It’s smells like fall…like leaves! …dying…

Today was pretty much everything a little kid would want on their birthday…and since it was Kristin’s birthday and she is practically a 6 year-old, this was perfect. You are about to read about a day full of castles, cake, trains & dinosaurs. Feel free to let your inner 6 year old out and be overly-excited about all of this etchings along with us 🙂

Our plan for the morning was to go to the Kunsthistorisches Museum. We hopped on the metro and got off right outside huge, old-looking, stone, twin buildings. Our museum wasn’t open yet so we wandered through the open area between it and it’s mirror image. That’s when we noticed the sign…”The Dinosaurs are Back!” We dare any of you to see such a sign and not be intrigued! It turns out that the twin building also held a museum, a Museum of Natural History. By now even our new, we-don’t-actually-know-them-in-real-life followers should know that this would catch our attention way more than a museum full of art…plus it was alredy open! Needless to say, we changed our plans and visited the Natural History Museum.
The first floor of the museum was an evolutionary look at our planet from the beginning. It started with rocks…lots and lots of rocks…and minerals….and such…They were very pretty to look at, but being as we wouldn’t have known most of the names in English we were extra lost in German. We needed a GeoPhys to help us out…where are you Mr. Styan!?
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We then progressed through small marine critters, up to more complex & giant marine critters. In this phase we saw a lot of fossils, and aren’t fossils just the coolest things?!? They are millions of years old and yet have a perfectly preserved image of something that doesn’t even exist anymore in them! Super cool!
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Next animals got legs and came ashore and from here we get those large reptiles that once roamed our planet: dinosaurs! Yeah, Dinosaurs! There aren’t even words for how cool they are!
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After pulling Kristin away from the dinosaurs we came upon the emergence of mammals. Justine loves the mammals from this time. All the cool mammals lived during the Pleistocene. Sabertooth kitties, wooly mammoths, giant sloths and wooly rhinos…basically things that exist now but in a bigger, scarier, hairier version…sounds awesome!
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The second floor focussed on the animals on the planet today. We began with the invertebrates in the ocean. Beginning here Justine tried to remember what she has learned in all of her animal classes. She doesn’t know any German but she did have to learn many of these words in Latin. Latin is universal and helped her identify things she knew! However, the marine organisms of the North Pacific are not the same as the ones in the Mediterranean. Next came the insects and many legged critters. The beetles were the most interesting thing here. They come in so many colors and patterns! In general it is amazing how many different types of insects there are out there (there are over a million known insect species!). Moving on to vertebrates we came to way more fish and birds than we would have liked. We did see some cool birds that we didn’t know actually existed….and one that doesn’t exist anymore, the dodo bird. He was awfully funny looking. While looking at owls we picked the ones we would have had as pets if we went to Hogwarts.
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Amphibians and reptiles consisted of many little and cute frogs and salamanders but also giant lizards and snakes. Kristin found these interesting, Justine looked the other direction. The many alligators in the center were also frightening. Mammals was the most enjoyable part, and what Justine knew most about. Though she doesn’t know that Latin names of Austrian mammal species…zoology 408 only taught her the mammals in Alberta. We liked scoping out the things that reminded us of home, along with the guys who were totally weird & exotic.
There was also a really cool, interactive exhibit dealing with extremes. We learned about how animals survive in places where it is very hot, cold, dark or there is a lack of oxygen. It was really effective because there were things for you to look at, touch and hear everywhere.

When we’d finished being educated we set off in search of lunch. We ended up getting a hot dog from a street stall…but don’t think for a second that this would be a disappointing birthday lunch for Kristin…it was sausage! The hot dog was made in an interesting fashion; they cut the top off the bun, squirt in the ketchup & mustard and then shove in the sausage. This way your wiener & condiments are enclosed within the bun so its very neat & tidy…great for walking and eating. But we did not do that. Instead we found a bench in a nearby park and enjoyed the view of some random old stony building. This city is full of these great looking places. There are just too many to keep track of!

We followed lunch up with dessert. Don’t judge, everyone deserves cake on their birthday! Plus it was our third day in Vienna, on our third trip to Austria and we still hadn’t tried the famous Sacher torte. Sacher torte was invented by Franz Sacher in Vienna in 1832. The cake consists of two layers of dense, not overly sweet chocolate cake with a thin layer of apricot jam in the middle and dark chocolate icing on the top and sides. The only place where the Original Sacher Torte is available outside of Austria is in the Sacher shop in Bolzen, Italy. There was a slight tanginess from the marmalade & the ganache was tasty that we guess set it apart a little. But, in our opinion, it tasted like chocolate cake…good chocolate cake, but chocolate cake all the same.

Now comes the ever exciting part of our day where we ride a train. We are sure you are sick of it by now so we will make it quick…We went to the hostel, grabbed our bags. We then took the metro to the right station and hopped on the train. For the first time on the continent we actually had to buy a train ticket. Slovakia is not covered by our Eurail passes for some unknown reason. We were good girls and bought the ticket, but being as it only needed to be from the last train stop in Austria to Bratislava it only cost €4. Lucky we did, they actually checked our tickets on this stretch of the ride. Just over an hour later we arrived in Bratislava where we walked the couple of blocks to our hostel. Easy-peasy! The hostel is ok. We are in a 6 person room that is a little squishy, one of those rooms where the jam in as many beds as possible and leave little room for walking. The bathroom is nice though and there is a kitchen for us to use if we want…which we actually might do this time.

Do you not know anything about Slovakia? We didn’t really either…that is until Justine pulled our her handy Wikipedia app and informed us. How about she does the same for you!
Slovakia has been a part of many countries and kingdoms since Slavs first arrived here in the 5th century. Slovakia has been part of the Kingdom of Hungary and the Austro-Hungarian Empire. After the First World War Slovakia formed Czechoslovakia with the Czech Republic. This country fell apart during WWII, but otherwise lasted from 1918 to 1993. After the war, Czechoslovakia fell under Communist rule until 1989. Today Slovakia is an independent state. In recently joined the EU and in 2009 the country adopted the Euro. There are 6 World Heritage Sites in Slovakia! Though, unfortunately, we don’t think we’re not going to see any.

We walked to the Old Town center for supper. After examining a few menus displayed on the street, we picked a place. We had to walk down an alley, down some stairs into a basement, go down a hallway, through a door and past a bathroom area, but we eventually got into the restaurant. The trip was worth it. The food was delicious and the beer was cheap (as was the food). We both had a dish that combined meat cooked in beef broth with a spatzle-like noodle. Kristin paired it with a Slovakian beer she can’t pronounce and Justine had a Radler.
Post dinner Kristin was exceptionally hyper. We are talking seriously giddy, to the extreme. She was bouncing off the walls in the restaurant, pointing out every countries embassy on our city map…and all of the tennis courts, which Bratislavans have went to the trouble of labeling for us.

On the walk home Kristin almost died. Ok in reality she tripped a little on a dip in the sidewalk…and we are talking a little; she didn’t even fall down. But in the moment she saw herself falling into the street & being hit by a bus, so her whole life flashed before her eyes. Her conclusion after seeing a replay of her first 24 years: she’s pretty much awesome.

Things We Learned Today:
– Look at this photo.. Did you ever realize how small the volume of the atmosphere is in comparison to the volume of the Earth!?!?
– Weiner Schnitzel is just German for Schnitzel Viennese style…this just hit us today…Weiner is Viennese…just as Wein is Vienna…all this time we’ve been eating Weiner Schnitzel and we’ve never made that connection…

Love, Luck & Lions, Tiger & Bears…oh my!

If there an oppotunity, please come to Sapporo, Japan.

Today we were thieves…and not the accidental thieves of yesterday, but thieves with full knowing of their thievery. By this we are referring to the fact that we didn’t pay for breakfast again. We just walked in, took our food, ate, and left. No tickets involved. We are such rebels 😉

After beginning our life of crime we set off for the metro. Today we rode the metro a lot (and got good use out of the 48 hour passes we bought). We actually rode 4 of the 5 lines at some point during the day…sometimes within a spance of an hour. On this occasion we took it to Schönbrunn. Among the palaces in Europe, Schönbrunn comes closest to Versailles. This palace was the former summer residence of the Habsburg’s….remember them from yesterday?

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The palace tour took us through a vaierty of state rooms. The general feel of the palace was quite similar to the Hofburg, although bigger & a tad more luxurious. Its funny how these monarchs made their summer homes more grand than the ones they lived in the majority of the year. The walls all carried a shining white base with gold trim…extra wall hangings, paneling & pictures were added from there. There were a selection of 17th century rooms done by Maria Teresa combined with many of 19th century design, decorated during the rule of Franz Joseph & Sisi. We didn’t need the provided audio guide to tell the difference. Maria Teresa had a taste for the ornate and created some truly lavish rooms. Sometimes you would look into the room and have to take a step back because there was so much going on in there. This was especially the case with the oriental rooms. This was a very “in” style to use in that time period so we saw many oriental screens, panel inserts and an entire room wallpapered with white & blue sketches that made the room look like a giant porcelain vase. In stark contrast, Franz Joseph was a simple man. He believed he was a servant of the people (put there devinely by God, but still bound to do the people’s work). His rooms were often painted brown and only had simple paintings of his wife & children. They generally just looked more bare & less shiney. Also fitting with the theme, he slept on a small, simple iron bed, as opposed to the intricately carved wooden structure covered in beaded bedding in Maria Teresa’s room.

Unlike the gardens of Versailles which were meant to shut out the real world, the gardens of Schönbrunn have been a public park since 1779. Opening the gardens to the public was part of Maria Theresa’s reform policy, making the gardens a celebration of the evolution of civilization from autocracy into real democracy. Today you can see many locals jogging or strolling through the grounds, simply because the can. We joined them (in the strolling, not jogging) and took a turn through the vast park area. Wide lanes run the length, normally with patterns of flowers between them but alas it is the end of October and we only got to see dirt shapes. It still looked kind of cool. At the far end is a huge statue dedicated to the god of the sea, Neptune or Possidon (depending on if you’re feeling Roman or Greek). Behind it is a hill and, atop the hill, an arch…but more on that later.
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With our ticket we had free entry into the Kammergarten. This small garden beside the palace looked more like those of the French and British palaces. It was once a fancy private garden for the Habsburg’s. The flowerbeds & hedges created intricate patterns and the whole area was enclosed by an arch covered promenade. This might have looked a bit nicer in the summer when it was all green, but in general the fall colors really brought the grounds to life!

At the end if the gardens is the Gloriette. We walked the length of the gardens and up a large hill to get there. This monument is purely decorative and celebrates Austrian military victory. Our ticket gave us access to the top…and the view was worth the climb. From the arch’s base we could see the palace, but from the top the entire gardens was visible with it. From here we were also rewarded with great views of the city.

On our way back to the palace we peeked at the other wonders the grounds have to offer. There are constantly tree-lined paths running off the sides. Each looked like a perfect “fall stroll” photo. It really showed why locals like to take advantage of this place. The gardens are the home to Europe’s oldest zoo, built in 1752 by Maria Theresa’s husband for the entertainment and education of the court. Peeking in we saw a rhino 🙂 Then there is the labyrinth…which turned out to be an area with 3 separate mazes! The first had high hedges and provided a decent challenge. The other two were tree-lined paths to follow, unveiling games & puzzles along the way. There were spring boards to bounce on, math/logic puzzles to solve, a mirror maze and a fun walk-on glockenspiel to play (it was similar to a large piano set into the floor, where you step on the notes to make little jingles).
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After leaving Schönbrunn we rode the metro to what was basically a random spot in the middle of the city. It is here that the Kummer Hotel is located. Yes, that is a hotel that shares a name with one of our very own writers! We snapped a few photos and went inside to check it out. It looked small but ritzy, with a fancy (and way too expensive for our budgets) restaurant. We wanted to snag some Hotel Kummer swag, but not even the pens at the reception had the hotel name on them…boo!
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Next adventure was a quest for a penny machine. You will recall that we are gathering pressed pennies from around Europe for sister/cousin Alexa’s collection. This is proving to be quite a helpful thing for us: last time we went machine searching we found the best gelato place in Venice and this time we ended up in midway-fair grounds-amusement park-madness. We knew that the penny machine in question was located in a park with a ferris wheel, but we had no idea that the park was actually filled with rides, souvenir shops and midway themed food stands. We took our time walking through the entire park, watching the rides and riders in all of their craziness.
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Returning to the main square of tourist’s Vienna we hit up a gift shop so Justine could buy a book. Ture to her history neediness it was on the Habsburgs…now she has books on both the English & the Austrian monarchs…she just needs French to have a fun set. We then found a restaurant with a heater filled patio and had a hot beverage. It kept us warm, but not warm enough to stay outside to eat. We packed up our stuff and moved inside (at the same restaurant) and had some dinner. Kristin had hunks of meat (rolled into sausage form, but not really tasting like sausage) with fries and Justine had hunks of meat in patty form with pureéd potatoes…because here mashed just isn’t smooth enough apparently.

Highlights of the Day:
– Watching the guy on the street play with his balls…they were glass balls that he would move around in his hands and over his arms like they were just floating there…his performance was even timed to music.

Love, Luck & Labyrinth

If I was going to buy you something it would be the napkins…I was going to go with the Kleenex!

Hello everyone out there in the blog-o-sphere. Today we come to you from Vienna…not Venice, as Kristin keeps calling it, but Vienna…as in Austria…

After dressing in all clean clothes (we did laundry last night 🙂 ) we had breakfast at the hostel. We think we actually stole breakfast from the hostel…it wasn’t until we had selected our choices from the continental spread and were halfway through eating them that someone came around asking if everyone had given her their ticket…what ticket? We think we were supposed to purchase breakfast tickets from reception…oops! We’ll have to do that tomorrow.

It was only a short metro ride to the starting location of Rick Steves’ Vienna City Walk. This handy walk links together Vienna’s three biggest sights within the city center & points out all of the interesting things along the way. Vienna has always been considered the easternmost city of the west. For 640 years, Vienna was the capital of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. The city reached its peak in the 19th century and in 1900 it was the world’s fifth largest city. After starting and losing the first World War, the Empire fell and the first Austrian Republic formed. During WWII the city and the country was occupied by the Nazis. Because of this the city suffered severe bombing, leaving the city a quarter destroyed in 1945.

The first stop on our tour was the Vienna Opera House. This building is one of the planet’s premier houses of music. Dating from 1869, many classical greats have performed on this stage. It towers above you as a mass of classically carved stone with a upper level promenade and greened copper roof. It is a fine exampe of Neo-Renaissance architecture…because we are trying to learn historic architecture styles, so you might as well too 😉

The second of the big three is St. Stephens. St. Stephen’s Cathedral dominates the Vienna skyline (the south tower is 450ft tall!) and is the centre of the city. The church dates from 1300-1450 and is the third church built on this location. During the war the church almost managed to evade damage. Even when the local Nazi commander instructed his men to destroy it (having sensed their coming defeat) the soilders disobeyed and the church was unharmed. But then the inevitable day came near the end of the war: allied bombs missed the church but hit nearby, close enough for sparks to leap to the building. The roof burned and collapsed into the nave and the cathedral’s huge bell crashed to the ground.
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The church is huge! The nave is more than a football field long and nine stories tall! It’s also really beautiful. I fits the mold of a gothic church really well…that’s is to say, it has a dark, detailed exterior and a bright & open interior. The multitudes of windows let light stream into the spaces. The stained glass here had an interesting theme running throughout: each window was made up of a collection of simple squares. Most were pale blue, green & purple. The original windows had been much more vibrant shades of the same colors, but the WWII fire blew them out. The war-torn area could barely afford the expense of replacing them and had to use a cheaper glass for the new version. No where near as exciting.

The final stop was the Hofburg Palace. This complex of palaces is where the Habsburg Emperors lived for 600 years. The Habsburgs spent the winter here, while summers were spent at Schönbrunn (tune in tomorrow for more information). The palace began as a 13th century medieval castle and expanded over the centuries to today’s 240,000 acre complex.
The Habsburg Empire is one of the great dynasties in European history. This family ruled, at one time, most of Eastern Europe. Empress Maria-Theresa used her 11 daughters to connect the Habsburg’s to the other royal families of Europe. Most well known of her daughters is Marie Antoinette. Franz-Joseph accended the throne with his wife Elizabeth, or ‘Sisi’ in the mid 19th century and the Austrian Empire became the Austro-Hungarian Empire. The Habsburg family was well liked by the people of the Empire. Unlike many European monarchies, the Habsburg’s were never removed from the throne via revolution or protest. The Austro-Hungarian Empire can be blamed for starting WWI (it was their heir to the throne who was assassinated) and as a result, when the war was over the Empire was broken apart and the Habsburg Dynasty was over.

Our palace visit began with a visit to the Imperial Silver Collection. To put it bluntly, we saw a lot of plates…and cups…and serving dishes…and cutlery, you can’t forget the cutlery. It was kind of interesting, just a little repetitive. We learned of the progression from using purely gold & silver dishes to having porcelain for some courses and then to purely porcelain dishes (as the metal ones had to be melted down to use for ammunition in the Napoleanic Wars). One of the interesting things was to see the various centerpieces…they were often incredibly huge…to the point that there is no way you could see anyone on the other side of the table. The collection concluded with pieces of a formal porcelain dining set that was featured in an award-winning exhibit at the 1850 London’s Worlds Fair. It was so exquisite that the Queen of England bought the set and then sent some of the dishes to the Hapsburgs as a present (as the pieces where Austrian made).
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The tour through the palace featured a museum dedicated to Sisi, the wife of Franz Joseph. Sisi was 16 when she was married and although she did care for her husband she never enjoyed the public court life she was now destined for. After having a few children and playing the role as Empress, Sisi retreated from public life and travelled. It was on one of these trips where she was assassinated in 1898 by an Italian anarchist when she was 61. Now Sisi is the most famous Habsburg. She can be found everywhere in Vienna: on cups, Kleenex, books, plates and playing cards. She is one of those people who becomes more famous after their death. The image of the relucatant and shy Empress, so beloved by the King but assassinated before her time, is one of those fairytales with a tragic ending. The museum did a great job telling Sisi’s story in an exciting & modern way. There were pictures & multimedia, display cases with her things & clothes, and an effective use of backgrounds & lighting to create the appropriate mood. By the end you felt most attatched to and very bad for both poor Sisi and Franz Joseph, who really was desperately in love with her.

The imperial apartments were similar to the apartments we saw in France and England (with white paneling & gold imbellishments and a variety of colors of wall coverings). Because the monarch was dissolved shortly after the death of Franz Joseph in 1916, the rooms are still decorated as they were when his family lived there. Franz Joseph’s study was where he spent everyday. He would be up by 3:30am everyday (except when he was out late at a function the night before…then he slept in until 4:30) and would work until family supper time. The room was decorated with pictures of his children and many large portraits of Sisi. He adored his wife and it was obvious how much while in this room. We also saw the room where Sisi would exercise (she had to maintain her super slim figure…she was 5’8″ and weighted only 100lbs) and have her hair done every morning (it took three hours to deal with her ankle length hair).

Next stop was the Habsburg treasury. Rick Steves called this the best collection of jewels on the continent so we were excited! It did not disappoint. There were so many shiny things that sometimes you didn’t know which was to look. Two of the coolest & shiniest things were these beauties:
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First, the personal crown of Rudolph II has survived since 1602. It was the adopted crown for the Austrian Empire after the Holy Roman Empire was dissolved. The second crown dates from 960 and is the crown of Otto I, the first king to call himself Holy Roman Emperor. It wasn’t just crowns though (although those were some of the best parts). We also saw cloaks, spetars, jewels, cradles, and soe ho,y relics…including tiny bones of many waits, the tooth of St John and a piece of Christ’s loincloth. Oh and also a narwhals horn!

The final stop on the Habsburg tour for the day was the Kaisergruft. Located in this Capuchin Church is the imperial crypt of the family. The idea of going into their crypt was a little creepy, but well worth a visit! There are a lot of coffins down there and each one is grander than the last! But after seeing where they lived & what they ate off of, we don’t know how we had expected any less. There were definitely a couple of highlights once we were underground: Empress Maria-Theresa is in a double coffin with her husband Franz I. And it is quite the coffin. (the third photo below). Those figures you see on there are life-sized…and creepily realistic… A couple of the tombs always have flowers nearby. The most popular tomb for flowers is Sisi. She lays beside her husband Franz Joseph, who is also next to their son, an archduke who committed suicide. Finally, the two most recent Habsburg’s have been layed to rest here. The last monarchs, who only ruled for two years before the Empire was dissolved, have been layed here since their recent deaths.
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We had an early supper as we had evening plans. The restaurant we went to was nice and we bravely ordered off the German menu without any consultation with the waiter. It’s impressive how good we are getting at recognizing German food. The only real surprises about our meals were that they each had two courses. Kristin’s started with an orange soup (apple, carrot & curry we believe) and Justine’s finished with a dessert (some kind of loafy-cake thing with a meringue top). For the main courses, Justine’s turned out to be a piece of unbreaded schnitzel with pureéd potatoes and Kristin’s was spinach & cheese ravioli with a sweet beet sauce.
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This morning, as we were walking around admiring the Opera House, a man in a old fashion red jacket walked up to us. You see these guys everywhere in Vienna and they are all selling tickets to random performances. We listened to our guy’s shpeal and decided that Vienna seemed like a very appropriate place to take part in a cultured event. Our show ended up being in the 14th century Palais Palfry in Figaro Hall, where Mozart gave concerts in 1792 with his sister. It was a relatively small hall (think larger room not concert hall) which gave everything a much more relaxed, intimate feel. There were 3 violins, a cello and a pianist and they played for an hour and a half. The first half of the show they were in period dress and performed Mozart. At intermission they changed into dressy black clothes and performed Strauss in the second half…Strauss is actually from Vienna! A really cool thing about the show was that at several different points other people came in to join the performance. There was a woman who sang opera for 4 different songs…she was incredible! We don’t know how a person can make their voice do what her’s does (and still make it sound good!). There was also a ballerina & male ballet dancer (ballerono?) who performed both solo and together. It wasn’t a fancy opera or anything but thanks to skating we know our classical music and were really able to enjoy the pieces they performed. But, being as we are not extremely classy folk, we liked that the show was more relaxed. All in all it was a great show, well worth the cheap price we paid for the tickets!

Highlights of the Day:
– Learning about the Habsburgs. Justine was so happy as this was on her to do list for when she got home…but Kristin actually really enjoyed it as well.
– Acting classy in this classy town!

Love, Luck & Leopold…he was a Hapsburg you know!