A Travellerspoint blog

Searching for the elusive St. Charles' Church

sunny 70 °F

When you book hostels, most dorms are “mixed” meaning for guys and girls. But many hostels have female-only dorms as well (of course for extra money), so the mixed dorms usually end up being all guys. My roommates were fine, but they were quiet. All but one was gone from my second night to the first. The way they usually have dorms set up is with bunk beds, but this hostel had one bunk bed and then two beds side by side…close enough together to be kind of creepy. Unfortunately when I checked in, the bunks were already taken so I spent a night within arms reach of some random guy. When I went to bed last night, it looked as if I wouldn’t have a neighbor, but when I woke up there was a girl within arms reach. I give her a lot of credit for staying in a mixed dorm. I know a lot of girls who wouldn’t dream of doing that. Never met her though, because I woke up, checked out and was off! Unfortunately, my hostel was on the other side of town from the train station, so I wouldn’t be able to leave my stuff there without going way out of my way to pick it up to leave, so I was carrying my full backpack all day.

First on the list was the South Tower of St. Stephan’s. This one was accessible by elevator, so it was a quick trip up. It houses the world’s second largest hanging church bell!

Being on the South side also gives you a much better view down onto Stephansplatz (aka Stephan’s Square).

As I descended, I realized that my ticket was also good for the Church’s treasury. Since I found myself with an extra day in Vienna without a full day’s worth of plans, I decided it couldn’t hurt to check it out. It turns out that the treasury itself wasn’t too exciting, but the views it gave of the church an its organ were unparalleled. Plus I was the only one up there!

St. Stephans also has a 10,000 pipe organ that was paid for by West Germany to restore good relations after the war. I’ve never been able to see an organ up close before.
Also, when I looked extra close, I could see little pieces from each organ pipe cut and rolled down. I’m guessing it was for tuning, but I took a ton of pictures figuring Grandpa Jim would like to see them.

As I exited, I ran across a couple Mozarts.
I can’t believe I have neglected to mention them up to this point. They’re trying to sell tickets to opera and orchestral concerts and most of them dress up like Mozart. Vienna is very high class with its Operas, its roots in classical music, its horse drawn carriages and its world-renowned Spanish Riding School, but these Mozarts are a welcome diversion that pokes a bit of fun at all of that posh entertainment.

Next on my list was the Austrian National Library. It seemed like an odd tourist attraction, but it had phenomenal reviews online, so I decided to check it out. Plus it had a temporary exhibition on Austria in WWI which I was excited to check out. The library houses some 200,000 books published between 1500 and 1850. The building itself was completed in 1726 and is absolutely exquisite.
They had a few sweet globes in there. Apparently globes used to be exclusively sold in sets of two…one “terrestrial” globe that depicted the oceans and continents and another “celestial” globe that showed the positioning of the stars and constellations. While I found the globes beautiful to look at, I wasn’t compelled to go to the world’s largest globe museum next door :-)

The library’s two wings are named the War and Peace Wings. Interestingly, War and Peace were not seen as opposites but as complementary aspects of an orderly world. The monarch was said to bring balance and harmony between the two.

The exhibition was also fascinating. I love to learn about history that I already know the general storyline, but get to hear it from the perspective of another country. On June 28th, 1914, a Serbian nationalist assassinated Austrian prince Franz Ferdinand and his wife Sophie (daughter of Sisi – that poor cursed family almost rivals the Kennedys!) The Austrians drew up an ultimatum for Serbia and threatened war if they didn’t comply. Germany essentially said they would stand with Austria if they declared war, while Russia (and later the UK and France) threw their support behind Serbia. When Serbia didn’t comply, Austria declared war and then everyone else was begrudgingly pulled in. The Austrians had poor leadership and few victories in WWI, which led to tens of thousands of desertions.

Italy complicated matters for Austria. They had been a part of the pact with Germany and Austria since 1882, but wanted to stay neutral in the war. Then, they tried to get Austria and Germany to give them land in order to stay neutral, but they refused, which opened up a southern front for Austria’s war efforts. One of the few bright spots in Austria’s war effort was being able to fend off Italy on their Southern border. One funny piece they had from WWI was a certificate for the Raise the Hat campaign. Gentlemen who paid to join the club got one of these certificates that said they didn’t need to tip their hat in public (which was customary at the time). There’s some out of the box thinking for fundraising!

Germany felt confident that they would win the war and gave unconditional support to its allies in terms of troops, money and food. They even recruited Turkey and Bulgaria to join in. Their ultimate plan was to have all of Central Europe under German control. While this was supported by the German speakers of the Hapsburg Empire, the other 10 nationalities of the empire weren’t crazy about the idea. Franz Joseph tried to get Austria out of the war, but Germany compelled him to continue the war until it was too late to turn back. In 1916, Emperor Franz Joseph died, which was the start of the collapse of the monarchy. In the aftermath of the war, the Austro-Hungarian Empire was essentially dismantled and with it went the power of the Hapsburgs.

As the allies closed in on the borders of the empire, the people living on the borders fled inland. Many cities were overwhelmed by the mass of homeless refugees. Over 200,000 came to Vienna. Many cities had to shut down to refugees. 8.5 million men from Austria-Hungary served in the war, with 1.2 million losing their lives and over 3.5 million wounded. Many more ended up in POW camps, with 2 million Austro-Hungarian soldiers being held in Russia. Clearly they paid a heavy toll.

Another unique Austria perspective from their war efforts was their “Fatherland Education.” At the beginning of the war, all of the deceased soldiers were published in the newspaper, but as the death tolls racked up, it was suspended because it was killing morale. To try to keep the morale high for future generations, they created stories and sold war toys while incorporating enthusiasm for the war in schooling through art projects and writing assignments. They actually had some of the art on display and even an essay entitled “How I would defeat the English” by a primary school student. It was an incredible collection. The library actually started collecting testimonies of the war from the very beginning through photos, posters, war diaries and other first-hand accounts. After the war was lost, the collection was neglected for many decades before being recently brought back out for display.

After the library, I checked my map and looked at the listing of sights to be seen. One church I hadn’t been to that I had seen all over the place on artwork and souvenirs of Vienna was Steinhof Church. I decided to check it out. It was a bit outside of town and only really accessible by bus, so I hopped on. Not only are the Austrians very compliant folks when it comes to crossing the street, but they’re so compliant that you don’t even have to show a ticket to get on the bus. They’re just that trustworthy I guess. I can’t imagine that would ever fly in America. Bus companies would go out of business in a month.

Steinhof church was not an easy place to find. It was so far out of town that it was off my map, but the map said which stop to get off the bus and made it seem like it would be a piece of cake from there. Not the case. I didn’t see any signs whatsoever, which was unusual for a tourist attraction. I headed one way down the road until it started looking like a residential area, then doubled back and headed the other way past the bus stop. Eventually I saw a sign for Steinhof park and figured that would be the way, but after wandering there for a bit, started to question that logic. Actually the harder it was to find the more excited I became. If this church was so hard to find but still featured prominently on Vienna’s many souvenirs, it must be a pretty epic church. Luckily I found a guy in the park and asked him about the church. Turns out he works there and was walking home. He opened up his backpack and gave me a map. The church was up a massive hill on the grounds of a hospital that I had passed a half mile back.

The church was beautiful, although didn’t quite meet my sky high expectations that had been building up. It was very simply decorated, but elegant in it’s simplicity.
It’s perch atop this large hill with Vienna on the horizon was a sight to behold. After wandering the church, I went out to admire the view and pulled out my map. I was exhausted after walking around all day carrying my full backpack and I was ready to call it a day and head to Munich. Just then, I caught a glimpse of the map’s picture of Steinhof Church. I wondered how they had got the shot. It was from quite a distance and seemed to be taken on the same level as the church. Such a shot would not be possible here. Standing from the same location would put you quite a bit down the hill from the church. It was then that I started examining the church and the picture more closely. Then, my heart sank. Both churches were a bright white with green (oxidized copper) domes edged in gold. Both had two towers in front. But they weren’t the same church. It was then that I realized my error. Looking at the map again. I saw that the picture was referring to St. Charles’ church ABOVE the photo instead of Steinhof below. I had just spent a few hours taking a bus and climbing a hill and didn’t have to do any of that to see St. Charles’, which was walking distance from center city. I had to laugh. Now determined to conquer this church, I mustered the energy to head back to the city and make one more stop before the train station.

As I looked for possibilities to turn my side trip into a positive experience, I found plenty to help make my case. First, I got to see my favorite car in the world up super close. The Audi R8.

Also, I walked by a street fair and got to check it out. There were a variety of neat crafts for sale. By far my favorite was this guy selling colorful lederhosen.
I seriously considered buying some. I would have paid $50, maybe $75 to connect with my German roots. But $250? Not so much. Nevertheless, they were awesome.

There were some guys playing didgeridoos too!

On an unrelated note, I passed by a gym. It's the first one I’ve seen since I got here. It always astounds me how rare it is to see a gym in Europe. I suppose I’m not necessarily in the residential areas, but still. You can’t go 5 blocks in NYC or Boston without seeing gyms.

After a bit of a hike, I found St. Charles Church at long last. I couldn’t tell if it was a really beautiful church or if I was just phenomenally happy to have conquered the journey to get there.
The reflecting pool was pretty epic too.

I tried to get inside, but they had just closed the stairs to get to the top of the dome and for some reason they wouldn’t let anyone in the church for another 15 minutes. Plus, getting in the church would cost the same amount as the climb to the top plus getting in the church. I decided not to wait and that I could still call it a victory and also decided not to make my customary walk to the train station, but instead to take the subway to the train station since there was a subway station right below St. Charles’. I was phenomenally happy with both decisions, because when I got to the train station, the next train to Munich was leaving in 10 minutes. The following train wouldn’t leave for another hour and a half, so now I’ll be able to get into Munich at a reasonable hour. Great success!

The countryside was beautiful. With the speed of the trains, however, it was almost impossible to capture.
The train even had train attendants that sold food on a cart like in an airplane. I’ve never seen that before!
It was then that I realized that it was midsummer! The longest day of the year! I wished that I could be in Sweden to see the festivities! As I watched the sun finally go down, I noticed that somebody somewhere close by was getting to watch a solar eclipse, which is a rare enough occurrence by itself, but at sunset on midsummer? Wow.

If you look closely, you can see both the sun and the moon…

As soon as I stepped off the train in Munich, I loved the place. There was a certain energy about it. I quickly realized why. My hostel was less than a mile from the train station, but as I walked down the street, there were at least a half dozen bars on each block showing the world cup. Then, I realized that it was the Germany game! How lucky I was to be there to catch the second half!

Before I left the train station, however, I saw my old favorite from Berlin, currywurst. It’s basically just a hot dog with curry powder but for some reason it’s very popular and makes me feel like I’m having an authentic German experience. Bernd and Elke introduced me to Currywurst in Berlin last year. This currywurst, however, took it to the next level. They had 8 different levels of spiciness. I couldn’t walk away from a currywurst stand touting the hottest currywurst in Germany! Of course I had to take the hottest one too. It seared my mouth and made my eyes water, but it wasn’t unbearable.

Anyways, back to the game. I couldn’t believe I hadn’t realized that Germany was playing. I stopped for a few minutes at each bar along the way.
It was so neat to see the town ground to a halt as everyone gathered around a tv to watch the game. My mouth was still burning, so I eventually stopped at one bar to watch the last 20 minutes or so and try out a famous Munich beer. I chose the "franziskaner weissbier," which was pretty solid. If there is a monk on it, you know its good!

It was truly a treat to be able to sit alongside the Germans and watch a World Cup game with them. Just a shame there wasn’t a win to cheer about. I’m just glad that I’ll be safely out of the country by the time they play the US!

A few other things I saw along the way. First, a store actually selling lederhosen and traditional Bavarian gear. Amazing! I love this place.

Also, next to the bar I stopped at, there was a pharmacy that had it’s doors almost completely closed, but people were lined up and the pharmacist would come to the door to take a fill their orders. Not sure what to make of this. It’s safer than staying open I guess? Or she was just trying to leave and closed the doors and a line started forming? Not sure.

When I finally got to my hostel, there was a party going on in the lobby,
but I was completely spent and went directly to sleep.

Posted by atbrady 16:44 Archived in Austria Tagged st. church train world to cup charles munich lederhosen Comments (0)

Crowns, Jewels and Royals at Schonbrun Palace

Just Outside Vienna

sunny 70 °F

Despite the late night, I had a lot on my agenda today and got a pretty early start. First up was going to the grocery store which was actually open when they said they would be! Great start! There is a (crappy) breakfast you can buy at the hotel, which was great for me because it meant I was the only one in the kitchen in the morning.

Scrambled eggs, broccoli and CNN? Feels like home!

After breakfast, I grabbed Arthur and planned out my day. I knew I would be spending the afternoon out at Schonbrun palace, but wanted to make the most of the morning while I was still in town. As I was planning, I heard a voice from across the lobby that I instantly recognized. It was Alex from the Mandala Hostel in Budapest. What are the chances that we not only go to the same city, but stay at the same hostel? It’s a small world, even in Europe. Also while I was planning, I saw several families pass through the lobby with little kids. They must have a bunch of private rooms here as well. That, or if you’re a family of 4 or 6, you could just take up an entire hostel room.

As I set out and crossed the bridge into the main town, I saw probably the 10th person walking with their dog without a leash. I don’t know what kind of dog training schools they have in Europe, but the dogs are incredibly well behaved. It’s more common for people to be walking their dogs without a leash than with one. And all of the dogs stay right next to their owners. It’s sort of amazing. Soon after that, I saw a cop fiddling with the electrical box for a traffic light when it hit me that in all my travels yesterday, I never saw a single cop. In Budapest there weren’t a ton, but they were definitely present. But to walk around town for over 12 hours and countless miles zig-zagging the city and never see a cop is pretty remarkable. IS it just THAT safe? A corollary to that is that after seeing a decent amount of bums/panhandlers in Budapest, I didn’t see a single panhandler during my entire day either. I wonder if those two facts are related at all.

Anyways, first on my agenda was to see a few of the beautiful monuments I passed last night but now to see them in the light of day. I was lucky to have perfect weather with just enough clouds for some beautiful shots. Here’s the Rathaus in the morning sunshine.
And the arcade that makes up the entranceway. Just beautiful.

Then Parliament…
…and me trying to take an artsy picture from the front porch

Finally the part of the Hofberg palace that has been turned into museums wasn’t especially well-lit last night. It’s too bad, because the buildings are beautiful!

The first scheduled stop of the day was at the Imperial Treasury. As you can probably imagine for a city with as rich of a history as Vienna, the collection was pretty remarkable. It’s so much easier to learn about history when you’re in the town square or the castle where it all happened!

And then is the crown he was wearing, which was commissioned by Emperor Rudolf II in 1602.
This crown is especially rare, because each king typically had his own private crown that was usually dismantled after death (usually to reuse the gems for a new crown) so this is the only one that remains. Also, the imperial mantle…

I learned a bit more about the Holy Roman Empire as well. I must have knew this at one point for AP European History, but those brain cells are long gone. The HRE had 8 electors that were the most powerful princes in the empire and would elect the new king.

The Hapsburgs were the ruling family of Vienna and later Austria. Napoleon himself actually entered the house of Hapsburg when he married Arch Duchess Marie Louise, the eldest daughter of Francis I. Forget a silver spoon…Napoleon’s son, Napoleon Francis had this cradle made of 280kg of silver. Rough life!

It was an interesting marriage…in 1804 Francis actually declared the end of the Holy Roman Empire because Napoleon was threatening and it was too weak to defend due to conflicts from within. In 1809, Napoleon defeated Austria and “got” Francis’ daughter in the peace treaty. Little Napoleon Francis was born in 1811 and soon after, the old European powers united against Napoleon. When he was defeated, it brought new power and influence to the Hapsburg Empire.

I forget what this emerald was for, but it’s the largest cut emerald in the world at 2860 karats, so I figured that was worth taking a picture of.

After the royal treasury, I headed back to St. Stephan’s. Yesterday when I bought my ticket, I got the combo ticket that was good for the tour of the church as well as a trip up both of the towers and into the catacombs. I headed up the North Tower, the higher of the two. They actually ran out of money to complete the South Tower that was supposed to be the same size as the North and instead capped it with a copper dome. The North Tower is only accessible by stairs, 343 to be exact. Not only did it give a great view of Vienna,
but also of the uniquely colorful roof of St. Stephans.

Back down on ground level, there was a lineup of horse-drawn carriages to take you anywhere you wanted in Vienna. These guys are everywhere!

I decided to save the South Tower for another day just to space out the birds-eye views, but before I left I went to the catacombs. Unfortunately, there were no pictures allowed down there. Usually that doesn’t stop me (see all of the pictures taken in the Imperial Treasury…shh…don’t tell), but we were in a small tour group that made it pretty tough. The tour guide gave the tour in German and English, switching back and forth to repeat his spiel in each room in both languages. It was sort of hilarious because he had clearly been taught English by an Irish person so it was funny to hear an Austrian guy speaking English with an Irish accent. The Hapsburgs were buried in the catacombs beneath the church. In what was apparently the tradition, their organs were removed from their bodies and put in separate urns filled with alcohol to preserve them. There was an especially large tomb for Rudolph and his wife Catherine, who founded both St. Stephens and the University of Vienna. And get this: They were married when Rudolph was 14 and Catherine was 11, and engaged when they were 9 and 6, respectively. Clearly enjoying seeing everyone wince at this fact, the tour guide assured us that this was quite normal back then since marriages were political and not about love.

Then it was on to Schonbrun palace. A main hub of the subway system is conveniently right at St. Stephans. 1 ticket cost 2.20 and I was about to buy it, when I looked into another few options and found a 2 way ticket for 2.40. I was pretty proud of myself for not falling into the tourist trap. It was a pretty quick trip to Schonbrun. Only about 20 minutes on the subway. The place is absolutely massive. I’m pretty sure Versailles (outside of Paris) is the biggest, but Schonbrun wasn’t too far behind.
They had horses here too. The driver practically posed for me!

Pictures weren’t allowed here either, so if the pictures aren’t well centered or aren’t especially straight, it’s because I had to take them stealthily with my phone.

Again with these darn fireplaces! Apparently the Hapsburgs REALLY didn’t like having to be bothered just to watch their servants stoke the fire. All of the rooms have fireplaces that were stoked from outside the room.

Here’s the office of the beloved Franz Joseph (remember him from yesterday? He was the poor guy married to “Sisi.” He awoke at 5am and worked 16 hour days. Also remember that he would regularly see up to 100 people in his office in the mornings. He became king at age 18 and died at 86, keeping this schedule throughout. You’ve gotta hand it to the guy. Probably why he was so loved by his people. He called himself the “First public servant of his state.”

At the castle they had a really adorable children’s program where the kids got a special tour and before they went, they got to put on kids clothes from the time of the Hapsburgs.

This clock was awesome because it had another face on the back that went in reverse so that it could be read in the mirror.

There was also a room dedicated to Marie Antionette, the youngest daughter of Maria Theresa, who married the heir to the French throne that became Louis XIV. Both Maria and Louis were executed in 1793 as part of the French revolution.

This is where the Royal family ate. It was common for them to eat French food at official dinners, but at family dinners, they preferred traditional Viennese such as Tafelspitz, which is boiled beef....sounds thrilling.

This is the room where Mozart first played for the Queen…at 6 years old!

This remarkable hall was clearly the highlight of the palace.
It’s essentially the Hapsburgs answer to the famous Hall of Mirrors at Versailles. I’ve run out of adjectives to describe the magnificence of the room, but especially of the frescoes on the ceiling.

Interestingly, in 1961 Kennedy and Khrushchev met in this room to attempt a diplomatic cooling of the Cold War.

I didn’t get a very good picture of this painting, but it depicts wedding procession for one of the kings that was said to be 98 carriages long. The procession literally had to zigzag back and forth on the palace grounds so that they would all fit.

Then was the so-called Napoleon Room, because it is where Napoleon resided from 1805-1809 when he essentially forced himself into the house of the Hapsburgs.
Napoleon’s son died at the age of 21, much to the relief of the many kings of Europe who had feared him and after Napoleon was defeated had put several restrictions on him to keep him from ever attaining power.

As is probably clear from the many young marriages and marriages to Royalty in other countries, it was said that the Hapsburgs attained power and influence from strategic marriages rather than by waging wars, which is one of the reasons they were able to rule for so long. I basically stayed at Schonbrun exploring the palace and grounds until they closed the place down. By the time I got back to town and had something to eat, it was getting late and I felt that I had already gotten my fill of Vienna at night, so I stayed in at the Meninger. I was scheduled to head home in four days so clearly I had to rearrange my planned itinerary and book hostel accommodations. I was kicking myself for not doing the South Tower of St. Stephan’s when I had the chance. I decided that I would cut Munich out of my trip, having already seen much of Germany and that I would book the first train to Prague in the morning so that I could get a full two days in Prague, then leave for my last two days in Copenhagen. But as I was deciding when to leave for Copenhagen, I wanted to double check my flight details because I wasn’t sure what time I would be leaving. If it was in the morning, I wanted to get to Copenhagen earlier since I wouldn’t be able to explore on the final day, but if it was later then I would have more time on the final day. When I looked at my itinerary, I saw that my flight wasn't booked for the morning or afternoon of the 24th, but instead for the 29th. I had been monitoring flights on Kayak for this trip for weeks and I always do the plus or minus 3 days search to find the cheapest flights. For weeks, the cheapest flight was on Tuesday the 24th, but in the final days before I booked, the cheapest flight must have become the Sunday the 29th flight, but because the departure and arrival times were the same, I hadn’t noticed. Hmm. I called Norwegian, who wanted $250 for a change fee, plus paying the difference of my flight from what the flight costs now, which was another $300 or so. I guess that's what you get for booking a low budget airline. In contrast, I could change my JetBlue flight for a flat fee of 100 bucks. It was kind of a no-brainer. There are worse things than an extra 5 days in Europe! Now I decided to stay an extra day in Vienna, added back my planned 3 days in Munich and got to spend a full 3 days in Prague rather than just 2. The problem with going to both Munich and Prague from Vienna is that the 3 are basically in a triangle, so no matter where I went first, I would kind of be going out of my way to go to the other. So it didn’t really matter which I did first, or so I thought. I figured it would be easier to do Prague then Munich figuring that a train from Munich to Copenhagen would be easier since it only crosses 2 countries (Germany and Denmark) instead of 3 (Czech Republic). But, I was wrong and so glad that I checked ahead of time—clearly not usually my style! There’s actually an overnight train that goes direct from Prague to Copenhagen, but not from Munich. So after spending an hour researching Prague and planning my first day there, I had to change course and educate myself on Munich. Luckily I hadn’t booked a place in Prague yet. I was a little frustrated with the Hostelbookers website, too. I filtered by the cheapest places in Munich and found a place with a good location and decent price, then when I went to check out, the price was higher than expected. It turns out that they quote the price for the first night of your stay but the rates fluctuate every day and conveniently my second and third nights were 50% more expensive than the first. Oh well. Still not too bad in the scheme of things. With all those logistics figured out, it was late and I still had a day to check a few things off my list in Vienna before catching an afternoon train to Munich, so I hit the sack. More adventures tomorrow!

Posted by atbrady 16:39 Archived in Austria Tagged vienna palace mozart hapsburgs schonbrun Comments (0)

Wandering around Vienna

Castles and Horses and Royals, oh my!

sunny 70 °F

When I woke up at 4:15am to get to the train station by 4:45, it was almost completely light out. While I’m not as far north as I was in Stockholm, I’m significantly farther east but still in the same time zone (that stretches all the way from central Europe to Portugal), so the sun comes up very early here and goes down a bit earlier since Budapest is on the eastern edge of the time zone.

I was kind of excited to be on the train in the morning because I figured that there would be more to see along the way, but all I saw on the way to Vienna was a whole lot of countryside. Instead, I paid attention to the people getting on the train and being greeted at the platforms of our stops along the way. We’re definitely in double cheek kiss country.

In researching what to do in Vienna, I thought that I would find another free tour to get my lay of the land, but searching around travel forums yielded a disappointing fact. There are none. All tour guides in Vienna have to be licensed, so free tours are out of the question. It looked like a pretty easy city to navigate, however, with a big ring in a half circle with both ends on the river. Just about everything there is to see is on that ring. I booked a hotel that was just across the river on the street that was basically the continuation of one end of the ring. It’s called the Meninger Hostel and it wasn’t too hard to find. Again one of the first things I noticed along the way was how many darn smokers there are. You’re killing me Central Europe! These folks are definitely hard core rule followers on the crosswalks as well. A new curiousity that I spotted in Austria was their newspaper selling stations. Unlike the permanent ones that are commonly seen in the States, in Austria they have little baggies with locks (to take your change) on them that are hanging literally everywhere. Presumably, they just switch out the empty bags tomorrow morning.

When I arrived at the Meninger it’s definitely a different vibe than the cozy atmosphere of Mandala.
Whereas Mandala truly felt like a home, Meninger is basically a hotel that just has 4-6 beds per room. Very sterile. Ikea-type furniture. Nothing wrong with that…the price is right and it’s a place to sleep. Which is pretty much all I do at a hostel anyways. When I tried to check in, I was informed that my reservation had been cancelled. Apparently, when I didn’t show up last night, they charged me for that one night then cancelled the rest of the reservation. Normally, I would say that is pretty kind of them to not charge me for all three nights, but in my case, it wasn’t too helpful to have my reservation cancelled. The guy at the counter pulled one of those acts that people in the service industry sometimes do where they make it seem like it’s going to be very difficult for you to get what you want and that they’re doing you a huge favor so that you can be extra grateful for their heroic help. Long-story short, I got rebooked but it was still far too early for check in, so I had to put my stuff in the luggage room. I didn’t really trust the giant luggage room at this place, so I took all my clothes out of my backpack to lighten the load and stuck it in a plastic bag in the luggage room, but kept all of my valuables (passport, wallet, electronics) in my backpack for the day. A bit heavy, but if I lost my computer and or camera with all of my pictures on it, I would be devastated. One of the first things I learned from my first trip abroad was to bring a few plastic grocery bags. You WILL need them even though you’ll never know what for. Plus they take up almost no space when you’re not using them. Win-win! Glad I had them this time around. After a quick turnaround in the luggage room, it wasn’t yet 10am so I still had all day ahead of me to explore!

Forgoing a tour, I instead referred back to Arthur, who’s recommended itinerary for one day in Prague was to go to St. Peter’s Church and explore the old town in the morning, then go to Schonbrun palace in the afternoon. Schonbrun was a bit out of town, however and since I was getting a pretty late start, I decided to put that off for another day. I figured I would start at St. Stephan’s then walk the outer ring to get a lay of the land and see if there was anything along the way that looked exciting.

One of the tips that Chris gave me about traveling is that your phone uses GPS even when it’s not on a network. So, if when you have an internet connection, you can open the Maps app on your phone and zoom in to wherever in the world you’re going to be. Once the map is loaded, it will show up even when you don’t have an internet connection and because your GPS doesn’t need cell service, the little blue dot that is you will show up on the preloaded map. I still prefer a paper map, but if you don’t have one or if you’re just REALLY lost, this works like a charm. It’s always kind of a fun symbolic transition to get a new map. After three days of constant use, my Budapest map was well worn and starting to tear at the creases. That’s when you know that it’s time to move on! Bring on the crisp new Vienna map to wear over the next few days!

It’s actually pretty remarkable how quickly you can get to know your way around a city. The first rule is WALK EVERYWHERE. Walking forces you to slow down and gives your brain plenty of time to take it all in. Plus, if you take a subway you aren’t going to have a clue where anything is in the city and you’ll be missing all of the beautiful nooks and crannies of the city that you came to see! At least half of the beauty and character of a city is BETWEEN the sights. I’m always very conscious of how many times in a blog post I say “on the way to ______” or “before I got to ______.” I say it so often that it even annoys me! While I probably need to incorporate some new phrases into my vocabulary, the lesson is that a ton of the interesting stuff happens wandering around the city in the less famous places, with your head up and your eyes wide open, you’ll see all kinds of magic that gives you a glimpse into the real heart of the city TODAY, rather than that giant stone building built by some guy 500 years ago. For example, just about everyone who visits Vienna will probably go to St. Peter’s Church. They’ll more or less take the same pictures and read the same plaques. But what makes the experience truly your own is the unique perspectives you’ll find along the way. Which is why the second rule is GET LOST. It’s going to happen. There’s no use fighting it and certainly no use getting flustered. You’re going to find something spectacular along the way…a neat restaurant that locals actually go to (rather than the ones that cater to tourists near the main attractions), an alleyway that is as pretty as a postcard or at the very least you’ll get to know some inch of the city that 90% of the other tourists haven’t seen too. Rule 3 is that once you know how to get where you want to go along the main arteries of the city, you can’t let yourself use them anymore. You’ve already seen them! Even if you walk 20 miles a day for three days you still wont cover 25% of the streets in the city. There is so much out there to explore! Don’t let yourself be lazy and do what is comfortable. You’ll notice that the benefits of “travel brain” deteriorate exponentially each time you double back over territory you’ve already covered. If you want to stay fully engaged, to keep your brain and your senses active, to feel fully alive, novelty is your friend. Finally, don’t be afraid to look like a tourist and CONSULT YOUR MAP! Stop in the middle of the street, check for street signs. Who cares if you look silly? You’re exploring a new city and unlike 90% of the others that get to know the three main streets that connect the three main attractions, you’re getting a pulse on the true nature of your environment. The exception to this rule is an advanced strategy only if you can truly get in the right mindset. I call it embracing “shiny object syndrome.” Normally, shiny object syndrome can be a bad thing if overused. It’s typical of people who are jumping from one thing to another when they see a new “shiny object” without ever really finishing anything. I’m certainly guilty of this sometimes. But when you’re traveling it can be a good thing. Put away your map and embrace shiny object syndrome. If you see a street that looks interesting, go that way. Does that alleyway scream to have it’s picture taken? Snap away! Smell something good? Check it out! Want to climb that hill to get a view of the city from above? Go for it! Who knows where you’ll end up. But if you have a few hours and you’ve already checked off the essential attractions from your list, give it a go. After 12 hours of walking a city (usually at the end of day 1 for me) you’ll have a remarkable comfort level and can probably find your way home from anywhere with only a rare glance at your map. Not to get too deep (or did we already pass that point), but theres a lot of metaphors in there about how I try to approach life. Wow that was a tangent. Back to St. Stephan’s!

They’re currently renovating the exterior of St. Peters and the difference is pretty remarkable. Check out the front of the church in relation to the side. The front used to be just as dark. Must be a power-washer on steroids.
As I got to St. Stephan’s, I saw a strange little religious-looking stage set up outside. It was roped off, but I couldn’t really figure out what was going on.
The entrance to the church was roped off too. As I walked toward the outer ring for a stroll, I hadn't gotten very far when heard a faint chanting that grew louder with each block. Eventually I could see that a crowd was lining the streets as some kind of procession was going by.
Since I’m not a very good Catholic and recently learned about a few Catholic holidays I should have known about but hadn’t heard of until they popped up on my phone’s calendar, I had the inkling to check my phone calendar and sure enough, it was Corpus Christi. Turns out that’s not just a town in Texas! Also, the chanting in German strangely sounded remarkably similar to the chanting in Istanbul.

Just a few blocks from St, Stephan’s is St. Peter’s.
Why you need two churches in 3 blocks I don’t know, but St. Peter’s wasn’t roped off, so I went inside. St. Peter’s is built on the site of Vienna’s first church. The original church was built at a time when Vienna was still a Roman camp by the name of Vindobona. It was replaced with a Romanesque church that was later replaced with the present Baroque structure completed in 1733. Holy mass has been celebrated DAILY at this site for 1600 years. Not since 1600, mind you, but for 1600 years. Hard to fathom.

The inside of the church is stunning and unusually colorful.
The cupola even has a fresco with Sistine Chapel-like beauty.
Outside, there is a relief that depicts the supposed founding of St. Peter’s by Charlemagne in the middle ages.

When I stopped at an ATM to take out money, it had the option to take out cash or “load phone.” I’ve heard about people being able to use their mobile phones for money transactions in Africa where there is little infrastructure, but I didn’t know it was a thing in Europe. I’m very curious as to how it works. Not curious enough to load my phone at this point though…

As I walked the outer ring, I saw endless streams of horse drawn carriages. It definitely rivals Venice’s gondolas in their ubiquity.

When I got about halfway around the arch, I came to the Hofberg Palace Complex.
It’s pretty impossible to miss. The massive palaces and gardens seem to take up about a third of Vienna’s historical center. A bunch of the old palaces have been turned into museums. I remember that the Hofberg had made the cut on Arthur’s 2 days in Vienna itinerary, so I decided to check it out. I bought the “Sisi” combo ticket of the Silver Collection, the Imperial Apartments and the Sisi Museum. First up was the Silver Collection. It started with a whole lot of SILVER-ware. It was common for silver plates, bowls and utensils to be melted down when they showed signs of wear (or when the owner was hurting for cash) so not many old sets exist, but they certainly had enough table settings for the whole city.

At the end of the 18th Century during the Napoleonic Wars, even more silverware got melted down to make coins and such to pay for all the wartime expenses. But how would the royals eat? Porcelain from the far East had become a collectors item but wasn’t considered fashionable enough to be used in the high courts, but at this point they didn’t have much of a choice. The king commissioned a 128 piece set and just to spruce them up a bit, had them hand painted with gold and with landscapes from throughout the empire. To hand paint all 128 pieces took 5 years!
Of course, when the royals visited Schonbrun palace, their summer home, they needed to bring their royal plates with them, so there were countless boxes custom made to hold each piece. If silver just isn’t fancy enough for you to eat off of, check out this collection of gold plates, part of a 4,500 piece set that weighs 1,000 kg. Of gold.
Check out this 30m long “centerpiece” (if you can even call it that) created for the Coronation of Francis I. It was so long I had to use the panorama feature on my phone.
The Viennese are also serious about napkin folding. They could probably even teach the Cornell “Hotelies” a thing or two. Here’s some pretty intricate animals.
The masterpiece of their napkin folding, however, is a special technique that is to this day only used at State dinners. It conveniently holds two Vienna rolls. The method to fold this napkin is such a closely guarded secret that only 2 people know how to do it.
Like I said, they are serious about napkin folding.

After getting more than my fill of silverware, it was on to the Sisi museum. Remember the kid during the Budapest free tour that interjected with his knowledge of Sisi? At the time I was impressed, but after going to this museum, I figured out that he actually probably just came from Vienna before going to Budapest.

Elisabeth, or Sisi as her family called her, was having a nice relaxing childhood in the countryside when two sisters, Sisi’s mom and the mother of Emperor Franz Joseph tried to set up Sisi’s older sister with Franz Joseph. Yup, encouraging cousins to get married. First cousins! Fantastic. Sisi came along with her mother and sister to the party that was put on so the two could meet. Instead, Franz Joseph fell in love with Sisi and asked for her hand in marriage. Still cousins. She accepted but soon after was quoted as saying “I’m so fond of the emperor. If only he weren’t the emperor” before bursting into tears. Clearly she knew she wasn’t going to like this life in the spotlight, but felt that she couldn’t say no. But what shall you wear to marry your emperor cousin?

She clearly had a depression for most of her life. She wrote a lot of poetry that they would quote and one that I liked was “Destinations are only desirable because of the journey that lies in between.” And that going to one place knowing that she would never be able to leave—even if it was her favorite place—would be the worst kind of torture. She was probably very introverted, because she hated going to official court meetings and though she tried to show up at the beginning, she eventually avoided them altogether. She was frequently traveling, which conveniently kept her from having to go to any official functions. On one trip on a ship when the weather was brutal, she had the sailors tie her to the mast like Odysseus so that she could experience the power of mother nature. Sisi was also seen as one of the most beautiful women of her era and went through some pretty extreme diet regimens to maintain her figure…99lbs and a 20 inch waist on a 5’8” frame. She also spent 2-3 hours per day getting her hair done. So in a nutshell, an vain, introverted, depressed Empress with an eating disorder. After the suicide of her oldest son, she would only wear black.

The only time she ever interfered in court affairs was when she convinced her husband to recognize the historical rights of Hungary and it’s people (aka what the Budapest tour kid was talking about).

On one of her trips, she was in Geneva where Italian anarchist Luigi Luchenni happened to lie in waiting to assassinate Prince Henri of Orleans, but the prince’s plans had changed. Although Sisi used a fake name to check into her hotel, the 19th century paparazzi figured out that she was in town and it made it into the newspapers. So Luigi changed his plans and decided to go after Sisi, a much bigger target. He stabbed her in the chest with this small knife.

Since she refused her official duties as empress and traveled constantly, she basically became estranged from her husband. While her husband, Emperor Franz Joseph, was exceptionally well-liked, the people didn’t feel the same way about Sisi. But that all seemed to change after her assassination. Her husband had remained deeply in love with her and as he mourned, Sisi’s legacy was written as a kind but misunderstood Empress. In death, she (and her legend) became extremely popular with the people of Austria.

After learning about this troubled woman, it was time to check out the Imperial Apartments where she and her husband had lived. Here’s the office of emperor Franz Joseph.
I’m guessing one of the reasons that he was so well liked was that he was up at 5am every morning and granted an audience to up to 100 of his subjects before lunch to hear their grievances and requests.

Most rooms had a fireplace like the one you see here, but they were all closed off, with an opening on the other side of the wall to stoke the fire so as to not bother the royals by lugging wood into the room.

Here was a chinup bar, rings and some kind of vertical monkey bars that Sisi used every day to work out…much to the chagrin of her mother-in-law who thought that it wasn’t very ladylike.

Here’s where they ate.
Usually, they would have 9-13 courses and tradition dictated that the course was over and everyone’s plates were cleared as soon as the Emperor put down his utensils. But, ever the benevolent leader, Franz Joseph was known to eat slowly and wait until everyone had finished. During dinner, it was impolite to have conversations with anyone other than your immediate neighbors.

The Hofberg Palace is a sprawling 240,000m2 and was the residence of the Hapsburg dynasty for over 600 years.

As I continued to wander, I walked through the main square I saw that St. Stephan’s was no longer closed off for the Corpus Christi festivities and decided to check one more thing off the list. This St. Stephan is different than the St. Stephen from Budapest. Vienna’s St. Stephan refers to the St. Stephan that was the first martyr of Christiandom. The original church was razed and the current one was built in the 13th century. That’s right, this bad boy is 850 years old.

Notably, Mozart attended church here and was married here. Two of his five kids were baptized here.

Here’s Frederick III’s grave.
Who was Frederick the III, you ask? Well, in 1440 he became the German King, in 1452, he became the Holy Roman Emperor and in 1459 the King of Hungary. So he was kind of a big deal. Hence the tomb with the 8 ton lid. 8 tons.

By now it was about 6pm and I figured I should get back to the hostel to eat and check in to my room. There was a grocery store around the corner from the hostel that was open until 7pm, so I figured I would grab something quick, them come back out on the town to check it out at night.

When I got back, it was close to 6:30 so I figured I would go to the grocery store before checking in. I got there and all the lights were off. I double checked the times on the window. M-F 8-19. I double-checked 19-12 a couple times to make sure that did in fact mean 7pm. Yet the lights were off and the door was locked. Grr. Heading back to the hotel to check in, I asked about the grocery store. How could I forget? It was Corpus Christi. How silly of me. Why would anyone work on Corpus Christi? Thus I was limited to making an omelette for dinner given the groceries I had brought from Budapest. Since I was on the train all morning, I hadn’t had eggs for breakfast, so I didn’t mind. The kitchen was packed though. Remember that Meninger is basically a hotel, but with 4-6 beds per room. So there are literally thousands of people staying here, yet the kitchen is smaller than mine at home. It took awhile to get a burner and even when I did, I was butting elbows with a half dozen different people trying to cook on 4 burners. The girls next to me had broccoli. I was very jealous and hoped that the grocery store would have some for my omelette tomorrow. After eating, it was starting to get dark and I felt like going for a walk around the town. Just a few minutes in, it started to sprinkle and I almost turned back, but I’m so glad I didn’t. My little walk turned into a 4 hour wandering around all of Vienna. I definitely got shiny object syndrome. Vienna is a beautiful place, but at night it is breath-taking. I don’t have much to report from my 4 hour jaunt other than the pictures that resulted…

First, the Rathaus (town hall)

….then Parliament….

…then a few of the Hofburg Palaces…

….the Opera house…

I had also been told that Belvedere Castle was beautiful at night. It’s a ways outside of town, but walkable, so I made the trek. It was probably a 45 minute jaunt. When I got there, however, all of the gates were closed off. It did look beautiful, but the closest I could get was about a quarter mile away through trees. Worst of all, it was on the Southeast part of town and my hostel is on the Northwest, so it was a good hour hike to get home. The only blemish on an otherwise wonderful night of exploring.

and just for kicks…
Marc O’Polo

and last but not least…
No, this is not the Jewish Weiner Choir. You should know that the Viennese call Vienna Wein, so this is the Vienna Jewish Choir. :-)

That’s all for now! Big day tomorrow…going to Schonbrun palace!

Posted by atbrady 15:30 Archived in Austria Tagged vienna st. palace austria house opera peters hofburg stephans Comments (0)

Relaxing in Budapest and (attempting) to leave for Vienna

sunny 65 °F

Well, today is my last day in Budapest so I wanted to make it count. I got up around 8:30, booked the Hotel Meninger in Vienna for the next 3 days, then hit the grocery store to stock up on eggs, peppers and onions. While I made my omelet, Chris woke up and we planned to meet at the Baths at 2:30 for a second try. He had to do some work in the morning and wanted to climb Gellert Hill and I had some other things I wanted to fit into the day, mostly touring Parliament. I hit the street and went just a little out of the way to get back to Central Market. It was my last day and I hadn’t really seen anywhere else to buy little souvenirs to add a piece of Budapest to my collection. I settled on a model of Fisherman’s Bastion, since that had so captured my imagination. Then I headed north along the river toward parliament, but got distracted again because just across the bridge and up the hill was Mathias Church which I had never got to see inside because it was too late in the day both times that I went. With its multicolored walls and generous gold accents, it didn’t disappoint.
I also got to go up in Fisherman’s bastion since it had been closed off for the wedding last time I was up. I got a good picture in front of Parliament then decided that it was finally time to go see it up close.

Heading back down the hill, I saw this wonderful accordion player and was compelled to give him a Euro and change.

The parliament building was even more incredible up close. I even got to try out the little mini tripod for my camera.
Were these the “real” guards Aggie was talking about?

Aggie had said that tours take place every 15 minutes, so I hadn’t put much thought into it when I showed up. While she was technically right, the tours rotated between 7 different languages so English tours only went off every 2 hours. The next tour wasn't until 1:45, which would make me miss the baths. 0 for 2, Aggie! I wish I knew this before I tipped you! I was pretty frustrated because I had really been looking forward to it, but with sudden hour and a half of free time before the baths, I decided to go to the House of Terror, which commemorated the two times that Hungarians were persecuted, both under Nazis and under the Soviet Union. Since I never got to do the Free Walking Tour on communism, I figured this was the next best thing.
Both the Nazi and Communist executioners had set up their headquarters at 60 Andrassy Avenue. During WWII, Hungary was in the crossfire of the Nazi and Communist dictatorships. After WWI, Hungary lost 1/3 of it’s territory and 2 million of its people were place in the jurisdiction of neighboring countries. They were disarmed, isolated politically and weakened economically, all while being surrounded by hostile countries. It was essentially in the buffer zone between Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union. Hungarians regard it as a great victory that they were able to avoid German occupation until the 5th year of the war in 1944. But then, the Hungarian government basically became a pawn of Hitler’s, so they made Hungarian Jews wear the yellow star and rounded them up to deport them to German concentration camps…437,402 of them. Hilter occupied Hungary to “secure absolute control over the countries natural and human resources.” The Hungarian Regent Miklos Horthy made a feeble attempt to get Hungary out of the war, but it failed and he was forced by the Nazis to resign. In his place, the Nazis put the Arrow Cross Party in power. 60 Andrassy Blvd. (the site of the museum) became the “House of Loyalty” and the members of the Arrow Cross killed and tortured hundreds of people in its basement. The only thing that saved them from this reign of terror was Soviet liberation (and subsequent occupation) in 1945. One of the first things the Hungarian communists that arrived with the Soviet tanks did was to take over 60 Andrassy. The Department for Political Police took over the former Arrow Cross HQ.
They killed without hesitation when ordered to do so, while many of their “confessions” were extorted only after brutal interrogations. They had a shadow army of informers that watched people on factory floors, in offices and at universities. This tyrannical regime seized, tortured or killed one person from every third family in Hungary. Nobody was safe. They even had a quota of Germans to round up and send to the Soviets. Undesirable citizens, those who were religious or were political opponents were labeled “Kulaks.” The term had no real criteria and became ambiguous. It was a label slapped on anyone that they wanted to get rid of. When quotas couldn’t be filled, they started taking people simply if they had a last name that sounded German. Thousands of people were abducted and sent to prison camps in this way. In this and other deportations, 130,000 civilians and another 500,000 soldiers ended up in Soviet captivity, where they were sent to camps that were part of the Soviet “gulag.” Equality under the law was officially abolished and replaced with “class-justice,” where the accused persons social origins or class affiliation were to be taken into consideration either as a mitigating or aggravating circumstance. I’m sort of astounded that I never learned about this in school, when it sounds so similar in scope and horror to the Nazi’s concentration camps. Several million died from executions and inhumane conditions.
It is hard to imagine, but from when the Nazi’s came in 1944 until the last Soviet soldiers left in 1991, almost a 50 year span, Hungary was never under its own control. Even after the Soviets left, the rebuilding has only just begun. Not just the buildings either, but perhaps more importantly in terms of culture and values. For example, the one party system the Soviets had put in place had begun ideological training at the Kindergarten level. How do you start to undo that cultural programming?

The beginning of the shift in a more positive direction occurred in 1956, when Khrushchev uncovered the crimes of the Stalinist era (after Stalin’s death in 1953). In October of that year, demonstrations broke out in Budapest, lead by students and later joined by vast crowds. When the secret police opened lethal fire on unarmed people in the crowd, the protest became a revolution. Its mission was to create a democratic, free and independent Hungary. They disbanded several state and local communist institutions. In just 5 days, Soviet political leadership was forced to give up ground. While Aggie called it a failure, I suppose since they didn’t achieve their aim of a free Hungary for another 35 years, it did seem like a victory in that troops were withdrawn from Budapest and negotiations began for withdrawal from the country as a whole. The feared State Security Department on Andrassy Blvd. was disbanded, as was the one party system.

The penultimate stop on the tour was some pretty intense prison cells in the basement. Hard to imagine the horror that happened here.
They were given a cup of bean soup and 150 grams of bread (under 500 calories for the whole day) and weren’t given blankets. The guy with the cell with the bed was actually lucky…many had to sleep on the cold floor. The final stop was very interesting. It was a room filled with the pictures of the “terrorizers.” They definitely wanted to make sure that none of them could hide from their past.

After the museum I was starving and I had a few hours of bathing ahead of me. I was also running out of chances for an authentic Hungarian meal, so as I walked toward the baths I got some Goulash. Its pretty much just a beef stew. I’ll admit that with a pound of paprika and whatever other spices they put in there, they made a pretty bland dish at least tolerable. However, in a sad twist of fate, I somehow forgot to take a picture of this interesting culinary creation. Perhaps its better that way. I’m not sure any picture could have made it look appetizing, but I assure you that while it was nothing to write home about (I realize that currently I’m technically writing home about it), it was certainly better than it looked. On to the baths!

I found Chris on the steps of the bathhouse, reading what looked like a really old book, but when I got up close I saw that it was actually a Kindle. Turns out it's a homemade Kindle cover. He basically cut out the center of the pages so that his Kindle would fit in. It’s perfect for traveling because nobody would ever want to steal this old ratty book. Neat idea. I told him he should sell it on eBay…or Shark Tank!

Anyways, here’s the enormous bath house.
And that’s just the half I could fit into the picture!

Inside, there were over 15 pools, a few saunas and a steam room. The pools had a range of temperatures, from 60ish degrees (which actually feels great after a brutal sauna) to 110ish degrees, one sauna that was normal sauna temperature and another that was 10 degrees hotter and was definitely an exercise in mental toughness. The steam room had what felt like peppermint. When I stepped inside, I was not expecting that at all. It stings your eyes and skin. Some guy said it was eucalyptus, which sounds more credible than peppermint, but all I could think of was the tea factory I went to in Denver with Jocelyn where there was a similar smell and stinging sensation in the peppermint room.
Some of the pools had high concentrations of different minerals. Out in the courtyard of this enormous building there were also 2 giant half-circle pools on either side of an Olympic-sized lap pool. I was bummed that swim caps were required in the lap pool, but at the same time I was here to relax.
They even had this sweet little circular piece inside the pool with jets that made a crazy whirlpool.

There is supposed to be a formula for tackling all of these different relaxation stations: Warm pool, cold pool, sauna, cold shower, steam bath, cold showers, mineral pools, rest and relax wrapped in a warm beach towel. That was wayyy too much to remember, so we pretty much just did a lot of hot/cold/hot/cold. The hotter sauna to the freezing pool was definitely an experience. Other than that, not much to report. For a couple hours we just sat around dazed and confused. Very enjoyable at almost the halfway point of my trip that is otherwise filled with 20 miles of walking every day. They also had this sweet technology where your “ticket” was a wristband that looked like a watch and if you pressed the watch on your locker it would lock or unlock your locker.
By this point, it was almost 6pm and by the time I went home and ate, I was looking at catching the 10pm bus and not getting in until 1am, so it was unfortunately time to go. A few things we noticed on the way home. First, we could have just walked down the street and never missed a goal for a world cup game. There was a bar showing the game literally every 50 feet. If a crowd cheered, we would be able to get to a TV in time for the replay. All this and the Hungarian team isn’t even in the World Cup! Also, whereas I noticed in Germany last year that you have to pay per plastic grocery bag, in Hungary they don’t even give you that option. You’re basically expected to just bring your own. I wonder what would happen if we did that in the US. When I bought my groceries the other day, I luckily had my backpack with me. Here, all of your groceries get put back in your container (there are no carts-the aisles are far too narrow) and then they provide you a little shelf to go figure out how to carry all of your stuff home.

I quickly cooked up some chicken, then threw it in a container to eat on the road. I packed up my backpack, then headed for the train station. There was a train pretty much every hour until 11pm. I got there around 9:30 expecting to get on the 10 o’clock train. However, the kiosks to buy tickets were only for local trains. To get an international ticket, you had to go to the ticket office. That late at night, there was only one person working at the ticket office and about 30 that wanted to buy tickets, so I had to pick a number to get in the queue. I ended up missing the 10pm train, but wasn’t all that worried about it because I knew there was another one coming. When I finally got up to the ticket window, it was almost 10:45. I told the woman my destination and she asked when I wanted to go. As soon as possible! So she promptly printed me out a ticket for 5am the next morning. What I hadn’t known to pay attention to online was that the trains that left hourly alternated between leaving from the main station and a second major station. It was 10 minutes to 11 and I never would have made it across town in time. A bit perplexed, I decided to test out the limits of that “no checkout time” policy at Mandala Hostel. When I got back, everyone was asleep. I checked my bed and nobody was in there, so I just threw down my bag and fell asleep in all of my clothes since there weren’t any sheets to be had and since I had to wake up in barely 5 hours to catch my train. When I woke up in the morning, there still wasn’t anybody awake at the hostel, so I just left some cash and a note to cover my unintended stay. Now I’m headed to Vienna (for real this time!)

Posted by atbrady 17:02 Archived in Hungary Tagged trains budapest vienna of museum turkish baths terror Comments (0)

A History Lesson during a "Free" Walking Tour of Budapest

sunny 75 °F

Boy was it tough going to sleep last night. Not only was I still on an emotional high from the game, but the kid whose bed is next to mine was snoring and across the way there was another kid who was watching movies or a TV show on his computer. It wasn’t the light that bothered me so much as the fact that he was eating like carrots or something with a similar crunch. Who does that at 2am in a hostel? To make matters worse the carrots seemed to be in a potato chip bag. I mean even at movies people usually open up their candy so that they don’t bother everyone else while they eat it. I almost went off on him but when I woke up in the morning I was glad that I didn’t because in that bed I saw Alex sprawled out. Despite a little trouble falling asleep, I slept like a baby and was super excited to cook up the eggs that I bought yesterday! Also in the kitchen was Chris that I had watched the soccer game with last night. It’s pretty amazing what a great atmosphere they create at this hostel. I have spent a grand total of 3 waking hours actually at this hostel and have already met about a dozen friendly fellow travelers. Yesterday, Scott had been mentioning the Budapest Free Tour, which is a walking tour that they have in several European cities where you basically pay in tips at the end whatever you think it was worth. It usually makes for some great tours and energetic tour guides. There was a general tour at 10:30 and 2:30 as well as a Communism Tour or a Jewish Tour at 3:30. Since it was a late night of soccer last night it was about 10am already so the 10:30 tour was out of the picture. I was planning to do the Communism Tour, but Chris was going for the general tour at 2:30 figuring that it would have some of the communism stuff mixed in.
After a filling breakfast (I had forgotten what that felt like!) I whipped out my Arthur guidebook and plotted out my day. After seeing so many beautiful buildings and breathtaking vistas yesterday, I had to admit that I was a little burned out on seeing sights. What was missing was all of the stories behind all of these grand (and once grand) buildings, which is why I was really looking forward to the tour. But I had a few hours to kill, so I planned to go to Budapest’s most famous church, St. Stephan’. Before I got there, I had to google a camera store along my route so that I could pick up a new memory card. Luckily I didn’t have to go too far out of my way. As I locked up my things to head out, I met my next door bed mate. He was the one Alex had told me about yesterday that had been traveling for 2 years. He is from South Korea and traveled around Asia for 8 months before spending a few months in Australia and New Zealand, trekking across the US, continuing on to Europe and then headed home in 2 weeks after over 2 years of traveling. Wow. I don’t know if I could it. As we chatted, Scott walked up and my neighbor, David inquired about check out time. One of the other worker/freeloaders chimed in that there is no checkout time. If you want a bed, you have to pay for it, but you’re welcome to enjoy the common room, kitchen, etc. as long as you want. I don’t know why more hotel’s can’t be like that. It costs them next to nothing bud adds a lot to the atmosphere. Anyways, David had asked because he’s leaving today so after we chatted I said goodbye and then headed out on the town, picking up a memory card then headed for St. Stephen’s. Along the way, there was some kind of music video being shot. I was walking down the sidewalk trying to figure out why there was shimmery red confetti all over the street when suddenly music went on, they turned a fan on a girl in a red dress and about 30 people with umbrellas started a choreographed dance in the background, all while they shot even more confetti into the air.
As I walked, a few more random things happened before I got to St. Stephen’s. First, I saw a kid wearing a shirt of Uncle Sam and it said Vote! Since the USA game was last night, I figured he was showing some American spirit so I said Go USA! as I walked past. He looked at me funny and then proceeded to talk to his friends in some other language. It’s actually really interesting the kind of influence America has on fashion and people’s style. I see people wearing American themed shirts or shirts with English sayings on them all the time when they are clearly not American. The opposite seems to be much less common. At home, you’ll get the occasional person wearing a shirt related to their heritage (Italian or Irish), but I doubt that these Europeans have American roots when they wear American shirts. Another thing that Budapest’s sometimes crumbling buildings taught me is how they get that façade that looks like giant bricks. It’s actually just regular bricks that are offset and then covered over with concrete or something. Check it out…

The inside of St. Stephens is beautiful. But what is most memorable about St. Stephens is the creepiness of St. Stephen’s right had being preserved and kept inside the church. St. Stephen died in 1038 and was canonized in 1083. His right hand was found intact and has been a world traveler, being kept in Transylvania, Dubrovnik and then Vienna before being brought to Budapest in 1771. It was carried away to the west in 1944 (who would want to take it?) then returned to Hungary for good in 1945. Here’s shots from when they preserved it.
Craziest of all is that they make you pay money to see the darn thing. It’s in a glass box and can’t really be seen until you put money in the machine to turn lights on. Its tiny and black from the preservation process.

After that creepiness, I decided to get as far away from the saintly hand as possible, so I climbed the steps to the top of the dome. It was an endless spiral staircase.
Up top made for great views, though.
After about 15 minutes, I had to head back down to catch the walking tour. I literally was dizzy and had to take a second to compose myself after whirling down the stairs aka running in circles.

After St. Stephens’ it was just 10 minutes until the 2:30pm tour and I was just 2 blocks from the meeting point. Chris had convinced me that the general tour was the way to go, so I headed over there. The tour was supposed to last 3 hours and I knew that I would be starving by 5:30 despite my hearty (and somewhat late) breakfast, so as soon as I exited St. Stephen’s I saw a Subway and grabbed a quick salad. Sadly, they don’t have “Five Dollar Footlongs” in Budapest. They are noted as 15 cm and they cost 3.99 Euros. Doesn’t quite have the same ring to it.

I wasn’t sure if Chris would make it but he ended up showing up after all, so we both got in the same tour group. Aggie was our guide. The very first thing I learned was that I’ve been saying Budapest wrong all along. You’re supposed to pronounce it Budapesht. Then came the history lesson. Budapes(h)t and Hungary in general was made up of 7 nomadic tribes back in the 800s. The leaders of the tribes decided that they would need to band together to protect their people so to make it official, they mixed up a cocktail (of each other’s blood) and each drank from it. Sounds pretty normal to me! Later, St. Stephen realized that all of the Hungarian pagans were surrounded by Catholics and that they’d better convert if they wanted to avoid conflict, so he basically became a Saint (and got his own church) for adding a whole country’s worth of names to the Vatican’s mailing list. Here’s my new buddy Chris and I in front of the church they named after St. Stephen:

Boy are there a lot of smokers here. Apparently the research on cancer hasn’t made its way here yet despite advances in that little thing called the internet. Usually when I see that I’m about to cross paths with a smoker, I’ll take a deep breath so that I can exhale for as long as possible as I walk past them so that my next inhale can be of fresh air. But the first two times I tried that strategy here, by the time it was time for an inhale, my lungs were assaulted with another breath of cigarette smoke. No bueno. So I’ve basically had to just resign to the smoke and breathe right through it. Hopefully we can get some Public Service Announcements going in Eastern Europe so that people can wake up before I come back here. :-)

AAAAnyways, Aggie (I have no idea how to spell it, but she described the pronunciation as Maggie without the M) went on to tell us about how King Mathias brought about the “Golden Age” of Hungary where Budapes(h)t became the second capital of Renaissance Art. Mathias was so great that he got a church named after him too…right across the Danube on Castle Hill in Pest. Another story behind a beautiful building I saw yesterday.

The party didn’t last long, because they were soon attacked by the Ottoman Turks, who ended up occupying Hungary. The Hungarians quip that the only good things they got from the Turkish occupation were the Turkish Baths and a love for paprika and coffee. Other than that, life wasn’t so great, so they ended up asking the Hapsburgs (the ruling family of neighboring Austria) to liberate them, which they kindly did. The problem was that the Hapsburgs loved Budapest so much that they never left. (This is a test: When you read that did you say Budapest or Budapesht? – It’s ok…I’m struggling to knock the habit too). The Hapsburgs stayed for almost 200 years, from 1686-1867 at which point Hungary was somehow able to make a compromise with them to unify. I’m still trying to figure out what kind of bargaining chips they could have possibly had. One kid that was trying to show off asked…wasn’t that because of Sisi? To which Aggie responded, “yes, she loved us very much.” (At the time, I was impressed how much the kid knew about history, but later found out he must have just came from Vienna…more on that later – I went to the Sisi museum in Vienna). Well that seemed all well and good until the world wars where, as Aggie quipped “they lost all battles and klll lll wars.” At the end of WWI, the Austria-Hungarian empire basically fell apart, which made them an easy acquisition for Hitler in WWII. The Red Army liberated them from the Germans (yayy!) but they never left either (ouch). So they did the whole communism thing for a decade until in 1956, they tried a revolution. That failed too. Moral of the story? If you happen to want to take over Hungary, you could probably have it. Also, you probably don’t want to pick their side in any future wars. The 1956 revolution actually turned out pretty well for them though. Afterward, the practice of “Happy Communism” took hold, where basically they had more freedom at home as long as they weren’t too outspoken and fell in line in public.

I also learned a bit about Gellert Hill, which I climbed yesterday to catch a glimpse of the city and the liberty monument. Remember that?
Well if you want something named after you in Budapest and you don’t happen to be a Saint (Stephen) or a King (Mathias), there are some other options. You can always go out like Gellert did, inside of a barrel, rolling down a hill and voila! Your name is forever etched on maps of Budapest. ???????? Turns out, he tried to unite them but the Hungarians were still too close to their roots as pagan nomads and couldn’t be tamed. They didn’t think he could be trusted, so they gave him the ol’ barrel roll down the hill. As far as the liberation monument on top of Gellert Hill, that was actually put up by the Soviets to commemorate Budapest’s “liberation” from the Nazis. Once they got rid of those darn commies (commys?) they had a decision to make. The monument had become a landmark in the city and while they would rather replace it, they didn’t have the money to bring it down and put something else there. The solution? Cover it with a white sheet for 4 days, then uncover it and celebrate it as if it’s a brand new monument, not one that recalls a difficult past! A few decades later and most people probably don’t even remember its true origins. Sounds like a plan!

Also, when I noticed yesterday that the Pesh side was organized in a much more orderly fashion with grid-like streets, there was a story behind that too. All of the buildings in Pesh are no more than 180 years old, because there was a flood that wiped the whole place out (because of its hills, Buda remained largely unharmed).

As we passed the aftermath of the music video that was being shot,
Aggie told us that Budapest has actually become a hot spot for shooting movies. Apparently, when they claim to be somewhere in Europe, they may actually be in Budapest. Currently, Spy is being shot here, which has Jude Law and 50 Cent in it (so you know its going to be good!)

We then passed restaurant row and Aggie took us through a rundown of the favorites in Hungary.
Goulash, stews, cabbage and langu, oh my! (I asked her to repeat langu twice and I’m still not sure what that is). Nothing that sounds like its coming to a restaurant near you. Nevertheless, I usually try to eat at least one authentic meal, so we’ll see how that goes. I don’t remember who this guy actually was, but he is right at the beginning of restaurant row and word on the street is that rubbing his belly gives you good luck for your upcoming meal. When I mentioned to Chris how that was a very contrived story, he said that the last city he was in (I think Prague), the tour guide told them how there was a random statue and how tourists started rubbing it for good luck and now it has become a thing to do. At least she was honest!

Despite their lackluster record in combat, the Hungarians are apparently a pretty scientifically-minded people. The guys who invented the Rubix cube and the ballpoint pen were both Hungarians. Then she started to list off a bunch of famous Hungarians…it started with a bunch of people I didn’t know, then Bela Lugosi (whose name I at least recognized), then the likes of Adrian Brody, Goldie Hawn and Drew Barrymore, among others. That sounded like a bit of a stretch…maybe one of their parents came from Hungary? Or a grandparent? Or maybe they came to Hungary for vacation once? All kidding aside, the Hungarians attribute at least part of their scientific prowess to their language. Since their ancestors were nomads, the language is completely unrelated to the two main European language family trees (latin that lead to French, Spanish, etc. and the Germanic/English tree) which makes their language completely unrecognizable to outsiders. It was rated as the 2nd most logical language and the 5th hardest language to learn (who does these ratings?) It is so unrecognizable in fact, that it is often used in Sci-Fi movies when they need an “Alien” language. For example, Bladerunner’s aliens spoke Hungarian.

After our history lesson and tour of Pest, it was time to cross over Budapest’s oldest bridge, the Chain Bridge, onto the Buda side. Here’s the chain bridge with the palace in the background. The Chain Bridge was unlike any bridge I had ever seen. It basically looked as if it was modeled after an erector set. Just a bunch of wrench-shaped pieces of steel all bolted together. Pretty neat.

After crossing the bridge was the climb up castle hill. It made for a great view, but then it was quiz time. Looking out on the skyline of Budapest, the two buildings that rose above the rest were St. Stephens and Parliament. Which one did we think was higher? Parliament looked much taller to me, but sensing that it was a trick question, I went with St. Stephens. Turns out I overthought the trickery, because Parliament was actually built to be the same height as St. Stephens to symbolically show the balance of power.

The parliament building is exceptionally beautiful, but apparently came at a high cost. It is second only to London’s Parliamentary building in size, and after it was completed, it was estimated that the Hungarian government could have instead used that money to build an entire city for 40,000 people. But at least the saved some money on the Liberation Monument! After taking in the view, we did a 180 to find the office (but not the house) of the president. But why, Aggie asked, are there just 2 guards and no fence around this house (think about that in comparison to the White House)?
On top of this seemingly meager security, Aggie said that the guards were “Fake Guards” and that their guns were not real and their only purpose was to conduct an hourly changing of the guard ceremony. Meanwhile, a few cops in bright orange vests at the corners of the building were the real security. But besides all that, the security is light because the president has no real power in Hungary. The president is merely a figurehead whereas the real power lies with the Prime Minister over in the Parliament building (where they have much better security I’m told). A little farther down the street was Mathias Church, which amazingly was built in 1255. Imagine lugging all those stones up that hill back then. The roof was very unique, with the colorful tiles made of what she called “fire granite.”
One of the nice things about my endless trek around the whole of Budapest yesterday was that I saw everything, so on this second time around, I took little to no pictures and instead just took it all in. (Most of these pictures were taken yesterday and are only included as a reference so that you know what I’m talking about.) A strategy I might try again in the future…

Apparently, there are requirements for switching over to Euros and Hungary has not been able to meet them yet. They need to get their act together because money on this trip has been a pain! From Stockholm to Budapest to Vienna to Prague to Munich to Copenhagen, only Vienna and Munich use Euros, whereas the rest I have to exchange for local currency. I understand the Eastern European struggle to qualify for the Euro, but I wonder why the Scandinavian countries (or England) haven’t made the switch.

By now, our tour was about over and it was about 5pm, meaning that most attractions would be closed. However, I remembered that according to Arthur, the main Turkish Bath, Szechenyi Bath, is open until 10pm and since I only have one more day in town, I figured it would be a nice way to unwind rather than squeeze it in to my final day. Since Arthur is getting a bit old, I verified with Aggie that it was still the case. I was jumping the gun a bit, because just before she said goodbye (and reminded us that she makes all her money in tips), she gave us a nice little newsletter that covered all the hours for the things to do as well as do’s and don’ts and a few miscellaneous facts, such as:

-The color code for bottled water: blue=fizzy, pink=still, green=lightly carbonated – good to know
-Even better to know…don’t say “thank you” in a bar or restaurant when paying until you get your change. If you do, you’re essentially saying “keep the change.” What a convenient way to dupe tourists!
-Beware of girls that try to bring you to a specific bar…money will be extorted out of you if you go – duly noted!
-Don’t accept a 200 Forint (abbreviated HUF for Hungarian Forint) note – they went out of circulation few years ago

Also, a rundown of so called “Hungarian Culinary Delights” – Turos csusza (curd dumplings with bacon), Fozelek (veggie stew), Csirkepaprikas (chicken stew), Bikaver or “bull’s blood” (dry full bodied red wine from the Szekszard or Eger regions) and Palinka (national “firewater” – Hungarian Fruit Brandy)…so many choices for tomorrow haha.

The newsletter also confirmed that the main bath was open until 10pm. Chris decided to come along and luckily he’s a walker too. We were basically going from central Buda to the farthest Northeastern part of Pest, just barely on the map, but we both enjoy walking in foreign cities, so we set off. It was at least an hour walk—back across the Chain bridge and then down Andrassy Blvd. Budapest’s best effort at Paris’ Champs Elysses (which is known as a long boulevard filled with high-end luxury stores).

The walk was at least an hour, but we had plenty to talk about. Chris works for a startup that is an online tutoring service. Every day, from anywhere in the world, he can log in to tudor kids in SATs, GREs and a variety of subjects. The format sounds like an interesting platform to connect students and tutors. Plus, he loves that he can work from anywhere in the world and basically makes enough to pay the bills in just a few hours a day. For the last year or so, he has been living in Lyon, France, with a French girlfriend. He’s originally from Nashville, but lived in the San Franscisco Bay area for a while when he first started working for his current company. Before that, he spent 15 months as a teacher in Seoul, South Korea, which sounds like it was a life-changing experience for him. While over there, he got to see a lot of South East Asia and took some time off to explore it before coming back home. Hungary is actually his 40th country! (On the plane to Sweden, I calculated that by the time my trip is over, Denmark will be my 14th country – 15 if you count the interesting night I spent in Morocco and 18 if you count the US, Canada and Mexico. I don’t know which of the Caribbean Islands count as their own country…Bahamas? Aruba? Dominican Republic).

Anyways, the Budapest Champs Elysseys left a lot to be desired (not that either of us are into high-end shopping) and we eventually made it to Hero’s square. It has a giant pillar in the center (Chris hypothesized and I think he’s right that it's the 7 blood drinking nomads) with two quarter-arches surrounding it with statues of the leaders of Hungary’s past.
In the square were two young girls offering free hugs, so we had to take them up on it.
Not a bad hug…and it was free! Just past hero’s square we crossed a bridge. To the right side was a small late and an epic castle. It looked like they had a wakeboarding competition or something set up on the lake too.
To the left and a little farther on, we reached the baths at long last. It was about 7pm, so we had lots of time to relax and enjoy…or so we thought. When we walked in, the ticket office was closed. It seemed like there were still people around, but nobody that would let us in. We double-checked the newsletter from Aggie and sure enough, it said 10pm. Mentally it was a challenge to summon the energy for the almost hour walk back from the northeastern part of the city to the southern part where our hostel was. We had both spent the last half hour talking about how badly our feet hurt and how much we were looking forward to the relaxation. Oh well. I guess it’ll have to be on the agenda tomorrow. Although the quickest way back would have been to start back on the road we had come from, we both have an aversion to taking the same path twice (because there’s so much more of the city to explore…and usually off the beaten path is the best place to find the gems!) so we went over a few blocks before returning on a parallel street to central Pest, then heading southward to get home.

When we were almost home, we saw that the World Cup games were on and decided to stop at a bar to watch for a bit. We ended up ordering a bottle of wine, picking up our conversation where it left off and sort of forgetting about the game. Chris laughed telling the story about the time he spent in Asia where people would often tell him things such as “oh wow, look at your big nose” and “you’re so light/white/pale.” Things that would normally be considered insults in America but that were intended as high compliments. What happens to be in vogue is such a funny thing. I remember watching a 60 minutes segment on how in some Asian countries, it’s popular to get skin lightening treatments and sometimes even nose jobs. Meanwhile, Americans go tanning and if they get a nose job, it’s to make their nose smaller! Everybody wants what they can’t have. Such is life, I suppose. Chris had earlier mentioned that he was coming back to the states so when I inquired further into it, it turns out he’s actually going back to school for a masters degree in international education and technology education, basically fusing his past experience in South Korea with his current job in tech. He is passionate about figuring out how find a sustainable business model for delivering basic education to people in developing nations at low to no cost, recognizing how much human potential is out there that is untapped. We talked a bit about Khan Academy and I told him about the MAPP program and Martin Seligman’s work with bringing Positive Psychology principles into education. We talked about travel and about how we’re both dying to get to India, about philosophies on life in general and just about everything under the sun. When I asked about what was going to happen with his girlfriend when he comes to the states, he said that she actually found a job over in Boston (I forget what it was exactly). When I said how perfectly that worked out, he seemed less than enthused. Turns out, he’s in an eerily similar situation to what I experienced a few years ago. Everything seems to be going well and he’s happy but he can just feel that she’s not the one. The problem is that his friends and family like her, they have a good relationship that his friends envy and there’s nothing he can point to that isn’t going well. Any yet, something just doesn’t feel right. Like I did, he’s currently wrestling with whether that feeling is just the classic “guy that doesn’t want to be tied down” (which is only made worse by the spirit of an adventurous traveler) or if there is something more to it. Turns out, he’s going to Harvard for grad school, which he chose over Stanford because of his girlfriend’s gig in Boston. He knows that he can’t go wrong with two of the best schools in the country (And the world), especially in the tech-ed scene, but you can tell in his voice that he wistfully longs for Stanford. Anyways, the wine was almost gone and we were both starving, so we continued our journey. We said “Thank You” to the waitress so that she could keep the change :-). Chris is a vegetarian and we had seen an Indian restaurant just a block earlier, so we doubled back so that he could get some take out. While we waited, we ended up talking to some Indian guys who were in Budapest working for a month. It was their first time out of India and they were telling us about the posters of famous Indian actors on the wall. It’s crazy the people you’ll meet if only you look to make connections. When we got back to the hostel, I cooked up a giant double chicken breast (I had never seen the two breasts attached before!) We were both exhausted by that point, but since it was my last night in Budapest, Chris said I had to go to one of the Ruin bars. It’s basically exactly what it sounds like. These dilapidated “ruin” buildings that in the states might be converted into lofts were instead converted into bars.
The one we went to was the first ruin bar that started the trend. It was actually pretty amazing because the place was enormous and each room had a totally different vibe. There were small, relatively quiet rooms if you wanted to talk with your friends, loud dance floor rooms and everything in between, all decorated with the most bizarre modern art-type pieces that looked like the interior designer was heavily drugged.
We only stayed for a drink but I was glad to come and experience it. Interestingly, all of the bar scene and nightlife is in the “Jewish Quarter,” about 10 blocks by 10 in central Pest. While we were there we even saw someone in a Brazil jersey hooking up with a girl in a Mexico shirt and face paint despite the fact that the two sides had just played earlier in the night. Thanks for promoting cultural understanding, World Cup! With that, it was back to the hostel and I was out like a light. No carrot crunching to be dealt with and no snoring neighbor next door!

Posted by atbrady 16:32 Archived in Hungary Tagged budapest walking hand hill tour st stephen matthias gellert Comments (0)

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