Thursday, December 10, 2009

Tschuess to Oesterreich!

Hello Everyone!
Well, the adventure is almost over. This past week has been extremely busy as I've been studying and taking finals, giving presentations, saying good-byes and packing left and right! Tomorrow I catch a train to Munich, and fly out of the Munich Airport to Washington D.C. From their it's just a hop, skip and a jump to Maine! Yippee! Thank you so much for reading and making comments throughout the trip-making this blog has been really fun, and I've really enjoyed writing about and sharing my stories with you guys! I can't wait to see you all Stateside.

Thursday, December 3, 2009

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Vienna Field Trip!

Here is the Vienna Blog! Sorry about the delay-it's been a busy week!

We set out from Salzburg at 8:45 Friday morning, and then proceeded to our first and most sobering stop-the Mauthausen Concentration Camp. Mauthausen was a labor camp, mostly for Russian prisoners of war who worked in the quarry, extracting granite for Hitler's grandiose architecture. One February night, three months before the war was over, many of the prisoners launched an escape, and then were hunted down and gruesomely killed by the Nazis and villagers of the area. Out of the hundreds who escaped, only six survived. It was an extremely eerie place, and I just felt like I was surrounded by death the entire time I was there. We learned in detail about all the terrible ways that the camp's victims were treated, which went beyond anything that you could imagine and that I'm not going to go into detail about here. Even though I had been dreading it though, at the end our tour guide (a young guy doing it as civil service in exchange for serving in the army) turned it into a more inspiring experience, by pointing out that even though it is important to remember the atrocities of World War II, it is perhaps more important to prevent these sort of things from occurring now, and taking action against them when they do (Sudan, anyone?). On the whole it was quite bizarre, but I really learned a lot from it. Not exactly the most cheerful way to spend a morning in Austria, though.

We arrived in Vienna later that afternoon, after a beautiful ride through the country side. We checked into our hotel, and then some of us headed out to a Heuriger for dinner. A Heuriger is a traditional Austrian restaurant that owns it's own vineyard. They serve their own wine, which is very special and they serve the new wine every year. Typically you find a Heuriger in the country next to the vineyard, but in this case the Stadt (city) Heuriger was apart from it's farm. The food was pretty good-I got fried mushrooms, which were quite tasty, but it was about 90 degrees in the restaurant, so it was nice to step out into the cool evening afterwords!

The next day we had a grueling SIX HOURS of touring the city. I think that even our tour guide was a little exhausted at the end, but we got to see all kinds of interesting sites. We got a good look at some of Vienna's beautiful architecture, which is quite special. During the reign of Austria's last emperor, Franz Josef I, he decided that he wanted to make Vienna look like a truly imperial capital, so he had all of the gorgeous buildings constructed, many of which still stand today, such as the Staatsopera and the Kunsthistorisches Museum (art history museum). They are built in all different styles from different periods, and form a ring around the city where the old defense walls used to be. This is called the Ringstrasse, and is part of what makes Vienna such a fantastic city. Throughout the morning, we hopped out of the bus to see sites such as the Belvedere Palace and it's gardens, and then an example of one of the public housing projects, and finally the Secessionist Building-a former exhibition hall for the avant-garde art at the turn of the century. There we got to see a firenze by Gustav Klimt, which was beautiful. For lunch we hopped over to the Naschmarkt ("nibble market") and had fun sampling fresh pickles and buying dried fruit to snack on, and I found BAGELS at an organic stand. It was amazing.

After lunch the tour CONTINUED on foot and we saw the Hofburg (one of two imperial palaces!), the Judengasse with the memorial sculpture for the Jews, the tomb of the Habsburgs, and St. Stephen's Cathedral. There's just so much to see in Vienna! And it has so much interesting history, I can't fit it all into this little blog...sigh.

We all went back to the hotel to warm up for a little while after that epic journey, and then my friends and I went to look for a good place to eat dinner. We ended up finding this place with wonderful egg-spaetzel and cheese dumplings, and then we walked over to the Rathaus (city hall) for the first night of the Vienna Christmas Market. Christmas markets are an adorable tradition in Austria, where all these little vendors open up for the advent season, selling ornaments, handmade crafts, and "gluehwein" (warm, spiced wine!). There were all these pretty lights up in the trees and on city hall, so it was really lovely. Then we headed back to the hotel, and I must say, I had the most fun just hanging out with my friends! We had a great time watching movies on T.V. in German before bed, going out to eat, and just walking around and having fun. So, you guys rock, in case you read this!

Sunday was mostly spent at the art history museum, which was quite fabulous. The collection is all comprised of pieces owned by the Habsburgs, who collected lots of great art over the hundreds of years that they controlled about half of the world. So I saw plenty of excellent art in there, from Bruegel to Velasquez, and some particularly luminous pieces by Raphael. They also had a great sculpture and artifact collection from all around the world, which I only got to see a fraction of. It was also just a gorgeous building (also constructed during the "Ringstrasse" era) and the most beautiful museum I've ever seen. Then I was completely pooped from the tours the day before, so I went back to the hotel and took a nap. We were all really tired, so we just took it easy that night after going for pizza around the corner.

Monday was another jam-packed day, where we went to the Parliament building on a tour, and then to the Rathaus to learn about the immigration policies of Vienna. Austria actually gets a lot of immigrants, mostly from Turkey and the Balkan peninsula so we learned a great deal about the integration policies and programs, which was very interesting. Then we were free for lunch, so we decided to go to a traditional Viennese cafe for lunch (I also had to write an essay on one for my cooking class), so we picked the best and prettiest one-the Cafe Central. It was in a beautiful old building, and it was so cozy and the food was DELICIOUS (best gnocchi of my life in a pumpkin-creme sauce with spinach and parmesan cheese on top!!!!) and I had a nice pot of Darjeeling tea. I could have spent the rest of my life in there pretty happily, but alas we were wrenched away for yet another tour, this time of a Holocaust Archive's exhibit, which by that point we essentially knew everything about anyway.

The evening was spent at the opera! That night everyone went out to see the Magic Flute at the Staatsopera, which consumed the whole afternoon and night. We got standing room tickets, which were ridiculously cheap (three euro for the Magic Flute!) but, as the name implies, you have to stand the entire time; quite the undertaking even for your average opera, plus you have to wait in line a few hours before the show to get the tickts. But the opera was wonderful! I loved the music for it, and the stage design was quite cool, and the story is just so fun and imaginative. I was quite keen on it! We had a great time, and snagged falafel sandwiches from a street vendor on the way back.

Tuesday morning we took off for Schoenbrunn, the other imperial palace. It was quite the impressive building, and a little spooky looking because it was very foggy that day! After a tour through the fancy, baroque rooms of the former emperors, Julie, Julia and I went to the zoo that is also on the palace grounds. That was really fun! We got to see all kinds of cool critters, like leopards, ostriches, lions and tigers and bears, koalas and giraffes, and a few adorable pandas! We were lucky because the next day one of the pandas was going back to China. We also saw hippos, which are like the scariest animals ever, trust me! They just swim around in this murky water so you have no idea where they are and then they appear and scare the crap out of you, or at least out of me.

The last stop of our adventure was the monastery of Melk, which as far as I'm concerned, is the most beautiful building in the world. It is this beautiful abbey, but also has many imperial rooms for when the royal family would come and visit. At any rate, it is this gorgeous baroque building on a hill overlooking the Danube and a medieval city. Inside, it has a wonderful library, a huge dining hall, and the prettiest church I've ever seen. Also, there's a huge balcony where you can enjoy the spectacular view. It also helped that there was a beautiful sunset going on as we were leaving! Sigh.

So that was what I did with my life last weekend...Now it's back to the grind stone till term is over! I wish I could go back to Vienna for at least another week...

Sunday, November 8, 2009

The Mines of Hallein

Saturday was another big day, this time featuring an adventure to the old salt mines of Hallein! Julia, Hannah, her five year-old host sister Alexandra and I hopped on a train this morning to check them out. After a bit of wandering about the town, trying to locate the information center and figuring out which bus to take up the mountain, we successfully arrived at the Salzkelten. Before the tour began, we had time to eat our lunch and bask in the gorgeous view! Würfel Zucker (a stuffed toy guinea pig mailed to me by Amanda who’s name means “Sugar Cube”) even came along for the adventure.

Before you can go into the mines, they make you wear these really goofy white suits that make you feel (and look) like a marshmallow. It can’t be helped-even if they make you feel silly, at least they keep you clean! After a good giggle about our get up, we climbed aboard a little green train that let us into the heart of the mountain, and we began our tour of the mine!

In the first tunnel we saw, we learned that because of the enormous pressure from above, the mining tunnels shrink about a centimeter a year. We went through a very old tunnel that was about half the size that it used to be, and it made me wonder how they would keep the mines open in the future. Throughout the tour, we learned about how salt mining was an extremely profitable enterprise for the people of Salzburg, and by people, I mean the Prince Archbishop, particularly Wolf Dietrich von Raitenau. He used the money from the mines to “remodel” the city of Salzburg, and transform it from a medieval city to the beautiful Baroque city that it is today.

One of the most fun parts of going through the mine is that you get to go on giant slides! That’s right-there are these great wooden slides that the miners used to use, and you get to go down a few of them, which is a blast. Then, after that, you get to cross a subterranean salt lake on a boat! They used to saturate an area with water, and then heat it up so that the water would evaporate and only the salt remained. We also got to see many different kinds of salt, like “Red-rock Salt” (red due to the prescence of iron oxide) and what was apparently blue, radioactive salt. The salt mines also cross the border into Germany! So, for about fifteen minutes today, I was like five hundred meters below Germany, or something like that. Cool.

So it was quite an interesting day! We learned a lot about the mining, and had a great time riding around on the slides and trains, and looking fabulous in our white suits. Alexandra had a good time too, and we had fun trying to understand her German (I may have saved the day by recognizing that “Klo” meant “Bathroom”). Outside the mines, they also have a “Celtic Village” to illustrate a bit about the life of the Celts, who were the first to settle in that region and start utilizing the salt. The views were beautiful, and it was quite a fun adventure!

Winkelhof Visit

On Friday some of us from the school were lucky enough to go on a field trip to Winkelhof, an Austrian trade school where they focus on small organic farming and hospitality. It was a very neat experience, and taught me a bit more about how the educational system works in Austria. Kids can decide at an early age whether or not they want to continue with intellectual studies at the “gymnasium” or if they would like to enroll in a vocational school, like Winkelhof. Winkelhof teaches several different trades to their students (who are usually around age seventeen) and tries to prepare them to make a living in Austria.

For farming they have a number of livestock so we got to see a bunch of cute farm critters. Mainly they focus on cows and dairy, but they also have sheep, goats, pigs, geese, chickens, and horses (which we sadly didn’t get a peek at). There were six-week old piglets there, which were very cute. As a vegetarian, I had some mixed feelings about some of the treatment of the animals (of course it was much better than it would be at an industrial farm-they were quite well cared for), but I would have preferred that they used some free range techniques, but alas (and I did NOT go into the slaughterhouse, or where they make sausages-eew). However, it is really nice that in Austria there is no farm “industry” to speak of; all the farms are small, and many (like Winkelhof) generate organic prouducts, which is great. Winkelhof also teaches their agriculture students a craft, whether it be locksmithing, mechanics, welding, etc., since many farmers cannot make a living on farming alone.

After seeing most of the livestock, we visited what was many people’s favorite stop-the schnapps room. Here they brew and distill that fruity liquor that is quite popular in Austria. They even let us sample some year-old plum schnapps (I did not partake, instead I took pictures) and see the huge tubs where they let the fruit ferment before it goes into the Willy Wonka like machine to brew. We even got to visit the cheesemaking room before we left; a magical place.

It’s nice to know Austria values sustainable farming practices! (I wish the US would do the same) They even had a little market at the school, selling some of their own goods and also with local organic farmers selling teas, cheeses, breads, juices, and delicious looking veggies. Of course, I couldn’t pass up delicious fresh, organic food, so I got some great mango-yogurt, goat cheese and some really good bread to munch on the next day, when I would be taking another excursion...this time to the Salt Mines!