Monday, July 28, 2008

Europe By Rail - Trip 1: Salzburg, Austria Part 1

Let me start by saying – travel by rail ROCKS! The website for EuroRail (which I will post in the blog) makes the claim that the best way to see Europe is by rail – well let me say that this is the ultimate truth!

We left Villy & Jan’s apartment at 5:00 AM for the quick 10 minute cab ride to the train station. As it turns out – we did not have to worry about anything.

Wait a second! Let me explain how a EuroRail Pass works.

You can buy a EuroRail pass in any number of ways. Our chosen pass was the Eastern European 5 Day Pass. We could go to any of the 5 countries listed in the Eastern European Pass: Austria, Slovakia, Poland, Hungry and Czech Republic. You can ride any train you want as often as you want within that five day period. You are only restricted by the Class you purchase. In our case – we purchased 2nd Class tickets. If you wanted a SECURED seat on any train – you could pay a small up-charge (generally $25.00 USD or so) and you would get a reserved seat – otherwise it is everyman for him (or her) self!

For the first leg of our trip – we are traveling from Bratislava to Wien WestBahnoff (the West Station in Vienna) – from there we would change trains to Salzburg. The train to Salzburg we purchased a reserved seat – just to be safe – in Salzburg we had reservations for the Sound of Music Tour – something that Lisa did not want to miss!

The Bratislava station was a piece of cake! The board clearly indicated the trains – their platforms and departure times! Finding our train was easy! Once we got to the platform – all of the trains were very clearly marked with large numbers: 1 or 2 indicating 1st or 2nd class. We found a 2nd class car – hopped up and helped ourselves to a cozy compartment! With six seats – three facing each other – the compartment is air conditioned and a door slides open and closed to keep things quiet and private! Think any of the Harry Potter movies when the kids leave for the school at the beginning of the films – now just multiply the luxury by 10! We had the compartment to ourselves all the way to Vienna! Halfway through a porter with a cart of goodies stopped by and offered us treats! Too cool!

Shortly after that – the Conductor stops by and asks us for our tickets – he marks of the date in spot #1 and we are finally validated for our first trip! He hands back our tickets with a huge smile and tells us to have a good day! I love this form of travel!

Watching the country go by is so peaceful. You would think it would rush by too fast – but amazingly it does not! The windows on the train are huge – offering a wonderful panoramic view of the countryside. We pass through rolling, lush green pastures. Row upon row of brightly colored sunflowers – their full heads pointed up to the sun as if thanking God for the life giving light and rain. We pass through tiny villages – their brightly colored stucco homes embedded into the hillsides. We pass through larger villages – with larger homes that have luxurious in-ground pools and back yards that seem to be decorated like Greek villas. We pass through pastures where horses graze and sheep wander. We pass through towns where children sit along the tracks and wave – we only make a stop or two as we happen to catch an express train. The countryside is beautiful! We pass through a large windmill farm – towering windmills – their blades spinning in slow motion arcs providing kilowatts of energy to the region (I suppose). You become entranced by it all!

Until finally we pull into Wien WestBahnoff! A sprawling, bustling rail station located on the western edge of Vienna (although at the time we don’t even realize we are in Vienna!). We check the board – so cool and easy – and our next train is not for another two hours! So we explore! First order of business – try and find and umbrella as some rain has moved into the area – not a lot – just some scattered showers – but we want to be safe. We try the local rail station shops first and no luck – we wander outside and it looks as if there is nothing that resembles a market close by –so we scratch that idea and head back in. This time we explore the schedules. There is a huge Information booth located in the center – just for the heck of it – as we know we want to come back and tour Vienna – we stand in the very short line and ask the information guide for a schedule.

Man was he helpful! Not only did he give us suggestions on trains to take and what station to go to – but he gave us two different printed schedules to get us exactly where we wanted to go! As I said – I love this form of travel! They even have these huge posters that show the layout of each train – where each car is located and the seating configuration of each car – so you can plan in advance just where you want to go when it comes time for boarding.

It’s finally time to board for Salzburg! Home of Mozart and Amadeus! The birthplace of Classical Music and the home of The Sound of Music! Since we have reservations – all we have to do is find our car and seats – numbers 24 and 26 – both window seats that face each other!

This train is even newer than one we just traveled on earlier! With a plug for my laptop I am so excited that I can finally catch up on my Blog!

Before we know it and several Blog entries later – we are pulling into the Salzburg Station! At this point – it is probably a good time to mention that there is a lot of walking on this trip – A LOT OF WALKING! And with my MS – we are more than a little concerned – so the key is to try and stay rested and hydrated as well as make sure that my medication is with us. So – we packed my Avonex – carefully placed in long keeping gel ice packs – in a stay cool pouch – and I was able to keep up on the medication. By this point in the trip – my legs were doing pretty good – but now the real walking was just started!

We had to get from the rail station to Bus Station of the Panorama Tours (I have a link to the tour posted) – first – although we had two hours – we wanted to be sure and locate the tour without issue. First order of business – get an umbrella!

While it did not look like immediate rain – and the tour was a bus tour – we still did not want to take a chance. Luckily – right outside of the rail station we found a market and an umbrella for $4 Euros! A bargain in any country!

We began our walk around Salzburg – armed with our confirmation ticket which had the location of the tour mapped out with a couple of land marks to indicate its proximity. Our plan – use the landmarks to locate the tour office – sounds pretty logical correct? The only problem – this particular landmark – had similar first name to a whole bunch of landmarks! We ended up touring the entire city of Salzburg on foot before we found the correct location of Panorama Tours!

Not that it was bad mind you! It gave us a great opportunity to see this very beautiful city! Wonderful architecture – pristine gardens and landscaping – spotlessly clean streets and sidewalks; you can tell they are very proud of their city. We did get drizzled on a few times – but we had the umbrella! It did give us the opportunity to find this perfect little street side bakery where we had this wonderful little pizza like pastry for lunch. We sat under the canopy – munching on this delicious pastry – sipping on a couple of Coke Lights – watching the streets of Salzburg walk by when the sky suddenly opened up! Rain and tiny bits of hail cascaded down as people scrambled for shelter and vendors quickly tossed plastic over their wares. Then as quickly as it started – it was amazingly over! People walked back out on the street and vendors removed their plastic as if nothing happened!

We finish our lunch – full but wanting more – and head over to Panorama Tours. Once there we are greeted by the site of a huge tour bus decorated with scenes from The Sound of Music. On the back of the bus Julie Andrews is twirling in the Swiss Alps. On the side of the bus – the Von Trapp family can be seen singing in their drapery play clothes! On the opposite side of the bus the children and Maria can be seen dancing around a fountain. Very cheesy – but very cool at the same time! People are already lining up to get on the bus – young, old, from every race and nation – I am simply amazed at the people that are there for the tour. I did not expect this at all.

We are greeting by the driver who takes our tickets – a very cheerful guy who smiles brightly and warmly wishes us Hello! It is a large tour bus with big comfortable seats and large windows for easy viewing. It is a hop on and off tour – meaning that we go to many locations – get out, enjoy the views and get back on again to go to the next location. I mention to Lisa that unless we get a tour guide in character – I want my money back! She is not amused.

Once everyone is on the bus – and it is a packed house – our tour guide enters. A bigger guy, not overweight mind you – but a bigger guy – dressed rather casually – a red shirt and a pair of black Dockers enters the bus. I am a little disappointed – it seems as if we are going to get the Ben Stein tour – “Bueller – Bueller”.

Until that is – he opens his mouth and starts to speak!

It was like being on the Sound of Music Tour as if it was being presented by Comedy Central! This guy was from Benny Hill! What a riot! Not only did he present great information about Salzburg, Austria and the movie the Sound of Music – but he did it with great humor! And it was just my type of humor – sarcastic!

Just some of the facts:

The people of Salzburg hate the movie The Sound of Music – Hollywood took too many liberties with the facts. Although there was a Von Trapp family and there was a Maria who lived in the abbey who came to care for the children and eventually marry the Baron – that was about the only part that was true.
At the beginning – when Maria is twirling in the hills – before the Nuns call her to the abbey – that hill (mountain actually) is more than 500 meters form the abbey! The guide explains that Maria not only made it to the abbey before the church bells stopped chiming – she turned around to get her cap which had blown off as well. “Maria was an athlete!”
The Sound of Music is the #1 tourist attraction for Salzburg! Never mind the fact that it is the birthplace of Mozart and Amadeus!
At the end of the film – when the Von Trapp family was escaping across the Alps from the Nazis – they were actually going in the wrong direction! They were actually headed towards the Nazis!
The Von Trapp family did actually escape from the Nazis – but what they really did was put on camping gear – pretend to go camping and board a train that WAS RIGHT OUT THEIR BACK DOOR! Eventually they made their way to America and settled in Vermont where today the family has a resort!

There was more and the guide made each seem funnier than the last. They really did a terrific job! If you ever find yourself going to Salzburg – take the Panorama Sound of Music Tour! It is worth every single penny!

The tour takes about 5 hours – you not only see Sound of Music sites – but you get a great tour of Salzburg and the surrounding area as well. By the time we had returned – it was nearing 6:00 PM – just about the time we needed to check in at our Hostel.

Another idea that looked good on paper and for once actually turned out good!

Hotels in Europe are very expensive! So – once again to try and save on costs – we though we would try the Hostel route. There are a couple of ways you can do a Hostel. From shared quarters (one I saw you could get a bed for $21 Euro per night – but there are 11 other beds in the room with you) – to private quarters for a little more. But these are barebones rooms. In some cases you can share a bathroom and shower facilities. I found a Hostel that afforded us a private room with our own bath and shower. That was it though!

The Strawberry Youth Hostel (I have a link posted) was actually a very nice place! Cash only (something I wish they would have told us on the website!) – if you want to use the internet you had to sign up and use their computers – if you want towels – you rented them for $2 Euros! Other than that – picture your first dorm room as a freshman in college! That was our room for the night in Salzburg! Nothing fancy – but it was comfortable – easy to get to and centrally located!

After settling in and taking a couple of quick showers – we headed out to grab some dinner! Now for some reason – there was not a lot of choices in our area – there were a lot of little places that if it were earlier – we could have grabbed a lunch – but not a lot of dinner choices. Finally – we wandered into this cute little Café that seemed to offer what looked like dinner choices. As we walked in the gentleman behind the bar asked if he could help us. We asked for dinner and he proclaimed that there was no dinner tonight because his wife did not come in!

Well alrighty then! SO we asked for a suggestion on where to go and he pointed us to a chicken place up the street. I only say chicken place because I forgot to write down the name – but I will never forget the sign – a running chicken!

Inside though – it was a very nice – tastefully decorated restaurant. A couple of dozen tables in the first section and a couple dozen more in the second easily – with only one waitress working the entire place! She was very nice as well. The food – once again – was incredible. Now – I am not sure if this is because we are always starving at this point of the day – or it is just really good everywhere we go – but I have not had a bad meal yet!

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