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A 4 Week Home Exchange in Vienna, Austria

Author: LSKahn
Date of Trip: July 2007

From July 5, 2007, to August 1, 2007, I was based in Vienna, Austria, on my 33rd home exchange with the H Family. The apartment was located on Sechsenhauserstrasse near the Gumpendorferstrasse U-bahn stop. It was a large apartment that could have slept 6, but in the apartment was just me and, for the first two weeks, a girlfriend from graduate school days too many years ago to count. We had one of those deep bath tubs with the shower thing that you use (no shower curtain). The hot water tank was very small. There was a washer but no electric clothes dryer. We just hung things up in the apartment and they dried quickly. I had the use of a computer and email while I was there and I actually handled some work from the office (one of the penalties of computer access) while I was there.

My girlfriend and I had an agreement that either of us could ask to split up during the day meeting for meals and/or evening activities in advance. When it became obvious that my girlfriend’s agenda did not agree with mine, we did most things separately meeting at a prearranged time and/or place for evening activities. It worked. Both of us had a good time and both of us agreed that this was a better arrangement than one of us grudgingly going along with what the other wanted to do. My girlfriend enjoys shopping and I think that is utterly pointless. Mind you, I will purchase things if I see something I want, but I will not go in and out of stores looking for things to buy. I am old enough to have a house full of things I shouldn’t have bought and do not need more. I am also more interested in culture and history than my girlfriend was. Any agreement to travel together with anyone should include an agreement for personal time to do things one wants to do if the other person isn’t interested.

From July 5-10 we were in Vienna. July 10-13 we went to Budapest by train. My girlfriend got a good deal on the Art Hotel on the Buda side. It was a nice quiet hotel, but, if I were to do it again, I would stay on the Pest side. July 13-15 we were again in Vienna. July 15-16 we went to see “Wiener Blut” at the Seefestspiele in Morbisch, Austria, near the Hungarian border. We stayed overnight at the Sport Hotel in Rust. The hotel was OK. We hadn’t booked and just stopped and they had a room. If I were to do it again, I would try to book the See Hotel in Rust. I have to say that “Wiener Blut” was the absolute highlight of our trip and, yet, so few Americans know about it. Most Americans define Austria as Vienna and Salzburg and there is a lot more to see and do than that.

July 16 we drove back to Vienna. My girlfriend went home on July 17. July 20-22, 2007, I was based in St. Florian, Austria, a small town near Linz, where I was invited by the mother of one of my home exchangers. She has a farmhouse there (not much of a farm, just the house) and it was lovely to get out of the city. After my sojourn in St. Florian and a visit to the salt mine near Salzburg that is open for tourists and Berchtesgarten, I drove back to Vienna and remained based there until I flew home on August 1st.

As part of the exchange, I had the use of the home exchangers’ car. It was an older manual transmission Ford Sierra but gave me no trouble. It took regular unleaded gas and I had to fill the tank twice. I drove about 1435 kilometers on the trip. I only used the car for trips out of Vienna. Finding my way back from trips out of the city was a challenge at first, but things got easier as the home exchange progressed. Of course, when I finally learned how to find my way even if I made a wrong turn, it was time to come home. Parking was on the street and that was a challenge at times. Again, I got the hang of it after awhile.

I did not keep a journal on this trip and reconstructing the trip day to day is not how I am going to do this trip report.

I am not a gourmet and in Vienna, I generally ate where I happened to be. There were plenty of stops for cake and coffee in the tourist area around Stephansdom. I ate at Demel 3 times and Gerbaud once. I also found my way to Café Sperl on my last night. I did not go to any gourmet restaurants; I did not eat a sacher torte but had plenty of apple strudel. I had a nice Greek meal at Ella, a restaurant on Judenplatz that I would recommend. I had two excellent meals in Budapest at Appetito on Castle Hill and Jardin de Paris (right behind the Art Hotel on the Buda side). I did have cake at Gerbaud in Budapest.

Participation in evening entertainment and culture was extensive. Here is the list in Austria:

“The Magic Flute” in the Schonbrunn Marionnetten Theater*
“Fleidermaus” at the palace theater at Schonbrunn
A Mozart concert at the Staatoper*
“La Finta Simplice” at Theater an der Wien
“Wiener Blut” at Seefestspiele in Moerbisch*
Concert by Regensburg, Germany, cathedral choir at Stephansdom Filmfest at the Rathausplatz (entertainment on a giant TV screen with a huge assortment of food stands where you can buy food; free every night in July and August except for whatever food you purchase)
Organ recital at the Abbey in St. Florian (free half hour performances every day at 2:30pm during the summer)

Here is the list from Budapest:

Concert at the National Concert Hall with Andreas Schiff both conducting and playing
The musical “Elisabeth” based on the life of Emperor Franz Josef’s very strange wife. The musical is in Hungarian but has English subtitles.*
Hungarian folk dance performance*

The items with a “*” are things my girlfriend and I did together. The others I went by myself.

A partial list of the things I saw or did in Vienna (I could never remember them all) included:

Schoenbrunn Palace
Hofburg Palace
Crown Jewels
Kunsthistorisches Museum (art gallery with old masters)
Natural History Museum
Leopold Museum in Museum Quarter
Belevedere Museum (upper museum with the Klimt paintings)
Stephansdom Augustiner Church
National Library special exhibit
Exhibit on the Chinese soldiers from Sian Kaiser Gruft (where they are all buried)
4 hour cruise on the Danube going through 2 locks
Grinzing for meals (but I never got there late at night for the oompah music)
Kalenburg hill for the view (location from which Polish troops poured down into Vienna to defeat the Turks in 1648)
Haus der Musik
2 Jewish themed walking tours (schedule of walking tours is available from tourist information opposite Stephansdom or opposite the Albertina Museum)
Ruins of a medieval Jewish synagogue
St. Peter’s Church (elevator to the dome and then a few flights up walking for the view)
Nachmarket on Saturday morning (there is food every day but Sunday and a flea market on Saturday moring)
Session Building (Beethoven frieze by Klimt)
One and a half hour city tour on the red bus (catch the bus by the Albertina Museum by the Hotel Sacher)

Day trips from Vienna:

Mayerling (where Crown Prince Rudolph committed suicide)
Heilingenkreuz Abbey
Klosterburg Abbey
Schloss Esterhazy (Eisenstadt on the way to Moerbisch)
Haydn’s birthplace (Eisenstadt on the way to Moerbisch)
Roman ruins in Carnuntum
Melk Abbey and the Wachau (drove along the Danube)
Durnstein (saw ruins of the castle in which Richard the Lionheart was held prisoner but did not climb up to them; there is no road and it is a hard climb up)

I went to Mauthausen concentration camp on the way to St. Florian. It was an emotional experience for me as a Jew. It was satisfying to see groups of German speaking teenagers, presumably from Austria, being taken through the camp. They “lock” them in the gas chamber during the tour. Many people were weeping and, in general, had difficulty coping with the experience.

In St. Florian, my hostess took me to the ice cave in Dachstein in the Salzkammergut region as well as Mammuthole. The latter is supposed to be the largest cave open for viewing in Austria. We have many like it in the US. I would recommend anyone considering an outing to Dachstein just do the ice cave. The caves have over 500 steps up and down each. Needless to say, I was exhausted doing both of them. Later the same day we went to Hallstadt and took a boat from Obertraum to get there. I was too exhausted to climb up to the church to see the painted skulls. The following day I went to the Abbey in St. Florian (which had a stack of skulls in the crypt, but they were not painted; Austria has some very strange burial customs). I also saw some local museums in St. Florian.

On the 22nd, when I left St. Florian, I went to the salt mine and Berchtesgarten. The later proved very hard to find. There are NO directional signs including the name “Eagle’s Nest”, the name by which Hitler’s retreat is known in English. It is called the Kehlsteinhaus in German. This created a lot of confusion for me. While there is some sort of museum/memorial below, Hitler’s home has been turned into a restaurant. The view is wonderful, but, had I known there was no museum at the top of the mountain, I probably would not have gone. The museum should be on the top. When you get to the parking lot for the Kehlsteinhaus, you do see a sign there for the Eagle’s Nest, but that is the only one I saw trying to find the place. When you take the bus to the top of the mountain, you are told to stamp your ticket for a bus down about 2 hours later. You end up eating in the restaurant because, after taking your photos and seeing the small photographic display available, there is nothing else to do. In view of what went on there during World War II, there should be a memorial there By the time I got down from the mountain, whatever was down below was about to close and I could not go in. The use of the site was very disappointing to me.

In Budapest, I saw almost all the major tourist sites but did not get to the baths either to view them or use them. I did see both special exhibits going on this summer on Genghis Khan and the Incas before Peru. There are explanations in English for those. Signage in English in Budapest can be spotty. I visited the House of Terror and the new Holocaust Museum.

Over the course of the entire trip, I used exactly ONE taxi. That was to get from the hotel in Budapest to the train station when it was time to go. There is work on the subway line from the train station to Deak Ter this summer meaning you must take a bus to Deak Ter before getting on the subway. This should only affect you when you are trying to get to and from your hotel from the train station. After arriving at the hotel, we never needed to use that piece of the line again during our stay.

For travel in Budapest we used the subway or walked. In Vienna I used the U-bahn or buses. I did have helpful explanations from my home exchangers. I bought tickets that had 8 fares on them and used those. I did not find the day passes or the 3 day Vienna card to be a good deal financially. I used single tickets in Budapest but purchased a few of them at once. When asking for tickets, you can just hold up fingers for the number you want and that will work. They will write the amount you owe down if you need that. They are used to many people not speaking Hungarian.

English is widely spoken in Vienna as a second language. In Budapest that is less true. The first foreign language most children study there is German. If you look confused, they will speak German to you before English is tried. I speak some German but it is at a very low level. In St. Florian, my hostess spoke about as little English as I speak German. Nevertheless, with the help of a dictionary and our hands we managed.

The funniest thing that happened on the trip: For several weeks before leaving, I banged away at an hour long Hungarian CD. I concentrated on the numbers and a few simple phrases. I find that learning to count is the most important thing you can do in any language to have a minimum of function. OK, I learned how to count. I got to Budapest and my cheap travel watch with the broken clasp finally fell off and I had to replace it. I go into an appropriate shop selling cheap watches. The guy is taking the links off the watch so it will fit my wrist. His mother is standing there and she asks him whether it is “3” [thousand forints—Hungarian money]. The kid says, “No four.” This is all in Hungarian. What happened is that they were charging me the foreigner price of 4,000 forints rather than 3,000 forints. I was so stunned that I understood what they were doing, that I said nothing. The amount of money in question was about $5 and I was in a hurry. So much for my functional Hungarian. You have to remember to use it when you are being cheated! Duh.

I did not go to Bratislava from Vienna. There is a high speed catamaran that goes to Bratislava from Vienna several times a day. I wanted to book the early morning one and come back on the late one to get a full day in Bratislava. I was unable to do so as the boats all get booked up by day tours. The tours either leave in the morning and come back midday or leave midday and come back in the early evening. You probably get 2-3 hours in Bratislava at most. Of course, I could have driven the car, but the last thing I wanted was to have to drive in another city. While I could also have easily taken the train, ultimately I decided not to go because there was so much I wanted to do in Vienna.

I did not go into Salzburg. If I wanted to do that I would have taken the train from Vienna because the car would have been a hassle. Since I had done the 3 day trip to Budapest, I did not want to start running around spending more money on hotels when there was so much to be seen in Vienna. Salzburg is closer to Munich. Someday I will get a home exchange in Munich. When I do, I will do a 3 day trip to Salzburg. The purpose of doing a home exchange is to save money on accommodations. When you start staying in hotels, the point of home exchanging is lost. I have been exchanging for years. Each time you see a small slice of Europe but very intensely. It is much less stressful than running hither and yon trying to see it all—not that any European trip is exactly restful.

By the way, including airfare, I think I spent about $3,500 for the month in Europe—which is why I home exchange. In hotels, the figure would be 3x that figure. I bought a necklace in Vienna that qualified for a VAT refund. I also bought a pin in Budapest. Other than that, I bought things like key chains that were easy to throw in the suitcase. I didn’t buy any kitsch souvenirs with Franz Josef, Empress Elizabeth, or Mozart on them. I did buy a number of CD’s from places I visited.

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