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Back in Wien: taking a walking tour in the rain
Before we left Magyarország, we did get to experience some good old-fashioned eastern block culture. For our last dinner in Budapest on March 22nd, we returned to the János Vendéglő restaurant for some more gulyásleves. Our waiter this time looked like his name was "Boris" or "Ivan" -- he barely spoke English, and the concept of western customer service completely escaped him. During our departure on March 23rd, we were "accosted" at a stop light by a young man who proceeded to start washing our windshield. He ignored our protests of "nem!" and Russell had to physically get out of the car to chase him away. And driving north -- away from touristy Budapest -- we began to see row upon row of traditional Soviet-built block houses.
Budapest: the wind on Gellért Hegy
After Budapest, we had decided to take the scenic route back to Österreich along the Duna Kanyar -- the "Danube Bend," where the Danube makes a right angle curve to the west and separates Magyarország from Slovensko (Slovakia) to the north. It was interesting to see the Hungarian version of "suburb" towns -- we passed through Szentendre (a touristy town of handcrafts), Visegrád (an old Roman fort town), and Esztergom (the original capital of Magyarország, home of Stephen I).
The overcast sky that we had awakened to had turned into rain by the time we left. Now, as we drove through the Duna Kanyar, the rain turned into hail, then sleet, then finally snow. We had thought of taking a side trip across the Slovenskian border into Bratislava, but the sky looked even more threatening in that direction. Instead, we drove directly back into Wien. We only stopped twice: once in the long line of cars at the border, and once when we realized that we weren't sure when our vignette (windshield sticker) was due to expire (it turns out that we had purchased 10 days, exactly as much as we will need).
The Duna Kanyar: driving through sleet
We arrived back in Wien at midafternoon, got completely lost because we had entered the city from the other side, and finally found the Mariahilferstraße. We found another parking space on the street (a little further away this time), and let ourselves back into the K & T Boardinghouse with our own key (with the amount of traveling we're currently doing, we cannot describe how refreshing it is to drive to a familiar place -- it's like coming home). For dinner we walked to the nearby Café Gloria (after getting lost on foot), where Cameron and Joss had pasta, and Russell and Gail had Austrian food.
On March 24th, we had a quick breakfast of pastries that we had purchased the evening before. Our plan was to take a self-guided walking tour of Wien's old town, and we decided that the weather was not going to stop us. As a result, we took our tour through intermittent clear skies, wind, rain, and snow (we did stop back at the car to retrieve the boys' gloves -- they already had their long underwear). We walked down the Mariahilferstraße, one of Wien's most trendy and busy streets, then turned onto the Ringstraße that marks the beginning of Old Town.
We saw the Hofburg (Imperial Palace, which we will visit tomorrow) and the Staatsoper (Vienna State Opera House). Behind these, there is a Monument Against War and Fascism. This graphically horrifying statue rests atop a pedestal of granite that came from the quarry at Mauthausen, whose Konzentrationlager we had visited a few days ago. (The site itself marks the spot where a hundred people were buried alive during a WWII bombing attack.)
On the Kärtntnerstraße, Wien's pedestrian-only grand walkway, we found incredibly cheap pizza and kebab sandwiches (an entire quarter-pizza for 2€) and a chocolate shop where we purchased chocolate Easter bunnies. We visited Stephansdom (St. Stephan's Cathedral), Wien's most famous monument and a symbol of its freedom. We stepped inside in the middle of Palm Sunday Mass, so we didn't stay long. Instead, we proceeded onto Grabenstraße (literally, "Ditch Street") where we found an AD 1600 monument erected to thank God for surviving the plague, and finished up on Kohlmarkt, Wien's most elegant shopping district.
By now, we had used up both the boys' four-hour touring tolerance and the last vestiges of good weather. It was snowing so heavily that we could see big clumps falling from the sky, so we returned to the boardinghouse. We did wander by one of Wien's three English-language movie houses, though, so we rewarded Cameron and Joss for their tenacity by treating them to see "Monsters, Inc." (the parents enjoyed the treat as well). It was so bittercold outside that we ordered take-out McDonald's for dinner and ate in our rooms.
Snow in downtown Wien
The weather was no better on March 25th, and we continued our touring by visiting the Hofburg, the first Imperial palace of the Hapsburg family empire (we will not have time to visit the more imposing and famous Schloss Schönbrunn). Here, we saw the Kaiserappartements (Imperial Apartments) of Emperor Franz Josef and his wife Elisabeth. Emperor Josef is considered one of the greatest of all European emperors -- he allowed an audience to anyone in his empire, rich or poor. His wife "Sissy," however, was somewhat of an eccentric. She alternated between spending hours a day tending her ankle-length hair and working out to keep her impossibly-small waistline (after she turned 30, she allowed no further portraits, and only appeared in public behind a fan). She was assassinated in 1898, and as a result is now compared to England's Princess Diana. We also visited the Schatzkammer (Treasury), where behind vault doors we saw such treasures as the Imperial crowns and the largest cut emerald in the world (it took more than two years to cut, and the reluctant jeweler had to be bribed with lots of land and money).
After lunch at a local cafe, we once again hit our tolerance of the freezing weather and snow. Like yesterday, we treated the boys to another English-language movie -- this time, "Ice Age," which everyone enjoyed thoroughly. (We have greatly regretted being out of touch with America's movie culture. We were especially depressed to miss last night's Academy Awards show.) After an afternoon of movie popcorn, we had a very light dinner, and spent the evening relaxing in our rooms.
(Overall, we have been extremely impressed with Cameron and Joss. They have not complained one single time about the long walks or the weather. When we compare this to their behavior back in New Zealand, we can see just how much they've grown and matured.)
One of the reasons that we were particularly sorry to have missed Slovenija (Slovenia) a week ago was that we had wanted to visit Lipica, home of the world-famous Lipizzaner Stallions. As a consequence, we were determined to catch them in Wien before we left. We had planned to watch a rehearsal on March 25th (we cannot afford to attend a performance), but were disappointed to discover that they don't rehearse on Mondays. So before checking out and leaving Wien on March 26th, we walked once more to Old Town, to the Spanische Reitschule (Spanish Riding School) behind the Hofburg. We showed up at 10:00 AM -- the time the rehearsal starts -- and were devastated to see a very long line of people stretching all around Josefplatz. We ended up standing outside in the 3°C cold for more than one hour before we finally moved inside the doorway where we could purchase tickets. Inside, the place was like a small coliseum with two balconies, and we ended up way on top -- the only place where we could find spaces. We ended up being able to watch them for only about half an hour, and were disappointed to find that a rehearsal consists mainly of the riders exercising their horses by walking them around in circles.
On that note, we left Wien and Österreich. Our next stop is Praha (Prague) in the Česká Republika (Czech Republic). We hear that the weather is finally supposed to start getting better, and we have our fingers crossed.
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