Tag Archives: Austria

Leaving Austria – a tale of a lucky hitchhike

Way back in 2008, when I was a penniless student, I was finishing my semester in Zurich when I got a call from Kristian (who already featured in an earlier post about London). He asked if he could come visit me in Zurich and whether I’d be interested in a little side trip together. Needless to say I was.

You might recall that in 2008 the European football championship was played in Switzerland and Austria. Not that we had tickets but since we were around, we were planning on enjoying the sphere. By the time Kristian joined me in Zurich the semifinals were being played. After spending a couple of days in Zurich I’ve done the last arrangements, packed the rest of my gear and off we went to Vienna on a most spectacular 8-hour train journey through the Alps, to experience the city during the final match between Spain and Germany.

The closest we got to the actual match

The closest we got to the actual match

In Vienna we, much appropriately for two poor students, arranged a place via Couchsurfing with a lovely local couple who were binging on couch surfers, so the house was swarming with guests. A couple of days partying at crazy birthdays, a bit of mischief in the local museums and pestering the losing Germans flew by and it was really time to get back to our base at the Netherlands. Have I mentioned we were poor? We could however afford to spend a bit more time on the journey back and were both in an adventurous mood so we decided to hitchhike. Getting out of Vienna and onto the highway proved in hindsight the most treacherous part of the trip. We probably should have started hitchhiking on the closest petrol station in town. Instead we took the metro to a place near the highway and spent a half an hour searching our way through the fields in an effort to get to the highway petrol station and really start the journey home.

Not the right way to hitchhike

Needless to say, this is not how we were hitchhiking – this is just for the show.

We’ve had an early start, which was a very good thing. It was July and it turned out to be one of the hottest days of the year. By the time we were in position, it was almost nine and already quite hot. Within a mere half an hour I approached a Saab with Dutch number plates and struck a conversation. The guy was friendly enough to offer us a ride but at he explained in the car, he was only going as far as Passau, at the Austrian-German border. He was after all already driving for a while – he was working in some import-export firm in the Netherlands and they’ve had a misunderstanding with Austrian customer. Having failed to clear the misunderstanding over the phone the previous day, he jumped into his car after working hours, drove all the way to Vienna, was there at 7, had a meeting until 9, and was now on his way back to Eindhoven. He was (before he met us) realistic and planned to stop at Passau to get some sleep.

We quickly realized it was a golden opportunity. And we did our best to keep our luck awake, pouring coffee into him at every stop and keeping him entertained by small talk. Passau was passed, then Nuremberg, then Würzburg, and we were still driving. The dude was, in fact, also anxious to get home. It was the last day of school, and his eldest child was graduating from primary school (can you graduate from primary school?). The traditional school play was set due in the evening and he reckoned he could be there at least for the second act. Naturally, we encouraged the idea and as the hours went by we were pretty certain we’d get there.

The Saab clicked through the kilometres, and thank God it was a Saab – the comfy seats, the powerful airco and the reliable engine really got us through the day. By noon it was 38 degrees and the asphalt was melting. Every pit stop we made meant spending as little time as possible out of the car, as even a couple of minutes in the relentless sun would give you a heat stroke. The evening rush hour was rather brutal on less reliable cars, and dozens of overheated car lined the sides of the Autobahn.

As we were coming to the Dutch border, massive storm clouds were gathering as common in Europe on such overheated days. Just as we passed Venlo, all hell broke loose in some of the biggest thunderstorms I have ever seen. We blessed ourselves again with our ride, as the news on the radio mentioned countless train routes out of order due to lightning strikes. From Eindhoven it was quite simple – the storm has passed, cooling down the intense heat, and we had an otherwise uneventful train journey back to Delft. And there we were – having hitchhiked in a single day and with a single lucky ride a whooping 1100 kilometres! And if that’s not a promo piece of the joys of hitchhiking, I don’t know what is.

Vienna to Delft

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A bite of classical Europe – the former Austria-Hungarian Empire

Europe is littered with broken empires. Whole of Scandinavia was once the Swedish Empire, the French Empire at the peak of Napoleon’s power controlled most of Western Europe, the Balkan used to belong to the Ottoman Empire, Russian (and later Soviet) rule has left its mark on Eastern Europe and traces of the Roman Empire are all over the place. Like Atlantis, the ruins of these empires are mostly under the surface, with bits of wreckage sticking out here and there. Sometimes they are in full view, like the Colosseum, at other times the old empires are visible only to those who know where to look, like that mosque in Thessaloniki that now disguises itself as a cinema. Of all the lost empires of Europe, I think that the most imperial is the Austria-Hungarian Empire, who’s leftovers are distributed among no less than 13 countries.

  • Why go there?
    The legacy of the Austria-Hungarian Empire is the best preserved one. Part of it has to do with the timing – it “lived” quite recently, in the late 19th to early 20th century. This was, of course, the Victorian era, the golden age of Empires, the time of the great balls and fluffy dresses. Another reason for the state of conservation of the Austrian-Hungarian heritage is the relatively peaceful disappearance of the empire. Unlike the Russian Empire, which pretty much exploded, or the British Empire, that imploded, the Austria-Hungarian Empire sort of dissolved, leaving the balls, castles and fluffy dresses intact.
  • What’s it best for?
    THE destination for classic Europe seekers. Mozart, Kafka, Freud, castles, balls, more castles, operas, carriages, its all here. The image of Austria-Hungarian Empire as the most classical of Empires is confirmed by the Sissi trilogy, movies that came to be synonimous with stiff court life in the capital of a grand Empire.
  • When is the best time to go?
    Probably during the shoulder season of September-October. The continental climate can make the summer months unbearably hot here. Christmas season is also quite special in these traditional parts.
  • How to get around?
    Easiest by train. The connections are excellent, distances are mild and the views are spectacular.
  • Why is it best to avoid?
    If you can’t handle diversity – steer clear. This is a region not united by a single language, religion or cuisine, and I can imagine some people being less enthusiast about a change in language and food in every new town.
  • Where to go if you just have one week?
    Its a bit hard to choose, but I’d still go for Vienna. In a region famous for its classics, the old imperial capital has the most class. Plus its only a couple of hours away from the other capitals – Budapest, Prague and Bratislava are all within reach for a day tour.

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The Alps – bite this!

It doesn’t get much more European than the Alps. The great mountain range pretty much defines Europe, stretching over 1200 kilometers and 8 countries, large and small. Careful here – it’s one bite-sized region you may not want to leave.

  • Why go there?
    The Alps have been developed for tourism for the past two centuries and are now filled to the rim with all a tourist can wish for. I mean, seriously, do I need to promote going to the Alps? They are big and diverse though, so don’t underestimate the undertaking of “going to see the Alps”. Its a bit like “going to Europe”. Just cooler.
  • What’s it best for?
    The place to be for a serious adrenaline junkie. If it’s extreme – you can do it here.
  • When is the best time to go?
    Any time. With the amount of tourism infrastructure, you’re guaranteed to have a good time in any season. My favourite time here is May and June, when the mountain pastures are blossoming.
  • How to get around?
    The train network of the Alps is famous for a reason. Use it.
  • Why is it best to avoid?
    Can be pricey. Avoiding Switzerland can help a lot though.
  • Where to go if you just have one week?
    Well, as I said, Switzerland is pricey. But you get serious quality for your money. Just choose a canton or a valley and stay there – the train prices are a real joy-killer.

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