And… welcome to Vienna, the next stop on my journey! The train ride from Zurich to Vienna was about 8 hours long, but was also the most comfortable of journeys. Sitting in First class, with hardly anyone around me, I could get up and check out the window views on either side of the coach. You do go through some lovely countryside on that journey. And if you think you’d be bored on such a long haul, well, I was getting things done (like searching my guidebook for a hostel to stay at, oops).
Originally, I was going to head to the small town of Hallstatt for a couple nights before heading to Vienna. But without a pre-arranged place to stay I figured it would do just as well to spend the extra time in the capitol city. Thanks to my flexible Eurail pass I was able to change my mind mid-journey. And it worked out well; with the extra time I was able to get outside Vienna for a day, visiting the UNESCO designated Wachau valley that is pictured above. I picked the best day weather-wise, and enjoyed a sun-drenched boat ride down this historic stretch of the Danube.
My most noteworthy stop in the Wachau region was at Melk Abbey, about an hour outside of Vienna. The fantastically Baroque Abbey has been a place of prayer and scholarship since the 11th century, and commands a prominent spot above the small village of Melk, and overlooking the Danube river. Further downstream from here are still more picturesque villages, castles and ruins, and many small vineyards. Sampling some of the local wine is a must!
While I loved the countryside, the old center of Vienna was a gem. Especially in cooler weather, the amount of museums, cultural events and atmospheric cafes gives you plenty to do indoors. First order of business was to attend an opera at the Vienna State Opera House, in the standing room only parterre! Following the suggestions from my ever trusty Rick Steves guidebook, I went to line up for standing room tickets outside the stage door, about an hour and a half before showtime.
I found a long line already getting longer, but soon enough I was inside, and receiving instructions on standing room only etiquette, and the concept of reserving your spot with a scarf. Apparently this was a very important point that I disregarded, and suffered for it by suffocating through the first half of the show with no view of the stage. After intermission things eased up considerably and I had a perfect view, despite the older Austrian man who would have liked to punch me for infringing on his space, and then daring not to understand his German tirade against me!
Between walking all over the city center and visiting numerous museums and churches, I often needed some refreshment in the form of Viennese cafe culture. The least touristy of the cafes that I visited was Cafe Hawelka, where the waiter claimed he had no menu – so coffee and cake it is! Cake was the well-known Sacher torte, a Viennese type of chocolate sponge cake served with plenty of real whipped cream. Somehow I couldn’t tell when I ate it, but apricot jam is a part of the recipe. Anyway, more cake was to follow, including some yummy raspberry chocolate cake at Cafe Central. Mmm!
The last place to visit in Vienna, and a particular highlight, was the Schonbrunn Palace for the Hapsburg monarchs. Even in the relative chill of October the beauty of the place was fantastic. The grounds are lined with alleys of manicured trees, and some hidden surprises like fountains and gazebos. Overlooking the whole complex is the somewhat useless Gloriette monument, which houses and expensive cafe and little else. It looks down over the hill towards the palace and the city beyond.
After paying for the entrance fee and audio tour, and an exorbitant price for a packaged sandwich and a soda, I was reluctant to pull out my wallet again for the nearby Carriage Museum. But the price was well worth it, and I learned more about the much-loved Austrian Empress Elizabeth or “Sisi” than I had in the entire palace complex, with some shamelessly extravagant royal carriages to boot. This rounded out my 3 days and 4 nights in Vienna, leaving me with the feeling that I would need a lot more time in Vienna to see everything worth seeing. Plans for a second trip??