Austria in 24 Hours

By Miranda Metheny


I’m not really the power-tour type of traveler. I prefer to spend enough time somewhere to see not just the famous facade, but the view from the top, from the bottom, from the back door and from the inside out. (Incidentally, spending a semester abroad is a great way to do this.) Still, sometimes you don’t have the luxury of a long, unhurried visit. Sometimes you have no choice but to walk (or even run) the well-beaten path. Sometimes, for example, a quickly approaching spring means the ski-season is set to end before you get out of your orientation program. And so, sometimes, you have to run to Austria for the weekend. Tragic, really. You know there’s so much more to see and do, you know you haven’t done the country justice. But you have to admit, it feels pretty good to stroll into class at 9 a.m. Monday morning — fresh from the overnight train with a bag of Alpine milk chocolate over your shoulder and fresh ski bruises flowering on your legs.

I couldn’t have done it without my friend Lea. In 24 waking hours, she took me from the former imperial palaces of Vienna to the ski slopes of Semmering, and half a dozen unique places and experiences in between. I never even felt overwhelmed. If she ever gets sick of international business, she’d make a brilliant tour guide!

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My day in Vienna started out slow and cozy at a traditional Viennese Coffee House. This was exactly what I needed after taking the overnight train in, but the stop was more than practical. The coffee house culture is a major part of the daily life in Austria. For years people have been heading to them for a slow breakfast or an afternoon tea while studying, reading newspapers or even finding romance.

Next, we headed to Schönbrunn, the imperial summer palace on the outskirts of Vienna. The place is enormous, beautiful and filled with memories of some of Austria’s most beloved historical figures — chief among them Sisi, the unwilling queen whose story has inspired countless operas, films and PEZ containers. Perhaps more impressive than the palace itself were its extensive gardens and grounds… unfortunately not at their best in early March.

Heading back into the heart of Vienna, we ate lunch at the Naschmarkt, or Nibbling Market — a long street filled with shops and stalls selling every kind of food imaginable. We feasted on feta stuffed zucchini, dried pineapple, artisan chocolate and, of course, Wiener Schnitzel. We worked off the calories soon after, though, when we headed to St. Stephen’s Cathedral and climbed 300-something stairs to the top of the tower.

But Lea saved the best of Vienna for last. As shadows grew long, she took me to the imperial winter palace of Hofburg. Being in its proper season, and a somewhat more public building than Schönbrunn, it managed to be even more impressive, ringed with cold marble statues that stare condescendingly down onto passerby. We peaked into the adjoining Spanish Riding School and caught a glimpse of the world famous Lipizzaner stallions, then continued on through the imperial gates.

The view from the other side of them was incredible. We were suddenly completed surrounded by stunning and monumental buildings. It was difficult to process it all at once. To our backs, yet another facade of the Hofburg. To our left, the National Library. Ahead, among others, were the governmental buildings, Vienna’s city hall and another cathedral… all towering grey and white with glittering gold detail and statuary. Horse drawn carriages hired by wealthier tourists wove daintily through the maze of opulence.

As darkness fell, we headed to Lea’s hometown. Baden is a small but pleasant town near Vienna, with residential streets in classic Art Nouveau, an old hot spring spa and one of Europe’s larger casinos. For dinner, we met some of Lea’s friends at a Heuriger, a traditional wine tavern. A quiet evening at a Heuriger is the very embodiment of Austrian Gemütlichkeit — which is often translated simply as “cozy,” but it goes beyond good furnishings and a warm fire to describe a sense of overall well-being and belonging.

The next day, I got to share in Lea’s family breakfast. The meal itself was actually very similar to what we had in the coffeehouse the day before — the same rolls and marmalade, soft boiled eggs and, of course, liberally flowing coffee and cocoa.

It was wonderful to meet Lea’s parents — they were incredibly welcoming and hospitable, even though I chose to visit on a very busy weekend for them (and, let’s get to the point, I love the Austrian accents!).

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The last part of the trip was the long-awaited alpine skiing experience. We headed south as fast as we could to reach the quickly receding winter snows, and found them at the ski resort of Semmering. We rode the lift up to the top, over acres of eerily-quiet pine forest, and suddenly the mountain lay before our feet in all of its glory — the snow glittering brilliant white and the slopes seeming to go on forever. For a little Missouri girl who’d only been skiing at St. Louis’ less-than-world famous Hidden Valley, it was unbelievable to be able to glide downhill for half an hour before having to take the ski lift up again!

I know this sounds lazy, but eating lunch at the ski chalet was easily the highlight of the day. We ordered delicious Tirolean dumpling soup, and a big Germknödel (yeasty cake with sour plum sauce) for dessert. These are traditional skiing foods, and they were perfect as we sat and ate in the deliciously cool air, watching teenagers try new snowboarding jumps, parents ski with children as young as two and three between their legs and the mountains rise all around us into the blue sky of a perfect weekend.

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