Thursday, June 29, 2017

Vienna to Vaduz

We've now gone almost 600 km along the Danube by bike, covered in the past two blog entries.  In today's entry we will mostly be on foot in Vienna, then by train to Feldkirch Austria, from whence we biked all of 20 km to the capital of Liechtenstein, Vaduz.

We had originally planned on three nights in Vienna but got 2 days ahead of our tentative schedule so extended that to five nights.  There was plenty to see, and there's plenty more should we find the opportunity to return.

Our first day took us to Schönbrunn Palace and its extensive grounds.  The Palace was intended by the Habsburgs to one day rival Versailles, but they never had quite as much money, or perhaps the same ability to squeeze their subjects dry, as the Bourbon dynasty possessed.  Nonetheless, it is indeed an enormous and impressive place.  Unlike most tourists who come in the front way and BAM, there it is in all its enormity, we did a walk through the adjacent neighborhood and then arrived from the back of the palace's park and watched the palace get closer and closer, until you finally comprehended just how large it was when people stopped being mere dots in the distance.  We did go in and take the tour, but no photos allowed.  It was, rest assured, quite elegant.

The next day the agenda was a walk in the heart of town, past a variety of places such as St. Stephen's Cathedral, which is mid-way through a much-needed steam cleaning of its beautiful stonework exterior.  On a quiet alley nearby was the Mozart House, actually one of many places he lived in while in Vienna.  It's allegedly the one he was happiest in, and the one where he composed The Marriage of Figaro.  There is a wonderful statue of Mozart we put in our blog in May 2013 when we last visited Vienna, so this time we instead checked out the statues of two other musicians intimately connected with the city, Johann Strauss Jr. and Ludvig van Beethoven.

In case you're wondering, the figures around the base of the Beethoven statue are inspired  by the last movement of the 9th Symphony, the Ode to Joy.

We dropped into the Jesuit Church to admire its ornate interior.  But what you see is not necessarily what you actually see.  Those marvelous marble columns?  They're painted stone. 

Look up at that magnificent dome while standing a few rows from the back.  Not likely you'll turn around to look at it again when you get to the front of the church, but if you were to do so, you'd see that it looks quite odd.  That's because it's not a dome at all, but a trompe l'oeil ('fool the eye') illusion of a dome that has been painted on a simple cylindrical ceiling, and meant to be glanced at only as one enters the church.

Quite the opposite approach motivated Otto Wagner when he designed the Postal Savings Bank in 1904, just a block away.  What you saw was exactly what you got, including unadorned light bulb holders hanging out from metal posts, and metallic air vents throughout the lobby.  The term HVAC hadn't been invented yet, but Mr. Wagner was way ahead of his time on the HV part of it.  Also note how light-filled the lobby was, and how the glass tiles in the floor brought that wealth of light to the floor below.  Quite an interesting building.

Finally, as we walked the great city the Austrians call Wien, we of course had to have a lunch of Wieners.  Served Austrian style -- you pick them up with your fingers and dip them in mustard.  If that seems a little odd to American sensibilities, is it any less odd to pick one up with your fingers when it's encased in a (generally tasteless) bun?  And what about that bun sitting next to these Wieners?  Well it's meant to be eaten, for sure, but I doubt you'll ever get your Wieners to fit inside of one.  You just munch on it from time to time.

Our final major destination was the Kunsthistorisches Museum, filled with items from antiquity through the Old Masters.  The Egyptian collection was especially impressive.  The collection of mummies and mummy cases was one of the largest we've seen, and included all sorts of styles from the simplest to the most complex.  The sacred Ibis was quite elegant, and the papyrus scroll pretty amazing.  It's from about 200 BC, and gives elaborate instructions on how to properly mummify a sacred ox.  Now that's the sort of recipe you want to be sure not to misplace!

In a category of its own was this model of a gold and silver mine created by Slovakian miners and presented to the Emperor in 1764.  It illustrates the use of an early type of steam engine to pump water out of the mine.

The building was also one of a kind.  At times it rivaled the artwork within.  And in the largest atrium, at the top of the stairs, the building and artwork became one in the form of mural paintings by Gustav Klimt.

The collection did not include our favorite period, the late 19th century, so we settled for our second-favorite, the Dutch Masters, plus one special painting by the Italian Canaletto that showed Schönbrunn Palace as it appeared in circa 1760, when it was considered to be well out in the country (it's now only a few stops from the heart of town on the U4 subway line).

As for the Dutch Masters, there was no shortage of interesting works.  For example, here are two very different ones by Pieter Breugel the Elder, the first a peasant dance and the second an almost encyclopedic depiction by 230 children of 83 different children's games from the 1560s.

Yet another work by this remarkable painter has to be looked at very, very closely to fully appreciate his craftsmanship.  This is one of several iterations he painted of the Tower of Babel.  Just look at the detailed view we get of late medieval construction techniques!  If you look closely at that black wheel, there are two workmen inside walking like gerbils in a gerbil wheel, working to lift the stone that is suspended below the device.  Keep in mind too that the painting is large but not enormous, and the odds are high that these close-ups are way larger on your computer screen than they are in the painting itself.

The museum is also the owner of one of the only 39 paintings known to exist by Johannes Vermeer, every one of them a priceless masterpiece for their ability to capture a moment and to render it in perfect three-dimensional perspective.  The is one of the more well-known ones, The Art of Painting.

Finally, with a trip to England coming up, we were drawn to this portrait of Katherine of Aragon by a little-known Estonian artist, Michiel Sittow, and to another of Jane Seymour by the well-known German who became court painter to Henry VIII, Hans Holbein the Younger.

It was now time to move on, this time by train.  We rode our tandem about a kilometer to the Hauptbahnhof Wien, where there were thankfully elevators that were long enough for our tandem to fit without taking off the panniers and holding the front up in the air (as we had to do to get to and from the two trains we took a week earlier).  Actually getting the bike to fit in the bike area on the train was another matter.  It was clearly not designed with tandems in mind.  Since we could not stand our bike up vertically, we used a bungee cord to hold it upright across the aisle.  Luckily this was the front of the front car on the train, so passengers were able to avoid this unfortunate tight spot by using the back door of the car.  Luckily too, we took the train to its last stop so did not have a frantic rush getting the bike off at the end.

Our trip took us pretty much the length of Austria, from Vienna (Wien) to Feldkirch, which is the unnamed stop on the map between Innsbruck and Zurich.  It is only a few kilometers from there into either Switzerland or Liechtenstein, both of which were on our agenda.

The scenery along the way was spectacular.  Here are a few shots of the Inn River and its valley, on the way to Innsbruck, then of the equally impressive mountains in Voralberg Province, the westernmost part of Austria adjacent to Switzerland.

There may have been a time we could have biked through an area like this, but boy, that train has left the station!  We were very happy indeed that Feldkirch is in a fairly flat area close to the Rhine.

Feldkirch was also a great choice of where to hop off.  The town itself is largely off the tourist grid but attractive in a low-key way, complete with a decent town square, a local castle that is seemingly still lived in given the flowerboxes, and a chilly glacial river racing through town with a velocity that is simply not capturable with only a still photograph.

The best thing about Feldkirch, however, was that it was only a hop, skip and jump from there to Liechtenstein.  There are no guidebooks on how to do this, but has terrific maps of all Europe showing national, regional and local bike routes.  Jeff printed off a few pages at home last month by taking screen shots on the computer and pasting them into a printable Word document, and the route out of Feldkirch turned out to be easy to follow and fun to ride.  In less than 20 km we had crossed into Liechtenstein and made it to the capital city of Vaduz.  Of course, if you cross into Liechtenstein anywhere within the country, you have almost made it to the capital city of Vaduz.  At 160 sq. km., Liechtenstein is about the size of Brooklyn NY with a few blocks removed.  Oh, yes, and with a mountain rising up about 7,200 feet, or six Empire State Buildings, in the middle.

We pedaled up a low rise, not even in our lowest grear, rounded a bend, and then Whoa!  Yeah, Switzerland and Liechtenstein will do that to you.  All the rest of the way into Vaduz we were on flat roads admiring unflat landscape all around us.

Then, less than 20 easy km from Feldkirch, we stopped the bike for a photo.  We were within a km of "downtown" Vaduz, and high above us was Schloss Vaduz, home of Hans-Adam II, the current Prince of Liechtenstein.  In the heart of Vaduz we stopped to take one other photo in front of an impressive government building, and there's Schloss Vaduz again, way up on the mountain above town.  Now that is one impressive location!

Liechtenstein is on the upper Rhine River, and in our next blog we'll head down the Rhine to Lake Constance, aka the Bodensee, and then ride almost 360 degrees around it.

Wednesday, June 21, 2017

Closing Our "Missing Link" on the Danube

In our last post we took you 240 km from the source of the Danube, in or around Donaueschingen, to the city of Ulm.  Last year we rode from Ulm to Passau and beyond, and found that section interesting but not quite interesting enough to repeat, so we hopped on a train to bypass it.  However there were two doctors we wanted to meet midway, in Regensburg.  No, nothing wrong with us, but the two doctors are the son and daughter-in-law of our German friends Rainer and Brigitte, with whom we rode for a few days last year on the Elbe, and with whom we will ride again in a few weeks when we are on the Rhine.  We had been invited to lunch at the home of Stefan and Sabine, a special treat for us as we almost never have home-cooked food for lunch.  Just as good as the cuisine was the conversation, in which we learned much about life in Germany and about practicing medicine in Germany from them.  We would have liked to have gotten to know their two-year-old daughter Helene better, but she is at one of those super-shy stages, so we will just have to come back some day.

It was also a chance to stay for a second time at the very pleasant hotel we stayed at last year, the Muenchner Hof, down this narrow alley, and to explore the town again as well.  This time we mostly wandered about, looking for interesting odds and ends, such as this massive bit of artwork on a building around the corner from our hotel, or those stony faces nearby.  We also encountered a surprising plaque on yet another building on the same street, telling us that Oskar Schindler and his wife, of Schindler's List fame, lived there for a time after the war.

We also used our train stopover in Regensburg to return to a bike shop we had been to last year, when we were in need of new tires.  It has got to be the largest bike shop we have EVER been in.  The photo only shows you about half of the store!  While it didn't have the exact tires we wanted last year, it had the next-best choice.  This time around it had exactly what Louise needed, new bike shorts to replace ones she had purchased just before we left Seattle, without trying them on first since it was a brand and style she had been using for years.  Ooops, they changed the design!  Don't you hate that when that happens to you?  Take it from us, it's even more frustrating when you discover this several thousand miles from home!

We crossed the Danube on the train just before arriving in Regensburg, and it's still not overly large.  Nonetheless, the bridge that was built there in the mid-1100s was a major engineering feat, and the only bridge over the Danube between Ulm and Vienna for centuries.  Not surprisingly, it made Regensburg a major focal point of trade between southern and northern Europe, and consequently a wealthy place.

The bridge was being renovated last summer, and the renovations have progressed but are still not complete, as you can see on the left of the photo.  The banks of the Danube are popular below the bridge for many tour boats and also river cruise ships.  Above the bridge it was mostly just folks hangin' out, including a clatch of hookah enthusiasts.

Courtesy of the two 2-hour train trips, we had managed a quick look again at the Ulm minster, an evening poking around Regensburg, a morning poking around some more, then lunch with friends in Regensburg and dinner once again by ourselves in Passau.  Sounds busy, but not really.  We even had time and energy thanks to all that relaxing on the train to take an evening walk around Passau, which we had explored more extensively last year.   Highlights were a lone river cruise ship on the Danube and, around the corner, a castle tower on the Inn River, which joins the Danube here.  And a block away, Louise is showing us just how high the flood waters got in 2013 when we had to skip our plans to bike here -- it's the mark high up the wall next to the window, maybe another 4m/12 feet above her hand!  We would have needed that mini-submarine pictured in our last blog entry, in place of our tandem!

Come Monday morning, we were ready to begin our 335 km bike ride to Vienna.  We were not alone.  This is reputedly the most popular bike route in Europe, and we saw large groups with obvious rental bikes and/or panniers with the name of this bike tour company or that.  In Passau the night before we had in fact seen a dozen and a half bikes and their luggage van from an American outfit, Vermont Bicycle Touring!  Louise actually did a trip with them over 20 years ago, in Vermont no less, before meeting up with and marrying her personal bike tour planner.

The routine for a large proportion of these bike tourists is to arrive in the evening and get fitted to a rental bike, have a group dinner, and set out the next morning for the first of seven days of cycling, rain or shine.  The pluses are the arranged lodging, breakfasts and dinners and the carriage of your luggage, plus instructions on where to turn right or left and what to see.  The distance is quite manageable, an average of less than 50 km/30 mi. per day, particularly given the fact that the route is almost totally flat and well-paved.  As with most bike touring, there are those who go at their own pace either alone or in groups of 2 or 3, and those who go as part of a herd, such as a line of 20+ cyclists who came whizzing by in the opposite direction one day, or the bicycle ferry filled with bikes all bearing the same tour company name.  And, yes, you can easily go in either direction.  It's not exactly "uphill" going westbound since the elevation change is minimal, and the wind is not always out of the west, even though that is somewhat more common.  But given the chance to end your special week of biking in a charming small city or in a major, magical metropolis, it's a tough choice but still no wonder that the vast majority of cyclists head eastwards, as we did, ending in Vienna.

Since we had ridden the first 2/3 of these 335 km last summer, we spent a little less time on sightseeing and more on just enjoying being out in this gorgeous scenery.  We also decided to cover the distance in 6 days of biking, helped along in this decision by six days of dry weather in the high 70s and low 80s (~25-29 C).  Anyone who has stumbled onto our blog for the first time who would like to see more detail from last summer's trip is invited to check out last summer's blog episode for this section at, where you will see photos and commentary about some very special places, such as the Celtic museum, that we passed by this time around.

We had a sunny sendoff from Passau, and the houses along the Danube across from town shone in the morning sun.  The sign of a good start, yes?

For all but a few kilometers, you can choose to ride on the north (left) or south (right) bank.  The main considerations are the towns you go through -- which group of places look more interesting -- and how close or not you are to traffic.  There are several bridges where you can switch from one side to the other, and also 5 or 6 dams.  We crossed at one dam where we could actually bike across easily, but at least one other warned cyclists that they would have 90 steps to deal with if they really wanted to cross there.  We didn't, but Jeff ran up to check out the view and take this shot of a barge going through the locks adjacent to the dam.

Whichever side you are on, you will see castles.  However, it often turns out you can't really see them well without breaking out the binoculars or the telescopic lens on the camera.

We did get up close and personal with one castle, but before we got there we got a taste of a how the Austrians celebrate the state holiday of Corpus Christi.  We were in the small city of Grein when the Stadtkapelle, or town band, marched past our window at 6 a.m., then returned an hour later after waking up every other person in town.  (These folks were quite good, but they were NOT quiet).

They then headed over to the city center, where all the town officials and many of the town's citizens were gathered for a Roman Catholic mass in front of City Hall.  The photo just above was taken the prior afternoon of the square in front of City Hall, and that's just where they were.  Separation of church and state, you ask?  What's that?  Not in Austria!

Most of the town band stayed on to provide the musical accompaniment to the hymns, but these two fellows snuck away.  Perhaps they were in the percussion section -- not too much need for them for that sort of music.  Jeff came around quietly behind the congregation in the town square to observe and to take a shot of the colorful hats a small contingent of women were wearing for this festive occasion.  We had observed in our last time in Austria as well that the locals really do love to get dressed up for special occasions like this.

We had spent the night in Grein last year, and you will find some lovely photos of the place in last year's blog entry.  But we had failed on that occasion to visit one of Grein's claims to fame, the oldest public theater in Austria.  There had been theaters created in the occasional palace or castle, but not one in the heart of a city that ordinary folks could go to.  But in 1791 the city fathers converted one section of city hall into just that.  It has several interesting features, but first let's take a look inside.

That curtain is one of those special things about the theater.  It depicts Grein in 1791, and it still rolls up for performances to begin.  Plays are still put on several times a year by a local community theater group, and the costume and prop shop is open to check out.  Which Louise did.

The creators of the theater knew they needed steady customers, and figured out how to sell season tickets.  The best seats in the house -- center, first several rows -- could be purchased for the season.  But rather than print up tickets, they gave you a key!  When you arrived, you put the key in the back of the chair and released the seat.  After the performance, you raised the seat and locked it.

Plays can be long and folks sometimes need a rest room.  Their solution here was equally unusual, and not nearly so wonderful.  They installed a loo behind a curtain right on the side of the auditorium.  You could use it during a play and not miss any of the performance.  The playgoers nearby would likewise not miss any of your own performance.

Our next day was a long one, 77 km, but it brought us into the Wachau valley, full of castle ruins and vineyards climbing up the steep hills, particularly on the south-facing left bank.

The crown jewel of the Wachau is the town of Dürnstein and the ruins of Castle Dürnstein looming above it.  This is where Richard the Lionhearted spent many lonely months in captivity, held for vengeance and for ransom by Duke Leopold V as Richard was making his way back to England from the Crusades.  Seems Leopold had been "dissed" by Richard at the time of the conquest of Acre in the Holy Land, and Leopold saw this as a chance to get back at Richard and make some money on the side.  Alas, the Pope excommunicated Leopold and, not long after, he fell off his horse and died.

We took the ferry across the Danube to spend the night at a comfortable hotel in the town with greenery and ancient ruins right outside our hotel room.  After supper we checked out the city walls and looked up at the fortress.  In the morning Jeff would scale its heights.  Alas for Louise, she is nursing a sore knee and did not want to risk hurting it further and putting our hiking plans for England in a tenuous situation.  Probably a good idea, as the climb was quite vigorous.

Right after breakfast, Jeff was on his way.  It WAS steep, but the total climb wasn't long, only about 100m/325 feet above the town, which is 20m+ above the river.  It didn't take much time, just energy, before Jeff was well above both.

After 25 minutes of climbing and pausing for photos and catching one's breath, he discovered three things:  that he was near the top, that there was an alternative way down, and that the alternative way had no steps or rocks to maneuver over (or so said a fellow who had just come up that way).  The adventure was looking better and better.  It was also elucidated by a series of signs explaining why Richard happened to be imprisoned here, and what became of the various players in that drama.  Yes, that is Robin Hood, as Hollywood envisioned him in the 1930s,  on one of the signs.  Why, you ask?  Because the legend of Robin Hood arose out of stories which alleged that John Lackland, Richard's younger brother and his regent while he was away on the Crusades (and then imprisoned here at Dürnstein) had become a tyrant.  There is no proof Robin Hood ever actually existed, but an avenging do-gooder always makes for a compelling story.

A sign shows what the castle probably looked like in its heyday.  There's not much of it any more after a few centuries of neglect, but the views are quite wonderful from up there, looking both upstream (the photo with the boat) and down.

Jeff was back down in time for us to be out of our hotel room by the 11 am deadline, and off we went, not following the crowds down to their river cruise boats, but rather following the Danube Bike Route signs and our guidebook to much less crowded scenes, such as these city streets that took us through Krems an der Donau, and the quiet country roads that swung below the massive Göttweig Abbey.

And then, the next day, we were in Vienna, beautiful Vienna.  We'll do a short blog soon to show you some of the sights we saw during our 5-night stay, plus a few more shots we suspect of our train trip from one end of Austria to the other as we move on to the Rhine River.  No, the Rhine does not go through Austria, but it does get very close  --  less than 10 km  --  to Feldkirch Austria, and that is where we head tomorrow morning on Railjet train #162.