Austria had been my dream destination since quite sometime(when I helped my parents plan out their Europe itinerary a few years back), and this seemed to be the perfect opportunity. I was already done with an international trip for the year(Turkey), I had initially planned to just go to Halstatt and Salzburg after Graz and then come back. But then a few family members decided to join,and then we extended the trip to include Prague and Vienna and then they(family) couldn’t make it. Nevertheless I decided to go for it alone, and I am happy I did the entire trip .
Places covered: I spent about 5 days in Graz, where I was working. From there I went to Salzburg, where I based myself to explore the Lake district Salzkammergut( Gosausee and Halstatt) and South East Germany( Munich and Berchtesgaden), all of these were easy day trips. Then I went to Prague,stayed for a couple of days, proceeding to Vienna where I spent another 2 days, 1 of which was spent in the UNESCO Heritage site Wachau Valley ( Krems, Durstein,Melk).
Now here we go..
Graz: I reached Graz in the evening after a beautiful train ride from Vienna through the mountains. Jetlag had taken it’s toll and I really needed a 12 hour sleep when I go there. I stayed at the A&O Hotel close to the Hauptbahnhof, a very convenient location, and right in front of a tram station.
On the first morning, I went for a breakfast with a friend( who lives close to Graz) . She took me to Sucgar cafe in the old city, very close to the Rathaus. The weather had suddenly turned grey and rainy(and this lasted throughout my trip) , so it felt nice to be tucked inside a warm cafe. Breakfast was very Austrian, muesli with curd and fruits.
The next 4 days were spent at my workplace, but I made it a point to utilize every evening in the town. The old town was extremely interesting, the buildings were quite different than say Munich or Vienna( which I saw later). The views from the top of the Schlossberg were quite phenomenal, the modern architecture too was noteworthy, the ship-river restaurant in the river was quite a piece of work(in a positive sense). The gray,rainy weather made it kind of nice, it brought out all the colors. The squares were always filled with activity, and there was plenty of falafel, gelato and (free, advertising) “bio milk” was to be had. The daily farmer’s markets close to where I was working were great too. And surprisingly, Graz wasn’t too expensive, 1.2 EU for a gelato, 2.5 EU for a falafel, bakeries and cafes were quite reasonable too. The farmers market was a hit!! There were so many varieties of berries, plus figs, plums, grapes.
I got an opportunity to go the Rathaus(the City Parliament) of Graz, now that was quite something. It had to be grand(it’s the City Hall afterall), plus the views of the Rathaus Square were brilliant from the top. I also went with my hosts to a castle restaurant, Schloss Seggau about 40 minutes away from Graz. The castle’s on the top of a hill with gppd views of the countryside and villages and lakes around. You can even see Slovenia from here. The wine cellar was totally overwhelming, I really had no idea that a wine cellar could look that good, I doubt if many places would be able to beat this one in terms of atmosphere, the lighting, seating, the wine barrels were all very well arranged.
So the stay in Graz was a good one, Graz was a very neat, fine city, exactly what you would expect from a European city. And it’s no tourist city, I am really glad I got an opportunity to go to Graz, which probably I would’ve otherwise skipped.
Now the real stuff begins. After spending a good 5 days in Graz, I set on to travel all by myself. I had a booked a Graz-Salzburg train ticket about 10-15 days in advance for 19 EU, which was a steal. The train journey was one of my favorite experiences in the trip. The journey was through some of the lower Alps of Austria, lush greenery and beautiful houses everywhere, and the clouds too had come down making the landscape even more spectacular.
Arrived at Salzburg, had a slightly tough time getting to my hotel, Yoho International Hostel even though I had maps. Checked in, had lunch at Indigo Nation. Pretty good fusion food, had a couscous with vegetables(5.5 EU) and a Noddles with Basil Tomaten sauce(5.5 again), was really filling. Walked upto the Kapuzinerberg and was greeted to the amazing views of the castle and the Nonnberg abbey. The paths in the forests made for a refreshing walk.
The old town was really pretty, all the cathedrals were impressive(the Salzburg Dom, St. Franziskan and St.PEter’s) and they were SO different from each other. Took up the funicular to the castle, HohenSalzburg(11 EU two way, but I could have done with a one way ticket). By this time, rain had a whole new dimension, the whole landscape had been washed by the rains, it looked so fresh and green. The views were brilliant and commanding from the top. It was a litle like the “perfect castle” I had imagined, but I just wished the castle would have been a bit bigger.
I took the road upto the Modern Art museum which was interesting, most notably the imposing walls of the Monchesberg. The views of the castle and the town left me obviously spell bound. Walked back to the town(through the tunnel). The old town is a delight in the evenings, all lit up, the church bells ringing for a long time, a few musicians playing melodious tunes, and best part was having the Sachertorte at the Cafe Tomaselli, the chocolate + apricot flavor worked for me. The town was so deserted and cold even in Sepember, it felt as if it was almost winter. Had dinner at Cafe Costa( 8 EU for a large freshly made pizza). Rushed to the Mirabell Hall for the concert( had bought a ticket for 31 EU). The concert was soothing after a long day, I have to say that I was new to western classical music, and it definitely was an enriching experience(although it was so melodious that I dozed off a couple of times). So ended my 1st day in Salzburg.
The Salzkammergut region had been high on priority list since I had helped my parents their Europe trip a few years back. So I set off for Gosausee. Took the bus to Bad Ischl(bought a weekly pass for 36EU), then took another one to Gosausee(12 EU for a return ticket), the total journey was a little more than 3 hours. The Bad Ischl to Gosausee journey was pretty interesting, and I wish I could have walked a little, there were rocky mountains all over, and a gushing river and plenty of waterfalls everywhere. And I was alone in the bus for most of the time!!
The first sight of the Gosausee was very impressive, although there were no snow peaks visible, the low clouds and fresh snowfall was breathtaking. The walk around the lake was invigorating, the forest was brilliant and the lake was clean and green. Had a quick lunch at the Gasthof Gosausee, a kaiserschmarrn and a really good tomato soup. Took the bus to the Gosau village, got down somewhere in between. I would suggest getting down near the brook, and making the long walk(maybe 5 km) towards the church, I regret missing the brook. The Gosau village was a showstopper, the meadows, houses, reindeer farms, all wet and washed by the rain is definitely among favorite experiences. And right when I reached the church the church bells started ringing..now that was quite a moment!! And not a soul in sight. I wonder how beautiful the place would be when the sun shines. Gosau is pretty much the kind of place where I would like to stay for a weeks(and do nothing?). But then I had to bid farewell to this amazing place, a long journey back to Salzburg. Dinner I guess was again at the Cafe Costa, a pasta, which was kind of ok.
Today was a long day, a bus ride to Bad Ischl,a train ride followed by a ferry ride to Halstatt. And wow, what a boat ride, at first the Halstatt village looked tiny infront of the massive massifs and the Halstatt”sea”. But as you get closer and closer, the village unfolds it’s charm, and you wish the boat would have been slower. In Halstatt, even the souvenier shops look very pretty, the catholic cemetery impresses, and hike upto the viewing platform exhausts(a little). But I was glad I took the hiking route. The view from Rudolfsturum was ofcourse brilliant, and since it was a little lower, it wasn’t engulfed by clouds( which Five Fingers was). The descent was a cakewalk, maybe just 15 minutes. Had a quick lunch at a Pizzeria(7-8 EU,frozen pizza and a gelato,but I wanted a quick lunch to catch the bus), took the 1 PM bus to Dachstein, and bought tickets for the 2 caves, there was no point going to Five Fingers since the weather was pretty bad.
The walk to the Mammoth cave was quite interesting, the views were great, and the edgy,grey mountains looked really good.The cave was great,big actually, it’s name was justified. The ice cave too was exciting, but I wished they would have used more of blue and green light instead of orange. Took the last cable down at 5 PM, and caught the bus to Halstatt. Had a cup of coffee and Sacher cake at a cafe. Halstatt had become even more dreamy by now, and I was glad I didn’t take the bus to Bad Ischl. The ferry ride was even more spectacular than in the morning. Reached Bad Ischl pretty late, and I had quite some time to kill before the last bus to Salzburg. So I grabbed a falafel a a middle eastern outlet and walked around the old town, which felt really quiet and atmospheric(a little lonely too).
So I woke up and decided I had had enough of scenic and beautiful places, they had had a super calming effect on my body, and I now I needed some noise and activity to brighten up. So I decided to go to Munich. Had a great breakfast at Fingerlos (Salzburg) , got a Bayern ticket for 24EU and hopped on a regional train to Munich. The journey was fairly interesting, farms, villages and snow covered peaks at a distance. Reached Munich, got a map, had lunch at an Italian restaurant close to the station, Gnocchi and gelato(9 EU) and set on to explore the old town.
I followed the http://www.bigboytravel.com/europe/germany/munich/freewalkingtour walking tour, stopping at almost every church, all of which were inspiring, each significantly different from the others, notably the St.Michael’s church, St.Peter’s Church, Holy Ghost church, Theatinerkirche. After quite some I got to see clear skies and sunny weather, it felt like a privilege walking on the streets without an umbrella and a jacket. Munich was by far the finest city I had seen(Vienna is even “finer”). I was completely unprepared for the the views of the Rathaus, such a gorgeous building it is, and I was even more unprepared for the Residenz. The grandeur at the Residenz literally blew me away, the Renaissance effect I guess makes it a little different than other palaces in Central Europe. The Theatre too was impressive.
There was a sunday roadside food market just outside the Residenz, the french fries with loads of mayonnaise and ketchup looked very inviting(something I would have otherwise avoided). However, the best part of Munich was the views from the 13 storey tower infront of the Rathaus, can’t imagine a nicer evening than that. By late evening the street musician scene had turned lively and I spent quite some time strolling around. Had dinner at the same Italian restaurant and returned by the the late 9 PM train to Salzburg. So 12 noon to 9 PM, not bad at all, I could have stayed for another day too, but unplanned , surprise experiences like these add a flavor to your trip.
The clear weather I saw in Munich unfortunately did not last long, Berchtesgaden had turned grey by the time I reached. So the plan to Jennerbahn was obviously cancelled. Instead I took the boat ride through the Konigsee, which wasn’t bad at all. But the Obersee was the star attraction. The reflections were the kind I had never seen before. The onion dome too was a great photoop. Back at Berchtesgaden, I went to the Hubertus Stuben restaurant expecting fab food, bu turns out they serve only dinner. Back in Salzburg I went a pastry eating spree trying pastries from various(3) shops, Fingerlos and the Italian place next to it were great. Evening was for relaxation at the hostel watching The Sound of Music.
So ended my 5 day stay in Salzburg, quite varied and a little hectic, but it was a good base to explore the entire region.
Had booked a WestBus Train + Bus 29 EU ticket to Prague. Reached Prague by 1 PM. Now this is when I realized I had come to “someplace different”. It was really really difficult to converse with locals, although some of them were really helpful. I had problems locating the bus stop, had problems locating my hostels and everything was quite trolley unfriendly. And my hostel, Ritchie’s place wasn’t as good as it looked in the pictures, I had to climb 5 stairs with my luggage. Not a very desirable experience but everything can’t be easy all the time.
Finally I got some craving for Indian food,so I went to the Beas Dhaba. Food was pretty good, a huge plate with a lot of deserts came for 190Kr(7.6 EU), and that’s when I realized I had come to “someplace cheap”.
And in September Prague wasn’t mobbed at all with tourists, I mean it wasn’t really quiet but I’ve seen crowds several times thicker. I bought a Prague card only to realize in 2 days I had done some miscalculation and the card was actually poor value. I set off the explore the old town. The first stop was obviously the Old Town square. The spires in Prague were captivating, so different from what I had seen till now. Prague looked very “kingdomish” with those spires on churches, like “stuff had happened here”. The St.Vitus looks brilliant from everywhere..can’t imagine a better setting. Views from the Klementium terrace too were brilliant.
Now walking over the Charles bridge was quite an event(previously I had thought “what’s in a bridge?”), be it early in the morning or late in the night. Views from the towers too were fabulous. Another favorite was the view of the Charles bridge with the castle right behind it. You need to have all the energy to climb towers(maybe more than 2 in a day), the Powder Tower too had good views.
The castle tuned out to be a little disappointment, but the St.Vitus cathedral was the highlight. No cathedral I had seen till, or was to see later was anywhere close to this one. The painted glass,the glass..wow, and not toooo many tourists. Another highlight was the Schwarzenberg palace, which houses the Bohemian Arts museum. Everything about it, the paintings, sculpture,armory was top notch. I took a few walks in the back areas of the castle, but I didn’t come across anything very exciting. But the Chocolate festival at the Lobkowicz Palace was pretty good, 80Kr for some good hot chocolatein cold,rainy weather.
Another highlight of Prague was the concerts. I attended 2 of them, one was at the Lobkowicz Palace at 1 PM. Pretty good value I would say, but the best concert of my trip was at St.Michels near the Old Town Square, if you’re near the Clock facing the Square, St.Michels is towards your right. The Hall too was very well done,and all of this for 300Kr. There was some opera too,and I found the acoustics better than most other halls.
I also took a Ghost Tour at McGee’s, and this turned out to be one of the best experiences. Bloody stories, ghostly environment, walking through the deserted dark alleys of Prague on cold,windy nights is the “Prague thing” for me.
Food in Prague was pretty good and varied. I had some Czech food at Stormerstska, a herby mushroom, potato soup and some fruit dumplings(250 Kr, people not happy with the 25 Kr tip, but otherwise good food, superb ambiance and decent prices for the location). Had good Italian food at an Italian place close to the Old Town square, cant remember the name, a good vegetarian Goulash at Maitreya(165 Kr), a middle eastern platter and lentil soup(170Kr) at Klub Cestovatelu, and loads and loads of Gelato everywhere(20Kr). So it was really affordable,and I ate a lot.
Getting back from my hostel at 5 am was a challenge again, buses on either side of the road I was on the wrong side of the road, till I found a metro station to take me to the bus stand, Florenc. There too I find the signage poor. I had booked at 16.2 EU Student’s agency bus to Vienna(a little crammed, but fair enough considering the price). The journey Vienna was quite eventful ,except views of the Brno cathedral, which looked huge and imposing from a distance.
A little of Vienna
I really loved the metro in Vienna. The 12 EU 2 day pass was good value and it helped me cover a lot in 2 days. I checked in at the Wombat’s hostel near the Naschmarket where I had a good ravioli and pasta lunch at an Italian place(12 EU for 2 big dishes). Vienna was like no other city I had seen till then in Europe. A lot more finer, more atmospheric with all it’s palaces and buildings from the past. The Belvedere Palace was excellent, and the views of the old town with the St. Stephen’s towering above were brilliant. The collection is among my favorite, and I quickly forgot all I had seen till then(but sadly no photographs). The St.Stephan’s was more than impressive, despite being the last cathedral in my trip(I wont call it just another cathedral) and looked even more fabulous when lit after sundown. Walking through the well lit Habsburg palaces was so rewarding, especially after sundown when there zero crowds. The Rathaus is an excellent building, but there was some kind of a function going on, so I couldn’t see the entire building. But it wins my vote for the finest building in Vienna. Cafes were on my must do list, I went to Cafe Sacher and Cafe Gerstner where I enjoyed several varieties of cake and apfel strudel.
My second last day was spent in the wonderful Wachau Valley which has been given UNESCO World Heritage status. Bought a 57EU Wachau ticket and boarded a train to Melk. The town of Melk greeted us with a gorgeous view of the Melk Abbey from the double decker train. Even though there were quite a few tourists, all of us had a problem locating the abbey, but we eventually got there just to find out a huge cruise ship had just landed, so the abbey was packed with people. Nevertheless, everything about the abbey was impressive,all the rooms and the church too.
The Melk market was interesting, with a lot of dried and cured meat and rye bread for sale. I had a few cakes at the famous bakery(from where the stairs to the abbey begin), must say they were amongst the best in the entire trip. The abbey looked great from everywhere, I walked around the town, the train station side as well as the dock side trying to get good shots of the abbey.
I boarded the 1.50 PM ferry. The journey was brilliant, the villages, forests, castles(small ones), the cruise ships all added a wonderful dimension to the river. Things got even better as we approached Durnstein. The forests were kind of replaced by vast vineyards and the view of the Durnstein town and the medieval castle behind was captivating ( I was like, yes, this is exactly what I wanted to see in Europe).
Took a stroll through the village, which despite it’s touristiness was charming. The small hike up the castle was rewarding, the views of the meandering river, vineyards, cruise ships was more than picture perfect. And now the late afternoon sun had come out with all it’s strength making all the vegetation glow. Took a long walk around the village passing several vineyards, I wished I had stayed here for atleast another day. Got a 6 PM bus to Krems, and a train back to Vienna.
Had dinner at an Italian place on the Graben Road, can’t remember the name of the place, but it’s about 3-4 minutes from St.Stephan’s. The day concluded with a not-so-pleasant noisy,touristy concert near the Stadt Park, nothing to really write about, but no regrets since I managed to get a ticket for just 20 EU at the St.Stephans from one of the females advertising it(rather she managed to sell me a ticket when I didn’t really want one).
Some more of Vienna
I still had a good part of the morning before my flight back to India. Took a metro to Schonbrunn Palace, and wow..what palace grounds!! I really wished I had more time here(yes, i always wish so, but time is limited). I also wanted to “tick” the State Library,Österreichische Nationalbibliothek . And I am glad I managed to squeeze it in. So that’s all one can do in a few hours.
Took a train to the airport(via the Wien Meidling), quite a convenient and cheap way of getting to the airport, but then not everyone had place to sit.
So ended my Central Europe tour, a trip to the more “refined” continent, very charming and beautiful, culturally rich, beautiful in most senses.
Which were my favorite places?
Gosausee, Halstatt and Munich, not that everything else was lesser.