Tag Archives: Vienna

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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Filed under Europe on a budget

Off the beaten path in Vienna

I once wrote a post about the weirdest tourist attractions in Europe. Admittedly, I have a taste for those out-of-line sites. Everywhere I go I try to visits those spots away from the public eye, the obscure and bizarre locations that in my view convene the best “feel” of a place, much better than the well-known, well-tramped tourist traps. As of recently, I am greatly assisted in my quest for the strangest places by Spotted By Locals, a website I contribute to myself, writing about my favourite spots in Rotterdam. On my recent trip to Vienna, thanks to Spotted By Locals, I was able to bag not one, but two quite absurd sites into my collection of “Europe’s weirdest”.

It was a conference of geoscientists. Yes, we're nerds and are proud of it.

It was a conference of geoscientists. Yes, we’re nerds and are proud of it.

I was in town for a conference, the 2014 EGU meeting to be specific, and since I can’t spend 5 days straight in dark, hot classrooms, especially when its 25 C outside, I took time off to explore Vienna. Honestly, I wasn’t expecting much. I mean, what’s up with Vienna? On the surface, its a big city, a major European capital with a lot of history and it is supposed to have all it takes to be a coveted destination. But Vienna just doesn’t arouse, fails to excite. You rarely come across bloggers putting Vienna on their must-go list, do you? It has a reason – while Paris is “city of love”, Amsterdam the “city of sin”, Berlin has the whole anarchist vibe going on and London is… well, just London, but what is Vienna? The “city of opera”? Not really the crowd magnet, isn’t it? Actually, Vienna does attract a lot of tourists, but its mostly middle-aged Americans doing fiaker tours and looking utterly ridiculous while at it. Not the backpacker city by any rate.

As I was about to discover, underneath the classy polish, Vienna does have a lot to offer, but its charms are to be found outside the city centre, which is crowded with Russian tourists and impossibly expensive souvenir stores. After an early morning session at the EGU, I took the subway to town for a brief escape to the courtyards of the university. The shaded patios were an excellent shelter from the passionately bright sun and a welcome opportunity to stretch one’s legs. But the best thing was that turning around the corner I bumped into the Narrenturm. Better still – I happened to be there on Wednesday, during its very limited opening hours!

The Narrenturm was probably not the happiest place to be in

The Narrenturm was probably not the happiest place to be in

Built in 1784, the Narrenturm is the first psychiatric hospital in the world. Inside is a museum, dedicated to medical pathologies and its as creepy as can be. The collection is full of the disgusting, the abnormal, the obnoxious cases of everything that can go wrong with a human body. Staffed by medicine students in once-white robes, the completely outdated setup and dusty exhibition are absolutely perfect and I hope they won’t change a thing. Its like walking into a freak-show. The museum-shop sells appropriate souvenirs. I stopped short of getting my daughter a cuddly syphilis doll – I got the amoeba instead.

The next day was a bit cooler and with a slight breeze – ideal for cycling! I rented a bicycle via Vienna’s Citybike scheme and off I was. I had just the right destination reserved for this day – Friedhof der Namenlosen. At this cheery spot the nameless dead people who drowned in the Danube were buried for a 100 years. Since it’s located in an industrial area on the outskirts of Vienna, I expected to find a desolated, deserted spot, and I was absolutely wrong. Of course, first I had to get there. The route was a classic example of the road being at least as important as the goal but I’ll let the photo’s speak for themselves.

When I finally reached the day’s destination, to my big surprise I found a guesthouse annex cafe, named after the Friedhof der Namenlosen, and it was quite busy. I completely forgot that it was the 1st of May, which is a big holiday in Austria (and is completely ignored in the Netherlands), so Tout-Vienna was out there, recreating. In fact, having seen the masses everywhere else later that day, I think the Friedhof was probably the most subdued place in all the city after all. The place itself is not what you’d call “spectacular”, and most graves actually have names on them (I guess the victims were identified afterwards). But if you’re in Vienna and looking for a different kind of connection to the city’s history, visiting this site is a unique experience.

So I did enjoy Vienna after all. Perhaps it just needs a bit of an effort and some time to adjust to the leisurely style and pace of the city. And of course being blessed with wonderful spring weather and great insider tips helps a lot, too. I guess what I’m trying to say is – when travelling, take the time, and appreciate good advice. But mostly – don’t be afraid to step off the beaten path.

Crowds enjoying the 1st of May underneath another of Vienna's weird attractions - the Flakturm

Crowds enjoying the 1st of May underneath another of Vienna’s weird attractions – the Flakturm

The Highlander brewery is a delightful spot away from the crowds

The Highlander brewery is a delightful spot away from the crowds


Filed under cycling, Travel, Work