Österreich – Wien

Just a few days after our return from Slovenia, I was back at it again. This time, bound for Vienna, esteemed capital of the Hapsburg dynasty. With May having turned to June, travelling was getting more expensive, so instead of the usual flight I opted for a train ride. 7 hours stood between me and my destination. With a long weekend ahead of me I boarded the train just after work and was on my way.

I had seat reservations the whole time and had brought along my laptop to get a little work and research done. The ICE trains in Germany feature WiFi, which made being productive (or unproductive) easy. I had a changeover in Munich. The highlight of my brief stop there was when I was able to buy something from a vending machine paying exclusively with 5-cent pieces. It was very satisfying to get rid of all that change.

Despite my best intentions I did nap on the second train a bit. This turned out to be okay however, as my scheduled arrival wasn’t until 12:30AM and the train ran about 30 minutes late. Arriving at the train station was a little disorienting. I was looking for the S-bahn (street train). I had assumed it would be above ground, but the station was actually underground connected to the train station through a tunnel.

Eventually I found my way, bought a ticket, and rode a few stops north towards my hostel. Unfortunately I had a 30 minute walk or so after my ride, because while the U-bahn would have taken me closer, it was no longer running this late at night. I got into the hostel, paid, and collapsed onto my bed around 2:30AM. I suppose the nap wasn’t such a bad idea after all.

Between the nap and the late bedtime I managed to get enough sleep to be out of the hostel by a respectable 9:00AM or so. I was in Vienna alone, so the first item on my agenda was an audio tour to get me oriented. The tour started south of the city, so I made my way to the opera house. The building was done in an intricate baroque style in an grandiose scale. I didn’t peek inside but took some time admiring all the sculptures and statues adorning the exterior. Vienna is somewhat of a musical capital in Europe; historically, great composers performed in the halls around the city. Nowadays, the Opera House still hosts shows daily, and standing-room tickets are actually really affordable.

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The Vienna Opera House

After surveying the Opera House, I stopped by a few ritzy cafes nearby. Elegant interior decorations framed rich cakes, coffees, and patrons. I can’t remember the last time someone served me wearing a tuxedo, but here you could have the luxury experience for just the price of a cup. Too bad I don’t like coffee. I moved on.

My next stop on the self-guided tour was St. Stephen’s cathedral. Vienna feels like it radiates outwards from this impressive church. I did a lap of the church, taking in all the intricate carvings, the dirt which had accumulated on the church walls, and all the gawking tourists staring upwards at the colorful roof and elegant spires.

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St. Stephen’s iconic tiled roof

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While there I learned a bit about the history of the cathedral- the building was in many ways responsible for the rise of Vienna as an important city. Rather than being built here because the town was notable, locals erected the church to stand out in the eyes of the church to attain prominence.

Inside the cathedral I faced a gloomily lit lofty interior, flanked by rows of carved saints forming pillars to hold up the roof. I spent some time admiring art near the front entrance but opted not to pay to enter the main part of the church.

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The gloomy organ

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Continuing on with my self-guided tour, I settled down for lunch at a recommended spot. I was treated to a tasty mix of stewed beef and potatoes. While it was good it was perhaps a little heavy for a lunchtime meal, but I made up for it with a light dinner later. After lunch I dipped into a nearby baroque church which had some really intricate decorations on the inside.

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Well then aren’t you fancy?
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Might as well lecture in style
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The domed roof

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Near my lunch spot was the Hofburg Palace, ruling seat of the Hapsburgs. Besides being an impressive example of Baroque architecture, the palace hosts several museums, including the famous Treasury. There, precious artifacts including gilded vestments, crown jewels, decadent everyday items like cribs and chairs, and even (alleged) nails from the cross of Christ are on display.

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At Hofburg palace

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I grabbed a new audio guide and made my way through the treasury. I learned a bit more about the history of the Hapsburgs, their ties with religious powers of the time, and got a sense for the wealth and splendor they indulged in in their empire. Dark rooms contrasted starkly with shining gilded objects on display.

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For some reason they wouldn’t let me try it on
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Care for a drink?

The treasury was divided into two halves: one each for secular and religious artifacts. I surveyed the secular artifacts first, and found a few curiosities among the more conventional items. They had a “unicorn horn” (really a narwhal tusk) on display. Apparently it was thought that unicorn horn had healing properties and was therefore very rare and valuable at the time. Who knew?

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Not pictured: unicorn

Making my way through the treasury, I found myself gaining an appreciation for the Hapsburg empire. While it may not be as well known as some of the ruling dynasties in France, England, or Italy, the Austrio-Hungarian regime had plenty of power, wealth, and influence. The remnants of that time here on display serve as a testament to their once-great status.

 

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I made my way out of the treasury but decided I would check out some of the other exhibits in a different wing of the palace. A short walk later brought me into the armory, a far less crowded yet (in my eyes) equally impressive display of arms and armor.

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At the armory entrance

I geeked out for awhile admiring all the weaponry and regalia. It was a little strange being there myself as there was no audio guide this time, so I was left to wrestle with the German descriptions where I needed any explanation and just look on without them otherwise. There were lots of different arms and armor on display, from purely-functional pieces to highly ornate ceremonial suits. Armor for sport and jousting dominated some rooms, while others’ held more battle-ready pieces. I liked some of the odd ones- breastplates for overweight men, strange faces in helmets, and unusual weapons such as flails and maces all ensured there was something interesting to keep your attention.

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The armory also held a large collection of classical instruments. I didn’t spend as long here as I did with the arms and armor, but it was still neat to check out and here too I noticed some unusual pieces. Horns in shapes I had not seen before, harpsichords and pianos in strange forms, and lots of finely decorated string instruments graced the halls. Sadly, none were being played, but my imagination filled the air in this city of classical music. Like in the armory, the exhibit was not crowded so I was free to explore at my own pace and get up close to the objects.

Alongside the armory there were a few Greek statues and works of art. It seemed a little out of place there in the same museum, but I took a quick walk through regardless. The collection was small and modest, but featured a few pretty statues and again, no crowds. It was nice to appreciate the art without hoards of tourists gawking at everything.

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Baby grandpa? Can I get you something?
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I’m told this is how I look in the morning

I exited the museum. The afternoon was winding down but I had a few more spots to check out before heading back to the hostel. I swung by the Museum Quarter to do some people-watching and appreciate the ambiance. Bushes and fountains with wide paths hosted children playing, musicians, buskers, and others relaxing in the afternoon sun. To either side, an imposing facade framed another museum – an art gallery to the left and the museum of natural history to the right. I didn’t spend time to go into these but stood for a bit and watched kids playing with some sculptures outside the natural history museum for a few minutes.

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The Rathaus

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After strolling through the open square I began a winding journey back to the hostel. I made a pit stop by the impressive Rathaus (city hall), where I saw a few skaters trying tricks and seating being set up for an outdoor event. I snapped a few pictures then continued along the ring road surrounding Vienna until I made my way back to the Danube river. There, I grabbed a quick sausage dinner and headed back to the hostel for the night.

After a long first day in Vienna I was tired. But I had a long weekend ahead of me, and lots more to explore. Stay tuned.

Best wishes and safe travels everyone,

– Ben

Österreich – Zell am See

A lot of trainees arrived in Stuttgart around the same time I did. Most of us chipped in and arranged a 3-day ski weekend in Austria near Salzburg, only about a 4.5 hour drive from where we’re living.

This was my first experience driving on the Autobahn. Those of you back home will be relieved to hear I did not speed excessively – it was raining and I didn’t want to test the traction on my tires too much. Our drive was relatively uneventful; we discussed the mountain, our experiences skiing and snowboarding, our experiences at work, and a few other topics.

A few people were playing it safe by bringing along their passports, but we ended up not needing them – we crossed a river and the only way you would know we crossed an international border was the small police van on the left side of the road. We pulled off at the nearest gas station we could find because in Austria you need to buy a sticker (effectively a toll) to drive on the highways.

We got in to our AirBnb shortly after 11. The place was huge and didn’t feel crowded with the 9 people we had on the first night. We stayed up till about 2AM with a few drinks and some games, and generally just had fun while catching up a bit.

We woke up (I wasn’t too groggy, but others were) around 8AM. We got ready and made for the rental shop. I rented pretty decent gear (helmet, boots, and a board) for just 70EUR for the 3 days. I am impressed with how cheap it is and the quality of the rentals. One guy cut his finger on the edge of his rented snowboard; you can be sure our equipment has been recently edged and waxed.

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Practicing our selfie game at the rental shop

We drove to the resort (we are staying super close, but it took a little time due to steep, snowy roads) and were able to get 3 day passes for just 144EUR without issue. The rain we had gone through on our trip here was snow at this altitude, so there was a ton of fresh powder, great for riding. It was especially good because we have a few newbies so the fresh snow is a little easier to turn on and softer if they fall.

There were a lot of clouds and some light snow our first day riding. We took a few warm-up runs on the bunny hill while the first-timer got his legs under him. The lift here is a strange “T” looking thing, almost like an anchor. You ride your skis/board up the hill as if it were a tow rope, but there are anchor-like hooks which support your back to pull you up. It it better than a tow rope but worse than any non-riding lift I have taken, though the novelty of it all was entertaining.

After an impressively short time, we took one of the main gondolas up to the top. I had never ridden such a long lift and there were very steep portions of the ride – I was excited. Trees and small rocky ledges dotted the otherwise whitewashed slopes which formed a basin framing a beautiful lake. I didn’t take a ton of pictures the first day because of the cloudy weather.

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A brief glimpse of the lake on the first day
We had fun carving trails and slopes. Most of the slopes have formed bumps from people cutting back and forth down them. We started off with a warm-up run of all Blue slopes (In Austria, slopes are rated Blue < Red

Some new skiers were with us, so we stuck to mostly easy runs for the first day. Occasionally a few of the more advanced riders would split off to take a harder run. I am (in my humble opinion) the best snowboarder in our group – I can take on the blacks without too much trouble. My favorite run of the day was late in the afternoon. Four of us rode the main gondola up to the very top of the mountain where we subsequently rode red slopes down a different face to reach the lift. This run included a “funslope” with tunnels and small jumps and boxes to grind on, and was just generally smooth riding. I was continually impressed with the length of the seemingly never-ending runs.

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Taking a quick break mid-run. Yes. I did buy orange snowpants.

Unfortunately the slopes closed at 4:30. While I was eager to do more, my legs were pretty tired from all the riding. We headed back to our cabin and I took advantage of the downstairs sauna before showering and having dinner. We had “pizza”, but calling it that was generous as there was essentially no red sauce on it and none of the ingredients looked fresh. I’m not terribly picky and I was terribly hungry, so I had a fair bit of it regardless. After dinner, most of the people here opted for a nap so I took the opportunity to catch up with Chelsea and help her brainstorm for some application essays. That night we were joined by the rest of the trainees so that we had a full house that evening. There was a lot of partying but I opted to get some sleep before it got too late so that I could hit the slopes the next day.

On Saturday we awoke to find over 6″ of snow had fallen overnight. It was a team effort to get the cars out of the steep driveway, but we made things work without having to chain up our tires. By 10 we were back out on the mountain while the new arrivals were renting their gear. We got a quick run in down the blues so that we could meet up with the big group when they arrived.

I’d like to take a moment to rant slightly about the easy run back to the lift we did a few times: towards the bottom of the mountain, there is a marked trail that takes you on a winding path, and it looks very shallow on the trail map. This trail is a bit of a lie as it includes uphill sections and long stretches of flat snow. We were unable to find an easy run starting and ending at the main lift without avoiding this hike (unless we took a bus back from a different lift). The irony of this is not lost on me – complaining about having to walk through a beautifully snow-dusted forest in the Alps. But we were sweaty and tired in all our gear, I promise!

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Our ski group atop the mountain

We met up with the folks who had arrived on Friday night. This group included several first-time skiers. A few of them stuck to the bunny slope but several were brave enough to make it to the top. They took over 2 hours to get down the mountain (with newbies falling, lots of waiting and getting lost), but we split off from them about 10 minutes into their run. I stuck with two other snowboarders and one skier who were more comfortable on difficult slopes, and we did some more advanced stuff throughout the day. We had lunch on the slopes and were surprised to find the food reasonably priced.

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View from the top, late in the afternoon
After a lot of riding, we made our way back to the cabin around 4:30. There, a few people made a delicious pasta dinner with garlic bread and naturally I ate way too much. The party-crowd napped again so I spent Saturday evening helping Chelsea with her essays and I had a chance to briefly video chat with my parents as well.

Sunday arrived bright and sunny. We opted not to fight with the cars again but rather took the free bus to the lift. First-timers returned their skis and spent the day in Salzburg while a few of us went out for one last day of riding. I took my camera with me this time and was able to capture just a few of the great views we had; we were too busy having fun and taking it all in to stop too much! By this point everyone was tired from a lack of sleep and muscle fatigue, so we called it a day shortly after lunch.

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Clear enough to see the beautiful little town of Zell am See
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Mountains and clear skies
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The lake from atop the slopes

We returned our equipment early in the afternoon, spent some time cleaning up the cabin, and headed home around 3 or 4. We had a long drive back – we faced some of the traffic returning to Germany we had heard about, and I spent an extra 45 minutes dropping off everyone who rode in my car. Exhausted, I arrived back in Stuttgart around 10PM and cleaned up a little before I headed to bed.

We had a strong start to our group travels. Less than a week after most of the Bosch trainees arrived in Germany, 18 of us were off to Austria to go play in the alps. I am so fortunate to be able to take trips with this group, and now that I have a taste for adventure I can’t wait to see where we’ll go next.

Best wishes and safe travels everyone,

– Ben