Friday, June 21, 2013

(Europe trip, post 3 of 14) Sisi Day! Vienna

Some of you know how this whole trip came to be.  For posterity's sake let me explain...

My husband knows how much I love, love, love the musical Elisabeth.
I bought the CD when I was living in Germany (on my mission) and I fell in love with the music, dramatically embellished storyline based on the life of Empress Elisabeth, and the idea of seeing it performed someday.  So for the last 13 years this has been a solid bucket list item for me.  An I-must-do-this-in-my-lifetime kind of thing.  The problem is that it's not a continuously running production, and when it is running it is only in various places in Europe, Japan, or Korea.  It just so turned out that in order to celebrate the 20th anniversary of the musical it was brought back to the city of its birth to be performed (in German, naturally) - in Vienna!  When I found this out toward the end of last year I immediately got online and looked at the cast and told Mark how much I wished that I could transport us there to see it.

Well, for my birthday Mark gave me a folder.  He had taken the time to print out information about the musical production, print fake tickets, and print out information on the Raimund Theater where the production was to be held and put everything in plastic sleeves.
In the first plastic sleeve he had written on the paper, "Let's make it happen!"  He said that he hadn't gone ahead and purchased the tickets because he knew I'd want to have a say in that process, but that he was serious about us going and seeing it while it is in Vienna.  Honestly, just the gesture was enough of a birthday present for me at the time...I didn't think that we could really possibly pull off making it happen.  In fact, I didn't even tell anyone about it for a while because I wasn't sure if we could do it.

Then!  We started talking about combining this trip with our postponed Italy trip that we never did take (more info on that in a minute).  After talking things over and realizing that we had a hefty tax return coming that we could use to finance our whole trip we decided to do it!  For documentation's sake, the background on the Italy portion of things...I have always wanted to go to Italy.  Back in 2003 we had a 26 day trip through Italy planned and booked.  We were going to go right after we both graduated with our bachelors degrees.  The plan was for Mark to hopefully get accepted somewhere for medical school and then to defer his acceptance for a year while we just worked, saved money, and had a baby (because it's that simple, right?).  Anyway, when Mark returned from some of his interviews he told me that he was really feeling like we should cancel the trip and have him start school right away.  I was really sad.  Hotels and flights were booked.  A hot air balloon ride in Siena was planned on our anniversary.  A room with a balcony/view in the Cinque Terre was arranged in an old Italian woman's home.  We had cooking classes booked in Tuscany, a trullo home booked to stay in in southern Italy, and on and on...I worried that since we were ready to start having kids that we would never take the trip if we put it off.  We committed to take a more condensed version of the trip for our 10th anniversary, but as timing would have it - a few days before our 10th anniversary we were blessed with something even better - baby Max.

With a better understanding of how difficult it is to get away (money, time, child care) - we realized that if we were going to take this Italy trip before our retirement that we should probably combine it with the trip to Austria to see the musical.  And that is how this fantastic 2 week trip was born!  And it gives you some idea of how important this day of the trip was for me (the day we saw the musical)!

I titled this day of our trip "Sisi Day" because Sisi was Emperess Elisabeth's nickname.
The plan was to visit both palaces that she resided in as the empress (Schönbrunn and Hofburg), and then cap off the day with the musical and dinner.  We ended up using up most of the day at the first palace - Schloss Schönbrunn (the royal family's summer home), so we bumped Hofburg to the following day.  So here is a summary of our day...

To kick off Sisi day we started with a delicious breakfast in the breakfast room (on the same floor as our room).
We enjoyed delicious breads, cheeses, veggies, yogurt (so much better than ours in the states), juice and hot cocoa.  I'm tellin' you I could get used to having hot cocoa with breakfast!

Then we jumped on the metro and headed to the palace!  It was easy to get to, and although there wasn't really a line (the rain likely scared people away from a site you want to spent a lot of time outdoors) - we had already purchased the 'Sisi Ticket' allowing us to skip the line.  If we had been there on a sunny day in high tourist season that would have been a commodity, for us it was just a convenience.  Here are the entry gates to the palace.

The palace boasting its "Vienna yellow" or "Maria Theresa yellow".

And one with Mark in it...

We enjoyed the audio-guided tour through the palace explaining the royal apartments.  With our ticket we were able to view all 40 of the rooms on display (there are 1,441 rooms total at the palace).  Having spent some time reading up on the Habsburg empire, I think being there really came to life for me.  Ironically, I went there with my dad 13 years ago too and I loved it, but didn't really know what I was looking at or who the royalty were that had lived there.  I have to say that as we learned about all that Maria Theresa did to implement her style on the palace I had to imagine what it would be like to rule such an empire (for 40 years!) while also bearing a whopping 16 children and overseeing major redecorating of a "home" that size!  Yes, I realize there were servants, but she still carried and bore those children whilst the weight of an empire rested on her shoulders.  As a side-note: one those 16 children was Marie Antoinette (yes, the one who lost her head in France), and two others became Holy Roman emperors.

To give some very basic background - in 1278 the Habsburg family came to rule in Austria (they actually stem from Switzerland).  They became more prominent in Europe over years and expanded their rule through marriages and treaties (better than wars and destruction, I say).  They ruled what we now call the Austrian monarchy, followed by Austrian Empire, and then the Astro-Hungarian Empire.  I didn't realize until recently how far reaching their empire was.  I find myself fascinated with learning about this royal family and (perhaps being a woman myself) how their politics were strengthened by marrying off their daughters.  Here is a photo of Sisi and Franz Joseph, just because I think it's cool to see actual photos.
Sisi was thought to be one of the very most beautiful women of her time.  She maintained a lengthy beauty regimen and spent hours each day on her ankle length hair - she once called herself a "slave to my hair".  Through diet and exercise (and corset of course) maintained her tiny 19 inch waist.  In her dressing room in Schönbrunn we saw the exercise bars she had installed and used daily, much to the disdain of other court members.  She also rode horses and hiked vigorously.  Sisi used her beauty for influence (especially over her adoring husband), and also took an intensely personal interest in Hungary for which she advocated - much to the chagrin of her mother in law.  After the Astro-Hungarian compromise, Elisabeth and Franz Joseph were crowned queen and king of Hungary.  Here is a photo of Elisabeth in her coronation gown:

So, Schloss Schönbrunn became the place where these royals spent their summers.  Besides the huge, lavish Rococo palace (the only palace in Europe that can rival Versailles, as was its goal) it also has huge expanses of gardens.  We were lucky enough to enjoy a break in the rain while we explored just a portion of the outdoor space at Schönbrunn.  While you pay for a tour of the palace, the gardens are free and open to the public - they have been since 1779 as part of Maria Theresa's reform policy.  My pictures don't do it justice, but here are a few anyway.

A garden view with the palace behind us.  At the top of the hill is the Gloriette - a decorative monument glorifying some Austrian military victory.

The Neptune Fountain was completed in 1780 just before the death of Empress Maria Theresa.

Mark and I walked up the zigzag path to the Gloriette at the top of the hill.
A close-up of the top of the Gloriette.

Here we are with a view of the palace in the background.

From all the way up on the Gloriette.  I should mention that there are still acres of grounds on the other side beyond that monument as well.

I specifically remembered this fountain with it's lily pads from my previous visit with my dad.  We sought it out and found it, and that was a lot of fun for me to see it again.

It was interesting to watch workers cut the foliage to it's destined shape.

One last photo as we left the palace...

We fell back on our Rick Steve's book for a lunch suggestion, and we went with Zu den Drei Hacken.  We had been spoiled with how affordable the previous night's meal was, and so we were a bit disappointed that this one was a little bit more expensive (especially for lunch), but it turned out pretty well.  Here was the view out the window from our table.

I don't remember what it was that I ordered, but it had grilled potato, meat, and onion (topped with an egg obviously) and was served with cold kraut.

Mark ordered a Lammwurst with potato salad and kraut.  We got a giggle out of the name of the mustard.  Yes, we realize that estrogen has an 'e' toward the end of the word, not an 'o'...but it still seemed like a strange name for a condiment.

After lunch we headed back at the hotel to shower and primp getting ready for our big night at the theater!  Here are Mark and I with our tickets as we left our hotel.  We took the metro and walked.

We made it to Raimund Theater!

We couldn't take pictures inside, so here is one just as we headed in the doors!

Regarding the musical Elisabeth (the most successful German-language musical of all time I must add)...the main protagonists are Emperor Franz Josef and his wife Elisabeth.  Other main characters include Sophie who is Franz Joseph's domineering mother (described as "the only man in the court"), Rudolf (Franz Joseph and Elisabeth's son), and Luigi Lucheni - Elisabeth's assassin.  In the musical there is also a central figure 'Der Tod' (death) that falls in love with Elisabeth and lures and temps.

Sisi was a free spirited child born and raised in Bavaria.  She loved writing poetry, riding horses, and was quite introverted, though viewed as charming.  She was married at 16 years old and didn't adapt well to the rigors of court etiquette and the strong hand of her mother in law (who went as far as to take her children from her after birth to raise them).  Elisabeth becomes depressed after the death of her first daughter and despondent after her son commits suicide.  For the rest of Sisi's life she wears only black.  Black pearls, lace, fan and all.
These events (in addition to her murder) combined with her already interesting personality come together to present a historical figure who is perfect for molding into a character in the musical that is passionate and intriguing.  I find myself empathizing with and relating to her, disdaining her, and wishing to re-write her tragic life story all within the duration of the musical.  I loved seeing the choreography, costumes, and stage-work.  Plus seeing the full musical filled in some of the gaps left open by just listening to it. I thought this cast did a fantastic job and I found myself like a groupie waiting outside after everyone left hoping that I might get a peek at one of them and maybe get an autograph is I was lucky (I wasn't).

After I agreed that we really were done at the theater we walked to a restaurant where I'd made reservations.  This was a place I came across on my own by searching proximity on google maps and then pulling up menus.  I knew it was a shot in the dark, but it turned out great!  It was called The Mill.

Excellent!  I would absolutely go back again.  The place had a fun, young vibe about it.  The servers were all friendly, young, and laid back.  The air in the restaurant was not at all pretentious, yet the food was awesome.  The power even went out and the servers just joked around and assured us that it would be fine (and it was - the power came back on), in the meantime we enjoyed the candle-lit ambiance.  I had been hoping for a warm summer night so we could enjoy their garden, but it obviously wasn't that - so if we are ever in Vienna in the summertime that will be on my list of things to do.

One random thing that was weird was the bathroom.  Mark used it and it had a full length, clear glass window right by the toilet (with no window covering) that faced an ally.  Also the door to the toilet didn't lock.  The lack of privacy was a bit unnerving, but we got a good chuckle out of it.  Oh, and no menus in English and only one server that spoke some English - this wasn't a problem for us, but with it having a menu with such gourmet descriptions we did need some help with some of the words I wasn't familiar with.  I thought that was kind of fun though.

Mark ordered one of their steaks with a strawberry glaze, and requested a side of fresh horseradish which they were happy to oblige.

They had a pretty extensive "foodie" sounding menu that included lots of non-meat dishes, so I opted to try one of those and went with a sweet potato with asparagus.  I don't remember what else it had on it, but I remember that it sounded fancy and tasted delicious.

For dessert we got their sampler plate and it was divine.  Honestly.  It included an apricot dumpling, vanilla tart, mousse, and a sweet pancake.  I would go back just for that dessert plate...and not get it to share next time!

Dinner was the perfect ending to a perfect evening...which capped off a fabulous day!  And what made it so much better was that Mark actually really enjoyed it all too.  He told me that he was originally happy to accompany me to the musical because he knew that would be important to me, but that he was surprised that he ended up really enjoying it himself.  And he was as delighted with the dinner as I was also.   We enjoyed talking about the musical by candle light over this tasty dinner together, and I felt so grateful to have a husband that made a dream like this of mine come true for me.

Thursday, June 20, 2013

(Europe trip, post 2 of 14) Salzburg, flooding, drive to Vienna

June 3, 2013

We woke up to the beautiful nearby church bells...ok, we woke up to our alarm, but we enjoyed opening our window and enjoying church bells that morning too.  Speaking of which here were the views out our window.  The fortress was directly above us - it's one of the oldest and best preserved medieval castles in Europe.

When looking out our window to the left we could see Stift Nonnberg (Nonnberg Abby) peeking over the buildings.  A woman who was a postulant at this abby (she later became Maria von Trapp) inspired the movie and musical The Sound of Music.  Of course it was here that the nuns in the movie sang the song "Maria".

If we come back to Salzburg I would likely stay at this same hotel again, and I would probably request the same room number just for the views.  I really loved just laying on our bed and being able to see that majestic fortress.

And while we're looking at views from the are a couple shots of the hotel itself.  You can spot me in the window to get an idea of where our room was located.

Then we headed down to the breakfast area to enjoy our delicious breakfast!

Mark and I felt like kids in a candy shop with all the tasty cheeses and breads!  I love that I have a husband who shares my enthusiasm for those things!  We also enjoyed the veggies and even hot breakfast meat and eggs.  Everything tasted so delicious and it was the perfect way to start our day.

If it hadn't been such cold weather we could have even enjoyed our breakfast outside on their lovely patio...

Just a random shot of the hallways (showing how "cute" the hotel is) as we walked down to the front desk...
After breakfast we asked the girl at the front desk some questions and she went way above and beyond helping us make phone calls and look up information on road closures.  There was severe flooding going on in areas of Austria (as well as Germany and the Czech republic).  All routes to Munich were closed and some guests were being forced to extend their stays since they couldn't get to the airport.  Salzburg (already a very rainy city due to its location at the rim of the Alps) received the entire month's average of rain in just the first two days of June.  Rivers were already full from a season of heavy spring rain, and that storm system sent the waters over many banks.  In addition to entire towns being evacuated and flooded, major roadways and train routes for washed out.  Being in the area affected, we were unable to drive to Hallstatt, which was a HUGE disappointment for me.  I have wanted to take Mark back there ever since I was there 13 years earlier - it has got to be one of the most beautiful places on earth and I was so sad for Mark to not get to see it.

Nonetheless, the freeway heading east (toward Vienna) was open - so we made the 20-30 minute walk to the Hertz car rental location.  Here is Mark as we crossed the Salzach River on our walk to pick up our car.   Locals said they don't ever remember the river being so high or fast...

The river in both directions...

And here is a look across the river back at old town Salzburg with its fortress...

I didn't get a better picture than this, but I loved the cool trees lining the river.

We got to walk through the Mirabell Gardens, which for hundreds of years were private gardens for the palace, but were opened to the public in 1854 by Emperor Franz Joseph (who I will explain much more about once we arrive in Vienna!).  The gardens were lovely and I wish we hadn't needed to rush through them.  Oh - and the scene where Maria and the kids (in Sound of Music) sing the "Do Re Mi" song is filmed here.

Once we arrived at Hertz we were pleased to find out that with the increase in demand on car rentals (with trains not being accessible) our pre-paid rental got bumped up to a free upgrade.  Woot woot!  Finally we catch a break and it ends up being a big one for us.

Not only was the Mercedes much nicer than the economy car that we had paid to rent, but it included a built in GPS that interfaced with local traffic updates.  Due to the weather and increased traffic there were multiple car accidents, some including fatalities, that had traffic at standstills of up to 3 hours each.  Each time we neared one the radio would automatically click on with the traffic update for us to hear and "she" (the GPS) would automatically take us on a detour route through small (and scenic I may add) side-roads.  We would have really struggled to have come up with those routes ourselves, let alone to have been able to have executed them on our own.  It was a huge time (and stress) saver to have that option, and I will seriously consider paying for the upgrade upfront next time to have that convenience on hand.

However!  I digress!  Before we hit the road, we did take the car back to the center of town, park it in our hotel's parking (across the street and included as I previously mentioned) and we saw a little bit of Salzburg on foot before we had to check out and start our travels.

Luckily (with our limited time) walking out of our hotel we were already right in the middle of Altstadt Salzburg.  We could meander the quaint brick and cobblestone streets that Mozart did as a boy (this being his birthplace), walk through St. Peter's cemetery and admire the grandure of Festung Hohensalzburg (literally translated as high Salzburg fortress).

Here are some photos taken from Residenzplatz - the square right in the center of the city.  If it looks vaguely familiar and you've never been there before, you may remember a scene in the Sound of Music movie where Maria crosses through there past the fountain (while on a bus from the convent to the Trapp villa) singing "I have confidence in me".  The square was built in 1587 and in the center of the square sits Residenzbrunnen - one of largest boroque fountains in Middle Europe.  It is made of marble and was completed in 1661.  Here are a couple pictures of that fountain:

Mark in the Residenzplatz with the Salzburg Cathedral behind him.

Here is a pictures taken from Residenzplatz with the Neue Residenz (clock tower on the top) on the left and the Salzburg Cathedral on the right, and the fortress between them in the background.

Close up of the fortress looming above us.

Mozart statue in the Residenzplatz.

This old Austrian woman saw me getting ready to take a picture of a row of parked bikes as she approached (one was hers), so I asked if I could photograph her and she was thrilled.  We went on the chat for about 5 minutes or so and she was such an interesting character.  I don't remember exactly what we talked about except that part of it was about the green party - interesting to jump right into talking politics with a stranger, but I guess I did the same thing except with religion when I was on my mission.  It felt good to use my German too.

We didn't have time to eat there (grabbed a sandwich for the road at a supermarket), but we did enjoy a brief break in the rain while we quickly explored old town Salzburg - and there were hardly any other tourists out it seemed.   I hope we get to come back and enjoy Salzburg a little longer someday.  You know a town is quaint when even their pharmacy is cute.

I wish I knew anything about this fountain, except that I thought it was beautiful with the weeping trees and view of the fortress behind it...

You can take a cable car up to the fortress, but we were very short on time so we just walked part way up on our own, enjoyed the views and walked back down.  Here is Mark with a view of Stift Sankt Peter (St. Peter's Abby) in the background.  This benedictine abby was founded in 696 and is one of the oldest, if not the oldest, in the German speaking area.

This is the Salzburger Dom (Salzburg Cathedral).  It was built in 774, rebuilt in 1181 because of a fire, and then rebuilt in boroque style in the 17th century.  As a side note - it still contains the font where Mozart was baptized. 

These are pictures from the beautiful Petersfriedhof (St. Peter's Cemetery).  Yes, it is recognizable from the scene in Sound of Music where they are hiding from the pursuit of the Nazis.  It really is a lovely, well kept cemetery that dates back to 700 AD and has a headstone from 1288.  Mozart's older sister (Nannerl) is buried here, as well as lots of other people whose ancestors are willing to care for the grave site and pay for it every 10 years.  Plots are not purchased, but rather rented and cared for by the deceased's family.  If they don't pay or care for the site then the body is removed.

A view of the fortress from the cemetery.

On our walk back to our hotel to get our bags we passed this statue near the cathedral and it stopped us in our tracks.  It is Die Pieta, Coat of Peace - a bronze sculpture by Anna Chromy.  After coming home I read that it is also called the Cloak of Conscience.  She has since created one that is 15 feet high from a slab of white carrera marble - that you can walk inside.

After grabbing our bags we had to get going on our drive eastward.  I should mention that beautifully preserved Altstadt (old town) Salzburg is a restricted driving zone and you can only get in and out with a pass code that is good for a short period of time.  We got one from the hotel when bringing our car in, and the hotel had to give us a different one when leaving so that the large metal barricades would drop down into the ground and let us pass.  Very different than anything I've seen here in the states, but practical.

Our drive was rainy, but scenic.  We enjoyed putting in my CD of Elisabeth (the musical) and explaining to Mark what was happening in each act to prep him for the performance the next evening!  That was a lot of fun.  We did also pull over at one unintended pit-stop to take a couple quick pictures.

And a quick shot of Mark with our rental car.

We must have been a bit of a silly mood while driving because we got a kick out of the big "Gute Fahrt" signs we saw along the freeway, and wished we could get a picture of one to post on my brother Chris' facebook page.  This isn't the sign, but it's as close as I can get.  Chris...this one's for you:
So...I mentioned earlier that we were so grateful to have the GPS that steered us around the traffic accidents (huge time saver), however we also found out that it diverted us from Mauthausen.  There is a concentration camp there that we planned on stopping at during our drive between Salzburg and Vienna.  I was disappointed to not be able to stop there, and I was particularly frustrated for Mark to not be able to go since I think everyone should visit one at some point in their life (I have visited on in Germany).  So that was yet another diversion from our itinerary.

Our next stop was the beautiful town and abby of Melk.  We exited the freeway and headed toward the town.  As we rounded the bend in the road before the city center we saw lots of police cars with lights and barricades.  We were anticipating seeing a car accident, not what we saw instead...horrible flooding. (Scroll down on the previous link to see pictures of Melk - I believe they are the 9th and 10th photos taken on the day we were there).  We turned around and as we headed back I snapped a couple of pictures very quickly.  In the second one you can see the Melk abby in the background.

I took this one out the car window while we were driving across the bridge, but you can kind of see how extensive the flooding was (how high up it comes to the town's buildings).  There were helicopters flying overhead, I'm assuming news stations taking footage and photos of the horrific damaging floods.  Terrible anytime, and double tragic when it's an old historic place like this that can't be replaced by just building something new.

The abby itself was built way up on a hill and was unaffected so we drove up to it to take a peek from outside.  All of these diversions and now seeing this flooding made us feel anxious about getting back on the road to make it to Vienna in time to turn in our car (we had no arrangements for anywhere to park the car that night and needed to return it before their rental office closed).  So!  Amidst everything I didn't even get a nice picture of the beautiful abby - just this one.

And one of Mark taking a leak European style.  At least he took the time to find a bush a little ways off the road (I couldn't help it, and you can't see anything)...

And while I was waiting for Mark I couldn't help but snap this picture of the pretty poppies while I waited in the car.  They didn't seem bothered by the rain at all.

So, none of our planned stops (Hallstatt, Mauthausen, or Melk) for our roadtrip happened that day, but it was kind of hard to feel too sorry for ourselves considering the dire circumstances of the people living in these areas.  We did manage to get the car returned just as the Hertz office was closing (whew) and I tried not to be too sad that I accidentally left my Elisabeth CD in the car (we checked with them the next day and they didn't have it).

The only thing to write about from the rest of our evening was checking into our hotel in Vienna and dinner!  We stayed at Hotel Pension Suzanne right next to the famous Vienna Opera house.  Hotels right in the center of town there are very expensive and I feel like we hit the jackpot with this place.  If you are looking for something with impressive curb appeal or a lobby with prestige, this isn't it, but it was just what we were looking for.

The rooms were clean, well appointed, breakfast was fantastic, and as mentioned the location phenomenal.  The staff was helpful giving dining suggestions,directions that we needed, and holding our luggage after check out until we were ready to depart Vienna.  The website boasts of authentic antiques furnishing their hotel (including a couch of Freud's, a bench of Klimpt's, and a chair of Mahler's)...and I meant to have staff point those out to me and explain the furniture in our room, but shamefully I never did.  I will say that I felt that it was tastefully done and I felt it "fit" the city that we were in perfectly.  Here are just a few pictures of our room.

We stayed in room #11.

I liked how big the windows were and we were surprised how large and quiet the room was (and we appreciated the room being void of any smell of smoke).  Here is the view out our window to the left (toward the Opera), and then to the right...

The bathroom was good sized also and included a hair dryer which I appreciated.  The only complaint I had was that the bathtub/shower was raised up quite high so it could be precarious getting out of it, especially with wet feet on tile.  I stumbled once and caught myself, but it really could be a problem for an older person.

It was at this point, Monday evening (so Monday morning in Utah), that we were finally able to connect with someone at the credit union who mentioned that ATM's abroad withdraw money from savings (not checking, to where we had transferred all of our money) - unless they specify otherwise.  Wahoo!  That was an easy fix to transfer money back to savings and run across the street to an ATM.  Problem solved, and after a couple days of sweating having no cash, we were good to go.  I should mention that in our 2 weeks using ATMs in Europe, every single one withdrew from savings - something I wish I had known sooner!!

Now that we had cash in hand we walked to somewhere close suggested by our hotelier.  I wanted to eat at a Gasthaus for a traditional no-fuss meal.  He steered us right and sent us to Gasthaus Reinthaler.  It was the authentic experience that I was looking for - we were the only English speakers in the place, the menu was only in German, and the waiter spoke hardly any English too (mind you, this is what I wanted so it was a good thing).  Of course it does help that I speak German too.

I ordered schnitzel and a plate of mixed salads. 

Mark had wurst, kraut, and potatoes.

The food was simple and delicious.  We shared a table with a single, older Austrian man who requested his meal in courses and took his time eating it and reading a newspaper (not talking much).  They accepted cash only (glad we had it) and after we were done eating we were done for the night and we walked back to our hotel.