Austria was the final country in my Eastern European part of the sabbatical. For this part of my trip, I met up with a good friend Bhuvana, who had also been traveling in Western Europe for a couple of weeks. The fashionable cities and the picturesque countryside make Austria a fascinating country to drive around. It may not be as steeped in history and grandeur as some of its western neighbors, but it definitely has its own quaint charm.
Vienna is a tasteful superimposition of the old and the new. Glorious Gothic and Baroque style buildings from a bygone era tower over the high end brand stores and nightly markets that the city is known for today.
The city has many charming gardens that were part of princely palaces from centuries ago, which make for a perfect break between exploring different quarters of the city.
The city also has some world renowned museums like the Kunsthistoriesch museum with a vast collection of paintings from all over europe, housed in a beautiful palace.
A short walk from the main city center is the complex of Belvedere with its vast gardens and a huge palace, now housing a museum.
If you have more than 4 days in Vienna, a highly recommended day trip from the city is to Neusidler See region and its neighboring marsh lands. Rust is the most prominent town in this region which is famous for its indigenous variety of wine. The little town is also famous for its picturesque architecture which involves lots of flower filled window sills and alleys.
Because of the vast marsh land surrounding the lake, this region is a natural habitat for some rare flora and fauna. One of the most astonishing experiences I had here was while taking a short walk just outside the town of Rust, on a trail that skirted the marshes. All of a sudden there was a loud buziing sound and it felt like there was a train that was going to jump out of the marshes at me and then I saw the sky was suddenly filled with hundreds of thousands of birds that were flocking around and getting in and out of the marsh at the same time. It was surreal!
After spending 4 days in Vienna and its vicinities, and making a quick stop at Budapest for a couple of days, I picked up Bhuvana from the airport and we started on a 5 day roadtrip that took us to many interesting and unexpected places! Our plan was to head as far west as we could in 4 days and then head back to Vienna on the last day so I could get on my plane that would finally take me back home to India. Plans were formed, changed, improvised as we went and even though the country side of Austria is beautiful, for me the highlight after a month of traveling solo was just hanging out and getting to know Bhuvana better.
We started out with a stop in the town of Melk to check out the 11th century Benedictine abbey. The abbey itself was quite nice but we were mildly put off by the huge tour group of 35 people that we ended up becoming a part of. We wrapped up the tour of the abbey quickly and headed down to the town to grab what was going to be the first of MANY chineese dinners! God bless the folks that run these amazingly delicious chinese restaurants all over Austria. These restaurant owners were also one of the most welcoming, hospitable and kind people we met during our road trip, many of them fascinated by two brown ladies traveling around the country in a hatchback without a plan! In some of the little towns, people even asked us if we knew that one other brown person they had met at some point in their life from the south asian subcontinent. (We didn’t really blame them for not realizing that almost one third of the worlds population lives in that region). It was a fascinating trip of getting to know the stories of what brought other people there and telling them our own.
After spending a night at the very quaint Zum Schwarzen Baren Hotel in Emmersdorf, we headed to explore the jewel of Austria- The lake district. Our first stop was Hallstatt. This is a stunning little town that precariously balances on the edge of the mountains and the lake shore. The entire town looks like one never ending postcard and has a very cheerful and laidback vibe to it.
After spending a good few hours in Hallstatt, we followed google maps’ directions to Wolfgang See, though we quickly found out that google maps idea of Wolfgang see was some unsuspecting Austrian farmer’s barn. After getting to the point our navigation wanted us to get to, we could see that we were diagonally across the lake from where the town of Wolfgang see was. We shut the map and followed the winds to take us to the other side to the actual town.
Over the course of the next two days, we had driven to and around half a dozen lakes and we made sure we took our time basking in the sun and catching up and did not really follow any plan. We spent a night in an airbnb in the town of Strobl which turned out to be a wonderful treat. We were there just past the tourist season on a weekday when most restaurants are closed. But we found this lovely place called Kirchenwirt that was open and they served what might be the only place in Austria to serve this kind of food: lip-smacking, mouthwatering delicious VEGETARIAN Austrian food!! (who knew such a thing even existed!)
A trip to Austria is considered incomplete without a stop at Salzburg. So we headed to check out this historic town famous for being Mozart’s birthplace and having a thriving music culture even to this day. We spent a day meandering in the historic part of the town and made it to the Hohensalzburg fortress for a stunning sunset and a riveting musical performance that included Mozart’s famous compositions.
From Salzburg, we headed off to meet a good friend of mine that I had always admired but hadn’t seen since I graduated from college more than a decade ago. It was a beautiful happenstance that I remembered she lived in Austria just when I entered the country by road and thanks to 21st century connectivity tools, within minutes of remembering to reach out to her, we had made plans to meet up. My friend Sindhuja lived in a town called Altheim just north of Salzburg. It was wonderful beyond words to meet her and her two half austrian half tam bram boys Mark and Leon who cutely said “aiyiyo” ever so often!
After spending a wonderful evening with Sindhuja and chatting/gossiping enough to make up for a decade lost, we woke up next morning and decided we had seen enough of Austrian country side and instead of going straight to Innsbruck, took a detour to see what all the fuss about Oktoberfest in Munich is all about. It might have been the best decision I have made in my life, and I do admit I make plenty of bad ones. Mind. Blown. More about that in a different blog.
We wrapped up Oktoberfest by evening and headed back to Innsbruck to spend the night as we had a non refundable hotel reservation there.
Innsbruck turned out to be quite a visual treat! Other than the inconvenience of having to drive quite a bit to get there and get back to Vienna the next day, the town was full of charm and character that only a mountain town in the eastern alps could posses! Colorful riverfront and charming buildings from the 15th and 16th century make this town a pretty stop even outside of the ski season.
After spending a few morning hours meandering in the streets of Innsbruck, we started on a long and uneventful drive back to Vienna. What should normally have taken 5 hours, took us about 7.5 because of traffic and that was not fun. OF course we had to stop for our one last spicy chinese meal along the way. I made it just in time to drop my car off at the airport (only to find out it had to dropped off elsewhere and hence more last minute drama) and made it to my flight to New Delhi.
As I finally got settled in my seat in the Air India flight, it dawned on me that one third of my sabbatical was over! And what an amazing experience it had been to travel across these beautiful countries, meeting the amazingly interesting and kind people I met along the way and seeing sights and witnessing cultures that have changed me forever. Despite feeling the exhaustion of a long day of driving and the cumulative fatigue of a month long of traveling, I sensed a tingling sense of excitement about what lay ahead!