Austria

Vienna: Kunsthistorisches Museum incl. Iron Men

The Kunsthistorisches Museum is the final location in Vienna I’ll be blogging about. I wanted to visit primarily to see the Kunstkammer, because Kunstkammer and Wunderkammer are music to my ears (Wunderkammer admittedly more so, because wonder!) – I love a cabinet of curiosities. However, when we bought tickets, the ticket man tried to upsell us into seeing their Iron Men exhibition, which runs until 26 June, and because it was only €3 extra (on top of the hefty €21 base admission) and because I love armour, I gave in, so that was where we headed first.

And I’m so glad we did, because this was probably my favourite thing that we saw in the whole of Vienna. It was such an amazing exhibition. Not only were the objects on display excellent and unusual, the interpretation was fantastic as well. They told us the things we really want to know about armour, like how do you move in it, and how does it stay on your body? The only thing missing was how you poop when wearing it, though they actually might have covered that somewhere and I’ve just forgotten.

To illustrate my first two questions (don’t worry, not the third), they had a series of videos showing a modern man doing stuff in armour, my favourite of which featured him climbing up ladders, doing a somersault, and a “bonus move” of doing the little side jump and heel-click that I can’t master even in normal clothes. He also put on the armour to show how it was held together by leather linings and straps, which is what fitted it to the body, but because the leather has deteriorated so much in most surviving armour, all we can usually see is the steel that was left behind. Happily, they did have a few pieces here that still had straps intact so we could get a better idea of how it worked.

I was also delighted to see that (one of) my ancestral homeland(s) of Slovenia was responsible for some of the finest pieces in here, like the eagle helmet above the preceding paragraph. I hadn’t seen much armour from there before, nor did I really know what was going on there in the medieval era, so it was nice to get some idea from the descriptions of armour and tournaments. The most interesting part was probably the section on jousts of peace, which were were done purely for fun, and for which competitors wore amusing masks, like devils, birds, the excellent lion shown above, and creepiest of all, ones painted to look like people, which you can see below.

There was so much here that was absolutely fascinating, from the techniques used to make different colours of armour (peep that gorgeous blue armour at the start of the post), to the clothes they were wearing under the armour, and the way fashions changed over time. Particularly loved the pointy toed boots with the removable tips so the wearer could enter a room in style but take them off for battle, and the suit of armour with removable ruffles on the sleeves. Honestly, they spent so much time on the construction and style trends of armour that this felt almost like a fashion exhibition, and that is certainly not a complaint coming from me!

I think it’s pretty clear that I think this exhibition is a must-see if you’re in Vienna, and I could go on about it a lot longer, but in the interest of time, and as I had to in real life (since we were flying back home that afternoon and had an airport to get to), I’ll cut things short and move on to my original reason for visiting, the Kunstkammer.

 

The Kunstkammer takes up almost an entire floor of the museum and contains the accumulated treasures of a number of Habsburg rulers, mainly those who ruled in the 16th and 17th centuries. We made the mistake of walking in at the wrong end and deciding to walk back to the entrance so we could see everything in order. This was…not a short journey. I think it’s impossible to visit, walk through that endless parade of rooms stuffed with exquisite objects, and not conclude that the Habsburgs were both far too wealthy and in power for far too long. Not saying that most of their collection wasn’t gorgeous and worth preserving, but it was far more stuff than any one family needs.

 

Because our time was so limited and there was so much here, I decided to focus primarily on the things that interested me most, which means automata! The ones here were unbelievably intricate and fabulous and included a ship that moved across a table whilst musicians played on board, with the ship’s cannon firing as a finale; a spectacularly creepy archer that also moved forward whilst his eyes rolled around in his head and he fired a bow with a real miniature arrow; a moving musical carriage with a rearing horse; a few different clocks with moving figures, and more! Though I wished we could have seen them live in action, I suppose it wouldn’t be great conservation-wise if they had them constantly up and running, but they did have the next best thing in the form of videos showing them in motion, available to watch on tablets in each room. They are happily also available on the museum’s website, so you can watch them too.

There were also lots of exceptionally detailed figurines and much less exciting silverware and glassware, save for a glass dragon that shot water in the face of the unsuspecting user if they pressed the wrong button when dispensing their drink (below left). You would need to spend hours here to be able to read all the signage and take everything in properly; as we had less than an hour in the Kunstkammer before we needed to leave, it was only ever going to be a whistle-stop tour. Still, I think I did manage to see all the best bits!

Lest you think this is all there was, let me assure you that the museum did have a number of other galleries. We quickly walked through the Roman and Egyptian collections (the Egyptian galleries, as you can see, had beautifully decorated themed interiors, as did the rest of the museum). There is also a picture gallery, which most famously contains a number of Bruegels, including The Tower of Babel. Although we were trying to hurry, we ended up walking through the whole of the picture gallery as well, because there was only one entrance/exit so we had to circle through all the rooms to leave. Consequently, we had to skip the entire top floor of the museum, which contained the coin collection and possibly another gallery, but I’m not that invested (ha) in coins anyway, so no major loss.

 

Basically, the moral of the story is don’t be like us, and allow yourself a whole day here if you want to see everything properly, because three hours was nowhere near enough time. I would also advise not using the toilets in the basement – there was a massive queue for the ladies’ because there were only two stalls (I thought the British Museum was bad at peak times, but at least they have about twenty stalls, so you’re in with a chance) and some woman jumped the queue just as I got to the front, which I was definitely not happy about (I did express my displeasure in English, which she clearly felt free to ignore). It’s an expensive museum that would almost certainly be free if it were in London, but at least we got our money’s worth out of the Iron Men exhibition, which I could not have loved more. 5/5 for Iron Men, 3.5/5 for the rest of the museum.

Vienna: The Wurstelprater

There are few things I love more than a creepy European amusement park, and Wurstelprater, or simply Prater as it’s more commonly known (though there are no shortages of sausages inside the park, which is how I’m going to assume it got its name), is no exception. This is one of the few places we came on our last visit to Vienna, and remembering how many creepy clowns there were, I definitely wanted to come back. The park is free to enter (you only pay if you want to actually ride anything), and though we didn’t do much other than wander around and eat some cotton candy and ice cream, I wanted to do a (admittedly half-assed) picture post to share some of the creepiness with you. Enjoy!

This whole block of toilets was creepy clown themed.

Why does this man have a coin coming out of his butt? Can anyone explain this to me?

Possibly the scariest clown here, and there was some stiff competition.

Not as scary as the clowns.

We did not go in there.

I can’t decide if the hot dog or the clown bin is weirder.

I loved this gorilla. He delivered a whole speech in German, but I’ve no idea what he was saying.

I don’t remember this looking quite so unsettling in person, but yikes!

My German isn’t great, but I’m choosing to translate this as “Shit Hall”.

Don’t think I’ll be boarding that train.

There’s even a mural in the Prater U Bahn station featuring creepy bench clown!

Vienna: Central Cemetery & The Funeral Museum

I couldn’t visit Vienna without visiting a cemetery, and Central Cemetery, which is one of the biggest in Europe, caught my eye immediately, not least because they have a funeral museum within the cemetery. Central Cemetery was opened in 1874 as an interdenominational cemetery, which was somewhat controversial at the time (the Catholic church was NOT happy). Despite its name, Central Cemetery is far from central (it’s in Simmering, which is literally the end of the line on the U Bahn and you still have to take a tram from there to reach the cemetery), so to attract burials, the Viennese authorities decided to create a “celebrity section” of composers, which involved digging up Beethoven, Schubert, Brahms, Salieri, Strauss, and Schoenberg from their respective cemeteries and re-interring them here. Mozart was spared that, presumably because he’s already buried elsewhere in Vienna, but there is a memorial here to him.

Other than the composers’ corner (and the museum of course), the main attraction of the cemetery is the massive chapel pictured at the start of the post, St Charles Borromeo, which was completed in 1911. It’s equally impressive inside, with art nouveau mosaics and stained glass and a beautiful starry ceiling. I had to laugh at the hand sanitizer bottles shoved in to the holy water fonts though.

I would be remiss if I didn’t talk about Falco, who seems to be the cemetery’s leading attraction. Of course I know “Rock Me Amadeus” and “Der Kommissar”, but I’m not exactly familiar with his entire oeuvre. However, every single Austrian seems to be, judging by both his impressive grave and memorial benches and the sheer amount of people who apparently make a pilgrimage to his grave. His was the easiest to find in the cemetery – all we had to do was follow the crowds!

Other famous burials include Hedy Lamarr, who has quite an unusual memorial consisting of wires with balls strung on them (perhaps something relating to her scientific work?) and Manfred Deix, who I hadn’t heard of previously, but who had my absolute favourite monument in the cemetery. He was a cartoonist, so I assume the cat was based on one of his drawings. I looked at some of his work on the long U Bahn ride back into town, and I like his style!

Marcus has a couple great-grandparents and various other distant relatives who are buried here, so we spent some time looking around the Jewish section for those, and can I just emphasise again how massive this cemetery is? It is incredibly huge; each section stretched on for what felt like miles, and the ground between the rows was not particularly well tended (though still nowhere near as bad as most British cemeteries), so I found myself stumbling a lot as we searched the sections his ancestors were meant to be in. We never ended up finding most of them, possibly because this section was bombed during WWII, but we did, however, find someone with Marcus’s exact name (except for Marcus was spelled Markus), which was kind of exciting, in a creepy way. (I might have forgotten to use my cemetery voice and yelled out, “Holy shit, it’s you!” when I spotted it.)

And on to the museum. The Funeral Museum is housed in the bunker-like basement of an otherwise rather charming building near the cemetery’s entrance (I should say one of the cemetery’s entrances…there’s at least six different tram stops and entrances all outside the perimeter of the cemetery) and costs €7 to enter. Given that the website was all in German, I wasn’t entirely sure if we’d find any English inside the museum, but I was pleasantly surprised to find that everything had an English translation, including a large interactive screen with tonnes of information on the history of the cemetery.

Though this museum wasn’t anywhere near the scale of the National Museum of Funeral History in Houston, and focused primarily on Central Cemetery itself rather than death-related traditions around the world, it was still a pretty cool little museum. We learned a lot about 19th century funerary practices in Austria and enjoyed looking at displays of mourning jewellery, caskets, adorable miniature models of the cemetery, a collection of uniforms worn by funeral attendants, and even a knife for stabbing the heart of a corpse (I guess to prevent vampires?).

The museum clearly also had a sense of humour about itself, because in addition to an excellent collection of death themed cartoons in the last gallery, they also had a quirky little shop selling amusing t-shirts, tote bags, LEGO hearses, and even honey made in the cemetery! I would have loved to buy some of the honey, but because we had hand luggage only, I wouldn’t have been able to take it back, so I settled for a tote bag and some postcards.

 

Other than there being far too much walking, this was a very nice experience. Loved the museum and the cemetery itself. It seems clear that Central Cemetery is meant for the living as well as the dead, as the cemetery also contained a bustling café and another little shop by the entrance full of black humoured merchandise, and was probably one of the busiest cemeteries I’ve been to (which sounds weird to say, but you know what I mean), with most of the visitors seemingly fellow tourists, though there were some people obviously visiting deceased family members as well. It’s just nice to see a cemetery being used as a gathering place in true Victorian style! Even though it’s a little bit of a pain to get here, I highly recommend visiting if you find yourself in Vienna. It’s not the most picturesque cemetery I’ve ever been to, but it’s certainly one of the largest, and the museum is the icing on the (soul) cake.

Vienna: Imperial Carriage Museum

If it wasn’t already clear from my last post, just let me say that if you like the Habsburgs, you are going to love Vienna. To stick with the Imperial theme, after seeing the underwhelming Anker Clock and eating an exceptionally large Kaiserschmarrn with caramelised walnuts that unfortunately left me disgustingly full for the rest of the day (Kaiserschmarrn is also Imperial, having been a favourite of Franz Joseph I, hence the name, so it was in keeping with the theme), we headed out to Schonbrunn Palace. On our last visit to Vienna, although we walked around the grounds and ate that giant pretzel I mentioned in my last post, we didn’t actually pay to go inside the palace, as it was obscenely crowded. This time, we set out with the best of intentions and fully meant to see Schonbrunn, but when we got there and saw the price and the crowds and thought about how much we hated Charlottenburg and the fact that this just looked like more of the same, well, we just couldn’t bring ourselves to do it. Instead, we headed over to the much more appealing sounding Carriage Museum, which is a very short walk away from Schonbrunn, despite what the misleading signage in Schonbrunn’s gardens would have you believe.

Despite being right by Schonbrunn and containing all Habsburg stuff, it is actually run by the Kunsthistoriches Museum, so it’s not included on any Schonbrunn ticket package (not that we bought one anyway). It’s €12, and you can buy tickets at the museum – it certainly wasn’t very busy when we were there, which was extremely refreshing after the crowds at the nearby palace. I said that I would talk more about Sisi in this post, and I wasn’t lying, because even though Sisi has her own dedicated museum (which we did not visit), that is clearly not enough for the Viennese, and the Carriage Museum is also basically the Sisi show. That’s her wedding dress you can see above right.

“Who the hell is Sisi?” you may rightfully be asking if you’re not Austrian, because I certainly didn’t have a clue. Well, the museum was here to tell you, and even went so far as to bill her a 19th century Princess Diana, so apparently beloved is she by the Austrian people. Her proper name was Empress Elisabeth of Austria, wife of the comparatively unremarkable Franz Joseph I (except for his love of Kaiserschmarrn I guess), and after reading the museum’s description of her, I’m still not quite sure why she was so beloved, as she seemed incredibly vain, high maintenance, and frankly, a bit of a nut.

I mean, just look at her extraordinarily creepy mourning dress, or at least what you can see of it in the above picture. 19th century mourning dress typically included a crepe veil for women, so nobody was going to see your face anyway, but Sisi took it upon herself to have a mask made of black feathers that covered her entire face like some kind of scary bird woman, and then still wore a veil on top of it (honestly, I think it’s kind of awesome, but her obsession with mourning is really the only thing I can get behind. Well, that and the horse chapel I talk about later). She spent hours on her beauty regimen and refused to have any photographs or paintings done after the age of 32 so she would be seen as eternally beautiful, which, as a 36 year old, I honestly find kind of insulting. I’m not that decrepit yet! It also sounded like she had an eating disorder – she would go through periods of starvation followed by binge eating, and she was described as too thin by acquaintances. In fairness to her, I don’t think she had the easiest life – Franz Joseph was supposed to marry her older sister, but fell in love with the beautiful Sisi instead, who was unprepared for life at the Austrian court. She had multiple children die in tragic circumstances (including a murder-suicide), had a difficult relationship with her husband, who was cold and businesslike, and was eventually assassinated by an Italian anarchist at the age of 60. Perhaps her violent death has something to do with her exalted posthumous reputation.

But this was still a carriage museum, not exclusively the Sisi Museum, and there were lots of fabulous carriages too, most of which belonged to, you guessed it, Sisi. Or more broadly, the Habsburg family, who managed to amass quite a collection over the years. The frequent tragedies that befell the Habsburg line in the 1800s also meant that they had some fab mourning carriages painted true priest black, rather than just a very very very very very dark blue.

My favourite thing was that absolutely fabulous leopard print sleigh, shown above left, though I was less keen when I realised the leopard print was actual leopard skin. I also learned that the Habsburgs built carriages with springs under their seats for comfort, but none under the coachman’s seat, even though the coachman would be expected to sit outside for hours in all weathers driving these people around. That is just a straight-up dick move, and almost made me glad most of them were assassinated. Seriously, clearly you can afford springs, so why not give everyone springs? Because they were assholes, that’s why.

The main reason I was drawn to the Carriage Museum in the first place was because they were hosting a temporary exhibition on masks and epidemics, which, even after experiencing a pandemic, is still very much my jam. The exhibition turned out to have been put up during the first lockdown in 2020, so only incorporated artefacts that were already in the museum’s collections, and was fairly small, but still interesting. I wish I could have read the Viennese equivalent of the Bills of Mortality that was on display here, but alas, I do not speak German (all the signage here was in English as well though, so it wasn’t an issue for the bulk of the museum). I also liked Sisi’s collection of horse paintings. She apparently considered horses her only friends, and had a whole chapel decorated with horse paintings, which sounds totally bonkers. I wish it was still around, because I would have loved to have seen it.

The museum took us right up into the modern era, with a Hapsburg automobile and even a custom racing car. I loved the old auto – naturally, the Hapsburgs didn’t have anything so plebian as a license plate number, just an image of their coat of arms on the plate, and the car was decorated in Imperial colours, as were many of the carriages.

I actually enjoyed this museum quite a lot. Although I don’t think I would have liked Sisi much as a person judging by the way she treated her servants (in addition to the coachman thing, she also forced the woman who styled her hair to wear white gloves at all times and save every hair that fell out of Sisi’s head whilst styling it, and then Sisi would yell at her if she thought there were too many hairs), learning about her was interesting, and I loved all the mourning carriages and reading about what was inside each carriage, though it would have been even better if we’d actually been able to see inside them (some of them had beds and reading lamps. Luxury, though not for the poor coachmen of course). 3.5/5.

And because I’m sure you’re dying to know what happened with the giant pretzels at Schonbrunn, well…after a far too long slog around the gardens where we failed to find the pretzels I remembered, we headed over to the Easter Market set up behind the palace. They were selling giant pretzels, but they weren’t the same ones from my earlier visit, not being quite as large nor delicious looking, and unfortunately, the stall was cash only, which meant we had to find a cash machine that charged a fee to use it (I hate that scammy shit. Those machines are illegal in the UK now, so it’s sad they still have them in Europe). I mean, I still ate the pretzel, and it was a good pretzel, but not at all the heavenly item I remembered from my first visit. The market had other delicious looking foods, like Kasespaetzle, but unfortunately, because I was so damn full still from breakfast, I just couldn’t eat any, much as I wanted to, so Schonbrunn Palace was sadly mostly a bust, except for the slightly disappointing pretzel.

 

Vienna: Kapuzinergruft (Imperial Crypt)

This trip to Vienna was my first time back in continental Europe since well before Covid – I think the last time I went anywhere besides Britain or the US was when I visited Oslo and Gothenburg back in summer 2019 – so though I was much less worried about travelling than I had been before I’d had Covid (because I think I’m unlikely to catch it again so soon), I was still feeling anxious about visiting a non-English speaking country for the first time in so long, and wanted to ease myself in with somewhere on the well-beaten tourist track. Marcus and I had visited Vienna once before, but since that was all the way back in 2010, and we couldn’t remember actually doing much apart from seeing the Josephinum (I would have loved to go back there to blog about it, but it’s currently closed for renovations), eating a giant pretzel in the gardens of Schonbrunn, and making frequent trips to the Manner Wafer shop, we figured we were probably due for a revisit.

 

So, we managed to find some cheap last minute flights and a deal on a hotel (which thankfully turned out to be pretty nice), and headed off to Austria. We were originally intending on going to the late opening at the Welt Museum the evening we arrived, but even though we hadn’t done much other than sit around an airport all day waiting for our flight, we were too tired to bother, so after a quick stop at a nearby supermarket for food, we crashed out at the hotel and saved sightseeing for the next morning, when we got up bright and early to have time to see the Imperial Crypt before the Anker Clock did its thing at noon.

Other than the infamous Habsburg jaw, my knowledge of the Habsburgs is patchy at best, so I wasn’t really that sure why they were all just shoved in this crypt in a fairly nondescript church in the middle of Vienna rather than some kind of bigger mausoleum somewhere, but I wasn’t going to pass up the chance to look at some rad skeleton and skull décor. Actually, when I heard it was a Capuchin crypt, I was picturing something more like the one in Rome, where the actual bones were arranged into art pieces, but of course that treatment wouldn’t be suitable for emperors, so their bodies are all firmly contained within extremely elaborate caskets.

Admission is €8, which gains you entrance into the depths of the coffin-lined temperature controlled crypt. Lest you be worried about any kind of a smell, these coffins are welded shut and encrusted in so many death-themed geegaws that nothing would be able to seep through (plus the earliest sarcophagi are from 1618, so those emperors must be good and skeletonised by now). The crypts provide a free map in English that lists the names of all the people “resting” here, but that’s pretty much it. There’s almost nothing about who these people actually were, so if you’re not au fait with the Habsburgs, as I am not, you’ll be pretty clueless.

I’m not entirely sure if all that matters though, with tombs as fabulous as this. It was really worth looking closely at each one, because the detailing was incredible. So many derpy lions and skulls and creepy veiled ladies. Lesser names got a small, roughly chronological spot along the main galleries, but Maria Theresa (probably one of the most famous Habsburgs – she was Marie Antoinette’s mother, and a formidable ruler in her own right) and her lesser known husband Franz I got an entire mausoleum (pictured at the start of the post) with painted ceilings and marble detailing that was the centrepiece of the crypt.

As we moved towards the 19th and 20th centuries, the sarcophagi got noticeably less ornate. Guess the Habsburgs finally had to cut their budgets in the age of assassinations and revolution. You can’t go to Vienna without hearing about Sisi (much more on her in next week’s post), and she was here in a casket decorated with delicate ironwork, but I don’t think we even photographed it because we didn’t learn what a big deal she was until visiting the Carriage Museum that afternoon. The casket below with the sombrero (apparently also a traditional Austrian hat) belonged to the ill-fated Emperor Maximilian I of Mexico, who only reigned for three years before being executed, though he had no business being in Mexico in the first place. The last Imperial funeral was for Empress Zita, who died in 1989; though she and her husband had been deposed following WWI and exiled to Switzerland in 1922, her body was allowed to return to Austria and rest in the crypt. I think the most recent addition to the crypt was one of Zita’s sons who died in 2011.

Although I would have appreciated more English text in the free handout to learn who these people were, since the German text seemed far more comprehensive, I very much enjoyed looking at these completely remarkable and no doubt insanely expensive tombs. I don’t know if the tombs were always open to the public or if it is a more recent development, but somehow I can’t picture them allowing plebs in during more turbulent times when the Habsburgs were still clinging to power. Though there were other visitors, including a man who photographed literally every single coffin using a camera that made a super loud and annoying noise after each photo, it was still empty enough that it didn’t feel overly touristy. Well, that or the Viking Cruise people had already been through before us – we had to fight through hordes of them in a nearby square en route to the crypt. 3.5/5.

EuroTrip 2007: Salzburg and Munich

Despite my stomach troubles on the train, I arrived in Salzburg with my mother feeling much better than I did in Florence, but was immediately disappointed by the place. My assessment was, “not quite as nice as Innsbruck, and everything closes even earlier.” We did manage to stumble on some sort of vegan festival and a bakery where I got myself a pretzel, but we ended up calling it an early night yet again (I don’t even know what I wanted to be out doing other than watching TV in bed, but I kept complaining about it, so it must have been something. I am still a total night owl, in that I stay up half the night, but I don’t actually want to be doing anything other than sitting on my couch). The next day was a Sunday, so if we were expecting anything to be open, we were really out of luck! After determining that all the museums were closed, we decided to book one of the many bus tours on offer just for something to do. Although my mother and I both love The Sound of Music, which was the reason we wanted to visit Salzburg in the first place (you can see me standing in Mirabell Gardens, where some of the “Do Re Mi” scenes were filmed, above), for some reason, we decided not to go on The Sound of Music bus tour, and opted for a salt mine tour instead (my journal doesn’t record why this is, but I suspect my antipathy towards sing-alongs had something to do with it. I love singing, but not in front of other people).

Our bus tour was billed as a salt mine and Eagle’s Nest tour, so naturally we assumed we were going to get to go inside the Eagle’s Nest, the famous Nazi meeting place/mountain retreat (in retrospect, this seems like a really odd combination, but it was definitely prominently billed as part of the tour). So we were quite surprised when it was merely pointed out to us from the top of another mountain as we were driving up one of those winding Alpine roads over the border into Germany. I was already terrified by how narrow the roads were, having never really been in the mountains before, so imagine my reaction when a car slammed into our bus whilst we were taking a turn! Fortunately, no one was hurt, but it did delay proceedings some in addition to (almost literally) scaring the crap out of me. Once we got going again, we were taken to some tourist trap German village that the guide was clearly in cahoots with, because he very strongly encouraged us to have lunch in a particular restaurant and buy souvenirs in a particular shop. Neither my mother nor I were particularly impressed by this, so we chose to wander around a German cemetery that turned out to have a disturbing abundance of Nazi graves until it was time to go to the salt mine (even though I wasn’t particularly keen to get back on the bus).

The salt mine was a better time, when we finally got there. They asked us to put on these rad jumpsuits with a little salt man logo on the pocket, and looking at that photo of myself makes me wish I’d been allowed to keep it. I would totally wear that thing all the time! The entrance into the salt mine was a giant slide, and once we were inside, we got to ride a train, take a boat ride on a salt lake and a funicular back up to ground level, and they gave us a tiny souvenir salt shaker, which was adorable! It was honestly so fun, though the weirdness of the German village and the bus accident prevents me from recommending the tour as a whole. Maybe you can just visit the salt mine on its own? Once we got back to Salzburg, we were pretty hungry, having not eaten in the village, and for some reason we ended up in a Mexican restaurant, which I (rather cleverly I thought) referred to as “the wurst Mexican restaurant ever.” Mexican food in Europe back then was appalling (it still is in many places – I wouldn’t say it’s disgusting here, but I’ve yet to find a Mexican restaurant I really like in London. However, the Colombian and Venezuelan food here is fantastic – the arepa place at Maltby Street Market makes the best arepas I’ve ever had. God I miss them!), and the chips and salsa consisted of nacho cheese Doritos with a salsa that appeared to be made from hot sauce mixed with a taco seasoning packet. I was too scared to try proper food there after that, so I just ate some mediocre potato wedges before we returned to the hostel.

The next morning, I was as happy as a sand boy because my mother finally left to go back home, and I was on my own again (of course, that meant I was in for more weirdness from pervy men)! I had booked a hostel in Munich for that night, so had to head there at some point, but the hostel in Salzburg had a laundry room, so I decided to do some laundry first – I probably smelled terrible, since this was when I was going through a hippyish salt deodorant phase (doesn’t work at all, by the way) and had been wearing the same clothes over and over again without washing them since I got there. I met a nice British guy in there who I got chatting to (just as friends – we subsequently sent each other a few Facebook messages and that was the end of it), so ended up taking a much later train than planned and arrived in Munich in the evening. After eating some seitan kebabs in a vegan restaurant (not what I intended to order, but the menu was all in German and my waitress didn’t speak any English. They were fine though), I headed back to the hostel, and bellied up to the bar to claim my free drink. Even though I drank more back then than I do now, I was still a total lightweight, and a guy at the bar kept hitting on me and buying me beers, so I was getting drunk quickly. Eventually, the bartender starting hitting on me as well, and brought over a whole tray full of free shots of Jagermeister (I’m worried this sounds like I think I’m hot stuff or something, which could not be further from the case, but I seemed to attract loads of male attention on this trip – given the B.O. issue I mentioned earlier, I certainly can’t explain it!). I have never had a night that ended well after drinking Jager, and this was no exception. The guy at the bar was getting a bit handsy, so I went to the toilet just to get away from him. Four hours later, I woke up on the floor of the stall, with puke that must have been mine in the toilet, but no recollection of how it got there. I definitely don’t think I was drugged or anything – this is just what happens when I drink to excess, and this is why I haven’t had more than three drinks (and even that’s pushing it these days) at a time in many years. I somehow managed to drag myself up to my room where I passed out again, only to be awakened by the very loud family I was apparently sharing the room with (this was the first time I’d seen them, as they were obviously all asleep when I came in the night before) at 7 am, who took their good old time getting ready whilst loudly chatting the whole while in some foreign language that I was too hungover to identify.

Eventually they left, but I still had to force myself out of bed much too soon to check out – even though I already had a night train booked to Paris for that evening, I very strongly debated paying for an extra night just so I could sleep off my hangover. The foreign family had left me the wonderful gift of wet hair clumped all over the bathroom floor, which made me gag, but I managed to get down to reception without a further puking incident. Happily, the hostel had a lovely indoor garden with giant beanbag chairs in it, so after I checked out, I headed straight there, where I promptly fell asleep for another few hours. When I woke up, I was still mildly hungover, but felt well enough to get up and at least try to eat something, so I headed to a supermarket to buy some bananas and Rittersport (they had all these exotic flavours of Rittersport I’d never seen before, which was exciting, though I still think I like milk chocolate cornflake and the white chocolate ones with cornflakes and crispies the best) and after eating those, finally had the strength to go and explore Munich a bit. I was really hoping to visit this pop-up museum I had found online that I think was meant to be just an assortment of weird crap collected by artists, but I could not find it for the life of me, so I think it had already closed by the time I was there (I have subsequently not been able to find any evidence of this anywhere online, which makes me wonder if it ever really existed. Was it some Hostel style trap to lure innocent tourists into a torture den, and I narrowly escaped certain death? I guess I’ll never know). I tried to get more food before boarding my train, but I ended up buying the grossest falafel I’ve ever had in my life – instead of forming the falafel mix into balls or patties and frying it, like any other falafel I’ve ever seen, this guy smeared raw falafel mix into a pita, and grilled the pita, so it remained totally raw inside. It was so so gross, and I don’t know if it was his first day on the job, or if this was standard procedure at this shop, but I still don’t understand it.

Having had a less than great experience in Munich (capped off by trying to order chips at the train station, since I barely ate the gross falafel, but I was pronouncing pommes in the French style (like pom, all one syllable) rather than what was apparently the German way (pom-mess, said as two syllables) and the guy pretended not to understand me, even though chips were literally all he sold. I’m pretty sure he was just being a jerk), I boarded the night train, which unfortunately didn’t have any couchettes, so I was just stuck in a normal bench style seat alone in a compartment with a German man who started asking me all these creepy questions, beginning with “did I have a boyfriend?” which disturbingly and rapidly progressed to “did I enjoy bondage?” I was shit-scared at the thought of being left alone in a compartment with this guy for the night and was trying to think of a way to make a getaway when a Mexican guy around my age poked his head in and asked if he could sit with us. I don’t think I’ve ever before been eager to have someone sit next to me! Clearly the German guy did have some sort of ill intentions, because he left pretty soon after the Mexican guy (whose name was Pedro) turned up and we didn’t see him again, so I basically thought of Pedro as my saviour. Since no one else joined us in the compartment, and I felt safe with Pedro, who was lovely, we both laid down on our respective bench seats and tried to get some much needed sleep. Unfortunately, the train had more stops in the night, and people started waiting outside our compartment for one of us to move so they could snag a seat. Sensing this was happening, I kept my eyes firmly shut and pretended to sleep, but poor Pedro moved a bit, and some guy saw that as his opportunity and asked Pedro to sit up so he could sit next to him. I managed to feign sleep until we were almost in Paris, but as the benches were quite hard, I didn’t end up actually sleeping that much either, so we both faced a sleepy day in Paris, where we had agreed to meet up later to see the Louvre. As I’ve already rambled on quite a bit, and I’ve got loads of stories from Paris (it was one of the most eventful parts of the whole trip), I’ll leave it for next time (and also explain my slightly odd circuitous route, since if you’ve been reading along with the trip, you will recall that I had already been to Paris and may be wondering why I went back!).

EuroTrip 2007: Florence and Innsbruck

It’s really hard to know how many posts to divide this trip into, since obviously I have no idea how long museums will remain shut for – I fear the museum I work for will try to open sooner rather than later unless the government explicitly forbids it (much to my chagrin, since I’m enjoying working from home on comms much more than constantly dealing with people coming in my office to complain about the public toilet at work), but my friend who works at the V&A was told that as of now, their plan is to reopen in September, so I’m thinking I probably don’t need to rush through this trip! My last post saw my aunt about to leave my mother and I alone to carry on exploring Italy and Austria, which was not ideal as we’d pretty much done nothing but fight the whole trip. We got a train from Sorrento back to Rome so my aunt could catch her plane, and then my mother and I carried on up to Florence. We shared a compartment on the train there with a hairy German man who was a bit too talkative and was wearing sandals that exposed his big hairy toes and yellow thickened toenails that were reminiscent of Fritos corn chips (I say this as someone who has fairly disgusting toenails on my little toes, which have been deformed by years of wearing shoes that don’t fit properly thanks to my wide toe bed/narrow heels issue). I don’t know if his feet actually smelled, or if I just imagined I could smell them, but I was already feeling pretty queasy by the time we exited the train.

And then I walked right into the stench that was Florence. Since I’ve never returned to the city, I still haven’t figured out if it was a result of a garbage strike, like in Naples; the effect of the heat on the river, or if it just always smells like that, but whatever it was, there was this horrific rancid onion smell in the air. We managed to find a very cheap and very grim hotel/pensione (recommended by Rick Steves, natch) that was basically just two cots in a bare room with a toilet that smelled of rotting cabbage. The combination of the smells of the day and perhaps some lingering motion sickness from the train (though I don’t usually get nauseated on trains. Cars and buses, absolutely; trains, no) completely did me in at this point, and I spent the rest of the day in the depressing cabbage toilet violently vomiting. When it became clear I wasn’t going to stop any time soon, my mother was forced to venture out alone to try to find me medicine and liquids with which to rehydrate, as well as dinner for herself, and I guess she got lost and ended up wandering for ages trying to find the hotel again. As a result, she was quite shaken and upset by the time she got back, which resulted in her screaming at me for being sick, since, as I said earlier, when she gets nervous or upset, it usually manifests itself in the form of anger. I was already miserable, and that just made everything worse.

Fortunately, by the next morning I felt much better, and was ready to head out to explore the city. Unfortunately, this was slightly impeded by the owner of said pensione who accosted us on our way out and yelled at us for trying to open the shutters in our room, as apparently someone could have broken in (we were on the second or third floor of a building), and then refused to let us go out until we had crossed our bags across our chests, as she was convinced we would be robbed otherwise. She spent about half an hour lecturing us about how we were going to either be robbed or ripped off in Florence – she was not a good advertisement for her city, to say the least. I believe it was this experience that put my mother off Rick Steves as well, since he had specifically mentioned how nice this woman was in his guidebook.

As you can see from my photos, when we were eventually permitted to leave, we did wander over to see the Duomo and all the other sites I’d heard so much about in all the Renaissance history classes I’d taken, but because they were extremely crowded, even back then, we opted not to go inside and instead went to Palazzo Pitti, which was virtually empty compared to the main tourist sites. So although we did not see David, I got to see many entertaining paintings depicting horribly martyred saints, and particularly enjoyed the images of St. Agatha calmly holding her severed breasts on a plate. Since I’d eaten virtually nothing the day before, I couldn’t wait for dinner, and I don’t know if we just picked poorly, or if the cuisine of Florence is not up to the standards of most of the rest of Italy, but even with being starving, I found the food quite gross. I described my spinach cannelloni as being “worse than Olive Garden’s,” and I was no fan of Olive Garden, even back then (except the breadsticks, of course. Everybody likes those breadsticks). Since the pensione lady had a strict curfew (of course she did), we headed back not long after dinner to spend another night on our depressing and uncomfortable cots.

We left for Innsbruck the next morning, and I was just thrilled to be getting out of Florence (I feel bad to be so hard on Florence, since one of my good friends is from there, but I really did not enjoy myself back then. I should probably give it another try, especially now that I have someone to consult about the best places to go, but obviously that’s not going to be happening anytime soon!), but before we left, we stopped at a bakery to get a bag of pastries for breakfast, which helped Florence redeem itself somewhat food-wise. In addition to a really delicious olive oil flatbread and some nutella pastries, we had these fried crispy dough things coated in sugar that tasted very much like chrusciki (you may know them as angel wings, if indeed you know them at all, and if you don’t, I’m sad for you), which were my absolute favourite dessert as a child. Arriving in Innsbruck, we found it significantly colder and cleaner than Italy, which was a relief, though much more boring, which was not. Even though we arrived on a Friday afternoon, barely anything seemed to be open, so I managed to talk my mother into getting Indian food for dinner, since the traditional Austrian restaurants that were open were not at all vegetarian friendly. I was thrilled to have a paneer curry and naan after the disappointing dinner of the night before, and because there was nothing else open, we headed back to the hotel afterwards (which was at least nice for once – I think we were treating ourselves after the place in Florence) where I watched The Simpsons in German for the rest of the night.

The following day, we headed out for our tour of Swarovski Crystal Worlds, which was the whole reason my mother wanted to go to Innsbruck in the first place. She has long been obsessed with Swarovski jewellery (which I guess is good since it’s always a safe bet for birthday presents, as she is otherwise really difficult to shop for since she never tells you what she wants, but she already has so much of it that it’s hard to avoid getting her something she already owns), and was dying to see a whole land of Swarovski. I was predictably much less thrilled about the whole thing, and described it as being “like Disney World but more boring and full of crystals,” though I did like the giant head with the waterfall that you can see in the photo above. After spending what felt like ages there (to be fair, I think you had to wait for a bus back to Innsbruck, so we couldn’t have just left any old time), we headed back into Innsbruck to collect our bags and head onward to Salzburg. Whilst waiting for the train, we got some cake at a cafe, and it clearly didn’t agree with me (I thought it might be because of the unadvertised gelatinous topping, because I hadn’t eaten gelatin for years at that point, but who knows) because it was back to a horrendous stomachache and a very bad time indeed on the train to Salzburg (if you ever have to spend the whole of a train journey in the train’s toilet, you know that is going to be a bad time), where I’ll pick up with the trip again next time (Salzburg that is, not the train’s toilet. You don’t need to hear any more about that!).

Graz, Austria: Landeszeughaus (Styrian Armoury)

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As I mentioned in my previous post, the other reason I was so keen on going to Graz (besides the pretzels, obviously), was the Styrian Armoury.  Around 5-6 years ago, I went to a medieval armour exhibit at the Cleveland Museum of Art.  Like most of the special exhibitions at CMA, it was incredible.  They’d managed to acquire an unbelievable quantity of armour from around the world, including, most memorably, an entire army’s worth of pikemen, which they has arranged in impressive battle formation.  At the time, I noted that most of the collection was on loan from the Graz Armoury, and added it to my mental list of places to visit.

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Perhaps because armour is one of the few tangible reminders we have of the medieval era, or perhaps because it conjures up the imagery of jousting, chivalry, and glory which I suspect we all like to associate with the Middle Ages, no matter how far removed it is from reality, I’ve always had a soft spot for armour. (I feel this is an ideal time to insert a book recommendation regarding the fallacy of popular perceptions of medieval Europe: Ian Mortimer’s excellent Time Traveller’s Guide to Medieval England). Because of this, I’ve been to quite a few other armouries; most notably the Royal Armouries in Leeds (which I really should get around to writing a review of).  The Styrian Armoury was nothing like those.

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I think the Royal Armouries might be an exception, in that they seemed to be more about the history of British warfare in general, and included lots of fun interactives, but all of the other armouries I’ve visited follow a similar format.  There will usually be a striking centrepiece of a knight on a horse in full battle armour, surrounded by cases of various weapons, and some suits of armour belonging to famous (or at least wealthy) people, with captions throughout.  The Styrian Armoury effectively decides to do away with all that pesky (helpful?) reading and carefully arranged displays, choosing instead to cram as much crap into a tall, narrow building as is physically possible.

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Your 8 euro entrance fee gains you access to a darkened, cluttered labyrinth of metal.  The Armoury is spread out (I use that term loosely) over 5 or 6 floors (I lost track after a while), and you’re left to wander it at will, though under the constant hawk-like gaze of the staff.  All the surveillance was a bit puzzling, actually, since I was required to leave my (normal sized) purse in a locker at the entrance, so I’m not sure how they thought I was going to steal anything.  Was I just going to stick a giant sword under my arm and walk out?  Who knows, I guess people are capable of anything.  At any rate, despite the heavy staff presence, none of them were forthcoming with any information about the place.  I saw an audio guide mentioned online, but no one at the admissions desk offered it to us (though we probably would have been too cheap to get it anyway), and there were quite literally no signs of any kind in the armoury.

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I honestly don’t think I’ve ever left a museum before knowing less about it than I did when I walked in, but I feel that’s what happened at the Styrian Armoury.  From what I’ve been able to cobble together on the internet, I believe everything there was for the purpose of equipping the Styrian forces, and that it was a sort of communal arsenal that they would collect their armour from in times of war.  That would explain the unusual layout, as well as the sheer size of the collection.  Most of it was identical, e.g. a wall of matching shields, or a shelf of helmets, rather than the finely wrought detail and unique design of privately commissioned armour, which is what makes up the bulk of collections elsewhere. I’m not even sure if the armour here was properly medieval, as their website claims the collection dates from the 15th-18th centuries, but the building itself is 17th century, which would make it Early Modern instead.  Ugh, so many questions!

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My most pressing question, however, remains this: what happened to all the codpieces?  After passing wall after wall of breastplates and pikes, I was all geared up for the inevitable wall of codpieces.  Alas, there was not a codpiece to be found in the entire armoury, not even on the otherwise complete suits of armour.  I want to know how the men of Styria protected their, erm, manhood. Every other armoury I’ve been to has had codpieces galore, so why not here?

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See, not a codpiece in sight!

I suppose all my questions will have to remain unanswered, as the complete dearth of information at the armoury left me feeling clueless. It’s a shame, because I really liked the atmosphere of the armoury, and the, shall we say, eclectic arrangement of their collection, but if I visit something historical, I want to learn all that I can about it.  The Styrian Armoury left me feeling at a loss.

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I’m only going to give the Styrian Armoury a 2/5.  It was neat to be able to see so much armour in one place, but I really don’t think it would kill them to throw up a few signs.  After seeing the amazing exhibit the Cleveland Museum of Art was able to put together with the same objects, I can’t help but feel that the Styrian Armoury suffers from a real lack of effort.  And 8 euros frankly seems pretty steep for something that doesn’t appear to have been curated at all. It’s probably worth checking out if you’re in the area already, and exceedingly bored, but I wouldn’t make a special trip there the way we did.

This has nothing whatsoever to do with the armoury, but Graz had some amazingly creamy and delicious ice cream (eis).  This picture was taken after I'd already eaten about half the scoop, and it only cost 1.20!  The perfect way to ease my disappointment over the armoury.

This has nothing whatsoever to do with the armoury, but Graz had some amazingly creamy and delicious ice cream (eis). This picture was taken after I’d already eaten about half the scoop, and it only cost 1.20! The perfect way to ease my disappointment over the armoury.

Thal, Austria: The Arnold Schwarzenegger Museum!

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In what may be a refreshing change for some of you, I’ve finally visited a museum with no historical pretensions whatsoever.  The Arnold Schwarzenegger Museum, aka, “Arnie’s Life,” was an unadulterated guilty pleasure, the sort you have to allow yourself on holiday (like eating at least two ice creams a day, and allowing myself to buy a Marie Claire to read on the airplane, despite the fact that it is probably the worst magazine ever, except for maybe Cosmo).

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When planning our trip to Ljubljana, I happened to notice that Graz, Austria, was only about a two hour drive away.  Now I’ve been wanting to visit Graz for a while on account of the Armoury there (which I’ll cover in a future post), but more importantly, Graz is also very near to Arnold’s Museum.  The village of Thal is in a picturesque corner of Austria, full of dandelion-dimpled meadows that one could easily imagine Julie Andrews (or as I like to think, maybe even a young Arnie) twirling around in whilst bursting into song.  Though Thal is only a few miles outside of Graz, there are virtually no signs to it until you’re well out of the city, and as we belatedly realised our GPS didn’t have a map of Austria on it, we had a heck of a time finding it.  We only got there in the end because my boyfriend had the foresight to download directions onto his phone before we left, but we still took a number of wrong turns on the way.  Basically what I’m saying is if you want to come here, have a functioning GPS, or else a passenger who is less hopeless with directions than I am.

Arnie's childhood bed. According to him, this is the most important object in the museum.

Arnie’s childhood bed. According to him, this is the most important object in the museum.

I should mention that I don’t really have any particular fondness for Arnold as either a person, or an actor.  I’m not really into action films, with the exception of Indiana Jones (because c’mon, Indy is hot) so I’ve only seen a handful of his movies.  However, my father and brother are both into body building, and my mom has a major crush on Arnold, so we always had some of his books hanging around the house, and I consequently grew up knowing more about him than I probably should.  Aside from that, whatever you think of him, Arnold is undeniably quite a personality, and there was no way I could resist visiting his house for the cheesiness factor alone.

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Apparently I make a disgusting face when flexing my huge muscles.

So, all that being said, when we finally located the museum, I enthusiastically bounded out of the car and raced up to the statue of Arnold outside, only too happy to pose for a picture with my hand on his heavily muscled thigh.  Admission was 6 euros, and the woman working there was of course fluent in English, so there’s no need to worry about that sort of thing.  Since the museum is in his actual childhood home, it is rather small; only about five rooms.  They recommend that you start out in the room devoted to his childhood, and then progress through the upstairs rooms, ending in the “Governor” room on the ground floor.

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As you might expect, the museum was largely graphic in nature (in the sense that there were a lot of posters and photographs, NOT that it was sexually explicit), with accompanying facts about Arnold’s life in both English and German.  Actually, the museum was home to some real gems of posters, as seen below.

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We wanted to buy a copy of them to take home, but unfortunately the only posters on offer were movie-related ones.  There were also lots of great photos of Arnie as a child and young man (he was actually a fine looking lad), including many of him posing in various states of undress, though he always at least kept on a skimpy mankini (which may disappoint a certain segment of his fanbase).

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I was actually quite interested to learn that his father disapproved of his weight lifting, so he was only permitted to go to the gym three times a week, but kept up his workouts at home whilst listening to his neighbour practice the trumpet.  Because of this, the upstairs rooms had some of his original weights and other apparatuses on display.  The way you were meant to progress through the museum would take you through “Arnie’s Life” chronologically, so you got to view his childhood kitchen and (excitingly) toilet before learning about the body building years, and then his acting career.

Wooden toilet actually used by Arnold.  Unfortunately, you are not allowed to plant your buttocks where his powerful glutes once perched.

Wooden toilet actually used by Arnold. Unfortunately, you are not allowed to plant your buttocks where his powerful glutes once perched.

The movie bit was more or less what you’d expect.  Some memorabilia, a few videos, various correspondence between Arnold and the museum, and thank you notes to people who had given him gifts, including an excellent Austrian style motorcycle jacket which he later donated to the museum.  There was also an Xbox set up with what I believe was a Terminator game in it (it was hard to tell as I spent the entire time just running into a wall.  I am amazing at SNES, but with any system after that, especially ones with those stupid joysticks and all the buttons, I am a huge pile of suck), presumably to keep the children entertained whilst their fathers gawped at all the Arnold accessories.

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My favourite part of the museum was all the wax figures (of varying quality) of Arnie, and I got my picture taken with every last one of them.  The one with the worst toupee was probably the one in the “Governor” room at the end, which was also rife with Arnold propaganda, and some pretty neat objects, including his “Governator” cowboy boots and jacket

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I mean, essentially the whole museum was just an exercise in self-promotion, though I’m not really sure what political aspirations, if any, Arnold has left at this point.  In fact, as far as merchandising goes, I think the museum is missing a trick, since the gift shop was limited to a small selection of posters and books, and only one t-shirt design.  I know my whole family would have been thrilled to receive t-shirts, but as they only had one size available, I guess it goes to whomever it fits.  I’m not saying they should turn the entire thing into a huge shop, but maybe at least have a t-shirt for women as well, and a better poster selection.

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Or will I…?

I think I have to take this museum at face value.  You won’t be particularly intellectually challenged, or learn any amazing revelations about Arnold’s life, but you will enjoy yourself.  We certainly didn’t regret visiting at all, even with the hassle of finding the place.  Therefore, I’m going to give it a 4/5.  Arnie’s Life gives the people what they want, assuming what they want is a whole hell of a lot of Schwarzeneggery goodness.

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