Monday, July 8, 2013

Honeymooning in Europe: Austria, Czech Rep., Croatia, & Montenegro

It took us quite a while to decide where to go for our honeymoon. We typically like to alternate trips between “vacation” (e.g., lying on a beach somewhere) and travel (exploring a new country and culture), after which we usually need a vacation. We had gone to our beloved Hawai’i in November after the election to wind down from the roller coaster of running for office, so travel was next up. We debated for a while about going back to SE Asia (and stopping in China to see a friend), going to Argentina (which would have been a 5th continent for both of us) or Australia, or even deviating from our vacation-travel schedule and going to somewhere like Tahiti. We wanted to take advantage of the fact that we would be on the East coast, and Matt had never been to Europe and always talked about wanting to see Austria, so we ultimately decided on Austria. I had always wanted to go to Croatia, so we combined the two. We initially thought about adding in Capri somewhere, but quickly realized that with only 2 weeks it wouldn’t work. We scheduled a flight to Salzburg, train to Vienna, day trip to Prague, flight to Dubrovnik, and day trip to Montenegro. We had the option to go to Budapest, but we only had time for either there or Prague, and since Matt is Czech, it was an easy choice. It was a great trip, but by the time the wedding was over, I was thinking how nice it would have been to just sit on a beach. :-)

Since we would be in Philly for about a week prior to leaving, we had to pack for both trips. Thankfully, the climate would be similar (it sucks having to pack for multiple trips with multiple climates), although we couldn’t get detailed forecasts that far out. We assumed that Salzburg would be a little cooler and then each place would be progressively warmer. We were wrong! Salzburg ended up being beautifully warm and sunny and the rest of the trip was a little cooler. In Vienna and Prague it was mostly rainy and cool, and on an island off of Dubrovnik it was downright cold at times! As an aside, we’re hugely thankful for friends who brought a suitcase and a lot of our stuff back to San Francisco after the wedding so we only had to take one suitcase to Europe. As another aside, I had almost forgotten how easy it was to pack for Europe! Our last few trips have been to developing countries in SE Asia, N. Africa, and Southern Africa, so packing was pretty detailed. It’s been so long since I’d been to Europe (sad face), and packing was a breeze!

Salzburg, which ended up being my surprisingly favorite city of the trip, was beautiful. It is a very small city and is easily navigable and walkable. We stayed just across the bridge from the City Center, only a block away from the famous Mirabell Gardens where some scenes from The Sound of Music were shot. Interestingly enough, most Americans who come to Salzburg come to take the Sound of Music tour and love quoting the movie and singing the songs. What’s funny is that most Austrians don’t even know the movie! 

Our hotel was very nice, and the breakfast included a tea bar with tons of loose-leaf teas from the local mountains as well as local and fresh food and breads. Walking around our neighborhood was interesting, and there were lots of remembrances of the past almost everywhere we looked. In front of some buildings were small gold plaques in the ground, some having one and some having many. Each plaque represented a person from that house who was sent to a Nazi concentration camp and had the person’s name, date of birth, date of deportation, and the name of the camp. There were about a dozen plaques in front of a large bank that must have been an apartment building at that time. It was a sobering reminder of where we were standing. There are really reminders everywhere, including a memorial at the end of one of the bridges dedicated to those who were forced to build the bridge.


On our first day in Salzburg we went to the 11th century FortressHohensalzburg, taking the funicular car up the side of the mountain. The views from the Fortress were incredible, and the rooms were really interesting. There was also a puppet museum, which, interestingly, isn’t far from the old torture chamber. In the old chapel, next to the foundation of the original floor and walls, there was a fascinating video playing that showed what the Fortress looked like over the course of thousands of years.



After finally coming down to the main square, we wandered around the shops and open-air market stalls and headed toward Mozart’s birthhouse. There we saw one of his violins as well as other instruments that he and his sister played. There was also a lot of information about Salzburg, Ausria, and greater Europe from that era. Of course, we couldn’t leave the area without getting Mozart Balls from each of the “original” bakeries that make them and comparing. Mozart Balls, or Mozartkugel, are little pieces of pistachio marzipan surrounded by nougat and then dipped in a thick layer of dark chocolate. I preferred the ones at Schatz makes, although the ones at Fürst weren’t bad! We definitely stockpiled some Mozart Balls for the rest of the trip and for gifts.



One of the notable parts of Salzburg are the beautiful bridges that cross the Salzach River. We walked across a couple of them, and one is dotted with hundreds of “love locks,” or small padlocks with initials. Of course, we bought ourselves a love lock, put our initials and wedding date on it, and locked our memory to the bridge with the others. We each kept a key. My key replaced my half of the “love knot” that I bought for each of us at Kyoto’s Kiyomizu, or “Love,” temple, which was in my wallet when it was stolen on my bus home from work.



There are several beautiful areas in close proximity to Salzburg. One afternoon we went to Berchtesgaden, which is most infamously known for Hitler’s Eagle’s Nest, which, unfortunately, didn’t open for the season until a few days after we left. Berchtesgaden is a beautiful mountain village and also has a working, 500-year-old salt mine—the Saltzbergwerk. We toured the mine, which included “slides” down various levels of the mine. It was a little Disneyfied for me, but interesting nonetheless.

We also took a tour to the lakes region of the area where we took a boat ride along Lake Wolfgang and wandered around the village of St.Wolfgang. It was a very pretty area and reminded me a bit of Lake Tahoe. Except among the Alps. :-)


Back in Salzburg, we went to the Augustinian Beer Garden, a 17th century monastery brewery with beer being brewed the same way today as it was in 1621. The building itself is beautiful, with sunlit staircases and large, high-ceiling, dark wood rooms. And the beer garden in the back is massive, with about 1500 seats. On two levels there are also food stalls to get snacks and sandwiches and pastries. We just got a pretzel (not as good as those in Philly, by the way) and a beer. To get your Augustiner Märzen, you grab a small or large stein from a shelf, rinse it in a large, circular fountain, and have someone from the monastery fill your stein from an oak barrel. There are also beer warmers, which are filled with warm water so that people can warm their beers to an appropriate temperature. Of course, I’m not much of a beer drinker, but I did manage to drink about half of my stein. I was much happier at the 17th century restaurant across the street where we had more traditional Austrian food and a Radler.


Speaking of food, we ate a lot of it! I love to eat traditional and local food wherever I travel, and since I rarely eat so heavy (or even much meat), the Austrian food was a quite a shock to my system. Although it was really good! Throughout the entire trip in Austria (and Prague) we ate tons of tasty pork products and goulash and dumplings. And, of course, strudels and Sacher tortes.

We had several really great meals of traditional Austrian food and beer while in Vienna. I’ve never drunk so much beer with every meal! But when it’s cheaper than water, I go with the flow. We also went to the famous Sacher Hotel to have a Sacher Torte and tea. The original recipe for the Sacher Torte is a state secret, but I’m working on replicating it at home for a “Bachar(ach)” Torte.



From Salzburg we took the train to Vienna. Matt and I both love train travel, and I’m really looking forward to the day when the U.S. invests in high-speed rail in the same way that other countries around the world do. But I digress. Our hotel in Vienna was in the 2nd district, just across the Danube Canal from the Old City. It was a beautiful 400-year-old hotel with lots of dark wood and traditional Viennese furniture to resemble a past era.

We spent most of our time in Vienna at the touristy areas. We spend half a day at Schönbrunn Palace, which I enjoyed more than I thought I would. I’m guessing it was because it was an audio tour and we had to go with the flow through 40 rooms—no extra waiting. :-) Schönbrunn is the former imperial palace where many in the Hapsburg dynasty lived. The palace has very beautiful and ornate rooms (including the room where Mozart played for Empress Maria Theresa), and in some of the rooms used for entertaining they had Mozart’s music playing. You could almost see the Hapsburgs and their guests dancing on the ornate floors to the music. The gardens are equally elaborate and beautiful. I can easily imagine the royal family in the 17th and 18th centuries strolling around their grounds with umbrellas to shelter them from the sun (unlike us, who strolled with our umbrellas to keep us dry).

We had lunch at the lovely Gulaschmuseum, which isn’t a museum at all, but has dozens of goulashes on the menu. We also meandered around the Hofburg Palace area, seeing one of its museums and the horse stables. From there we went to the 12th century Stephansdom (St. Stephen’s Church), whose spire dominates the skyline. Inside, there was special lighting to make the beautiful and colorful stained glass reflect on the entire room. I don’t think it’s any secret that I have a lot of disgust with and very little respect for the Catholic Church as an entity, but that certainly doesn’t take anything away from the physical beauty of some of the oldest churches. And the bells sound magical, except, of course, when they start ringing near our room at 7:30 a.m. and don’t stop. Apparently, Stephansdom was saved during WWII only because a Captain disregarded orders to fire shells on it and leave it in ashes when German forces were retreating.



We spent some time in Judenplatz, which was the place where Jews began to settle around 1150. After the pogrom in 1421, it became a Jewish ghetto. On the square there is a large memorial that lists all of the concentration camps where Jews were sent. Just off the square there is a small museum with an archeological site of the first synagogue, which was burned in 1421 with many of the residents. From there, we walked to the main Jewish Museum, which is in a different area of the city. It had some interesting permanent exhibits, and we saw an interesting special exhibit on Jewish humor throughout the ages. I personally thought that the Jewish Museum in Cape Town was much better.


One of the highlights for me was a visit to Kapuzinerkirche (The Capuchin Church), which houses the imperial crypt with five centuries of Hapsburgs. The caskets were beautifully ornate and elaborate, and some of the most recent caskets were from within the last few years. The caskets included those of Maria Theresa and Francix Stephen, the parents of Marie Antoinette; Emperor Maximilian of Mexico; and Marie Louise, Napoleon's wife. Their son was also buried here, but his body was moved to Paris by Hitler. The highlight, of course, were the caskets of Franz Joseph and Empress Elisabeth.




We also want to the Pratter and rode on the famous Ferris wheel. The views of the city were beautiful. The Pratter was interesting—most of the rides there were American with American names and American themes such as the Wild West.

From Vienna, we went to Prague just for a day. I had been to Prague quite a few years ago and didn’t really have a desire to return, but Matt is Czech, so he really wanted to go. Prague is unarguably a beautiful city with amazing architecture, but it’s also overly crowded with throngs of tourists—so much so that it’s difficult to even walk. It also has a very post-Communist vibe, in my opinion. My impression from my first trip there, during which we didn’t stay in the city and we had local, day-to-day experiences, was that the people are very cold and distrustful. It wasn’t a good vibe. On this trip, we just saw the top tourist spots, so it was a totally different feel. But it was still crowded. It was raining off and on, and with not only so many people, but so many people with umbrellas, it was difficult to take it all in. If you’ve ever tried navigating your way across the Charles Bridge on a good day, just imagine trying to do it with umbrellas! I did get my goulash and dumplings before we left, though!


We kept a pretty fast pace on the trip and I was definitely ready for some down time. And I was ready for some warmer weather! Vienna was mostly cold, rainy, and windy, and I really realized then that San Francisco is about the coldest climate I could handle anymore. In fact, a few years ago I was on a short list for a job at the UN in Vienna. As wonderful an opportunity that may have been, at that cold moment I was thankful I wasn’t living there. As a tourist, I was also disappointed that everything was closed on Sunday. I mean EVERYTHING. I’m sure as a resident I would find it quaint and old-school and something that should be valued, but as a tourist with limited time, I just found it inconvenient.

I had studied in France as an undergraduate and used it as a base to travel the region. For some reason, Vienna didn’t really call out to me like other European cities have, particularly Paris. In Paris, I feel at home. There’s still a lot to see in Vienna, but I don’t have the same feeling as I do in Paris. In fact, I left with the feeling that Europe is a much better place to live than visit.

From Vienna we flew down to Dubrovnik. What a difference! It was beautiful and sunny and warm, well, warmer than it was in Vienna anyway. Our hotel was on the side of a cliff, so the street level was floor 7 and the elevator descended to get to room levels. At the bottom there was a bar in a cave that was discovered when they built the hotel. The bar opened up to a platform along the sea. Since it was our honeymoon, the hotel had put a giant white bow on our door and left us champagne and a personal note—such a nice touch!

We took the cable car up to the top of the Srd Hill, with great views of the walled old city with its orange roof tops and church steeples and the Adriatic. Also there is the Imperial fortress, which was used during the homeland war in the 1990s. The Homeland War Museum was an incredibly moving experience. The museum is in the fortress and is the place where Croatian defenders ended the war and where the Croatian flag (rather than the Serbian flag) continues to fly since the war ended only 20 years ago. Since the war was so relatively recent, there is modern-day news footage. One room in the museum showed clips of news footage over the course of the war and how locals were impacted with the shelling and its aftermath. I couldn’t imagine living in such horror. With my work in the area of human trafficking, I’m familiar with the Serbs’ use of rape as a weapon of war against the Bosnians and Croats, but to see the faces of the people impacted by the war is something else.  




After taking the cable car back down we entered the walls into the old city. It reminded me a little bit of Marrakech or Fes with its old medina, but much more navigable (no twisty, maze-like streets). It was quite beautiful with lots of opportunities for great shots. We went to a Bosnian restaurant for lunch, which was really good! But I was most excited about the local Adriatic squid, which I think I had for almost every meal after that. We also ate a lot of gelato! I’ve never been to Italy, but I can’t imagine there bring more gelato places than I’ve seen in Austria and Croatia!

We enjoyed our gelato at the Onofrio fountain, a cistern for the city built in 1311. It was pretty amazing to sit in a spot where millions have sat for so many hundreds of years. We then climbed up to the top of the wall to walk the wall around the city. The views were incredible. At one point I stood and watched what seemed like hundreds of birds flying around a church when its bells started ringing. It was as if the birds were keeping time with each ring and it was so enchanting. Around another corner we saw a man pulling in his laundry, which was hanging on long ropes that crisscrossed a courtyard. The wall was also tiring! There were lots of hills and steps going around, which definitely worked off my gelato. We also bought some local treats from some women on the wall, a fig and honey roll and candied orange peel.  


There were a few things that I would have liked to see but they were closed by the time we got to them. One of the Franciscan monasteries housed one of the oldest pharmacies in Europe. There was also an exhibit of war photography that closed early.

We also spent a day on the island of Lopud, which was a sleepy town since we were just shy of the “on” season. Unfortunately, the day we were there it was a bit cold and rainy, but it did dry up enough to walk around a bit. We were told that there was a great beach just a short walk to the other side of the island. That short walk was a 40-minute trek uphill and then down steep steps through some forest. Because of the weather, everything was shut down and deserted!   

We took a day trip through Montenegro next door the next day. We began in Kotor, which was a very traditional and quaint old city. After some meandering and shopping we started an ascent up a mountain through 26 hairpin switchbacks to the highlands. On a couple of occasions a very large bus was coming down the mountain and they had to back up curvy roads until there was room for us to pass. The drive was beautiful and the views of Kotor Bay were awesome. When we got up to the highlands the temperature had cooled and we got to try locally made prosciutto and sheep’s cheese, as well as some local honey wine. I really wanted to bring some home, but they only sold it by the liter, which would definitely put me over my weight limit for my luggage.


On our way back we stopped in Budva, a high-end, casino-like area on the beach. It was quite a sight to see an ancient walled city with modern, high-end luxury shops. After a drink at the beach bar, we were back on the road to cross the border.

One thing that surprised us was the cost of everything. I had assumed that because Croatia wasn’t yet on the euro it would be more affordable than the rest of Europe. But the prices were crazy expensive—like San Francisco expensive or even more. And because Dubrovnik is such a touristy area (the local population is only 60,000), they nickel and dime everywhere. Restaurants have a table setting charge or a cover charge for bread, for example.

Overall it was a wonderful but whirlwind trip! As usual, I’m ready for a vacation after our travels.

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