Art and Artistry in Vienna

We moved much more quickly through the last few countries in our grand adventure during the last six weeks. This had the unfortunate effect of making me less focused on writing. There’s a lot to share about our last few stops, though. So let’s talk a little about Austria.

First up: Vienna, a big, beautiful, extravaganza of a city.  There is a lot to see and do here – most of it involving the lavish lifestyle of the Habsburgs and the eating of sausages – but there were also a few surprises. Our only complaint was that we found ourselves shoulder to shoulder with more of our fellow tourists than we’d seen in a while. As soon as June rolled in so did the tour groups. We’re not in the off-season anymore, Toto.

st. stephens
We had grown accustomed to having the cathedrals mostly to ourselves. St. Stephen’s was swarming. Photo by Tricia.

A Tribute to Great Design
Our first surprise was the MAK Museum of Applied Arts, which houses permanent collections of works across many design fields, like glass, textiles, furniture, photography, book binding, and even poster art. We spent several hours here, pointing at stuff and saying, “Wow.”

The big draw at the MAK is the preparation prints that Gustav Klimt made for his most popular friezes.

It was wonderful to see the pencil work for the later masterpiece. Photo by Tricia.

While walking around I was reminded of the importance of letting myself just witness the art, rather than documenting the fact that I’d seen it. For a good two-thirds of the time we were in the museum I had my camera in my hand, snapping pictures of the stuff I liked. And then I caught this scene:

A tale of two lenses. The artist with all the name recognition gets the cameras, the one with less recognition gets the eyeballs. Photo by Tricia.

Everyone who came into this room immediately took pictures of the Gustav Klimt pieces, including me. His work is marvelous, absolutely. But so was the Margaret MacDonald Mackintosh piece next to Klimt’s, and it didn’t get nearly so many people taking pictures.

Detail of the Margaret MacDonald Mackintosh painting that was exhibited beside Gustav Klimt. Photo by Tricia.

What do you think, dear reader? Should we take pictures of the art we like or let our memories, imperfect as they are, do all the heavy lifting?

The Royal Art Collection
The Habsburgs. What a family. They ruled the Holy Roman Empire for upwards of 600 years, starting in 1438. By the time Franz Joseph I took the throne in 1848 the family had amassed so much art that he had two palatial buildings constructed just to hold it all. The Kunsthistorisches Museum is still the largest museum in Austria, and it does not disappoint. Even the architecture is stunning:

Detail of a ceiling in the Kunsthistorisches Museum. Photo by Ryan.
A staircase leading to the rooms full of art. Photo by Tricia.

There is a lot of finery in this museum, including a magnificent coin collection and a bunch of old Roman sculptures pilfered from Ephesus. Our favorite was the Arms & Armor exhibit, though. Hundreds of years of craftsmanship are on display, much of it ceremonial rather than practical, but all of it exquisite.

Hilt of the sacred sword of Ferdinand II. Photo by Ryan.
Elaborate horse armor. Notice the tail emerges from a dragon’s mouth. Photo by Tricia.

The Hofburg Palace
A trip to Vienna is not complete without visiting the two main palaces the Habsburg’s used during their long reign. The Hofburg was their winter residence, where you can tour the Imperial Apartments and gawk at all the royal jewels and crowns.

It’s not really an empire until you can have your own crown made. Yes, this is a “personal crown” made in 1602 for Rudolf II. Photo by Tricia.
There is a huge collection of royal robes on display. The artistry in them is beautiful. Photo by Ryan.

The Imperial Apartments are accessed via an audio tour. No photography is allowed in those halls, so you’ll have to go yourself to see it all. The rooms of Empress Elizabeth were especially fun for me. Ryan wasn’t as big a fan, but I loved how she bucked convention and had work out equipment installed in her rooms so that she could exercise. It was quite the scandal at the time.

The Schonbrunn Palace
The Habsburg’s summer palace, Schonbrunn, is only an hour walk away from the winter palace. This is what happens when you have more money than you know what to do with, I guess.

Photos are strictly prohibited inside the palace, which is a shame. It’s beautiful in there. I was especially moved by the room where Mozart gave his first performance at the age of ten to Maria Theresa. The guides say that the prohibition against photos helps move the crowds along rather than being for any conservation purposes.

We’ll have to make do with photos from the outside.

Exterior of the Schonbrunn Palace in Vienna. This was the royal family’s summer residence. Photo by Ryan.
A small section of the gardens, which are massive. Photo by Tricia.
The Imperial backyard. The palace had a staff of 1,500 people to maintain it and cater to the needs of the royals. Photo by Tricia.

It’s worth getting advance tickets to the Schonbrunn, as entry is timed and it’s very popular. We spent most of the day walking around inside and outside the palace grounds.

Vienna is a marvelous city. We were quite struck with the beauty and grandeur of it all. Our next stop was Salzburg, which was a great access point to a castle and an ice cave. That’ll be the subject of our next post!

How to Get Great Reviews on Airbnb

Given the length of time that Ryan and I were going to be on the road for this sabbatical we knew that lodging was going to be our biggest expenditure. We also knew that we weren’t going to be able to afford even modest hotels for very long, and we are too damn old for hostels. So the rise of the vacation home rental business has been a great middle ground for us. We used Airbnb whenever it was available and had a lot of success.

The upsides: They are cheaper than hotels, the beds tend to be more comfortable (because they’re newer), and you can cook a meal for yourself.

The downsides: Airbnb is powered by Ikea, so it can often feel like the furniture is mere moments away away from disintegrating. The apartments can also be oddly quirky, like there’ll be a piece of broken shelving in place of a cutting board in the kitchen or a duvet cover instead of a top sheet on the bed. Nothing life threatening, just odd. The biggest downside, though, is that you can get turned down by the host if you don’t have good reviews.

With nearly 40 rentals in 14 countries under our belt we have figured out the secret to getting great reviews from hosts. This means that we are never turned away when we request to book a place.

We have three easy pieces of advice:

  1. Communicate first: Don’t wait for your host to ask you about your arrival time. Let them know when you think you’ll be in and how you’re getting there (car, train, bus) at the time you initially request to book the place. Sometimes a host will offer to pick you up, which is great, but don’t expect or demand it. If the host is offering you breakfast in the morning, proactively tell them when you will be there.
  2. Clean up after yourself: It’s not a hotel, despite the fact that a fair number of rentals are operated by agencies these days. Wash, dry, and put away any dishes you use. Put all your trash in the bin.
  3. Strip the sheets: This is the key to getting consistently great reviews. It’s incredible how much hosts appreciated it when we started stripping the sheets from the bed and putting them in a big pile along with our towels. It makes it easier for them to toss the linens in the wash and get the place ready for the next guest. We were getting decent reviews before we started doing this; afterwards our reviews were gushing with praise.

Are there other things that you do as a guest to secure great reviews? If you’re a host, are there things you wish guests would do? Let us know in the comments section.

After 40 Airbnbs in 14 Countries, Our Advice for Hosts

Over the course of our travels together Ryan and I have stayed in nearly 40 Airbnbs across 14 countries. We prefer these short-term rentals to hotels because they tend to be less expensive (about half the cost of a hotel in many cases), and because they come with a kitchen.

Since we’ve stayed in so many of these we thought we’d offer some observations and suggestions to both hosts and guests using the service. This post will be focused on hosts. We’ll tackle how to be a better guest in a separate entry (and we have cracked the nut on how to get great reviews as a guest, so stay tuned for that post).

For Hosts
First, some basics about us and our preferences: We generally book the “whole place” rather than a private room as it gives us more flexibility and space. We travel most often in the off-season. Our budget is around $30-$50 per night, though we’ve paid much more when there were no better options. Lastly, we seek bookings in areas that are within walking distance of the major attractions or at least a public transit stop.

Here’s our take:

We really like meeting you. The handful of self check-in experiences we had were smooth, but we vastly prefer the personal interaction. Meeting you gives us a chance to ask questions and learn a little about the place. Even if the check-in is super brief, it’s nice to see your face and shake your hand.

Fill out the ‘House Rules’ section. We mean beyond the standard “no parties” and “no smoking” auto fills. There are quirks in every apartment, and you probably have preferences for how we can best care for the place. Out of nearly forty rentals only one host filled out the house rules. Even if you go over the same information with us during check-in, we appreciated having it written down for reference. These can be instructions for using the washing machine, a plea to save water by using the dishwasher instead of hand washing, and where to take out the trash should we need to.

Stock a few basics. While we’d wager that most of your guests eat out while they are vacationing in your fine city, we were on the road for seven months. Eating out gets old and impractical for that amount of time. Our habit was to hit up the local supermarket right away to get food for breakfast and an easy dinner or two. We were always grateful when there was some salt and pepper stocked, or even a bit of olive oil. Outside of the kitchen, if the apartment has a washing machine it’s nice to also offer some detergent – even just a small plastic container with enough for a single load. There were rare occasions in which we would buy these things and leave them in the apartment for the next guests to use. Some hosts seemed fine with this ‘pay it forward’ practice, but others seemed put out by it. If you don’t want us leaving salt and oil in the apartment, consider stocking the items yourself.

Sharpen the knives. A dull knife is a lot more dangerous than a sharp one. We’re not asking for top of the line cutlery, but something that slices rather than mashes a tomato is appreciated. If you don’t have the time to sharpen them yourself there are small, safe sharpeners available that are inexpensive. You can leave the sharpener in the drawer and we can take it from there.

Don’t allow smoking. Even if you’re in a culture where it’s perfectly acceptable to smoke indoors, please ask your guests to smoke outside. The smell permeates everything. We did give less than stellar reviews to apartments that had everything else going for them except for the cigarette smell.

Give the apartment a test run. Sleep in the bed, cook in the kitchen, take a shower. You’ll figure out pretty quickly what might need a little tweaking. One apartment we stayed in only stocked a bread knife in the kitchen — it’s impossible to cut garlic with a bread knife, y’all. In another apartment there was no mattress, just a box spring. The host had never laid down in it so didn’t know there wasn’t a mattress there. We of course don’t expect five-star accommodations for the prices we are willing to pay, and we do let our hosts know about these things in private messages, but you can get ahead of many issues by staying in the apartment yourself every so often.

If you want to go above and beyond, consider providing a bit of something your region does very well. The hosts in Spain would often leave a bottle of local wine or olive oil (there are 30 million olive trees in Spain and they make the best olive oil we’ve ever had). Our hosts in Germany would sometimes leave a bottle of beer in the fridge. As guests, we never expected these things, but we were always delighted by them. We felt welcomed and the personal introduction to the area’s specialty was wonderful.

That’s our take on what hosts might like to know. Next up will be advice for guests. If you’re an Airbnb host and disagree with any of our suggestions, please let us know in the comments section. We’re always open to learning about your perspective as it will make us better guests!

Budapest: A Feast for the Eyes

Every street, every building, every touristy corner of Budapest is eye candy. Without even trying we saw some of the most beautiful Gothic and Renaissance architecture ever erected. Oh, sure, we went to the museums and the churches, but suffice it to say that a fair portion of our week was spent wandering around with ice cream cones and staring at the architecture.

These buildings were around the corner from the place we stayed. Photo by Tricia.
The whole building was one big fresco. Photo by Ryan.

It was crazy beautiful everywhere we went. We’d often walk around a building looking for more information about it, but there was almost never any indication about who built it or what it’s original use was.

Since Budapest was already built up by the time the Nazis and the Fascists came through it was blessedly spared the depressing Communist architecture that haunts many of the Balkan nations.

The place never stops impressing. Photo by Tricia.
The streets are clean, quiet, and gorgeous. Photo by Tricia.

While the architecture was spared the horrors of the Nazis and Fascists, the people were not. A tour of the old Jewish Quarter is a must, as is a visit to the House of Terror.

The Synagogue in the Jewish Quarter is a beautiful structure built in the Moorish design. Photo by Tricia.
Inside the Synagogue just as beautiful. Tours are free and in just about every language; just take a seat next to your flag and someone will come along. Photo by Tricia.

The churches are magnificent, and rivaled (in my opinion) only by Italy’s. We were very impressed by the Matthias Church in particular.

The Gothic style Matthias Church in the Buda Castle district. Photo by Tricia.
Detail from the roof of Matthias Church. Photo by Tricia.
Inside the Matthias Church was even more impressive than the outside. Every inch is painted. Photo by Ryan.
Detail of the ceiling in the Matthias Church. Photo by Ryan.

The masterpiece of Budapest is definitely Parliament, a building that has been heralded as the “Cathedral of Democracy.”

The view of Parliament from the Buda side of the river. Photo by Ryan.
Detail of the dome. It’s a massive structure and sumptuously decorated. Photo by Tricia.
Inside, the Grand Staircase took our breath away. Access is by timed tour only. Photo by Tricia.

I loved Budapest. It’s one of those rare gems where the commute from place to place is just as beautiful as the big attractions. I would return in a heartbeat.

Day Tripping in Kosovo

Yep, we decided to check out Kosovo. We had finished up everything we wanted to see in Macedonia and Kosovo was right there. Plus, the town of Prizren seemed like it would be a nice place for lunch.

There is still a strong contingent of international peacekeeping troops here, and it’s worth knowing that you can’t cross the border on the Serbian side given the dispute involving Kosovo’s 2008 declaration of independence.

But the border crossing from Macedonia was surprisingly easy. We breezed through even after I, uh, maybe-kinda-sorta hit the passport control kiosk with the car. It’s not as bad as you think, but I’ll go ahead and give you a second to relish the image that’s in your head right now. Take your time.

Do you remember that scene from Galaxy Quest when “Lt. Laredo” takes the real Protector out of space port for the first time? It was a little like that. The passenger side mirror has a heroic scratch on it now, but the cherubic man who checked our passports was magnanimous. “It is no problem!” he said, and waved us on. Like it happens all the time.

And so we entered Kosovo.

The drive was beautiful, you guys. This country is stunning.

We stopped along the highway several times to take in the scenery. Photo by Ryan.

We passed a few military vehicles on the roads, but it was the speed limit signs that gave us the most pause.

Do tanks ever get pulled over for speeding? Photo by Ryan.

We made it to Prizren without any trouble and found ourselves in a lively, picturesque little town.

Prizren, Kosovo. Photo by Ryan.

The place was so active it was almost as if there hadn’t been a war at all. There were parking attendants and ice cream vendors and kids running around with balloons.

As we walked around more there were clues that tensions are still high.

The mosques were active, but none of the Christian churches were open. This Serbian Orthodox church was surrounded by barbed wire. Photo by Tricia.

We were stared at a fair bit, owing either to the fact that I am very tall for a woman or they don’t get many foreign tourists these days. Still, everyone was very nice. We got a little lost trying to get back to the highway, and a kid on a bicycle rode out ahead of us to navigate us back to the main road. We made it back across the border without any trouble (or secondary scratches on the car, thank you very much). All in all is was a fun day with a good lunch to boot.

As I have been reflecting on it all, I am left quite hopeful. Stoking tribal fears leads people to do the worst possible things to one another. And yet, the ones who have endured it all are still putting one foot in front of the other. They are making each other coffee and selling groceries and doing laundry. It’s by no means perfect, but it’s getting better. I am reminded that forgiveness is the price we pay for peace, even as we steadily march along the long path to justice.

One Week in Macedonia

We have made our way out of Albania and have walked across the border into Macedonia, a country that is just as beautiful as the rest of the Balkan nations we’ve visited. It’s also got just as complicated a history. Moving around in this part of the world is a stark reminder that borders change all the time, and almost never peacefully. Almost. Macedonia is one of those rare nations that voted themselves into statehood. The people voted in a referendum in 1991 that officially separated them from Yugoslavia. Huzzah for peaceful transitions.

There was only one glitch. See, there’s a province in Greece called Macedonia. Alexander the Great was born there. Macedonia, the newly minted country, claims to be the birthplace of Alexander’s dad, Phillip II of Macedon. The Greeks think the name belongs to them, the Macedonians think otherwise.

This disagreement was exacerbated by Macedonia’s choice of flag. Can you tell the difference between the Greek province and the Macedonian nation’s flags?

“Of course you can,” say the Macedonians. “Ours is the one with the starburst that Phillip II of Macedon used.”

“Posers,” exclaim the Greeks. “The province of Macedonia has been using this symbol since forever.”

Alas, the Macedonian’s would eventually have to change their flag to something less… Macedonian. It’s all very confusing and I’m not going to be able to do justice to thousands of years of geopolitics in one blog post (and a couple of made up quotes). Even the U.N. is threading a needle, officially recognizing the country as the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia (FYROM). Put that on your letterhead.

Still, all two million of Macedonia’s residents are deeply proud of their country. There are loud rallies every night in the town squares, complete with patriotic songs and chants and flag waving. The new flag and the old one! They love that they are their own place now. Independence is exciting.

Here’s where we went:

This beautiful lakeside town is host to some of the most boisterous patriotic rallies in the whole country. Their sound system is mighty. We could hear everything perfectly no matter where we were in the town. The rallies were blessedly over by 8:00 pm every night.

The view of the lake from our hotel room. Photo by Ryan.
The beautiful architecture of the Serbian Orthodox Church was captivating. Photo by Tricia.
Red poppies grow wild all across the landscape. Photo by Tricia.

Zrze Monastery
On our way north we stopped in at a wonderful monastery on a clifftop that hosts a 14th century church with beautiful frescoes. A monk met us in the gardens and walked us around, then he made us tea from the wild thyme that grows in the hills.

The Zrze Monastery in Macedonia. It’s about the most tranquil place you can imagine. Photo by Ryan.
One of many exquisite frescoes in the old church. Photo by Ryan.

Skopje is difficult to describe. As we mentioned earlier, folks here are REALLY proud of being an independent nation. The capital city is positively bursting with patriotic statuary. There are statues everywhere. Massive ones.

A massive statue and fountain dedicated to Phillip II of Macedon. Photo by Tricia.
Another massive fountain and statue, this one for Alexander the Great. Photo by Tricia.

Skopje is kind of a bizarre place. I’m glad I saw it. It’s like the Las Vegas of statuary art.

Macedonia itself is worth a stop if you’re moving through the Baltics. We rented a car for the full time we were here. It wasn’t overly expensive and the country is small enough that the car rides were only a couple of hours at a time. It will be fascinating to watch this country grow and mature. It is full of wonderful, friendly people.

The Albanian Hike That Wasn’t

It’s hailed as the best hike in all of Europe. Sweeping mountains views, gorgeous rivers, and rolling fields of wildflowers all in an easy six hour trek from the village of Valbona to the village of Theth in Albania.

We started in Podgorica, the capital city of Montenegro. Our plan was to catch a bus to Shkodër, Albania, where we would transfer to another bus, then a ferry, then another bus, and we’d be at the trail head four days after we set out. Yep, four days just to get to the trail head. It’s that great of a hike.

If you’ve intuited from the headline of this post that we never made the hike, you’re right. But it was still a worthwhile trip. The ferry ride alone was one of the most pleasant two hours we’ve ever spent on a boat.

A two hour ride on the ferry from Koman to Fierze is beautiful the whole way. Photo by Tricia.
Clear waters and mountain gorges dominate the view. Photo by Ryan.

There were a bunch of minivans waiting on the dock in Fierze, so we started asking around for a bus to Valbona. We ended up in someone’s car along with a few other tourists, and it was here that we got our first inkling that maybe this wasn’t going to be our day.

The driver said the trail was snowed in. The Singaporean tourists in the car were debating whether to try to do the hike anyway, even though people have died trying to make the crossing in the snow. We were not overly encouraged by this.

On the upside, we learned that there were some Frenchmen making the trek from the Theth side and had made reservations to stay at the driver’s guesthouse in Valbona that night. “If they make it, you can make it,” our driver said. “If they don’t make it, probably you won’t either.” He laughed then, either at the soundness of his own logic or because he’s a fan of gallows humor.

Without asking, the guy took us to his guesthouse. He quoted us €15 a night, including breakfast and dinner. His wife and two teenage kids lived there too. His wife had firm hands and a warm smile, and his kids were as broody as any teenagers, but they were quick to offer help if we needed it. I’m ashamed to say that I can’t remember any of their names.

The guest house doesn’t look so inviting from the outside, but it was quite comfortable, and the hosts were wonderful. Photo by Tricia.

We’ve traveled to a lot of beautiful places at this stage in our sabbatical, but none have so far made me envious of another person’s backyard.

This is the back yard of the guest house. It was ridiculously beautiful. Photo by Tricia.

I’m sure those teenagers think they’re growing up in the most boring place on earth, and they can’t wait to leave. I couldn’t get over how lucky they were. When I said so, they all looked at me with a mixture of pride and disbelief.

Crystal blue waters, mountains, and lots of greenery graced the landscape. Photo by Ryan.

We went for a couple of short hikes around Valbona, and when we returned for dinner, sure enough, the Frenchmen were there. They were tired. It turns out they lost the trail in the snow and a six hour hike turned into a nine hour hike. What walked into the dining room that night were a couple of 20-somethings with cold, wet feet and no food for nine hours. They were lucky they made it.

So we decided not to test our luck and took the ferry back the next day. We may not have experienced the best hike in all of Europe, but we were not disappointed in the beauty of the landscape or the generosity of the people. And the homemade, traditional Albanian food was delicious.

Let this be a lesson to future generations of destination hikers. Sometimes it’s only half the journey that counts.