Archive | May, 2012

Carpe Diem II: Summer Travels…

28 May

Before I get to my summer travels, which are currently underway, I must take a few lines to express my sincere gratitude and appreciation for the incredible semester I had with my host family in Denmark. Lydia, Jesper and Rasmus all were such great hosts and truly became my second family for the semester. They cooked fantastic meals, engaged me in excellent conversations around dinner and at other times, they gave me great insight into the Danish culture, they took a genuine interest in my studies, everyday stories and my trips and experiences, and they introduced me to several of their family and friends and treated me like a real member of their family. Many of my friends couldn’t believe how much I raved about my host family and why I referred to them as the “highlight of my semester in Denmark,” and the lucky few I invited home for dinner found out why. I will honestly and truly miss my Danish host family and our great conversations especially, and I look forward to their visit to the states and hopefully my return to Denmark one day.

As I waved goodbye to Lydia and Rasmus from Platform 6 in Copenhagen Central Train Station, I looked down at all 5 of my bags I realized that I was actually starting my 6 weeks of summer travels – crazy stuff! First stop was Kungsbacka on the west coast of Sweden, to pay Mr. Andreas Grahm a visit and to drop off most of my bags for storage during my summer adventure. It was great to catch up with Andreas and get an introduction to Swedish culture during my brief visit – I look forward to returning for a few more days the first week of July to explore Gothenburg with him! Andreas was  a gracious host and not only picked me up from the train station by also drove me to the Gothenburg airport, nearly an hour away, for my $30 flight to Edinburgh (courtesy of RyanAir – gotta love cheap European airlines).

Having arrived in Edinburgh around dinner time, finding the Sheep Heid Inn was my top priority. My friend who works in the Honors Department at Villanova – Ms. Cayce Lista – studied for a semester in Edinburgh and sent me a long list of things to do and see, but she said she would “not talk to me if I did not go to the Sheep Heid Inn,” therefore, this became my number 1 priority in Edinburgh. I discovered that it was on the other side of a giant hill called the Meadows – remnants of a volcanic eruption which also produced the hill which the Edinburgh Castle and the Royal Mile are built on. Naturally, I began the hike up, which was beautiful as the sun began to set, but I quickly realized I had no idea where I was going. So after going about halfway around this huge hill, I found a little side path by an old stone wall and took it to the bottom. Next I found some funny looking alley wall and decided to go down it. Sure enough, it opened right up the Sheep Heid Inn. I was mentally preparing myself to search for hours to find this place, and I literally walked right into it. I called Cayce in excitement, left a voicemail, and entered the Inn forthe best lamb and mashed potatoes meal I’ve ever had. Sure enough, Wednesday night in the Sheep Heid Inn was quiz night, so I teamed up with two older ladies (Denise and Kathy) who were sitting nearby and we successfully managed to answer very few questions correctly – however we enjoyed a few pints and I got to learn about about the local culture and weather (which had not been sunny for the past 5 months until the day I showed up, so they said I could stay). The next day I met up with my friend Cate Schimdt from Villanova who had just graduated and was touring around Europe herself. This was the only point at which we would cross paths on our two journeys, so we decided to make the most of it by exploring the city on a free walking tour on which we learned a ton about the city and the history of Scotland (which dispelled many misguided conceptions that people have of Scotland – think Braveheart – so it was really a solid tour), hiking up to another beautiful hill overlooking the city with great views, and enjoying our time to catch up. Later that evening, we each departed Edinburgh on separate trains – they were off the Glasgow, I was off to the Lake District.

And my God was the Lake District worth it – when I arrived that evening I dropped my bags off at my B&B and made a short hike up a nearby hill to watch the sunset beside a flock of sheep. The rolling hills, the variations of green among the trees, the clear water reflecting the peaks, the boat chugging along the lake, the midst in the distance, the peaceful boats and houses out on and along the lake, and the mixing of pink, orange and blue colors in the sky was absolutely stunning. The next day I left Windermere on a bus to nearby Coniston, where I would take a launch across the Brantwood, home of the 19th century British art critic and social reformer John Ruskin. Ruskin has had great influence on me having read some of his works at Villanova, so I wanted to see the house where he spent the second half of his life. The house was neat and the hillside gardens very impressive – I learned a lot about Ruskin’s life just by looking our the windows at the same views he saw. All in all, a great trip on the most beautiful possible day – the perfect temperature and sunny. There is a lot more to the Lake District than I had time to see, so i hope I can journey back and get such great weather again.

Next up was a train ride across the English countryside to York, where I spent a day on a walking tour seeing the old Roman/English tribes/Viking/Norman walls and the layers built by each group, the remains of an old Abbey, the winding streets of the old medieval town, and Shabbles (where all the butchers shops were located and called the Shambles because they used to toss the unused portions of the animals out into the street, so the place was constantly in Shambles) and of course the famous York Minister, which is every bit as impressive on the inside as it looks from the outside, with its marvelous collection of stained-glass windows and gothic architecture.

After York, I made my way into London where my Uncle Brad and Michelle’s friends Cory and Dale and their two kids picked me up from the train station. They agreed to host me for a few days while I explored London and Dublin without ever having met me before – what great people! I’ve ended up just chilling out here for the past two days as I gear up for Dublin tomorrow, London Thursday, Oxford for the weekend and Belgium next week. Cory and Dale have been so welcoming and interesting to get to know and I feel so lucky to be spending a few days with them. I also had fun babysitting their kids Alyssa and Nathan (two Nathans – now that’s rare) yesterday as I got to play with legos for the first time in many, many years. They’ve given me computer access so I’m able to update my blog and check emails accordingly, so i can’t promise my updates will be frequent or as comprehensive going forward. But enjoy them while you can!

Carpe Diem I: Semester Travels

27 May

For those of you who are familiar with Chris Berman and NFL Primtime, or at least ESPN’s telecast of Monday Night Football, you’ll know what I’m talking about when I reference “The Fastest 3 Minutes in Football“. For those of you who don’t have a clue as to what I’m referencing, this is about to be the Fastest 3 Minutes in Blog Posts. Let’s go (enter epic background NFL Films music which they play during the highlights):

– TOUR DE FJORDS: Traveled to Norway with a group of students from DIS including my dependable travel buddy Ms. Taylor Rose. I am in debt to her for picking out this trip – otherwise I would not have signed up, and I would have missed the most marvelous natural beauty I’ve ever seen (even more than the Alps in summer). We hiked down, trained up, kayaked through, sailed on and biked around the Auslandfjord, part of the Sognefjord, the world’s second longest. Although it was still pretty cold while we were there, there were hardily any tourists in the tiny town of Flam which we stayed in (pop. 400) so we had the breathtaking natural beauty of the towering peaks and pristine water all to ourselves. Highlights included hiking 100s of feet to not one but two majestic waterfalls, riding the most beautiful rail line in Europe, drinking the best tasting natural water in the world as it flowed down the slides of cliffs and was irrigated by moss, making hand-made goat cheese on an old-style Norway farm, and enjoying a lovely meal and excellent conversation with our two trip leaders Sam and Christina. We concluded in Bergen on the coast, which was underwhelming in comparison to the fjords but had some of the freshest seafood I’ve ever had at the local sea market.

– WHEN IN ROME: Next stop was Rome for Holy Week. My good friend from back home – Mr. Pierce Kugler – was gracious enough to host me for 4 nights while I attended mass/service each day and mixed in the sights in between. I also had the honor of meeting up with friends from Nova for nearly every mass. Pierce took our group to a little-known church with a famous Caravaggio painting (The Calling of St. Matthew, now one of my favorite paintings) and through the entire Vatican Museums. Since he’s taking an Art of Rome class, he made an outstanding tour guide and we were very thankful for his insight. For Holy Thursday we went to impressive San Giovanni Basilica where Pope Benedict gave the homily, Good Friday in St. Peter’s Basilica where the Pope presided over the Mass, followed by Stations of the Cross as the sun set outside the Colosseum. As the Pope read in Italian, a local seminary student from Pittsburgh who went to Villanova translated everything into English for me  – he came over to introduce himself after I held my Terrible Towel above the crowd for a picture. Saturday was marked by an excellent tour of the Forum by an archaeological student and the Easter Vigil Mass at 9 p.m. Although I wasn’t originally planning on attending, I decided to last minute, and it was the best part of the whole trip. They turned the lights out in St. Peter’s Basilica while the Pope processed in, and the only lights were behind these massive statues of saints on either side running the length of the Basilica – they illuminated the statues in such a striking way in which I’ll never forget. Sunday’s Easter Mass in St. Peter’s Square was special with over 100,000 people from all the world in attendance, and I finished the day by visiting the world-famous Steelers bar in Rome. What an incredible experience.

– OO, TUNISIA: Turns out I was going further south than Rome – to another continent in fact. 5 days in Tunisia with my newest travel buddy Mr. David Sanchez was quite the experience – really off the beaten path. We went to a better preserved Roman colosseum in El-Jem, saw an underground village in Matmata, rode camels in the Sahara in Douz (here’s the video: http://youtu.be/pnzz0At–hI), visited a date-palm farm in Tozeur, video-taped a mock light saber at the Star Wars movie set in the middle of the desert, hiked to a mountain oasis in the Atlas Mountain Range along the Algerian border, visited the oldest mosque in North Africa in Kairouan, got led around like dogs on leashes by carpet-salesman through the winding and narrow streets of the Tunis Medina, ate our best meal of the trip in a restaurant with no name, visited the world’s largest collection of Roman and Byzantine mosaics in the Bardo Museum (Roman = smaller stones, Byzantine = larger stones), peered out onto the Mediterranean from the sea-side village of Sidi Bou Said and walked among the ancient Punic, Roman and Byzantine ruins of Hannibal’s Carthage. Not much more to say – we saw and did some things in North Africa that I would have never dreamed I’d do. Camels were a real highlight.

– MILANO: David and I finished our trip in Milano, where fellow Villanovans Kristen Wendt, Molly Malone and Tim Demetriou were our welcoming and generous hostesses and host. We took it easy mostly, but made time to see the magnificent Duomo and it’s remarkable, one of a kind roof (courtesy of Kristen’s family who was visiting and who bought us lunch and paid for our admission tickets – what great people). We also made it out clubbing, to “Le Banque” for a truly bass-ass party-all-night experience. I caught my plan without any sleep and plenty of great memories.

– STUNNING PRAGUE: That’s the word for Prague. It’s infested with tourists from both East and West but it handles them well. 3 days over a long weekend with Ms. Taylor Rose was a real treat and the ideal way to see the city. Our free walking tour was outstanding, the food was top-notch (especially the Moravian Sparrow) and the highlight was definitely waking up at 5am to watch the sunrise from the empty Charles Bridge which is normally brimming with tourists during the day. The old Jewish Quarter of the city was particular moving as we saw a collection of drawing and painting done by Jewish children from a nearby concentration camp during World War II. The Jewish Cemetary and the Old-New Synagogue were also striking, and the famous Castle was remarkable and I really enjoyed 8am Sunday morning mass in massive St. Vitus Cathedral in Czech. Other highlights were a concert in the Philaharmonic with its incredible acoustics and a performance Mozart’s Requim in St. Nicholas’ Church. Also, Prague might have been the cheapest city I went to and had good beer (Kozul dark was my favorite) – making it a must-see for anyone traveling to Europe.

– ISTANBUL AND ASIA: Combine the Magnificent Imperial City of Rome and the intimate feel of Sarajevo’s Old Muslim Town and you get Istanbul. This is another absolute must-see – and the time I spent there weren’t even enough to scratch the surface. But my finals schedule only permitted me two full free days, so of course, rather than study for finals, I traveled to Istanbul, and made the trip once again with my trusty and reliable travel buddy, Mr. David Sanchez. The unbelieveable exterior of the Blue mosque was only reviled by the marvelous interior of the Hafia Sophia. Seeing them both lit up at night was especially memorable. The Basilica Cisterns were also surprisingly neat, and we had quite the time heckling for souveniors in the Grand Bazaar and Spice Market. We also met some very hospitable and friendly people and tried some great food, especially Turkish tea. Our ferry trip to the Asian side of the Bosphorus was a refreshing withdraw from tourists and also meant that David and I had traveled to three continents together this semester (no big deal). But the highlights of the trip had to be the Turkish baths followed by smoking hookah and drinking apple tea with nearly all locals in a neat spot down a back-alley. Sitting and sipping on apple tea while surrounded by sweet smoke as the sun-down Call to Prayer echoed from the minarets was truly an MOA (moment of appreciation).

Well, so much for the Fastest 3 Minutes in Blogposts – I’m pretty sure that one took you a while to read, but please stay tuned for my next post updating you on my summer travels which are currently underway!

Recap of Denmark

27 May

Ok people, so as you all know, I’m way behind on posts, so in an effort to get as many of my adventures to you, I’m going to give you more of a recap than an in-depth look into the last few months of the semester. Unfortunately, because I have begun my summer traveling, I do not have any way of uploading pictures anymore, and I am almost out of space to upload anymore on the blog anyway. More on my travels later…

First, a word on my classes:

Humanitarian Law and Armed Conflicts is taught by two members of the Danish Defense Ministry (Denmark is the third most-involved country in Irag and Afghanistan behind the U.S. and U.K., so they’ve been to both countries and have a lot of experience as legal advisors in the field (you can blow up this, you can’t blow up that, etc.). The class was overall just ok and it taught me that international law is just a way to mask national interests and that I absolutely do not want to go into law. However, our trip to Bosnia and Herzegovina made the whole class worth it.

Kierkegaard’s Authorship is taught at Kobenhavn Universitet and has been great – the professor (Brian Soderquist from Utah) is good enough to teach in Villanova’s Humanities Department. Not only do I feel I have a good understanding of Kierkegaard’s biography, authorship, writing style and the major themes he explores in his works, but these themes were all very applicable and made me do a lot of personal reflecting, which is always the best way to learn, so I really enjoyed the course. It also exposed me to the other authors like Camus who I want to read more of, so excellent experience to study Kierkegaard in his own city.

Danish Language and Culture: Danish is an impossible language and everyone speaks English here anyway. But one of the highlights of the course was out night at the Copenhagen Ballet! It was a three act ballet, with the middle act like the tradition guy and girl dancing – what you would think of when you hear “ballet” – but the first and third acts were a “modern” ballet, which seemed like a mix between a silent play and a ballet – it was like a scene was taking place with no talking but with plenty of ballet dancing and humor. I was surprised how much I enjoyed it and I would certainly go back! We also went on a tour of the part of Christiansborg Palace which is still used by the Queen to host parties and receptions for other country’s monarchs and dignitaries. It was neat to see some of the palace rooms and painting, the Queen’s personal library and a collection of modern tapestries displaying the history of Denmark.

Another cultured experience I had on my own was the Bach Marathon – a performance by a Copenhagen group in a church of 4 of Bach’s Orchestral Suites (which is apparently rare to combine into one performance). My professor from back home who loves Baroque music and especially Bach recommended I go – we actually listened to one of the orchestral suites for an assignment in his class. It was great performance and I’m really glad I went – thanks Dr. Godzieba!

Danish Politics and Society has been one of the real highlights of this semester. The course is taught by Jacob Buksti, the former Transportation Minister, member of Parliament and top spokesman and political and economic advisor for the Social Democrats (the traditional party of the working class and one of Denmark’s oldest political parties). I’ve learned so much from Jacob this semester and have thoroughly enjoyed his unique perspective and insight as both a former politician and former political science professor. We got a beer together one day after class and he told me some really great stories about his political career – which I better not repeat in such a public place. But anyway, he’s taken us to the Social Democratic Headquarters, the Parliament and the central Police Station. At the SD’s party headquarters we learned about how much smaller the political parties are in Denmark than in the U.S., but that there are also a lot more (8 currently in the Parliament) and how the system for forming a government forces co-operation, collaboration and dialogue, at least much more than the oppositional system we have in the U.S. where the two big parties are constantly ramming heads with each other. We also went on a tour of the Parliament and asked questions to two politicians (one from the right and one from the left) who staged a mini-debate for us. Finally, we paid a visit to the Copenhagen Police Station and learned about how they’ve revised their crowd control tactics of late – all really revealing experiences.

-My History of Copenhagen taught us all about the structure, plan, design and architecture of the city, well enough that I think I could give a basic introductory walking tour of the city (which I’ve done for multiple friends who have visited this semester). It has also helped me identify similar elements of cities and features of architecture in other cities, such as where the old medieval wall was located and therefore where the oldest part of the city is, the styles of architecture which indicate the age of a building, block or neighborhood, etc. etc. Carsten,  our professor, is a mix between “The Most Interesting Man in the World” from the Dos Equios commercials and Santa Claus. His assignments have taken us to and educated about all the major sights, forts, palaces, castles, churches and other important buildings and parts of the city, some well known and others that we would have missed otherwise. As a part of the class, we’ve also done several field studies and trips to different places around the city to learn about its development. Some of the highlights include:

Europe’s first planned urban housing project, the “New Booths” designed for naval personal and their families to create an independent and self-sustaining community for them and thereby professionalize the Danish Navy under the visionary ruler Christian IV.

The Kastellet or Citadel, a massive 5-stared fort built at the end of the modern defensive fortifications Christian IV built to protect both the harbor and the city. It also pointed into the city in defense of a rebellion or a citizen’s uprising, and it served as the “Alamo” in case the city’s fortifications were breached.

Amilenborg Palace – originally built as the center of the planned Frederiksstadt for weathly noble families, the Palace now houses the royal family who moved in during the rebuilding of Christiansborg Palace and has not left since. It is very Baroque in that the plan all about rightly ordering everything – so the Palace is in line with the massive Marble Church (God), the status of a Danish King in the middle (Monarchy) and “Eternity” (flat open land and water all the way across the Oresund to Sweden) which has been replaced by an Opera House donated by shipping tycoon A.P. Moller Maersk. I think the Opera House looks like a spacecraft and a toaster, so I would have rather they stuck with eternity.

Christiansborg/Parliament – Parliament – three major facts, it burned down twice literally because it is so cold in Denmark – fires used to heat the building got out of control. Second, the statue out front is of Frederik VII who in 1849, at the demands of the citizens of Copenhagen, agreed to institute a democracy and transfer power to the people, arriving at a peaceful solution while much of Europe confronted the violent revolutions of 1848. Finally, the bottom layer of the building is made of bricks from all over denmark – each district had to send a stone to be used to build to palace to serve as a symbol of democracy – I found this to be very powerful because it was such a tangible symbol – the physical (not just metaphorical) foundation of the Danish Government is comprised of the entire country.

Vesterbro – one of our assignments was to explore Vesterbro, a relatively newer section of the city that was built up after the out bastioned fortifications were torn down in the 1800s and where the industrial revolution introduced countless factories and tenements for workers’ housing. Many of these slums were recently renewed or rebuilt to improve the living conditions in the neighborhood and attract people to move in again after the offshoring of industry and jobs in the 1970s. We learned about the history of the industrial revolution and policies enacted for Danish workers, and so our assignment was to explore the neighborhood and see the efforts at revitalization at work and also take in the historicist architecture, which was the main style used in the late 1800s during the industrial revolution and which tried to replicate past styles – so just about all the categories have the word “neo” in front of them. This was definitely a part of the city no tourist would ever visit, so it was a great opportunity to see another area I would have never been exposed to. Vesterbro has a large immigrant population and it was vivacious when we did our walking tour assignment through the neighborhood. The parks, the neo-Renaissance wall for the old bourgeois “Shooting Club” and the meat-packing district were all highlights.

Modern City Development and Modern Architecture – On this field study we explored techniques the city has used to development both land along the harbor that was abandoned by industry and reclaimed land further outside the city. We saw plenty of modern architecture (some tastefully done but most just plain hideous) including a figure-eight apartment complex with grass-covered roofs. One of the most interesting things we saw was a small neighborhood along the harbor designed with small canals between blocks of flats to resemble Amsterdam – an example of a really well-done project. We also saw some Workers’ Gardens and the Workers’ Boat Club, both of which were created to provide diversions for workers and their families outside the city. There were waiting lists but once in there was a small annual membership fee but overall it was a very affordable way to maintain a garden or sail along the harbor for workers and their families who otherwise were stuck living in cramped tenements and slums and surrounded by concrete, disease and a plethora of social problems in places like Vesterbro. The new city – Orestadt – built on the reclaimed land seemed to me a pretty big disappointment so far, and we talked about and then saw the major problems. But beyond that it looked just downright ugly and uninviting, but you can look at the pictures and judge for yourself, they are near the end of this album.

To wrap up my time in Denmark, I made some quick visits to Frederiksborg Palace, which is outside of Copenhagen and not far from where I lived. It is the Danish equivalent of Versallies. My host my Lydia and I went one afternoon and enjoyed going through the rooms and galleries of painting which basically tell the story of Denmark. I knew what many of the painting depicted since we had seen them in some of my classes, so that really deepened my experience. We also walked around the beautiful Baroque gardens on the sunniest and warmest day of the year in Denmark to that point. What a great experience with my host mom Lydia!

Next was a trip to Roskilde to visit the centuries old massive Gothic Domkirke or Cathedral which used to be a bishop’s seat and the center of the church’s power in Denmark. The church was surprisingly impressive – one of the best I’ve seen in Europe. There have been so many add-ons throughout the centuries, and all the Danish kings and queens are buried there, so it was really neat to see the different styles throughout history side by side. The visit also cemented Gothic architecture as my favorite type in Europe. Next I walked down the hill to the harbor of a small fjord which used to be controlled by the Vikings. Back in the 900s, they sank some ships in the harbor of the fjord to prevent attackers from navigating it, and in the 1950s and 1960s the Danes discovered and salvaged the ships and have 5 of them on display in a really informative and impressive museum. It is one of the best displays if Viking ships in the world and I learned a lot about their culture because of it.

Ok, that’s enough for now, my next post will give a recap of my travels during the semester and my travels so far this summer – stay tuned!

My Weekend in Vienna

21 May

In the famous Vienna Opera House:

When I last left you, our class was finishing up our last meal in Sarajevo. That Friday afternoon, we departed Sarajevo on a flight to Vienna where we would switch planes to fly the rest of the way back to Copenhagen. However, being the daring adventurer that I am, I had no intention of catching that second flight. Instead, I had it in me to spend the weekend in magnificent, neo-neo-classical Vienna, former seat of power for the Habsburg Empire. Of course, this wouldn’t have been possible without the gracious hospitality of fellow Villanovan Victoria Estrada, who, along with her roommate Katie, agreed to host me for the weekend and show me around the city they were studying in for the semester. A free place to stay and two tour guides to show me around? Sold. I found a cheap flight back to Copenhagen early Monday morning, which would get me to my first class only 20 minutes late, so it was a done deal.

Victoria and Katie were nice enough to meet me at the airport, and since it was getting late by the time we got back, we decided to just do dinner and save the sight-seeing for Saturday and Sunday. For dinner, they took me to a classic Viennese-style restaurant – the waiters and waitresses even dressed in some sort of lederhosen costumes. At the entrance above the bar was a statue of Mary holding Baby Jesus – but the really funny part was that the statue was sitting on a glass shelve with a disco-ball underneath, which led Victoria and Katie to deem him “Disco-Jesus.” Our meals were excellent – I got a classic Viennese ham and pasta dish along with two excellent Bavarian-style beers. The big joke was that by the time I finished my second beer, Victoria had still not finished her first, and our blond-haired, blue-eyed waitress reminded her of this each time she stopped at our table.

On our way back from dinner, I spotted a Pittsburgh Steelers bumper-sticker on a car. This find of course indicated that our evening could not possibly get any better, so we called it a night in order to start our sightseeing early the next morning.

We began our Saturday morning at the Ringstrasse, a wide street that encircles the old part of the city. It was formerly occupied by the city’s old bastioned fortification system. We walked to the magnificent Hofburg palace, the central residence for the Habsburg Dynasty built by Maria-Therese. Nearby was this neat café situated in a sort of greenhouse/garden kind of deal. We arrived around 10:30 and asked for a table for 3, and they said they had one but cautioned us that it was reserved for guests at 1:30 (the café culture in Vienna is such that when you sit down to enjoy some coffee or food, it’s expected that you will be there for several hours, so warning us that we would have to leave in 3 hours is not unusual at all, whereas in the U.S. we’d have been rushed out after about 30 minutes). After our brunch, we toured around the Hofburg palace grounds, walked past the impressive Radhaus (City Hall and Victoria’s favorite building) and the outdoor skating complex outside of it, toured the inside of a magnificent church while the organ was playing, and walked by the neat-looking Parliament building.

One really neat thing I saw during our walk about the city was the streetcars. They had some very new, sleek ones, but also some older ones. I immediately recognized some of these older street cars as the 1964 version which we had seen only a few days earlier in Sarajevo. After the war in Bosnia and Herzegovina, since all the streetcars in Sarajevo were destroyed during the siege, cities from around the world donated old streetcars for the Sarajevo to use. It’s like a mini-time warp because just by standing on a main street in Sarajevo, in a 5 minute span you can see streetcars from the past 5 decades and all around the world pass by, and the oldest of these are the red 1964 Vienna streetcars. It was surreal to see the exact same streetcar in two very different and far apart cities in a matter of days – and to know the story behind them both was a really neat thing.

Next we passed the famous opera house and headed down the main walking/shopping street where we stopped to see numerous street performers, including two levitating men, one dancing guy with a Burger King crown, a guy pretending to be a statue and a break-dancing crew. This was by the far the largest and widest assortment of street performers I have seen throughout my travels. I’m convinced the levitating guys use a magnet system – one around their waists and the other hidden beneath them under their carpet or in a basket or something, and then they use their canes to balance, but just a guess. We also stopped to grab a traditional Viennese brat loaded with ketchup and mustard at a street stand – as you can see the food and drinks were definitely some of the highlights from Vienna!

Next was the Stephansdom, the massive cathedral in the center of the old city. We did the tour of the crypts beneath the Cathedral and the central square that surrounds it and learned that when Vienna started as a small Roman settlement under a different name they would bury people en masse underneath the square and later the church. They had to stop this after so many people were buried that the church and square began to smell like there were 1000s of people buried beneath it (which there were). It was like Indiana Jones with all the piles of bones, but there were also some well preserved tombs for cardinals and other church dignitaries. I thought it was all really neat and interesting while the girls were pretty freaked out the whole time. Luckily I was able to violate the “no pictures” policy enough times that you can get a decent idea of what it was like.

Next we went in the exact opposite direction, to the top of one of the tall spires on the church to see a stunning view of Vienna. While taking it all in, we spotted a church we wanted to go see next which we promptly went to after taking the elevator back down. It was an awe-inspiring Jesuit church (Jesuitkirke) built in the midst of the counter-reformation, so the Jesuits were really trying to make a statement and solidify Catholicism. Gold everywhere, incredible ceiling paintings and green and pink spiraled columns like I’d never seen before – it was all so grandiose. By this point in the day, I had already taken so many pictures that my camera battery died – but no worries at all because Victoria let me borrow her camera and take all the pictures I wanted to – once again, great hostess. Next we walked along the Danube canal and popped in the oldest church in Vienna right as the congregation was receiving communion. It was so small that everyone actually crowded around the priest at the alter to receive the holy sacrament. It was by far the most humble and simple church we’d been in, but as Victoria pointed out, it had a great feel of community and warmth to it that the other massive and grandiose cathedrals lacked. Next we continued our church-tour-of-Vienna with a stop at Peterskirke, which was smaller and not quite as grandiose but still marvelous. There was this large wood carving of the martyrdom of Saint John of Nepomuk that really stood out. He was the patron saint of the Czech Republic who refused to divulge the Queen’s confession to the King and was hence thrown off the Charles Bridge (more on this when I recount my weekend trip to Prague). We found out that there was an organ concert there later in the evening, so we ran out for some food and a beer at a nearby American-style microbrewery and then returned for an amazing organ concert, not unlike one I had attended a few weeks before in a church in Copenhagen. It takes a little getting used to, but an organ concert can be a really neat thing, especially if you’re listening to it in an incredible church, which we were. After that, we were pretty wiped from our long day of touring that we called it a day – and Victoria and I especially needed to get some sleep, since we needed to be up bright and early to stand in line for tickets to see the Vienna Boys Choir.

We arrived early Sunday morning back at the Hofburg Palace, and after some searching we found the line to the small chapel where the Vienna Boys Choir usually have their performances. This mass and performance was on March 11, so it was marking the one year anniversary of the Japanese earthquake, so take the expected amount of Japanese tourists and multiply that number by 20 and that’s how many were standing in line with us. All tourist jokes aside though, it was neat to sort of pay our respects to those who lost their lives in the tragedy by attending the mass and performance. We stood in line for free standing room only tickets for about an hour, but it was totally worth it. The mass was really beautiful with the singing – I’d never heard a boys choir perform before. They were positioned a level above us and a bit behind where we were standing in the surprisingly small chapel so we couldn’t see them until the end of the mass when they came downstairs and sang for us – and I was shocked by how young they were! For some reason I just didn’t realize that to have a boys choir you need a bunch of what looked like 7 and 8 year olds. Afterwards, it was really funny to watch a lot of the Japanese tourists take pictures with the boys – you’d have these 6 Japanese ladies cramming into a picture with a tiny 8-year old blond-haired, blue-eyed Viennese boy – talk about mini-celebrities. When these kids hit puberty and their voices drop, it’s gonna be like a mid-life crisis or something.

Next stop was one of Victoria’s favorite cafes in the entire city, but on the way we encountered what can only be described as an inordinate amount of PDA (public displays of affection). But seriously – I haven’t visited another European city where people are making out as often or in as many different places as we saw in Vienna (not even in Rome!!). Victoria confirmed that it is very common to see couples slobbering over each other while waiting for the metro, on park benches, sidewalk corners, etc. It took a little getting used to, especially during our visit to the Kunst Histories Museum which I will revisit in a bit.

So the café we went to was probably the coolest I’ve been to in Europe – two wings with plenty of comfortable seating, and in the one wing is a few pool tables, one of which has a spread of about 20 newspapers and publications from all over the world, including international ones. The food and coffee we got was outstanding, and I had a really enjoyable time talking with Victoria about her travels to central America and how she hopes to work to improve the lives of the people in the region in the future.

We continued with a museum tour, which was without expense to me, since Victoria rounded up free student passes from her friends for me to use (what a great hostess!) We started at the Albertina to see a special display of impressionist works (pretty underwhelming – the Impressionists miss all the details!) and then headed over to the enormous neo-neo classical structure called the Kunst Histories Museum. I was really impressed by the ancient Egypt collections, but not so impressed by the couple making out in a room of 4000 year old pottery and sarcophagi. Not sure what ancient mummies do to turn some people on, but they certainly don’t prohibit the Viennese PDAs at all. Some of the artwork was also really impressive, including some sassy-looking women painted by this guy named Klimt. He was supposed to be capturing the different styles of art and architecture over the centuries by cleverly painting figures that personified the styles, but I really think he just had a thing for sassy-women (you should be able to tell which are his from the pictures).

To wrap up our fast-paced weekend, Victoria and I visited a handful more churches (bringing our church-tour total to 8 for the weekend) and headed to her favorite wine cellar place to meet her friends for dinner. These types of wine cellars and restaurants which make their own wine are a Viennese specialty, and Victoria was very happy to have us try her favorite house Strawberry wine. I had another excellent Viennese meal, thanked my wonderful hostesses for an incredible stay in imperial and neo-neo classical Vienna, and headed for the airport where I’d catch my early morning flight back to Copenhagen. But seriously, I can’t thank my wonderful hostesses enough for your generosity and hospitality – Vienna simply would not have been the same without them – so thanks so much Vitoria and Katie, I really appreciate it!

Rachel in Denmark

[American] Expat living in Copenhagen

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