Friday, January 18, 2019

Vienna: World's Most Livable City of 2018

When I got home from my European adventures last month, I did some research to find out why I enjoyed Vienna. My sister Vicki and I spent a few days there the first week of September, 2018.  We had fun walking everywhere - the retail stores, the gardens, the Habsburg complex, the downtown embassy neighborhood, and the restaurants and dock areas along the Danube River. Back then, I hadn't realized it placed number one last year in the world's most livable cities.

This major European city was one of the "residential" homes of the Habsburg Dynasty's kings and rulers for several centuries. That's why green patina domes dominate the city's old town area.

And the infamous Saint Stephen's Cathedral . . .

. . . through the centuries of architectural upgrades financed by the Habsburg Dynasty, it becomes more and more grand.

Besides the architecture, the various Habsburg princes, kings and rulers could afford to hire artists and musicians to amuse themselves. Vienna was a hotbed for musicians - Mozart, Beethoven, Brahms, Schubert, to name a few - as well as a hotbed for the elite of Europe who preened and attended balls in Vienna all year long.  Imagine arriving in a gold-gilded carriage through this "covered porch" (below photo) to attend a ball . . . with perhaps a 50-piece orchestra on the side while you get out of your carriage?

Architects, painters and construction crews were busy for centuries in Vienna. There's a dazzling array of over-the-top architectural styles because the Habsburg Dynasty could afford it all.

Hundreds of statues in this city, particularly horse statues.

The horse is an important part of Vienna's history and culture. The Habsburg Dynasty needed a strong stocky military horse as well as a carriage horse to impress folks, something noble and grand and preferably all white with an arched neck and high trot. Ta-da! Enter the Lipizzan . . . Vicki and I paid for pricey tickets just to watch their morning exercise at the Spanish Riding School arena.

Ticket prices for their actual performance in this Spanish Riding School arena range from $85 to $235 per person (USD). The seats are in the second and third floor balconies around the entire arena, and during a performance, all the chandeliers and wall scones are lit, giving it an impressive "ballroom" look while the horses dance and leap to classical music.

The $235 seats are probably in this section (below photo) on the second floor balcony.

We got a walk-through their stalls (no photos were allowed but Vicki cheated to get this shot).

The bridle and saddle rooms are ornate, organized and immaculate.

The 30 or so stallions were amazingly well-behaved (no antics, most stallions have a few bad manners, these didn't), and the highly-paid riders who apprentice and maybe get accepted for this position each have a groomsperson who takes care of their horse! When they dismount after practice, a groomsperson walks into the arena to take over (loosen the girth, remove the bridle, halter on, take the horse back to its stall, etc.). It's an orchestrated high-brow type of horsemanship, and very traditional - two women were allowed into this elite group about ten years ago.

The capital city is also home to many embassies.

Was this city always rich and gifted? Click here for a quicky but fascinating read about its' troublesome history in the last one-hundred years. I suspect all the killings, bombings, splintered neighborhoods due to Communism and WWII, the lost of 200,000 Jewish citizens (65,000 sent to gas chambers), and almost losing all their prized Lipizzan horses (click here for an excellent book describing how they were saved with help from the US Army) gave Vienna's citizens pause. Perhaps many of its older citizens remember those troublesome days. Perhaps that's why it's citizens, an international mix of European heritages for centuries, acquired a joie d'vivre attitude, enjoy life in the present.

Enjoying things like restaurants with old charm . . .

Enjoying peaceful outdoor restaurants . . .

Enjoying fresh-cut flowers everywhere, hundreds of flower shops! Vienna folks love their flower displays.

Enjoying fresh-baked goodies (no cellophane packages here) . . . . .

And window shopping! I'm not a window shopper (I hate shopping) but Vicki and I loved walking around this city and stopping to gawk at store window displays. Vienna's style in clothes and home d├ęcor is classic and unique, and the city streets are walkable and fun. We did a lot of "oohing" and "ahhing" at things behind those windows.

The "Anchor Clock" is fun, too.  Click here for a YouTube movie of the dancers with the music.

Their gardens with many sculptures and statues and fountains are fun, too.

The photo below looks a bit boring here, but when I stood there on the steps going up to another pedestrian plaza area, I looked back and saw all those folks totally relaxing on those purple things and strolling, the parked bikes, the guy pushing that wheelchair out the entrance door, the folks sitting at the outdoor restaurant under umbrellas, the fast-food street stand, and that's why I took this photo. It was a view that made me smile and feel good about life in this city. I think this scene is sort of a microcosm of why Vienna is a very livable city; people are relaxing and enjoying the city.

And another observation of its joie d'vivre culture; its tram cars were free. When Vicki and I stepped up into a tram car, there was no place to pay! We looked at others getting on the tram, no one paid! Hmmmm . . . .

Thursday, January 17, 2019

Mini-Side Trip to Slovakia

The Danube River (and the bike path) continues on from Vienna, Austria to Budapest, Hungary . . . and in between those two major cities on the Danube River is Bratislava which is the capital of Slovakia. It too sits on the Danube River.

Vicki my sister had suggested a little side trip to Bratislava, "While we're in Vienna, how about a boat ride and a couple nights at Bratislava?"  Had never heard of Bratislava but I was game.

It was a mostly rural forested one-hour boat ride on the Danube from Vienna to Bratislava. During the last half-hour of the ride, lightning was flashing all around us and it poured rain again (first week of September 2018). Glad we were in the boat instead of on the bike path.

Bratislava has on old town section near the Danube River . . .

and there is "The Castle" on top of the hill, with interesting streets on the way up to the Castle.

Cute little alley just before the Castle.

Slovakia probably has an identity problem with most Americans; few folks understand where it is and how it got there. When Czechoslovakia dissolved itself in 1993 (the Velvet Divorce), two independent countries emerged - the Republic of Czech and Slovakia

Photo above is Michael's Gate (center) located in the old town section. There's a huge history here because of its location (Roman influence from the first to fourth Centuries, Slavs from the fifth to sixth Centuries, Hungary in the tenth Century). There's also a lot of good ethnic restaurants in the old town section, catering to about one million tourists annually.

With much anticipation, we walked up the steep hill to its most famous tourist attraction, the Bratislava Castle. The complex has four gates; below photo is the Vienna Gate built in 1712, the youngest of the four gates.

This history of this palace is interesting for its constantly changing political environment (click here for Wikipedia's story). The gist of the history, impressive and richly decorated for many centuries, important politically, until it became a "white elephant" and kings and rulers pack up and move elsewhere. In 1802 it becomes a military barracks, and then Napoleon's troops bombard it in 1809 and two years later there's an accidental explosion causing a major fire and the entire castle complex is in ruins. The photo sign below shows what the palace complex looked like in its heyday.

But because of Napoleon's cannons and the major fire, most of the castle complex we see today are replicas and repairs done between 1957 and 1968 (younger than me!). For that reason, Vicki and I decide not to pay for tickets to tour the interior. We contented ourselves with walking in the beautiful gardens.

Twas also easy to content ourselves with exploring the city's many restaurants, including one of its most popular ones (Modra Hviezda).

There are certain restaurants that I'll always remember, and this restaurant with the cave downstairs is one of them. I had the best black beer there . . .

and the best zucchini salad.

Later in the old town section, we visited an Asian restaurant. Portions are big in this city, by the way. No skimping like high-priced American restaurants!

We say "Zbohom" to Bratislava at the bus station and catch a cheap bus back to Vienna.

Vienna is still waiting for us!! 

Wednesday, January 16, 2019

Danube River Bike Trail from Passau, Germany to Vienna, Austria - Post 2 of 2

The Danube River Bike Path is like jumping into a Brothers Grimm fairy-tale.

Hansel and Gretel live somewhere here in the forest.

Cottages built of gingerbread, cake and candy.

Another little village along the river . . . I pinched myself, is this for real?
And a ferry that takes my sister Vicki and me across the river to yet another village.

A leisurely stop for ice cream . . . .

The simple pleasures of a bike ride, multiplied by the nth-degree along the beautiful Danube River. One day, we stopped at a monastery for a break and then moved on.

Several riverboats pass us. The Danube River is a favorite European river for cruise vacations

The weather forecasts had been excellent for the upcoming week, but they were very wrong! The clouds get darker and it sprinkles, then it pours. 

The rain brings out many red slugs on the bike path. We’re careful not to run over them.

We sought shelter under a cantilevered roof in front of a grocery store in a small town. Eventually there was a biking crowd; we chatted with a family of five and a young couple that had all been biking for the past week. English fortunately is a common-denominator language.
But we were wasting time and needed to arrive at a farm-stay by sunset, so we pedaled about two hours in the solid rain. We pass by many swans on the river.

The farm is located high up on a steep rainy foggy hill, and we’re tired, wet, cold and walking our bikes uphill. Vicki is trembling with hypothermia. I look up to the misty fog-shrouded farm building and it’s huge, reminding me of the Bates Mansion. I ask Vicki, “So they didn’t reply to your email last week?” Hmm, maybe a hideous old witch is lying in wait, wanting to throw us in a cage and force-feed us, to fatten us up.

We enter the huge wooden double-doors that looks like we're entering a fort. We first meet the old witch’s daughter who’s milking the cows and feeding the lambs and goats. In the corner of my eye, I see an old man slink away quickly and we never saw him again. The old witch, a stout woman, is an obsessive talker, promising a good bed, hot tea and cookies, just like the evil witch in Hansel and Gretel’s adventures!

This farm complex is big enough for three dozen guests; lots of vacant rooms. I wanted to lock the bedroom door but there was no lock! The next morning, we left early and hurriedly, ignoring the old witch (photo below) who repeatedly yelled at the gate “Komm Zuruck!” We'd get breakfast somewhere else.

A forested oxbow in the river was a delightful six miles!

A castle here . . . .

An abbey there . . . . we visited this abbey in Melk.

Everywhere is a fairy-tale setting!

Vicki eventually buys a plastic poncho in Grein.

She’s a happy camper, singing "biking in the rain" instead of "singing in the rain". In the face of adversity, she's a dependable and constant morale booster.

Bill Murray the comedian once advised folks to travel together for three months to get to know each other thoroughly, and that's excellent advice. Vicki and I got to know each other much better. There's a deeper appreciation and respect for each other.

Photo above shows one of our nicer breakfasts at a boutique hotel along the river.

This is a city hall (above) I believe. These little itsy bitsy villages have so much character.

Along the path, we met a grandfather and his grandson who had been traveling for several days. That's Vicki biking behind them.

That harness is right out of a fifteenth century Brothers Grimm fairy-tale! The horses are wearing ear-mitts to keep annoying flies out of their ears. The grandfather's love for tradition and his horses is very evident.

Along the way, I had a flat tire, but a kind young man gave me and my bike a lift to town; twas fixed within an hour or so. Vicki meets me at the repair shop, and we move on.

We tour this complex along the way . . .

We board another ferry . . .

. . . and ride into a village called Spitz with vineyards to the left and to the right.

This is Durnstein . . . a wonderful little town with a castle in ruins up the hill, a place where Richard the Lionheart was imprisoned December 1192, held for a ransom (12 tons of silver) from England. Click here for that interesting story.

There’s the cutest humble-looking restaurant in this little village . . .
It serves a pumpkin soup like no other with heavy cream, pine nuts, and “what is that black stuff” I ask the waitress.

She tells me it is virgin pumpkin seed oil and my research tells me it’s an Austrian, German, Slovenia delicacy. I haven’t been without pumpkin seed oil ever since. I have three bottles of it in my house, as I write this post. It can be used as a salad dressing, a soup flavoring, an ice cream syrup, it’s very versatile. My first bottle of this must-have oil was confiscated by security at Albania’s Tirana airport. I’ll never forget nor forgive them. 

So we put up our bikes at a boutique hotel somewhere and we walk along this path to town to find a restaurant . . .

. . . everything is idyllic, so incredibly charming and ancient. I pinch myself again. 
     And yes, this sign (below photo) is necessary; we passed a couple dead hedgehogs on the path. 

After six days of biking in a fairy-tale land, we arrive back to Vienna safe and sound but alittle sad that our adventure is over.