Monday, March 31, 2014

Backpacking through Europe -- Day 4 (morning only)

One line from my journal entry for February 17 perfectly sums up day 4 of my journey: "A heavenly day in every way -- I love Wien!"

Yes, day 4 found me disembarking an overnight train and arriving at 6:15 at the train station in Wien (Vienna). What a difference a day makes! I wandered to the main area of the train station and found several large seating areas with 30-40 tables (with 4 chairs each) in each area. Welcoming the opportunity to get my bearings and check my map to find the best route to walk to my hotel, I shrugged off my backpack and sank into a chair in one of the seating areas. No sooner had I sat down than a lady with a cleaning cart arrived; the four other men in the area quickly gathered their things and left, and I began doing the same. The lady smiled at me and indicated that I should/could stay. Ahhh . . . I'd been in Vienna less than 5 minutes and had already received a welcoming smile!

After a short rest, I walked the 5 or so minutes to the hotel, where I got another more-than-pleasant surprise. It wasn't even 7 a.m. yet, so I knew I was arriving over 7 hours before check-in, but I hoped to be able to drop off my backpack and return later. As soon as I walked into the spacious, well-lit hotel lobby, I was met by 3 smiling young men and women working at the front desk. When I explained that I had a reservation but knew it was too early to check in but had just arrived, one of the young men smilingly assured me that "madame is welcome to check into her room now" (at no charge) and "rest before venturing out for the day". He also pointed out that the breakfast buffet (free, which is not necessarily the norm in Europe) was still being served and offered to hold my backpack at the front desk while I went to eat. Wow!

I enjoyed a wonderful breakfast, settled into my room and even took a short nap, and then returned to the front desk to get a map of Vienna and to figure out how to get to the first site on my walking tour. A different, equally-pleasant and polite young desk clerk gave me the map, showed me how to get to my starting point, and then offered a suggestion that I add to my itinerary a visit to a group of buildings that have become very popular with tourists. He showed me how I could add it to the end of my walking tour and end up very close to the hotel. Armed with a (free) underground day pass that would take me to my first stop (which was quite a distance from the hotel), I set out to explore Vienna.

My encounters with delightful people continued after I walked to the underground station, validated my ticket, and boarded what the desk clerk had informed me was "just the train for madame" (aka me). Almost immediately, a tiny elderly woman sat across from me and began speaking to me in (I assume) German. I responded that I spoke only English; her smile grew even larger, and she continued to talk to me, but she slowed her speech and spoke louder, as if I could somehow follow her if I could just hear her better. I didn't have a clue what she was saying, of course, but I smiled and nodded. Heaven only knows what I was happily agreeing to! When we both rose to get off the underground at the same time, she laid her hand on my arm and led me off the train; on the platform, she began asking me questions and showed me an appointment card. I could tell she was asking for help, so I looked around and found a pleasant-looking younger person who I hoped would speak both English and German. I got lucky. The young lady spoke both, and when I explained the situation, she thanked me for helping the elderly lady and then explained both in German and in English where the lady needed to go. My new friend (the elderly lady) and I exited up to street level, she gently holding on to my arm, and I walked with her the 2 short blocks to her destination. She reached up and patted my face, said something in German, and entered the building, glancing back to smile and wave at the door. I hated to leave her; for a moment I felt as if I should come back and pick her up later!

I retraced my steps the 2 blocks to where we had exited the underground and stood outside my first stop, the stunning Stephansdom (St. Stephen's Cathedral), one of the tallest cathedrals in all of Europe and home to many of the most important events in Viennese history (according to my notes). Located in the Stephansplatz, the square at the geographical center (again, according to my notes) of Vienna, the cathedral dominates the area, and I stood for a few minutes snapping pictures and watching the bustle of people around me. I entered the church and paid a small fee (a few Euros) to visit via elevator the top of the south tower of the Cathedral. At 445' tall, I had read it would provide a wonderful panoramic view of the city, and it did. Fortunately, the sun was shining, and I was able to get some wonderful pictures of Vienna from each side of the tower.

Eventually, though, I returned to street level and walked to the Ringstrasse (the Ring Road), a wide thoroughfare that circles   the Innere Stadt district (the Old Town). The Ringstrasse was built in 1857 by order of Franz Jospeh I, who ordered that the original city walls (built in the 1300's) and moats be demolished and a road built in their place. The Ringstrasse is considered a landmark, and every guide I consulted before my visit suggested walking its entire distance to see the high points of Vienna, so that was my plan.

Goodness, but this entry is incredibly long, and I haven't even arrived at my first start on the Ringstrasse! I hope you'll join me as I continue my day in Vienna in my next post.

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