In early August, cousins Ben and Franci, and their three daughters, Marica, Esther, and Laurelin, arrived for a wonderful week plus of enjoying Vienna and its environs, seasoned with good conversation, children’s antics, and lots of gelato. Our first evening together we enjoyed a bit of walking in my neighborhood and downtown. The next day we started out with a visit to the local farmers’ market. That sort of thing is particular down Franci and my alley, but everyone managed to find something of interest, and we also collected a delectable spread for an evening indoor picnic.In the afternoon, it being Ben’s birthday, we landed at a restaurant perched right on the Alte Donau (an oxbow lake, formerly part of the Danube River). It was one hot afternoon, but that didn’t keep us from enjoying a hearty lunch. Afterwards, we practically melting on our way to the swimming area nearby. I’m not always one for lake swimming, but on this day, it was glorious.
Sunday was a very relaxed day. Marica and I stayed home in the morning, enjoying the quiet. (My digital piano, complete with headphones, was a big hit with the girls.) The others went to one of my favorite museums, a collection of clocks and watches.
In the afternoon, we went to church. I was on for interpreting the service — which I look forward to doing but also find a bit nerve-wracking.
Monday was a splendid day! There was interest in boating on the Danube, cycling, seeing quaint Austrian villages, and visiting a castle, and we managed to squeeze them all into one day! We took the train to Melk, and Franci and the younger girls (ages 5 and 8) then headed downstream on a boat. Ben and Marica (age 11) and I rented bikes and traversed the 25 kilometers at a somewhat slower pace.
Cycling together was a real highlight for me. For one thing, it’s such fun introducing friends to what is one of my favorite areas of Austria. It was also Marica’s longest bike ride to date, and it was cool to see her enthusiasm for the ride. To counteract the summer heat beating down on us, we had a wonderful wade in the Danube. In the town of Dürnstein, we all met back up and took the short hike up to the castle ruins. After some clambering around, we reclaimed bikes for Ben and Franci, and I took the girls by bus to our destination a few kilometers farther in the town of Krems. Everyone was in real need of some cooling, refreshing gelato by that point!
I’d been inside once before, about 10 years ago, so it was quite nice to do the tour again. It’s hard to imagine ever calling such a place home, considering the expansive number of rooms, the incredible Chinese ceramics and wood paneling, the golden hall (imitating Versailles), and the general over-the-top elegance.
We learned that Franz Josef, emperor from 1848-1916, began his day around 4 a.m., working straight through breakfast and lunch and spending untold hours in successive, short audiences with his subjects. Although we weren’t totally convinced by the tour’s claim of his taste for simplicity, his rooms certainly were less ornate and sumptuous than other parts of the palace.
After the main palace, we toured the children’s museum in the basement, complete with 18th century extensive floral/jungle-themed murals originally intended to offer a refreshingly cool summer retreat for the then empress Maria Theresia.
One toy on display in the children’s museum was a miniature croquet set, intended for use on a large table. For anyone who knows the Holder love of the game, especially of their own version to be played on an impossibly steep East Tennessee hillside, upon grass wizened by July heat, my amusement at this tame, lilliputian version of the game will hardly come as a surprise.
There was also a dress-up area — oh so cute and silly! We even discovered there were costumes for grown-ups. Why not?On Wednesday we headed south of Vienna, to Schneeberg (“Snow Mountain,” though there was precious little of that commodity this time of year!), for the experience of staying overnight in an Austrian Hütte. What fun!It’s a popular area for walkers and hikers of every age, so there’s actually a little cog railway that goes almost to the top. Since the 5-year-old wasn’t going to be up for the hike, Franci and Laurelin took the train, and Ben and I and the older girls hiked up. It was certainly enough of a challenge for all of us, especially the younger members of our party! But they did well! We played word games (“the ____ Austrian mountain goat,” filling in the blank with as crazy or silly an adjective as we could think of, working our way from A to Z), which helped marvelously with forgetting that someone’s legs had “never been so tired!” We stopped to enjoy views, eat snacks from our packs, and even all share a piece of Apfelstrudel at the little hut we passed when our path crossed the cog railway line. A thunderstorm motivated us along, too, although we ended up seeking shelter briefly just inside a train tunnel!
Finally, after a happy reunion with the rest of our party, we arrived at our destination, just as the rain was starting to come down steadily. In the cozy lodge, we shared wonderfully stereotypical mountain fare. Dinner was followed by Ben’s reading more of the Return of the King, which their family is currently enjoying out loud — the girls first time through the Ring trilogy.
Waking up on Thursday to a beautiful morning, Franci and I had a jaunt to the nearest mini-peak, sharing the meadow with a goodly number of munching cows. Coming down for our breakfast, we got rather better fare than the our bovine neighbors. When the waiter asked if we wanted some ham and eggs to go with the basket of bread we were already sampling, we agreed that everyone would like “a bit, but not too much.” Well, apparently the cook thought he was cooking for a crew of intrepid mountaineers, because this was what was brought to our table!
After breakfast, we headed down the mountain in the same formation as before. Of course the route going down was easier, but especially so with a litany of jokes and riddles shared along the way! Friday we finally had a day looking around the Vienna city center. We made the necessary pilgrimage to the main cathedral, and, humorously enough, all five Hoyts thought it would be good fun to visit the crypt, based on my description of the eerie array of bones to be viewed there. Well, at least it was cooler than anything above ground, and no one caught the Plague!
In the afternoon Franci and Marica and I had a look around the Belvedere gardens and had a lovely bit of cake at the former imperial confectionery. The best part of the cafe is having a view into the kitchen, where the staff are hard at work with mounds of delectable ingredients being shaped into pieces of edible art.
In the evening, Ben and Franci and I had dinner out together, visiting a Viennese Heuriger — sampling the local wine and selecting dishes from the glass case (I had a vision of the delight that that would have been to our German-speaking grandmother — I guess I come quite naturally by my love of butter and cheese and curiosity for new culinary combinations!). There was even an accordion player providing dinner music!
Saturday afternoon we enjoyed a picnic in the local park and practiced our frisbee skills. Franci and I also visited a small but delightful museum of a former porcelain manufacturer — with different eras of aristocratic and royal taste encompassing the ostentatiously grandiose, the glaringly “modern,” and the charmingly whimsical.
Our last afternoon featured a game of Ticket to Ride, followed by a quiet evening at home. The week felt both long and short — long for all we’d seen and enjoyed together, and short when thinking of saying good-byes. Sunday there was time for a pancake breakfast before it was time to finish packing up. The suitcases included some new Austrian attire for part of the family!
Thank you, Ben and Franci, and Marica and Esther and Laurelin, for the wonderfully special visit…for the chance to explore a bit of Austria together, for your flexibility, for spontaneous 5-year-old hugs, for riddles and jokes and good conversations, for piano playing and song, for shared delight in the beauty of nature or architecture or culinary art, for outdoor play, and for a feast of memories.