Austria

 

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Within a day of being in Austria I’d seen cream coloured ponies AND eaten crisp apple strudel – such an appropriate welcome to the country I’d come to know through my childhood love of the Sound of Music.

Vienna was my first stop, and for the first time I was flying solo. Knowing only about four German words (thanks to Michaela’s crash language course the night before I left) I was a little nervous, but that all quickly subsided when I left my hostel and ventured into the heart of the city.

Beautifully elegant  women and men were left, right and centre,  and despite the heat (32 degrees!!) the Viennese were dressed immaculately. I heard one woman comment to her friends as they walked past, “let’s not go too fast, it’s hot”. With the elegance and class in such a beautiful city I began to understand instantly why the waltz originated here, it feels as if you are gliding to some classic melody, rather than walking amongst the beautiful architecture and historical facades. It even smelt beautiful!!

In my first evening exploring I got quite lost trying to find my bearings because of the city’s circular layout, but during my slightly confused wanderings I did manage to find my way to St Stephan’s cathedral during evening mass. There’s something about seeing a cathedral when it’s alive like that, with the organ and singing filling such a massive space. Taking the elevator to the top viewing platform (and instantly regretting my decision to ascend to such extreme heights!!) I had a panoramic view of the city, and a front row seat as storm clouds rolled in from the distance.

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As the wind got up and thunder and lightening began in the distance, I stumbled across the Albertina museum and the beginning of the Imperial palace grounds. All of a sudden the lift in the wind seemed to unveil what sounded like voices of angels. I wasn’t sure where the choir was or what they were singing for, but figured it must’ve been one of the many many concerts going on around Vienna that night, (apparently 15 thousand people attend some kind of musical performance every single day!!) but the sound was magic. After a while I spied an open window and realised it wasn’t a performance I could hear, but a rehearsal I’d stumbled across. So with the threat of a rainy storm looming I sat and listened to perfect Viennese harmonies of Hallelujah and The Rose as they floated out the window onto the street below.

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My next morning I joined the free walking tour the hostel puts on, retracing some of the steps I had taken the night before, but this time with local knowledge to accompany everything.

This was also the start of what will no doubt be a strong historical theme over the next few weeks, World War Two.

First we stopped at the Academy of Fine Arts, from which Hitler was twice denied entry by a Jewish tutor. Then later walked past the city’s monument against war and fascism, depicting the Gates of Hell, and the stone of the new republic. Part of the monument included a sculpture of a Jewish street cleaner, who our guide told us Austrian citizens would’ve kicked and spat on as they cleaned the streets with tiny brushes. Now while obviously not the worst thing to have occurred during that time in history, standing there it was still so hard to believe  people could have stood by and let such a dark chapter manifest itself in the world.

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Interestingly it was Vienna’s gay pride weekend when I visited, and the rainbow flag flew proudly from the opera house and most government buildings, again given the buzz in the city celebrating the upcoming weekend, it was hard to believe that just 70 odd years ago, homosexuals were one of the groups of people rounded up and sent away to concentration camps.

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On a slightly different historical note I thoroughly enjoyed learning about the Hofburg Monarchy, and especially the final monarchs, Franz Josef and the beauty obsessed Empress Elizabeth, or Sissi (who our guide compared to princess Diana in terms of her rather sad life). Nothing quite so symbolises the Austrian heritage as this family, it’s their absolute obsession with such splendour that’s left the country packed with such amazingly beautiful architecture of many differing styles.
Evidentally their love of all things great put a lot of pressure on some of Austria’s creative brains – after Emperor Franz Josef criticised the Viennese Opera house the architect committed suicide. From then on if he was asked for his opinion on anything the Emperor would only say “it was very nice, I am totally amused”.

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Why anyone would criticise Vienna’s opera house I have no idea!!! If the splendour of its exterior wasn’t enough, words quite simply failed me when I witnessed it’s interior. I spent €4 to see a ballet with the Viennese philharmonic orchestra there, and I don’t think I’ll ever get such an amazing experience for that cost for the rest of my travels!!! It was incredible, and while the tickets were standing tickets that you had to line up for 90 mins before the show to get, the view was amazing, and the music was quite simply magic. The closest seated tickets to where we were standing cost around €240!!!!! A lovely local Viennese man standing behind me told me he never buys anything but the standing tickets as the acoustics were the best where we were, and unlike all those sitting (and there were a lot, every night is a sell out), you’re at eye level with the performers.

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My last day in Vienna was spent strolling the gardens of the summer palace, Schloss Schonbrunn, and much like Versailles I was blown away. There was a little more forest type surroundings here, which was a welcome relief from the sun, and It was nowhere near as busy with tourists. The other nice thing about the palace gardens was that they were free to enter, so it wasn’t actually just tourists wandering around, but locals also popping in to enjoy the sun and incredibly peaceful surroundings. During one rest stop I watched an old man reading his paper in the sun, surreptitiously dropping little bits of food for a squirrel who’d jump up onto his park bench for a snack, neither party really engaging with each other, but certainly enjoying one another’s company. You can forget when you spend so much time roaming city streets how beautiful it is to hear birds singing, even the birds in Vienna seem to have their own kind of melody!

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I enjoyed the palace tour itself so much, it came with an audio tour (which I always think is great) and with much smaller crowds you could linger longer and take it all in. When the audio tour played classical music as you entered the great gallery you could instantly imagine the decadent balls that were held there. And the hall of ceremonies, where Mozart gave his first ever concert as a 6 year old, came alive before your eyes. Sadly you weren’t allowed to take photos, but I would thoroughly recommend a visit to any one who might find themselves passing through!!!

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With a belly full of Austrian sausages and the most delicious goulash, it was onwards to Salzburg, the city where time stood still. I knew before arriving it was a Unesco world heritage site and now I can see why, most of the baroque style buildings in old town are still standing just as they were the day they were made. While many had to be rebuilt after the war, the dates of those that survived unscathed stand proudly before you along the cutest winding roads and alleys. While the interior of the shops have changed (you can never go far these days without finding a McDonald’s, Starbucks or H&M) the old city lives on just as it as it always has (and it really is old, the city was founded in 696!!)

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Literally stuffing my face on bretzels, schnitzel burgers and Mozart Austrian chocolate I roamed street after beautiful street, taking far too many photos, but truly not being able to help myself. My enthusiasm was of course enhanced by the fact that I kept expecting Fräulein Maria to pop her head around the corner at any moment!!!

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So, despite copping a lot of flack for it, I signed up to do the only bicycle Sound of Music tour in town, and it was every bit as amazing as I’d expected. Not just because of the movie locations, but it was just such an excellent way to explore Salzburg.  There are about a bazillion bus tours you can do, but the interior of a bus I’m sure couldn’t compare to cycling through such beautiful scenery. Our lovely tour guide Alain (who’d spent three years working in NZ and is heading back next summer) told us all about the history of the city and its salt mining heritage as we cycled around in the most perfect weather we could’ve hoped for.

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The whole experience was all the richer for the church bells. Salzburg has a ridiculous number of churches so you hear them all the time, and really what would the Sound of Music be without them? Although, given I’ve seen now just how far away Maria’s mountain is from the Abbey, I’m dubious as to whether she actually would’ve even be able to hear them …..

Without a doubt I’ve encountered the most American tourists here so far on my travels, crowds and crowds of them. Perhaps a testament to just how big a Hollywood was? But the fact that most Austrians have never actually seen the movie that so many people flock to their country for does make me laugh.

And after being picked as an Aussie almost every single time I open my mouth, seeing these in every souvenir shop also made me smile:

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Evidently some tourists actually come here expecting to see the wildlife, locals blame Google and its ‘did you mean’ search function substituting Australia for Austria if there’s any spelling error.

I very very quickly warmed to the Austrian people and with its culture of music, art, sausages, schnitzel and apple strudel. In fact I think we should all take a leaf out of Austria’s book, apparently they have the most public holidays in Central Europe, and with most falling on a Thursday, the attitude here is that if you don’t go to work on Thursday, you don’t work Friday either!

Needless to say I felt I was saying Auf Wiedersehen to this place far too quickly, but fortunately Munich and more Bavarian beer was waiting!

 

Paris

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Before Sharelle and I set off for Paris a couple of people warned me that we were going for too long and we’d probably get bored, and also that it was a very dirty city and we would spend most our time getting hassled by aggressive street hawkers. So naturally when I took my seat on the Eurostar I was feeling somewhat apprehensive about the days ahead.
But once we arrived I soon realised I needn’t have worried.
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Looking back I’m so glad that we went for a long, long weekend. Whilst the first couple of days flew by in a whirl wind as we took in all the marvelous sights that I’d dreamed about since I was a little girl …. Notre Dame, Sacre Coeur, The Eiffel Tower, Arc De Triomphe, Champs Elysées, Moulin Rouge, Rue Montorgueil, The Louvre, The Latin quarter ….. having a bit of extra time meant we also had the luxury of spending a couple of days doing the opposite and letting time slow right down. Whether we were strolling down the cutest little streets, or sitting outdoors at one of the many cafés, we had the time to sink back and simply people watch, taking in the sophisticated and classy Parisian life as it went on around us.
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It also meant we could add in a day trip to Versailles palace and gardens, a place that literally blew my mind to pieces, I LOVED it. We were lucky (or cursed if you consider the crowds …) to hit it on the most perfect of Spring days. Rather than wait in the three hour line to get straight into the palace, we spent hours strolling the beautiful gardens, resting of course for picnics/wine/ice cream stops whenever they were required. It was quite simply magic. Given the huge expanse of the grounds the crowds of people seemed to disappear and melt into our surroundings, and all of a sudden you felt like you’d escaped the tourist frenzy.
That feeling of course came to an abrupt stop when we finally went inside the palace at about 5pm. Hoarded through like animals, the crowds definitely took the shine off the experience for me. You could hardly stop and soak in your surroundings before a wave a tour groups washed over you pushing you on. But I’m finally making peace with the fact that at tourist traps like Versailles crowds come with the territory, and even they couldn’t but a dampener on the Hall of Mirrors, I think I could’ve quite happily stayed in that room with the sun streaming in and never left.
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Disappointingly Paris for me wasn’t the culinary experience I was hoping for. I think probably that was mostly down to a lack of local knowledge of where the good places to eat were. Also, not having the biggest sweet tooth meant most of the beautiful eclairs, mille feuilles and macarons were wasted on me. In saying that though, there were some good discoveries. Snails get the big tick from me, I’m still kicking myself for not buying a life time supply of the locally made duck and goose liver pate, and I’d happily live on crepes for the rest of my life!
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Interestingly, despite the warnings, the street hawkers (and there were A LOT of them) weren’t interested in bothering us. I still can’t work out quite why that was, as we saw them hassling plenty of visitors around us, and can understand why they could taint a person’s experience of the city. But happily for some reason it was something we didn’t need to worry about.
Instead we could concentrate on perfecting our French phrases, as it’s definitely true what they say, the French don’t want to hear you speaking English when you visit. I’m pretty sure most people who answered “Non” when I asked “Parlez Vous Anglais?” were lying, but despite feeling a little clumsy with my French words I appreciated having to dabble with the language – it is a pretty crucial part of any cultural experience after all!
So with many Merci Beaucoups behind me, I headed back to London having become quite smitten with the city of love.