Austria Part 3: Hallstatt

I really wanted to save this post for last, but thanks to my OCD, I need to write about my holiday in chronological order.

Yes, I went to Hallstatt. Even when I see pictures of it now, I still can’t actually believe that I went there. Just when I thought Neuschwanstein Castle was magical, I got blown even further away when I saw Hallstatt.

I decided in advance to go on a Sunday, simply because I would have a long journey to get through to get to Prague on Tuesday, so I didn’t want 2 consecutive days of travelling.

Why Hallstatt?

Hallstatt is a World Heritage site that lies roughly 2 hours south east of Salzburg, and about 3 hours south west of Vienna. It gets its name from the Hallstatt mountains where, some 7000 years ago, the pre-historic humans found a rich salt deposit. It is actually home to the oldest salt mine in the world. It also happens to be one of the most beautiful places you will ever see – the reason why I decided to go in the first place.

Getting there from Salzburg

I consulted with various sources to find out how to get to Hallstatt. The only thing I was certain of was its distance from Salzburg – roughly 2.5 hours. There was no direct train there, which didn’t surprise me. If anything, it only made things more exciting.

The day before, I had a quick chat with one of the staff at the central station to confirm that I were to take bus 150 to Bad Ischl, then a train to Hallstatt Bahnhof. From there, I knew I had to take a ferry for another €2.50 to get across the lake to Hallstatt itself. I was also given a bus timetable (even though I had also printed one before my trip) which I gladly accepted since it would confirm the times I planned for.

Salzburg Hauptbahnhof

I was told which platform to wait at for the bus, and that I could get my tickets to the Hallstatt Bahnhof directly from the bus driver. I arrived at the station at around 7:30, as I wanted to grab Starbucks and some food for the road before leaving. The Salzburg Hbf has several little cafes, as well as a Spar, where you can get whatever you like. I decided to get a sandwich roll and a packet of Oreos from the Spar, since I would be able to munch on a few Oreos whenever I felt like without worrying about them getting stale. Knowing that my eating times had already changed completely (most times I forgot to eat lunch and only realized it after 3pm, which also caused me to skip dinner), Oreos was my best bet.

I was glad to have joined the line when I did, because not long after, there were hoards of Chinese tourists with large suitcases behind me. I was probably the 10th person to board the bus, and knew by then that it cost about €14.50 for the ticket to Hallstatt, €10 of which was for the actual bus ride. I didn’t think it was a bad price considering the journey time, not to mention the convenience.

Due to the number of passengers, it took some time for the bus to actually leave, so we left about 15 minutes later than scheduled. It was still ok, and we got to Bad Ischl at about 10, after driving through some of the most scenic places I had ever seen in my life.

Bad Ischl Bahnhof

Bad Ischl is a quaint little town that, like most places in Austria, is surrounded my mountains. It is less English-friendly than the bigger cities, but still better than the smaller villages. I knew enough German to understand the signs around the station, most of which weren’t particularly obvious.

Lake HallstattAfter waiting for about 20 minutes, the train towards Obertraun Dachsteinhöhlen Bahnhof arrived at platform 1. I got on it with about 20 other people (all of which were with me on the bus from Austria). Most of the Chinese tourists had gotten off the bus 2 stops before Bad Ischl, so the process of disembarking the bus and getting my bearings around the station was simple.Hallstatt Bahnhof

I cannot really put into words just how beautiful the 30 minute train journey was. It started off going along a river, which quickly turned into Hallstatt Lake. I envied the people who must have been living alongside it.

Hallstatt Bahnhof

The train stopped at Hallstatt Bahnhof, the smallest station I have ever been to. There was only one train track, and a small hut with a wooden roof that was clearly marked Hallstatt. The moment I got off the train, I was ecstatic because it was pretty obvious where I needed to go as there was a lone wooden pathway straight down to the lake, where the ferry was waiting. I was nearly there.

Hallstatt Bahnhof

After paying and boarding the ferry, I waited about 5 minutes for everyone else. Apart from the soft growl of the engine and the occasional chatter from the other people, there was complete silence. The surroundings were unreal. In fact, the entire experience that day was.

The ferry didn’t really have a front or back, so I was lucky to have chosen the spot that I did because this is the view I had as we approached:Hallstatt from the lake

The Village of Hallstatt

I had a few things planned for my day in Hallstatt, like visiting the Ice Caves and 5 Fingers, but I was just so thrilled to be in Hallstatt itself that I didn’t want to waste any precious time trying to get to those places. I was also scared that I’d spend so much time travelling in and out of Hallstatt that I wouldn’t be able to get back on time to get back to Salzburg. I pacified myself by thinking, “It’s fine, I’ll be back here again some day. I’ll do it then”.

When the ferry docked, we were let loose. I took a quick glance around the area and figured that the centre of town was to the left, so went in that direction first. Of course I was going to find the viewpoint where I could get my very own postcard picture of the place, but I knew that was to the right, so decided to save it for later.

If I could describe Hallstatt in one word, it would be ‘surreal’. There seems to be one of everything – one church, one market square, and even one ski shop. With a population of barely 1000, it is without a doubt the smallest place I’ve ever been to, and I was in complete and utter awe of the place.

Hallstatt Market Square

I had at least 5 hours to kill there, but because of how tiny it was, I was forced to take the most leisurely stroll I could possibly take, and it was simply marvelous.

Things you can’t miss (cos it’s not physically possible to miss them)

The free WiFi

The moment you step off the ferry, you will be able to access the open network. It is quite strong considering how many people use it; I was even able to upload some pictures to Facebook without any delays.

The scented soap shops

They have soap in every scent imaginable, and they’re sold by weight. I was not curious enough to smell the one called “man soap”, though.

The Ski Shop

I have never been to a ski shop so was thrilled to walk through it. It had everything from climbing equipment to gloves to embroidered placemats and even salt gift packs. It was quite a large shop that looked like a giant log cabin inside. It is definitely worth a look. I would have definitely made a few purchases if I had any use for ski equipment.

The Lakeside restaurant

I would have died to have lunch there, but I since I had brought lunch with me, I decided to save my cash for the journey home.The Lakeside restaurant

The stream

As you walk through the village, you’re bound to hear the sound of running water. That is because there is a stream running through Hallstatt that comes directly from the mountains. The buildings are built in such a way so as to not obstruct the natural flow of the water.

The tetris layout of the homes

In case you haven’t already seen pictures of Hallstatt, it is built against a mountain. This means that space is very limited, so homes have to be built on different levels on the gradient of the hill. It also means that very few of the homes can have car garages. I saw more homes with boat houses than car garages, something which was a first for me.Hallstatt

Taking a hike up the south side of town

When I say ‘hike’, I mean climbing hundreds of steps. I was on a mission to get my postcard picture of Hallstatt, and all I knew was the general direction I needed to walk in. But after walking uphill and up hundreds of stairs (at least, that’s what it felt like), I knew that I was not going in the right direction because the village got smaller and smaller, and the lake got bigger and bigger. As I got higher, the staircases got narrower with more uneven steps, and only one person could utilize them at a time. So now and again I had to wait for someone to pass before using them.

I can complain about the stairs because I felt like dying, but I can’t complain about the view.

After going as far up as I possibly could and spending some time absorbing the views, I descended and went further south towards the place I thought most likely to be the viewpoint I was looking for.

The Viewpoint

It took barely 5 minutes of me reaching the bottom of my unplanned climb to get to the viewpoint, and it was exactly what I expected.

Hallstatt

I knew from the moment I stepped onto that ferry that I was in love with Hallstatt, but being able to see it with my own eyes rather than on a photograph was on a whole new level. To say I was happy would be an understatement, even though it took me at least 20 minutes to get someone to take a decent picture of me. After I got 3 different people to help me out, I finally got the picture I wanted (well, sort of).In Hallstatt

Getting back to Salzburg

After I was satisfied with the walk I had done, I decided to head back to Salzburg, since it was just after 3pm. But before that, I grabbed a bite from the little takeaway just next to where the ferry would arrive. I misread the timetable, so missed the ferry when it came by the first time. I knew it would be back in 10 to 15 minutes so it didn’t bother me much. I sat patiently on one of the benches on the lakeside, wondering why on earth I didn’t spend the night there – not because I ran out of time, but because I just wanted more time to absorb the beauty of the place. Even though the weather was overcast and a bit chilly, it was still like something out of a fairytale.

Lake Hallstatt

When I got back to the train station after taking the ferry, there were a few other people waiting for the train too. When the train arrived, it was going in the same direction as when I arrived earlier that day. Seeing that everyone else (tourists, that is) was getting on that train, I got on it too. However, the moment I put my foot on that step, my gut feeling told me that it was the wrong train.

The wrong trainMy gut feeling was right.

The reason I got on that train was because I thought that since there was a single track, trains only ever went in one direction. And since the region was so small, I thought that they possibly go around the lake. I couldn’t have been more wrong. As the train progressed, I became more aware that I was indeed going in the wrong direction, and that I was too far out from Hallstatt to be going anywhere near it again.

I got off at the 3rd stop at a tiny village called Bad Aussee. I had never been to a more deserted station; it was far more empty that Bad Ischl was. There were no staff present, and no sign of any tourists either.

I went into the station and saw 4 elderly local women that looked like they had just been hiking. They were at the ticket machine, babbling to each other about how to use it. I peered over the shoulder of the one who was operating it, and saw that she had selected Bad Ischl as her destination. I couldn’t have been more relieved. I mean, what were the odds?

I quickly got myself a ticket once they were done, and followed them outside. I made sure to stay as close to them as possible, without being creepy of course. A young Chinese guy came to ask them if they knew how to call a taxi, and it was then that I discovered that they did not speak a word of English. Luckily for him, he was staying in the village, so he didn’t have far to go, unlike me.

According to the station’s timetable, the next train to Bad Ischl was going to arrive only at about 8pm, so I was freaking out slightly because I wondered if I might have to spend the night in Bad Aussee, and how I would do that. However, I knew that there was no way in hell that 60-something year old women would wait for 4 hours at a train station, which is why I stayed close to them. After about 30 minutes of sitting on the bench, they got up and walked towards the platform. I was so relieved, so went with them. We stood for another 15 minutes or so, and I decided to ask the friendliest looking one, in some sort of retarded sign language, if they were indeed going to Bad Ischl. She said yes and pointed to the platform I should be standing on.

Bad Ischl bus timetableWhen the train arrived, the same woman I had asked gestured for me to get onto the train with them. I was very grateful for that. I also sat close to them on the train and when we arrived in Bad Ischl, she again gestured for me to exit the train with them. She once again proved how wonderful the locals are, and that they will always help you when they can.

When I got back to Bad Ischl, I realized that I had totally forgotten that it was a Sunday which meant that the busses came only every 2 hours, and I had just missed the previous bus by about 20 minutes. It meant I had to wait until 6:30pm for the next bus to arrive, more than 1.5 hours more. I was totally fine with it though, because not only was it still broad daylight, but I was sure that the bus would take me directly to Salzburg.

There were a handful of other tourists that were waiting at the station too, so I at least had some company. I met 3 other Indian girls there too, who were very friendly, so we chatted a little. I should have asked them where they were from because it was evident that they weren’t from India, but their accents were difficult to make out.

We all got on the same bus, including some other people who were on the bus with me from Salzburg in the morning. Clearly they spent the day in Bad Ischl and not Hallstatt, which explained why I boarded the train to Hallstatt with so few people. When I saw them, I was even more relieved because I knew they were also going back to Salzburg.

That day, although I was a little scared, I was thankful for the new experience of not only seeing a place I had dreamed about for years, but for the humanity of others and the comfort of the company of strangers, even if we didn’t say a word to each other. When you’re alone, you have to be aware of your surroundings. You also learn to read people, which can prove extremely valuable. The journey to Hallstatt not only taught me that, but also to never doubt my gut instincts. Had I not gotten off that train in Bad Aussee, who knows where I would have ended up that night.Till we meet again, HallstattHallstatt, I will most definitely see you again. Next time, I’m going to spend at least 2 nights in your little paradise because you were like something I had read out of a storybook, and I still can’t believe that you are actually real.

If Hallstatt had a theme song, it would be something by Enya.

 

 

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Austria Part 2: The Sound of Music

Earlier this year, I wrote a post called “The Hills Are Alive in 2015“. The Sound of Music was one of only 2 reasons for my visit to Salzburg, and there was no better year for me to do it in than in 2015, since it was the movie’s 50th anniversary.

Let me make one thing clear before I continue: Julie Andrews is my absolute hero. I have her up on a pedestal, and believe that she is undercover royalty. I will never tire of watching her or hearing her sing, let alone speak. She is the ultimate lady to whom I have the utmost respect and adoration for. In today’s world, the only person who could measure up to her is Emma Watson. To be able to visit Salzburg and live the magic of The Sound of Music was an absolute dream come true.

Now that that is clear, here are the list of options that I considered when planning my time in Salzburg:

  1. Visiting all the locations on my own, since they were free
  2. Doing a bus tour (since there’s so many out there)
  3.  Attending a Sound of Music dinner concert

From the above options, I favoured the last one the most. The problem with doing that though is that although I’d hear the music, I’d still have to go to all the locations. Knowing the pace at which I travel, I would risk not seeing all the locations had I chosen to visit them on my own. And I’d still have to take a bus out of town to go to the hill where the picnic scene was shot.

Since I had already booked a bike tour to see Neuschwanstein Castle, I realised that that was probably the way to go, since I never get to ride a bike back home in SA. Because I wanted everything to be as Sound of Music as possible, I booked with Fräulein Maria’s Bicycle Tours.

Meeting point at MirabellplatzThe meeting point was the front entrance of Mirabellplatz, a place I had become all too familiar with. I had met the tour guides the previous day while wandering around, so took the opportunity to confirm the time and location of the tour. Even though the tour was scheduled to start at 9:30, the guides advised me to be there at least 15 to 20 minutes early so that we could get comfortable with the bikes and receive a safety lesson.

We had a little room to get a feel for the bikes, before the group was divided into two. 15 of us were to go with Francesca, and the other 15 with the guy whose name I didn’t catch. We rode around the corner to a quiet park next to Mirabell Palace, where Fräulein Francesca introduced herself and got everyone else to also introduce themselves and state their connection to The Sound of Music. Like most Austrians, Francesca grew up not knowing about The Sound of Music, and learned about it from tourists. So it was ironic that she was now giving tours on it.

The other people on the tour were of various ages. Holly Christina, the girl from New Zealand, was the youngest. There was at least one couple in their mid 50s, aMirabell Palace parknd a woman who I’m sure was over 60. Holly bought a little guitar especially for the tour, and she named it Gretel, after the youngest Von Trapp child. I was the only South African on the tour; most of the others were from the US, and if I remember correctly, Holly was the only one from as far east as New Zealand. It was delightful seeing such diversity in age – it’s amazing how the movie has touched the lives of such a wide range of people.

My bike, Liesl

Before we even got to the park, I wondered why the girls were told to take the white bikes, and the guys to take any bike that wasn’t white. Once we got to the park, Francesca told us to look on the side of our bikes since each of us would have a unique one. It turned out that every bike had a character’s name on it – I was Liesl. Liesl's picture cards

There were also picture cards attached to the back of the basket, so that we could see which scene was shot in each place that we rode to.

When we left the park, we kept off the street as much as possible so as to avoid possible collisions with pedestrians, something I didn’t mind at all. We began the ride by going over one of the bridges and stopping about half way so that Francesca could give us a nice introduction to the kind of route we’d be taking.

Once we crossed the road and had a look at the unusual Mozart statue (he was butt naked and posed awkwardly), Francesca also explained the reason for the buildings being built right up against the cliff – it was actually where the river used to be. Looking around me, it was already clear that I had chosen the best tour to see the Sound of Music sights, because the paths we took were so narrow, there’s no way I could have seen what I did had I been on a bus or gone on my own.

Riding in the streets of Salzburg

After seeing Mozart, we made our way through to the old town market in order to see the Salzburg Cathedral. The market was very busy so we had to wind our way through people. We stopped for about 30 minutes to get a bite to eat and visit the St Peter’s cemetery – the inspiration behind the scene where the Von Trapp family was hiding from the Nazis.

Hohensalzburg Palace from St Peter's Cemetery

I took a 10 minute stroll around the cemetery and went into the little church inside it, as I wanted to miss nothing that Julie Andrew’s might have seen herself all those years ago.

I had not had breakfast that day, so since I had at least 20 minutes left, I went back to where we had parked our bikes and noticed a street vendor that was selling pretzels. There was one in particular that caught my eye, so I decided to get one as I needed sustenance for the next 2 hours of bike riding. When I asked him for it, he jumped with excitement and said that it was his favourite one. When I took a bite of it, I understood why: the pretzel was basically one big tube for fresh cream. It was not a filling (or healthy) meal, but it was just what I needed to keep my energy levels up until I could get something more substantial to eat. When he handed it to me, I realised how awesome it was to traSalzburg brezenvel alone. As unhealthy as I knew that thing was, I didn’t have to feel bad about having it because I knew I’d probably never get to have it ever again. And besides, I’d be doing so much walking for the next 10 days that it didn’t really matter what I ate (or at least, that’s what I told myself).

After eating, Francesca mentally prepared us for the only steep hill on the tour. She explained how and when to lower the gear on our bikes so that we would be able to climb it, however none of us got the timing right, so with her encouragement, we all walked up the hill. Francesca stood to the side and waited for us to pass, and played Climb Every Mountain from her phone (?) that was connected to some hidden speakers on her bike. It really got the group going and also brought about smiles from onlookers as they obviously heard the music too. We did not try to hide how giddy we were, and some of us sang along and gave Francesca a high 5 as we passed her.At the top of the hill

When we got to the top of the hill, Francesca let us stop for a few moments to catch our breaths as she explained how the same scene of the movie was shot in different locations, and that the view we could see was made to look as if it was what Maria saw as she stood at the entrance of The Abbey.

Holly and I decided that we would take each other’s photos along the tour, since we were both alone. That’s another thing I love about travelling alone – you get to make friends!

Conquered the hill!

We had to ride only a few metres to The Abbey, where we could take in more views and walk around. We were allowed to go inside, so all of us did. The inside of the Abbey is very dark, so it was clear that they had to really adjust the lighting for the movie. Nevertheless, I was still thrilled to have been in the same room that Julie Andrews once stood. When we got back outside, the other tour group had caught up with us.

The best part about being at The Abbey was the fact that the entire tour group got together to sing Doe A Deer, with Holly providing the music with Gretel. There were some little kids in the other group who also sang along. It was the most magical part about the entire tour.

After the Abbey, we still had some other places to see like the famous “I am 16 going on 17” Gazebo, as well as the Leopold Palace and the Von Trapp family home. But before we could see any of that, we had to descend an insanely steep hill. So steep, that we had to use both front and rear breaks. It was a little scary at first, but we all managed.

Holly and I often got left behind by the group as we kept stopping to take photos and videos of each other and the surroundings. I cannot describe how stunning the scenery was, not to mention how peaceful the whole area was. In those 3.5 hours, I had not a care in the world.

There was an American guy who was also alone on the tour, and he kept a lookout for Holly and I so that we knew which direction the rest of the group was going in. It was very sweet of him. After we had left the Von Trapp family home and were done acting like the kids playing the trees, he started to sing Edelweiss  as we rode off. Of course Holly and I joined in, because it was the only song that we hadn’t heard Francesca play from her bike.

Across the lake from Leopold Palace

Across the lake from Leopold Palace

The Von Trapp family home

The Von Trapp family home

Imitating the Von Trapp children

Imitating the Von Trapp children

The hills are alive

The hills are alive

The Gazebo

The Gazebo

The last stop of the tour was Mirabell Palace, where we had to wait for other tourists to move aside so we could get decent photos of ourselves on the staircase that Julie Andrews stood with the children at the end of Do Re Me.

Mirabell Palace gardens

Mirabell Palace gardens

As if it wasn’t evident enough from the pictures, I was absolutely elated by the end of the tour. It was everything I had imagined and my only regret was the attire I chose for the day since I was convinced that it was going to rain. Oh well, not that that made a difference in the amount of fun that I had.

If you’re a Sound of Music fan, I cannot emphasise enough just how brilliant this tour was. It is an absolute must, and I can tell you from experience that even the non-fanatical husbands who were dragged along ended up having the time of their life. I guarantee that you will feel enchanted by the end of the day, and it will become one of your favourite things.

How do you solve a problem like Maria? Do the Fräulein Maria’s Bicycle Tour. You won’t regret it.

So long, farewell
Auf Wiedersehen, goodnight
I hate to go and leave this pretty sight

Austria Part 1: Salzburg

Salzburg was a place I grew up wanting to visit for several reasons, and after seeing Innsbruck in 2012, I was even more keen to see another Austrian city.

Like the other cities I went to on this trip, I spent 4 nights in Salzburg, which was actually too long. I never cared to look at the population or size of Salzburg before visiting, so it was only when I got there did I realise that it’s more of a town than a city, with a population of barely 150 000. Its so small, in fact, that even 2 days is enough to see everything you need to see.

Getting there

I had pre-booked my train tickets before leaving South Africa so I’d have one less thing to worry about, and also so that I’d be able to time myself better. I had done some research on different train lines and decided to go with DB Bahn, since I was travelling from Munich. I wanted to get a direct train because I didn’t want the hassle of changing trains when I had a large bag to lug around.

MunichSalzburgTicket The ticket I got indicated that the route would be direct, however, only at my second to last stop did I find that it was not the case. Because of the refugee crisis, trains were being diverted to lesser known towns in order to control where the refugees would enter from, since their main means of entering was via train.

The train was marked as being en route to Salzburg Hauptbahnhof, but it was actually going to a small town roughly 11km out of Salzburg called Freilassing, and is actually the border town of Austria. While on the train, there was an announcement that all passengers had to exit the train at Freilassing as service would be terminated there. I was a little nervous about it, being alone and all, but I knew that there easily were about 100 other tourists that were definitely going to Salzburg. It only made sense that tourists were going to Salzburg and not Freilassing, so I made sure that I stayed close to them when disembarking and then standing in a queue outside.

All the passengers that stood around me spoke in a language that I could not understand – either Mandarin or Spanish, so I tried to listen as carefully as I possibly could for any signs of where the line we were standing in would lead us. Even German would have sufficed, but I could not hear a single person speak it, so I decided to trust my gut and continue to wait in the line.

About 15 minutes later, to my relief, 3 buses marked Salzburg Hbf arrived. Until I got on that bus, I had no idea that I was just in Freilassing (because all I got from the announcement on the train was that I had to get off at the next stop, not what the next stop was) since I couldn’t get any GPS signal on my phone. I had no idea how long the journey would be to Salzburg, and was not impressed that I had to stand the whole way. I checked Google Maps while on the bus in order to somehow determine where I was and how far Salzburg was, and judging by the time I had been on the bus at that point, Freilassing was the only place that made sense for me to have been at a few minutes before.

Due to the construction on so many of the roads, as well as the patches of refugee camps we had to drive through, the bus ride was about 30 minutes long. It took us directly to Salzburg Hbf, so I arrived there just after 2pm, which was great because that was about the check-in time of my hotel.

I stayed at Hotel Krone, which was in an extremely convenient and popular location.

The Locals

I had never really interacted with Austrians before, and I had a rather good first impression. I took a little time to settle in to my hotel before setting off for an afternoon walk into town. I was absolutely starving, so decided to head into the Altstad (Old Town) in the hope of finding something that would keep me going for the rest of the day.

It was super easy to get from my hotel to the old town, since it was literally down the road I was staying on, and across the river. Once I got to the foot of the bridge, I got my first view of the Hohensalzburg Fortress, the most iconic building of the city. There were so many people on the bridge, that the one time I was able to almost fully extend my arm to try to take a photo of myself, I had to withdraw it immediately as someone was about to crash into me.

When I was about to try again, a local girl suddenly showed up in front of me and immediately started yacking in German. I could barely understand a word coming out of her mouth, but she looked so friendly that I couldn’t help but smile at her and try to make sense of what she was saying. I got the gist of it though – she was basically saying that it is difficult taking a picture of yourself and that I should let her take it for me. When I said “oh, ok!”, she realised that I was talking in English, which immediately prompted her to switch to it too. She took my phone, told me to smile as she took the picture, and happily said “Its my pleasure!” when I thanked her, then disappeared just as quickly as she had appeared. I don’t know where she came from, but that was such a wonderful first impression of Austrians. Thank you, whoever you were!

Salzburg

The Food

Austrian food is probably the most bland that I’ve ever eaten, although they do have some good things here and there. Schaumrolle is one of them. Upon entering the old town market, I saw a long queue of people at one particular vendor. Curiosity got the better of me and I know better than to mistrust the locals. It was the first thing I had eaten that day and although it wasn’t a proper meal, it certainly made me happy. It was a puff pastry roll filled with warm fresh cream. It was actually to die for. I highly recommend it!Shaumrollen

Mirabellplatz

I had a favourite place in every city I went to. In Salzburg, Mirabell Palace was it. A mere 10 minute walk from my hotel sat the palace where some of The Sound of Music was shot. The gardens are perfectly manicured, and one of the best things about it is that there is free WiFi. I was able to make several Skype phone calls from the gardens, and spent a lot of time just relaxing there and absorbing the beauty, with the Hohensalzburg Fortress as a backdrop.MIrabell Palace gardens

Hohensalzburg Fortress

Being the most prominent structure in the city, Hohensalzburg Fortress is definitely worth a visit. The climb to the top is quite steep, but should you choose to take the funicular, it is easy to find as it is clearly marked on most maps. Since I was already exhausted from the previous week of walking and cycling far more than I had done in years, naturally I chose the easy way up. The ticket price included the entrance fee into the castle.

My main reason for wanting to go to the castle/fortress was for the views. And boy, did it exceed my expectations. I got to the top just before midday, and was able to witness the midday church bells going off all around the city. It was music for the soul, and I couldn’t help but get goosebumps.

There is also free WiFi in the fortress grounds, and as long as you don’t abuse it (as in make long Skype calls), it should last your entire visit. I spent a good 3 hours at the castle, at least. After wandering around and seeing as much as I could, I saw that there was also an audio tour that I could do with my entrance pass, which ended at the fortress’ watch tower. I simply had to join the tour as not only would it give me a nice history lesson, but 360 degree views of the city, too. Luckily for me, the sun came out for a quick 5 minutes the moment I stepped out up onto the watch tower.

View from Hohensalzburg's watch tower

After the audio tour, since I hadn’t had lunch, I went down to the castle’s restaurant. However, since it is a tourist magnet, naturally the prices were sky high, so I decided not to get something to eat. I opted for a draught of the local beer instead – Stiegl. German beer had set a new standard for me, so I was pleased with Austria’s contribution. The stop also allowed me to take an even more incredible photo of the surroundings since the weather had returned to its dull state, making everything appear dramatic again.

Fräulein Maria's Alps

Salzburg Cathedral

If you enjoy the baroque style of architecture, the Salzburg Cathedral is a must. The cathedral is very impressive inside, so take a little time to sit and admire the detail in the architecture. You can also go down into the crypt (an opportunity I couldn’t miss, since you can’t go into the crypt in St Peter’s Church at the Vatican), where you are also allowed to take photos.The ceiling of Salzburg's Cathedtal

Mozart’s birthplace

Salzburg is known for 2 major things: The Sound of Music, and Mozart. No trip to Salzburg is complete without visiting Mozart’s birthplace. You can get an audio tour of his entire house, which I found extremely informative. I had no idea that he had a sister, Nannerl, who was a musical genius before he overshadowed her, nor had I any idea of the fact that he was barely 1.5m tall. I spent about an hour in the house which I think was worth it. There are guards walking around all the time, so if you want to take a photo, you need to be extremely sneaky about it. I felt as though I were using my Assassin’s Creed timing skills on one of the guards when trying to take a photo of the living room which housed Mozart’s piano and violin. I have since deleted the photo as it was so unclear; it wasn’t really worth keeping.

Some may wonder why I visited Salzburg and not Vienna. The answer is simple: The Sound of Music. I would be a shameful fan if I included my story about that in this post (as if this post needed to be any longer). Till then, so long, farewell, Auf Wiedersehen, goodnight.

 

Europe 2015: Things One Cannot Miss

Today I saw a post on Facebook saying that there are only 70 days left until Oktoberfest starts and I realised that means that there’s only 71 days left until I leave for my trip. In the weeks since my last post, I’ve been consulting various sources to get ideas on which activities to take part in.

There are a lot of alternatives to the usual sight seeing that most people so, which is why I decided to make up a list of not only things that I’ve already booked, but also the ones that I don’t think anyone, including myself, should miss.

Munich

  1. Oktoberfest
  2. Viktual Market
  3. Day trip to Neuschwanstein Castle
  4. BMW Museum, the Welt, and the Plant
  5. Hofbrauhaus

Salzburg

  1. Sound of Music dinner and show
  2. Day trip to Hallstatt, including the Ice Caves
  3. Old Town
  4. Lammerklamm Gorge

Prague

  1. Stay at the Boat Hotel Matylda
  2. Prague on Segway tour
  3. Mirror Maze on Petřín Hill
  4. Wallenstein Palace Gardens

Berlin

  1. Hot Rod City Tour
  2. Legoland Berlin
  3. Aquadom
  4. Third Reich Tour
  5. Day trip to Dresden
  6. Watch a movie at Freiluftkino

My research is far from over, but the last thing I want to do is over plan. A friend taught me that planning too much in advance makes things become like a routine, and then you’re just living a typical, normal life anyway. Some things need to be left for the last minute. After all, that’s where a lot of the excitement of a holiday is!

Europe 2015: The Planning Process Part 2

It suddenly hit me that I now have less than 100 days left before boarding my first Qatar Airways flight to Munich. There were a number of factors involved in my decision around the date that I would be leaving, and after ironing out everything, I was able to book my flights.

My trusty flight-booking website is Travelstart, which I was introduced to by a friend 2 years ago. Travelstart, similarly to Expedia and Skyscanner, allows you to plug in multiple destinations, then gives you a list of every airline and flight for the dates you specify. You can sort it to give you the cheapest flights first, or the quickest.

Quick tip: use your browser’s incognito mode to book flights. Usually when you search multiple times, your browser and the website remember what you’ve searched for, so the prices increase each time.

As mentioned in my previous post about this trip, I am planning to attend Oktoberfest this year. It officially starts on 19 September and runs for 2 solid weeks. When I did my initial research, I remember someone on TripAdvisor recommending the second week as opposed to the first since the festival would be less busy. However, due to work commitments, I did not want to risk pushing my holiday till later. I knew I was going to fly into Munich and out of Berlin, but the only thing I was really clear about was the fact that I was not going to choose Etihad.

So why not Etihad? My first and last experience with Etihad was very disappointing. Having flown with Emirates on several occasions, I expected a similar level of service. Alas, however, it was not the case. The food was decent, but upon my arrival in Geneva, I found that my bag had been so badly handled that the handle had broken*, so I had to lug around a 21kg bag by the handle. Also, on my return flight from Abu Dhabi, we were put onto Air Seychelles, a much cheaper carrier that is partnered with Etihad. Air Seychelles was undoubtedly the most uncomfortable airline I’ve ever been on.

Once my flights were booked, the hunt for accommodation started. I’ve used Booking.com a few times and find it to be rather handy. My choice of accommodation was based on a good balance of price and location. Besides allowing you to get exactly what you want, the thing I like about Booking.com is that you have the choice of booking with a free cancellation policy. I’m sure they aren’t the only site that does that, but since I’m comfortable with Booking.com, it worked for me.

I had to be smart about what I wanted with a free cancellation policy, however, so that I could pace myself in terms of budget. A lot of the free cancellation policies come with a “pay later” option, which has both advantages and disadvantages. The good thing is that your booking would be confirmed before you actually pay anything, and should you want to cancel or modify the booking, there would be no cost involved (provided it was done in advance). It also allows you to make upfront payments for other places so that you don’t end up with a massive credit card bill at the end of it all, since you’d be paying towards part of the holiday before you even go. The downside is that with the fluctuating exchange rate, you might end up paying more when you arrive at your destination, even though the cost in local currency would remain.

Boat Hotel Matylda, Prague.  (Photo Courtesy: http://www.botelmatylda.cz/en/)

Boat Hotel Matylda, Prague.
(Photo Courtesy: http://www.botelmatylda.cz/en/)

Due to the fact that I’m going during the busiest time of the year, Munich was the first place I had to book. I know that accommodation there sells like hot cakes, so it was vital that I booked as quickly as I possibly could. The problem though is that due to the date period, the prices are sky high. The only way to get something relatively affordable is to book outside of the city borders. This was how I came about a place in the town of Aschheim, at least 14km out of the city – way too far to walk. This would not only bring about additional transport costs, but also steal valuable time that could be spent doing other things. I was also not keen on going that far out of the city after spending around 16 hours travelling. I closed my eyes and reserved my booking, but made sure it was one of the places I’d book with the free cancellation policy because my gut told me that I’d find something not only cheaper, but much closer to the city centre. Till then, I would take my time (sort of) to find places to stay in Salzburg, Prague and lastly, Berlin.

Compared to Munich, the other cities were really reasonable. I looked for places that had high ratings but were cheaper in order to somehow balance the amount I was spending in Munich. It didn’t take me long to find accommodation in Salzburg and Prague as both are relatively small cities so it is easy to get around no matter where you are.

My hotel in Prague (pictured above) was one of the places I didn’t bother booking with a free cancellation policy. I booked it almost immediately after seeing it because there is no way that I will get an opportunity to stay in an anchored boat hotel anywhere ever again. At least, not one that is in a beautiful city like Prague. It is probably the place I am most looking forward to staying in purely because it will be such a unique experience.

Aquadom, Berlin.  (Photo courtesy: http://icm-corp.com/)

Aquadom, Berlin.
(Photo courtesy: http://icm-corp.com/)

Berlin is surprisingly affordable all around the city so I was actually spoilt for choice. I ended up with a beautiful hotel right on Potsdammer Platz – a mere 3 minute walk from Brandenburg Gate. It is also walking distance to Legoland and the Berlin Cathedral, among other things.

Even though all my accommodation was booked, I was still uneasy about my choice in Munich, however I wasn’t getting any joy from Booking.com. It was then that I decided to check out AirBnB, and boy am I glad I did.

When I was doing my initial research for my trip, before I booked anything, I had a look at AirBnB, but at the time I was too unsure of what I wanted and when I wanted to go. However, once my dates and other accommodation was confirmed, I went back onto it to find something decent for Munich. It didn’t take me long to find a lovely apartment, only 5km out of the city centre, for about ZAR2000 cheaper than what I was going to pay in the far out town of Aschheim. It was an absolute bargain so I hope that it lives up to my expectations. I’m glad that it will give me an opportunity to walk as well, which is the one thing I enjoy the most about Europe.

Now that the big bookings are done, all I’m left with, apart from the obvious visa and travel insurance, is the nitty-gritty stuff like what I will be doing each day, which Part 3 of the planning process will focus on. Till then, I shall continue on my quest to make this trip as awesome as it possibly could be.

*Etihad compensated me with voyager miles.

The Hills Are Alive in 2015

Its been a good start to 2015 so far, though more professionally than personally. Trust me to be the one to fall for someone who I’d never see again cos he left the country! I mean, really?! Other than that, there is so much to look forward to this year, mainly my travel plans.

This year I plan to do only items that are on my bucket list, and not places that I’ve seen before. I mentioned in a previous post that my heart is in Europe, and that I’m not done with it yet, so of course it is my destination of choice yet again.

Last month a good friend of mine temporarily moved to Latvia, having never left South Africa before. He was petrified the day he arrived, wanting to go home immediately. I tried my best to console him and assured him that there was absolutely nothing to fear, and that it would be the best thing that would ever happen to him. Its not very often that you get paid to stay in a European country while studying for 6 months. My advice to him was to enjoy it while he can; to go out and see as much as possible, meet people, try the local cuisine, and travel out from there.

Having listened to some of my advice, the travel bug had bitten him within almost no time at all. The first thing I said to him when he told me that was “MISSION ACCOMPLISHED!”. This was a friend whom I’d been trying to get to travel for years, but he just never did it. Now that he’s been in Riga for a month, he understands why I’m so in love with Europe.

My travel inspiration, Brooke Saward, continues to inspire me every single day. Often, she unknowingly voices my thoughts. She did so yet again just yesterday:

Brooke_Patagonia

Every time I go to one place, at least another 3 or 4 places (if not more) that I have to visit come to mind. Right now I don’t know if there is such a thing as a finished bucket list. Mine certainly isn’t. I choose my destination in order of priority. Yes I want to see the Yangtze River and the Grand Canyon and the Southern Alps, but right now it is time to see places that have been on my mind for years.

So, where exactly am I talking about? In a nutshell: Germany, Austria, and the Czech Republic. I’ve been to both Germany and Austria before, but never to any of the major cities. The largest city I visited is Heidelberg, which was extraordinary, however I’ve been pining to visit both Berlin and Salzburg. Now’s my chance. So here’s the plan:

2015_plan

Starting point: Munich. From there, a day trip to Neuschwanstein Castle in south west Bavaria. Next up, Salzburg – the land of The Sound of Music. From there, a day trip to the tiny but beautiful lake village of Hallstatt. From Salzburg the plan is to head out to Prague, and eventually Berlin.

I am still the early planning stages and there is much to research (and coordinate) before finalising anything, so there is a chance that the plan will change. However, so far my trips have always worked out the way I planned them to. So fingers crossed, this one is what will be in a few months.

Have a place that’s been in your mind for a long time? Stop making excuses and go see it.

“All we have to do is decide what to do with the time that is given us.”

– Gandalf, The Fellowship of the Ring

Places (I want) to Visit and Why

The world is huge. There’s no denying it. I read an article on CNN recently entitled “Give Children the Gift of Travel” and while reading it, I couldn’t help but nod my head. As a child, my parents took me everywhere, from weekends in the Drakensburg Mountains to the coastal towns of Margate, Ramsgate and Port Elizabeth, to overseas destinations like Mauritius and India. There were many small trips like those to the beach on the north coast of KwaZulu Natal such as Richards Bay and St Lucia. I can’t forget Cape Town of course, which wasn’t so small since it takes more than a day to drive there. We never drove though (except when I was 3); we flew instead. Every trip fascinated me, and I never knew what influence all those trips had on my thinking until now.

Like the mother in the article says regarding her children, “They learn that exploring is a must. They learn to ask questions. They learn how to navigate cities. First and foremost, they have to know the name of our hotel and how to get back to it if they were to ever get lost. They learn that life must be lived and not watched on TV or played on a video game.”

I don’t know if its only me but it seems like everyone is so caught up in the rush of the world and chatting on BBM and updating their Facebook status that they think that that’s all there is to life. I know many people who cannot function on the road without a GPS navigator. They think they don’t need to know where they are in relation to everything else. What will happen if you’re walking around somewhere and you get lost? What happens if your phone battery dies and you can’t access Google Maps? Do you know how far the closest metro station, highway or petrol station is? Not to mention, which direction?

I’m glad to say that unlike the hundreds of people who move from Durban to Johannesburg, I have not yet bought myself a GPS navigator. If I am going somewhere I’ve never been before, I Google the route beforehand, then print out the directions just to keep at my side in order to remember the road names. Getting lost sometimes is a good thing because it makes you aware of your surroundings and you can find your way back by tracing your steps. So no, you can’t fix the fact that your parents didn’t take you anywhere as a child, but at least don’t be a dumbass about it and think that technology is gonna get you out of every situation. No matter how advanced technology is, it can never outsmart the human brain.

Having said that (and I know I rambled quite a bit here), here is my list of the many places I want to visit and why. They are in no particular order.

Place Reason
Zurich, Switzerland Childhood fantasy. I can’t really say why because I don’t know. Maybe its just because I like the sound of the word “Zurich”. It sounds magical, doesn’t it? One reason I can give, however, is that the Lindt factory shop is only about 6km out of town. Definitely worth a visit for that!
Alaska I have not seen a single ugly picture of Alaska. Its definitely not a place I’d want to get lost in (I don’t think anyone would) but I think you can get a sense of peace there that you probably wouldn’t be able to get anywhere else in the world.
The Golden Temple, India I feel like I have some Punjabi blood in me and want to go for this reason. It will be a great place to do seva (charity work) and just pray, even though I’m not much of a temple goer.
Giza, Egypt I’ve had a fascination for Egypt ever since I was a kid. I remember doing a speech on Ancient Egypt to my grade 7 class. Nothing can be compared to the great pyramids of Giza. The fact that they were built in accordance with Orion’s Belt thrills me. Up till now, I smile at that constellation whenever I see it because I know that’s exactly how the Egyptians saw it thousands of years ago.
Berlin, Germany I think Berlin has a vibe about it that only few places have. I’d love to experience it for myself.
CERN, Switzerland Is there anyone who isn’t interested in seeing the LHC (Large Hadron Collider for those who live on Mars)? I think the smartest people on earth work there so it would be awesome seeing what they do in person.
The Grand Canyon, USA Do I really need to give a reason why? That place was probably the inspiration behind the creation of the word “awesome”.
The Dead Sea I’m not much of a swimmer, so I love the idea of being able to float without even trying. I know I’ll have lots of fun plastering myself with the therapeutic salt, too.
Montenegro Ever seen the advert on the Travel Channel? They say, “Experience wild beauty”. Montenegro has the most gorgeous landscape and I feel like I was there in some past life. I think its expensive as hell, but surely 2 or 3 days there won’t kill me?
Southern Alps, New Zealand Beauty, what else? Ok, Lord of the Rings, too. But beauty first and foremost. No other reason, really.
The Northern Lights, Scandinavia The greatest light show on Earth. I think everyone should see that at least once in their lifetime.
The Vatican at night The photos say it all.
The Vatican on Christmas Day It will probably be freezing, but its something I’ve been wanting to do for years, even though I’m not a Christian. I can only begin to imagine the vibe you’d get in St Peters Square on Christmas Day, because even on a normal day, its there.
Dubrovnik, Croatia As a child, I read a book called Matt the Goose-herd. It was based in Dubrovnik and back then I never knew where the hell Dubrovnik was, but because of that book, I wanted to go there. I don’t think I’ll rest in peace until I do.
Salzburg, Austria “The hills are alive with the sound of music”. I’m a huge fan, what can I say.
Toronto, Canada I have some family there that have been bugging me to come for years. I may end up living there one day, who knows? Though, I can’t deal with cold so I’m not sure how that will work out for me.

Should I refer to it as a bucket list? Perhaps. What the hell. I hereby proclaim it to be a bucket list, even if it isn’t a complete one but rather a snapshot of it.

I will end with a nice quote that I read which is very true:

“Travel is the only thing you can buy that will make you richer”