Stumblebum

We’ve been laying low over January, recovering from our Christmas jaunts and mapping out our “should we go there” list as we round into the last leg of our time here. In the meantime, I am discovering more wonderful things about the Swiss that I would never have guessed from afar.

For one thing: They are not as worried bout natural gas explosions as are Canadians. I know this for a fact. When I was a reporter, any sign of a natural gas leak brought out the police and fire departments who would evacuate entire city blocks rather than deal with flying body parts should the leak turn lethal.

Not so with the Swiss. Walking down one of our town’s beautiful canal strolls, I saw police cars and other emergency vehicles arrive at a building. I say “arrive,” because to suggest they sped up and raced from their vehicles would just not be true. The officers and emergency workers strolled up a building that had several windows open. There were no signs of smoke, fire, or rabid protesters, so I thought maybe it was just a training exercise. Then I walked past the vehicles and noticed several with the word “gas” on their sides.

Sure enough, a few feet past the building I caught my first whiff of natural gas in the air. I turned back to see how the emergency workers were doing, and they were busy scratching their heads, which is maybe how they signal to the population to “be calm.” I just hoped no one decided to light up a cigarette (this country is packed with smokers).

Pass me a wrench, wilya?

I went my merry way, walking faster than I normally do until I reached the distance I estimated Victoria police would have cordoned off, and then I relaxed and waited for the boom. It didn’t come, which goes to show that sometimes everything works out just fine.

Later, I checked out the site and discovered a giant hole dug into the sidewalk and in that gaping hole lay pretty yellow gas lines. To leave a gas line exposed is another thing that Canadians are fussy about.

The hole has been there since January 12th, unguarded, unsealed and just unsane. No dogs or small children have plunged in, but that’s because it the workers erected rails around it, which by Swiss standards is high-security. They normally just dig holes and leave them unmarked for unwatchful walkers to fall into.

Note: This post is not to suggest the Swiss are in any way lazy. They are not. As proof, the grounds keeping staff in our lakefront park have been mowing, leaf-clearing, debris-disposing, pruning and showing a degree of industry that is impressive. Maybe they’re getting the place ready as a refuge centre in the event of a natural gas explosion.

 

Chocolate Supremacy in Surprising Places

The best hot chocolate ever. If you know the recipe for Slovakian hot chocolate, please share!

German chocolate, Dutch chocolate, Swiss Chocolate and the top-of-the-world fabulous chocolate caramels served up at the little-heralded Chocolat shop at 703 Fort Street in Victoria, British Columbia – these are few of my favorite things.

After swooning to the wonders of German chocolate, I was not expecting to find anything comparable in Europe, much less Slovakia, but it turns out I was wrong about that.

Seated in the snug Cukraren na Korze in Bratislava’s historic district, we devoured the best chocolate ever. I use the word “devoured,” but it could just as easily be said that we sipped on it. The chocolate was a hot chocolate beverage topped in genuine whipped cream, and while many have used the term “you could stand a spoon up in it,” only as a descriptive for richness, Cukraren’s hot chocolate really can support a spoon.

It raises the question: Is it hot chocolate? Or pudding? I don’t know. I don’t care. I just love it. I’ve been trying to figure out the recipe all this month, but so far it eludes me.

My father was Slovakian by birth, and he went to school in Bratislava, but of all the great food he put on the table, he never produced a cup of hot chocolate like this. I think he knew I had a weakness, and that bringing Bratislava’s hot chocolate too early into my life could lead to things, like not being to find a bathroom scale able to register my weight.

If you go to Bratislava, you’ll find Cukraren (with more accents and strange squiggles on its signage that my keyboard will allow) on Michalska, just a few doors down from St. Michael’s Gate and across from these ugly gargoyles. I don’t remember what the hot chocolate costs, but I didn’t particularly care after tasting it.

 

 

This little guy obviously wants more hot chocolate.

 

Bratislava the Beautiful

Despite rampant graffiti, vacant streets and widespread signs of urban rot, Bratislava is a European city and therefore, still rich in magnificent architecture. What makes it outstanding in some measure is that it is a living urban museum of its past. Like all European cities, attempts are ongoing to wash out signs of WWII and the economic trashing it produced, so if you want to see something before municipal planners hit the “delete” button, go to Bratislava. Slovakia may be in the economic basement, but there are signs of an upward swing. And if the money should present itself, it might start facelifting-away those markers of its sad history. Why not? The Berliners did it, eradicating all but a small strip of the Berlin Wall? Still, as an anti-revisionist, I hope they leave some scruffy bits.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Bratislava + Territorial Tiffs

Dropping down into Bratislava after visiting the grandeur of Vienna is a paradigm-shifting experience. To get you started on what it was like, check out this clip (sorry for some of the ‘adult’ references in it).

Bratislava, seriously still messed up.

The difference between Austria and Slovakia is sharp, which is something of a feat considering that they have historically been at one time or another joined into one country combined with Hungary, Moravia, Bohemia, the Czech Republic or any number of assemblages of this hastily put-together list. It brings the more recent collapse of Yugoslavia into some perspective, as in that the former Yugoslavia is now about 13 countries. As Rodney King laments, can’t we just all get along? Apparently not.

We tend to think of national borders as somewhat permanent, but they’re not. They are always under pressure to move, which may make you feel a little better about Israel’s current territorial arguments. This is business as usual, although it is a very scary business indeed.

Not all border disputes erupt in gunfire, random rocket-launches or global war.

At the moment, the United Kingdom and Spain are in a restrained and polite spat over a little appendix of land called Gibraltar.

An aptly named coffee shop.

Canada is rebuffing Denmark who’d like to grab hold of Hans Island, not because Hans Island is such a catch, but because if softies like the Danes  can cow your nation into relinquishing land, your country will become a grab-bag garage-sale for the whole world. Canadians do not want that. It’s like getting beat up by the captain of the Chess Club.

Canada and the U.S. have at least seven territorial disputes.

No one wants to get in a real fight, so these countries posture like kids during school recess. There’s no saying the argument could not erupt, but it is soothing that it does not. Would it not be nice if the whole world worked like this?

But what does that have to do with Bratislava? I’m not sure, but here are some photos to show what a country looks like even almost 30 years after communism and over 70 years after the Second World War. Austria, notably, looks a lot better than Slovakia although it, too, was annexed by the Nazis,  so my wager is that communism creates more lasting damage on a country’s economy and the mindset of its population than does all-out conflict.

Next post: Photos of beautiful Slovakian architecture, cause it didn’t all get wrecked. 

A fixer-upper!

It will take more than a coat of paint to fix this.

A monument to the Russians for "liberating" Slovakia from the Nazis. Yes, thank you very much. We appreciate your sacrifice, but "liberating" the Slovaks would mean setting them free, not putting them into another cage. Interestingly, this photo was not shot in black and white, although it looks that way.

 

 

 

Bratislava, or as the Italians call it: Brateeslaaaaaahva. It sounds nicer that way.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

To look at travel brochures and economic reports, one would think Slovakia is on the upswing, and that would be true. There is nowhere else to go but up when buried in the economic basement of post-communist rule. The Soviets have been long-gone but their legacy lingers in the form of extremely ugly architecture and decaying urban districts. This does not mean Slovakia is not worth a visit: It is its very grittiness that make it a welcome contrast from Europe’s posh locales.

How to get more blog hits and a little on locked churches.

I have learned something about blogs and how to get more hits. Just in case you’ve ever researched this topic before, there are plenty of sites that give you tips on this, but none of them work. Just saying.

What does work, however, is posting a picture of an attractive young couple, as I did earlier this week. I had no idea it would have the impact that it did. My web-hits zooooomed upwards. But that is a cheap and tawdry trick, although many successes are built on such (People Magazine, ET Online to name a few).

So, today, we are back to our regular programming, which is photos of old buildings. Some of them aren’t even pretty. Here’s a start with a photo of a Catholic church in Bratislava, Slovakia. You may notice a glass sheen in front of it. That is because the church was locked. In fact, Bratislava is the first European city we have visited to have locked churches. A look at the streets told us why: The place looks impoverished, and so it’s  fair guess that vandalism might be an issue. We did sneak into a church, however, immediately after a small group celebrating an infant baptism was let out. Dave was a little antsy about doing that in a country where the last time they saw someone in my bloodline, they shot at him, but I say, what the heck. Just go for it. And no one shot at us.

This is what is outside.

This is what is inside.

Aaron & Ginny Tredway

See this gorgeous couple. They are not us. They are a couple that we met on the train between Vienna and Bratislava. They had just flown up from their home in South Africa where they were escaping the tourist hordes. As their trip was impromptu, they didn’t have any real plans, so seeing us with our maps, they asked if they could tag along cause they had no idea where they were going.

They did not look like stalkers, so we said yes. Go with the flow, I say. Actually, I never say that, so I always keep a wary eye out on new acquaintances.

We were three minutes into our inaugural conversation when we broached the required question: Where are you from? When we said British Columbia, Aaron, a former pro-soccer player, said he has friends in British Columbia. They’re involved with a non-profit association for soccer players. This was starting to sound like a Christian outreach program we know about, and so we mentioned that we had friends involved in this organization.

You know what happened next. We both blurted out the names of those friends, and very soon discovered that Aaron was inspired to get into the ministry by the same pastor (Bob Roxburgh) who had performed our wedding service in Winnipeg almost 30 years ago. His soccer-playing buddies were Roxburgh’s sons, one of whom Dave taught Sunday school.

Just to play out the geographic links for you. We were born in Winnipeg. Aaron was born in San Francisco. Bob Roxburgh was born in England. All of us have roamed such that we could almost safely say combined, we have covered much of the globe. Aaron moved to South Africa, his wife’s homeland. We normally live in B.C., but now live in Switzerland. There’s a stretch of oceans, nationalities and decades between us, and yet somehow we were seated across the aisle from each other on a ride from Austria to Slovakia. What if we had chosen different boxcars?

I am not a big believer of coincidences – it’s nothing I can prove, but it was sure fun to trek around with these two. We don’t doubt that we will see them again.

 

Slick St. Stephens Cathedral

Vienna's St. Stephen's Cathedral

The Viennese are not the sort to sit back on their ancestors’ architectural laurels.

We visited the massive St. Stephen’s Cathedral that dates back to the first half of the 1100’s, first laying our  eyes on it in daytime. It’s an impressive sight with its cavernous Romanesque and Gothic design. That beauty was amplified when we happened across it at night and discovered virtual paint cans of colour splashed on the building, both inside and out, and by “virtual,” I mean not real paint cans, but a light show that casts the entire edifice in a rainbow. Adding to our amazement, the pipe organ blasted into this cornucopia of colour. Austria. You must love it. You have to. Awesome Austria.

Just to prove that Europeans don’t just build on North American aboriginal graves, they did the same here. The site was originally believed to be an open field, but in 2000, plumbing problems led to some excavations that yielded graves. Yes, you discover the most interesting things in the aftermath of plumbing foibles.

And for those interested in a little Bible history, St. Stephen was an early Christian evangelist preaching to the Jews, who was summarily martyred  by stoning. That was savage indeed, and the weirdest thing is that this ancient form of execution continues even to this day.

This is not to pick on the Jews who in St. Stephen’s case were the ones doing the stoning, because it has been practised nearly worldwide as a ‘legitimized’ death penalty. Today it is prescribed in Islam’s Sharia law and practised in Islamic states. A recent case came to global attention where a 13-year-old girl was sentenced to die in this manner for being raped by her brother. Yes, that’s how backward Islam is towards women. Her sentence was altered, but reportedly other stonings continue.

North America appears to be the only continent free of execution-by-stoning. I could be wrong about this so if any archeological/anthropological/historical experts care to correct me, I will add their comments in here.

Just because the practice is barbaric does not mean it doesn’t have rules. Everything has rules, and so it is with stoning that even the size of the stones must conform to standard, lest a single large stone kill the victim too quickly.

Surprisingly, some tried to introduced Sharia law in family courts in Canada. Read here to learn more about it. In the spirit of multiculturalism, some people tried to take a non-judgmental aloof attitude toward this campaign, but frankly, any culture that tries to import a system of law that in some places includes stoning rape victims is just stark-raving mad and I for one would be happy to deport anyone trying to import it to my homeland. I’m just saying.

But that is another thing. Here are some more photos of St. Stephen’s Cathedral, an ancient Christian monument that brings to mind a modern Islamic practice. Who would have guessed it?

 

Languishing in a linguistic laguna

Don't be fooled by this photo. This blog post is not about the Vienna Opera House.

What do these people have in common?

A blond long-haired woman with a man in a blue-and-black sports coat chattered their way down our town’s main retail avenue yesterday. They were speaking English, but more than that, the man’s coat colour screamed “North American” to us. Swiss men usually wear black, grey or brown coats. So do Swiss women, now that I think of it.

In our hotel lobby, we overheard a man trying to get a French translation from our hotel desk staff to explain kitchen drawer and cupboard liners.

In the same lobby shortly after, another man approached the desk and asked in an American accent if the staff could tell him where to find a good German restaurant, to which Jean Philippe, one of our affable front desk staff, held up his chin, reflected, then said, “No. There aren’t any.”

What do all of these people have in common? It’s not only that they were fluent native-English speakers. They were also all besieged by us.

Yes, we have reached the point where we will talk to anyone, anywhere at any time on the sole qualification that they are native English-speakers. And, it doesn’t matter whether they want to talk to us. This is a matter of social conscription.

Looking up at the Vienna Opera House. This photo has nothing to do with this blog post, but I am trying to get through all our holiday photos.

We’ve been here for about 10 months, which is a long time to go before breaking into this uncontrolled yammering, but that’s because English is not so rare here. We enjoy conversations with many, but those conversations still hang up on cultural reference points, a fact under-scored when we make a joke that fails to hit its mark.

When we lived in Spain where English was more of a rarity, we entered this yammering phase within the first week of arrival, just to give you an idea of how starved we were to hear our own language.

It changed our perspectives on immigrants who are often accused of forming their own insular communities in Canada. I know now that if I showed up in Toronto fresh from China, I’d head for Chinatown, too. There’s no intention on the immigrant’s part to stand apart from their new country – they just need that fresh drink of water that is conversing in a language in which they can be their eloquent, witty selves… or in which they can be jerks, if that happens to be what they are in their home country. Being a jerk in your own language is still more fun than being a jerk in someone else’s.

In the meantime, the man looking for the French translation came and sat with us. He’s also from New York and is transferring here for a 10-month work assignment. We thought he was American, but he corrected us on that count: He is Indian. Nationality matters not a whit, of course. As he said, “English! It’s so nice to hear English!” We’re getting together with him later today at Starbucks. Where else would we go but to our own English version of “Chinatown.”

As one other English-speaking former Manitoban’s husband, a couple who is also “stuck in Switzerland,” might quip: The English colonial beachhead has been established.

If you grasped the flow of that last sentence, and you show up in our town, you just might become one of our best friends.

Note: It turned out the man in the blue and black jacket was Swiss, but his shopping friend was from New York.

While were at the Vienna Opera House, the stage workers were prepping for an evening performance - the stage itself is an impressive engineering feat that is essentially a rotating elevator that can shift 40 tonnes 28 feet before and 10 feet above. This picture does not do justice to the size of the stage either. Those Viennese - where opera is concerned, they are not just kidding around.

Vienna the beautiful

Vienna wowed us; maybe because we planned it as stopover to another destination. What can I say? We are uncultured idiots.

I am busy these weeks with editing a novel, so don’t have much time for writing in this blog, but I do have time to post photos. I have noticed that my web-hits spike the days I don’t write. I do not take this personally.

Hardship of note:  I had repeatedly look up Lipizzaner in order to write the captions for these photos. It’s harder than it looks. You can click the stop button to read the captions if you like. I’m sorry that sometimes the text is white on a light background, but I am not smart enough to fix that. More to come.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

What to Skip on Your Trip

 

I could have missed this, but I'm glad I didn't.

Every destination we eye brings forward the ultimate travel question: What sites can we skip?

It runs counter to the usual travel query – what are the must-sees.

That is the wrong question. It works backwards in that it assumes an infinite amount of time is available whereas even the most summary of polls will pile on a backlog of tourist-to-do’s that at the end of your journeys will evoke a haunting suspicion that you have left the “must-sees” unseen and for years to come as you ruminate on your travels, it will be in an air steeped in the stench of bygone opportunities.

And that is not what you paid for when you ponied up to the travel web-site and booked your holiday.

So edit your list.

The ultimate travel satisfaction is not in aiming high, nor low, but for somewhere between mediocre and medium. Forget those travel-writers who make it sound possible to see it all in 36 hours (a la New York Times travel section).

We have taken serious runs at seeing cities in 36 hours, but to keep up with the NY Times version would require copious consumption of Red Bull and absolutely no sleep (although this would save on hotel bills).

And so, I have been to Paris, but not the inside of the Louvre (long line-up).

I have lived in Spain and not gone near the lauded Camino del Santiago pilgrim walk (I read the Bible and learned that heaven does not require hiking, although if you like a good walk, go ahead).

I have been to Germany and not seen a holocaust museum (although I heartily believe that everyone who complains about Israel being knee-jerk over-defensive should visit at least five holocaust museums).

But I drift from my point, which is, what can you skip on your trip? Well? What can you skip?

More ramblings on this later.

A view of Vienna from the hill overlooking Schoenbrunn palace is beautiful, but could I have missed it? Yes. I could have.

I am always glad to see any statue that was not created between 1940 and 2010, so I am happy I did not miss this. On the other hand, Europe has about 893-gazillion horse and warrior sculptures, so if I did miss this, I would not mind terribly.

And now, something for the economists…

Dave emulates his economic-theorist hero Adam Smith.

Economic theorists, heads-up. My hubby Dave has walked by many works of fine art, concert halls and astonishing vistas with only the barest nod in the attraction’s direction, which is why I was stunned as we walked through the business section of Vienna to hear him say, “Oh, Adam Smith!” as he walked past this statue that, you will notice, only says A. Smith. How did he know the statue honoured Adam Smith? It turns out that Smith is the author of An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations. It was a pioneering work of political economics. I did not know this, but it goes to show something. I’m not sure what, except that it underscores that Dave knows a lot more about monetary systems, economics and investments than do I.

Schoenbrunn Park

Solo statuary was sheathed against the weather, but the garden pavilion's scultpures were on display.

The great thing about Schoenbrunn is that while you must pay to get inside the palace, the grounds function as a city park. Joggers, strollers, sightseers, pondside ponderers all linger quite happily on the spacious grounds.

The park is almost square at 1 x 1.2 kilometres and has been on the Unesco World Heritage Sites since 1996. A brief word about Unesco: What the heck? We visited a Unesco site that called into question the merits of Unesco designation. This, however, was not that site. Schoenbrunn is definitely Unesco-worthy.

As we noted with other-things-Austrian, everything was tidy and well-kept. Litter was at a scant minimum and we did not spot a single drunk lounging on the park benches.

I know this sounds very snotty to look down my nose at public drunkenness, but nothing can upset the day’s happy balance quite the way that having a drunken wretch glare menacingly at you while muttering something in German. It is even less pleasant to have a drunk stagger behind you, casting his alcoholic breath over your airspace and waving his cigarette a little too close to your coat.

Am I saying this has happened to me? Of course it has, but not in Austria.

 

Schoenbrunn's garden rises upward, so it gives a beautiful view of Vienna below.

 

An unimaginative, but informative perspective on Schoenbrunn's garden pavilion, which houses a very nice and surprisingly affordable restaurant.

 

When the Austrians say they want high ceilings, they mean high ceilings, dangit.

Schoenbrunn Sights

Low sun in Schoenbrunn gardens, which are crisscrossed with pathways wide and narrow - lovely to spend a whole day in.

We saw Schoenbrunn and its gardens one on of those cold, bright winter days when most of the marble statues were wrapped in bisque-coloured tarps.

That is not always so bad – it gave us an appreciation of the precise geometry of the garden’s design. There is also something poetic in the bare brown tree branches against a blue sky. I’ll add more pictures as the week goes on.

Sun paints shadows across the gravelly grounds.

Schoenbrunn in autumn leaf, courtesy Rebolusyon blog.

Backtracking + Schonbrunn

Yup. It is a palace, alright. This is one of Schonbrunn Palace's large ballrooms, and the site of the Vienna summit between U.S. President John F. Kennedy and Soviet Premier Nikita Khruschev on June 4, 1961 in the aftermath of the Cuba Missile Crisis. Just as amazing, it is also the place where Dave developed an attachment to audio-guides. I still preferred to read the plaques. Anytime an audio guide starts out describing inane material, such as elaborating on the formation of the society that provides the audio guide, my brain goes into cold storage.

 

I’ve lost track of what I’ve posted and what I’ve not from our recent travels eastward, so I’ll start with the beginning: A visit to Schonbrunn Palace in Vienna.

Our overnight train from Zürich arrived in Vienna at 7:30 a.m., and despite our hopeful queries to the porter, it was clear that we had to vacate our cozy little sleeping compartment within 5 minutes of arrival, 10 minutes at most. We staggered into the almost empty Vienna train station, which is possibly the most polished, clean and criminal-free train station we have happened upon thus far in Europe.

This is one of the palace's many wood stoves that is fed wood from the rear, so as not to mess with palace decor. These are huge - eight feet in height by my estimation.

One little shop was open, so we scurried in that direction, but it turned out to be a book shop, leading us to believe the Viennese fall into seizures if they are without reading material. Clean train station, devoted readers – we liked Austria already.  The book shop gal directed us to the tram stop just outside of the station where we caught a tram to Schonbrunn palace, arriving there before opening, so we wandered the grounds a little, then discovered the palace doors were open so we were able to wait in warmth.

The royal bed.

Schonbrunn is the childhood home of Marie Antoinette who along with her surviving siblings (16 children in total, not sure how many died at birth) was given fairly free rein in the palace and its 20-acre grounds of marble statues, troops of trees, trimmed gardens and ponds. They were also encouraged to play with non-royal children. Shocking.

Despite some historical writings saying that Marie Antoinette’s parents had married for love, the palace audio-guide said the opposite, that her  mother Maria Theresa reportedly did not like her father, so she was absent most of time. Only one of Marie Antoinette’s siblings was allowed to marry for love, the rest were all political liaisons. It explains so much about the dysfunction seen in royal families. It may also explain why so many were named Maria – Maria Theresa, Maria Josepha, Maria Carolina, Maria Amalia. The imagination must have been bred out of the family. On the other hand, when a woman has 13 to 16 children it might be economical to be able to just shout Maria when summoning one or more of the flock.

If this were your "comfy" summer home furniture, you might name 11 children Maria, too. The edifice in the corner is another wood stove.

The palace is worth the trip – it shows heavily ornamented Viennese design, and a few surprises in that most of the royal family’s private living rooms are surprisingly small, for a palace, that is. Schonbrunn is also the location of what the audio guide said is Mozart’s first concert at the age of six, but a quick run through the Internet suggests he had other notable concerts before that. I will rely on some music history buff to correct me.

Plan on taking at least 45 minutes for the short tour of about 20 rooms, another hour or more for the gardens. A lovely garden restaurant is behind the palace, but the hike up to it is a steep one. The truly curious could spend an entire day at Schonbrunn.

The palace was packed with stunning chandeliers.

Where Mozart performed before Austrian royalty.

Zip-trips

We have been on the road, or more properly, on the European railway tracks for the most part of the last eight days. Maybe seven days. I don’t know. The concept of time has lost all meaning. Travel does that to a person.

It is very tough work. Tourists are all about seeing things, photographing things, experiencing things, buying things, doing things. It is an artificial existence, and so it is really hard to keep up for a long time.

No need to shovel snow on these 'streets,' but wouldn't it be fun if they froze over? It would be the greatest ice-skating in the world.

We should all feel sorry for those tourists who blithely book a six-month excursion. They have no idea what they are letting themselves in for. I can tell them: It will be a lot of pain and suffering, all while trying to look like they’re having the time of their lives so as to justify their investment of money and time.

But I ramble. The point of this blog is to show a little of what it is like to move to a place, as opposed to just visiting there. But for the last little bit, we have just been visiting. It is tougher than we remember. We’re almost grateful to get back to work.

There are no motor vehicles on Venice or Murano avenues, so everything gets hauled by humans. This cart is designed to take stairs easily. It works beautifully.

10 things we have learned so far:

  1. The best hot chocolate in the world can be had in Bratislava, Slovakia. This is a true fact.
  2. Vienna is much more fabulous than anyone could guess.
  3. Sorry to say, but Italian food tastes better in Canadian ‘Italian’ restaurants.
  4. The landscape between Milan and Venice looks a lot like Saskatchewan.
  5. Venice has a regrettable spewage smell to it. I say spewage, because I doubt they would admit to it being sewage. We may have seen a spewage outfall directly into a canal in the heart of the city.
  6. It is worth the extra money to book a full sleeping compartment with private bathroom and shower on Eurail lines in Switzerland, Austria and France.
  7. It is questionable whether it is worth it to pay extra money for first-class on Trenitalia (Italian Rail). Their seats are a little like Mussolini – hard to put up with.
  8. Italy’s train service Trenitalia also recently laid off their senior staff to hire a bunch of cheaper new staff, putting people out of work who have been with the railway for 20-25 years. Boo Trenitalia. A handful of middle-age guys are protesting this in front of the Venice train station. They have been there for 25 days. Trenitalia is a real name. Check it out by clicking here.
  9. If you want something done, get a Swiss, German or Austrian national to do it.
  10. Venice hotels are ridiculously expensive, but everything else is reasonable from food to souvenirs to boat taxis

    This Slovakian hot chocolate can permanently alter a person's mood to "upbeat."

    .

Venice

Venice. It’s pretty.

More gondolas that we could shake a stick at.

San Marco Campo - or as we might call it, San Marco Square or Plaza.

The waterways and lanes are so jagged, it's easy to get lost, even when paying attention to the map.

From Vienna to Venice, or is the other way around?

We’re off to Venice, but in the meantime, here’s a few pictures from our time in Vienna. Vienna, Venice – I keep mixing those names up. Maybe actually seeing these places will cure that.

Inside Vienna's famous Opera House.

St. Peter's Church in Vienna.

Vienna is still the city of horses and home of the Lipizzaner stallion riding school.

The view from behind the Neptune statue (see header photo above) looking over Schonbrunn Palace and Vienna

Garden pavilion at Schonbrunn Palace in Vienna, Austria

Train versus Plane

Our first stop in Vienna: Schonbrunn Palace, where we arrived shortly after 8 a.m. due to our early morning train arrival. It turned out to be a good thing, because even in December, the place was filling up by the time we left a few hours later.

Only 25 Euros to fly to London? I’ll take it. 50 Euros to Rome? Okay. 47 Euros to Barcelona? Not bad.

Also, not really true. Yes, there are fabulous flight-deals to be had, but here’s the fact: Even a one-hour flight will take a 1.5-hour train ride to the Zürich airport, which itself takes 2-3 hours to navigate thanks to the presence of line-ups like we’ve never seen before. Also, for some reason the Swiss believe that taking a direct route to anything only allows too much lounging among its passengers, creating an air of sloth, and so the guided march through Zürich airport is something of a maze that loops passengers through much of the airport, only to end up back in the same zone from which they passed through 20 minutes earlier.

I wish this were not true, but it is. I like a stroll as much as the next person, but not so much when toting luggage, worrying about border officials, and getting the impression from the forced march that our gate is in the next Canton. If it’s rough on me, a daily walker, I can’t imagine what it is like for those whose fitness level lags. Possibly these marches are a survival test to weed out the weak.

Dave in our "grande" train compartment complete with overhead windows. Small, but very comfy.

But I drift. All of the above explains why we favour train travel, even though it appears to take longer than fly-time, which it usually doesn’t. For example, the total train, plane and automobile trip to Leipzig from our hotel is about eight hours – the same amount of time as it takes to take the train alone, with much less stress.

Our trip to Vienna and Bratislava was made on the overnight train that departs Zürich at 10:30 and arrives in Vienna at 7:30 a.m. The whole price for two adults to travel return was 700 Swiss Francs (CHF) to ride in the luxury compartment that has its own bathroom complete with shower, a double bunk, plus a small seating area with a cafe-sized table and two chairs in front of large picture windows to enjoy the views. To ride in the compartment without a private bathroom costs 24 CHF less. We only know this because Swiss Rail messed up our booking and we ended up in the second-rate compartment on the trip home. It was a sardine-can experience, but not too bad.

A note to the weighty and heighty: The bunks are very narrow.

700 CHF is a lot of moolah, but here’s a little market comparison on our upcoming trip to Venice (I am too lazy to figure out what it would have cost for a flight to Vienna). We are taking a day-time train leaving at around noon from Biel, switching trains in Bern with a short stop in Milan, then on to Venice for 630 CHF for two return tickets.

If we were to fly, the total cost would have been 500-580 CHF. We would have missed the chance to stroll through Milan, and the fun of a train ride through the Swiss Alps. The total travel time on the train will be seven hours (including the one-hour stop in Milan).

The travel time by air with the train to Basel (where we could catch a flight), plus the requisite two-hour airport-waiting/marching time and fly-time would be five-to-six hours, not including the time it would take to find our hotel on the other end, which would probably be an hour, bringing the grand travel time total to, you guessed it, seven hours.

Pack as lightly as possible for train travel. Even luxury compartments are small.

Part of which would include the indignity of passing muster at airport security.

This is nothing to say of the varying environmental costs. I admit, I don’t pay attention to the environmental impact when I’m travelling, but I’ve noticed rigid environmentalists travel as much and more than I do, so I don’t feel bad about that. But if an environmentalist is reading this, shame on you for travelling by air. It sucks up the fossil fuels to a Suzukiesque-screaming degree.

Note: If we lived in a big city with an airport, we might fly more often, but we’re 1.5 hours away from major airports by train.

Second note: Another intriguing aspect of train travel is the immersion into local culture. When riding in the regular cars, you are surrounded by the locals as they go about their regular lives and it is something of a sight to see. For some reason, air travel has a socially insular quality to it, perhaps because the seats all face forward. On trains, passengers face one another, allowing for easy observation and the opportunity for conversation.