A house with many stories

It finally started to rain on our last day in Kirchzarten and it was cold and wet right from when we woke up. We have enough sunshine back home to appreciate cold,drizzly days in a way that Europeans don’t!

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The eagle flew down to its nest on top of the church going in an instant from menacing to maternal!

But though we appreciated the weather, this posed a challenge since we had to pick up our rental cars before driving off to Sankt Blasien where we were to stay in Villa Ferrette. My original plan for the summer holidays this year had been to rent a villa in Engelberg, Switzerland and spend our days hiking and cooking in and generally enjoying the beautiful outdoors. What we finally did was the usual criss-cross through multiple cities and the consequent barrage of new experiences. But I was insistent on this – at least one part of our holiday had to be in a house in a small and pretty hillside town. And Villa Ferrette it was.

I mentioned before that my favourite stay of all had been at Apt Stone Lodge, Salzburg. This is certainly true but the most interesting of all places has to be this one. We had booked on airbnb and my conversations with the homeowner before, led me to expect a spacious and comfortable home.

What I had not bargained for was a huge mansion with a hundred year old history!

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I am not sure I remember the whole story, and you should probably hear it from Marc (the owner), sitting on the couch in the Villa Ferrette living room as the cold winds howl outside, but the house is a hundred years old and the most significant house in the neighbourhood. Sort  of a manor house, if you will. While it has been completely renovated, including the stained glass which one might have supposed to be really old, a lot of the wooden paneling is original. So you are strictly not supposed to smoke indoors since it will set off a fire alarm summoning police and fire fighters and be a super costly affair!

For all its history, this house has always been free of Nazi influence. In fact after World War II, this building housed 100 orphans. The woman who ran the place worked tirelessly through the day and only had a few hours every day, after midnight, that were for her children alone. No one else was allowed in her part of the house at that time. I was so touched to hear this story! No amount of charity can make up for what we do to our own children at home and striking a balance is always more difficult for a mother.

At one point, this house also served as a rehab frequented by Hollywood celebrities! I will not mention names since I have no idea about privacy laws but it was a very La La Land moment for me.

While we were listening to these stories, one of us asked if any other Indians had ever stayed here. It seems they had, and they had come in a big van and had Indian food catered every day. Just as I was about to ask Marc if could give us the caterer’s phone number, our self-styled Phd friend scoffed, Indians need to eat Indian food everyday – no matter where they are giving me a dirty look as he did so. Does he  read minds now as well?

Our agenda for this trip was roaming around the Black Forest area and we used the Villa Ferrette exactly as we would have any other BnB but for people who are not on a short trip and have the time and space and contentment to stick around in one place instead of dashing about here and there, this is a great place to be. There are two pianos, one of which you can use, a great collection of music and movies and a projector room in the attic which you can use for group gatherings. Rather fun if you have planned that sort of trip. We do that sort of thing in Ooty and Goa.

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Finally, the practical tips: If you are staying in Sankt Blasien, do check out the beautiful church in town. Also, you would probably need a car – the nearest bus station is a good twenty minute drive away. It is a small place and you don’t have a wide variety of restaurants. The food is strictly local. That said, it is pretty and very close to the Swiss border. In fact, we took a cab down to Zurich from here when we had to fly back.

 

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“And nobody shall pour dung, straw, stone into the Bäch…”

Freiburg

Continuing with my tardy Europe recollections, after our cuckoo clock adventures we had planned to take the children to Europa Park. But things panned out differently. We were down to our last set of clothes and Kirchzarten possessed no laundries. We had no choice but to skip the park and spend the day in Freiburg instead. So with a rucksack full of dirty clothes and two sulky children, we took the train down.

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Freiburg is the nearest city to Kirchzarten and is a university town. I had read on the net that it was a city rich in culture and heritage, besides being notably environment friendly. None of this background had prepared me for anything nearly as beautiful.


The dirty laundromat

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The walk down from the station to our chosen laundromat passed through tree lined streets and storm water drains. Wash and Art was an interesting place. We didn’t realize how much at first in all the sorting and getting change. The kids didn’t either – having discovered free wifi, but the ‘Art’ in Wash and Art refers to the artistic but risque photography that adorns its walls. As soon as we were done admiring the fresh smelling east german laundry detergent, we became aware of our surroundings and briskly shepherded our offspring out. There was a homeless man just outside and my husband was a little worried about the clothes but really he was too tall to fit into any of our stuff.

Why are there so many homeless people in Europe? Especially young, able bodied white men. This man looked like a junkie although one shouldn’t judge, but apart from that what is the reason? It seems like such a prosperous place!


The lady in the park

We took our boys to a nearby park to while away our time. Europa Park it was not, but we enjoyed the peace and quiet very much. Freiburg seemed like a safe enough place that we didn’t need to watch the kids all the time. They had fun running and climbing while we were content to sit back, look around and chat. There were a few other families who’d brought their kids in on cycles with child carriers attached. My husband was interested in the design of the cycle carriers and impressed by the abundance of cyclists and the absence of cars.

As for me, my attention had been caught by a woman sitting on a park bench, eating a lonely lunch. This was the second instance in a short span of time of someone looking miserable in such a beautiful place. Was she a teacher in the university or a shopkeeper? Maybe someone who sold books to the students there? A librarian? She had a canvas backpack of the sort you lug around college but she looked out of place in this young town.

Now you can be just as lonely in a crowd as all by yourself and the two have no correlation at all. But right then, I was thankful for our crowded, intrusive, inquisitive, annoying and omnipresent Indian families.


The woman from Bengal

There was a marketplace in the city center and a few of our friends who don’t have children had elected to spend the day there. We met up with them for lunch and my adventurous younger one (who had asked to eat wild boar like Obelix in Prague) ordered schnitzel. I have only ever heard of schnitzel in ‘My Favourite Things’ and it looked nothing like how I’d pictured it.

Our friends regaled us with stories about the fruits,  flowers, vegetables and souvenirs at the farmers market that was winding up before our eyes. They told us about a souvenir stall they had shopped at. Among the other things they’d bought was a wooden chopping board which they had had engraved with their names. Wooden curios seem to be ubiquitous in this part of Germany but the seller of the curios was a rarer sort by half. She had come to cold Black Forest from the balmy plains of Bengal as a child. She had been away such a long time but meeting Indians, and those who could speak her language had seemed to fill her with joy. It was such a small encounter. A chance encounter. But the few words spoken in a shared tongue had brightened up the day for all of them.

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Roaming the market place after lunch, we discovered the Bächle. Small canals with clean water flowing through them. From Wikipedia –

These Bächle, once used to provide water to fight fires and feed livestock, are constantly flowing with water diverted from the Dreisam. They were never intended to be used for sewage, and even in the Middle Ages such use could lead to harsh penalties. During the summer, the running water provides natural cooling of the air, and offers a pleasant gurgling sound. It is said that if one accidentally falls or steps into a Bächle, they will marry a Freiburger, or ‘Bobbele’.

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On a more practical note, I found these cosmetics in a store that were ridiculously cheap and the brand is unheard of in India. So if you have a large family back home you need to bring things back for, this is just what the doctor ordered. Although the brown eyeliner didn’t show up much on my brown skin.

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The boy who spoke so sweetly

Once the remainder of our friends returned from Europa Park, we spent the rest of our day just wandering through the town. The kids were cleverly maneuvering us in the direction of the park and hearing them chatter away in Hindi about parks, a young man detached himself from a group of students and asked us in extremely politely worded Hindustani if we were looking for a children’s park and offered to direct us to one. My husband thanked him and after telling him we knew the way, (also) politely inquired if he too was an Indian. He blushingly demurred and returned to his group. I could have told my husband had he waited to ask me first. Of course the boy was not Indian. He was Pakistani! The polite Hindustani was too close to well bred Urdu. Only the Pakistanis speak so beautifully I murmured. ‘All they do nicely is speak’ returned my BJP voting friend. Ah well!

Almost entirely about cuckoo clocks

It was two months back that we went on this trip and it was about the same time that the WannaCry ransomware attack hit. In fact, on the same day we took our train to Germany. Having heard so much about German Engineering, I am pleased to report that it’s all true! Every time our train ran late, the delay was fine tuned to be the exact time taken by us to get off the train and run to the next platform in time to see our connection puffing away. Nah, I’m kidding. It was just the ransomware. Makes you wonder though!

We got to our hotel at Kirchzarten very late in the evening. And  also, got a shock. Now we had packed our clothes based on Accuweather and were expecting the Schwarzwald area to be very cold. Not only was Kirchzarten not cold, it was hot – like 30 degrees celsius which is a million degrees fahrenheit. And without the protective layer of pollution that we in India are used to, the rays of the sun hit us hot and direct. On our ten minute walk to the hotel (the delightful Restaurant Sonne, super old and beautifully restored) all I could spot in the stores was sunscreen! How were we so duped? I’d thought we were visiting Switzerland, but we seemed to have ended up in Phuket!

But Kirchzarten is a small place, and we needed to hurry to get dinner before thinking about anything else. We were lucky enough to find Fiesta. The food was good. The beer was better. The play area for the kids – the best! The staff were friendly and all young and enthusiastic, very keen to help. What a change from Prague!

But the next day, we had to man up and face facts. Which of our two sets of clothes (we recycled our clothes while traveling and saved a day, if you’re counting) would we be less likely to melt in? Fortunately, we were saved from making this decision for the kids at least as we found a max fashion style store down the road called NKD. 4 euro for a kiddie tee? China, I love you!

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I have a four Euro weather fix – I’m the King of the World!
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Medieval Church, ancient friendship – that’s my college roommate and I

Our plan for the day was to get to Triberg, see the falls, buy cuckoo clocks for my parents, my in laws, my friends who had neglected to buy a clock in Switzerland last year, their parents, their in laws and two big cuckoo clocks for some friends who’d recently moved house. Our return trip looked like this!

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By the way, this image is not my own – naturally! I borrowed it from critical cactus which must be the most inappropriate place to borrow it from. And so, I will take a minute to say this. Critical Cactus speaks about minimalism and not being consumerist which are good goals that I identify with. This one-time fall from grace was a group effort – not mine alone – and it soothes my conscience a bit to note that I bought nothing for myself!

But if you are visiting Black Forest and must take back gifts, really what else could you get? Switzerland is known as the home of the cuckoo clock but that is not what I saw. This is where the clocks are actually made. The clocks on sale in Switzerland were mostly China made knock offs. This was the real deal! All the clocks are mechanical which means you need to wind them up. Which might get to be a bit of a bore once the novelty has worn off! A quick recommendation for Oli’s cuckoo clock shop. Not that one is needed. This was easily one of the more popular stores and we got everything we needed!

Triberg is not as dense green to black as I expected the Black Forest to be – there was too much visible deforestation which was sad. Maybe this contributed to the sultry weather?

But it was great fun reading about the history of the forest.

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So in short, we stopped at this medieval village with the most gigantic and delicious tomatoes (I bought seeds!), walked all the way up to the falls, shopped(I fessed up already!) and then after some train related confusion (can we make the laundry today? time table? yes? no? return! return! return! missed train – noooo!! ok, caught up!) had a quick stop at Gengenbach and then got back.

 

We also saw many traditional black forest style houses with the wooden beams. I have not been able to figure out any reason for the design though. Do you know?

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PS. Do you know that the black forest cake – which originated in these parts is supposed to be inspired by the traditional dress from hereabouts? Also, the real black forest cake is so soaked in alcohol, it is strictly not for kids! I didn’t know this and will never look at the Just Bake version the same way again.

The hills are alive

A full two months after my European vacation, I sit at my laptop writing this. I’m saved from worrying too much though by the simple fact that there is no one waiting for this post. Quite unlike how people waited for their Christie at Christmas back then or the latest Imtiaz Ali movie these days. Although I bet some of those folks feel pretty silly right about now!


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I don’t like burgers. It is not something you would ever suspect anyone of, but it’s true. I just don’t. On the train to Salzburg there was not much of a vegetarian selection and I had to make do. Surprise surprise! This burger was unlike any I have ever eaten. I don’t think there was even a patty. It was more like a veggie sandwich from Subway but with flavour. The feta cheese was very salty but in a good way. Words cannot describe the yumminess so I will just say – if you are on a train to Salzburg and someone offers you that veggie burger, take it!

I am totally mixed up in my head as far as train stations go but I think Salzburg was the underground one with lifts that brings you to ground level where the taxi drivers you have advance booked wait for you (muttering under their breath in Hindustani all the while). I say Hindustani, not Hindi, because the majority of the people we met speaking Hindi in Europe were in fact Pakistanis and really the language we all speak is a mix of Hindi and Urdu and should I believe be called Hindustani.

Anyhow, they took us to our hotel which was really a service apartment called Apt Stone Lodge. And it turned out to actually be a stone lodge! It is built right into a rock face. State this here and now – of all places I stayed at on this trip, this was my favourite. And we stayed at some pretty nice places! This one was super cosy, nicely located, completely homey(not too fancy) and it had a piano. Since it was Mother’s Day while we were there, the kids put up a performance (they had started prepping in Prague) for us and the piano came in very handy. What is it with Salzburg and singing children?

 

My kids are learning to play the piano and know their Mozart from Beethoven so I did not want to miss the chance of taking them to a concert while we were here. The one I wanted to go to was at Mirabell Palace but they were not playing the days that we were here so our next choice was the Salzburg Fort. Now I like music, but I am not at all highbrow so I checked out TripAdvisor reviews from other Indian visitors to figure out if we would like it. The reviews were mostly positive and spoke about the atmosphere and the fort and the moonlight so we went for it.

The fort is a short walk away from Apt Stone Lodge and we all walked down. It is a lovely fort with a fabulous view from the top.

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There is also a museum. I liked this marionette exhibit representing the Von Trapp family.

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Our pre-concert meal was a little underwhelming and the music put the younger one to sleep almost at once, but I enjoyed myself. The only other Indian family present took to their heels at intermission but we stuck it out till the end. It was a little scary walking back. That part of Salzburg sleeps early. It could not have been later than eleven but there was not a soul on the streets and I wished for a cab but there was none.

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We took the Hop-on-Hop-off lakes and mountains tour the next day. Starting at the Mirabell gardens and taking lots of Sound of Music style pictures, we went on the most scenic drive. The audio commentary was informative in a distant way and we enjoyed ourselves overall.

Our first stop was at Sankt Gilgen – also called Mozart village although Mozart never visited this place. The lake it is built around is called Wolfgangsee and it is a charming place. There was a cable car ride to the top of a nearby hill and some of us took it while the rest of us were content to walk by the lake and eat at the cafe. Also run by someone speaking Hindustani! Our kids ran wild in a nearby park and invented some fun pirate games. We ended up missing our hop-on because of a mix-up regarding timings. The driver told us to expect a bus in 45 minutes but he meant 45 minutes from the scheduled, not the actual time of arrival. Put it simply, even if your bus was late – expect the next one to be right on time! There were also some local buses that we missed but Sankt Gilgen deserved the extra time.

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Our next stop was at Mondsee which smelled strongly of cow (which is a smell I like) but was pretty-pretty with tiny bylanes selling, oddly enough, fashionable boots. We had no time to stop however and made a quick trip to the church which is famous for being where Maria married Captain Von Trapp in The Sound of Music. Even minus that bit of trivia, I would have loved the place. It made me feel like I did about the Naina Devi temple – it was a real place of worship, not a tourist spot.

We ran all the way back so as to not miss the bus again but the very few other stops left were largely skippable. We got off with the feeling that we should have stayed longer at Mondsee. We could not take another green line at Mirabelle for time reasons but we took a white line to the old town. This was exactly like other European old towns. My friends bought paintings and I took pictures and plagiarised one on my own. This was done with no malice at all, I only wanted to draw again – I haven’t since I was in middle school – and I did not feel ready to start with something original. The outcome is exactly like something a middle schooler would make but I had so much fun!

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We were running out of clean clothes by this time and I had read on the net about the Green and Clean laundry and as part of my green manifesto wanted to spread the word about their good work after some first hand experience but it was not to be. They were closed for repairs and with the grim knowledge that we had only two good sets of clothes each left before we found a laundromat in the Black Forest, we returned home.

Our children were waiting anxiously for us so they could begin their performance. We thoroughly enjoyed the songs and skits about strict moms and kids who love them anyway. We hushed them a bit so as to not disturb the early-sleeping Salzburg neighbourhood but nothing could dampen their spirits or our pride and joy.

I loved Salzburg most of all the places I saw these two weeks in Europe. Perhaps things look rosier through happy tears?

The Devil lives in Praha

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We didn’t exactly cover ourselves in touristy glory in Vienna and were determined to make up for the lapse. Prague is exactly the place for such plans!
The countryside en route was lovely but the city itself was as pretty as I have seen.

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We stayed at the Residence Bene in the old town of Prague. It was small and full of character. My friends were upset because the towels looked like they had been purchased when the hotel was set up around World War II but they looked clean enough (though yellow) so I was not too bothered. The kettle did not look so clean and that definitely bothered me!

It was a bit cold but sunny and bright. The view from my window was old town cheek by jowl with shiny new city which is my favourite kind of view.

They provided a decent breakfast but the USP has to be the location! We were a short walk away from everything.

There were a number of interesting looking stores nearby including many selling art supplies. Prague looks like that kind of place! However, the art supplies were insanely expensive – in Indian money anyway. No way was I paying a 100 bucks for a pencil my boys would surely lose in a minute!

On our way to the Astronomical Clock tower in the old town square, we saw this man blowing soap bubbles which thrilled the children who jumped around trying to burst them. There were loads of kids doing this and in fact, the entire square was full of people doing street stuff. Our kids dropped some money in the man’s bucket like all the other kids but while he collected the white kids for pictures, he shouted at our children who were still innocently bouncing around after bubbles. It was the greatest shock to see someone who makes a living off children behave like this. To be honest, we were too shocked to react with the sort of anger that that man deserved. In hindsight it was probably all for the best since the episode closed quickly, the kids did not realize what had happened and we were able to salvage our day. But it left a very bad taste in our mouth! There is a God up above though and it began to rain almost immediately after and while we continued to have fun, this fellow had to shut shop and made no more money that day.

Unfortunately the clock was being repaired at the time. But it was beautifully made and we were able to see the clockwork procession. It was interesting to see the vices – greed, vanity, death(??!!) and something else that I have forgotten. The good figures I have predictably forgotten entirely but do look up!

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From there to the famous Charles Bridge was but a step – but a very souvenir rich step! I travel with die-hard shopaholics and progress was slow. There were hand embroidered aprons and caps, paintings, cups, figurines, clock models, Bohemian crystal and magnets! The only two things that caught my eye (and I regret not buying) were

  1. These crazy colorful Dali-esque paintings of CharlesBridge that I saw in a side alley and should should have bought! I cannot find anything similar on the internet to show you what I mean. I SO wish I had not been so sensible about not adding to our severely packed limited luggage!
  2. Garnets – I fell in love with a pair of earrings and did not buy because my husband was not there and I wanted him to approve of them. Now this was probably all for the good since my uncle’s warnings and numerous other net based feedback insists that most garnets sold in Prague are fakes. However, the super recommended Granat Turnov had a store less than 200 meters from the Residence Bene so this was really a miss! If you like jewelry and have troubled to research –  do buy some while here!

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We went from there to the Lennon wall. I have seen more interesting graffiti but the peace messages and the general flower child vibe of the place was fun and contagious! I spotted this water wheel nearby which looked interesting. There were a number of cafes and we stopped for a break.

And then back!

Our second day in Prague was along similar lines. A ride on Tram 22. The Prague castle where I heard this lovely opera singer.

A visit to the Jewish quarter was next after which we stopped for lunch at an Italian place and I had the most amazing ravioli! The chocolate museum was the most fun for the kids and we ate more chocolate than was good for us. I also bought a tub of chocolate face cream. The chocolatey smell makes me feel like I am walking around in my own bakery bubble. Reason enough to buy it, no?

We went next to Kampa Island where the kids found a park to play in and I noticed this very unexpected statue of Chinmaya!

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And back to Old Town Square. My little one is reading Asterix these days and wanted to eat wild boar (he saw a pig on a spit) but did not like it much when it arrived. Finally dinner and a late night on Charles Bridge.

Then Goodbye Prague. We missed a lot – we did not tandem cycle (group cycle?) while drinking beer and singing songs, we took no rides in vintage cars, we did not ride in a horse drawn carriage, didn’t see the Fred and Ginger building. And we missed the garnets! I may never visit Prague again but if you do – please pick some up for me!!


PS. The Indian Food Reccos :-

My husband insists my friends and I are not fit to go anywhere outside India, but we like our desi food. So, for Indians in Prague – here’s the recco.

  • The Dhaba Beas where we ate our first lunch had a great system where you pay by weight for what you eat. What a neat way to reduce wastage!
  • For dinner, we headed out to The Indian Jewel. This was a posher place than the dhaba. Although there was indoor seating, we sat out under umbrellas. The owner looked European and had a silver ponytail but spoke Punjabi! I love when people do that. When I was a child, I got on a train once where there were a number of  Sardars speaking fluent Tamil! Anyway, both places served good food.

Vienna waits for you

Over a month back, we went on our second trip to Europe. Now there’s laziness and procrastination, and then there is this! I am totally unsure whether this kind of delay lends perspective or just blurs the details. Maybe both. Let me do my best anyway.

We flew Emirates to Dubai and from there to Vienna. Emirates is a very child friendly airline and our kids got sling bags full of stuff (I was thinking No, No, not more stuff!!) to keep them entertained. My younger one even got a soft toy. With judicious sleeping and waking, we managed the long flight well enough to be fresh and awake when we reached Vienna.

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I can go from here to a single peg, so I took a picture to remind me to always get here first. Age creeping up!

We were staying at the Novotel – the most boring stay the whole of this trip! As with all of our prior experiences with this chain, this hotel too had a bathroom that could not be locked. However, we were prepared this time. What’s an unlockable bathroom to a couple of scrunchies strategically tied?

We only had about half a day in Vienna, so there was not much we could do. Novotel is close to the city centre and we planned to walk around. A tip: Vienna is a cycle friendly city with well marked cycle paths. People ride by really fast and you don’t want to be in their way, so keep an eye out for cycle path markings. There was one right outside our hotel and we had to keep a hawk eye on the kids!

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Taken from the net – wikipedia. Not my own!

Our first stop was to have been the Hotel Sacher but we could not find our way and missed eating the famous Sacher Torte.

We did see St Stephen’s Cathedral which was very close to our hotel – we just walked down. It was a very pleasant walk. We had to cross the Donaukanal  or the “Danube Canal” which is an arm of the Danube.

We ate street food – pizza and shawarma kebabs which were surprisingly cheap! Our last trip to Europe had been to Switzerland and Paris which are both fairly expensive. In Vienna you can get tasty street food at surprisingly low rates. The helpings are enormous and for most of us, one slice or one kebab was enough for two with  some left over.

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St. Stephen’s Cathedral is beautiful. There is a fabulous view of the whole city from the top.

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There was an enormous bell there as well which made me think of The Nine Tailors, not one of my favourite books by Dorothy L. Sayers but much loved by the world in general.

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After that, we walked around Stephensplatz. The cobbled streets are a little hard to figure out but after a while we realised that the sizes of the stones distinguish the footpath from the carriageway.

Later, we took a tram and explored the city. We were not able to find Sacher-Torte but we did find a park and turned the kids loose. Since we had an early morning train to take to Prague we returned to our hotel soon after that.

Although we did not see much of Vienna, we saw more than we had expected to given how little time we had! One of my uncles used to live here and he had told me to go to the city centre since most tourist places were close by. From what city centres are like in India, I had expected a  glass and chrome sort of place but Vienna is a happy mix of old and new.

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What really defines Vienna though is the music. We even had to deal with an angry cabbie because we were talking about Beethoven and everyone of course knows he can’t hold a candle to Johann Strauss! But for all the famous composers who were born in or worked in Vienna, for me it is finally about the song by Billy Joel. When I listened to it first, I spent some time wondering ‘Why Vienna?’. On looking it up, Google informed me that Joel’s parents had separated when he was young, with his father, a classical pianist,  moving to Vienna. His mother for all her bitterness and struggles, insisted on her talented child learning music alongside school and work. In fact, he missed an exam as he was working at a piano bar the night before. On being denied a diploma he said, Oh well – if not Columbia University then Columbia Records (or something like that). Years later, when he tracked his father down and went to visit him, he was surprised to see an old woman sweeping a road. On being asked why she was working, his father told him that it was because it made her feel useful.

Vienna is a city that is kind to its old.

I didn’t see any older people working on the streets while I was there but based on what I saw and the people I met, it is a city that’s kind to its visitors!