Monday, January 7, 2013

Christmas Vacation

The weeks leading up to Christmas were a pleasant time in Sofia.  We enjoyed seeing decorations around town, and were happy we were able to visit the Christmas market a few times.  I attended a fun Fulbright holiday party, and we baked cookies at home.  We left town before Christmas, though, to do some traveling over the university’s winter break.

On December 22 we flew from Sofia to Vienna International Airport and took a bus directly to Bratislava, the capital of Slovakia.  We stayed for two nights in a grand old hotel on one of the squares in the center of the old town.  It was a very festive setting, with a Christmas market right outside our door and others just a block or two away, and a blizzard on our second day there.  We spent our time wandering through the compact old town, and I walked to Bratislava.  My walk up the hill in the sleet was rewarded with some nice views of the old town and the Danube.

On Christmas Eve we took the train from Bratislava to Budapest, where we spent four nights in a lovely boutique hotel.  The stores were just closing when we arrived, and most shops, restaurants, and attractions remained closed until the 27th.  So, we stocked up on groceries and took advantage of our kitchenette during that period.  We enjoyed the pool at our hotel, and watched a few fun movies, including Christmas Vacation.  It was in German, but we found ourselves reciting a good portion of the script from memory. 

Although the city was generally quiet on Christmas Day, we attended a performance of the Nutcracker by the Kiev City Ballet, and attended mass at St. Stephen’s Basilica.  On St. Stephen’s Day, we walked across the Danube to explore Castle Hill. On the morning of our last full day in Budapest we visited the excellent Museum of Transport in City Park.  In the afternoon, I went to the Terror Haza museum, which is located in the building that was home to Hungary’s Nazi party and later housed the secret police during the communist era.  We finished off the evening with a trip to the biggest of Budapest’s Christmas markets.

On the 28th we took the train from Budapest to Salzburg.  This was one of the new Railjet trains operated by Austrian Federal Railways, and it topped out around 230 km/hr (~140 mph).  It was five-hour trip, but Norah did well and we checked into our hotel in Salzburg by late afternoon, took a walk through the newer part of the city just after dark, and had dinner at a great Indian restaurant. 

The next morning we walked through Salzburg’s old town.  We especially enjoyed Salzburg Cathedral and the beautiful graveyard around St. Peter’s Church.  Around lunchtime we hiked up the hill to Hohensalzburg Fortress.  We didn’t tour the fortress, but instead walked along the adjacent Monchsberg ridge and then headed back to our hotel for a nap.  In the early evening, we explored Steingasse, a well-preserved medieval street that was once part of the main route to Venice.  After an unintended trip to the airport due to a bus-route change that apparently wasn’t updated in the official December 2012 Salzburg Tourist Map, we found the Augustiner Braustubl, “where, since 1621, the art of brewing and a cordial atmosphere guarantee the enjoyment of delicious cool beer.” This brewery and beer hall located within an active monastery was an absolute blast, and one of the highlights of the trip. 

Hall in Tirol.
From Salzburg we traveled to Hall in Tirol, just outside of Innsbruck, for three nights in a fantastic family-run guesthouse.  We spent New Year’s Eve exploring the village at a leisurely pace.  We had an early dinner and noticed some fireworks as we walked back in the early evening.  The fireworks continued to grow in frequency throughout the evening, and we could see them coming from dozens of points up and down the Inn River valley.  A little after 11:30 p.m. we witnessed an amazing and intense fireworks display.  Unlike fireworks shows at home, this wasn’t one display being put on by a single public entity, but was a conglomeration of what I assume were a hundred different individuals and businesses.  For over a half-hour we were treated to constant fireworks everywhere along the valley, with the Alps in the background.

On New Year’s Day we took the eight-minute train ride to Innsbruck, the Tyrolean capital, and from there took a fantastic funicular and cable car ride up the mountainside on Innsbruck’s Nordkettenbahn.  Our destination was Seegrube, a ski area with an elevation of approximately 2,000 meters.  We rented a sled and played in the snow for over an hour looking out over beautiful scenery before heading partway back down for a stop at the Alpenzoo, Europe’s highest zoo.

The following day we took the train to our final destination, Vienna.  We spent our final afternoon, evening, and the following morning relaxing and sightseeing.  While it probably wasn’t enough time to really do Vienna justice, we got a good feel for the city and were able to at least see the main sights. 

Our short return flight to Sofia went smoothly, and we were back to our apartment well before bedtime.  Wherever home is, I think you appreciate it more when you return from someplace else, and this trip was no different.  Sofia felt comfortable and familiar, and a pleasant contrast to the more touristed areas we’d left behind.  I particularly appreciated our taxi ride home, which cost the equivalent of 4.50.

Overall, the trip was a great success.  I was happy that Norah adapted as well as she did to sleeping in five different locations over twelve nights and missing naps on our travel days.  I was also glad that we were able to successfully navigate the wide variety of public transportation options within and between our destinations.  I wasn’t sure how easy things would be on the train, metro, or bus with a child and the corresponding extra baggage, but it was all quite successful and left me feeling empowered.  Given the time of year, a lot of our exploring was done after dark, but I actually appreciated the opportunity to see the cities at night. 

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