Saturday, November 3, 2012

Vienna, Austria

Entering back into the EU over the Hungarian border on the train is an experience I won't forget quickly. On an unusually empty train, with only three other travels sharing the train cart with me, the announcements from the conductor were made in several languages not including English and my knowledge of which route we would be taking to get to Vienna was limited, so I was already feeling a bit out of my comfort zone. The train stopped a couple hours into the journey in a very strange setting. There was no physical train station to be seen, we had simply come to a halt alongside a platform, in the middle of several tracks. Looking out I could see old run down houses along the side of the tracks, with not a single person in sight. There were a few signs in a language that I could not read, with a flag flying in the distance that I did not know the origin of. A group of about ten people began boarding the train, all looking very official and speaking quickly to each other. The first few officials passed through the cart quickly, saying "customs, customs, anything to claim?" but not really looking directly at anyone. When they got to my seat I was certain I was caught, as I was sitting there snacking on my Croatian raspberries. I froze, knowing absolutely nothing about border crossing rules or regulations and not sure how they would respond to this produce heading across the border, since my main reference of border crossings is the Canadian-US border where produce is one of the main items you are asked about. The customs brigade passed by and the lead officer hesitated for only a second to take a second look at me and I'm pretty sure I saw her eyes roll as she kept walking, followed by several others in uniform that were carrying large guns. The next group was passport control, and the tall man in his official uniform quickly demanded my passport which I was prepared with. He spent an uncomfortably long time looking through each page, examining my information while looking up at me from time to time, but not asking a single question or saying anything to me at all. Eventually he decided I was worthy of entrance and forcefully stamped my passport, before giving it back to me and moved on. Just like the customs officer he was followed by his own security guards with big guns. Breathing a sigh of relief, I waited impatiently for the train to eventually start rolling away from this strange location, and a few hours later I had finally arrived in the city of Vienna.

The Stephansdom church is where my sight seeing adventures began. In the centre of the city it is largest church in Vienna, built in a beautiful gothic style it towers over all the surrounding buildings on one of the main pedestrian streets in Vienna. My new host met me in front of the Stephansdom, along with another traveler joining us from Zurich, we all went back to the apartment to get settled in before spending an evening out together. Joined by the members of my host's Rugby team, we enjoyed our night in the city centre with the entertainment that comes from an Irish Pub full of locals. We all became friends quickly, learning about one another's travel stories and making plans for the days ahead. My fellow surfer joined me on some explorations through the city the following days. She was on a short vacation through the weekend, having always wanted to visit Vienna she traveled nine hours through the night from her home in Switzerland. She was great company during the time we spent together, and she invited me to visit with her again in Zurich in the upcoming weeks. 

Now, I have spent a lot of time in the past couple months exploring some of Europe's major cities and capitals. While beautiful, and full of historical value, many of the major cities have been overwhelming, and often times quite dirty from pollution and over population. Vienna was nothing like this. Beautiful in every way, and cleaner than any other city I have been to, I stepped off the train and was welcomed by fresh cold mountain air telling me that the fall season has arrived in Vienna with full force. The trees that line the streets are starting to loose their leaves as they turn to all shades of yellow and orange. Every street is lined with pathways for pedestrians and a separate lane for bicycles. In some areas there are far more bikes than cars on the road, because people prefer this form of transportation and the city accommodates them with their own paths and even street lights dedicated to the safety of bicycle crossings. Though crowded with tourists, the city streets are not unbearable, there are too many beautiful sights to see to worry about the crowds. 

One day in Vienna while wandering the streets for hours I came across an Oktoberfest themed street market where traditional Viennese meals were being prepared for sale and served with locally brewed beer. Children were carving and painting pumpkins on one end of the market, while other venders were selling their produce and hand crafted trinkets. I joined the small crowd of attendees and sampled some Austrian cuisine with a hearty Bavarian beer to go with it while I watched the festivities go on. 

Around ever corner of Vienna there is another new sight to be seen, it it difficult sometimes to keep track of everything that is seen. I spent an entire day discovering beautiful buildings and places, many times having no clue what I was looking at specifically, but enjoying it none the less. The amount of architectural detail that goes into every public building in this city is incredible. A building that appears to be a massive Gothic style church is not in fact a church or monument but simply the town hall building. The Parliament building is lined with golden statues and an elegant staircase in the front entrance and is one of the most attractive places in the city. The parks are full of cobblestone pathways, fountains, and war monuments along the way. The Opera house is one of the only buildings that looks simple from the outside, only because the detailed design is focused on every inch of the inside. Deciding to sneak in as one performance had ended, I tried to catch a glance at the famous theatre, but in my attempt to climb the stairs into the balcony I was caught and sent away, though I could tell from just the staircases and wall decorations that the details put into the creation the Opera building was nothing short of a masterpiece. 

Wiener Riesenrad, German for "Vinnese Giant Wheel" is in the centre of a small carnival area with amusement park rides of all kinds. On the opposite side of the carnival area, I followed the noise of the crowds and music playing to find Oktoberfest happening in Austria! People wandering the paths in their lederhosen and dirndls, all with a stein of beer in their hands while dancing and clapping to the bands strolling through the festival equipped with various instruments, including accordions of course. I couldn't pass up a chance to participate in the festivities, and though the admission to the large tents has passed, I observed from the outside all the people standing on tables, shouting out their favorite songs while I snacked on my giant Bavarian pretzel with a delicious beer to go along with it and I couldn't have been happier about it. 

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