After a long sabbatical, I am back playing catch-up for some of our travels. I left us hanging on a bus between the Hungarian capitol of Budapest and the Slovakian capitol of Bratislava. Teeny Bratislava has always played in the back row of fiddles behind cities like Budapest, Vienna, and Prague, but we found it a relaxing, pretty little place to spend four days.
For two footsore travelers, the pocket-sized features of Bratislava were very welcome. The main draw of the city is the Old Town, with its cheerfully painted buildings and whimsical statues on every corner, and the castle that perches on the top of a large cliff overlooking the Danube. It is said that the castle is the Wizard’s Table, because it looks like a table that has been flipped over and has all four legs pointing up into the air. One afternoon, we ventured up the hill to look around the castle, although we did not find a way to get in any further than the courtyard (I think it was only open short hours for the winter season), but we did enjoy ourselves on the castle playground.
Outside of the wee historic center, we traipsed through tree-lined neighborhoods to find pretty little churches, charming riverside walks, and a free concert of a electro-disco band from Tel Aviv, Israel. They happened to be staying at the same hostel we were, so we were let in for free…and the club even served a vegan burger and a tasty herb liqueur. Mostly, though, we just our days exploring and our evenings relaxing. Each day, as we strolled along the Danube, we were rarely out of sight of the castle and the UFO-like bridge that sits on the opposite bank.
Our last day in Slovakia dawned bright and clear and we caught a bus to the foothills of the Small Carpathians, where we found the tiny wine town of Modra. First, we hiked up into the forests and vineyards above the town, soaking in the glorious sight of peaking fall colors stretching over the valley, with its distant church spires and grapevines turning gold. Later, we walked along the main street from ancient gate tower to the graveyard, still decorated for All Saint’s Day. We walked back along the outer wall of the town…but we couldn’t find a way back in! Finally, we came to the end of the wall, and lo, there was a little winery doing tastings for a few coins. It was the perfect finish to a long walk on our last day in the country.
The next morning, in the drizzle, we rode the bus an hour over the border to a city that my paternal grandmother had always spoken of as a glittering jewel of culture with a dash of heaven…Vienna. After finding our hostel across town, we set off to do some exploring while busily dodging raindrops. Mariahilferstrasse stretched from our neighborhood to the edge of the historic district, so we followed it to the large squares and towering buildings that date back to the times of Mozart and Kaiser Franz Josef.
Of course, our main purpose in including Vienna on our itinerary was the Staatsoper. I had had schemes on at least visiting and taking a tour…but my friend Ashley had clued me into the Standing Tickets. Stand in line, bring a scarf, and go see world class opera or ballet performances for a mere 3-4 euro. On day one, we happened past just as they were opening the doors for the afternoon tours. We were taken upstairs, downstairs, through lavish rooms, past a violinist’s photo shoot, through the audience seats, and even up into the backstage area. The following afternoon, we returned to stand in line and nabbed the 39th and 40th spots, which gave us second row of standing room to see a fabulous performance of La Boheme.
The next morning, we awoke very early to catch a train our to the the countryside around Vienna, to find the small town of Melk. Located near a bend in the Danube, Melk is a town completely dominated by a huge monastery looming on the high hill in the middle of town. We spent an hour exploring the misty morning streets, stopping for delicious pastries and coffee in a fancy cafe. We climbed up to the monastery, taking in the views as a light rain pitter-patted on our umbrellas. The cost to have an English speaking guide to take you on a tour is only 2 euro more than the regular entrance, so we went for it. Turns out we were the only two to sign up for the tour…so it was a private one all for us! That worked great, because I could then render all the information in Korean and we could take our time looking at all the funky, futuristic displays in the classy old buildings.
After our guide led us through all the galleries, sharing stories of the monastery’s past and present, we were allowed to walk all the way back through and view the galleries again, this time reading all the placards. Turns out that the explanatory information is meant to complement the guide’s information, so we left with a very thorough and interesting perspective of the monastery. Of course, the most beautiful and famous part, the library, does not allow photography of any kind. Alas. But the church was equally beautiful, so we took advantage of being alone inside to snap away at the fantastic ceiling frescoes and over-the-top gildings that lined the walls.
After that, we headed back to the train station for another ride through the pristine and idyllic ride through the countryside leading back to Vienna. A-frame homes led onto fields that were still an emerald hue, despite the November weather. Here and there, contented cows grazed, not even turning their heads as the trains passed at precisely the right second they were scheduled to go past. Back in town, we retrieved our bags, caught the trolley, and arrived at the bus station in plenty of time to catch our evening bus to Prague…there were Hobbit movies on the in-bus entertainment system! And so it was, we passed into our 20th country on this trip while I watched Bilbo Baggins outwitting dragons on his own journey.