07/30/2016 - 08/03/2016
Our Airbnb in Vienna was simply awesome. We were just south of the Bohemian district of Mariahilf, two blocks away from the Naschmarkt and within easy walking distance of the central pedestrian area. The building itself had a classical Viennese interior with a wide, winding staircase. The apartment was very spacious with tall ceilings and wooden floors. Best of all, there was free parking reserved for us right outside the back door.
After a late arrival and dinner on Saturday, we set off Sunday for our grand walking tour of Vienna. We took a long walk to the Belvedere Garden, which contains two 18th century baroque palaces and extensive grounds.
The most striking things about Vienna are the beautiful architecture and the wide boulevards. On the way to the Innere Stadt, or old town, we encountered the baroque Karlskirche with its iconic Romanesque columns and green dome.
Once inside the Ringstrasse that surrounds the old town, we stopped at the Hotel Sacher for a taste of the legendary torte. With a little more walking we encountered the Hofburg, the Volksgarten, and the Rathaus.
Our last stop in the old town was possibly the most famous landmark of all, Stephansdom. This 15th century cathedral was the tallest building in Vienna for centuries and survived near-destruction in World War II.
We walked across the Danube Canal to Leopoldstadt in search of dinner but our exploration of Vienna was abruptly terminated by a downpour. Fortunately Uber was available to rescue us and we were whisked to dinner at a Pan-Asian restaurant, after which we had a short walk home.
Monday morning we went straight to the Naschmarkt. Some version of this kilometer-long market built over the Wien river has been in existence since the 16th century. It's now a destination for gourmet and multicultural foods with an emphasis on Middle Eastern specialties. The produce is of good quality but expensive, likely due to the central location and the heavy tourist presence. There are also dozens of restaurants scattered along the length of the market. In some ways it was reminiscent of Munich's Viktualienmarkt. We had anticipated spending the whole morning there, but realized that there was a lot of repetition among the stalls and not a lot of goods we were willing to shell out for.
We dropped our purchases off at the apartment and drove to the enormous Schönbrunn Palace, where we walked around the manicured gardens and made an ill-fated attempt at visiting the famous Tiergarten Schönbrunn zoo. Ian was already asleep and Cleo threw a huge tantrum right after we paid the hefty entrance fee, following which she fell into a deep sleep herself. Rather than wander around the zoo for an hour waiting for somebody to wake up, we retreated to the car where we found our first parking ticket of the trip attached to the windshield. Annoyingly, there was no sign or paint on the curb where we had parked to indicate any kind of parking restriction.
We decided to head back to Leopoldstadt, where we had been shut down by rain the previous day, for a neighborhood walk and dinner. On the way we stopped at the colorful Hundertwasserhaus, an unusual residential building with an irregular, curvy facade and plant-covered roofs and balconies.
In Leopoldstadt, I learned that parking in Vienna is authorized by purchase of a special card with a specific time allotment that has to be marked with the date and time and placed in the windshield. The lack of this card is what resulted in our ticketing at Schönbrunn. It's obviously very inconvenient to hunt around for a store that sells the cards every time one parks, so most people have a monthly sticker or something of the sort. I probably should have bought a few of the parking cards right away, but I didn't want to waste money on cards I wouldn't use. At the restaurant, Cleo and Ian found a friend to play with. Dinner was very typical pub food for the city.
On Tuesday we went back to Leopoldstadt for the Karmeliter street market, but it was very limited so we just had lunch. We decided to make it a fun day for the kids so we went to the amusement park at Volksprater in Leopoldstadt where we rode the train around the park and I took Cleo on the water flume.
In the afternoon we took the kids to one of Vienna's famous outdoor pools on a tall hill at the outskirts of the city. Unfortunately trees and buildings blocked most of the view but the kids loved the two story slide into the pool.
If I had planned better, we would have driven to the Wachau Valley on an earlier day in Vienna so that we could have arrived back home any time we liked. Since I left it for our departure day from Vienna, we had to rush in order not to arrive in Bratislava too late. In the morning we packed up and drove to the Brunnenmarkt in a more downscale area far to the east of the center. As it turned out we enjoyed this market more than the Naschmarkt as it was devoid of tourists and had a much more authentic and local vibe. Lunch turned out to be a lot better as well.
The Wachau Valley is a beautiful green area nestled in a curve of the meandering Danube, dotted with beautiful villages and vineyards. We chose to begin our afternoon in Melk, about an hour west of Vienna. We had seen the Melk abbey atop its rocky cliff from the highway on our original approach into Vienna without knowing what we were seeing. Closer up it was a truly beautiful sight, a golden palace reminiscent in some ways of an Indian temple. As usual we chose to forgo the tour of the interior in favor of views from the abbey grounds.
Melk village was an attractive place as well, although the old town only took ten minutes to explore. We walked across the tip of a peninsula formed by the Danube and one of its small tributaries to get a good view of the river right from its edge.
The road back west from Melk afforded a pleasant drive along the Danube with frequent sightings of boaters and bathers. We only had time to stop in one more Wachau town and we chose Durnstein, a quaint and touristy one-road town that spills down a hillside to the edge of the river. We left the main road to do a little climbing on the pedestrian paths, but turned back well short of the castle ruins at the summit. The other major landmark of the town, the ornate blue spire of the abbey church, was tantalizingly close but the abbey was already closed when we arrived. We had to be content with outside views.
Instead of hanging around in Durnstein for dinner, we optimistically drove to the highly regarded Landhaus Bacher in nearby Mautern, hoping that an early arrival would rescue us from the consequences of not booking in advance. Unfortunately it was for naught as we were immediately dismissed, and we launched on another seemingly endless crusade for a TripAdvisor pick well away from the tourist path. Despite having called ahead for our table this time, and finding the restaurant half empty, we were kept standing around the entrance by a rather rude hostess for about fifteen minutes. Eventually I decided to stop preventing Cleo and Ian from running wild around the restaurant as long as we were kept waiting, and moments later a table was miraculously located. As I'd expected by that point, the food was average.
Once we got back on the road, I still needed to buy a highway vignette for Slovakia. I started to pull over at service stations once we drew near to the border but when I asked for the vignette, the countermen would shake their heads and point further down the highway, uttering a German word I couldn't understand. Eventually we encountered the border, where there was a building but naturally no passport control as both Austria and Slovakia are within the Schengen area. I pulled over to see if there was someone I could ask about the vignette, and immediately saw that they were being sold at the office. Apparently the German word I didn't understand was "border".
Our Airbnb in Bratislava was in a labyrinthine apartment complex and was rather difficult to locate. By the time we'd wrangled the kids and bags up stairs, there wasn't anything to do except crash.