It started with a Sunday routine search on the god of small and big things – Google. A typical search yielding a mirage of future travel destinations, accessible and out of bounds alike, and that is where I again stumbled upon a post on Eastern Europe and specifically, a Thomas Cook Budget Tour. The Internet seems to know my budgetary constraints pretty well by now.
Although Alankrita & I always had the destination – i.e. Austria, Czech and Hungary on our own bucket list, my bias for doing things on my own meant that a packaged tour never went beyond online viewing indulgences before. However, a combination of laziness and the never-ending logistical nightmares that go with planning an out-of-country trip, I for once approached Thomas cook at their Connaught Place office and along with it, other agencies to satisfy my genetically fine-tuned bargaining tendencies. What was initially thought of as a group-tour enquiry happily turned into a customized individual one, with the paper pushing headaches joyously outsourced and well taken care of.
VISA and other dockets reached us in what seemed like a breezy instant, and so, cut to July 8th, we are off on our Turkish Airlines flight to Vienna via Istanbul. A flight without troubles, a friendly staff and a good in-flight entertainment system does the trick for most and Turkish did not disappoint. The delicious desserts were standout elements with the chocolate mousse & the mango soufflé marking an ideal beginning to the trip and a sign of the sugary things that would follow.
On arriving in Vienna, and a 30-minute drive from the airport later, we reached our home for the next two nights –Hotel Lucia, a cosy 3 star not so far from the city centre.
A good sleep ensued and with the sunny surprise of sundowns transpiring past 10 pm, we set out in the evening to explore what Alankrita had described excitedly to me over the past 101 years. Stephansplatz was seen and explored with as much touristy vigour as we could muster, following which a search began for Kleines Café where we hoped to find the palm reader who’d tell the Celine & Jesse that we were in my over-dramatic head, a bit about our stardust existence. We got there only to happily plonk ourselves at the outdoor seating of its adjacent restaurant. Nevertheless, a Spritz and another fuzzy bubbly cocktail later, we carried on with our beverage hopping walk around the town.
Next, in the middle of the city centre, we stopped to have the stuff dreams are made of. The stuff where angels float in your mouth and fill your senses with the pleasures only the pallets of our tongue can fathom – the Kase Krainers. A delectable jaat of a sausage filled with just the right portions of cheese served with horseradish, mustard and bread. Paired with a beer – my first in months, our first meal of the trip signalled the great gastronomic experiences that lay ahead.
Next stop was a greenhouse, now converted into a restaurant – Palmenhaus and a sampling of its toothsome schnitzel. The next half hour was spent walking bare-feet on the beautiful lawns by the Mozart Museum. With moist blades of the grass beneath us, we lay flat on our backs looking at the blue & orange skies and breathing in the calm air that holidays never cease to bring to us.
With the night upon us, the architectural magnificence of Vienna was out on full show. With buildings lit up like museums and street lights lending themselves to the antiquity of the place, this was an ideal end to a beautiful day.
The next morning, I decided to see bits of the city in the way I know best – an early morning run. With the slight jet lag helping an auto wake up call at 5am, a good 7.5K ensued and although more bits of broken bottles and vomits were encountered than expected, it set the mood of the rest of the day.
Our first stop today was the Schönbrunn Palace, a gigantic block of concrete with gorgeous adjacent gardens but unlike most around us, Alankrita & I decided to pass up on the inside tour and simply soaked in the view and quickly set off to our next stop – Praters Park, an amusement park with an unmistakably consuming charm. There, a lunch that included the rather greasy pork knuckle was consumed after which a couple of aerial rides got the head buzzing and in no time, it was 8 pm and a declaration for the day.
The next day started with a picturesque rail ride to the land which Hollywood conquered with The Sound of Music much before Yash Chopra could invade with the Bollywood brigade – Salzburg. A stunning city on the foothills of the alps with history and visual treats in abundance.
We stayed at the oddly designed but comfortable Best Western Amedia Art hotel and since we reached before the scheduled check-in time, we decided to part-take in our only guided tour of this trip – the stereotypical “Sound of Music” tour organized by Panorama Tours. For someone with a strong distaste for being driven on set packages, I pleasantly enjoyed the next 4 hours with some breath-taking views of the city & its outskirts, and although I wasn’t as big on the many Hollywood shenanigans about of the movie, delivered exuberantly by our thoroughly enjoyable tour guide, this was a good initiation to the city.
Mondsee, a quaint lake township was a stop worth a separate paragraph here. Not just for the drive to get to there and not just for the beautiful church where the Captain married Maria, but most importantly for the oral symphony that the apple strudel with vanilla ice-cream generated in our mortal mouths – the day would have been satisfactory for that binge alone.
We got back to Salzburg in the evening to call it a day amidst thundering showers that the city is well known for. The next morning began with a walk to a car rental and after picking up our little Skoda for the day, a drive into Berchestgarden, Germany lay ahead.
Hitler’s Eagles Nest was visited and checked off the checklist albeit with a dreadful incident for yours truly when ravens decided to help me consume a rather generous helping of french fries, both to my trauma and the other onlookers’ good humour.
The highlight of the day and perhaps for the entire trip was coming up next with a visit to Lake Königssee and the lesser accessible lake Obersee. No words or pictures can do justice to the smack in your face beauty that hits you when you get to the latter but I would simply sum it up by calling this the most surreal view the eyes had seen for quite some time.
The following day was the 5-hour train ride into the beer alleys of Prague. Upon checking into our charming attic room at the Hotel Noir, a 10-minute walk from the Central Museum, a visit to the riverside ferry restro bars was the perfect start to our last stop on tour. The cultural differences between Austria & Czech were interesting to note, and so was the fact that people in Prague didn’t seem to bother much with meagre things known as side eatables to go with the beer. The only thing that went with a beer here was another beer. Swirling away in blissful burps, I wasn’t really complaining.
The next morning began with a fantastic 10K run which covered the entire city centre and old town. The stone laid streets and the surrounding buildings added to the flavour of the place. I’d never thought I would love being around so much of concrete but I suppose the influence of art done well was apparent. A customary visit to the Charles Bridge and the other common spots in old town was followed up with our best dining experience of the trip – a visit to The Salabka Vineyard and Restaurant. With our hostess Gabriella starting us off on a beautiful 3-course meal with the best selection of their local wines, her star chef husband, well verse in the Michelin ways of serving food that looked as good as it tasted, plated happiness infusing dishes for the soul.
An evening around old town gulping beer and gorging on the ridiculously sugar coated “Trdelnik” or the descriptively called – Chimney Cake set us back to the hotel. The next & our last day of the trip began with a trip to the Prague Castle and although we had already had more than our fair share of cathedral visits – the St. Vitus Cathedral here was quite stark with its unmistakable gothic influence and its sheer enormity.
Our last evening of the trip was destined to end on the same note as it started – Beer and Sausage. Beer tasting at a fine local brewery followed by another visit to the riverside ferries was a most satisfying end to a whirlwind tour.
We came back home after a week in what felt longer as a measure of the experiences we gathered. To travel, to experience and learn – That is to live. Until next time.