Tag Archives: Europe

Vacation! Part 2: Tanks, Horses & Hot Dogs

4 Nov

 

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I find nothing says, “Welcome, Americans” like a tank in front of the Parliament Building.

We arrived Vienna on Wednesday, after exploring Budapest for 3.5 days. People had cautioned us that Vienna was really expensive and the least interesting of the three cities we had on our itinerary, so we entered with low expectations… and were pleasantly surprised!

Our first full day in town was their big state holiday: National Day. Having googled it, I now know that they’re celebrating their declaration of permanent neutrality and regained status as an independent and sovereign nation in 1955. Before googling, I would’ve thought that it was a celebration of all uniformed professions, with an emphasis on the military, because we woke up to a town swimming in soldiers. Ironically, with troops marching in formation everywhere around town, it made it pretty easy to imagine Nazi-occupied Vienna.

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In an attempt to get our bearings (and fill in the gaps in our knowledge of Austrian history), we took a free walking tour. Maybe on another day, it would’ve been a superb tour, but on this day our guide (named Franz Joseph, like the former Austrian emperor) seemed to be phoning it in. I’m going to go out on a limb and say he may have overdone his patriotic celebrations the night before and was nursing a monster hangover; he offered little by way of historical facts and instead spent the tour making cracks about the Austrian military’s ineffectiveness and the inbreeding habits of the royal families.

While we’re usually not quitters, with a limited amount of time to explore this grand city, we decided to cut our losses and ghosted mid-way through the tour. We used the money we would’ve tipped a good guide to instead get fancy coffees and Kaiserschmarrn (an Austrian tradition!) on the patio of Café Mozart. Perhaps the best decision we made in Austria!* 

I couldn’t talk Alan into seeing an opera (I KNOW, right?!) but he was interested in seeing the famous Lippanzer horses, so we grabbed tickets and took in a practice session, which, as it turns out, should more accurately be named, “Horse Walking.” The practice consists of four 30 minute blocks featuring six different horses and riders in the ring at a time. A few horses were actually working on tricks (like weird little dance steps or balancing on their rear legs) but most of them seemed to be tasked with the basics, like walking close to a wall. While it certainly wasn’t riveting theatre, it was still interesting to learn about the Spanish Riding School and the training process. And it was raining outside, so… not the worst way to spend the morning.

Speaking of rain: on our way to the flea market (Naschmarkt) for lunch, the skies opened up and dumped on us. We arrived at the market just as the rain started falling in sheets, and took shelter under the awning of a fish stand where we ordered a basket of fried shrimp. Our intention was to lazily eat our way through the market, but there’s nothing relaxing about eating in the middle of a downpour where hurricane-force winds are driving the rain sideways at you. On another day, it would’ve been a great plan. Instead we ended up bailing and running in a restaurant across the street to dry off and split a plate of fish and chips. So much for channeling Anthony Bourdain.

Speaking of plans gone bust: I’d read that heurigers (quaint little estates where they have weingartens that also serve food) are a uniquely Austrian experience. I thought hitting one on our last day in town would give us a reason to check out a different part of the area, since some are a tram ride about an hour outside the heart of the city. After navigating a tram-line under construction (which called for a partial detour using the subway), we arrived in Nussdorf with high hopes.

Alas, the first one we went to had a sign on its gate indicating that it was closed all day for a private event. Boo. Fortunately, there was a second heuriger in town (and on the same street) so we shuffled along. Unfortunately, it ALSO had a sign on its gate, but we couldn’t figure out what it meant. I tried using Google Translate’s photo app on my phone, and the resulting (obviously incorrect) translation had us raising our eyebrows: “Nazis – attending – pay – listen.”

I was like, “Whelp. I think that means we probably should just keep walking.” Alan was undeterred, so he opened the gate. We found ourselves walking through what appeared to be the backyard of a home, which lead to a room that looked like a restaurant. The back door to the apparent restaurant was open and a woman was washing tables. It seemed pretty obvious that whatever the sign said, they weren’t open for business. Alan cheerfully proceeded, not at all concerned that we might be intruding on a Nazi lair. I pointed my toes toward the gate, ready to take off.

Turns out, it wasn’t a Nazi lair, but it also was closed for the day. We cut our losses and instead found a quaint local restaurant where we were able to split a delicious pork roast with a single potato dumpling the size of a tennis ball (weird) and a bowl of cabbage with bacon.

A word on food: If you are a fan of meat and potatoes, central Europe is your friend. Our trip featured multiple meals of schnitzel, sausages, goulash, and stroganoff. My pick for the best hot dog: Vienna. The street vendors will drill a hole in a baguette and drop a foot-long sausage down the hole with either ketchup or mustard, then put the tip of the loaf back on top like the sausage is wearing a hat. Delicious!

 

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This is where the magic happens. 

 

It was ambitious to try to hit three cities in 10 days, but I’m glad we took the time to stop in Vienna. On Saturday we said, “Auf Wiedersehen” and headed to the train station for our four hour trek to Prague.

*Clarification: I would’ve said that the best decision we made in Austria was asking a stranger to verify that we were at the correct train station when we had only 3 minutes to make a connecting train to Prague, but technically that happened in Breclav, which was just across the border, in the Czech Republic. More on that – and the frantic tossing of baggage off the train – later. 

 

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Vacation! Part 1: Budapest

30 Oct

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After nearly a year-long hiatus, I’m back with a post because we’re on vacation and this is the closest thing I have to a journal. Let’s pick up where we left off, shall we?

Long story short: Alan and I arrived in Budapest last Sunday morning, the first of three stops (Vienna and Prague being the other two). Here are travel tips for people coming to Budapest for the first time:

  1. Don’t sweat the language. The people here are friendly and (generally) speak great English. You can be a lazy American and they will still be nice to you. Repeat after me: We are so lucky.
  2. Public transit is clean, easy to use, and intuitive – assuming you generally know how to take a bus or train in any US city.
  3. It might not be the prettiest European city you’ve visited, but that’s because it had the shit kicked out of it in WWII – and then had to suffer under Soviet design aesthetics for nearly 50 years. You can’t fault it for looking a bit battered and bruised.
  4. The local currency will spend like Monopoly money to you:
    • In part, because it has a weird name: It’s listed places as HUF which made me think alternately of HuffPo and The Hoff. We ended up referring to it either Hufflepuffs or FlibbertyJibbits, depending on our mood.
    • And because it comes in crazy denominations. Hot tip: When you go to withdraw cash from an ATM, do NOT select “100” unless you want 100,000 HUFs, which is about $400.
    • Good news: it’s possible to find a solid meal with drinks or dessert for two people for 5500 HUFs – or about $22 – though good dinners are more in the 10000 HUF (or $40) range. Still a great deal, especially for delicious food.
  5. Speaking of food: you’re going to have to seek out vegetables – otherwise, it’s possible to pass your time eating nothing but meat and carbs. We actually (pathetically?) hit an Irish pub one night because I was craving salad and couldn’t find it on any traditional Hungarian menus.
  6. FYI: Soviet rule may have ended in the late 80s, but there is still be a bit of tension between the Hungarians and the Russians. We awkwardly witnessed a pissing match between a restauranteur and a group of Russian tourists that she didn’t want to seat.
  7. Don’t ask me about the baths. Since Budapest is perched on top of thermal springs, it’s famous for its public baths. It’s apparently the #1 thing to do when you visit. Unfortunately I can’t share a recommendation with you. We checked out two different bathhouses (even going so far as to take swimsuits, flipflops and towels) but ended up passing on both because it was too complicated for my vacation-oriented decision-making system. As it turns out, you can’t just show up, buy a ticket and get wet. Here are all the decisions you need to be prepared to make if you go:
    • Locker or cabin – where do you want to change? (I’m still not clear why this matters, but locals made it seem like  a cabin was the only reasonable choice a human would make.)
    • Thermal baths or pools – sometimes this matters and sometimes it doesn’t, and sometimes the decision is made for you because only women could use the thermal baths at one place we looked at, while only men could use them in another place – and between specific hours. I thought Europe was supposed to be progressive – can’t it just be all gender identities at all times?
    • Morning ticket or full day – depends on how long you think you might stay and what time you arrive.
    • Massage. Don’t get me started here. Not only are there multiple kinds of massages (aroma, pressure, stone, royal, etc.), there are also different durations (20/50/70 min), and options for how many people are in the room – which I assume (hope!) is for couples massages and not some sort of group massage.
  8. Be sure to check out at least one ruin pub, a concept unique to Budapest. These started in the early aughts, when recent college grads wanted a bar where they could hang out all night. They purchased a dilapidated building in the Jewish District, turned it into a pub for their friends, and just decorated it with thrift store finds. The concept caught on, and there are now hundreds of these around Budapest. We loved the original (Szimpla – check out their photos to get a sense of it), where we counted more than eight distinct bars. We decided it would be an amazing place to host a scavenger hunt because of all the random stuff on the walls.

That’s all from Budapest. On to Vienna next…