The initial hassles of a trip to Europe are stressful and this time was even worse. In addition to the visa procedures, getting all the documents, saving up enough money, flight tickets, Youth Hostel membership, etc., I had to make sure I had the slides and data for my talk and that arrangements to pick me from Vienna and back were made. Fascinating though the details of these events are, I'll skip a description because they may not be what you want to read.
After landing at Vienna airport and changing money, I boarded the shuttle to Wien Mitte, the city centre. I had to pay for the shuttle, which meant I had to change money immediately, which in turn meant that the exchange sharks swallowed some of my cash. Changing money is such a big problem that I have devoted a write-up to just that issue. I dislike it when cities place their airports way outside and then fleece arrivals by charging them for transportation. Grumbling away, I made my way to the bus that took me to Wien Mitte. From there I inquired as to the whereabouts of a Youth Hostel and walked the mile or so from Wien Mitte to Lernergausse Straße. The Youth Hostel would open only at 5:30pm, so I had about 3 hours to kill with a somewhat heavy backpack on my back.
Vienna is a city steeped in culture. Perhaps its place in history is most certainly assured by its being the home of some of the most famous musicians of all time. Mozart, born in nearby Salzburg, made Vienna his home. So did Beethoven, Schubert and Haydn. Strauss Senior and Junior lived there for long periods, with the latter composing "Blue Danube", a waltz named after the river that flows on the outskirts of Vienna. Legend has it that when Napolean attacked Vienna, he sent a separate contingent of troops to surround Haydn's house in Vienna to prevent any fighting between the French and Austrians from affecting the composer! Speaking of world conquerors, Adolf Hitler was a struggling painter in Vienna before he became a corporal in the Austrian army and later Nazi leader. Arnold "Conan the Barbarian" Schwarzenegger was Viennese too. Emperor Maximillian and the Hapsburgs ruled from Vienna for about 600 years and encouraged the arts. The Hapsburgs also believed in marrying off their children to other empires, thus ensuring their peace. Marie Antoinette of the guillotine infamy during the French Revolution was a Hapsburg daughter.
Once part of the Austro-Hungarian empire, Vienna was repeatedly attacked by the Turks hundreds of years ago. The Viennese repelled most of the attacks. After one such rout of the Turks, the Viennese discovered a bag of green beans left behind by the invaders. The Viennese roasted the beans, ground them and percolated hot water through the powder, and thus did the Western world discover coffee. Even today, Viennese coffee is considered to be one of the best in the world, and a Viennese roast bean usually means a dark roast that yields strong and flavorful coffee.
Having mused long enough about all this in the hot sun and walking through parts of Vienna, including the little stream that passes as the Danube (this is a side-stream, not the real thing), I headed back towards the YH. An old Austrian gentleman led me in and secured me a room for ATS 70 (12 Austrian Schillings make 1 US$... if you get the right exchange rate). This was pretty cheap accomodation, and moments later I discovered why. Breakfast was not included, nor was cleanliness. The sheets and the floor were dirty, the bedrooms were packed with bunk beds and the shower area was a niche in the wall with a flimsy curtain serving as a fourth wall. One can't really expect much from YHs, so I grinned and signed up for a night. After showering, I took a walk in Vienna.
Vienna looked pretty hep as far as I saw. There were expensive shops, and also streetside restaurants selling (relatively) inexpensive sandwiches. As I walked closer to Wien Mitte, the city became more touristy. The streets were lined with coffee shops and souvenir shops and there were horse carriages offering a ride through Vienna. A circular street surrounds downtown Vienna. All along this street there are monuments to see. At the centre of downtown Vienna is St. Stephansplatz - a square with a church dedicated to St. Stephan. The church is pretty much like every European church I have been to. The square was entirely cobbled so that there was no traffic. In fact a few of the surrounding streets were cobbled too, giving the impression of a huge outdoor mall. The mall was rather touristy, but quaint too. Most Austrians speak some English, so getting around in Vienna was not too much of a problem. For hours I browsed around without doing anything of substance. After a while I decided to try some of the famed coffee and pastry. I breezed into a Konditorei (coffee shop) near the town centre and asked a cute waitress to help me with the coffee selection. She suggested I order the coffee en mélange. This is nothing but an espresso with a dollop of froth on the top. I had some chocolate tart to go along with the coffee. The coffee was good, I must say. Much much better than most of the American stuff I was used to. It cost me a pretty packet, but I discovered that that was because I was ordering from one of the touristy cafes. After downing this cup of extremely strong coffee, I wended my way back to the YH to turn in for the night.
June 10th: At the YH I met two girls who were bored with all the card games they had played. I taught them a new one and exchanged some coins with them. The next day, I showered, packed and checked out, but left my baggage at the YH so I wouldn't have to haul it along till my expected shuttle to the castle. This time around I walked along the circular street surrounding downtown Vienna and saw the city itself. Vienna has a mixture of many architectural styles. I found them all highly ornate and baroque, but I'm no expert on architecture. The City Hall, the Parliament, the Royal Palace and the University of Vienna were located off the street I was on, and I saw them all from the outside. I briefly went into Stadtspark, a park where they have a golden statue of Strauss, Jr. playing the violin. I walked the Orangerie, where Mozart used to compose and play for the royal family. I visited the Burggarten, or the royal garden, which seemed spectacularly uninteresting. In contrast, the Volksgarten, or the common garden was much more colourful. They had roses of many hues that were watered by a sprinkler in the middle. I sat there for a while bathing in the spray and inhaling deeply of the smell of roses that hung in the air.
At 1:30pm I headed back to the YH where I re-discovered to my horror that the place was closed till 5:30pm. Fearing I was going to miss my 3:45 bus shuttle to the castle I helplessly banged on the door. To my surprise, the old gentlemen was in today (or so he said), and I was lucky he was not on the higher floors, and not cleaning (big surprise!). After being scolded by him, I collected my baggage and headed back to Wien Mitte for my shuttle to Burg Lockenhaus, where PADS '97 was held.
On my way to the Castle Lockenhaus, I read up a bit on its history. Also, at our welcome reception we got a a liberal dose of it, so here's some your way. Castle Lockenhaus lies in the Austrian province of Burgenland. Originally, Burgenland was Hungarian, but somewhere along the way Austria captured it. Burg Lockenhaus is one of the many castles in the region. This castle was built in 1492, the same year as Christopher Columbus discovered America (well, West Indies, at least) after setting sail to India - the wrong way. Lockenhaus was the home to the Knight Templars who were religious warriors who lived in the castle. Apparently, they did a good job holding on to the castle because they fended off most of the invaders (I forget who) till they were betrayed by one of their own and slaughtered while in prayer. After that, the castle's already bloody history was reddened further when the Naderztys took over. The worst of the lot was Countess Elizabeth Naderzty who satisfied her bloodlust after her husband's death by putting to death 600 virgins and bathing in their warm blood. She and her cronies used to discuss novel ways of torturing their servants, doubtless over tea and scones. Out of these discussions came unique ideas like impaling and pushing hot coins into the serfs' skins. The serfs for their part deserved the torture because they rather raised hell by screaming when tortured. As a result, the countess used to sew their mouths shut before embarking on some new torture.
Somewhere along the line, the castle became a research spot by hosting conferences like ours. as we sipped champagne and listened to Lockenhaus's gory past, we were comforted by the conference organisers that our fates were likely to be much gentler, unless we exceeded the time limit for our talks. After the reception we received the usual conference material - the proceedings, the agenda, the next conference poster and brochure, etc. What was unique was that we got all of this in a knapsack which also contained a bottle of red wine specially made for this conference! After that we were shown to our rooms and invited for the welcome dinner. The welcome dinner turned out to be a huge binge. We were treated to some wine tasting with the exception that we drank the wines instead of spitting them out. We tried 2 white wines and 2 red wines and liked all of them more and more as dinner progressed. We were served many courses of dinner and, in a trend throughout the conference, the vegetarian fare was as good as or better than the non-vegetarian fare. Burgenland is famous for its wine and its hospitality and as guests, we were treated to the best the region offered. Dinners were always 3-4 hour affairs with entertainment on the side.
For the next 2½ days we were immersed in the conference. Talk followed talk, some boring others not, some long others not. Breakfast and lunch were sumptuous and we were allowed one beer or wine during lunch. The dinners were something else altogether though. On the second night, we feasted like the Knight Templars of old, participating in the Robber Baron dinner. We ate with our fingers on wooden plates and were served on huge trays that were plonked on our tables. Wine was plentiful, of course, and we also got to taste some of the PADS wine. We had a balladeer come over and sing a tale of heroism for us. After that we had someone dressed as Death come and embrace all of us for no particular reason. We were treated to late-night entertainment in the form of movies (I saw Bram Stoker's Dracula much to my discomfort) and more wine. We were taken around the castle and shown the torture room, the dinner room, the festival hall and the ampitheatre that housed a fake guillotine. We listened to a Haydn concert by the Haydn String Quartet. We went into Lockenhaus village and dined there while listening to a Croatian band. We had a PADS run in which I came in a miserable 16th over a 1-kilometre stretch surrounding a pond. Our rooms were well-appointed, just like a hotel. All in all, this was a pretty fun conference. Oh, as an aside, my talk went off very well too.
June 13th: After the conference, Sudhir (my co-author) and Ørjan, a Norwegian guy I met at the conference, took the shuttle back to Wien Mitte. We talked this and that and marvelled at the Austrian countryside. In Vienna, we negotiated the metro system and hung out some more at the town centre drinking beer and chatting around. After that, I had to take the train to Paris where I would meet Rashmi.
After unpacking and showering, Rashmi and decided to wander around in Paris. We walked around the Jardin du Luxembourg (Luxembourg Gardens) and admired flowers there. Unluckily we were caught in a fierce downpour while there, but managed to remain dry. We walked along the Seine and ate at restaurants. Outdoor seating for lunch in Paris is rather strange. The chairs are not opposite each other but side-by-side so that patrons can eat or drink and watch life go by. French coffee was pretty good, but French bread was a bit of a disappointment because it was too crusty. I had discovered the trick to getting free water at restaurants so we could save money on that. We went to the Notre Dame cathedral which was closed again (it was closed when I went there two years ago because I got there too early) because it was too late in the evening.
June 15th: The next day Rashmi and I went to the Louvre. We saw the Mona Lisa, the Venus de Milo, the Crown Jewels and Napolean's rooms, of course, but we also saw a whole lot of other art in the 5 hours we spent on our feet. My second tour of the Louvre was made much more enjoyable by Rashmi's non-stop opinions about every painting and sculpture. After the Louvre, we went to the Notre Dame cathedral, which was open, for a change, and saw it. Notre Dame is yet another typical European church, but much bigger. While we were sitting outside Notre Dame after our tour, we witnessed the Waiter's Race held annually in Paris. In this race, waiters dressed formally in black and white with shoes balance a tray holding a bottle of water and two glasses and race some distance without spilling the tray. On the sides people cheered them as they passed by. Some of the waiters were clearly in it for the fun because they would stop and flirt with some of the women cheering. Some others were very ingenious about the way they stacked up all the stuff on the tray. There were a few waitresses participating too and they got cheered a lot.
Earlier, at the conference I had met Pham, a doctorate student living in Paris. He graciously offered to show me and Rashmi around if we met up in Paris. Rashmi and I took him up on that and met him and Valerie outside Notre Dame. They took us atop the Beauborg from where we got a view of all of Paris brought closer to us by the binoculars Pham thoughtfully brought along. The Beauborg, also called Georges Pompidou Centre, is one ugly building. The outside looks like brightly-coloured scaffolding and the inside houses a museum and a library. Today, the Beauborg is rated higher as a tourist attraction than even the Eiffel Tower. After Beauborg, the four of us walked through Rue St. Michel, a narrow street that houses many cafes and restaurants. Various cuisines were on display here. We continued walking and reached the Latin Quarter, and thence to Rue Mouffetard, another narrow street with many restaurants.
Rue Mouffetard is another favourite dining spot for Parisiens. The cafes are relatively inexpensive, and the food is authentic and tasty. Unfortunately, from our perspective it was going to be an expensive meal because it was dinner and dinner is usually more expensive than lunch. Eventually we found an inexpensive French restaurant that had some vegetarian fare, and yet we paid around $14 per person. Vegetarian food is hard to come by in most of Europe. The Germans like to put sausages into every dish, while the French are fond of their jambon (ham). Rashmi, being vegetarian, was hard-pressed to find suitable eating places, and on a few occasions we had to ask the chef to conjure up something that had no meat. The real problem was the plat, or the main dish, which had to be made specially. Of course, we could order à la carte (off the menu) but that would be more expensive. Hence we would go for the menu (pre-selected courses) which offered smaller variety but were cheaper. If you find the terminology confusing, consider this. In France, the first dish to be set on your table is the entrée, which the Americans call "appetizers". Next, the French would serve you le plat which the Americans call "entrée". Fortunately, both agree on dessert even if they pronounce it differently. For our first formal meal in Paris we had Pham and Valerie help out with the selections and orders. The food was tasty, especially my dessert, but the portions were much smaller than what I have become accustomed to in the United States. After a brief panic situation with the metro (all of which added to our future expertise), Rashmi and I returned to the YH dog-tired.
June 16th: The next day we breakfasted at the YH, since that was included in the charge. After the previous night's dinner, the YH fare seemed even more pathetic. The bread seemed drier, the coffee more disgusting. And the orange juice was probably named solely for its colour. For the day's attractions we decided to visit the Musée d'Orsay. Unfortunately, it being a Monday, that was closed. Next we went to the Bastille. You may remember that the storming of the Bastille on July 14, 1789 marked the beginning of the French Revolution. The revolutionaries stormed to the fort that once existed there, stole the guns and in a grand gesture freed all seven of the prisoners there. Pivotal as the Bastille was to the French Revolution, today the place looks a bit seedy. The only attraction was the Place de la Bastille, a square with a statue. However, the metro station looked attractive with paintings depicting the storming on the wall. We noticed this trend to decorate the subway at many stations. The Louvre station, for example, is an extension of the museum itself with artifacts displayed behind solid glass. The Hotel de Ville station has old photographs and paintings showing the Hotel in its many incarnations.
For lunch Rashmi and I went to Rue St. Michel. This time around we went to another classic French establishment - the créperie. Crepes are flat pancakes (dosas if you will) with stuff in or on them. Mine had jambon, mushrooms and oeuf (egg). After the main course, we ordered dessert crepes. These had ice-cream, liquor, syrups and other stuff. All along, I had been ordering in French since I felt I was capable of it. When the dessert crepe was being ordered, I chose "L'Irlandaise". I maintain that the waitress was new and didn't know her menu well, but Rashmi claims that my accent was so bad that the waitress couldn't catch anything I was saying. When the bill came, we discovered that they had forgotten to add our coffees in which Rashmi interpreted as their way of apologising for laughing so hard at my accent.
After lunch, we went to the celebrated Eiffel Tower. For my second visit to this man-made wonder, we took the elevator right to the topmost level of the Eiffel. As gusty winds chilled us, we saw all of Paris by just walking round a small room. Apparently, Gustav Eiffel (who was Swiss, by the way) used to entertain guests in a chamber right at the top of the tower. Needless to say, the view is just magnifique! We did some more sundry sightseeing around the tower and headed home. By this time we had made a habit of buying groceries from a store and eating in at the YH. Not only was it cheaper by a lot, but we found that wine in grocery stores was really cheap.
June 18th: Our day in Nice was the high point of the tour. There wasn't much sightseeing to do since Nice is such a small town. We did walk through a bit of downtown Nice. However, we were captivated by the beach, as most tourists are. Nice's beaches are rocky, not sandy, so the water is inky-blue. We had clear skies, lovely temperature and great incentive to just laze around on the beach doing nothing. That's exactly what we did for half a day. Briefly I was tempted to put on a parachute and be dragged into the air by a speeding motorboat (others do it too, honest!), but it seemed expensive and lazing around was far more enjoyable. We were very reluctant to leave Nice that night, but we did take the train to Venice. We had the compartment all to ourselves on the train, which was nice because after all that tiring relaxing, we wanted to stretch out and sleep. It was a much-interrupted sleep because an assortment of ticket checkers and passport checkers kept barging in insisting on seeing all sorts of documents.
We inquired about living in a hotel and found that rooms would cost us $100. Since that was well beyond our budget, Rashmi and I settled for a place called Archie's Rooms that tried to be a Youth Hostel. At this rickety building, we got a shared room for £70,000. With the exchange rate being what it was, that woked out to around US$45. This was already more expensive than even Paris. To our consternation, we found the room to be a dump. Apparently, Archie's Rooms were bombed in the second World War, and the rooms showed it even now. The entrance to the room was a cramped passage, the beds were dirty, the sheets dirtier and the service rude. Two of the windows in our rooms were sealed shut with the warning that we should not open them for fear of... cancer! The third window was open, but there was a notice pasted on the door that we should shut it otherwise mosquitoes would enter. Also, we were warned not to sit on window ledges because the ledges held the "small-red-bug" that was carried by pigeons. The last straw was when we were told that we would have to pay for hot water whenever we wanted a shower. We had to pay £1500, or aproximately $1 to get 5 minutes of hot water for a shower. This too, only between 8am and 10am in the mornings. If you missed that time, tough luck. On our first day there, we had in fact, missed the time, and discovered at the risk of hypothermia that paying the money for hot water was a good idea. The bathrooms were in such a mess because the entire hotel had just one working bathroom, and enforced a policy of not flushing the toilet paper down the toilet, but throwing it in a bucket nearby. Needless to say, we heartily recommend not staying at this establishment to anyone.
We had purchased a Venezia Carte at the recommendation of some travel books because the card was worth more than the money spent to acquire it. We found this to be untrue. The card cost £5000 and it did come with a detailed and useful map of Venice, but other than that it was useless. The discounts it offered were at restaurants and stores we would not have frequented at all because their price range was high. In addition, the card didn't give us anything for the boat rides. For that we would have had to purchase another card. Somehow we got the impression that the whole city was out to rip us off. The feeling was accentuated when we discovered that about two-thirds of the city was populated by tourists. Hardly any locals lived in Venice. Everything on display was on as an overpriced quick-sell to tourists.
Take the gondola rides, for instance. The image one has is that this is a romantic ride through the byways of Venice with wavelets softly splashing by and a gondolier softly singing Italian songs of love. That image was shattered by what we saw. True, the gondoliers were dressed in snazzy costumes (that no one else in Venice wore) and boats looked kinda chic (one even had plastic flowers impaled on the prow), but there are so many gondolas in Venice that a gondola ride is an experience in dodging other gondolas. Forget the singing - our only sight of singing in the gondola was the ridiculous spectacle of 3 gondolas each carrying 3 couples going side-by-side with a fat guy in one of them singing to all three of the gondolas with the help of a microphone and louspeakers. Oh, by the way, a gondola ride costs around £100,000 ($65) for a half-hour jaunt. It can go up to twice as much for a one-hour trip. Fat singers extra. And this is in the daylight; we didn't bother to check the night-time rates because we were sure they would be more expensive, er, romantic.
June 20th: The next day Rashmi and I tried to locate a pizzeria that came highly recommended. We had a detailed map of Venice, but still got lost. This is not really surprising since there are no street names in Venice. Rather, on some corners, there are boards with arrows pointing the direction to prominent places. So, in Venice, the way to give directions is to say something to the effect of "Follow the San Marco trail (or the directions to San Marco) till you reach Leonardo Square. Then turn right and follow the canal for a while till you see..." Anyway, we lost ourselves pretty hopelessly and didn't speak much Italian, so we decided to ask at some shop or the other for help. We came across a boutique nearby and reasoned that those people probably spoke English because they had to deal with ummm, expensive cosmetics and stuff. Inside, a kindly old woman met us and directly asked us if we were Indian. Surprised, we said yes, and to our further surprise found that this woman spoke Hindi! So in the unlikely place of a boutique in Venice we got directions to our pizzeria in Hindi.
In Venice, we absolutely had to eat one meal indoors since it was too expensive to eat out. As a result we found grocery stores that sold food cheap and took them to our "hotel" to eat. Also, we discovered a pastry store a bit off the Grande Canal that sold the most heavenly pastry for £1500 ($1 approx.) This pastry shop, which we think is called Café Shakerato, became our favourite shop in Venice. We went there twice daily, each time choosing different pastries to sample. My favourite was one which had custard in a pastry shell topped with marinated strawberries. There were many others we really liked though. Any fond memories of Venice pertain mainly to this little establishment. We tried a famous pizzeria out for lunch one day and found the food to be just okay. In Italy, restaurants follow a despicable practice of charging a cover charge (il coperto) if you just sit at their table. The cover charge is a fixed per person amount of around £2000 whether you eat a seven-course meal or drink just coffee. The cover charge and the 15% gratuity added to every meal can make a seemingly cheap meal burn a hole in your pocket.
The food itself was nothing spectacular. We liked the bread that was served with lunch, but we couldn't order free water in some places. Rashmi had problems finding vegetarian food once again, but managed. She claims that pesto in Venice tastes very different from pesto in the US. For my part, I tried Milanese cutlets (breaded chicken), parsley potatoes, gnocchi and pizza and found all to be just acceptable, not good.
One of Venice's, nay, Europe's most famous sights is Piazza San Marco. It is supposed to be Europe's most famous square. We decided to check it out. To get to San Marco, we had to follow directions to Per Rialto (Rialto Bridge), one of the three bridges that connected Venice's two main islands. Initially, we craned our necks to find the little boards that guided us to Per Rialto, but soon it became unnecessary to make the effort. The mere throng of tourists guided us to our destination. All around the Per Rialto were tourist shops that sold every useless artifact known to humankind. We crossed the bridge and made our way to San Marco. The place teemed with pigeons. Centuries of feeding by humans had made these birds entirely unafraid of humans. If you kicked at them, they merely hopped away instead of displaying the usual response. These pigeons were unattractive rodent lookalikes who carried the mysterious "small-red-bug" that caused diseases in humans. These pigeons literally pestered people to feed them. Often they would take off lazily and crash into people. To top it all, people paid money to feed them. Fleeing San Marco, Rashmi and I took a metro ride, on a boat of course, to make up for skipping the gondola.
June 21st: We checked out of the overpriced rat-hole we lived in, ate some more pastries and made our way to the train station. From there, I took a train to Vienna and from there flew out to the US, while Rashmi made an impulse decision to spend a few hours in Florence. We met again at Dulles airport, left with photographs and memories of a great trip through Europe.