Christmas Road Trip: Bratislava and Vienna

Day One: The Drive to Slovakia

We left the day after Christmas.  In hindsight, two days after Christmas would have meant I didn’t spend Christmas Day packing, but it also would have made our trip shorter, or had us on the road over New Year’s Eve.  We had two children recovering from a virus, and two children who had just come down with that same fever, so it was a quiet trip, and blessedly uneventful.  We arrived after nightfall, and the approach to Slovakia went through acres and acres of Austrian windmills, each with a single red blinking eye.  It was eerie.

{Note for travelers: both Austria and Slovakia require a highway toll called a vignette.  The Austrian ones can be bought at rest stops leading up to the border and are stickers you put on the windshield.  We didn’t see a place to buy the Slovak ones until we got to the border where we pulled over and got one.  No sticker, but the man working there took our car registration information and presumably put it into some sort of central database.}

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Bratislava Castle in the daytime

Shortly after the toll/border crossing, Bratislava Castle came into view, all lit up.  We crossed the UFO Bridge and headed for a street in the downtown area.  An extremely generous friend whom I have not seen in 25 years loaned us her apartment in Bratislava, and we headed for her aunt’s house to get the keys and then to her place.  Once we unloaded our car, Bill and the big kids headed into town to find food while I stayed at the apartment and doled out Advil to sick kiddos.  Kindly not wanting to experience Bratislava without me, Bill and the kids ate at…McDonalds.

Day Two: Walking Bratislava

The next day, cold weather and a biting wind had us turn around a block from the apartment to add more layers.  It never warmed up the rest of our trip, although the wind died down after the first day.  Peter was not yet up for a lot of walking, so Bill and he stayed behind while the rest of us went into town, repeating much of the walking that they had done the night before.  Unfortunately for the kids, with Mom as tour guide, there is a lot more wandering than walking.  Unfortunately for Mom, when the 4 year old quits, wandering with an extra 40 pounds is not as much fun.  We took refuge from the cold…in McDonalds…where George ate chicken nuggets and found his happy again.  Texting with Bill, we agreed to meet for lunch at the Bratislava Flagship Restaurant, which my friend had recommended.  Also following her suggestion, I ordered the bryndzove halusky, which is a very traditional Slovak dish.  I did not think I would like it, but I did, very much so!  Here is a video showing how to make halusky, if you want to try it yourself.

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The UFO Bridge

After lunch, we walked over to the UFO Bridge, which is really called the Most SNP (better pictures than I could ever take are here).  You can go up to the top, although unfortunately for George who really wanted to go, the elevator happened to break while we waited for it.  At least we weren’t the family stuck inside!  Instead, we went inside St. Martin’s Cathedral, where 19 Hungarian kings and queens have been crowned, including Maria Theresa, Holy Roman Empress from 1740 to 1780 and mother of 16 children including Marie Antoinette.  I don’t usually take pictures inside churches, so here’s a link with some of St. Martin’s.  George was just now looking at the pictures and pointed out the statue of St. Martin and remembered seeing it in the church.  I count that as a mom-win.

Next we headed for Bratislava Castle.  The walk is pretty steep, but the views are lovely.  I commanded the children to pose as though they were bored.  This was the best they could do.

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“I can’t believe Mom wants us to ‘act’ bored.”

Peter was not up for touring the castle, so I took him and Mary and George back to the apartment.  I think Katie took these following pictures.

Bratislava Castle (Hrad), also known as Pressburg Castle, was apparently much liked by Maria Theresa who had it extensively renovated.  Unfortunately, it was destroyed by fire in 1811 and remained in ruins until the 1950’s.  It is now mainly a history museum.  Since we visited other Hapsburg castles on this trip and saw how glorious they were, it is a shame that the original condition of this castle is unknown.  The name Pressburg is the German name for Bratislava back in the days of the Austro-Hungarian Empire (Pozsony in Hungarian).

Once we got back to the apartment and the sun went down, I was finished for the day.  Traveling in the dark of winter has its downsides.

Day Three: Shopping and more Walking

Everybody was interested in being warm, and all the kids had Christmas money in their pockets, so we went to the Eurovea Gallerie on Wednesday.  Bill and I left the kids to eat lunch at…MCDONALDS…and went to another cafe in the mall.  After lunch, we drove to Devin Castle, which is in ruins thanks to Napoleonic forces.  It’s quite a beautiful area to walk, despite the cold.  There are traces of settlements in the area from the 5th century BC.

_dsc0759_dsc0764_dsc0766_dsc0768The local church is named after Sts. Cyril and Methodius, of course, who may have come to the castle or visited the area.  While trying to find sources as to whether or not they had, I found this timely and interesting article about the 2 euro coin.  Each member of the EU is permitted to mint their own coins with images relating to their histories, however other countries are allowed to deny the designs.  We have enjoyed looking at the different coins as we travel – much like finding different state quarters (only more expensive to collect!). Apparently, objections were raised about portraying these men with halos, so Slovakia revamped their design and removed the halos.  Funnily enough, this same demand was made back in the good old days of communism when Cyril and Methodius were also portrayed halo-less.  Ah, progress!

After Devin, we tried the UFO once more and were able to go to the top!

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The Blue Danube

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St. Martin’s Cathedral

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Austria: 6 km

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Hungary: 18 km

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Soviet-era apartments with the Austrian windmill fields behind

Leaving the UFO Bridge, we found out that in Slovakia you need to have your headlights on all the time, by law.  The only thing about being pulled over by the police that really made us nervous was that we had left our passports in the apartment.  They say, “Papers, please!” and we have to admit that we don’t have them.  Bill thinks they thought about the mountain of paperwork for 9 people who didn’t have their passports and decided it was more than they cared to do, so they just gave us a warning.

Next up was the Blue Church, built to honor St. Elizabeth of Hungary, their local saint.    Bill and I were married in a church in Pennsylvania named for St. Elizabeth of Hungary.  According to New Advent, she was likely born in Pressburg (aka Bratislava), probably at the castle, because she was a princess.  Just an interesting footnote for our personal history.  I had no idea that St. Elizabeth of Hungary was from Slovakia.  Guess why it’s called the Blue Church?

We found another restaurant specializing in regional favorites and ordered a shared platter with some awesome pork ribs and more halusky.  I drank a dark Slovak beer, Saris Tmavy, which was dangerously smooth, and Bill had a lighter beer from the tap.  A good ending to a busy day.

Day Four: Lost in Vienna

We did not get out the door very early on Thursday, so by the time we got to Vienna, an hour from Bratislava, it was after 11 am.  We decided to park near Schoenbrunn Palace, because they had a surface lot there (not a parking deck, which typically will not fit my van), and a U-Bahn station to downtown.

{Side note: a travel guide for large families would be very helpful.  Where to park big vehicles.  Restaurants that can seat 9.  And no suggestions to spend an afternoon hanging out at a coffee shop unless the coffee shop had an indoor play area for children.}

I went into the palace grounds to look at buying tickets.  There were THRONGS of people.  Busloads.  Sure enough, the wait was over three hours to get inside.  Meanwhile, Bill had taken the kids to get something to eat.  Guess where?  I can’t even admit it.  I will say this: mentioning the golden arches became verboten for the older children because once that 4 yo realized there was one nearby, that was it.  After lunch, we decided to take the subway (U-Bahn) into the heart of Vienna.  We got off at Karlsplatz and headed right over to Karlskirche where we discovered you had to pay to see the inside.  I was not that interested in seeing the inside.  The outside was lovely.

George espied a playground and decided he wanted to go.  Jenny, Peter and Mary decided a few minutes there would be fun, so Bill, whose phone was not working (#iloveitaly) decided to stay there for a bit and then meet me at the Kunsthistorisches Museum in about ten minutes.  Alas, I got lost, thinking that the Ringstrasse (a main road ringing the center of town) was one block further in than it really was.  I ended up at the Opera House talking to a young man named Nick who was trying to sell us tickets to a performance the following evening.  He had a deal: 5 tickets for the price of 4!  Mozart!  Strauss!  A beautiful venue!  And my three big kids were encouraging him.  Ten minutes later, I was wondering why my husband hadn’t showed up (I didn’t realize I was lost yet!), and I finally got away from him.

Once Fritz and I pulled out Maps on our phones and got turned in the right direction, we went over to the museum, where Bill found us.  He was a bit worried that he had the wrong art museum (there are more than a few), or that I had gone inside without him and we would never find each other again.  I had similar worries, but, as usual, things all just worked out, despite the technical difficulties.  How did I manage to travel all over Europe back when I was in college without a cell phone?

I got lost a lot!

Now, my friends, if you go to one art museum in Vienna, this would be the one.  First, we went through the section on Ancient Egypt, which Peter is doing right now for school (score one for homeschooling!).  Then we went through Ancient Greece and Rome, which Jenny is doing this year (score two!).  Eventually we made our way, carrying George, to the paintings, many of which are in the Mommy It’s a Renoir postcards or the Art Memo game (and my kids recognized them, so score three for homeschooling!).  We were only there for about 90 minutes, almost entirely because George had had enough.  Fortunately, ages 19 and under are FREE, and the cost for adults was reasonable (15 euros).

Right outside the museum was one of Vienna’s Christmas markets which is where we ate dinner that night.

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Day Five: Schoenbrunn Palace

On Friday, we got to Schoenbrunn Palace earlier than the day before, less than a half hour after opening.  Still, though, signs indicated that the wait was about 2 hours and more people were pouring in by the minute.  I hoped that the entrance time was like other places I had visited where you could go in anytime AFTER the wait, so we decided we would get the tickets and come back later in the day.  The kids roamed the gift store while Bill and I (and George) waited in the line.  The man at the counter was very impressed with our family size and decided that a Sisi Family Ticket plus two more one-day children tickets would be the best deal for us.  Even better, the Sisi Tickets do not have a timed entrance, you get to go right in.  He kindly called the gate and explained that we had two children with timed tickets, but the rest of us had the Sisi pass, and they agreed to let all of us go to the front of the line!  Austria moves to the top of the list of nicest, friendliest people in the world.

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One of the fountains outside Schoenbrunn Palace

Schoenbrunn Palace was the summer residence of the Hapsburgs.  On the tour, everybody gets their own audio guide, at no additional cost, in the language of their choice (well, at the least, German and English are offered).  We did the Grand Tour, which includes 40 rooms and takes about an hour.  George made it almost half way through, carefully listening to his guide and refusing to leave a room until the guide had finished.  He even repeated to me some of the information (“Mommy, Marie Antoinette was killed!”).  Peter quit after about 25 rooms.  Mary cried when an obnoxious older sibling tried to hurry her out of the very last room and “made” her put her guide in the box before she had had a chance to listen to the whole section.

This palace is gorgeous and really gives you an idea of the grandeur of the Hapsburg Empire.  It also tries to highlight some of the personalities of the people who lived there, especially Franz Joseph and his seemingly unhappy wife, Sisi.  According to Wikipedia (take it for what it is), Franz Joseph was born and died at Schoenbrunn Palace.  He died in 1916, and his grandnephew and heir, Charles I, was the last Hapsburg Emperor.  Charles I died in exile following WWI, and was beatified in 2004.  Footnotes of history and the things they don’t teach you in school.

There was another Christmas market right in front of the palace, and that is where we ate lunch.  My bigger kids have Christmas markets nailed, and are quite capable of pointing and ordering what they want.  I really did not want MORE Christmas market mugs, but my family disagreed.  I need a whole cabinet just to store these things.

Outside the palace, we met some street artists who let you take a picture if you give them some coinage.  We failed to get a picture of the gold gnome, but Mozart was very friendly.  He asked Katie where she was from, and since she answered, “Italy,” even though we were clearly not Italians, he called out every Italian phrase he (and we) knew, including, “buona sera” which means “good evening” (it was too early for that).

The guy in the picture frame really freaked George out, since he had no legs.

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After lunch, we had but one goal: the Kaiserliche Schatzkammer (Imperial Treasury) to see the Spear of Destiny (said with an echo-y, deep voice).  When your 16 yo really wants to see a holy relic, you go see a holy relic.  The Imperial Treasury contains many of the symbols of power for the Hapsburg Empire.  I spent the whole time we were there saying, “Tis not the balm, the scepter, and the ball,/The sword, the mace, the crown imperial,/The intertissued robe of gold and pearl…”  It was all here.

The Spear of Destiny, also known as the Holy Lance, is supposed to be the spear that pierced the side of Christ after he died on the cross.  Here is a story of the legend.  In addition to the Lance, the Hapsburgs had an extensive collection of relics and reliquaries, which are also on display.  I understand that the reliquaries, as beautiful works of art, deserve to be displayed, but I’m not sure how I feel about the relics being right there.  Even my kids thought it was odd, unholy.  Up until the 20th century, the relics were not on public display and were treated with reverence.  I guess it’s hard to find a good balance…making them available, but treating them with respect.  I mean, even if you don’t think that a bone fragment actually belonged to THE Apostle Peter, it belonged to somebody, and shouldn’t be just left out to be gawked at.  I feel the same way about the mummies at the art museum.  It might be art and it might be history, but it’s also a person.

Anyway, having successfully located the Spear and having artfully dodged the horde of French speaking tourists (when I caught myself saying, “Scusi, s’il vous plait,” until I remembered “Pardon” was French for “Move it!”), we made our way out of the museum and headed for the U-Bahn.  The Imperial Treasury is one part of the complex of buildings that seem to make up the Hofburg Palace, the main palace for the Hapsburgs, in the heart of Vienna.  On our way out, we passed the Spanish Riding School, which I knew was there, but I did not realize that certain children of mine would be upset to see it.  Why did we go to see the Spear of Destiny and yet neglect to schedule time for a visit to the famous Lipizzaner horses?  We went to see the branch of Lipizzaners do a practice performance when we lived down in Tampa, and we all enjoyed The Miracle of the White Stallions (good family movie if you need something to watch).  So not going to see the famous horses while in their hometown did not go over well with my horse-loving daughter.

But it’s okay.  Vienna, there is so much to see, we must go back to you again!

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We drove back to Bratislava and found another restaurant with traditional fare.  I actually drank a Budweiser, my first of any nationality, I think. But the best part was that George discovered that chicken schnitzel tastes a whole lot like chicken nuggets, only better, and so we went a WHOLE day without a stop at you-know-where.

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One of the many nifty statues in Bratislava.

Day Six: The Drive Home

This trip was, fortunately, also fairly uneventful.  The Austrian Alps had gotten several inches of snow, and made the drive very pretty.  The highways had been plowed, so we had no issues.  The only difficulty was George deciding a few kilometers past a rest stop that he needed to pee, and naturally that section of highway had no shoulders or grassy pull-off areas.  We took an exit and found a store with groceries (and a toilet).  I bought some food for lunch, and had Bill go in to check out the beer selection with no idea that it was closing time – an early hour because of New Year’s Eve.  I got locked out and the man assured me that my husband would come out soon, but let me in when I told him that I had the money!

A few last notes.  Bill mentioned that he felt like everywhere he turned in Bratislava, he was seeing somebody who could have been my cousin.  I thought he was exaggerating a bit, but at one red light, he pointed out a woman in another car who did look just like my sister, Elisabeth.  Also I did notice that if I kept my mouth shut, people weren’t sure what I was.  “Slovensko?” asked one waitress, but she was happy enough to serve me in English.  Although Vienna made me happy with the large-family-moves-to-the-front-of-the-line service, Bratislava certainly is a friendly place, and nobody seems insulted that you don’t happen to speak their language.  Not everybody spoke English, but many did.  And when I did throw out a phrase or two, they seemed very pleased.  One young man was so tickled with my “Dakujem” (thank you) that I swear he would have patted me on the head like a sweet, lisping 3 year old had I been closer.

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The windmills of Austria from the Slovak side of the border

And those Austrian windmills.  As I mentioned at the beginning, you approach Slovakia through these enormous fields filled with windmills which at night have one big, blinking red light, like some huge cyclops, like a whole army of cyclops, or, as Fritz said, a “fan-guard.”  And then in Bratislava, there is a UFO on top of a bridge.  And then there are these store-window dummies with super-long legs.  The aliens came in the UFO and have populated Austria, living in windmills, ready to take over.  They’ll meet at the store in Bratislava.  I think we’ve watched too much Dr. Who.

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One thought on “Christmas Road Trip: Bratislava and Vienna

  1. Pingback: 12 Tips to Fully Enjoy a Day in Rome Without Children – Reit This Way

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