Pat and I are in staying in a small pensionne in Vienna’s old town, or Inner Stadt, an amazing mixture of neoclassic buildings with modern storefronts housing Mont Blanc, Tiffany, etc. It is the first leg of a long-awaited trip to Central Europe. There seem to be hot dog stands everywhere, with small children toting sausage sandwiches the size of baseball bats. Almost everyone speaks English, especially in the tourism business. We had a cab driver who did not, although he answered one question in Spanish and noted that he is a Habsburg, who also ruled Spain as well as Austria-Hungary at one point. But we also have found many of the denizens to be a little diffident – not overly friendly.
Vienna is the first stop on a three-week trip through the Balkans. That area had been on my personal list for a long time, and the real impetus for this trip came after a some reading about the era leading to, and the aftermath of, the first world war. It was on Pat’s list because it sounded exotic and beautiful.
In the 19th Century, the Austria-Hungarian Empire ruled millions of people of different ethnicities: German-speakers in Austria and the Magyars of Hungary, parts of what now includes Italy, Romania, Bulgaria and the Balkan countries. In the late 19th Century, they took over parts of Croatia, Serbia and Bosnia-Herzegovina from the Ottoman Empire. It was in Sarajevo, Bosnia and Herzegovina, that a Serbian nationalist assassinated the Archduke Franz Ferdinand, which lead to the war, itself. And in the aftermath, the areas that composed the Habsburg empire of Austria-Hungary, the Ottoman Empire, and the Russian Empire all were changed forever.
I guess it’s easy to look back with a little nostalgia, especially when you think about the wars in the Middle East, the former Yugoslavia, and World War II itself, which all resulted in one way or another from the decisions made after the Great War. We are still living with some bad decisions in the Arab states. But reading about all this in Edmonds, while a great retirement hobby for me, isn’t the same as getting to see the sites up close.
So six months or so ago, we planned this trip with our close friends, the Bukeys. The starting place is Vienna, where we decided to spend a few days adjusting to the time change, then fly to Dubrovnik for the tour itself, which will go through Bosnia and Herzegovina, Croatia and Slovenia, ending in Budapest. The major part will be with a tour group, Outdoor Adventure Travel (OAT). I have always resisted tour groups, not wanting anyone to tell me what time to be on the bus, where to eat and when to get out of bed in the morning. But I was wary of planning the logistics myself of a trip this complicated. Pat has traveled with OAT in the past and really enjoyed the guide and the experience. So this is a little bit of an experiment for me.
Other things changed in the run-up to the trip. The Bukeys were unfortunately unable to come, and I went back to work at Woodland Park Zoo on a temporary basis. The zoo kindly agreed to put up with this three-week jaunt.
So that brings us to Vienna, which is a remarkable showplace of neoclassic architecture and one-time grandeur. Before World War I, Vienna was a pretty big deal. Crossroads of Central Europe, seat of the Habsburg dynasty, last bastion in Europe against periodic attacks by the Ottomans through the Middle Ages. I have heard it referred to as the “Paris of the East,” perhaps in reference to the way the city was modernized in the 19th Century. Of course I was fully prepared for this having once lived in Walla Walla, which some city fathers called the “Athens of the West.” I am unsure why.
In any case, Vienna’s grandeur remains, but the political significance does not. Now Vienna is the capital of Austria only. At 1.8 million, it is smaller than Rome or Paris and half the size of Berlin. This year is the 150th anniversary of the Ringstrasse, or ring road around the old town, which the Emperor Franz Joseph began in the 1860’s and didn’t complete until just before the war. You can take a trolley ride around the circumference and see the great neoclassical edifices from the era, great museums and universities, a couple of churches and palaces, and great homes – many of which now are five-star hotels.
We have one more day here before departing for Dubrovnik and the beginning of the tour. I hope to keep up this blog during the trip. We’ll see.