a gherkin.” Something about beauty in all forms. Whatever. There’s giant pickles in a courtyard.

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I even walked up to the fortress, though did not go inside because I wanted to wait until I had more time. I followed the narrow roads that are along the top of the mountain and found some truly wonderful views.

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Another angle on the fortress.

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While at a crossroads contemplating the next place to go, an older gentleman walked up to me. He said something that I interpreted as asking if I spoke German. I replied that I did not but his face lit up. “Ah, English! You are not from here. Do you want to know where the best view is?” He proceeded to tell me about himself, that he lived in the valley on the other side of the mountain and that he walked up here everyday to take in the view. “It is good for the heart,” he said, “I have a great heart.” Taking me by the arm, he lead me along the path. “I will show you the best view. I come here everyday, I know.” He told me that as a young man he was an avid cyclist. “Eight times I go around equator, that’s how far I went.” The two most important things he told me were how he was so healthy at 77: “All my life, no smoke. No smoke and only one flower. My wife. Whole life, my wife is my only flower.” He was incredibly sweet and kind. I asked him the names of flowers and he pointed out which mountains where Austrian and which were German. We finally reached a small lookout tucked behind a late-medieval wall. Before parting ways I asked his name. “Meindl,” he replied, “my name is Meindl. And remember, no war. Only great heart.” I will remember this sweet old man for the rest of my life.

The wall you walk through to get to the lookout. With mountains in the background, obviously.

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View of the city from Meindl’s lookout.

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He was kind enough to take a picture of me.

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After leaving the mountain, I had a nice dinner and quiet night back at the hostel. Overall the day was a wonderful beginning to my time in Salzburg.

Monday was a fairly lazy day. The weather was miserable, overcast and windy. I went to a cafe for breakfast. Had a very good but slightly expensive omelette. Back at the hostel I was finally able to do some laundry. Clean clothes are the best! Considering the nasty weather, I thought it might be best to visit the zoo. After asking at the front desk how to get there, I walked to the train station, which is also the local bus depot, got a ticket and was soon on my way.

The bus quickly left the city limits and was passing farm land. The ride was only about 20 minutes and the stop for the zoo appears to be in the middle of nowhere. The zoo is very small and narrow, it sits around the base of another small mountain. Though it’s small, it did have a very good animal collection and thoughtful exhibits. Their Cotton-top Tamarin house was a bit of a mixed experience for me. It’s a very small round structure that the Tamarins have free run of. There are branches that go right over the walkway, fully within reach of visitors. When I first walked in, there was a Tamarin walking right over my head. There are signs telling visitors not to touch or feed the monkeys, but the urge to reach out is hard to resist. The professional animal caretaker in me was a bit horrified, but as a visitor it was a very appealing exhibit. Never have I had such a direct experience with a zoo animal, except for the occasional bird in a tropical house. Though it did not take me long to walk through the whole zoo, it was a pleasant hour or so.

The zoo is right next to Schloss Hellbrunn, one of the palaces near Salzburg. I walked around the gardens for a bit. There were a couple ponds with very large fish that I was not so keen on, but wildflowers had been allowed to grow among the trees and it was a nice taste of Alpine spring. When I finally tired of my little outing I caught the bus back into the city.

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Safely back at the hostel, I wrote and surfed the internet for a bit. The wifi does not work very well in my room but there are plenty of common rooms with comfy chairs to camp out in. This hostel is quite large. I think the one in Vienna was technically larger, but here I don’t take the elevator and there are lots of common rooms and dining rooms where there are always people around so this one feels larger. I went out again for dinner around 6:00pm. When I came back to the hostel, I noticed that there were lots of people hanging out drinking beer and I was in a mood to make friends. I bought myself a beer and asked if I could join a couple folks who looked about my age. The three of us ended up having a marvelous evening of pizza and beer. The woman was from Australia and the man from Canada. They’re both working in England right now. We talked about our travels, favorite TV shows and music. We hit it off so well we didn’t call it a night until 1:00am. I was very tired this morning but it was worth it. Making friends wherever you are, even if it’s just for a few hours, is so important for the spirit.

That just about covers my first couple days here in Salzburg. More stories to come soon!

Two Days in Vienna

I wish I had booked more time in Vienna. The city is so lovely and there is so much to do there. I did my utmost to take advantage of the sights and culture while I was there. I think I succeeded quite well.

The journey from Venice was both wonderful and terrible. I took a bus from Venice to a town in Austria called Villach. The views were amazing and the bus was surprisingly comfortable, but this leg of my trip had several stumbling blocks. First of all, the bus depot did not have very good signs and I wandered all over the place before finally finding my bus, at a place that I had walked by numerous times. Then the bus started to pull away! I had been sitting in front of it waiting for the driver to come out and start boarding passengers, but apparently that is not how things are done. You are supposed to go up to the closed door, where the driver is sitting inside, and ask to get on. Well now at least I know. In the moment, I had to chase the bus down and beg to get on, all the while feeling like an idiot. Once in my seat I settled into what I thought would be a nice journey. A few stops later, however, a man took the seat next to me. He was quiet for a while, but then asked if I spoke English. I answered that yes, I did, and instantly regretted turning toward him. His breath reeked so badly I nearly vomited right there. He seemed bent on talking to me though, asking where I was from, if I was traveling alone, if I was a student. His questions and his breath left me thoroughly creeped out and I only gave him vague answers, hoping he’d get the hint, until I could not take it anymore and turned up the volume of my music and proceeded to ignore him. As the bus pulled into our destination, he turned to me one more time and said, “you don’t like talking on the bus do you?” I answered, politely as I could, that no, I usually don’t like talking on buses. “Too bad,” he says, “you have a nice way of speaking.” Inside I’m screaming GET THE HELL AWAY FROME ME! Just because I’m sitting next to you, am female and appear to be alone, does NOT mean I have to talk to you or anyone else. Getting on the train made me so happy. Much easier to find, much faster, and my seat mate was a very pleasant guy around my age. We spent the entire trip politely ignoring each other. It was bliss.

View from the bus. Passed by and through so many mountains.

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Arriving in Vienna in the mid afternoon was nice. The hostel was quiet and I could get settled without tripping over anyone. The room was long but very narrow and there was a bed right by the door. All the roommates I had there were very nice and chatty so we had a good time the couple of nights I was there, but it felt like we were always on top of each other. Before too long I got hungry so I ventured out into the downtown area which was a quick metro ride away. I thought I would have no trouble finding a place to eat. At this point it was nearly 8:00 pm, prime dinner time. I was very wrong. Possibly because it was the day after Easter, there were very few restaurants open, and the ones I did find with lights on were either some variety of Asian or cheap looking pizza. I was getting desperate, but not so desperate that I was willing to spend money on non-native fare. I eventually did find a little Swiss place tucked away in an alley and I thought, well, close enough. The waiter was very kind and I had a wonderful meal of goulash beef stew and a delightfully large beer that had the most perfect foam.

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The next morning I took my time getting ready. I’ve learned not to rush myself. If I get up at 7:00am every day and rush out the door I will wear myself out before my first month on the road is over. There was a particular cafe I did want to visit for my morning coffee, a place called Cafe Havelca, that is one of the oldest in the city. As promised, the coffee was excellent. All of the coffee I have had in Europe so far has been very good. It is richer than your average Starbucks brew. It will be hard to go back.

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The weather was warm and sunny, but very windy. I thought I might try my luck at crowd avoidance by visiting the zoo. The zoo in Vienna is actually part of the grounds for the garden of the Schloss Schonbrunn which is the former palace of the Emperor. It is a lovely structure and the gardens behind it are huge. Entrance to the gardens is completely free. Local people obviously spend a lot of time there. Runners, lines of pre-schoolers on an outing, and groups of young people picnicking were everywhere. But it was still early enough in the season for the crowds to not be too huge.

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Elegant fountain, I wish it had been running.

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View down to the palace from behind the fountain. You could almost climb right into it!

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Behind the palace and the fountain was a steep grassy hill with a gorgeous decorative archway at the top. It was not hard to imagine nobles spending the morning hiking up the hill with their skirts, heels, and swaggering walking sticks, to be served their afternoon tea and cakes while surveying their domain. For regular people, it was good exercise rewarded by a marvelous view of the city. There is still a cafe for those who want a taste of the decadent.

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View down over the palace and the city.

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The zoo was so wonderful. They have done an amazing job of expanding and improving on their habitats over the decades. The zoo was originally the menagerie for the palace and had very small and simple metal bar cages, as was the common practice in the late 1700s to early 1800s. Some of these cages are still on the grounds with placards explaining what zoo care used to be and how it has improved over time. In fact, right next to their large, well structured lion enclosure, they have a metal cage depicting what the zoo’s lions were once kept in. It was very nice to see the zoo owning up to its history while celebrating its improvements. For two years in a row it was voted best zoo in Europe. There is a gazebo at one end of the zoo with a circular path and wedge shaped enclosures all around it. This was obviously part of the original design for the menagerie and the enclosures are the perfect size to house zebras and gazelles. One side of the zoo is a very steep hill that has a fantastic sky walkway with information placards discussing the local flora and fauna and health of the forest. Plus a spot where there is a crater from a WWII bomb. At the top of the hill is a mock farm with heritage breeds of cows, goats, sheep and horses. There is a little cafe where you can get sandwiches and traditional cheeses. I wanted to beg for a job so badly I almost cried. But I restrained myself and wandered back into the palace gardens for a little while before taking the metro back into the city.

Back in the city center, I decided to go for a walk before hunting down dinner. I thought it might be fun to walk along the ring boulevard where all the museums and political buildings are located. While staring at a map in front of the opera house, a man in a costume approached me and asked if I wanted to see an orchestral concert. Skeptical at first, I asked what the show was and how much it would be. Turned out to be the residential orchestra for Vienna at one of the old palaces. Not only would the small orchestra be performing Mozart and Strauss, there would also be opera singers and ballet dancers. Sounded like a classy event and the price was not too crazy. The show started barely a half hour after I bought my ticket but thankfully the theater was not far from the opera house so I made it in plenty of time. The show was very good, it was nice to listen to some of the best classical music played by some of the best musicians in the world. The singers and dancers were also incredible. Overall I was very pleased with my last second ticket purchase. When the show ended I was starving and rushed to a restaurant recommended by the map my hostel gave me. Pork and potatoes, with beer of course, were a great end to the day.

Opera House

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The next day I just wanted to explore the city. I started with the ring boulevard that I had meant to do the other evening. This wide street is where the wall that protected the city once stood. Now, it is home to the most beautiful and important buildings in Vienna. I walked past the museum quarter, the art and history museums. There is the old palace that now houses the national library and other museums. The parliament and city hall are both gorgeous in their respective styles. I wandered into one of the courtyards of the university as well. Was a little perturbed to see that the walls were lined with busts of famous men who had either attended or been professors at the university. As a woman, I would find it very intimidating to seek a degree there, seeing all those important men on display constantly. Otherwise the building was gorgeous.

Mozart in one of the parks behind the palace.

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City hall is a magnificent gothic structure. The sculpture of a soldier on top of the main tower had become a symbol of Vienna and is on certain medals of honor given by the city.

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I made my way back to the city center and to the Stephansdom, St Stephen’s Church, which is one of the largest in Vienna. The inside was lovely and there was a choir from Traverse City, Michigan, singing which was a nice connection to home for a moment. I decided to go on the tour of the catacombs beneath the church. I am not sure I would recommend it to other travelers. While the tour guide was excellent, he gave information in both English and German and was very engaging to listen to, it was for less than a half hour and you could only look into the bone rooms through small windows. It was interesting, had plenty of the creep-factor since you knew you were surrounded by mass graves even if your couldn’t see them, but I’m not sure it was worth the 5,50euro. It was a cool experience though. I’ll have to check out the catacombs of Paris to see how they compare.

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Interior of the cathedral.

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Door where we excited the catacombs.

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For the rest of the afternoon I just wandered the back streets of the old city. There was a walking tour plotted out on my map and I did my best to follow that. There were some interesting buildings and courtyards. And other little tidbits like this random mural of a cow playing a board game that dates from the 17th century and has never been painted over, for whatever reason.

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Though it was a short, hurried visit, I loved my time in Vienna. Public transit is so easy to use and runs so regularly thoughts of the T in Boston made me shudder. One more dinner and evening chatting with girls in the hostel and it was time for me to head to Salzburg.

I’ll cover my first two days in Salzburg in my next post. For now I need dinner so it’s off to the old city I go!