Vienna & Bratislava – Slovakia Update # 87

Vienna is unlike anywhere I have ever been before. The old buildings with the intricate artwork engraved onto the walls, are absolutely stunning. I have been to many different countries, on many different continents, and there isn’t anywhere that can even hold a candle to Vienna. Read on to learn about my trip through the spectacular Austrian city of Vienna. 

The Train Ride

This past weekend, I went to the official Rotary Christmas meeting, and although I only mention Vienna in the introduction, we did go to Bratislava as well. It all started early in the morning, with me hastily showering and grabbing some stylish clothes I had been saving for the weekend. I decided to show my true Slavic superpowers, and I decided that I would wear my Adidas tracksuit pants on the train. Feeling confident and ready to rumble, my host dad dropped me off at about half past ten. I quickly found Ashley and Nicole, and we boarded the direct train to Bratislava. I felt a little guilty, because the three of us were taking up a cabin that was meant for six people, but I don’t think that many quiet and reserved Slavs would want to sit there for four hours with a bunch of rowdy Americans and Taiwanese. On the train ride, we all slept and listened to music, mentally and physically preparing ourselves for the weekend to come. 


Arriving in Bratislava

When we arrived at the train station in Bratislava, it was barely still light out. After a few minutes of blindly walking around, we found the group of Rotary exchange students that had arrived before us. Although it wouldn’t matter if we hadn’t found them for another two hours, because that is how long it took for everyone to arrive. If you were to ask any of the other travelers in the train station to point out the exchange students in the building, they would have no problem finding us. We sat right in the center of the lobby, with the Brazilians doing as Brazilians do and having a mobile dance party. That is something that I noticed over the weekend, and I will talk more about it later: Brazilians can party whenever, and wherever


Bratislava Castle

After everyone had arrived, we were informed that we would be going to Bratislava Castle. The catch however, is that we would be going there with all of our suitcases and travel gear. This would have been fine in any other circumstance, but once they told us this we all looked outside and groaned: visibility was zero, and it was gently raining. Nevertheless, Rotary is not one to change plans, so we all trekked down the antique streets of Bratislava to the castle. I was a little disappointed at times, because a vast majority of the visible old style buildings were either under renovation, or just left in a semi-falling apart state. That doesn’t account for all of the buildings however, and the ones that were kept in decent shape were just as impressive as you might expect. 

 

The arrival to the castle was gloomy and eerie, with us being able to just barely see the tops of the castle because of the fog. They attempted to give us a short explanation on the castle, but because of the rain and cold, they cut it short and told us to explore the castle on our own. We were not given much time to explore the castle, no more than 20 minutes, but during that time I was able to learn a few things about the castle. Like all significant historical castles, the Bratislava castle general region has been occupied for many millenia. Located just above the Danube River, its location was significant in early trading between the western and eastern world. The castle housed many famous historical figures, such as the Habsburgs (who I will be talking about later). The castle that we know today was built around 1761-1766, as a result of Maria Theresa of Austria claiming that she would have a royal residence in Austria and the Kingdom of Hungary. The castle lost its significance however, and became nothing more than ruins for nearly three centuries. In 1953, effort was made to bring the castle back to its former glory, and reconstruction began. Unfortunately, the weather did not allow for me to take decent pictures of the castle, however I hope to return soon.

You can just barely see the outline of the castle in the fog


Bratislava Christmas Market

With our brief time to explore the castle coming to a close, we walked down the windy path away from the castle, onwards to the Christmas market. With the the Brazilians blasting away at their music, and the rest of us grumbling about how we were soaked from head to toe from the rain, we finally found our way to the epicenter of Christmas cheer in Bratislava. Thankfully, we were given more time to go out and explore the city, and in even better news I found somewhere safe to store my luggage. I set out to explore the city with my friends Andrew from North Carolina, and Anthony from California. Luckily for me and Andrew, Anthony is a local Bratislavian, so we were able to find all of the unique nooks and crannies. We walked around for a while, exploring the small but unique Christmas market, until we finally sat down at a cafe, to protect ourselves from the blistering cold that waited for us outside. 

Apparently if you rub this guys head, any wish will come true – only if you keep it a secret!


Hotel Issues

Once the time to assemble was nigh, we finally got onto a bus, taking us to have some dinner. We went to a Chinese/Japanese restaurant in the same shopping mall that I went to in this post here. The food was good, although I could hardly taste it because I was eating it so fast: Rotary starved me. All jokes aside, we were all famished by the time we reached the restaurant, and we all had our fill. Now here is where the “fun” begins. As we were walking out of the shopping mall to the bus, I got pulled aside by a few Rotarians. After a quick exchange in Slovak, they informed me that I wouldn’t be staying in the same hotel as everyone else. At this point in time, all of the times that I might have done something that Rotary wouldn’t like ran through my head. I tried to inquire with them, to find out further what was happening, but they offered no explanation. Instead, myself and 7 other boys were instructed to remove our bags from the van that they were in and to start walking. We could have been walking to a gulag in Siberia for all I know, but it was all clear soon. 

After about 20 minutes of walking, we arrived at a hotel tucked away in between some office buildings. Once we had found our rooms there, an explanation was offered to us: Rotary had not reserved enough rooms soon enough, and they had to put 8 students somewhere else beside the main hotel. To save Rotary some face, I won’t go into full detail describing the hotel, but I will let you know that all of the boys (and the Rotex supervising us I might add), were extremely disappointed with the accommodations. However, we were not able to sit and talk about our settlement for long, as we had to trek to the other hotel where the rest were staying.

After a cold and arduous walk, we arrived at what seemed like a resort compared to where we were staying (Ah I should stop complaining already, but I really do want to emphasize how frustrated me and the other boys were). When we arrived, most of the other exchange students were already in the conference room. Before long, the meeting took place and the basic formalities began. After the typical “Hi I am person XYZ, and I will be your supervisor for the weekend!”, we were given a few Euros for lunch in Vienna the next day, and then the meeting dispersed. Thus the first day on our Rotary Christmas meeting came to a close. 


Schönbrunn Palace

We woke up bright and early Saturday morning, grabbing what we would need for the day before heading out; we wouldn’t be coming back until late in the night. After a quick breakfast at the hotel, we climbed onto the bus and made our way from Slavic Bratislava, to a renaissance inspired Vienna. The ride there was uninspiring, although I can’t say much about it as I was asleep for most of the ride. Before I knew it, we were in Austria, surrounded by difficult sounding words and abstract sights.  As we pulled up to our first stop, I had to pick my jaw up off of the floor. Even from a distance, the building that we were about to see was simply… epic. That building, was the Schönbrunn Palace.

The front gate of Schönbrunn Palace

I have been trying to find the words to describe the legendary building that I saw before me, but quite literally words cannot describe the impression that the building gives on you. I have been in front of many different palaces and castles all over the world, but never before have I had such a sense of awe. It is comparable to the Acropolis , or the Great Wall of China. When you walk into the palace, you enter through large gates that you could probably fit an ocean liner through. During December, the palace entrance grounds have a small Christmas market set up, where I spent some time after I finished basking in the grandness of the building (which took quite a long time mind you). 

Anthony posing like a champ

As one group began their tour of the palace, the group I was in had to wait our turn. While we were waiting, Andrew and I explored the Christmas market. We arrived at just the right time: the market was just opening up, so there was just enough stalls open that we could take some excellent pictures, and only a small crowd of people. The types of items varied from stall to stall, some offering intricate Austrian styled glassware, while some offered unique gingerbread cookies that you could practically taste when you walked by. Although I did not buy any myself, what really interested me was the variety of Christmas decorations they had for sale. However, our time was limited in the Christmas market, as our time slot for the tour of the palace arrived.

Once inside the castle, we were instructed to check in our bags, and give a self guided tour through the open section of the castle. Unfortunately, pictures were not allowed, so I hope I can help you visualize it here. I might have told you that the outside of the castle was spectacular, but the inside was like the flip side of the same coin. The outside gives an image of grand and stonewalled, while the inside was luscious and full of fantastic art pieces that you couldn’t take your eyes off of. We began in the guard room, which housed the personal guard for Emperor Franz Joseph. I would love to write an entire piece on the king of sideburns, but I don’t think that I can fit it in this piece here, I am already going to be running long! As we made our way through the palace, we were presented with many rooms with canvas paintings of different emperors and empresses, especially Empress Maria Theresa. Maria Theresa was known by many names, namely the Holy Roman Empress, the Duchess of Lorraine, and the Grand Duchess of Tuscany. She was the only female ruler of the Habsburg family, and allowed for great financial and political growth in all regions under her reign. Because of this, she has been memorialized in many fantastic paintings all throughout the palace. 

This is Andrew, so you can put a face to the name

Belvedere Palace Museum

Once we had finished the tour, we left the grounds of the Schönbrunn Palace. I would like to say that the palace was the most memorable part of my trip to Vienna, but that spot is held by another. But first, I will talk about our walk to the Belvedere Palace Museum. We began our guided tour of Vienna here, although it was rushed from the very beginning. As we stood in the garden in front of the Belvedere Palace Museum, we all shivered in the cold as snow fell on us. We only were able to walk by this building, but it set a building aesthetic mood for the rest of the day: antique buildings that were awe inspiring. If we were to stop at every building that had unique architecture, then we would be in Vienna for months. 

As we quickly walked by the museum, we passed by many different embassies from different countries. Of course, when the Brazilian embassy came by, they turned their music up and partied even harder than ever. Don’t get me wrong, I love all of the Brazilians: it’s just that with Brazilians, the party never stops. We finally reached our next stop: the Vienna State Opera. This opera house is world renowned as one of the most influential opera houses of all time. Although I did not get to see the inside of the opera house, I could easily recognize the outside from many popular movies such as the 007 series. 


St. Stephan’s Cathedral

Finally, after we left the opera house we came to the “main event”. After much anticipation, I can finally share with you what takes the cake as the most awe inspiring and memorable building in Vienna: St. Stephan’s Cathedral. This nearly 450 ft tower dwarfs all other buildings, and I can truly say that this building is the most epic, in every sense of the word. The building was so large compared to the rest of the surrounding structures, that I couldn’t get far enough away from it to get the entire cathedral in one picture. You know that your cathedral means business, when you have mini cathedrals on your cathedral. A little history on the building: It was completed in 1160, and is still active to this day. The building is under constant repair, as the limestone construction wears easily in the weather. Unfortunately, I was not able to go inside the cathedral, but even without going inside I can still bathe in the breathtaking view that is the cathedral. I have less to say about the cathedral than I do the palace, but I was able to view the palace more intimately than the cathedral, because of a variety of reasons. 

Protest on freeing Tibet from China

Goulaš

When we arrived at the cathedral, we were told we had roughly one hour to explore the city a little bit, and grab some food. I set off with Andrew again, and we went on a search for some food. After accidentally walking into a few bars, we finally decided that we would have some of the food that the food vendors were offering outside of the cathedral. You must know, at this time the temperature was -3C, and “feels like” -9C. For all of my American friends; it was really cold to be walking around and about. What food could we get that would warm up our practically frozen fingers? Goulaš. I believe that goulaš is a hungarian dish, but I must say that the Austrian booth that we were at served it excellently, with the meat just tender enough and the bread bowl that it was in just falling apart in my mouth. However, the food was gone before we knew it, and we knew we had to go somewhere before we died of hypothermia. We decided that the best place that tourists could go to stay warm and not look out of place, was a souvenir shop. It was there I made the life saving decision to buy some gloves and a beanie, saving my ears and fingers later on in the evening. Although I must say I think they probably ripped me off significantly…


Walking through Vienna

Once we had our group organized together, we began walking through the city. I assume that we would normally stop and have an intimate talk about each and every important historical site, but it was just too cold to stop moving: we needed to keep moving to stay warm. We did eventually stop, in what I was told was the old city square. Our tour guide told us, that on the very balcony next to us, Hitler address Vienna after Anschluss was in effect. I don’t think that the other exchange students really grasped the gravity of the location that we were in, but it really struck a cord to me. Living in America, I always have read and studied the second world war, and the catastrophic effects Hitler had on Europe during his time in power. Yet there I was, less than 50 feet away from where debatably the most recognizable villain in history declared Austria a federal state of Germany.   

This is where Adolf Hitler stood

Viennese Christmas Market

After we exited the square and made our way to a more open area, we were allowed to go and explore the city more freely: we had roughly two and a half hours to do as we please. To make the most of the time that we had, Andrew, Anthony and I set out to explore the Viennese Christmas markets. A pro tip: if you ever go to explore the Viennese Christmas markets, be prepared for massive crowds. It was difficult to find our way through the crowds, much less take pictures. We had a fun game that whenever I would lose sight of the other two boys, I would throw my hands up in the air. We did this because I am not the tallest of folks, and when you are surrounded by a hoard of six foot plus Europeans, you tend to get lost pretty quick. Anyway, we walked around the markets for quite a while, eventually pausing to take a bathroom break. Can you believe that they charge you to use the restroom? What am I supposed to do if I only have a card on me? I guess Austrians only have that problem.

“Matrioska” dolls in Slovak

Leaving Vienna

It seemed like it was only a few minutes, but eventually our time ran short. Thinking back on it, I remember being absolutely exhausted. We were walking all day, through the blistering cold, huddling together a lot of the time to stay warm. Even though the cold was a major distraction, it didn’t divert my attention enough to take away that fact that Vienna is simply an awe inspiring city. Sure, Bratislava is unique, but it simply can’t hold a candle to the amazement that Vienna gives off. In fact, I will go as far as to say that Vienna is the most fascinating city in all of Europe (Note: I have not been to every city in Europe, but from what I have seen, Vienna is the best). 

I don’t remember falling asleep on the bus, but I remember waking up just outside the city limits of Bratislava. We would be going to the same Chinese/Japanese restaurant that we went to on Friday, although this time every ate much slower. Mostly because the sheer exhaustion that we faced. After the quick meal, we hopped on the bus again to find ourselves in front of the nice hotel. The evening went by in a blur, although there was a mix of a talent show, gingerbread decorating, and other shenanigans. The night ended with a cold walk home, and some studying for what everyone dreaded would be coming the next day: the Slovak language test.


Everyone in the not nice hotel packed their things early the next morning, and left just before 7:40. Unfortunately for the boys in my room, the saying The early bird catches the worm doesn’t quite apply, so we missed the opportunity to drive to the nice hotel. We had to walk with our luggage. When we arrived, everyone was on the edge of their seat. This language test was crucial: if you pass with a well enough score, you have more lenient travel privileges. And if you do poorly on the test… Well let’s say that you better like the city you are staying in. I was not too concerned with the test, although most tests of any kind don’t normally faze me. I knew going into the test what my abilities in the Slovak language were, and I knew what I could not do. With that in mind, I tried my best to go into it level headed, and reminded myself constantly to take my time and to check my answers. The written portion of it, I feel like I did fairly well. The oral however, is another story. It isn’t that I did poor necessarily, it’s just that the way they asked the questions really threw me off. I can quite easily decipher what Slovaks are trying to say when it is relative to whatever they are talking about. I struggled when they talked to me about random things that I myself didn’t even know the answer to. I hope that the Rotex that were administering the oral portion of my exam understood my capabilities and judged me accurately. 

And that was my trip to Vienna and Bratislava. I believe that this is the longest post that I have ever written, so anyone that has made it this far: congratulations. I hope you enjoyed it, although I am not done yet. We cannot forget the ever so important Word of the Day! Today’s word of the day is:

Wien – Vienna

Wait a second, this isn’t Slovak! This is German! Now hold your horses there, I know. But, I think it is relative, and it allows me to tell you about all of the horrible broken German I spoke this weekend. Anyway, thanks for reading!

 


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