When I conceived of this road trip through the great cities of Europe, Bratislava was hardly even an afterthought. I knew nothing of the city except that it was the capital of Slovakia, a country I knew almost nothing about in its own right. However, given that it was directly between two of the major cities on our itinerary, it was an obvious place to investigate further. Once I read a little about what the city had to offer, I decided it was worth a two day stopover. This ended up being a fortunate decision since we arrived too late on the first night to do anything except give the kids a bath and go to bed.
I had chosen our location to be close to the Trhovisko Mileticova outdoor market rather than the old town. The market proved to be quite large with a nice variety of produce and a good selection of food stalls and restaurants. Surprisingly, there was a substantial Asian presence in the market and we got a huge lunch at a very popular Vietnamese restaurant.
We drove slightly outside of Bratislava to see the clifftop Devin Castle at the confluence of the Danube and Morava rivers.. There was a winding paved path to the top of the cliff so we didn't have to struggle to reach the castle. The upper part of the castle was closed but there was still plenty to explore and great views of the Danube and the little village in the valley below us.
The well-known sights of Bratislava are concentrated in a small area downtown by the river, much of which consists of a walled pedestrian old town. Here we found all the tourists of which there had been no sign in our residential Airbnb area or the market, including lots of large Asian tour groups. I asked Mei Ling why she thought Bratislava would be a popular destination for Chinese in particular, and she replied that it was probably sold as a cheap alternative to Western European capitals.
Just outside of the old town we found the Grassalkovich Palace, which is the current presidential residence, and the Blue Church of St. Elizabeth. The sky-colored early 20th century church looks like it wouldn't be out of place in Miami Beach.
Dinner was al fresco at Modrá Hviezda, on the steep cobblestone road leading up to Bratislava Castle just west of the old town. The food wasn't spectacular, but the kids were so well-behaved that other people at the restaurant actually came over to congratulate us. On the way back down, it was clear that the road was a popular hangout spot for young expats. Bratislava might not be a well-known city now, but in ten years people may think of it as the next Budapest.
We went back to the Trhovisko market the next morning, where we had a more conventional Slovakian lunch. There was no English spoken so I had to make use of my limited Slovakian online translator and guesswork, but I think we did quite well. We noticed that the most popular item at the market seemed to be acai berries, which were being sold briskly from tubs and bins by multiple vendors. I was never able to figure out the reason for their popularity in that particular spot.
Our last stop before leaving town was Bratislava Castle, which we hadn't had time to visit the previous day. We had no particular desire for a tour of the interior so we spent a little time looking at the outside of the castle and the views over the Danube, and then we took off for Hungary. We were eager to see Budapest.
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 meant "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.
The Grossglockner High Alpine Road is one of those legendary drives in Europe. The 48 km road with 36 hairpin turns winding through the Alpine peaks seems as though it was made for a sports car commercial, despite having been built before the existence of sports cars or commercials. The problem that quickly became apparent to us on the slow drive southeast was that the sky was heavily overcast with a constant drizzle. It was very possible that once we ascended into the cloud line, we wouldn't be able to see anything whatsoever. We debated whether to abandon the plan and head straight to Salzburg, but ultimately decided we should just go for it since it could be years before we were in this area again, if ever. Fortunately the rain eventually stopped although the fog never lifted completely. We were denied the expansive, beautiful views of the Hohe Tauern National Park that one can find on the web but we still got to enjoy the drive and experience the majesty of some of the most famous peaks of the Austrian Alps.
About halfway through the drive we started to become aware of a faint burning rubber smell and at one point we pulled over to confirm that it was coming from inside the car and not outside. I looked at the tires but there was nothing amiss there. As we approached the end of the Alpine road in the town of Heiligenblut we saw a thin tendril of smoke escaping from the hood of the car and the burning smell grew stronger. Fortunately, we were just about there so we gritted our teeth and rolled into the tiny village and found a parking spot close by a cozy restaurant. Heiligenblut was the quintessential Alpine village dominated by a rustic church with a tall spire.
Once inside the restaurant, we reviewed our options. It was going to be dark very soon and there was certainly no auto service station in the town itself that would have anyone available to look at the car. I favored abandoning our plan to drive to Salzburg that night and finding a hotel to bed down where we were. In the morning we could call the rental company and hopefully someone could either pick us up or deliver a new vehicle. Mei Ling didn't seem as worried about the smell and the smoke, thinking it might have something to do with the cooler air and fog at the higher altitude. In the end, we decided to proceed to Salzburg. The evening air was cool but not cold, and if the car ended up conking out on the road we wouldn't freeze to death overnight. I just hoped we wouldn't catch on fire. The one caveat I insisted on was that we not return the way we came on the Alpine Road, even though it would take us an hour longer to drive further south to the next intersection with a major highway. I knew if anything bad went down in the peaks, we weren't going to see another human being until morning. After dinner we set off for Salzburg, and as usual Mei Ling's intuition was right. There was no trace of a smell or smoke for the rest of the trip. We didn't arrive in Salzburg until eleven, but fortunately it was a lockbox entry and no one had to wait up for us.
Our itinerary unfortunately forced us to miss the Thursday weekly market in Salzburg, and on Friday morning we couldn't find a decent daily market. Instead, we spent the morning and early afternoon exploring the Mirabell Gardens north of the River Salzach and then the Residenzplatz and busy pedestrian lanes south of the river. Hovering above us always was the clifftop fortress Festung Hohensalzburg, which we chose to forgo a visit to. The best views of Salzburg from ground level came from the bridges and the walking path north of the river.
On the way back to the car, we found a park with a playground for the kids. Cleo discovered a grid of musical tiles set into the ground.
Anyone with a warped sense of humor knows about Fucking, Austria and mine is as warped as anyone's. While the name of the town might seem shocking to English speakers, it has no particular meaning in German. The town is apparently named for someone named Focko who founded the village 1500 years ago. However, over the years since the town became internet famous, local authorities have had to deal with a deluge of British tourists asking annoying questions and even worse, stealing the town signs. Apparently it becomes wearisome informing tourists time and time again that no, there are no Fucking postcards. We didn't have vandalism on our minds, but I still felt a little sheepish as we drove into the little village looking for the road signs. I half expected to have to wait in line for our photo ops, but there was no sign of life in the area whatsoever. The one or two cars that passed refrained from chucking beer bottles at us as we snapped our photos.
On the way back from Fucking we bypassed Salzburg and went to the picturesque town of Hallein, slightly to the south, for dinner. Much of the center of town was torn up for some renovations of the cobblestones, but we still got to enjoy an impromptu concert of classical music from across a street barricaded with plastic netting. It only took about 15 minutes to walk through the entire old town.
We proceeded to the top-rated restaurant on TripAdvisor which had a beautiful courtyard setting. I confirmed with the manager that there wouldn't be any problem accommodating the kids, and he gave me a sideways look. "As long as you understand this isn't fast food," he said. I was a little nonplussed since it was hard to imagine how anyone could have mistaken his restaurant for a fast food joint, but we sat down in the courtyard. As it turned out, the manager hadn't exaggerated. It was over an hour before the first bite of food appeared on the table and two hours before the last dish arrived, despite the fact that only three other tables were occupied. I couldn't really complain - he'd warned us. It would have been easier to deal with the painfully long wait if the food had been good, but it was universally mediocre to awful. The worst was a sushi dish that consisted of three slivers of salmon atop damp balls of undercooked rice, garnished by withered bean sprouts. The only saving grace was a dessert of delicious fruit crepes. We concluded that the restaurant was worth a visit, but only after dinner elsewhere, just to enjoy the crepes in the courtyard.
On Saturday morning we took a final stab at finding a produce market, but there was only a flea market open for business. Instead we went to the Baroque palace Schloss Hellbrunn, where Archbishop of Salzburg Markus Sittikus installed numerous trick fountains designed to playfully soak his guests. We just missed a tour of the fountains when we arrived, so we spent a half hour exploring the grounds.
Once the tour got started, we were part of a large group composed largely of a Taiwanese high school class. The fountains were beautiful and the kids had a lot of fun with the surprise soakings in the summer heat, so I was glad we'd made the visit even though we were getting a late start on the road to Vienna.
We had one more stop before Vienna, which was the Ars Electronica Center in Linz. This miniature science museum had a lot of great interactive exhibits for the kids, including programmable electronic insects and a conductive disk which turned the entire body of anyone gripping it into a musical instrument.
We walked across the bridge for a quick peek at Linz's old town, but soon decided we'd rather get to Vienna in time for a pleasant dinner than explore a whole new city.
Innsbruck is one of those cities whose name is emblematic of Austria. The name conjures up images of snowy Alps, Olympic skiers, and funiculars. But would there be anything for a family with small children in the height of summer? I was optimistic enough to schedule two nights there, thinking that if we ran out of things to do there would surely be other interesting towns in the area. Thanks to our unscheduled hike at Ehrenberg Castle, we arrived in town late and had to rush to the old town to get dinner before the restaurants closed. It was raining fairly hard but we were determined to eat in a real restaurant on our first night in Austria, so we threw on our ponchos and the stroller covers and braved the elements. When we arrived at our chosen restaurant they were full, and I started to thumb through TripAdvisor again when a middle aged man came over to us. "You don't want to eat here," he said. "It's a gay bar." I found this a little hard to believe but he was already giving Mei Ling directions to another restaurant. I was rather dubious but when we arrived I found it was another top choice on TripAdvisor. We ended up having an excellent meat-and-potatoes type meal that gave us everything we needed for a good night's sleep.
I needn't have worried that we were spending too much time in Innsbruck. We bought fruit in the Markthalle, the main covered market, and had a satisfying lunch of Weisswurst and Käsekrainer. The latter is a long, skinny pork sausage made with chunks of cheese that is a local specialty.
Over the next two hours we explored the old town of Innsbruck. One of the highlights was the landmark Goldenes Daschl, a gold-colored copper-roofed balcony that projects from the front of a building at the end of the main street Herzog-Friedrich-Strasse. Many of the buildings in the center had beautiful, ornate facades that looked like they had been built yesterday. On the other side of the River Inn we could see rows of brightly-painted houses. Every direction we looked, the formidable Tyrolean Alps loomed at the outskirts of the city.
We retrieved the SUV to visit Schloss Ambras, a Renaissance era castle in the hills just south of the city. We didn't feel any need to tour the interior, but had a pleasant walk around the grounds. There was an ice cream truck for the kids as well.
I was thinking of Mei Ling when I put our next stop on our itinerary. Swarovski Crystal Worlds is like the Willy Wonka Chocolate Factory of lead glass jewelry. The museum itself is a little tawdry but the grounds are quite pleasant, especially the hillside troll waterfall and the crystal rain clouds over the pond.
Dinner was one of our classic European Odysseys. Our first attempt was located somewhere up in the steep hills north of the River Inn. We struck out with the SUV's built-in GPS, and I eventually located the place with Google Maps. It was all for nought, however, as the place was closed up with a sign on the door apologizing for their summer vacation. There didn't seem to be anywhere else close by, so we drove another half hour to the hills south of the city where we found our target to be open and very popular with the locals. We ended up with a good meal and even better views of the valley beneath us.
The next morning we got on the road quickly and made our first stop in the neighboring town of Hall in Tirol. The small city had an old town that was even larger than Innsbruck's, yet the narrow lanes were largely free of tourists. As in Innsbruck, the building facades all appeared freshly painted and were festooned with bouquets of flowers. Overlooking it all was the majestic tower of the Parish Church of St. Nicolas.
Our last stop in the Tyrol was Kufstein, best known for its Fortress sitting atop a rocky perch 300 feet above the town. The pedestrian area around the fortress was very colorful with elevated passageways connecting buildings on opposite sides of the streets, We took the funicular to the fortress and walked the ramparts for a while.
From Kufstein it would only have taken an hour and a half to get to Salzburg, but I was determined to see the Grossglockner High Alpine Road so instead of east we drove south into the mountainous heart of Austria.
Munich had been a huge success, and the food was much better than I'd remembered from my last visit to Germany, Nevertheless, we were eager to get on the open road and begin our discovery of Central Europe. There were so many legendary cities ahead of us. I had structured our itinerary to take us to some of the greatest castles of Europe, with the most famous of all being Neuschwanstein. Apparently the tickets to see the interior of the castle had to be bought hours in advance, so we decided we'd save that one for the following morning.
Soon after leaving Munich, we found ourselves winding through the beautiful Bavarian countryside. Our first stop on the road trip was the 18th century rococo style Wieskirche, which has been a destination for pilgrims since tears were seen on the face of a wooden figure of Jesus in 1738. The church was surrounded by green pastures with patches of forest and the Ammergau Alps visible in the distance.
After a snack at Wieskirche, it was still relatively early so we decided to squeeze in Linderhof Palace that afternoon. We spent quite a long time at this Versailles-inspired estate, between the extensive grounds and the main palace building. There was even an artificial grotto with a lake and a swan boat.
We decided to have dinner in nearby Oberammergau, famous for the fresco-covered houses called Lüftlmalerei. Some of the houses had been painted so that the flat walls looked to be festooned with Greek columns and elaborate balconies. After walking around the town we had an excellent dinner at a hotel restaurant we found on TripAdvisor.
Our Airbnb hotel was over the Austrian border in Heiterwang. We still had to gas up the car and buy a highway vignette sticker for Austria, so it was very late by the time we finally bedded down. The hotel and setting reminded me a lot of our overnight stay in Andorra a few months earlier. The next morning we took a few minutes to gaze at the mountainous surroundings before heading to Neuschwanstein.
As usual when we most anticipate something on our travels, the destination can't live up to expectations. The castle looks amazing in pictures, but those are taken from helicopters or drones and never show the throngs of tourists that clog every path. We quickly ruled out the tour of the interior of the castle after we learned that there was a four hour wait before the next available space. The line for the horse carriage to the top of the hill seemed short, but a carriage only showed up every half hour. Once we reached the top, we found that the Marienbrücke which affords the best view of the castle was closed so we had to settle for pictures partially obstructed by trees and crowds of people. Despite these drawbacks, the sheer size and classical beauty of the castle made the visit more than worthwhile.
After lunch we set off for Innsbruck. Back in Austria, I saw a ruined castle atop a tall hill from the highway. Something resembling a wire ran from the castle to the top of another tall hill on the other side of the highway. As we drew closer, I realized the wire was actually a suspension bridge running hundreds of feet above us. I could see tiny figures moving back and forth across the bridge. I knew this could be an amazing experience if it was possible for us to take the kids up there, so I pulled over and did some quick research on my phone. I learned that the bridge was called the Highline 179 and it had only been open for less than two years. We still had some time before the bridge closed for the day so we got our tickets and began the long hike to the top of the hill. Mei Ling vetoed my plan to backpack both the younger kids and Ian did much better than I expected with the hike. We eventually made it to the ruins, which were a lot of fun to explore and had great views. Mei Ling couldn't stand to be on the suspension bridge for more than a few seconds, so I took the kids halfway across. The sight of the parking lot 350 feet below us didn't seem to bother them one bit.
We hurried back down the hill to the parking lot. We were going to be late for dinner in Innsbruck.