This is part of a set of pages describing our trip in March 2012 to Europe.
Wednesday, March 21
We sat in the Munich Hauptbahnhof as the shops closed, the restaurant patrons headed for the exits or for trains. There is a Starbucks in the station but I wasn’t sure I needed a java jolt that late in the day. The train eventually pulled in and around 11:30pm we were able to start the manic boarding of the train.
The train was Hungarian and heading for Budapest after it left us in Vienna. All the trains signage was in three languages – Hungarian, German, and English – which was fun to look at. Our reservations indicated which coach we were in, so we walked along until we found the coach, checked with the conductor, and climbed aboard. There are two types of couchettes: 4 bunk and 6 bunk. That’s not really accurate, since they are in fact exactly the same but the 4 bunk is a bit more spacious because it leaves two of the potential bunks flat against the wall or as a double layer for the top bunks.
Our couchette was a 4 bunk. I’m a tall person and had already anticipated that I wouldn’t fit very well into the standard couchette, which seems to be just under 6′ long. Also, if I slept in a seat, it would ensure that the couchette was just for our family, which might make everyone feel a bit more comfortable. We piled into our couchette and started making the beds for all 4 bunks with the sheets and blankets that were waiting on each. Then everyone headed for the washroom at the end of the train as it started to pull out of the station. I waited for them to return and then got ready to head to my carriage where I was going to sit.
The conductor came by and noticed that I was waiting and asked if I was part of the family, to which I answered yes. He flipped down an extra couchette bunk and let me sleep there instead. It hadn’t even occurred to me to ask if we could convert it to 5 – there’s no real reason to have 6, after all – so I really appreciated him suggesting it. He took our tickets and noted on it that I was not in the seat but was instead in the couchette. We all bunked down, pulled the blinds shut, and went to sleep.
Arriving in Vienna
I am a fitful sleeper and woke up periodically, not just because the bunk was a bit small. On previous train trips, I have slept in a variety of conditions, including, once, on the floor underneath the reclining seats above. We stopped in Salzburg where they were separating some coaches out to go on to Zagreb, in Croatia, but that didn’t register and it was only occasionally noticing lights under the edge of the window blind that broke the darkness of the trip.
It seemed no time at all before our alarm clocks went off and we started to get ready to get off the train. Since the train continued past our stop, we needed to make sure not to oversleep. The conductor had already confirmed a wake-up time of 5:30am, which meant about 6 hours of sleep. In fact, we woke ourselves at 5am in order to make sure we weren’t in a last minute rush. As you might expect, the loss of a special blanket or of an electronic device could have a seriously negative impact on the enjoyment both of the the person who lost it as well as the rest of us for the remainder of the trip. One benefit of having so few bags is that we knew where everything was supposed to go and bunged it all there before the train stopped.
The conductor poked his head in – we’d declined the morning breakfast – and told us our stop was coming up. He wasn’t saying Vienna (or an equivalent) though so at first I was worried we were getting ready to jump off at the wrong place. Then I realized he was talking about one of the many train stations in Vienna – Hütteldorf. We hopped out, he closed up the doors, and the train headed off.
If you haven’t travelled on trains in Europe, you might be surprised that we weren’t at a main train station. In many cases, you cannot cross a city on a train but, instead, stop at one station on one side of the city and then cross to another station, on the other side, to continue your journey. In the case of this train, it was stopping short of the larger stations in Vienna, which would allow it to detour around the outside. Our job was to now get from the Hütteldorf station to our actual endpoint, the Westbahnhof.
Another blank in my planning. I hadn’t really thought out how we were going to get from this station to the next. We ended up jumping on a suburban OBB train to ride the mile or so to the Westbahnhof, which was the next stop. I will blame it on lack of sleep but it did not occur to me that the suburban trains are not covered by Eurail, something which I actually knew. We just sat down and, when the conductor came through, showed our Eurail pass. She noted that we could not use it and, kindly, let us stay in our seats without having to pay either a fine or for tickets. That was the last time we had any confusion about whether or not we had valid train passes. There’s nothing worse than finding yourself on a coach (in this case, entirely empty, so it wasn’t embarrassment at causing a scene in front of others) and that you don’t have a valid ticket.
We walked out into a beautiful station when we got off at the terminus of the Westbahnhof. First, I noticed that it was entirely enclosed so that – when we had to come here and wait for our next overnight in 2 days – it would be a very comfortable place to wait. There was seating all over the place, it was well lit, and it was attached to a mall with a variety of restaurants and stores. We headed downstairs, past a small statue dedicated to the British who helped take children as part of the Kindertransports prior to World War II.
At 6 in the morning, the station was exceptionally quiet. We headed out in the Europaplatz and walked down to the corner with Mariahilfstrasse. Like Munich, I had walked down this street virtually and had a sense of where we were going. Mariahilfstrasse is a major artery into the center of the city. We were staying at the Hotel Pension Mariahilf, which wouldn’t be opening for about 15 minutes, at 7am. Everyone was a bit weary but we strolled along the street and took in the new city. It was a nice surprise to see a statue to “Papa” Haydn about halfway down the street!
We located the hotel, which was more like a bed and breakfast. The door looked like any other in this old-fashioned apartment building. We pushed on it and went in and nearly all the lights were off. I rang the bell and someone came out and confirmed that we could leave our suitcases until we checked in. We could get into our room after 11am, so we decided to set off and do something in the meantime.
The Spanish Riding School
One of the things we knew we wanted to see was the Spanish Riding School. The horses are specially trained and, each morning, there is an exhibition of their exercise routine. We headed down Mariahilfstrasse towards the imperial buildings in the Burg ring where, for the most part, we would spend much of the next two days. Before seeing anything, though, we wanted to find breakfast. We had been avoiding fast food – not just because we could have that in North America but also because we’re not really fans of it – so we walked past the McDonalds there and focused on an Illy cafeteria. It looked like a cafe and was full of smoke so at first we were a bit put off. Then we realized that there was a glassed in, non-smoking partition in the back and it was practically empty. We sat down and each of us had a large cooked breakfast.
We walked to the Spanish Riding School, going in and out of the buildings around the museum complex that used to be the imperial palaces. It was fun to go through the maze and suddenly pop out in a courtyard or in front of another building. At one point, my older son and I ran ahead and hid behind columns on either side of the walkway. Our youngest came running along, laughing, anticipating the surprise when we jumped out. I stuck my stomach out, and immediately my daughter started laughing. Since my son was on the other side, smaller than me, and all she could see of me was my stomach, she said it was like seeing Asterix and Obelix ready go leap out! We all had a good laugh at that (and I swore to suck my gut in more!).
The school wasn’t open yet and wouldn’t begin selling tickets for awhile, so we wandered around and found a large statue that looked like a Roman emperor. Instead of Julius Caesar, it was one of the many Austrian emperors and we lolled away about 45 minutes. At one point, our daughter needed to find a washroom and we’d noticed a massive door with the universal symbol for bathrooms on it. The door was about 15 feet high, and I couldn’t help but think of the Augean stables! She went in and found the ever-present pay toilets, which ranged from 50 cents to 1€ depending on the city and location.
Finally, at 9 the tickets went on sale and we secured spaces in that morning’s 10 exercise. We walked around a bit more and then, at 5 to 10, we returned and followed the mass of people into the building. If you have the opportunity, don’t go up the very tall staircase in the middle of the enclosure behind the ticket area. Instead, try to enter on the lower steps that lead directly into the building. That is a lower set of seats and is much closer to the horses. We were up in the top balcony and you could often only see horses in two thirds of the arena. It was quite crowded and difficult to change levels once everyone had settled in.
Whether we were overly tired or not, the first part of the exercise was rather boring. Mostly they were just, well, exercising. Then things started to get more interesting. After 30 minutes, the 6 horses in the arena lined up, the riders got down and the stable hands came out and walked them away. The horses that is. Then 6 more horses came riding in and they did much more in the way of riding as a group, splitting off from each other and regrouping, all to the sound of Viennese music.
We enjoyed the remainder of the exercise far more, finally deciding we were all fading fast just before noon. We walked back a different way, past a large statue of Maria Theresa, and checked in to the hotel. We had reserved their family room, which turned out to be a huge 2 bedroom apartment with a kitchen on a lower floor. There was a little bump in energy as we excitedly looked around before we settled in. Then we all took a short nap.
The Treasury at the Hofburg Palace
At 3pm, we got up again and decided to go out and see something else. The nap had refreshed us from the lack of sleep the night before, so we headed out to the Treasury of the Habsburgs. Because the Austro-Hungarian empire had, over many centuries, acquired the wealth of its subordinate kingdoms and the territories it gathered to it, there was an enormous collection of riches in the treasury. It is well worth seeing if only because of the variety of both Eastern and Western treasures housed there. The one item I had briefed the children on was the crown of the Holy Roman Emperor, created in the 10th Century.
Talk about things you can’t see anywhere else! The crown on the left is the Holy Roman Emperor’s and it was fun talking to the kids about what was going on 1000 years ago, both in North America (not much) and everywhere else. There was also a unicorn’s horn (!) and a scabbard made of a narwhal’s tusk, some lovely golden flowers, and many other things. It was quite an overwhelming collection and one that I was surprised that I had not seen on my last visit.
We walked back to our hotel the same way, past the Maria Theresa statue, where our youngest stood to attention in a sentry box that would have been part of the Imperial security perimeter. There were buskers in the park, including one very enterprising and entertaining fellow who played liquid filled bottles that had been tuned, accompanied by classical music on a CD player.
Earlier in the day, we had spotted what would become a staple of our brief stay in Vienna, a grocery store called Billi. We swung in and picked up cheese, fruit, bread, meat, and some treats, and headed back the 200 yards to our hotel. Whether you have children who will eat anything or not, we found the grocery stores to be the best way to get something for everyone. We tried local cheeses – in this case, Raclette (Emmentaler) and another, stronger one – as well as some local wurst and salami. But by having simple foods that we could each put together, we ended up with less expensive meals that didn’t come with the complexity of prepared dishes.
We had an early night because tomorrow would be a full day of touring Vienna. Fortunately, though, we had plenty of time for a lie in to fully recover from our couchette.