When we first decided to go to Austria, we knew we wanted to visit a Concentration Camp. Karyn’s family escaped the Holocaust, but many of her ancestors saw first hand the violence and cruelty of the Nazi regime.
A train, bus, and walk later, and we arrived at the site of Mauthausen Concentration Camp. Housing mostly Austrian, Polish, and Russian prisoners, Mauthausen operated as the HQ of the Nazi Camps in Austria. It was liberated in 1945 by the US Army.
The high walls and watchtowers gave the camp a perfectly justified sinister appearance. We met our tour guide Andy and went into the Camp. Every country represented by prisoners at Mauthausen set up their own memorial, an extremely touching remembrance of those who perished in the Camp. We toured the shower room and the barracks, both described as overcrowded during the camp’s operation. We also saw the gas room and crematoriums used to execute prisoners. The names of all who died at Mauthausen were listed on a lit memorial, to forever be remembered.
The small part of the tour which was positive was when learning about Russian POWs held in Mauthausen. They used a wet towel to short out the electric fence, allowing about 500 of them to escape!
One interesting perspective was that of the Austrians. After the war, Austria painted themselves as victims to the Nazi regime. Contrary to this, there was immense support from Austria, people were friends with SS officials and even watched soccer (football) matches beneath the camps wall.
Overall, the tour gave us a deep reminder of how cruel humans can be, but also how hope and persistence must, eventually, prevail. Thanks so much to our tour guide Andy, he was great and very knowledgeable.
Every car registered in Austria has “arms” on its license plate. It’s a shield with heraldry and a name under it. They are really cool. I learned that there’s a different arms for each of Austria’s nine states. A simple white cross on a red field for Vienna and more involved ones for the states of upper and lower Austria. I decided to see if I could find them all. Burgenland is relatively near Vienna, but I’ve only seen a few. When we visited Salzburg, I saw their arms and a couple from Carinthia and Styria. On a run along the river, I spotted one for Tyrol. But I hadn’t seen the arms for Vorarlburg, a small state far to the west by Lichtenstein. When we returned to Vienna, in the east, I figured we wouldn’t see one. I found a picture online and showed it to my family so they could keep an eye out. On the way back from picking up some take-out, not 10 feet from the VRBO…
It takes a few weeks to get a feel for the culture of a place. We find it in restaurants and grocery stores, walking down the street and peeking into hair salons, hanging out in a park and riding the U-Bahn.
Here is my massive generalization on the people of Vienna after 3 weeks here:
- Viennese people wait for the stop lights to turn green. There may not be a car or bike in sight. When that light is red you wait. I am not Viennese. One other note about traffic lights is they typically have same or opposite sex couples in the red or green light. This change was made a few years to highlight the diversity of the city’s population. Here is an short article talking about it.
- Service providers in Vienna, including grocery store clerks and museum staff are efficient and polite, but not really friendly and warm. They take their jobs seriously.
- Waiters are quick to take our order and deliver the food. After that they leave us alone unless our alcoholic beverages are emptied or we signal for a check. Also, once you ask for a check it indicates that you are ready to go. Also it appears that all of Vienna is dehydrated. Seriously no one drinks water like we do. There has been one restaurant during the entire trip where they kept up with our water consumption. That was in Budapest!
- When public transportation is crowded, the Viennese have a seemingly magical ability to stand extremely close together without ever touching each other. The kids and I are definitely not Viennese. We apologize a lot.
- Everyone speaks English incredibly well. It is humbling.
We are off to lunch at a restaurant with a view since we realized we haven’t seen Vienna from above yet.
Salzburg and Vienna both have pedestrian zones in their city centers. I love the idea and I planned peaceful morning runs in both cities. The heavy traffic came as quite a surprise. Delivery trucks are the primary threat, but many cyclists speed through these unmarked streets as well. In Salzburg, they have these “bollards” that block entry to the zone.
Police and emergency vehicles can enter, of course. Local residents have a code they can use to get to their parking spaces in the zone. Taxis have the code, too. So who’s not able to enter? I thought maybe a tourist with a rental car wouldn’t be able to, but they just get the code from their hotel. If the only point is to discourage through traffic, maybe some speed bumps would be a simpler, and more honest, answer.
When we choose a trip destination, the food is a critical part of the decision. We like to eat! During a month-long adventure, even with eating in our apartment twice per day, there are a lot of restaurants. When we went to Italy, we ate Italian food (maybe just food?) almost exclusively for 6 weeks. And we did not really tire of it.
Vienna is a whole different ball game. First, Vienna is a much more diverse city than either Rome or Florence, meaning there is nearly every kind of food we could want. We have seen a lot of Italian, Vietnamese, Middle Eastern and American, which is burgers and BBQ. There are also some Spanish tapas bars, noodle houses and Greek restaurants, the last of which we tried with mixed results (I liked it better than anyone else).
The second difference is that, with the exception of Jim, we do not love the Austrian cuisine. Yes, I appreciate schnitzel and sausage a couple of times per year, but not per week. I do like the “mixed salad” which is one plate with around 4 kinds of salad, including a vinegary cucumber salad, potato salad, cole slaw and something else. The kids like schnitzel and then feel “meated out.” Jim says “I love veal and it’s even better breaded and fried. You would think that would be an American thing, but the Austrians beat us to it.” That said, the food seems to be getting better as we find our way around Austria.
Third, there are certain foods and beverages that are incredible in Vienna: coffee, bread and wine. The coffee on Austrian Airlines was ridiculously good and it has only gotten better from there. The random rolls we buy at our local grocery store, Billa, are often better than what I get in a US bakery. And the white wine, since they don’t really make red in Austria, is crisp, effervescent and inexpensive.
The best Austrian food so far was at Rathauskeller Melk in a town of around 5,000 people. Another blog post can tell the story of how we almost got stuck overnight in the tiny neighboring town of Dürnstein, home to our favorite Grüner Veltliner from Domäne Wachau.
My favorite meal of the trip cost under 13 euros and came from Berliner Doner Wien. Doner kebap is the gyro of Austria. It is a delicious mix of lamb or chicken, with a ton of vegetables, a yogurt-mayo sauce and unexpectedly spicy hot sauce. We have been in Vienna for 8 days and already eaten it twice. Also it is a three minute walk from our apartment.
Tomorrow we head to Salzburg where we have a reservation at St. Peter Stiftskulinarium, the oldest continually operating restaurant in Europe. I am looking forward to seeing what we find there.
When we really miss home food, we bust out our hard found jar of peanut butter for a sandwich. I guess that beats doner kebap as the cheapest sandwich in Vienna.
I take for granted that the weather app built into the iPhone will be accurate, or at least close. Traveling in Europe, not so much. For a week in London, it showed nothing but clear skies, even while it was raining. Perhaps the English have a higher threshold for what they consider “raining.” The app gets data from The Weather Channel, so it’s unlikely that it’s localized to account for cultural norms.
Here in Vienna, it’s the opposite. There are always scary thunderstorm icons on the screen, but the forecast for the week changes radically from hour to hour and storms have been far less frequent than predicted.
I’m not complaining about the weather. It’s supposed to rain in England and the weather in Vienna has been great. Someone should tell the weather app.