Vienna was tough in terms of your tourist comfort zone. In the past, we’d visited countries that speak a foreign language with a guide, and we’d also chosen countries whose languages I’d studied in the past. This time was different; it was just us, a guidebook and very little experience. And once we arrived, we realized just how much of a minority we English-speaking Americans really were in this post-Communist country. Being the type of travelers that want to at least try to honor the culture we currently occupy, we were determined - yet grossly intimidated - to put our best effort forward. German was brand spanking new to us; not just new words, but new sounds and new letters. Also, the common Austrian foods were very different than the fare were used to. Even if we found something that tasted okay, our bodies had trouble digesting it properly. Austria simply felt very far from home; every minute of every day seemed to require a great deal of effort. And when you’re sick and jet-lagged, that feeling seems to be magnified ten-fold and can sometimes push you over the edge of your sanity.
Taking all that into account, we stubbornly fought through it and really did enjoy ourselves in the end. The cabbie that drove us from the airport to our hotel was delightful; we helped him find Seattle on his map so he could mark that he’d met us. Our K&K hotel was deliciously comfortable for the price range; they even upgraded us to a lovely suite with a heavenly shower. I’m certain our included continental buffet breakfast every morning kept me alive. The Vienna subway system was surprisingly easy to navigate, even in German. The center of town was very walkable and comfortable to wander around in. The gloomy weather held out for the most part. And after our entertaining attempts at sprechen sie Deutsche (mostly my brave sister), the Viennese were noticeably polite and helpful.
At its core, Vienna is a glorious testament to Baroque opulence. The architecture is delicious, and it is simply everywhere. Austria didn’t just build a city; they created a masterpiece. It is like Disneyland, a designer’s paradise with yumminess everywhere you look. The Österreichische Nationalbibliothek inside the immense Hofburg Palace is quite possibly one of the most amazing rooms I’ve ever stood in. Standing at the Gloriette, gazing back over Schönbrunn with the Vienna skyline in the distance, is a breathtaking view that will stay with me for a very long time. Hearing a Mahler piece in Musikverein, a room with the best acoustics in the entire world, is a pretty awesome experience.
However, ironically veneered over that magnificence is the cynicism and anger that comes with a recent oppressive history like Austria’s. On one hand, you’re standing in front of an amazing building. On the other, you’re looking at a photo of the very same building dripping in red flags covered in swastikas. The Holocaust memorial in the Judenplatz is eerily silent, only further accentuating what happened right where you’re standing. Artwork that hangs over your head as you sleep claims “AVERT NUCLEAR PERIL!” Prevalent graffiti warns of the apocalypse. In Vienna, if it isn’t luxurious, it is bare, basic, pessimistic and usually rather dirty. And though I’m grateful that my eyes have been opened to these stark realities, I never quite found a way to fully process it all.
On the flipside, rural Austria delivers one of those, “It can’t possibly be this stereotypically quaint!” reactions. We drove out of the rain of Vienna through the sharp, jagged mountains of the Salzkammergut and into the lovely town of Salzburg. Lakes puddled around rolling green hills with perfectly European villages with a church steeple in the town center. It literally looks like you’ve wandered into the first three minutes of “The Sound of Music”. Wait…you actually have!
My overall review of Austria is that it is well worth a visit. I enjoyed myself immensely and I’m glad I went. It opened my traveler’s awareness to a whole new layer of reality, and I can’t believe I can now phonetically sound out German with a decent level of accuracy. However, if I’m being honest, Austria failed to make it onto the “I must return someday” list. If I do, that’s fine. But if I don’t, that’s okay, too.
Our four nights in England compared to our four nights in Austria honestly felt like two completely different trips. After all, this was my sixth time back to the UK. Stepping into the familiarity of London after the challenges of Austria felt almost like coming home. After our arrival in England, our trip became easier almost immediately. Even with a shockingly long customs line at Heathrow, defenses came down and tense muscles relaxed. Familiar currency, familiar navigation, familiar language, familiar food. Our hotel was great; the K&K family of hotels has a new loyal customer. And the extra perk: the weather began to improve.
We visited a few things we hadn’t seen before. I could easily live in Primrose Hill, Leadenhall Market is architecturally stunning, the raw beauty of St. Bart’s Cathedral was inspiring, a more in-depth expedition to Canterbury was downright fun, and Hampton Court Palace is Tudor history heaven. Otherwise, we simply wandered. In, around and through our favourite spots. Just watching, tasting, listening.
What’s more, we tackled England’s National Rail for the first time. That’s right, people; I faced my ridiculous, irrational fear of rail travel! And what do you know: I loved it. Even despite an hour-long delay due to a fatality on the line, I enjoyed myself. One of my perfect moments was watching the sun go down on the train back from Canterbury. *sigh of contentment* Bring on the day trips, people!
My Anglophenia is in full force right about now. There was something about this trip; perhaps the safety net it seemed after the awkwardness of Austria. But it felt even more right to be there than usual, something I didn’t think was possible. While I ached for home throughout my time in Vienna, I absolutely hated the idea of leaving London only a small number of days later.
Sitting at home, I now feel myself torn yet again. I’m glad to be home with Hubby, my own bed, and a fully-stocked kitchen. But I also appreciate the jet lag, the piles of pence, the dirty laundry…the few dwindling things I still have connecting me to that land 5,000 miles away. I sincerely don’t think I will ever stop regularly visiting the UK. I just wish it didn’t involve planes. Speaking of, Sis and I think the efficiency of Heathrow’s Terminal 5 is bloody brilliant. Compared to Terminal 4, we were through in absolutely no time at all, just like the TV commercials with all the fish. Now all we need are teleportation devices or Stargates or something that does not, I repeat, DOES NOT involve tray tables in their upright positions.
Next stop: Australia…if we survive the flights!