If I had to sum up my week long trip in Austria & Czech Republic in one word, it would definitely be "WOW!" What a way it was to end off my school term in England. I'll try not to be too long-winded ;p
On Sunday morning, we took a taxi to Coventry Airport (the airport is so small that check in, security, waiting lounge, and departure gates are all in ONE room) to catch our 6:15am flight to Salzburg. Neither Rachel or I could speak any German so we basically relied on my Lonely Planet German phrasebook for the next few days. Luckily, loads of people could speak decent English in Austria. Right after the airport shuttle dropped us off near the main train station, we ran to the nearest bakery to grab some pastries. After spending 10 weeks in the UK, we were looking forward to some decent food. We dropped off our bags at Yoho International Youth Hostel Salzburg and headed out to the city centre. Salzburg is SMALL. I wouldn't recommend spending more than 2 days there because the sights and attractions are quite limited – unless of course you are a Mozart (or Sound of Music) fan… then you can spend a lifetime there because this city really knows how to milk it for all its worth. There are cardboard cutouts of Mozart EVERYWHERE advertising the famous Mozartkugeln chocolate balls with Mozart's face imprinted on every one of them. There's also a Sound of Music bus tour but we weren't big enough fans to spend 35 euros on it. We decided to pay nothing and walk to Schloß Mirabell gardens (where the Do-Re-Mi number is shot) to get a few decent pictures. The gardens were beautiful and very well maintained but unfortunately, quite a few parts were gated off. We couldn't run through the tunnel like the Von Trapp kids but then again we weren't exactly heartbroken either.
We left the gardens and went straight to the Christkindl Markets. There were booths everywhere (think of Night Market but way classier —> no Afrodog panties or fake Gucci bags) selling everything from glühwein (mulled wine = hot wine with spiced flavor) to Christmas ornaments and giant pretzels. The food was amazing… I had a bosna (hot dog with this yellow spice sprinkled all over it), roasted chestnuts, hot chocolate, kinderpunsch (the guy laughed at me because only kids drink this stuff), and chocolate dipped pretzels all within a 2 hour span. I think I gained about 3 lbs right there. We visited some of the touristy sites like Salzburger Dom and St. Peter's Cemetary. We walked back to the hostel and met up with a girl who had just finished her exchange term in Spain. She knew a couple of good restaurants in the area but they were all closed on Sunday so we walked back to the city centre and looked for a decent restaurant. There was one that specialized in Austrian, Indian AND Italian food. We all thought it was a tourist trap (unless the chef was an Indian who was born in Italy but moved to Austria, there was NO way this restaurant would have good food) so we kept walking and stumbled on a place recommended by a helpful Salzburg brochure. Zwettler's Stiftkeller was an amazing little place. A little pricey but oh so good. I had a garlic soup and roast pork with authentic dumplings. My body weight was increasing by the minute but I didn't care. What a pleasant reward after enduring the subpar food in England.
The next morning, we woke up early to catch the 8:10am train to Vienna. We arrived there early so we hung around Anker Bakery until my UBC friends picked us up. I wasn't too pleased when I had to pay €0.50 to go to the toilet at the train station! Julia and Jen found us and we walked back to their residence. It was so nice to see familiar faces from Vancouver! They both had classes that day and Abby & Belinda wouldn't get back from Spain until later that night so we dropped our stuff off and explored the city on our own. We bought a Sisi combo ticket which included admission to the Hofburg (Kaiserappartements, Sisi Museum, Silberkammer), the Kaiserliches Hofmobiliendepot (Imperial Furniture Collection), and the famous Schonbrunn Palace. We decided to pace our cultural intakings so we only visited the Hofburg on Monday. It was the residence of the Habsburg dynasty for over 600 years. Next, we visited the awesome gothic St. Stephan's Cathedral which lies right in the middle of the city. We joined the catacombs tour which was a fantastic experience. The internal organs of the Habsburg family is actually buried here in bronze containers and the bones of over 15,000 Viennese have been stacked on top of one another for the last 300 years in these catacombs. After, we took the elevator up the north tower and got an awesome view of the entire city. There wasn't too much shopping available (nowhere near the quality and variety of Dublin and London) so we found a small Italian cafe and snacked on the popular apfelstrudel. I also introduced the glorious taste of Illy coffee to Rachel. She was definitely impressed! We returned to my friends' rez and chilled there for a bit until Abby and Belinda got back from their trip. Poor Julia and Jen had to study for one of their upcoming exams. We hit up a local pub – Kriterium (literally a 10 second walk from their place) for dinner and had a somewhat early night.
The next day, all the girls still had classes so we went off on our own and took the metro to the Schonbrunn Palace. I can't even begin to imagine what it would be like to visit this place during high season because there were tour groups EVERYWHERE. All you could see were various coloured umbrellas in the air as tour guides rambled on in a million different languages. We then took the metro back to the Ring (where most of the city centre is located) and visited the Kunsthistorisches Museum which consists of 8 collections and contains impressive treasures from Ancient Egypt, Classical Antiquity, Middle Ages, Renaissance, and the Baroque Era. This building is absolutely gorgeous both on the exterior and interior level. All I can say is the Viennese really know how to design and build monumental buildings. Highlights included the Peter Paul Rubens exhibition and the Viennese silver collection. We ventured to our final stop of the day to the Museum Judenplatz. Outside the museum was a memorial erected to the Austrian Holocaust victims. We went back to the girls' dorms and waited until everyone was ready to go out for a meal. They brought us to a chain restaurant pub called Centimeter – they sell food at a specific price per centimeter. There are supposedly 6 of them all around the city but they were all completely packed due to the national holiday on December 8 (Immaculate Conception). Luckily, we were able to snag a table but we had to squish 8 people around a table designed for 4. We ordered the famous scheibtruhe or "wheelbarrow" which is exactly that. There is a smorgasbord of local Austrian fare all served in a garden wheelbarrow! No idea what the food really was but it was good nevertheless! We ate till we were stuffed and by the time we were done, it was past midnight. We had a 6:34am train to catch the very next morning to Prague so I decided to pull an all-nighter and just stay up chatting with the UBC girls. Rachel managed to get in a couple of hours of sleep before we had to leave Vienna.
Before we hopped on the train, Julia had warned us not to sit in the compartments alone because of safety issues so we were determined to find an open area. However, we walked onto the wrong side of the train because we kept walking past an endless number of compartments so we determined that maybe this train only consisted of these isolated compartments. We found an empty one and closed the blinds so that no one would come in. We were rudely awakened about 10 minutes later when the ticket officers were making their rounds. The guy could speak minimal English but we quickly realized that we were sitting in the wrong area so we got our bags and finally found some seats in the open area. For the next five hours, we snoozed until we arrived in Prague.
Once we arrived at the train station, we were approached by various locals trying to rent out their accomodations. We obviously stuck out like a sore thumb (me being Chinese and Rachel not looking European at all). They spoke perfect English but the same couldn't be said for the rest of the locals who worked in the station. They couldn't speak any English whatsoever and often ignored us. It took us a while to exchange some money and figure out what tram to take but we managed to arrive at our hostel – Sir Toby's in one piece. The day was still young so we checked in and took the tram to Pražský hrad (Prague Castle). We should have taken the other tram because we had to walk up about 500 steps to get to the castle. The ticket included admission to various buildings within the grounds. I wasn't too impressed with most of the buildings but St. Vitus's Cathedral was something else. It was one of the most impressive cathedrals I have seen to date. Since the castle is located on a hill, we could easily see the entire city and view was absolutely magnificent. We also got to see the changing of the guard which is nothing like the one at Buckingham Palace. It's more simple, a lot shorter in length, and WAY cuter guys :)
For dinner, we tried to go to a place recommended by Lonely Planet but unfortunately their meal deal was only available during lunch so we walked around and found a tiny cafe that served Czech food. We both got a goulash and a bottle of coke for just under 3 quid! I was already falling in love with this city! The shops were closing so took a tram back to the hostel and decided to take advantage of the ridiculously low prices for food and enjoy some dessert and coffee at La Baterie Cafe which was a couple blocks away from the hostel. The place looked really posh (similar to the lounges in Vancouver) and the prices were reasonable. Since we were no longer in the tourist area of Prague it was not surprising when we found out that our waitress couldn't speak ANY English. We had no idea what kind of desserts were available so we basically just pointed to random items and hoped for the best. Our favourite dessert was the medovnik (honey cake) which looks really unappetizing but has an amazing taste.
In the morning, we paid 80 Kc for an all you can eat breakfast in the hostel. They had everything including fruit, yogurt, ham, cheese, buns, toast, cereal, juice, hot drinks, and even NUTELLA! We went crazy (or at least I did) on the food and ate as much as I could. We met this Welsh guy who has been teaching in Japan for the last 5 years. He was absolutely hilarious. We chatted for a bit until we realized the time so we head off for St. Nicholas Church. We were originally planning to walk across Charles Bridge into Old Town and explore for a bit until our tour at 14:00 of the Jewish Quarter but there was a small change in plans because we spent over 1.5 hours ON the bridge just walking from stall to stall admiring (and buying) the crafts, jewelry, etchings, paintings etc. We finally made our way to the Old Town and waited by the Astronomical Clock (note: don't bother waiting for the clock to put on its little show every hour because it's quite anticlimatic) for the tour to begin. The guide took us around the six synagogues within the Jewish Quarter and talked about what life was like for the Jews in this area. It was quite informative but not too captivating. For dinner, we went to Cafe Louvre which has been open for over a century. It has a great atmosphere and the food was unbelievable. I had a french onion soup, pork medallions with traditional Czech dumplings, ice cream (9 Kc = $0.50 CAD per scoop!) and a drink for under $15CAD INCLUDING tips. Now that is a deal.
The next morning, we decided that we couldn't pass up on the breakfast deal so ate like crazy again. We took the metro to the Florenc bus station and attempted to find the bus which would take us to Terezin, a Nazi transit camp in WWII. It felt like we were part of The Amazing Race because the bus was about to leave in the next 5 minutes and we had no idea where we were. Fortunately, we finally found the information centre and the lady told us in broken English the correct bus number. We didn't want to wait another 30 minutes for the next bus so we ran to the bus bay area and I quickly spotted the Terzin bus. We made it with 30 seconds to spare. The bus ride only cost us $3 CAD and transported us 50km northwest of Prague into the desolate town of Terezin. This town was absolutely dead. There were only a handful of other tourists walking around during the entire day. During WWII, Terezin held about 60,000 people in a space originally meant for 5000. Over 35,000 Jews imprisoned here died from disease, starvation or suicide. It was definitely a surreal experience as we walked past the mass graves of innocent victims. The Ghetto Museum preserved loads of children's drawings depicting the brutality of the Nazis. The most vivid experience for me was walking through the Small Fortress which became the Prague Gestapo's prison in 1940. It was heartwrenching to see the cells where the prisoners were kept. I could only begin to imagine what life was like during those treacherous years.
We took a bus to Litoměřice which is 5km from Terezin and walked around the town until it was time to catch the bus back to Prague. We dropped our bags and went to Rustika for dinner. The food was ok but it wasn't as good as other meals we had before. We bumped into our Welsh friend who invited us out for drinks in Wenceslas Square. He had met some locals and they were going to show him around so we tagged along. The first couple of places were completed packed (probably because it was Friday night) but we managed to find a small table so we sat down. We didn't anticipate that they would be having 5 beers so we didn't get back to the hostel until the wee hours of the morning. Don't worry, I only had 1 beer (not a big beer fan) and it only cost me 20 Kc = $1CAD.
Prague is one of my favourite cities. Do yourself a favour and go there before it gets too touristy and the prices become inflated. The city is gorgeous and the food is tasty and cheap. What more could you want?
The last three months has been quite the experience. For any of you who are thinking of going on exchange, don't hesitate and just go for it. This is something I'll remember for a long time. The best part? The friends I have met from all over the world. Now when I return to Europe and beyond, I'll actually have places to crash at. :)
Final Total: £2,514.45