Christmas Magic in Austria & Italy: Part 1 Vienna

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I moved home from Italy in July 2014, and of course I pined for my life in Europe but I have traveled abroad many times since then, keeping true to my promise to myself.  I visited the Dolomites last Christmas followed by a quick visit to Milan and Genoa.  In February I visited my old school and a quick popover to Malta for my first visit to the charming country, hosted by a dear friend and wonderful tour guide, My Maltese Guide: Stephen Place.  In April, I was back again, this time with Mamma and Auntie Minnie for a visit to Dublin where we enjoyed spring sunshine and were delighted by O’Connell Street as it was turned back to 1915 for the Road to the Rising.  Last summer, I spent a month based in Genoa–up and down the riviera and all around the city–and traveling all around to Malta for Stephen’s wedding, as well as Merano in the Dolomites with my Dad and Frankfurt and Brugge with a former Genoa coworker who now works in Germany.  It was amazing, and there are so many wonderful stories and adventures to share along with the Grand Farewell Tour of Italy back in 2014.

In the interim, I started working again at the NYC public schools, but due to the  negative political climate and micromanaging pulling me far away from my best practice as well as the enormous class sizes (34), it was time to move on.  I’m now working at a great school in the suburbs, but starting a new job for the third time in 3 years has been rough and I haven’t been able to blog much at all, but at least I’ve been traveling.

The trip itself is a wonderful escape, but the travel is made up of so much more: the planning, the pure delight of anticipation, the chaos of the packing, the sweet sigh of relief once boarding the plane, the exhausted landing, the shower nap and feeling human for dinner on arrival night, breakfast the next day, and the magical surprises and wanderings, the photos, and all the joys.  But of course, some of the greatest joy lives on in my memory, fresh upon my return, then deepened through reflection.  Sharing these stories helps me relive it and enhance the joy.  As I travel, I live in the moment, and I also know my future self will love this moment.  In addition, I love the idea of sharing the moment with people like you.  Thanks for reading.

Prior to my departure, it was a very stressful and chaotic time at work, with 4 classes to prep, an 8 page synthesis paper to grade that ended up taking about 16 hours, and all the holiday events and fun obligations that I didn’t want to miss, finding time to squeeze in cooking healthy and workouts, and then, just before Christmas my work backpack was stolen from my locked car right in my driveway.  They snagged my work chromebook, my copy of The Catcher in the Rye I read in high school! Annotated copies of other texts, IB textbooks, and a sentimental scarf someone knit for me in Italian colors before my move to Genoa.  Among other personal items, I loved the bag itself.  It was extra stress at a time I could barely take anymore.  I definitely needed a vacation, and I was glad I didn’t plan a whirlwind tour but more like a relaxing, fun escape.

But first, I enjoyed a wonderful holiday at home with family.  I helped cook for Christmas Eve dinner, sang in Midnight Mass at Fordham University, returned home around 2am to see Santa had arrived as always, and drifted off to a peaceful sleep.  The next day, we opened presents, ate well with loved ones, played with the mini drone I brought my brother, and just relished Christmas.  The day after was pajama day– a blissful day of rest and relaxation to culminate a stressful season.  Finally, time to bask in the glow and joy of the season.

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It’s always hard when I plan to depart during Christmas vacation.  It’s a time of togetherness and family, of bonding and simple pleasures around the tree and fire.  Is this really the best time for solo travel?  Yet, I needed this solo peace to finally be alone with my thoughts, to relax, to wander and discover, to connect with my beloved Europe, to practice my Italian language, and to recover from the stress and let the healing begin.

On December 27th, I headed to my kundalini yoga studio for my regular Sunday practice, where two childhood friends were in town for the holidays (from Austin and LA), so I got to see them really quickly, get in a good workout and begin my relaxation.

Then I gathered my last minute things, drove to my apartment in NY, and packed my things.  It was hard to say goodbye to my family, especially my great aunt who was in town visiting.  I knew when I returned, the tree would be down, the presents packed away, the lights off, and the festive mood diminished.  Yet, I still had a week to enjoy these Christmas treats with a European take.

I darted off to JFK, boarded the air train, and navigated the long security lines, arriving at my gate with just enough time for a pre-departure beer, the first time I got to say ahh for this trip.

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I sipped my Rebel IPA, then boarded my Air Berlin plane where I realized I was upgraded to an XL seat for free.

On top of that, there was nobody next to me.  I had enough room to cross my legs and really stretch out.  This was off to a great start.

With a brief transfer in Dusseldorf, we transferred to Vienna for an easy train ride to the city center.

 

vienna  I was really excited to start my trip off with such a connection because when you are exhausted and groggy, these little things make a big difference.  I noticed how close the green countryside was to the city center, and how convenient the airport was!  Great location and infrastructure.  I tried to avoid falling fully asleep because I’d miss my stop, then exited in my neighborhood in a slightly outer ring of the city center.  Except for a 20 minute pause  on a train on my way to Budapest in 2006, I have never been to Vienna.

I was surprised that my hotel was even closer than I thought, so I didn’t have to lug my bags too far at all.  Good thing, because since my trusted travel friend North Face backpack was stolen, I didn’t have time to replace (those decisions aren’t made lightly) and I grabbed a Vera Bradley shoulder tote, packed to the brim with my most valuables,  Macbook Pro, SLR camera, smaller camera, iPad, Kindle, etc.

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The hotel was quaintly decorated in the Tyrollean charm and Christmas decor that drew me to the place (along with the price less than $60 a night!)

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As it was only around 10:30, it was too early to check in, but I dropped off my bags, and wandered around the neighborhood, into the fresh winter air that was a welcome change since it was in the 70s on Christmas day in the NY/NJ area.

I didn’t grab a map or consult my phone; I just picked a direction and wandered, following spires or interesting sites.  I was clearly wandering around a quiet residential area, families with strollers, few tourists, and then eventually I got so groggy I didn’t think I’d make it any longer.

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I wanted to duck into a bar for lunch, although as it was December 28th, many places were closed for the holidays — and I’d guess many folks were off skiing as what happens in Italy.  With so many world class mountains and sites nearby, I couldn’t blame them.

At the hotel, it still was not check in time, but the restaurant was open for lunch so I sat down for a delicious pumpkin soup and cheese spatzle, featuring fantastic, vivid flavors that I can still taste in my mind today.

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Soon after, my room was available, and I crashed onto the inviting bed for my nap, setting the alarm for 7:30pm.

It was very hard to pull myself out of my blissful slumber as the sunshine of the day faded into a glowing sunset, and the bustling street below quieted to just the occasional passing tram.  I looked out at the evening, as windows decorated with understated white candles reminded me that Christmas has been here, and forced myself to wake up.  I jumped in the shower and went out to explore, selfie stick in hand. After consulting a map, I knew which way to go for the city center, and was instantly struck by how quiet and unassuming the city was.  It was elegant, clearly full of culture, yet calm and classy — not at all overwhelming.

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I posed for this selfie in front of a gorgeous church, then wound my way to the Ring Strasse (a circular boulevard following the old wall of the city) and into the pedestrian shopping center, decorated in lights and attracting the nighttime action seekers.

 

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Christmas market stalls closed for the evening

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nighttime energy

 

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Opera

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Opera masks and elegant gowns

 

As it was about 10pm, it was a struggle to find a place to eat, but I didn’t want to grab street food or tourist cafeteria food, but then I stumbled upon the Hard Rock Cafe.  And as much as I know I don’t travel to Vienna for American culture, I knew it would be a good place for a beer and some nachos, which I was craving.  As I sat there, I watched groups of friends–local and travelers–enjoying a night out, while I read, nibbled, sipped, and reflected on my observations so far.  I’m here in Vienna!

 

 

I wandered back to the hotel under starry skies and drifted off into a very peaceful sleep. The next morning, since breakfast wasn’t included in my rate and because I was finally on vacation where I could sleep in, not be a slave to an alarm clock, I slept in and in and in, finally rousing myself sometime around 1pm.  This meant that I was not going to see Slovakia today, just a short 1 hour train ride away.  It felt weird to start orienting myself to another city and new country when I had barely seen this one!

And it was still a long time after that before I emerged into Vienna.  I needed to chill.  I needed to not have a schedule.  I needed to just be on vacation and not guilt myself about it.  I was happy. But I also needed some purpose.  With only two days in Vienna, I knew I had to stop at the desk and grab tickets for a show tonight.  I chose to purchase tickets for a 7:30pm concert of Mozart and Strauss’s works at the Schönbrunn Palace, a former Imperial summer residence, where each composer had performances.

From my magical walk the evening before, I noticed a quaint cafe that said “Breakfast All Day.”  As it was the late afternoon and I hadn’t eaten yet, that was perfect.  I went in and ordered crepes with Nutella and couldn’t figure out what Melange was (apparently plain coffee, even in the English translation).  The crepes were delicious, but I had to spread the Nutella myself.  I sipped on my green tea and watched the sky darken before 4pm, turning into that blue twilight, while tourists and locals popped in and out for snacks or drinks like Aperol Spritz.

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I instagrammed:

Nearly everything feels so classy and elegant in Vienna, including this cafe. (The crepes didn’t last long enough for the picture.)

Then I tried to catch the ring tram, a tourist tram ride that goes around the Ring Strasse a long with informative narrative. I thought it would be a great way to get a grasp of the city while relaxing and enjoying the sites.  Sadly, I got to the tram stop just shortly after 5, so I instead wandered a bit along the Danube, and posed for this selfie.danube

 

Then I had just enough time to get back to the hotel to change into more glamorous clothing for my concert. Back to the tram (glad I bought the 24 hour ticket) and instead of walking into town, I used the tram plus the u bahn (subway) to get to the palace.  I would have liked more time to tour the palace, but with only 2 nights in Vienna and in desperate need of rest, this was more about just soaking in the vibe, taking a peek, orienting myself, and gathering ideas and inspiration for future visits.

I walked in, one of the few solo people mingled with an international crowd.  It was not assigned seats, so the usher showed me where I could sit at my price range, a seat in the middle, and then the magic began.

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I closed my eyes and entered the world, listening to music that was a delight for people for centuries.  For several of the works, they had vocal accompaniment with a soprano and a baritone, and they also featured two ballet dancers for some of the works.  What a delightful treat capped off with a performance of Stille Nacht (Silent Night) sing along.  We had lyrics in both German  and English on our seats as they invited us to sing in any language — but the group led first in German and then in English.  That was incredibly moving.

There were a couple of tricky interruptions as the Italian child behind me grabbed and pulled on my chair, and I had to turn around several times, one time as the brother started to talk and the mother put her hand over his mouth.  70 euros each for children who might not get it?   But at the same time, a nice cultural introduction.  The sweet old man next to me kept making jokes in German, something about Stille Nacht and something about something else.  I just smiled and nodded.  And eventually I had to apologize and say, “I am sorry, I only speak English.”

Moved and culturally enriched, I happily walked home and into sweet dreams my last night in Vienna, an elegant, sweet cultural city with so much to offer.  I decided to take a later train to Vipiteno, Italy the next day, allowing me enough time for a museum visit tomorrow.

I awoke at actual breakfast time, and enjoyed a great spread for just 12 euros.

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The creamy spread is made with pumpkin!  I took my time, relishing my silent thoughts, dropped my bags off, and walked to the Belvedere Palace, which was just a 5 minute walk from my hotel, featuring one of my favorite paintings, Gustav Klimt’s “The Kiss,” which I think I only know about from this Rick Steves Episode:

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I decided to buy the 20 euro Klimt ticket, allowing me to see “The Kiss” in the Upper Belvedere Palace as well as Klimt’s women in Lower Belvedere Palace.  The grounds were beautiful even in the winter, and I knew I wanted to return to see them blooming in spring or summer, the elegance of Before Sunrise

I didn’t feel like a long visit or have time for it, but I did a brief gallery walk around the other rooms to get my fill of beauty, but as always, I opted out of the audio guide and didn’t try or force myself to read everything — just when something jumped out to me.

And then finally, “The Kiss.”  It was big, and absolutely moving and gorgeous in person.  I decided I’d like a faithrful reproduction one day. In the next room, was the recreation of the painting where you were invited to post a selfie with it for a chance to win.  I opted out of that, but I did take these selfies in the grounds outside:

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And then strolled around lower Belvedere Palace, appreciating Klimt’s sketches and several other beautiful works.

Back to the hotel, and off to the main train station where I attempted to wait on the line to get actual seats for my journey to Innsbruck then to Brenner and Vipiteno, the Northernmost Italian city, right over the Austrian border.  Unfortunately, the line was not moving and quite chaotic.  A worker finally sent us to another area, but we weren’t on the right line, and a rude woman said “We are on this line, ahead of you, waiting like everyone else.  You have to wait,”

And I said, “We were sent this way.  We weren’t trying to cut.  We didn’t know.”  Then under my breath I said, “Fuck this shit” while the worker wondered if he actually heard me, as I went back to the ticket machine and took my chances on a ticket without seats and up to my track just in time for departure.  Without seats, I dumped my luggage, took my purse and day bag, and sat in the dining car, a guaranteed seat and meal where I could watch the scenery roll by.

I ordered a beer and pumpkin soup, my newest obsession since the restaurant meal, but they were out so I switched to smoked salmon, then later had dessert, something in vanilla sauce.  2 hours rolled by quickly, and then I found an open seat for some rest before arrival in Innsbruck.

Next stop, Brennero, the border of Italy for a quick change to the local train to my little village, as I will feature in Part 2.  Vipiteno.

1 thought on “Christmas Magic in Austria & Italy: Part 1 Vienna

  1. Pingback: Christmas Magic in Austria & Italy: Part 2 Vipiteno | Under the Ligurian Sun

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