Osterreich: Wien und Hallstatt

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For you non-German speakers (erm, like me) that’s “Austria: Vienna and Hallstatt.” The Broseph and I arrived in Vienna last Tuesday after a pretty easy journey from New York, despite almost missing our flight! After finding our hostel (http://www.hostelruthensteiner.com/) we cleaned up and set out to find some lunch and hike around the city a bit.

Vienna has this great way of sort of springing sights on you. You’re walking around thinking, this is nice, very Euro, nice buildings and whatnot, and then all of a sudden you walk around a corner and past some trees and see some giant palace or something. It’s truly amazing how you just stumble upon these giant edifices- we just sort of came across the place where Hitler told 250,000 people that Austria was part of the Third Reich in 1938, and it’s not a small place! My favorite building was the city hall, or the ‘rathaus’, a huge gothic (I think?) monstrosity that goes on for a few blocks. With several huge Austrian flags hanging from it, it looks very grand and imposing. (I’m afraid I haven’t yet found a location to plug my camera in and get some pictures up – almost everything I write about will be better once those are in here. Hopefully soon.)

Anyway, after that we came across the cathedral, also lovely. We were feeling a bit tired though, so we decided to go and sit in the park opposite. Vienna is very pro just sitting and taking life in (there are literally chairs everywhere), and there were huge comfy deckchairs in the park that were free for anyone to use. It was glorious, just chilling there in the sun, watching the people and soaking in the Euro-ness.

After a bit more walking about we went back to the hostel for some happy hour cheap beers and then we grabbed some traditional dinner – sausage, sauerkraut and a cube of hash browns – before crashing out after our long journey.

The next day we went back to some of the buildings we’d seen to take them in with fresh eyes, and grab a coffee at a sidewalk cafe. After that we took the tram to the big cemetery in Vienna where lots of famous people like Beethoven and Brahms are buried. There’s also a lovely big church right in the middle which was nice to look around. We did suddenly find ourselves exhausted however after a lot of walking, so we went back to the hostel for a nap.

After that we met some of our roommates – Courtney from Vancouver and Chris who’s from England but works for Disney Cruise Lines out of Orlando. They were lovely and gave us all sorts of good travel tips, especially as Courtney had just come from some places we’re going (like Budapest, where I am now and am staying in the hostel she recommended). We went to happy hour with them, and there we met a lot of other people – more from Canada, some from Ireland and one from Santa Cruz in Cali! We nabbed some pizza for supper at a local restaurant before hitting the sack again.

On Thursday we took the subway out to Schonbrunn Palace, where the royal Hapsburg family lived and ruled Austria from 1282-1918. The palace is fantastic – a Austrian Versailles – and the grounds are spectacular. It was drizzling a bit, but we still did a good old walk and during a real downpour hid under some thick trees and ate our lunch (super budget bread and cheese from the local ‘Penny Markt’). When the rain stopped, we did the maze and the labryinth and played all these silly games they had in there – kaleidoscope mirrors and bouncing board thingies. We seriously might have been having more fun than the kids, who were looking at the two Americans bouncing around like we were loony.

After the palace we went back into the city and did a bit of shopping – “Joe” (that’s the Broseph – it’s how he introduces himself now, a college thing. At 6’2″ish, with a new buzz cut and aviators, it’s like I have a bodyguard) needed some new t-shirts for ‘going out’, so we hit up an H&M and whatnot. Then we did some laundry and stuff at the hostel and got some salad for dinner from the Penny Markt and made it in the hostel kitchen. After that everyone got together at the bar for happy hour where we met Jason from Australia, Chris from Australia but living in Slovenia, Tara from Chicago and Nick from London.

We all went out together to the ‘Tanzcafe Jenseits’ (which means ‘Dance cafe other side’), which used to be a brothel. It was all red velvet with chaise lounges everywhere. There was no dancing to be had though, so we went back towards the hostel where we went to the Traveler’s Bar. It was full of, guess what, travelers! Packed to the gills with hammered Brits, Aussies, Americans, you name it. I felt like I was in college. Which was kind of great.

Friday we packed up to head out of Vienna and go to a lake town in Austria called Hallstatt. Several years ago, I used to load up my computer with awesome travel photos as my screensaver. One photo I particularly loved was of this little fairytale town, and I promised myself I would get there one day. Well, I kept that promise! It took us about four hours on the train. I was SO excited and had SUCH high expectations, I was almost nervous I’d be let down.

The train pulled in, and we got off at a teeny tiny deserted station. We couldn’t see the town at all. We followed the only path – which was more like a hiking trail – and at the end was a little ferry to take us across the lake and across the lake…there it was! Hallstatt!!! I actually got quite emotional because I had been so committed to this place I know barely anything about. The ferry ride was fewer than ten minutes, and we got off and it seriously was everything I’d dreamed of! Tiny little houses built into the side of a mountain, little window boxes full of flowers, windy narrow streets everywhere, the church spires I’d seen in the picture…

We ran to our hostel (very basic sort of place, also a restaurant so the proprietor checked us in from behind the bar) and dumped our stuff. It was getting to be dinner time, so we found a fabulous little lakeside restaurant where we had a big slap-up meal. Then we walked along the water, and literally sat by the lake and watched ducks for about an hour. I had read it was all about nature in Hallstatt, and it’s so true. Then we grabbed a drink at our hostel – about 10 old Austrian dudes were there smoking away and shouting at each other as they put the world to rights, which appeared to be the extent of the raging nightlife in Hallstatt.

We had read when we arrived that the hostel served breakfast from 8-9:30, so we got up bright and early to eat. However, the place was deserted and there was no breakfast to be had. We walked over to another hotel and asked if we could get breakfast there. It was a buffet, which was great because we wrapped half of it up and stuffed it in our backpacks for lunch! Afterwards, we went on a walk around the lake. It took us about an hour to get to another cute town called Obertrau. We moseyed around there for a while, and then walked back and ate our pilfered lunch in the town square, or Marktplatz. Then we walked to the other end of the town (took us about 30 seconds) and went BACK to the Marktplatz for a coffee, as we had by now seen everything Hallstatt had to offer…or so we thought.

We had heard rumors of a bone chapel, so we hiked back up the windy roads to the Catholic church to investigate. We had missed it before, but there was indeed a small chapel. We paid our way in, and inside was one of the looniest things I’ve ever seen (I have a feeling I’ll say a lot in the coming months, but it was pretty crazy!). This small chapel was packed with skulls, decorated with the names of the people whose bodies they’d once inhabited and their years of birth and death. There are 1200 skulls to be exact, and were put in there to make more room in the tiny graveyard in Hallstatt (if it’s not yet clear, this place is teensy weensy!). When I have more time and have put the photos up to give some context here, I’ll share some more info I have on the history of this place. After the bone chapel we went back down to a park by the lake and watched swans and put our feet in the water (freezing!). We had dinner at our hostel as it was pouring and way too wet to find anywhere new.

Sunday morning (today) we got up and got ready to head to Budapest. We had about eight hours of trains ahead of us, so we pilfered some more buffet breakfast for lunch. We took the ferry back over to the train station and I watched my beloved Hallstatt shrink away. I think my bro said it the best: “I’m really digging this Austro-Bavarian cuteness.” Tru dat. I will certainly be back.

Now we’re safe and sound in Budapest, with help from the buffet hotel’s receptionist who helped book our tickets for us because there was no Internet around and our hostel guy was useless. She (Adela, I think) was seriously the kindest, nicest person ever. She even picked up our tickets for us, and we weren’t even staying there. Therefore, the least I can do is recommend that everyone stay at the Hotel Gruner Baum in Hallstatt- its buffet breakfast is very nice.

Anyway, we got to Budapest late in the evening and it’s pouring, so we haven’t done much except dash across the road from our hostel to get some dinner – amazing hummus and falafel. We’re here for four nights and on Thursday go to Croatia. I’ll update more as soon as I can.

Auf Wiedersehen!

Susie Hughes
Susie Hughes is a UK transplant to the United States, moving from London to Connecticut as a teenager. For five years she worked in technology public relations in San Francisco, quietly putting money away into "The Travel Fund". In May 2010, Susie left San Francisco to realize a lifelong dream of an extended trip around the world - seven months visiting more than 20 countries on four continents.
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