All posts by Tammy

I'm just a person who's muddled her way through life in an extremely haphazard fashion, despite my affinity for order, structure and direction. I learned early on that life rarely, if ever, turns out as planned, and one must learn to roll with the punches; only the adaptable survive and have a chance to thrive. At an early age, I thought that having been high school valedictorian and having my choice of academic scholarships to select would have paved my life's path. But giving up my scholarship to run off with my now ex-fiance commenced the need for me to recover from the best laid plans gone awry. This road led me to having my amazing son; so despite the poor decisions of my youth, I regret none of them, as all of my folly culminated in my becoming Devan's mom, which was my sole identity for a good many years. Now that my son is grown and independent and possesses the steadfast direction I wished I maintained, my goal is to put to good use my life's experience to date and formulate a happy medium between rigid structure and random wanderings...both in my travel interests and life in general.

Going It Alone

denmarknorway-1107
Bergen, Norway

As independent as I tend to fancy myself and despite my lack of a built in travel companion since my son reached a place in his life where his schedule rarely affords him opportunity for extended time away, I had never previously seriously considered planning a vacation 100% solo. Looking back, I can’t really understand why this idea hadn’t occurred to me. I’ve traveled for work on my own quite a bit over the last several years, even extending the work trips at times to allow some recreational time tacked on to the work portion of the trip, which I have thoroughly enjoyed.

Strædet, Copenhagen, Denmark
Solo dining on Strædet wasn’t so bad at all.

 

While many people propound to be interested in traveling, I’ve learned that it is not always the easiest thing to find a travel companion. Some don’t have the time. Some don’t have the financial means. Some have scheduling conflicts. Some have their own built in travel companion. Some just like to say they like to travel (or want to travel), but are unwilling or unable for some reason to pull the proverbial trigger and commit to a plan. After myriad failed attempts to plan a trip with a variety of friends, I started to feel the onset of the lack-of-travel-plan-depression that plagues me when I don’t have the light at the end of the tunnel of a vacation on the horizon.

Flåm, Norway
A resting point during my bike ride. Flåm, Norway

So, I did as described in What Did I Just Do, I rather impulsively booked a trip to Denmark and Norway with a departure merely 13 days out from my booking date when I found an incredibly reasonably priced cruise to the Norwegian Fjords. I originally questioned my decision to not only book the trip on the fly, since I am typically such a travel planning nerd, but also my decision to take an 11 day vacation alone.

Geiranger, Norway
Maybe a troll lives in here. Geiranger, Norway

 

However, once I arrived in Copenhagen, I never again had a second thought, other than wondering why it took me so long to figure out that solo travel should not be a last resort. I’ve met many people who have extolled the virtues of traveling solo and have read a variety of works describing the benefits. But, until I had actually experienced a solitary vacation, I truly didn’t appreciate the many positives involved in traveling solo.

  • First and foremost, it no longer remained requisite to rely on anyone but myself to solidify a plan. I was free to pick the date and destination without the need to consult and coordinate with anyone else.
  • I was able to move at as slow or quick a pace as I was inclined at any given moment. I actually purchased the Copenhagen card as an experiment in testing the value of buying a city card. Because I was able to blaze through attractions if I so desired, I was able to visit a good many sights and utilize the inclusive public transport for the duration of the 72-hour card I purchased without having to be concerned with my pace affecting anyone else’s idea of a good time.
  • While I never have trouble whipping up a conversation with strangers (I’m a sales puke, so it’s in my DNA), I discovered that people are much more inclined to start a conversation with you when you are alone – from the kid manning the crepe station, to attraction staff, to the crew and fellow cruisers who were on my sailing, to other travelers trying to navigate Copenhagen’s public transportation system. I had opportunity to visit with a variety of fellow cruisers on the Norwegian Star, and during a variety of happenstance meetings in port stops, even managed to make a friend out of another solo, intrepid traveler.
  • I was able to finish three novels by my favorite author during the cruise portion of my trip, which would have been difficult had I been traveling with a companion.
  • If I “messed up” any of the logistics of my day…making a “wrong” turn in my attempt to find an attraction, if an activity took longer than expected, etc., I was the only one affected by the miscalculation. And, I have learned that some “mishaps” can lead you to an unexpected positive, such as stumbling across beautiful architecture that I might not have found had I made a beeline directly to my intended destination.
  • Traveling solo allowed me to really “enjoy the silence” both while I was wandering around Copenhagen and the Norwegian port stops a well as on the ship. Sitting outside on the ship deck, listening to the sounds of the sea passing by. With all of the noise that comes along with everyday life, having quiet time was an incredibly welcome respite from the bombardment of constant audio clutter.
Mount Aksla, Ålesund, Norway
Climbed all 418 steps at my own pace. Mount Aksla, Ålesund, Norway
Church of Our Saviour (Vor Frelser Kirke), Christianshavn, Copenhagen, Denmark
Church of Our Saviour (Vor Frelser Kirke), Christianshavn, Copenhagen, Denmark

I have always been pretty comfortable in my own skin, with a fairly high level of independence, but my solo time demonstrated to me that being alone whilst traveling can be extremely liberating and fulfilling. Certainly, traveling unaccompanied may not be everyone’s cup of proverbial tea, but I would recommend giving it a go to those who have an adventurous spirit and wanderlust in their heart. Being unencumbered allows for a completely different experience than traveling with the buddy system or in a group, and while traveling solo may not be preferential to traveling with others, it is certainly something I would endeavor upon again.

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When Your Brain Falls Out Overseas…..

Rule #1 (really, the only one): Don’t panic. I barely ascribed to this simple tenet when I recently somehow, inexplicably, managed to lose my wallet on my first full day in Copenhagen, the first of an eleven day trip. But, once I realized the unfathomable actually did happen, I was thankfully able to maintain my composure with the help of some indescribably kind Danes.

Being that I am inarguably OCD, I rarely lose anything due to my somewhat (and shush, those who know me personally) mechanical habits. In addition to my naturally compulsive ways, I’m also typically incredibly fastidious when it comes to cautionary measures when traveling. Despite these tandem traits, somehow, my wallet disappeared from my possession at some point between Hotel Danmark near City Hall and my arrival at Amalienborg Palace, even given the fact that I didn’t use any money during that short period of time. I was astounded upon my attempted retrieval of my wallet at the Palace in order to take out a Krone coin to pay the deposit for the locker at Amalienborg, that my wallet had evaporated from my backpack. I kept taking deep breaths, optimistically and unrealistically believing it had to be there somewhere…in another pocket or underneath my research papers. But, lo and behold, it was nowhere to be found. To this moment, its disappearance seems to have been the work of aliens or caused by a break in the fabric of reality. More likely, it might have fallen out when I fetched my umbrella or hat on that fateful, rainy day. My only thought is that I was more careless than usual due to the rain and my attempt to rapidly employ my umbrella during a rain shower. Still, it boggles my mind as to how my bright pink wallet could have jumped out of the bag without my attention being grabbed.

One might suspect the work of gypsies who are so frequently at the root of European pick pocketing schemes… But in this case, I can’t believe that to be the reasoning for my wallet’s disappearance, since one thing I know is that I never, ever allow anyone close enough to reach into my bag (unless they have 10 foot long gumby-like arms). Plus, unlike many a Euopean city, Copenhagen’s gypsy presence was somewhat minimal during my visit. Regardless of what precipitated my wallet’s departure, it was gone.

Once I came to the reality that my wallet, along with my Visa and my bank card were no longer in my possession, and had the initial inclination to fall into full panic mode, one of the Amalienborg museum’s managers, whose name I believe to be Mette, stepped in to attempt to assist me. She immediately must have noticed the blood drain from my face along with the onset of hyperventilation and offered me a seat and a drink of water to help me maintain my composure. She helped me call both my bank and credit card companies to cancel both cards and attempt to request emergency replacement. My bank tried and failed (as I later received an email advising me that my replacement card would be delivered to my hotel the day after my cruise sailed from Copenhagen, even though I told them of my sail date and time). My credit card company was a nightmare to deal with, as their computer system was apparently down when I called and the customer service representatives were of little help.  I was told to call them back in two hours, but despite being kept on hold for an exorbitant amount of time, they later told me the system was still down and to call back in another two hours. When I did, I as again put on hold repeatedly, only to be told after being made to wait for an incredibly long time that I’d have to call back yet again since the system was still down and they couln’t complete the request if I wasn’t on the line. During this miserable ordeal, I did encounter incredible kindness by the museum workers, including Mette, in both Amalienborg and Christiansborg Palaces who helped me make phone calls, allowing me to hog their phones during my long hold times perpetrated by my Visa card provider. I was fortunate that I did keep my Copenhagen Card separate from my credit and bank cards and cash, so I was able to use public transportation and enter attractions without having to outlay money again. I was absolutely floored by the kindness of the Danish museum workers at both Palaces, not only with their concern, patience and offering of suggestions to find a way to minimize the effects of my folly, but especially with Mette’s kindness and concern for my wellbeing. She went as far as to offer me cash in case I needed anything in the immediacy. I explained to her that despite the inconvenience caused by my carelessness, I at least was astute enough not to carry all of my finance modes with me. As is my travel habit, I carried only one credit card with me that day. What upset me the most about this episode was my mistake of carrying my bank card with me, even though I had taken out a small amount of cash upon my arrival at Copenhagen Airport. Normally, once I take out cash, I leave my bank card behind at the hotel along with my extra credit cards and passport.

At the end of the day, the worst part of the mishap was the amount of time spent on hold with Visa, which turned out to be for naught since they were unhelpful and inefficient. So for those of you who may not be the most experienced travelers, and for those of you who are who can use a little primer that would have served me well in this instance:

  1. Never carry your a passport with you when traveling unless absolutely necessary for identification purposes. Fortunately, I left my passport behind at the hotel. TIP: Always take a photo of your passport and email it to yourself to an account you can retrieve easily just in case you ever do lose your passport, so you will have the document information available in the unfortunate event the need arises. It’s also a good idea to carry a hard copy of your passport with you.
  2. Only carry one credit card with you; leave additional cards properly secured in your hotel.
  3. (This is where I failed this trip in a way that I normally wouldn’t have.) Once you withdraw cash in the local currency from an ATM, lave your bank card properly secured in your hotel with your additional credit cards. If you need more cash than you originally withdrew, it’s worth the extra trip back to your hotel to avoid the possibility of losing your bank card along with your credit card. I knew better than to carry my bank card after making the cash withdrawal, but since I’d never fallen prey to this happenstance, I didn’t adhere to what I know to be best practice.

At the end of the day, this unfortunate happening could have been much worse. In all of my travels, this was the first significant solo trip I’ve taken (more on that to come), so that made this incident more impactful, as, obviously, had I been traveling with a companion, there would have been the option to have my travel buddy provide additional financial back up. But all said and done, my carelessness was not end of the world stuff. And to end on a positive note, I have to count my blessings as to how fortunate I was to encounter such caring staff members of both Amalienborg Palace and the Christiansborg Palace Ruins who offered the excessive assistance, and, more importantly, altruistic kindness…the type that makes one once again believe that there is much good in the world (well, at least in Denmark), when at other times, such an inkling might not seem plausible.

What Did I Just Do?

That was a question I recently asked myself upon completion of an impulsive booking of a trip to Europe. My typical modus operandi is to research, research and do more research to select a vacation destination. And, usually, once I decide where I’m going and subsequently purchase the main ingredients of the trip (e.g. plane tickets, cruise booking, hotel arrangements, etc.), I tend to spend months upon months doing more investigation as to the destination and what to do upon arrival. The planning and anticipation phase of the vacation are a large part of what I love about traveling. So, it was quite unlike me to sit down on a Saturday morning, browse vacation ideas and promptly hit the “purchase” button, without much forward thinking consideration, on a cruise that departs in less than two weeks’ time. 

The backstory of this atypical rash decision is simple. For quite some time, I’d been trying to figure out where to go and with whom for my next vacation, since the black cloud of depression (not clinical, but rather no-travel-plans-induced-depression) was descending upon me. However, schedules and the stars did not align for me to make plans with any of my friends. So, that fateful Saturday morning, I longingly began browsing a variety of travel sites and stumbled upon a Norwegian fjord cruise from Copenhagen that was so inexpensive, I apparently couldn’t pass it up. The next thing I knew, I was giving my credit card number to NCL once again for a vacation this time planned as a solo traveler. 

Thus commenced a series of quick decisions on flights to Denmark, pre-cruise lodging arrangements in Copenhagen, and activities for each city on the new travel itinerary. I have to admit that I second guessed myself for a minute or two as to the wisdom of planning a trip like this on the fly. But as the short window leading up to my departure started to close, my excitement at the opportunity to experience Copenhagen and the cruise independently grew exponentially.  So, here I sit in Zurich awaiting my connection to Copenhagen after an extremely pleasant flight from Miami on Swiss Air, wherein I was afforded an entire three seat row to cross the Atlantic in relative comfort. 

I’ve traveled independently for pleasure when I’ve extended work trips to a variety of locations including New York City and Dubai, and I’ve also had some solo excursions for short periods of time when traveling with friends; but this is a first for me to plan a purely vacation trip as a solo traveler. While I miss the days of having my son as my built-in travel buddy, I anxiously anticipate this opportunity to experience a trip intentionally planned solo. Time will tell if this is an endeavor I’ll choose to repeat.

What a difference a few days makes…

Arc de Triomphe / Champs-Élysées
Arc de Triomphe / Champs-Élysées

Selecting travel dates did not come easy on account of the busy work schedule of the friend with whom I trekked to Paris, Belgium and Amsterdam this past fall as well as that of my own. However, the ultimate timing of my relatively recent visit  to Paris turned out to be quite fortuitous.

La Défense
La Défense
La Défense
La Défense
La Défense
La Défense

We ended up traveling toward the latter part of October (2015), which turned out to be between the Thalys train attack that was foiled by some attentive American Marines (Ooo Rah!) and the following coordinated terror attacks at various locales throughout Paris in November. We were actually supposed to be in Paris over the dates of the November attacks, but we decided to move the travel dates a bit earlier to allow me to attend Halloween festivities upon my return. While I’m not a big celebrant of Halloween, I’m so happy that my friend Suzy planned a party that night, which evoked the travel date change… (Thanks, Suz!!!) While the odds are against us having been in any of the exact locations  of the mass shootings, one never knows, does one? The horrific events that took place does give one pause about congregating in a public place, or being in any shooting-fish-in-a-barrel type of situation. We did also ride the Thalys, albeit in the opposite direction and pondered the unlikelihood of a second shooting taking place after the first failed attempt to wreak havoc. Never did we imagine that a larger scale attack would take place  just a couple of weeks after our visit to Paris.

Winged Victory
Winged Victory

All that being said, our short stay in  the City of Light allowed us opportunity to see and experience many things, yet still  merely a glimpse of what Paris has to offer. Some of what we did was a repeat of activities from previous visits  to Paris – Tour Eiffel, The Louvre, The Pantheon, Notre Dame, Montmartre, Arc de Triomphe, just to name a few; but, so very many things in Paris are worth experiencing more than just once.  Seeing the modern architecture of La Défense  was a novelty to me this visit, and quite an interesting departure from the nostalgic beauty of most of the city.

Arc de Triomphe
Arc de Triomphe

While a visit to the Tuileries outside The Louvre wasn’t my first time in the Garden, it did happen to be the first time I was locked in a park. After a stop at Angelina to pick up (the world’s most delicious) hot chocolate and a spectacular dessert to enjoy al fresco, we ended up resting our weary feet just a bit too much. By the time we got up to head back to our hotel near La Madeleine,  we discovered that the park’s main gate is locked at night. After a short panic attack and contemplating the possibility of having to spend the night on a park bench, we realized there were other park visitors also on the wrong side of the fence and decided to shadow them to see if they were privy to an escape route. While it was a bit of a hike toward Place de la Concorde, we found an open gate and freedom from overnight park incarceration.

Tuileries Garden
The long way out of the Tuileries Garden
Locked in the Tuileries Garden
Locked in the Tuileries Garden

 

 

 

 

My friend’s Fitbit proved that we racked on the miles, but despite the wear and tear on our feet, we had some pleasant moments …. soaking in the city, visiting slightly less-touristy places (Parc de Bercy)  with a close friend of my friend, grabbing a bite to eat in an American diner in Paris (really!), and taking in some of the ‘typical” sights of Paris.

Paris Catacombs
Dem Bones in the Paris Catacombs

While Paris may not have been at the top of my priorities travel-wise, since I’d visited previously on more than on occasion, I’m so glad that I rescinded my “swearing-off” of Paris prior to my last visit.  One cannot and should not hold this city accountable for the preconceived notions one may have embraced without having had the opportunity to personally formulate firsthand opinions about the City of Light. And in this case, sometimes timing (of a visit) truly is everything.

 

$85 Well Spent

FLL TSA Security Line
A Compelling Reason to Pay Your $85 to Buck the Line!!!!

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve arrived at the airport over the past several years only to encounter a milling swarm of fellow travelers flocked within, around and toward the winding maze-like course en route to the TSA security checkpoint. Each and every time I descend upon this miserable, yet unfortunately necessary inconvenience, I repeatedly and rhetorically question myself as to why I haven’t yet obtained my TSA Pre-Check status. I never had a very good answer to this question, other than the simple truth that it never crossed my mind until I arrived at the airport terminal and once again found myself in need of having to remove my shoes to walk barefoot on the filthy airport floor (much to the chagrin of my OCD germophobic tendencies) through the security scanner (thanks, alot, Richard Reid, you @$$h0!e). Due to recent developments with my job, I’m now finding myself taking frequent short work trips, thus putting my various airline frequent flyer accounts to much better use of late. Because my travel planning and subsequent trips to and from the airport increased in frequency so drastically quite quickly, scheduling an appointment for TSA Pre-Check status finally became top of mind, leading me to pick up the phone, make an appointment and navigate my way to the somewhat secluded application office in the Fort Lauderdale International Airport perimeter. Once there, the actual process from start to finish took no more than 15 minutes, making me once again figuratively kick myself for previously not having taken a few minutes out of my day to get myself fingerprinted and screened sooner. My approval and known traveler number arrived faster than the estimated three week window (I guess TSA figured out I would do my best to be an asset in a sticky situation midair), and I was able to immediately put the known traveler number to good use several times within a few week period after receiving it. There has been a bit of irony in that for at least three of the flight legs I’ve taken since becoming a “known traveler,” the standard security line has been negligibly longer than the Pre-Check line. Regardless, a meager $85 investment, good for five years, has, in just the first month since receiving my known traveler status, proven its worth for this traveler, by virtue of being able to keep my feet tidily encased through the security check point alone. Pay your $85, too. Your tootsies (and blood pressure and patience levels) will sincerely thank you for it.

TSA Security Line at FLL
Stinks getting to the airport earlier than TSA staff!

Hungary for Budapest (and Paprikash)

I don’t (yet) have a bucket list, per se. However, if  I were to have had one, visiting Budapest and seeing the Hungarian Parliament Building would have been hovering somewhere near the top of said list.  Given that I’m in love with architecture, Budapest captured me as being one of the destinations I’d absolutely HAVE to visit at some point during my lifetime. Fortunately, I had opportunity to fulfill this need during my son’s and my Christmas vacation a few short months, yet seemingly a simultaneous lifetime ago.

Buda Castle
Buda Castle

Taking the train from Wien’s Westbahnhof (Vienna’s Main Train Station) to Budapest’s Keleti train station seemed the most prudent course of action, given that Keleti was a  simple Metro transfer to reach  our hotel, the Hilton Budapest City, just a quick walk from the Nyugati railway station. Devan and I checked in and made an almost immediate beeline toward the Hungarian Parliament Building.

Budapest Parliament
Budapest Parliament

The building always looked so spectacular to me in photographs, but seeing the magnificent Gothic architecture up close in person was a breathtaking experience. I had an image of what I expected out of our visit to Budapest, but I truly wasn’t prepared for what lay ahead. Budapest was different for me in many ways, one of the primary being that the Magyar language is completely incomprehensible to me. Only in Finland and Estonia had I previously been so completely flummoxed by a language during my travels, which makes sense, given that Hungarian, Finnish and Estonian all share a Uralic language family tie (though I’ve never visited the many parts of the world where the language systems would be equally and even more extremely baffling to me).

Shoes on the Danube, Budapest
Shoes on the Danube, Budapest

We strolled along the Danube a bit and came across the Shoes on the Danube memorial with its 60 pairs of iron cast rusted shoes of all sizes and types, signifying that nobody was spared the atrocities of the Holocaust, regardless of age, gender or station in life. Devan and I also visited the House of Terror on Andrássy út which also commemorates some of Budapest’s less than stellar history, to put it lightly. Here, we learned more of Budapest’s dark past under fascist and communist dictatorial rule. We certainly didn’t leave the House of Terror with a warm, fuzzy feeling, but this museum provided a powerful glimpse into a grim past of repression and much, much worse.

House of Terror, Budapest
House of Terror, Budapest

As with our stops in Prague and Vienna, Devan and I had no hard itinerary for our visit to Budapest.  We mainly wandered the streets and hopped onto the trams when the temperature dropped below Devan’s and my fairly high tolerance levels.  We strolled (and walked briskly when a more rapid clip helped keep our body temperatures at fairly comfortable point) all around the city, ducking into some off the beaten path eateries to sample varieties of paprikash, goulash and other local fare. One of our stellar, accidental finds was Drum Cafe. We were captured by the engaging signage outside the cafe advertising its “dirty glasses, poor foods, slow service, rude staff, expensive and Hungarian humour” as we roamed around toward our destination of the Great Synagogue.

The Dohány Street Synagogue (The Great Synagogue or Tabakgasse Synagogue)
The Dohány Street Synagogue (The Great Synagogue or Tabakgasse Synagogue)
The Dohány Street Synagogue (The Great Synagogue or Tabakgasse Synagogue)The Dohány Street Synagogue (The Great Synagogue or Tabakgasse Synagogue)
The Dohány Street Synagogue (The Great Synagogue or Tabakgasse Synagogue)

It must have been “Opposite Day” in Budapest the day we visited Drum Cafe, as the food was delicious, reasonably priced, quickly served on clean dishes by friendly workers. We enjoyed some of the most tasty paprikash and goulash of our trip followed by a Nutella slathered Lángos. Drum Cafe turned out to be another proof in the theorem that suspect directional wanderings frequently lead to a little travel treasure that likely would have been otherwise missed.  

Drum Cafe, Budapest
Fortunately, the Drum Cafe did a bit of false advertising.

 

 

 

I could ramble incessantly about the stunning views throughout the city along the Danube, in the Castle District in Buda with its Royal Palace, Inner Pest, the Chain Bridge, Heroes’ Square, The Széchenyi Baths, Vajdahunyad Castle, Matthias Church, St. Stephen’s Basilica, the Cave Church, inside Gellért Hill, the War History Museum, the aforementioned Hungarian Parliament Building and Great Synagogue. There were too many captivating sights to mention.

Heroes' Square, Budapest
Heroes’ Square, Budapest
Heroes' Square
Heroes’ Square

 

 

 

 

But one of my special memories from this glorious city was Devan’s and my unconventional way of finding our way around the city from Point A to Point B by purposefully going nowhere in particular, and occasionally, at Devan’s suggestion hopping on a tram or metro we’d not yet ridden just to see where we’d end up. Our last evening in Budapest, we ended up at the edges of the city where we encountered a mall that Devan wanted to check out to see what it was like. Well, it was just like any other suburban-ish mall you could find in the U.S., so it wasn’t nearly as interesting as the Great Market Hall’s interesting stalls and chaos. The stop did, however, get us out of the cold for a short stint. When we left the mundane shopping center, we discovered a fun fact…that some tram lines farther from the city center stop running in the evening.  This was brought to our attention by a Hungarian police officer who was futilely attempting to pantomime to us that we should not be at the tram stop where were were unknowingly loitering. We eventually managed our way back to one of the main metro lines to find our way back to the Hilton. I have to say that Devan’s and my ineptitude with the Magyar language did give us a few giggles here and there when we gave a go at verbalizing the (to us) unpronounceable street, square and other directional and destination names along our path.

Vörösmarty tér
Vörösmarty tér, Devn’s namesake square / metro station

We largely resorted to our assigned nicknames for places such as “Deke” (actually Deák Ferenc tér, where one can transfer to the M1, M2 or M3 metro lines) or my personal favorite, “Very Smarty” (in reality Vörösmarty utca, one of the M1 line metro stations) which I liked because I considered it to be Devan’s station, since he is a Very Smarty Pants. It doesn’t seem all that funny now, but for some reason, it amused me much more than it should have each and every time we passed through that station. Apparently, I’m relatively easily amused.

City Park at Széchenyi Baths
City Park at Széchenyi Baths
Matthias Church (Matyas Templom), Budapest
Matthias Church (Matyas Templom), Budapest
Buda Castle
Buda Castle
Castle District
Castle District
Buda Castle
Buda Castle
Great Market Hall (Nagy Vasarcsarnok)
Great Market Hall (Nagy Vasarcsarnok)
Fisherman's Bastion, Budapest
Fisherman’s Bastion, Budapest
Andrássy út
Andrássy út
St. Stephen's Basilica (Szent Istvan Bazilika)
St. Stephen’s Basilica (Szent Istvan Bazilika)
Fisherman's Bastion
Fisherman’s Bastion

A Viennese Christmas

Austrian Countryside en route from Prague to Vienna
En route from Prague to Vienna

My son Devan’s and my  arrival into Vienna on December 23 was efficient  as the Student Agency bus deposited us on time at Stadion Center near the Danube. From there, we jumped on the U2 U-bahn and transferred at Taborstraße at the advice of the TripAdvisor Vienna destination experts to Tram 2 which stopped at Marienbrücke, a short  walk to the relatively utilitarian Hotel Mercure Wien City,  just north of the Danube Canal. Since it was already mid-afternoon by the time we checked into the hotel, we decided to wander into the city center to get our bearings and an early dinner.  Speaking for my son, we were looking forward to spending the Christmas holiday in such an amazing and festive setting. Coming from the heat and humidity that prevails in South Florida for the majority of the year, the chilly temperatures in Vienna at Christmastime were a welcome departure.

Domkirche St. Stephan zu Wien
Domkirche St. Stephan zu Wien

We found our way to the city center using Stephansdom’s ornate towering spire to guide us in the right direction, grabbed a  quick dinner and took a tour of the resplendent cathedral .

Domkirche St. Stephan zu Wien
Domkirche St. Stephan zu Wien

From there, we opted to make good use of our 72 hour public transport card and give ourselves a brief respite from our usual incessant hoofing it around town. We rode both tram Lines 1 and 2  to complete the Ringstraße circuit  and take in the city from the relative warmth of the streetcar in between hops on and off to check out various points of interest and give Devan time to up his caloric intake with some local fare.

Austrian Parliament
Austrian Parliament
Maria Theresien Platz of Vienna
Maria Theresien Platz of Vienna

 

 

 

Kunsthistorisches Museum Vienna, MuseumsQuartier
Kunsthistorisches Museum Vienna, MuseumsQuartier

 

I can’t imagine a more festive place to spend Christmas than Vienna. Everywhere we turned looked like Christmas, from the Christmas markets all around the city to the beautiful decorations in the stores and restaurants around the city to the actual streets adorned with shimmering lights. Fortuitous timing brought us back to Mariahilfer Straße to wander around the shops until we came upon a celebratory lighting of the Menorah at Kartner Straße.

Christmas in Vienna
Christmas in Vienna
Christkindlmarkt am Wiener Rathausplatz
Christkindlmarkt am Wiener Rathausplatz

 

 

 

 

After a long day and possibly a wee bit of visual overload at the endless spectacle of the Christmas season on display, we hopped the U-bahn U1 Line from Stephanplatz back to Schwedenplatz so we could take the short walk across the  canal to our hotel to rest up and get ready for Christmas Eve the next day.

Schloß Schönbrunn
Schloß Schönbrunn

We decided to get up and at ’em early on Christmas Eve morning to visit Schloß Schönbrunn  a bit southwest of the city center. We arrived too early for entrance, so we visited the open stalls of the Christmas market in the palace courtyard for a coffee and sugar covered waffle before we headed in and selected the abbreviated Imperial Tour of 22 rooms of the massive 1441 room Baroque summer palace of the Habsburgs.  Devan and I’ve seen a good many palaces in our days, but the royal extravagance never ceases to amaze.

Naschmarkt, Vienna
Naschmarkt, Vienna

We headed back to the city center to have lunch at Naschmarkt and browse the market offerings which ranged from touristy souvenir items to meat, cheese, produce. spices, local delicacies  and other food products whose booths are frequented by locals. (Okay, I admit I didn’t JUST browse).  Since this trip was more loosely structured than most of my travels , we missed out on having the chance to tour the  Heeresgeschichtliches Museum (Military Museum), as the opening hours were limited during the Christmas holiday, and we didn’t have our visit specifically on the agenda.

Heeresgeschichtliches Museum
Heeresgeschichtliches Museum, Vienna

Missing out on opportunities like this is more reinforcement that my future travels should revert back to my typical way of planning a “schedule skeleton” and then adjusting from there. While this trip was different than most for me due to its complete lack of agenda and was also enjoyable due to flexibility, we did miss out on a few attractions we’d hoped to visit in each of our destination cities of Prague, Vienna and Budapest. We did wander the Military Museum grounds which along with the castle-like architecture of the many buildings in the complex were impressive in and of themselves. We spent the remainder of the afternoon checking out the Museumsquartier, various churches around the city such as Votivkirche and Karlskirche and the Hofburg  Complex, of course, stopping for a Glühwein along the way for an occasional warm-up (and because it just tastes good).

Hofburg Palace Gardens
Hofburg Palace Gardens
Dev and I were disqualified by the last stipulation.
Dev and I were disqualified by the last stipulation.

As evening approached we continued our walking tour of the city to enjoy all of the sights and sounds of Christmas Eve prior to our dinner reservations at Restaurant Chamäleon, near Stephansdom, for a Swiss-style fondue Christmas dinner. After dinner, we headed to Stadtkirche (Lutheran City Church), just a short walk from the restaurant to attend midnight mass. We thought it might be interesting to attend a Lutheran Christmas Eve service to see if we could follow along based upon liturgy even though the service was to be conducted in German.

My German is better than Devan’s (since he doesn’t speak any), but we barely got to try our hand at following along with the service as, upon our presumed early arrival at 11:30 pm, we quickly discovered that “midnight mass” at this Evangelische church inexplicably starts at 11 pm. Apparently, Viennese Lutherans like to get an early jump on Christmas. At least we were able to find pew space since there isn’t an overabundance of Lutherans in Austria and were able to enjoy a little Stille Nacht and the last twenty minutes of the misnamed midnight mass. We were able to find a Christmas Day service the following morning in English at Christ Church, an Anglican church not too far southeast from the Ring Road. We learned that holiday church attendees in Vienna are no different than the congregants at our home church, meaning that people pile into the church even on major church holidays about one minute before the service is set to start, expecting to find a seat; so the first 15 minutes or so of the service were spent squishing the late arrivals into the already-cozy pew space. The game of musical pews didn’t detract from the beautiful service and friendly nature of this church’s staff and attendees.

Sankt Marxer Friedhof
Devan asking Mozart’s guardian angel how he managed to drop the ball. Poor guy looks distraught. – Sankt Marxer Friedhof

The next order of business on Christmas Day was our mission to visit Mozart’s burial monument to add to our previous visit to Chopin and Jim Morrison’s grave sites during our 2010 trip to Paris. Yes, it’s kind of morbid, but we were a bit curious as to how Mozart’s presumed burial site at Friedhof St. Marx (apparently there is some uncertainty as to his exact resting place) compared to that of Chopin and Morrison at Père Lachaise Cemetery. After our eventual arrival after hoofing it a good distance from the public transport stop we selected (likely not the nearest or most convenient) through the chilly drizzle, we learned that Friedhof Sankt Marx itself was certainly a fraction of the size of Père Lachaise and not nearly as grand. Mozart’s monument is an interesting one, considered to be an angel in mourning, given that Mozart died way too young. The monument clearly shows the angel’s dismay; Devan wondered if the angel was meant to signify Mozart’s guardian angel showing remorse that he didn’t do a better job preserving Mozart’s existence. We at least got a little giggle out of Devan’s apropos description of the monument, making the schlepping our way to St. Marx and the subsequent uphill hike via the gravel path to Mozart’s monument worthwhile.

We spent the remainder of our time wandering around the Hofburg complex and the rest of the Museumsquartier with a visit to the Haus der Musik (Das Klangmuseum), which was an interesting stop. The museum provided music history as well as interactive displays. Devan was even able to play the piano in the museum lobby for a bit to keep himself from getting too rusty during our vacation.

Haus der Musik Wien
Haus der Musik
Haus der Musik
Haus der Musik

The exit to the museum spit us out at the entrance of the 1516 Brewing Company where Devan and I were able to enjoy some delicious spaetzel (mmmm spaetzel!) before our train ride from the new Hauptbahnhof (train station) to Budapest the next day. I can’t imagine a better place to have spent Christmas with my son; Vienna was truly a magical place (although my son always makes Christmas special, regardless of the location).