Last week, me and 18 other students took a “vacation” from Berlin. The trip was an optional program offered and planned by IES. We were there with two of the IES staff.
Saturday, Sept 22
We flew out early Saturday morning from Berlin to Vienna. It was an amazingly short flight, only a little over an hour. When we got there, we met our tour guide Petra and took a rather long bus tour of the city. I took tons of crappy out-the-window shots from the bus, which I’ll save you the chore of looking through.
I learned quite a lot about the city, especially the Danube river. Vienna has an Old Danube, a New Danube, a Danube Canal, and the original Danube. Our tour guide explained the story behind each of these, but I can’t remember the whole thing for the life of me. I know it had something to do with controlling flooding.
The city was quite a lot smaller than Berlin, which made it easier to get around. Still, after being in Berlin for four weeks, anything seems lame by comparison.
We ate lunch at Schweizer Haus (Swiss House) which actually served authentic Viennese food, including the ever-famous Wiener Schnitzel. I tried a pale beer there, but despite my best efforts I just absolutely cannot stand the taste of beer so I wound up giving it away. (The wine in Hungary was another story.) I’m proud of myself for trying, though.
It was Oktoberfest week in Vienna, so after settling into our hotel rooms, me and a group of American students went to Prater, this big amusement park. It was a little drizzly out so it wasn’t too crowded. The first ride we went on, called Exstasy, absolutely kicked my butt. Imagine a mixture of the Scrambler and the Twister… now with blasting techno remixes, strobe lights and lasers. Now imagine that going upside-down and spinning fast enough to create a force of 3 G’s. I soon realized what the sign on the fence meant – “nicht für schwachen Nerven!”
We had an absolute blast and spent all afternoon at the park. Some highlights included a funhouse it took them 20 minutes to get through, black-light bumper cars we went on twice in a row, and swings on a tower that rose up way above the park.
After this adventure, my next experience was rather disturbing… Of course we had been being loud, screaming, English-speaking tourists at the park, which wasn’t a big deal since there was loud music blasting. But when we left and entered the quiet streets of Vienna, many people in our group were STILL being extremely loud and obnoxious and speaking English. We went to a gas station to buy some snacks, took 20 minutes for everyone to decide what they wanted, and were speaking extremely loud English the entire time. When the last person checked out, the man behind the counter said “I don’t like Americans.” At that point, I couldn’t really blame him.
After this, I just wanted to get away from the group, so when we went back to the hotel, I asked the receptionist if he knew of any quiet, non-touristy bars in the area. He pointed me (and Sydney, another girl in our group, who decided to come with) in the direction of one extremely close to the amusement park we were at earlier in the day, Club Fluc. It took us 2 hours walking around the city at night to find it, and on the way we found the street where apparently all the prostitutes hang out.
We finally asked someone where it was, and when we got there–well, I don’t know what I was expecting, but it certainly wasn’t this. It was a house converted into an underground club. I guess that night was special, because they had films playing and it was filled with very dark, Tim Burton types. Seriously, most of the crowd fell somewhere between the punk and Goth scene, and most of the women there looked like witches and a couple of the guys looked like Johnny Depp. I realized that the film we were watching was a biography of some up-and-coming musician with a large black mohawk, who happened to be sitting not too far from me! I didn’t follow what was going on too well, but at one point they played a legit German art film called “Die Träume sind Tot” or something (“The dreams are dead”) with weird black-and-white juxtaposed images and random sounds thrown together. Then a “band” consisting of a guy on electric guitar and a woman on synthesizer came on and played this really new-wavey, electronic, sort of throbbing music for a while. It was actually pretty cool, although no one was really dancing. (The skunky smell in the air may have accounted for some of that.) All in all, it turned out to be a lovely, if completely unanticipated, evening.
Sunday, Sept 23
All the shops are closed on Sunday, so Sydney and I decided to go to Mumuk, the Museum of Modern Art which was really more like modern fashion. Museums are free on Sundays.
On our way to the museum we passed by a strange travelling outdoor library, a project to get more people to read called Stadt Lesen (City Reading). There were shelves with books you could just pick up and read, and hammocks and bean bag chairs all over in this one little section of the museum quarter. Pretty neat little project!
I actually enjoyed the museum more than I thought I would, but I can’t imagine anyone actually wearing one of those pieces in public. One of my favorite pieces was a larger-than-life woman’s sandal with an actual life-size chair instead of a heel. There was also a cool stop-motion film of a paper doll dressing herself. You weren’t allowed to take pictures inside the museum, so you’ll just have to imagine.
At 1pm we met up again for another oh-so-fascinating bus tour. I wanted to sleep, but our tour guide was yakking the whole time and kept making us get out and look at stuff. We took a windy little mountain path to get to the top of a hill where there was a really great viewpoint. I saw the ferris wheel at Prater, where we’d been the day before! It was very touristy though.
We also stopped by Hundertwasserhaus, this random apartment complex that was designed by an artist. The street was a little too narrow to take photos of the whole thing, but hopefully you’ll be able to piece it together. Both areas were very touristy. I bought a new journal at a souvenir shop across the street.
We also stopped by Schloss Schönebrunn, a famous tourist-trap of a castle that was the summer residence of several generations of royal families, including local celebrity and long-dead Kaiserin Elisabeth, affectionately nicknamed Sissi.
In the evening, we finally did something that felt cultural! I guess in Vienna there are all these little wineries where you can stop by and grab some food from a buffet and try out the local wine. We had an excellent dinner of hearty meat-and-potato and strudel type dishes. There were a couple of musicians in lederhosen performing there playing traditional Austrian songs for us, sometimes singing, sometimes yodeling. I recognized at least one song from having heard it in Bavaria. The only one everyone recognized, though, was “Edelweiss” because of The Sound of Music. They also played “An der schönen blauen Donau” (The Beautiful Blue Danube), a very appropriate song for this city despite the not-blue color.
I tried a drink I believe is unique to the area called Sturm. It is between grape juice and wine – when the grape juice just starts to ferment, but is not actually wine yet. The yeast actually settled to the bottom during the time I was drinking it (I made a point not to swallow it on accident.) I’m not sure if it had alcohol in it – probably a little. It was very sweet and reminded me of pear juice, both in color and taste.
My camera battery died that evening and I left my charger in Berlin, and despite my best efforts was unable to buy another charger in either of the other cities. Thankfully a kind soul named Carlie agreed to copy some of her trip photos onto a flash drive for me, so most of the next ones I’m posting are hers.
Monday, Sept 24
We took a morning train to Budapest. We were all extremely tired, and another bus tour was NOT the way to wake us up. I felt really bad, our new tour guide was extremely passionate about Hungarian history and wanted to tell us all about it, and nobody was really interested. We went to a square called Heldenplatz (our tour guide was speaking German so I don’t know the Hungarian name) and he went through each and every one of the statues there and told us all about the guy they depicted. Rough.
I was distracted by a unicyclist practicing his stunts in the square.
We also visited a neat castle thing built on the top of a hill with a grand view of the city. I ate some ice cream and my mood improved.
Dinner was definitely the highlight of Monday evening. We went to a traditional Hungarian restaurant and had an incredible, delicious, filling, three-course meal. It started with soup – beef goulash for the meat-eaters and vegetable soup for the vegetarians. The second dish consisted of a variety of salad-type vegetables. Everything on it was pickled. Sweet pickles, sour pickles, spicy pickles. Unusual, but I grew to like it! The main dish was another meat, cheese, potatoes, etc. type thing.
And the wine was absolutely delicious! They kept loading our table with new bottles – it’s hard to keep track of how many you’re drinking when you divide everything by 20. And the waiters came around with this big glass siphon-type thing and squirted it continuously in the tourists’ mouths. It was like a game, see how much you can drink before spilling. It’s actually quite difficult to swallow without closing your mouth. Try it some time.
The entertainment was also great. Traditional Hungarian folk music and dancing. There was a fiddle, a bass, and an odd instrument called a “zymbal” which appeared to be between a piano and a harp, except it was struck by mallets. The player was extremely good and even played it blindfolded part of the time!
The exchange rate was tough to get used to. It’s somewhere between 22 and 28 Florentz to the euro. So for instance, I bought my dad a Hard Rock Cafe t-shirt in Budapest for 8000 Florentz. And that was cheaper than the ones in Western Europe!
Tuesday, Sept 25
This was a chill day away from the big city, a welcome break in my opinion. Budapest is beautiful, but unlike Berlin, it’s just more noisy, more crammed together, and with fewer parks and trees, which I found stressful after a while. We spent the day at a farm a ways outside the city. We took carriage rides and got to see an old farm house and a room filled with sausage hanging from the ceiling. There was a lot of down time between activities where we got to pet the farm dogs and chase geese around. There were also some vicious-looking pics, long-horned sheep, and gray long-horned cows.
The highlight of the farm was the horse riders, called chicos. They put on quite a show for us, wearing their traditional garb and playing games on horseback. One game consisted of one of the chicos borrowing a scarf from a girl, hanging it from his shoulder, then running around on his horse while the others tried to grab it from him. The narrator explained that the winner of this game got a year’s free food and drinks at the local pub, and a kiss from the prettiest girl. The scarf belonged to Chelsea, one of the girls in our group. They put on quite a chase, running faster and dodging and getting farther away. One chico finally got it and marched majestically over to us to return it to Chelsea. All the tourists were yelling “Küsschen! Küsschen!” at this point, but the guy just handed it too her and walked off! Our German mentor, Thomas, yelled after him “What a man!”
Our lunch was literally the exact same as dinner the night before, musicians and wine and all. After last night I drank only water.
I spent the evening wandering the city with one other person in our group in a valiant search for the Hard Rock Cafe. We got royally lost but stumbled upon a couple of cool sights. By the end of the night I was so exhausted. For dinner I grabbed a traditional Hungarian dish off the street, Langos, which was kind of like a small pizza without the sauce.
Wednesday, September 26
While about half of our group went to check out the city baths (I think it was some sort of hot spring), the rest of us went to Margaret Island, a pretty little place in the middle of the river. The whole thing was forested over, and it was a sunny day, so the temperature was just perfect in the shade.
We rented a surrey (one of those bike type things for four people) and pedaled around the island. We saw a zoo, the ruins of a nunnery from like the 13th century, the grave of St. Margaret in said nunnery after whom the island was named, and a little castle type thing. It was really grand, being outside in the woods.
In the afternoon we took a tour of the Parliament building. We got the time of our tour wrong and wound up waiting on the lawn in front of it for a long time, which wasn’t unpleasant at all because the weather was so nice. I ran through a sprinkler, played fetch with someone’s dog, and took a nap in the sun.
The tour was amazingly short and sweet. Learn a little history, snap a few photos, then herded back outside like the cattle we tourists are.
On our way back to the hotel, Deepika and I did a little souvenir shopping at the big Market Hall. It was pretty cool–largely touristy stuff up top (fast food, overpriced souvenirs), but down below you could tell was where a lot of people did their grocery shopping. Fresh fruits and vegetables, smoked and cured meats, cheeses, fish, spices, and oils could all be found in different sections. I think the whole complex was three stories.
That night we took the night train from Budapest to Krakow. We were all so excited! None of us had ever been on a night train before except for the mentors traveling with us, and they weren’t too excited about it. The first half hour or so we were all in the hallway, talking excitedly and hanging our heads out the windows. It was so thrilling, being on a fast-moving train at night, seeing the stars overhead, watching the electric wires spark overhead, past the Slovakian countryside. There were beds instead of seats, and you got two sheets, a blanket, and a pillow.
By the next morning, we were all miserable and tired. It was almost impossible to fall into a deep sleep on a loud, rickety, moving vehicle. None of us had showered. So you can imagine our joy when we found out we wouldn’t be able to check into the hotel until later that afternoon, and were instead going on another (you guessed it) city tour.
I was particularly pleased to learn that this was a “Stadtrungang” (walking tour) instead of a “Stadtrundfahrt” (driving tour). Our guide spoke very good German and it was hard for me to follow her, especially at first. We walked around the Old City and saw some major tourist sights, including a castle and a cathedral. At exactly 11:50 a.m., a nun came out into the cathedral and ritualistically opened up the altar case to reveal beautiful, colorful, intricately-carved wooden figurines depicting biblical scenes for a huge crowd of tourists. You had to pay to take pictures inside.
As we went outside, at exactly noon a trumpeter opened up a window on the highest tower and played a little song. There was also a guy dressed up as a knight down below right next to us with a bow and arrow, and he pretended to shoot the trumpeter. Not sure what that was all about, but sort of neat.
We had a couple of hours’ free time, which I used to obtain the local currency and get some food, then settle into my hotel room and take a nap, before yet another walking tour. This time we explored the New City and the Jewish Quarter. One of the highlights of this tour was visiting a historical Jewish cemetery.
The cemetery was beautiful and wild and overgrown. Graves were so close to one another, they must have been reused at some point. Huge headstones of various types of stone and marble dominated the landscape. Little piles of stones were stacked on some of the tombs. Our tour guide explained that the stones were a sign of respect in Jewish culture, and equated them with flowers or candles on Christian graves.
Many tombstones had been partially destroyed during the bombings of World War II. Since there was too much damage to reconstruct everything as it originally was, broken bits of headstone were made into a low wall around the edge of the cemetery. What a neat idea!
Soon it began to rain, so our guide thankfully cut our tour a bit short. We ate dinner at a traditional Jewish restaurant, again with delicious and hearty food–bread, soup, salad, and a vegetable dish. We were there for three hours, although the last half hour consisted of live entertainment. Two different ensembles performed for us, both consisting of a violin, an accordion, and a bass. They played traditional Yiddish music. I had no idea Yiddish was so similar to German and I was surprised at how much I could understand.
Friday, Sept 28
Our last day of the trip, we took a guided tour through Auschwitz Concentration Camp. It was a chilling experience. While in the middle of the city Auschwitz was portrayed as a sort of tourist trap (for instance, “Tour the salt mines and Auschwitz together and save 10 euro!”), the actual site had thankfully been preserved as a memorial.
We learned the difference between Auschwitz prisoners, the people forced to live and work under miserable conditions who rarely survived more than three months, and victims, who were sent straight to the gas chambers without being registered or anything, just stripped naked of hair, clothing, and belongings.
Many of the living quarters had been converted into museum-like buildings which you could tour through. Most contained information about Auschwitz and the Holocaust in general on the walls, and huge class cases filled with things the Nazis stole from their victims – everything from shoes to eyeglasses to prosthetic limbs to actual human hair they sold to textile factories. There was one filled with empty canisters of the poison gas used in mass exterminations.
The Nazis destroyed the two larger gas chambers at Auschwitz-Birkenau when they realized they had been found out in an attempt to hide the scale of the genocide they were committing, but the smaller one at the original Auschwitz camp was intact. We were allowed to walk through it, but you were not allowed to talk, as a sign of respect. It was chilling, standing in the same room where so many innocent lives had been taken, seeing the holes in the ceiling through which the officers dropped the poison gas canisters, then walking one room over to the furnaces where the bodies would be burned immediately and the ashes searched for anything of value, such as gold teeth. I don’t believe in ghosts or anything, but the experience was profoundly affecting.
Nothing could top that, so we packed up our things, got on the bus, and went back to the airport. Berlin feels like home…