Sunday, June 3, 2012

Our European Vacation: Austria & Germany

Okay, here it is.  I am posting the first part of out trip to Europe: Austria and Germany.  We arrived in Vienna in the afternoon, May 17th.  And let me just say from the start, the weather was absolutely perfect the entire time we were there.  It was wonderful.

We were met at the terminal by our friend Nadja.  I met her many years ago when she stayed with a family from our church in Atlanta, Georgia.  We hit it off and the following year she came again and flew out to visit us in Las Vegas, since we had just moved there.  Nadja and I have kept in touch all these years, so it was awesome to see her very first. It was also nice to have a local, because Rinar and I don't speak any German at all. We would have been so lost.

After dropping off the bags, we headed right off to get a preview of the city. Vienna is very beautiful and a bit of a contradiction. It is very clean, but racked with graffiti.  Luckily, I didn't see any graffiti on the historic buildings.

Nadja stayed with us the first few days and while she was here, we went to a few museums and took in the old town. It was a lot of walking. At the Kunsthistorisches, we were able to see a Klimt mural up close, many Roman statues, and lots of Renaissance paintings. They had a fine collection of Bruegels, altar pieces, Medieval stuff, van Eyck, Drurer, etc.  The kids did really good, but started to get bored, which is really surprising. ha ha!  But it was quite hilarious when we went through their Egyptian collection. Unlike the other stuff, it was only explained in German.  Luckily, Zach told us all about it: canopic jars and heart disposal. He made me look really good.

Vienna is the city of music and there were lots of statues of the greats.  Here Zach and Raef get out their "violins" to honor the great Mozart.

 This is the Vienna Opera House. We didn't take in a show here, but opted for a touristy sampling show, which was really perfect for us.

Awaiting the start of our Vienna concert.

We really lived and died by our Rick Steves' travel book. I saw a lot of people carrying this book around.  But really, he is the best. He would write out little tours for you, so you just followed his directions and he gave you all of the highlights without having to pay for an expensive tour guide.  I heart Rick Steves.  It took me a little while to realize he had those little tours, but I am glad I didn't miss out on much.

Rick also made restaurant recommendations, and I was never disappointed. The first suggestion we used led us to Gyros, a Greek restaurant near our hotel.  It was absolutely perfect and probably the best meal we had while in Austria. Plus, the owner was so friendly and fun. He even had Raef and Zach go back to the kitchen and help the chef cook and all. They wore chef hats and everything. So much fun.

Our last day with Nadja, we went back near St. Stephen's Cathedral and they were doing a traditional Austrian pole dance. It was fun to watch, but sad to say goodbye to Nadja.  I hope we can see her again soon!

We toured St. Stephen's Cathedral and the catacombs, where stacks of bones are stored.  The kids thought that was pretty cool. We also went up in the tower, and here is a picture of the tiled roof. It had to be redone after WWII, because the church got hit by a bomb.  It is evident from the mismatched stain-glass windows.  The church is very beautiful and a busy tourist destination.

Now it was time to get out of town. On Rick Steves' recommendation, we did a day trip to Melk Abbey, the Danube, and Durnstein. The Abbey is impressive and very large. They just finished renovations of it because they sold their Gutenberg Bible to Yale University.  Thank you, Yale.

The Cathedral is very luxurious and exceptionally ornate. Most of the figurines are gold-leafed and frescoes abound. The Nazis actually used this Abbey to store all of the stolen art they collected from around Europe. It was quite a horde.

We then took a boat cruise down the Danube. This included a stop in Durnstein, the notorious location of Richard the Lionheart's castle prison. The town really caters to their famous guest from long ago. But the castle ruin is fun to explore and it is quite a hike to get up to it. But it is good that we had the practice because it was just a warm up to another tourist destination a few days later.

Durnstein...with the castle ruin up on the right.

It was fun to take a train and a boat for our day excursion, but then we got back to business when we returned to Vienna.  We took a subway out to Schonbrunn Palace.  It is the equivalent of an Austrian Versailles.  The place is massive.  In one of the rooms, 6 year-old Mozart played for Empress Maria Theresa.  The kids thought that was cool.

Raef in a room at Schonbrunn Palace

Okay, so we needed to change things up a bit so that Raef and Zach didn't go on museum overload.  There is an amusement park right in the middle of the city called the Prater.  It is a pay-per-ride affair, so I was happy to just take pictures. 

This ride was bananas, and Rinar said it was the scariest thing he has ever done. It slingshots you up into the air going about 60 mph, then you flip around and stuff. No thank you.

But Zach was in heaven. He loved it.  Raef was happy to stand next to me and watch.

Joyful little kid.

They each did a few rides and it was a really nice change of pace.

Our final day in Vienna, and we made sure to visit the Hofburg treasury. That was fun. There were tons of crowns and robes. My favorite item was a narwhal horn.  The Habsburgs believed the horn had magical powers. Hmmm...

We rented a car to go from Vienna to Salzburg to Prague.  On the way to Salzburg, we stopped at Mauthausen Concentration Camp. It was the last camp to be liberated in 1945. It was a moving experience. Everyone should be required to go to a concentration camp at least one time.  I made the kids look at everything. I don't want them to ever forget. 

When we went into the gas chamber, you could feel a palpable heaviness and sadness. There really are no words, it is just too horrible. This camp is also a living memorial and family members who lost loved ones leave plagues and momentos in remembrance. After a while, Zach really wanted to leave. He couldn't handle all the sad stuff. I hear you, kid.

The camp was next to a quarry and they would walk down this long path to a significant stairway leading to the quarry. I really didn't want to walk down because of the walk back up, but I felt like I was obligated to do it to honor the memory of these Holocaust victims. 

These are the Stairs of Death. Rinar decided to carry up Zach to get some kind of feel for what these men had to do.  Here is Rinar.

And here is a picture of the inmates I found online...

They were so malnourished and exhausted that often someone would fall and it would cause a horrific domino affect, or a guard would start whipping get the idea. Just too awful.

After getting settled into our bed and breakfast in Salzburg, we took a little trip to Bertesgarten, Germany, which is just over the border. On the way, we stopped in Durrnberg, Austria to do a Sommerrodelban. It was awesome. 

This is at the top, after taking a ski lift to get there.

If you want to see what our ride was like, you can check out this video, as it is exactly the same one. 

Then we went to Bertesgarten, Germany. Rinar really wanted to see the Eagle's Nest, this insanely high chalet that has incredible views of the valley.  It was built for Hitler for his 50th birthday, but he only went there 14 times because he was too afraid of heights. The bus ride up was a bit harrowing, but it was still fun.

Then we rushed to find the salt mines to do a little tour. We fortunately found it with some time to spare, before it closed. It is difficult driving in a foreign country when you don't know the language and have no idea what the road signs mean. You have to rely on instincts.  But we are all still alive and the car was returned undamaged, so it was okay.

The salt mines were loads of fun and we got to go on a couple of miner slides and an underwater lake that looked like glass. I didn't even realize it was a lake until we stepped onto the boat.

On Saturday, we weren't sure what to do, and decided that instead of doing the "Sound of Music" Tour, we would go to the biggest ice cave in the world.  It was quite a hike. Oh boy!  A three mile drive to the parking lot, a steep climb to the ticket counter, a steep climb to the gondola, a steep climb from the gondola to the mouth of the cave, a steep climb up the 700 stairs to the back of the cave, and finally, it was all down hill.  I would guess we probably walked about 2 miles uphill before we started to descend.

The mouth of the cave is on the right.
 Rinar and I didn't realize it was a tour. We thought you just walked in the caves to take a look. But it was a guided tour.

 The guide is orienting us to what we will see, all in German, of course.  As he is talking, I decided to take a picture.  This is what I heard..."jibber, jabber, jibber, jabber, jibber... {{SNAP!!}}...photographia."  Oops.  So, I can roughly translate the jibber jabber as, "And please, ladies and gentleman, we do not allow flash photography.  

Yes, every single head in the room turned to look at the moron (me) who took the picture.  

But I am glad I did.  This gives you a little inkling of what we saw.  The stairs are to the right and it was massive.

The view when we exited.  It was very cold in there and we started to freeze at the end.  Zach started to really not like it and wanted out.  But he did a good job sucking it up and getting it done.

It was my idea to just hike down and save about $20. There was another family that had the same idea. It can't be that hard to hike downhill, right?  Oh boy. What a hike. It was no joke. I now know what a mountain goat feels like.  It took quite a while to go about 1 mile. But we made some new friends along the way.  Their 12  year old daughter Carmen spoke English and was able to practice lots with both of us.  They were a very nice, friendly Austrian family. It was fun to have some company.

We then got back to do a little tour of Salzburg.

The famous Getreidegasse, in Salzburg. They had the best ice cream shop at number 40.

After our stay, it was time to say Auf Weidersehen to all things Austrian and German and head to Prague and the Czech Republic.

Brigitte Lenglachner and her bed and breakfast. We stayed in the basement. She was a lovely lady and another great Rick Steves recommendation.


likeschocolate said...

So glad you had such a fun trip! We will see Nadja this weekend. We can't wait to see her. The boys miss her! I have never done the Salt Tours, but we hope to get there in a couple of years when we stay for the summer again.

Hoku said...

Loved this post and the chance to "follow you around" in all your fun! Very cool and I'm certain very memorable!

Rachel said...

Thanks for sharing your trip with me. :)

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