The day finally came! Our first independent travel trip outside Vienna. Destination: Salzburg, Austria and Munich, Germany. What we didn’t realize until much later is that sometimes plans don’t work exactly the way we would like them to, especially traveling around Europe, and sometimes, your expectations aren’t all they are cracked up to be.
February 27 – March 1, 2014
We were practically enduring paparazzi (a la Frau Swann, our sponsor) as we tried to leave the apartments to catch the U-bahn to the train station. We actually ended up leaving 15 minutes late thanks to the photo-shoot. It was midday, and the U-bahns were packed and going much slower than normal. By some incredible stroke of luck, we managed to board the train with a few minutes to spare before it started chugging down the platform, west towards Salzburg.
When we finally arrived, ecstatic beyond belief, we were quickly humbled into silence by the twenty minute walk from the train station to the hostel, another unanticipated setback. Being the travel-savvy European girl that I am (note sarcasm), I packed all my stuff into two Victoria’s Secret brand shoulder bags. Hiking backpacks just are not nearly as cute, but my shoulders were screaming and I was absolutely regretting it by the time I plopped down onto my pseudo-plush hostel mattress.
Our first night began with dinner at Brauhaus Furbergs, an old, authentic Austrian cuisine restaurant that serves the largest portions I have ever seen outside the continental United States. My plate consisted of two GIANT Wiener Schnitzels served with large helpings of potatoes and salad. I think I gained ten pounds just from looking at it, let alone eating all of it, which I did, with only a little help from my friends, who each taste-tested a piece of one of my Schnitzels.
Next, we took a walk to old town, all the while marveling at the nearly-vertical hills looming over us from the distance in every direction. In Old Town, we came upon the Salzburg Dome Cathedral, a magnificent piece of Baroque architecture, even in the dark. In the adjacent open square, we danced around in excitement, stared at our reflections in a beautiful fountain, and played mega chess. A jumbo chess board painted on the square grounds was big enough for people to play the pieces, although this was unnecessary since the board was equipped with a complete set of colossal pieces. It did surprise me that none were missing. In America, one night out in the open and these pieces would be kidnapped by idiot high school boys eager to display them in their basement “man-caves” as trophies of their rebellious conquests. I could only assume that the fact that all the pieces were accounted for spoke directly to the social organization Austria enjoys. They place high values on integrity and fairness, concepts I find very admirable.
Old Town was even more beautiful the next morning when we returned. This time, we got to walk inside the Salzburg Dome Cathedral and stand in awe of the intricate architecture and magnificent artwork and sculptures that adorned the walls and ceilings. People just don’t build things like this anymore, I remember thinking. I can’t imagine being an artist, craning my neck upward for hours on end to create a masterpiece. I cannot imagine the amount of slaves and low-paid workers who died to manifest the greed of their kings through these precious structures that we can scarcely comprehend today. Yet, we continue to be able to appreciate the art and the sheer magnificence. Personally, however, I cannot decide if the beauty of it is more because of mere aestheticism or if the tragedy of it all adds to the effect. I am inclined to believe the latter.
Our next stop was the Burgschenke Festung Hohensalzburg, which I will just call the Salzburg Castle to spare you, my lovely readers. This grand fortress was first built in 1077 under Archbishop Gebhard von Helfenstein. Throughout the next few centuries, it underwent continued expansion. The only time that the fortress actually came under siege was during the German Peasants’ War in 1525, when a group of miners, farmers, and townspeople tried and failed to overthrow Prince-Archbishop Matthäus Lang. In the 19th century, it was used as a barracks, storage depot, and dungeon before being abandoned as a military outpost in 1861. During the early 20th century it was used as a prison for Italian POWs during World War I and Nazi activists in the 1930s, before the Anschluss (annexation of Austria to Germany). Today, it is one of Austria’s top tourist destinations, being one of the largest still-existing 11th century fortresses in Europe.
We toured the fortress and the museum inside the castle, but the best part was looking out on the city of Salzburg from its many balconies and belvederes. We stopped for over an hour to sit down with our legs hanging over the ledge of a terrace, the sun warm and beating on our skin as we soaked up the unparalleled view. This is probably one of the most peaceful, free-feeling moments I have enjoyed since arriving in Europe. I sat in contemplation of how I allow myself to get so stressed when the world around me is this beautiful, practically calling my name. Eventually, we were forced to stand up and leave that marvelous scene, but it will forever be ingrained in my memory.
My only regret from Salzburg was not being able to explore the hills. We had contemplated taking the cable cars and enjoying The Sound of Music tour until we found out that it was too early in the year, and the cable cars weren’t running.
The next morning, we left for Germany. We took an early enough train that we were able to see the sunrise as it colored the sky over the mountains and villages that sped past the train windows. When we arrived in Munich, we again reaped the fruits of our amateur planning. We had to walk for a good hour this time to reach the Hotel Schmellergarten. (I may develop permanent shoulder problems later in life just from this one weekend. Note to self: Never again sacrifice comfort for cuteness.) This hostel was not nearly as clean as the one in Salzburg, and one thing that especially stood out about the state of our room was that the bathroom was so tiny, I didn’t even have to completely stretch my arms out from my side to be touching both parallel walls. The shower was nothing more than a little knob on one wall, and the shower drain was in the middle of the bathroom floor. So, essentially, the whole room was originally intended to be just a shower, but someone had stuck a toilet and a sink in there to share the space. It was strange, to say the least, but at least it speaks to the fact that Europeans have a knack at doing quite a lot with very little. Who really needs THAT much space anyway? Americans seem to need way too much, much more than is actually necessary.
All this was made up for by the graciousness and helpfulness of the hostel owner, who served us a delicious breakfast and presented us with many useful maps, directions, and tips to help us navigate the city. As soon as we stepped out of the hostel, we quickly realized that we were definitely no longer in Vienna. Our home away from home seemed like a tiny speck compared to the vastness of Munich. We needed to look no farther than the fact that Munich has three times as many subway lines as Vienna. It was quite intimidating, and probably not the best choice of a city to get us accustomed to the idea of exploring Europe.
Nevertheless, a vast city does mean lots to do, and our first mission was to watch the famous Munich Rathaus Glockenspiel dance at the turn of the hour. We were ready with our heads craned upward a full five minutes before two o’clock anxiously waiting for the little puppets to come to life. We weren’t the only ones. Scores of tourists filled the square, and they were equally as disappointed (and equally as misinformed, it seemed) when 1, 2, 3, 4 minutes had passed the hour and still nothing. We felt pretty ridiculous when we found out it only happens at noon.
Our pride slightly stricken, we left to find a Biergarten, just so we could see a Biergarten. Again, we failed to consider that it was still, in fact, February, and most of them were still closed for the winter. We found this out from a very helpful, very drunk middle-aged American tour guide named Lenny. We met him when he offered to take a group picture for us. He just strolled on up when he heard us speaking English, beer cup in one hand and hauling his keg wagon behind him with the other. He gave us some great advice on what we COULD do this time of year, including the name of an open beer garden. I asked him what was happening this weekend for Fasching, also known as Karnival, the European equivalent of Mardi Gras. This festival was the whole reason I wanted to go to Germany this weekend in the first place. I had originally wanted to go to Cologne, which I had heard hosted the best Karnival festivities in all of Europe, lasting all weekend and all the way through Fat Tuesday. Cologne, however, would have been a 15 hour train ride, definitely a much worse idea for our first independent travel weekend than Munich. Lenny told us that, unfortunately, unlike Cologne, Munich’s Karnival happens only on Fat Tuesday. It attracts hundreds of thousands each year, but we wouldn’t find anything special this weekend. I just about lost track of how many disappointments I had already endured at this point. Sensing my frustration, Lenny suggested we skip school and stay in Munich until Tuesday. We laughed. He was completely serious. At least he knew how to live it up, even if we college students didn’t.
We parted ways with Lenny and strolled into the Weiss Brauhaus per his recommendation. After a long wait and ever-mounting hunger, we were finally escorted to our table by our fat, old, mean waitress with terrible B.O. Upon hearing our American accents, she quickly became even meaner than she had been originally. We tried to speak to her in German, which she didn’t seem to appreciate either. She had us write down our orders on a piece of paper… come on lady, our German isn’t THAT bad. When I tried to ask her, politely in German, where the restroom was, she pointed angrily down a flight of steps and walked away from me before I even had the chance to finish my sentence.
We were hoping that the food would make up for the terrible service, which it did, for the most part, except we realized too late that the pretzel soup we ordered was made with raw eggs. My roommate is deathly allergic to eggs, but luckily all that happened was that her face was pretty swollen for the next couple days. We were fortunate not to have to employ any of the emergency rush-Kirby-to-the-hospital plans we had concocted on the spot at the table just in case the next couple hours were to bring about a medical disaster.
To make up for the hectic day, I was determined to have a good time that night. I had some recommendations from a German friend for clubs with good dancing, and I was so excited to get dressed up and go out with everyone. But, when I met up with the rest of the group after an afternoon nap and a shower, they were all in yoga pants, t-shirts, and jeans. I can’t understand not wanting to experience European nightlife. We are young and beautiful and free, and I understand that it was a tiring day, but I am always willing to sacrifice sleep when it is juxtaposed with the potential of a memory. Not so for everyone, it seemed. So, we went to dinner at a nice Italian place and were heading back to the hotel by 10:30. Not my idea of a fun night.
Something important that this first weekend taught me is that part of the study abroad experience is realizing that you can’t always get what you want. You depend on other people, and the interests of the group must come before the interests of one individual. However frustrating, this is the reality. Travel also forces you to become an excellent planner (as we found out the hard way this weekend) while at the same time being very open-minded to spontaneous change. Sounds maddening? That’s because it is.
Sometimes, you won’t get to do the Sound of Music Tour through the hills of Salzburg. You won’t be in the right place at the right time for Fasching. The Bier Gartens won’t be open because of the cold. Sometimes, no one will want to come dancing with you. Sometimes, you will spend WAY TOO MUCH money on a weekend that doesn’t even come close to your expectations. Sometimes, you have to learn that expectations are not always a good thing. But no matter what adventures come to pass or get pushed to the side, sometimes you have to remember that right where you are is AMAZING. And sometimes, the only expectation you can be sure to have fulfilled is the expectation to be absolutely amazed.