Wednesday, November 25, 2015

One Day in Slovakia

Before going to Austria, I had stumbled across an article about day trips from Vienna. One particular city caught my eye... Bratislava. I couldn't turn down the opportunity to visit a new country, so I decided to make a day trip to Slovakia.

For 13 Euros you can buy a roundtrip train ticket between Austria's and Slovakia's capital cities. The ride is only about an hour.

On the train ride over, I heard a variety of languages. It was obvious my train was full of day-trippers, who like me, couldn't resist the chance to tick off another country from their global visit list. I picked up a few tips by listening to the Spanish couple behind me chatting about what they were going to see.

We arrived at a particularly unimpressive train station with a bright overhead sign welcoming you to Slovakia. Comprised of a few cafes and vending machines, this station in no way resembles its counterparts in other European cities. But who cares, no one comes to cities to see train stations anyway.
Bratislava main train station, everything but tracks pictured.
I followed the somewhat bewildered mass of tourists from the train platform to the bus stop right outside. As if all on cue, we entered the same bus into town, occupying all the available space. Residents must hate this.

The tour guides had said that there are two options of stops for the city center. I decided to wait until the majority of my fellow tourists disembarked. Travel 101: follow the masses, at least someone will know where we're going.

Bratislava sure does give tourists a run for their money. After leaving the bus, we found ourselves by a busy highway, with no signs to point the way to the city center. We foreigners huddled together to devise a strategy. If you must get lost in a new city, it might as well be with 20 other strangers.

Someone had a feeling that the city center could be reached by crossing the busy highway on the overpass. Like sheep, we mindlessly followed and lo and behold, he was right! We walked together until we reached the main street in the old town and then nodded to each other before breaking off into our individual units.

Entering Bratislava's old town.

I had done my preparation on the city, as I always do, but found myself a little turned around without a map. All the articles I read about Bratislava basically said there were a few key items to see and the rest was enjoying a leisurely stroll around the compact center.

I spent the first hour or so wandering around aimlessly. Whenever I encountered what appeared to be modern buildings, I knew I had reached the perimeter and turned back inside the old part of town.

I went into a beautiful little church that I didn't know the name of and found relics from a Catholic martyr, including a mummified finger. I hadn't seen one of those since visiting the cathedral in Avila where Santa Teresa worked and lived.
This beautiful Church that I still don't know what is...
I asked some passerbys to take my picture in front of a pastel pink building, again not knowing the name. I was taking mental notes to research everything when I got back to the hotel in Vienna.

Primate's Palace, previous home to Emperors, not monkeys.
I then entered the main city square and saw the statue of Napoleon's soldier that I had read about. This statue is a hotspot for tourist photos. Cafes and coffee shops lined the plaza and the weather was nice. The day was turning out just as pleasant as all the guides predicted.

For the win tourist pic.
I ate lunch in a restaurant with outside seating Solvakian dishes. I ordered some kind of meatball dumpling dish that was really tasting and (thankfully) less hearty than Austrian cuisine. (Sidenote: when traveling in Germany or Austria, just prepare yourself of the feeling of continual fullness.)

Meat dumplings and sauerkraut.

Stolling around the Opera House.
To finish the day, I crossed the highway again to hike up the hill to the Bratislava Castle. I didn't have time to go inside, but the views from the hilltop were impressive. You could see the Danube, plus all of the old city juxtaposed against the modern part.

Bratislava: the mix of old and new.
Bratislava Castle.
I walked back to the bus stop, got on with all the other tourists, and rode back to the train station. Bratislava may not be the biggest capital city, but it's certainly worth seeing. Plus, when might you ever get another chance to go to Slovakia?

Sunday, October 11, 2015

Vienna: Art and Chocolate Cake

With a long history of royal families, Vienna has several palaces worth seeing. The last time I visited Vienna, I went to the Schönbrunn Palace, the sprawling former Habsburg summer home. You can tour some of the 1,000+ room residence and the massive gardens to get a glimpse of imperial life. 

This time, I planned to go to the Belvedere Palace and Museum. The Belvedere Palace is also the former stomping ground of the Habsburg family. This royal residence is closer to the city center. The grounds are broken up into two palaces (the Upper and the Lower Belvedere), the gardens, the Orangery, and the Palace Stables. Now all of these parts can be seen individually or purchased together on a group ticket. 

Most of the permanent exhibits are housed in the Upper Belvedere. They have a large collection of Austrian art. I don't always enter art museums when I travel, but I had extra time so I went for it. The star of the gallery is Gustav Klimt. His "The Kiss" is probably the most recognizable piece in the museum. It's so popular that they put a replica in the lobby of the museum with a sign promoting selfies. (No flash photography is allowed of the real painting.)  

From there I walked by Karlskirche and the Royal Opera to my next destination, one that I was really looking forward to: Hotel Sacher for a piece of the original Sachertorte. The Sachertorte chocolate cake is a well established institution in Vienna. History has it that the Sachertorte was created in the 1800s as a special treat for Austria's Emperor. The cake is chocolate sponge with apricot jam and chocolate icing. The cake became a big hit, and still is. Fun Fact: December 5th is dedicated National Sachertorte Day. Needless to say, when I arrived to the Hotel Cafe, there was a line out the door. 

When I finally got in, I ordered the orginal Sachertorte and an espresso with milk. (PS- there are loads of delicious looking desserts if you're feeling adventurous.) The interior of the hotel cafe is elegant and proper. While you are waiting for your cake, you can even read all about the history of the hotel and the secretly guarded recipe. Then the cake arrived. It was moist and sweet, but not overkill. A leisurely afternoon having a coffee and cake is just what you need in Vienna to replenish you from all the museums you've been visiting. 

To conclude my final afternoon in Vienna, I passed by the University of Vienna. Unlike the business university I had been to the day before, this campus was much more traditional. There was a terrace/courtyard in the middle of the rectangular-shaped building where students were reading and socializing outside. I wandered down some halls, trying to imagine what it would be like to be a student here. I studied in universities in the U.S. and Spain, so I always like to compare other campuses. I think I would like it. :)

Belvedere Palace grounds
Upper Belvedere

View of Lower Belvedere and the city center
"The Kiss" Selfie Point
Royal Opera House
Sacher Cafe

University of Vienna
University of Vienna courtyard

Tuesday, October 6, 2015

Vienna: One Big Museum

When you're a person who loves to explore, you feel the complusive need to force your companions to see every sight there is when traveling. I usually spend time pouring through TripAdvisor and city tour sights before departing to get a feel for what I "must see and do". I love studying maps and routing potential sight itineraries for each day.

In the afternoon following the release of the academics from their finance conference, I met up with my husband and a few friends from the university to drag them around Vienna. I navigated us through the metro to St. Stephen's Cathedral, and from there, took us along the main tourist route to the Hofburg Imperial Palace. I had made this same route before during my previous visit to Vienna some three years earlier. It's amazing how one time in a city and you will still recognize your way around the next time you visit.

In front of the Hofburg Palace, we stopped to have a coffee because I said that was a Viennese thing to do (and also the professors needed a pick-me-up).

We continued our jouney past the Palace, the Sissy Museum, the famed Spanish Riding School, and the National Library to the Maria-Theresien-Platz. The Maria-Theresien-Platz is flanked on either side by two almost identical looking buildings, The Museum of National History and the Fine Arts Museum.

Walking south from the Maria-Theresien-Platz, you'll cross the Museumplatz to discover.... even more museums! Museumquartier is a cool grouping of various museums, along with bars, restaurants, and open outdoor space for nights out. We saw a Tiki foodcart selling mojitos, which we figured we needed.

To end our tour of Vienna sights, we headed to the Rathaus (Town Hall). Exactly the same as my trip before, they were playing outdoor movies on a screen placed over the Town Hall building. There were plenty of people about, enjoying the movie showings the city puts on each summer.

When we got back to our hotel, I felt quite accomplished by what we had covered. It would really have been a shame for these colleagues to have missed all these sights!

St. Stephen's Cathedral

Cool street art
Hofburg Palace
Making the museum route, outside the National Library.
The Natural History Museum... or the Museum of Fine Arts. They look so similar! 
Professors on the town.
Summer Movie Festival!

Monday, September 21, 2015

Vienna's Tech City

Most people come to Vienna to see the museums and the Opera (amongst other things).

One thing you might not expect to see in Vienna is a modern technology village. While J was in his first conference session, I went exploring as I always do. Instead of heading straight to the city center, I decided to walk north to UN city. There is a large UN office and technology hub in Vienna Donau City. Young business professionals with company badges breeze in and out of high rises. There are gyms, restaurants, trendy coffee shops, and lots of technies. This little city is very modern looking and quite a contrast from the traditional Vienna landscape across the Danube.

To get to Donau City, you need to walk across the bridge over the Danube River. There is a pedestrian walkway under the bridge for non-motor vehicle travellers (like myself). Upon beginning my walk across the bridge, I was a little nervous that maybe I'd gone the wrong way. There was a lot of graffiti on the pedestrian walkway and I didn't see anyone else walking around me. Later, I passed a group of tourists with bulky cameras around their necks and I knew I was okay.

Once I reached the Donau City, it sort of reminded me of Washington, D.C.'s outskirt cities like Rosslyn in Northern Virginia. There is even a metro stop in D.C. called Vienna. Donau City must be the new up-and-coming place to work in Vienna. I certainly saw a lot of well dressed yuppies.

Because I like to really get to know a place when I travel, I spent some time wondering around Donau City. I took the pedestrian walkway on the other side of the bridge and this time passed many more people walking to work. There is a well connected Metro stop right at the center of Donau City, but I choose to walk whenever possible.

My next stop was the equally modern looking Vienna University of Economics and Business where the finance conference was being held. The campus is composed of bright, futuristic buildings. The Vienna University of Economics and Business could not look more different than my southern U.S. university.

Passing the St. Francis of Assisi Church walking the bridge to the Donau City.

Life as a yuppie techie in Donau City.

Leaving the Donau City back to Vienna center.
Graffiti galore along the bridge.
I would hate to be his ex-girlfriend, or current girlfriend.
The Vienna University of Economics and Business.

More to come on the museums of Vienna and Sacher chocolate cake!

Monday, September 7, 2015

Prater Park, Vienna

At the end of August, we travelled to Vienna, Austria for the European Finance Association annual conference. My husband and several of his colleagues were attending the conference from the university. I always like going on conference trips because I can sightsee while my husband is in his meetings.

I'd been to Vienna before, three years ago while I was finishing my first year in Spain. My American rommmate and I were taking a train trek through Europe on an InterRail Pass. The two of us arrived in Vienna from Munich. I remember thinking Vienna was a very regal city. Very 'old European' style.

This visit I was staying slightly further out of the city center, close to the university that was hosting the conference. Our hotel was conveniently right next to Prater Park, one of the oldest amusement parks in the world! We had great views from our window. At night you could even hear people screaming from some of the scarier rides. We had to walk through the park to get to the Metro, so we got to know it pretty well by the end of the trip . It's really an interesting mix of attractions: roller coasters, waterslides, merry-go-round, freefalls, horror houses, spinning teacups... you name it, they've got it. In summary, it's one part cheesy county fair, one part legit thrill rides.

View from our window of the Vienna Prater.
A few old-school roller coasters.
Spinning sombreros.
Carnival games.

J and one of his colleagues even felt bold enough to try the scariest ride in the park: The Turbo Boost! The description for this ride guarantees a 'zero-gravity' thrill. (

I volunteered to take pictures.

Smiles and thumbs-up at the beginning...
About to be slung upwards at incredible speeds.
The ride makes multiple 360 rotations, occasionally pausing mid-rotation, leaving riders sitting for several minutes suspended at the top. No thank you.

Upon doing further research of the park, I discovered that the Vienna Prater has the world's tallest chair swing! Every night when we passed through the park, I felt the pressure. I had to ride it. I mean, how often would I have this chance? Anyone who knows me knows that I don't ride thrill rides. Traditionally, chair swings aren't per se 'thrill rides', however one that rotates 383 feet above the air, I'd classify as scary. (To put that in real life terms, that 29 stories up!) 

On our final night in Vienna, I knew it was now or never. Against J's disbelief, I strapped myself in next to him on the highest swing of our lives. The combination of the chairs rotating and ascending is slightly unnerving. I thought I could handle it because I enjoyed the chair swing in Six Flags Over Georgia. Child's play.

From the top, you could see the lights from the city. The views were beautiful. But realistically, you're too busy trying to mentally distract yourself from the knowledge of just high up you are to really take it all in. Once we had reached the top and were making our rotations, I realized that I had barely breathed the whole way up. J also noted the tight death squeeze I had on his hand. Once I relaxed a little to breathe, I could momentarily enjoy the ride. I could make out a few of the iconic buildings we had visited earlier in the day. It was certainly an experience. I'm glad I can say I've been on the world's tallest chair swing! It's not something you get to do everyday! 

The Praterturm, all 29 stories!
Those tiny white dots are the chairs. Yikes.
Check off another experience off the bucket list!
Would you dare to do this swing?

Prater Park is also known for it's famous ferris wheel, an icon of the city built 1896/7. It's a slow moving rotation and you can even eat in the restaurant inside some of the cars. Check out more info about Vienna's favorite amusement park here: