In the heart of Europe is where I left my heart. In a city that is filled with sights and sounds unbeknownst to travelers from the Middle East, such as open forests and majestic palaces, as well as the absence of daily life we have grown accustomed to such as horns and shouts and billowing dust.
On a recent trip to Vienna, we discovered the true beauty of Austria by neglecting the touristic accommodation of a hotel and instead opting for a furnished apartment, compelling us to rely on ourselves for cleaning, cooking and sightseeing, and adding a robust taste, both literally and figuratively, to our stay.
Of course, the first thing for the gastro-inclined would be to sample the local dishes. For main meals none can shy away from the schnitzel (try very hard to not call it by its local name here; escalope, as it takes away from the magic of its magnificence), the tafelspitz (boiled beef) and the gulasch (quite unlike the gulasch we know here). For desserts, the apfelstrudel tops the list, and always insist it be served warm.
All the grand locations of Vienna are easily reachable via the myriad of public transport available. Trams, buses and metros run across the length of Vienna. Trains can take you across borders in a matter of hours. When you decide to spend a minute to understand how the system works, you will find yourself saving quite the bundle on transport costs. In the span of two weeks we had much to do and set about to do just that. The following is but a summary of a to-do list when visiting Vienna:
Mariahilfer strasse (street) is the most sought street in the lands, offering delicious cuisines from (almost) every corner of the earth in addition to several shops and stores that cater to all needs; from clothing to electronics, from sports to hats and everything in between.
Stephansplatz (square), similar to the Corso Vittorio Emanuele of Milan and Taqsim Square of Turkey, is the key attraction housing its namesake St. Stephen’s Cathedral, as well as being home to the most famous brands and shops, in addition to the most impressive cuisine you will ever taste. It is the melting pot where everyone mingles, and it would not be out of place to find yourself walking down the street listening to a cacophony of melodious languages, none alike the other, in the short distance between two shops.
The majestic Schönbrunn Palace was a mere station away by metro, and around 1KM away on foot. Its impeccable lawns and tall trees echoed in beauty by the fountain atop the mini-mountain (only 62M elevation based on GPS) behind it housing the Gloriette, which offers a spectacular panoramic view of Vienna. The castle grounds can be enjoyed for free, tours within the castle and some of the surrounding attractions cost a little. The palace is a runner’s paradise with plenty of open spaces, beautiful scenery and other runner folk.
They say the best things in life are free, and the next best things are cheaper. This is put into perspective in Vienna with a self-powered “cruise” down the Danube in your very own 4-person tretboot, which can be rented for an hour, or three. An hour will see you pedaling furiously to get into the middle of the river and enjoy the serenity and peaceful atmosphere, a 3-hour voyage however will give you time to take a dip in the lovely waters (the price difference is only double and below KD 10).
In order to complete our Austrian experience, we rented a car and drove to Salzburg for a mountain excursion. Google Maps was our navigator, immediately rerouting us in case we missed a turn. The happiness of traversing a distance of 500KM (one way) amidst snow covered mountains and green forests on only half a tank of diesel was offset by the horror at the gas pump when we refilled that half tank for almost KD 24 (which is more than I spend in a month on fuel here).
However, that frightening realization was equally nullified by the drive up the mountain towards Eisriesenwelt, which sounds like something out of a fantasy novel requiring a quest with elves and dwarves, but is actually the largest ice cave in the world. The trip requires plenty of pre-planning as it involves several hikes up steep mountains and a cable car ride to reach the higher point of the mountain where the cave is located, however it is thoroughly worth it to walk within a frozen mountain containing ice that is over thousands of years old.
Back in Vienna, in one far off mall, Shopping City Süd (SCS), we found the holy grail of shopper’s paradise, where prices that would make sense if they were in KWD send a shock to your system upon discovery that they are in fact in Euros! Two trips were not enough, and by the end I found my shopping selection process had changed from cost based to weight based, wondering whether my newly purchased treasure would set me back at the luggage counter on the return flight in terms of excess weight.
It did! However, thanks to the wonders of tax return for foreigners residing outside the EU, our tax return covered the amount we paid in excess weight.