My last week of Berlin was a stressful frenzy of studying for tests, correcting essays and packing. My last final was Dec. 13, a Thursday afternoon, and Friday my boyfriend Mischo and I left Berlin in the early morning for a week of traveling.
For pictures for this post, see http://www.alisonphotoland.wordpress.com
Our first stop was a small ski town in the Czech Republic near the Polish border called (in German) Spindlermühle – the Czech name is spelled Špindlerův Mlýn, please don’t ask me to pronounce it. We traveled via the carpool website from Berlin to Prague, had a couple of hours to eat lunch and make our way to the station, and took a bus from Prague to the ski resort. We arrived around 5pm, when it was already dark.
It was the opening weekend of the ski season. We were grateful that there was snow – according to the website there had been none a week ago when we booked our trip, which wasn’t very comforting. The weather was a mixture of snow and rain the entire time we were there, but conditions were really pretty decent until Sunday afternoon, when a heavy fog from the top of the mountain started slowly descending.
Our hotel was really something else. The location was nice – we were able to walk from our door to the ski lift in about a half hour, and it was just close enough to the edge of town to be a little on the cheaper side, but the service was awful. There appeared to be three employees, only one of whom spoke German and none spoke English. The German speaker had been hired only two weeks before and didn’t appear to have any training, because he kept having to ask his boss everything. While skiing we incidentally stumbled upon another hotel/restaurant hidden higher up on the mountain which was only accessible by ski or snowmobile. We stopped there for lunch and wound up meeting the owner, who apparently is a really interesting guy. He’s involved in UNESCO, sponsors four African children, and travels to Africa every year. We decided to stay there if we ever come back.
Sunday night, after a long day of skiing, we exchanged our snow clothes for swimsuits and paid a small fee to spend an hour enjoying a local Wellness Center. It featured a swimming pool, a hot tub, and three different saunas. It was time (and money!) well spent – it felt great to relax in the water and warmth after getting soaked skiing, and it was quite cheap. It was my first time in a sauna, which I decidedly didn’t like, but Mischo spent a good long 15 minutes in the hottest sauna and spent the next 15 sprawled out happy and relaxed on a beach chair.
Monday early in the morning we packed our things, caught a bus back to Prague, then from there took a bus (cheaper and more direct than the train) to Vienna. Again we arrived after dark. Our hostel turned out to be the coolest place ever. It was more of a shared apartment than a hostel really. The furnishings were very modern with lots of white and silver, they provided almost every amenity you could ever forget (from soap to Q-tips) in dispensers in the rooms and bathrooms, there was a fully-stocked kitchen, and there were living rooms where you could chill on couches, watch TV and socialize with other guests. We met other guests from Germany and Switzerland there.
Later that night we went to a trendy student club and met up with one of Mischo’s friends who had studied and was now working in Vienna. I found out he had studied journalism and was now working at Austria’s largest newspaper, Der Standard, so we had a good conversation about that. We met up again the next evening and I was actually able to go to the newspaper office and he showed me the newsroom and answered my questions. So cool!
Mischo and I spent the days sleeping in late and then doing “touristy stuff” all day. One of the guide books in our room inspired me to go visit some of the houses in the city designed by the famous architect Friedrich Hundertwasser. I had seen one of the houses before and was excited to return now that I knew more about it. We also visited the KunstHaus (Art House), which was a museum devoted to his work and another building designed by him. I wasn’t too fond of the paintings, but I loved the bright colors and wavy lines of his architecture that seemed to belong to a Dr. Seuss story. He also had a huge respect for nature and actually had trees growing out some of the windows with a 1-sq. meter box of dirt for their roots. He called them “tree tenants” and explained how they pay their rent with clean air and beautification, which he considered more valuable than money.
Mischo insisted on seeing Stephansdom, or St. Stephan’s Cathedral, located right in the middle of town and a huge hotspot for tourists. It was a beautiful Gothic cathedral with a rich history, but it had become such a tourist trap a lot of the glory was lost behind locked gates and pay-to-enter areas. There were no fewer than 3 different possible tours of the cathedral, all of which cost money, and there were elevators going up to all 4 of its towers, all of which (you guessed it) were installed entirely to relieve tourists of their money. Mischo was very disappointed, and pointed out that some 500 years ago, this cathedral had been built BY the citizens, with the citizens’ own hands and own money, and now was locking the citizens out when (he thought) they had a right to enjoy the beautiful building. I pointed out that the Catholic church had a long history of exploiting people for their money in order to line the pockets of the rich, and that the government (who I’m presuming now owns the cathedral) was simply continuing the tradition. We wound up paying 5 euro each to go on a short catacomb tour, where we saw jars containing the pickled organs of deceased royalty (no joke), old sculptures damaged by weather and acid rain (apparently the ones outside today are replicas) and lots and lots of bones. We went back to the hostel early that night and cooked ourselves a wonderful hearty (and cheap!) dinner of Viennese goulash.
The next day we visited another famous tourist trap, Schloss Schönbrunn. It was the summer residence of the royal family and housed the famous Maria Teresa, the empress affectionately nicknamed Sissi. Since it was relatively sunny we walked around the gardens.
Thursday afternoon we traveled again via carpool, this time to Salzburg. It was a rather spur-of-the-moment decision to go there instead of Graz. It was a beautiful old city with a river and two mountains. Thursday night we had dinner and watched “The Sound of Music” at our hotel, which Mischo had never seen. Friday it was raining like crazy. We tried to walk around and see the town but it was so wet and freezing we wound up spending all morning in the Salzburg Museum, one of the least-cool museums I have ever been to. Later we went to Mozart’s birth hose, where we learned a lot about Mozart’s life and some common misconceptions surrounding it. The artifacts weren’t that cool but I am a total nerd for music history and I loved the information. We walked briefly through the Christmas market there, but it was so cold and wet we wound up watching “The Hobbit” in English at a nearby movie theater.
Saturday morning we went to see the fortress on the hill. A steep mountain path offered breathtaking views and panoramas of the city. There was also a little lift which had been used for centuries to transport supplies up to the fortress, and had now been modernized to transport tourists there instead. We walked through a museum and learned a little bit about medieval life in Salzburg, then took the lift back down.
The plan was to bus to our hotel, pick up our luggage, then bus to the train station and go our separate ways. But the bus to the hotel was running a little late, so we missed the bus going from the hotel to the station and had to take the next one 10 minutes later. We would have had enough time but the bus broke down!!! I have no idea how that happens, but it did. Anyways, we wound up taking the NEXT one, making us 20 minutes later, and I missed my train.
My boyfriend and I said a tearful goodbye at the station. My ticket didn’t have a time on it so I decided to travel a half hour later with the next train. But apparently my ticket was only good for regional trains and that was a fast train. I was still in tears but the Austrian ticket checker was extremely nice and told me I could either get off at the next stop or buy a ticket. I bought a ticket so I could get to Wels sooner, but I wound up having to wait there for an hour anyway before taking a train to Passau.
I did an exchange program to Germany in 2009 and spent the last two weeks with a host family in Bavaria. They live in Vilshofen, a small town on the Danube near the Austrian and Czech borders close to Passau. I was so relieved to have finally made it to Passau and get on a train going to Vilshofen that I completely forgot to buy a ticket, and the Deutsche Bahn train controllers are not so forgiving as the Austrian ones. I almost wound up having to pay 40 euro for riding without a ticket! Fortunately the guy let me buy one there for 5.80 euro, which I thought was a little exorbitant considering I was only riding for 15 minutes, but it was still better than 40.
My exchange student’s parents picked me up from the station and I am looking forward to spending my last 5 days in Germany (including Christmas!) relaxing at their house.
Pictures to be posted soon at http://www.alisonphotoland.wordpress.com