Tag Archives: Palaces

Lost in Venice

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Ah, Venice… The magical sinking city that seems to float on water, where residents still need boats to get around and where visitors unfailingly get lost in its winding maze of alleyways, bridges, and canals.

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Venice has always occupied a special place in my heart. In elementary school––and still today––one of my favorite books was The Thief Lord by Cornelia Funke, a story of two brothers who run away to Venice and are taken in by a group of street children who live in an abandoned theater. (That description may not do it complete justice, but Cornelia Funke is truly a master in children’s literature.)

Julia and I arrived in Venice on Friday afternoon by train at the Santa Lucia station, where one immediately walks out the doors of the station to see the Grand Canal.

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Beforehand, I had found out that the cheapest way for us to get a vaporetto pass was through a Rolling Venice card from the tourism office. Tip: If you’re under 29, you can purchase a Rolling Venice card for only 4€ to get huge discounts on many attractions in Venice, such as a 3-day vaporetto pass and half-price admissions at the major museums and attractions.

With our vaporetto pass in hand, we boarded the No. 2 vaporetto to take us to the island of Giudecca, where our hostel was located.

After dropping our bags off at the hostel, we took the vaporetto over to San Marco, which was only two stops away by boat.

It was already getting dark, so we wandered around a bit in the rain, winding through alleyways and climbing over bridges. For dinner, we stopped by a tiny restaurant that specialized in cichetteria, little small dishes you can combine to create a meal.

Once back at the hostel, we ordered some hot chocolate from the bar and sat down in the common area. Now, hot chocolate in Italy is completely different from what you experience stateside––instead of a watery mix of chocolate power and sometimes milk, Italian hot chocolate is like a melted chocolate bar: rich, smooth, and thick.

For my first hostel experience, Ostello Venezia was awesome. The building was recently remodeled in October, with a funky common area and cool furnishings.

In the hostel, they were setting up for a “Neon Party” that night, complete with guest DJ performances. Considering that I usually can barely stay up past 11, we were only there for the first hour or so, when there were only two guys swirling around on the dance floor by themselves, so I can’t speak much for the event. But the set-up looked impressive!

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By hanging out in the common area, we met a bunch of travelers from all over: Belgium, England, Scotland, and Canada, to name a few locales. Julia and I passed around a blow-up ball with a backpacker for a bit, then pulled up a bunch of chairs with a group to meet new people.

Fairly early, we headed back to the dorm room since we planned to head out early the next morning. While the atmosphere in the common area of the hostel was great, the vibe in our dorm room was very… strange. A woman had lost a pouch with a bunch of her cash in it, so she spent over three hours crying during the night and talking loudly to her friend and on the phone in Spanish. At first I felt bad––I couldn’t imagine if that happened to me––but by 1:00 a.m. and hour 2 of this, I was wishing she’d leave the room.

Despite all of that, I slept surprisingly well, armed with an eye mask and a pair of earplugs. My top bunk was even more comfortable than my bed back in Florence, and I awoke to discover that the window in the room had a fantastic view of Venice’s main island.

After accidentally terrifying a girl on my way to the bathroom (apparently, when I ask someone “Are you done with the shower?” in my pajamas and glasses it is scary enough to warrant a reaction straight out of a horror movie), we headed back to San Marco in the morning to begin our full day of sightseeing.

After a mesmerizing walk through the Basilica of San Marco––perhaps the most beautiful church I’ve ever seen––we bought tickets for the Secret Itineraries Tour of the Doge’s Palace.

Unfortunately, they don’t allow cameras on the tour, but it was completely worth the 14€ ticket price. Our tour guide enthusiastically led us through the parts of the palace not open to the general public––old prison cells, torture chambers, and archival rooms––while telling us stories from the past, such as how Casanova managed to escape from prison using a bible, plate of pasta, and a small shovel.

After the tour, we then had time to tour the grand public rooms of Venice, where the huge councils of nobles used to meet to govern the powerful republic. For centuries, Venice was governed by a kind of oligarchical democracy, where 2,000 noble men voted in the Grand Council––pretty impressive for a state that never had a formal written constitution. The Doge himself was elected from one of the leading Venetian families usually around the age of 80, then would serve in the position until his death. However, the position itself didn’t have much political power beginning in the 1200s, when the Rialto families controlled the government through various levels of Councils.

 

Afterwards, we got lunch at an amazing take-out pasta place named Alfredo’s then wandered around and got lost––which, truly, is the best way to spend your time in Venice.

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On a small side street, we found a beautiful bookstore, where books lay stacked in precariously leaning towers. I bought some postcards to send back home.

We jumped on a vaporetto to take a look at all the palazzos along the Grand Canal by water.

We pondered some modern art at the Guggenheim.

Then we managed to get so completely lost that a kind man asked if we needed help and pointed us in the direction of the old Jewish ghetto in Venice.

For dinner, we sought out a place where we could try the Venetian speciality of spaghetti al nero di seppia, dyed black by squid’s ink.

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Exhausted from a full day of walking, we finally made it back to the hostel for another round of hot chocolate and where we met a group of American students who were visiting Venice for the weekend. Then, we headed out early the next morning to make our train back home.

All in all, I couldn’t have asked for a better way to kick off my birthday week. The Venice of reality was even more charming than the Venice of my dreams.

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I can’t wait to return some day.

Sunset on the Danube

In Vienna, every time we tried to navigate our way through the U-Bahn, we commenced a kind of game of verbal gymnastics, struggling to pronounce all the German words. This was further complicated by indecipherable name of the metro nearest to our apartment: Taborstaße, with a funky ß character that we had no idea how to pronounce. (Turns out, it’s just a kind of s-sound. You can become a better German speaker than me here.) As we would try to chart our route, we would inevitably stumble over stops like Kettenbrückengasse, Donaustradtbrücke, and Perfektastraße. Of course, this was only made more embarrassing by the fact that most Austrians speak English perfectly, with almost no accent.

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We got up extra early to meet Matt at his metro station at 8 a.m., then jumped back on the metro to head to Schönbrunn Palace, which served as the summer estate for the Hapsburgs. Once on the grounds, we quickly purchased our tickets then took off to explore its grounds.

The Schonbrunn Palace, whose name means “beautiful spring,” has over 1,400 rooms inside this Rococo summer residence from the 17th century. The gardens of the palace stretched on far into the distance. Manicured gardens extended across the back lawn and up this gigantic hill, where we climbed up to have a spectacular view of the estate below. As part of the palace estate, there was also a labyrinth, zoo, and never-ending trails.

After a jaunt through the garden, we headed back into the palace to get a tour of the inside rooms, only to realize that the crowds had significantly grown since we purchased our tickets at opening time that morning. Squeezing our way through the tour groups, we picked up our audio guides and began to walk through the imperial apartments. (Unfortunately, cameras were not allowed!)

We headed back over to Stephanplatz to show Matt around the area and finally find St. Peter’s Church, which we had tried to search for in the afternoon rain the day before but failed. At last, we used the handy GPS from the Trip Advisor app to locate the church, and peeked inside for a quick look. Church #7—check!

When we were walking through the area, we also came across the performance of an Austrian dance group in the street.

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Belvedere Palace was the next stop on our list. Along the way, we found the Turkish embassy!

IMG_2475 We also stumbled upon a Soviet monument. Matt was able to translate it for us: “Monument to the soldiers of the Soviet Army, which for the liberation of Austria from fascism have fallen…” Upon further research, the monument was built in 1945 to honor the 17,000 Soviet soldiers who fell in the Battle of Vienna during WWII.

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Belvedere served as the residence of the Prince of Savoy, today housing two Baroque palaces, the Orangery, and the Palace Stables. We didn’t go inside, but we took the time to walk around the gardens and appreciate the buildings themselves.

Afterwards, we headed back to our apartment for the afternoon to catch up on readings for class. In the evening, Alex and I decided to take the U-Bahn down to see the Danube River, since we hadn’t had a chance to visit it in Vienna yet.

The view from the U-Bahn station––much better than the dark, damp tunnels of DC's metro!

The view from the U-Bahn station––much better than the dark, damp tunnels of DC’s metro!

Like Prague and Budapest, Vienna stretches over both banks of a major river. By the time we arrived, it was just in time to watch the sunset.

Once the sun had set, we quickly took the metro over to meet Matt for dinner. We decided on Pancho, a Mexican restaurant that our host had recommended. Coming from California, I could eat Mexican food every meal of my life and never tire of it—so I was extremely happy to find a substitute for my Mexican fix in Vienna. (And it was surprisingly good!)

Afterwards, we headed over to Café Central, one of the famous coffeehouses in Vienna, for some dessert and coffee.

Because when in Vienna, sometimes you have to do as the Viennese do—with sachertorte and cappuccinos.

The Sound of Music

The hills are ALIVEEEE with the SOUND of MUUUUSIC!

I couldn’t help but replay the Sound of Music soundtrack in my head all day as we spent the day touring Vienna. Granted, Vienna may have been far from the idyllic estate of the Von Trapp family, but I think the breathtaking beauty of this Austrian city deserves only the best Rodgers and Hammerstein soundtrack to accompany its endless gardens, stately palaces, and towering churches.

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This morning, Alex and I arrived to the train station at the crack of dawn in Budapest—lugging our suitcases through the metro as many people were still coming back home from the night before. We had bought our tickets online several weeks prior through a very confusing Hungarian website—I ended up on the 7:10 train, while Alex ended up on the train the hour before at 6:05.

So, after Alex got on his train, I waited around an hour for my own—buying a chocolate croissant and a “cappuccino” that was really powder and hot water in a cup from the stand at the station.

Once on my train, I almost immediately fell asleep, only waking up periodically to hand my ticket to the conductor to be stamped. Soon enough, I arrived at the train station in Vienna, reunited with Alex, and headed on the metro to meet up with our Airbnb host for the weekend.

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We quickly set our bags down, and then headed out into the city. To make the most of our time here, we had planned our itinerary the night before—today, we planned to conquer most of the major sights in Stephanplatz and visit the Hofburg Palace, which served for many centuries as the palace of the Hapsburgs.

The clouds and rain of the afternoon did little to obstruct the beauty of the city. We couldn’t stop exclaiming at every corner our shock at how the palace grounds just kept stretching on and on—palace next to palace, garden next to garden. More than once, we wandered around a corner to find a new church, then peeking inside for a jawdropping glance at the soaring ceilings and lavishly decorated interiors.

Vienna, or Wien as it’s called in German, is the capital and largest city of Austria, with a population of over 1.75 million. (In fact, it’s the largest German-speaking city in the world after Berlin.) For centuries, it has served as a major political, economic, and cultural center for Europe, as it was the capital of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Today, it’s a beautiful and vibrant city, often topping the charts of various quality of living indices. (For example, Vienna has one of the best public transportation systems that I’ve ever been on, with strikingly clean and modern stations all available for a simple 48-hour pass.)

At the Hofburg Palace, we purchased our tickets and began with a tour of the imperial silverware collection. We toured an exhibition on the life of Empress Elizabeth in the Sisi Museum, and finished with a tour through the apartments of the imperial family.

The Hofburg Palace has served as a documented seat of government since 1279, and was used the principal winter residence by the Hapsburgs. Over the years, more wings and buildings were added to form the mini city it is today. Today, in addition to the museum, the complex also houses the official residence of the president of Austria, as well as most of the offices of government ministries.

(Unfortunately, no photos were allowed past the Silverware Collection.)

Afterwards, we continued our stroll around Vienna.

We couldn’t get enough.

At one point, we wandered into the Votive Church, where there had live baroque organ music playing.

For dinner, we met up with Matt, who also arrived into Vienna in the evening by bus. Taking our host’s recommendation, we had dinner at a traditional Austrian restaurant, where the servers even dressed up in lederhosen and they served all types of wiener schnitzel.

Tomorrow, we’re getting up early for another round of palaces—the Schonbrunn Palace and Belevere Palace—then seeing how many other places we can fit in. Time to get some sleep!