From Salzburg, our next stop was the little town of Gmunden. We arrived at the single-track train station and hopped onto a narrow gauge tram that rolled slowly through the tiny streets down the hill toward the Traunsee and the center of Gmunden. The Traunsee is a huge alpine lake set amongst the mountains and old buildings, with a castle on the near shore and lots of swans a’swimming! We were met by our hostess and shown to an adorable apartment with a balcony overlooking the lake, and a view that goes on forever, ah; Das leben ist gut!
After a glass of wine and a snack on our deck we went for a walk along the shore, enjoying the constantly changing view. The lake is crystal clear and full of many types of ducks and swans. There are historic buildings everywhere and the town must have once been walled in as many of the medieval towns were. Once the sun went behind the mountain the temperature drops fast, so we soon waltzed ourselves back to the apartment.
The next day was a real treat. We met up with my friend Monika whom I’d first met as a teenager when I lived in Sweden. We met a couple of times after that, but the last time I’d seen her was when she visited me in California and we went camping in Yosemite when Kyle was a baby. It was great fun to catch up after 30 years, and it felt as though we’d just met a few weeks earlier. Monika gave us the grand tour of Gmunden with a walk along the lakeshore to Schloss Ort, a hike up to the base of the Traunstein, a drive into the clouds, and some awesome Austrian meals (we love Knödel!) at her home. It was a full day, and it felt really good to reestablish an old friendship.
Our time in Gmunden was too short, and we added a longer stay to our list of places to visit once again. But it was soon time to go, so we headed back to the tram, to the train, and to Vienna.
Vienna is about as opposite from Gmunden as you can get! Busy, huge, flat, and busy…did I say that already? We got off the train with our walking directions in hand and found our way to our next berth. Our airbnb host was standing outside the door waiting for us, so we zipped right in and settled into our final home away from home. Like Salzburg we were on the sixth floor with a view of the city. Unlike Salzburg, the view of the city was all rooftops as far as we could see!
We unpacked and made our way to the main street to reconnoiter our surroundings. Since it was now December 30th, the streets were full of people in a party mood. Lots of shoppers, people listening to music, lights and action! We’ve found that there are many eating and drinking places where you purchase your food and then just stand outside at the many tables set up by each vendor. It’s handy and fun, but kind of tiring – we like to sit!
Our next day started off with the central event that started our whole trip to Austria. We were on our way to see the Lipizzaner Stallions at the Spanish Riding School! After a ride on the subway and a walk in the early morning brrr, we found our way to the stable door in a huge palatial building that dates back 450 years. Once in the door we climbed up a long stone spiral staircase that led us to the top floor overlooking the arena. The building itself is gorgeous and we were in awe at the thought of all that had gone on in that arena.
When the lights dimmed the entire place went silent and pretty much stayed that way through the complete performance. I think we were all nervous about startling the horses with our applause. The first performance was by the Young Stallions, still in training. A couple of them bolted when the crowd applauded, but the riders had them well under control. It was fun to see the young horses in all shades of gray and black as they grow into their signature white coats.
The next events were by the fully trained school stallions doing extremely difficult maneuvers. It’s far beyond my small knowledge of equestrian movements, but I kept thinking of all the things Meg had taught me when she was riding and teaching. It was fascinating to see the horses and riders move as one and to see the perfect lead changes, sideways movements and pirouettes, all without the slightest visible command from the riders. The final event was what they call the “above ground” movements, a.k.a. horses flying! It really was unreal what they have trained these beautiful animals to do for them, all for a reward of a kiss on the nose and a cube of sugar!
Our New Year’s Eve was spent in our cozy apartment looking out at the city going crazy! I’ve never seen so many fireworks in my life. They were being set off from nearly every rooftop near and far, plus there were central celebrations at many of the large plazas. It sounded like we were under attack and the seemed as if all the stars were falling out of the sky! The smoke from all those fireworks soon blotted out the buildings. Crazy, but fun to watch!
On another escapade we rode multiple subways and popped out of the earth miraculously at the Schönbrunn Palace – exactly as planned! After fighting our way through the throngs of tourists waiting in line for tickets, we suddenly discovered the self-service ticket machine and made it out the door in no time (definitely a place that could use some better signage). At any rate we were now out in the cold with two hours to kill before our tour. Luckily, they had an Advent Markt, and of course glühwein! We sampled our way around the market, trying some roasted chestnuts, bacon and leek spätzle, and a chocolate pretzel. One has to have an iron stomach some days!
We finally made it into the Palace where we were treated to a 22-room tour of the 1,441 rooms in the palace. It was stunning, but as palaces go, we’re still fans of Scottish castles. We learned our history about the imperial summer residence and about Baroque art and architecture (that I promptly forgot..oh well, blame it on the glühwein!). Oh, I do remember one thing – the porcelain stoves in each room were filled from the wall behind each room and eventually used steam. They were beautiful stoves standing 10-12 feet tall and decorated in white and gold porcelain. Another tidbit is that we stood in the great hall right where JFK met with Kruschev so many years ago..cool!
We went to two other musical events in Vienna, and spent the rest of our time wandering the city and finding out-of-the-way places to explore. At one point we found ourselves in the Butterfly House, and another time at the Globe Museum. Both are off the beaten track but well worth a visit!
One night we went to the St. Charles Church to hear Vivaldi’s Four Seasons. The church itself is a masterpiece and we had stiff necks from staring up into the domes. The music was presented by a small string orchestra and was perfect. It’s really an experience to hear these excellent musicians play in historic buildings with excellent acoustics. This was an authentic experience too, as none of the cathedrals in Austria are heated, so we were given blankets and sat on wooden pews all bundled up with cold noses while watching the breeze through the church move the tinsel on the Christmas trees. If the music hadn’t given us chills the sub-zero temps would have!
The Vienna Boys Choir provided our final bit of culture during a Holy Mass at the Hofmusikkapelle (the Imperial Court Chapel). It was quite an experience to say the least, to watch a Holy Mass in a chapel dating back to the 1400’s, but then add the Vienna Boys Choir, members of the State Opera orchestra and the mens choir, and voila, you have a mind-boggling experience! The sound that poured out of those pure voices seemed to float down from the third floor of the chapel where it engulfed us. Truly unforgettable.
So there you have it. Music, mountains, and museums, stallions, snow, and star showers…Vienna has it all, as long as your legs hold out! We wandered for miles, enjoying all the different architecture, the history, and the people. Our impressions from Austria are that it’s a beautiful country, very clean, very proud, with people who are not outwardly friendly but are helpful, and most everyone speaks excellent English. The foods are simple and good, the beer is tasty, and the apfel strudel is to die for!!!
(hit the back arrow if you missed the blog about Salzburg!)