Tori and I woke up in Vienna, Austria after a long night on the train. In Vienna we were trying something new–Couch-surfing! For those of you who’ve never heard of it, Couch-surfing is a pretty huge trend among young (poor) travelers who are traveling on a budget. All of my Peace Corps friends do Couchsurfing, and its a social-networking site similar to Facebook; you make a profile, upload a picture, talk about your passion for traveling, offer your “couch” (really any place a person can sleep at your place, be it a bed, couch, floor, sleeping bag, whatever), and then you can request other peoples’ “couches” in cities you are traveling to.
So on my Couch-surfing profile, I advertised that I was coming to Vienna and in need of a place to stay for two people. A Turkish guy named Ferhat responded to my request and offered me not only a couch, but the use of an entire apartment! One of his friends went back home to Turkey for a month, and he was apartment-sitting. It was a one-bedroom apartment, but plenty big enough for Tori and I to share. Plus, it was free–the beauty of Couch-surfing ; )
Ferhat met us at the Metro and took us to the apartment. We chatted for a while, drank tea, and he gave us some advice about what to see in Vienna. Then we made plans to meet up for dinner and an evening tour of the city, and he left for work. Tori and I got cute and set out to do a little site-seeing on our own, because we only had one day to see the city of Vienna. So basically we did a warp-speed tour… site-seeing on steroids. So many potential names for our whirlwind waltz of a tour through Vienna! (I hope you got that last pun- you know, the Viennese Waltz? Sorry, I couldn’t resist!)
We started off by going to the museum quarter, where Ferhat recommended. It turns out that Vienna is a city full of museums; I bet you’d need at least a week to do them all justice! Tori and I opted instead to enjoy our time in Vienna outside in the sunshine. We took an open-air city tour, given by a guide who spoke five languages and repeated every line of the tour in all five languages. It was hilarious, because Tori was listening for the Spanish lines and trying to see how much she could understand, while I was listening to the Russian and cursing at its dissimilarities from Ukrainian ; )
The open air tour covered Imperial Vienna, so we got to see lots of palaces that have been converted to museums. My favorite stop was the Hofburg Imperial Palace, which today also houses the Austrian National Library. So incredibly beautiful.
Another beautiful building we saw on our tour was the Austrian Parliament. In front of the building sits the Athena Fountain, named and styled after the Greek goddess of wisdom. The fountain is meant to signify that the ruling is done wisely. Maybe we should add some Athena statues to Capitol Hill in Washington D.C. and see if that doesn’t improve things 😉
We also saw many churches in Vienna, but our favorite, hands-down, was St. Stephen’s Cathedral. Also known as “Stephensdom,” this church is one of the tallest in the world. Its located in downtown Vienna, in “Stephensplatz” (Stephen’s Square) which today is a huge tourist center packed with shops and little cafes. We could’ve shopped here for hours if we had time (well, I could’ve shopped; Tori would’ve tagged along and put up with it), but we had a lot to see so we limited our shopping and stuck to site-seeing. : )
We met up with our Couch-surfing host Ferhat in time for dinner, and he insisted on continuing our tour of Vienna. He took us to his personal favorite place, a huge chocolate store called “Julius Meinl.” I’ve never seen a chocolate store this size; it was two floors, stocked with every type of chocolate imaginable, imported from all over the world. There was even a cafe where you could order drinks especially designed to bring out the different flavors of chocolate. It was a chocolate-lover’s paradise 🙂
Tori and I did some serious souvenir shopping here, trying chili-infused chocolate (don’t attempt it without something to wash it down with!) and buying our parents chocolate bars that said “danke” (thank-you in German!).
After our major detour to the chocolate store, we just made it to our last stop in time to witness an incredible sunset. The Schonbrunn Palace, a 1,441 room summer palace of the Hapsburgs, is today the most popular tourist attraction in Vienna. The gardens at the Schonbrunn are famous world-wide, and there is even a zoo!
I loved our day in Vienna; the city was so beautiful and clean, and the sites we saw were breath-taking. I wish we had had a week to explore instead of just a day! But I’m afraid that despite all the amazing things we saw, when I think back on our time in Austria my memories will be dominated by our second day there, which we spent riding bicycles on a wine tour of the Austrian countryside. I had found this tour online when I was planning our trip, and it was the perfect fit for us; bike-riding (something athletic for Tori) and wine-tasting (something right up my alley!). Plus, Tori was allowed to drink wine with me because the drinking age is 18 in Europe! Looking back, this was definitely one of my favorite days on our whole Euro-trip. After you see the pictures, I’m sure you’ll understand why : )
Our day started at a metro station, where the whole group for the wine tour met up with our guide, Bernard. Once we were all together, we took a train to the town of Krems, about an hour outside of Vienna. Bernard outfitted us all with bikes, and then we were off! The pace of the day was very relaxed, as we cycled through the countryside and explored vineyards. Bernard explained the history of the region and led us through the basics of wine-tasting at each stop. We had wine-tastings at three wineries in total, and a fourth stop for schnapps, a specialty regional liquor made from fruit. Their peach schnapps is the most famous, and it was fun to try, but I liked the wine better personally. We also had a lunch break and time to explore a little village called Durnstein, which was full of cute little tourist shops. We ended up biking 28 kilometers, but it was spread out throughout the day so it was very manageable. The day concluded with a stop on the Danube River and a chance for a dip. I seem to recall a song about the “Beautiful Blue Danube,” but let me tell you, its more of a murky brown. I opted to watch (I had nothing to dry off with) and take pictures instead.
Durnstein is a tiny little village with some very famous history attached to it. Richard I, also known as Richard the Lionheart, King of England, was held captive here for 10 years in the late 1100s by the Duke of Austria while he waited for England to pay his ransom. If being the Duke’s captive meant living in a castle in Durnstein and drinking Austrian wine every day, I would do it gladly. No kidnapping required 😉
The bike ride/wine tour was about 12 hours in total, so it was a very full day. But it was easily one of my favorite things we did on our trip, and I couldn’t get over the freshness of the air, the beauty of the countryside, the joy in the kilometers passing away as we rode on… I would definitely do this again, in Austria or even somewhere else that I travel. I forgot how much fun bike-riding is! Unfortunately, the end of our bike tour also meant the end of our time in Austria… the next morning we took a train to the next place on our itinerary: Ljubljana, Slovenia.
After Vienna, Tori and I joined an organized tour traveling from Slovenia down the Croatian coast, across to Bosnia, and then ending where we started in Ljubljana. The blog post about Ljubljana will follow the Croatian entries, because we had more time in Slovenia at the end of the tour than at the beginning. So for now, check out the next post to hear about one of the most beautiful countries on God’s green earth… CROATIA.