A Christmas Tale of Two Cities

Christmas in London was really laid back, with meals considerably larger than Dickens portions. We had Christmas Eve and Christmas Day with Tom, Lex, Stephen and Tam’s Uncle Kent in Hampton Court. Kent had his daughter Geraldine, with her husband Mark and little boy Gus over to stay. Gus was having his first “white” Christmas in cold conditions away from New Zealand, but that didn’t dampen his enthusiasm. Luckily, Santa knew that he had changed address and he got a green ninja turtles outfit.

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We cycled back through Richmond Park, past the recently culled deer – Cupid, Comet, Donner and Blitzen. Once back, we had a few hours to get ready for our sleigh to Stanstead – departing to Vienna, the Austrian Capital on the Danube.

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Arriving in at midnight, our uber ride proved a bit harrowing. The driver took exception to being snubbed and cut off by his conventional taxi competitors. Our little Toyota Prius lined up against a large black and yellow Audi. The drivers eyed each other up and gesticulated wildy. It was an old rivalry. Maybe it was a former fare, a spurned lover, or a childhood quarrel. We looked across at the doe eyed passengers of the other car. Their docile faces unaware of the tension building between the two taxis – lambs to the slaughter. We tossed up whether it would be a good time to say something to Heinz and avoid heated catastrophe, but thought that the best way to show our disagreement would be to give him a 3/5 driver rating. When the lights hit amber, our driver got the early drop, accelerating hard, past the recommended fuel efficiency and our hybrid roared like any other gas guzzler. We considered giving the couple in the back the finger, but they were just innocent passengers lost in the fury. The lanes narrowed into one and our cab edged ahead and around the corner.

Vienna in the morning was crisp, not a cloud in the sky and the sun beamed down. The Christmas Markets continued on through to past the New Year and the morning gluhwein was already warm in mugs. Boarding the tram (with tickets bought and paid for – we had a bit of a lapse in judgement) we made our way into the large promenade, flanked by Roman architecture and rows of rose bushes covered for the winter in hessian sacks.

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Vienna is written in German as Wien, but it is also pronounced as it is written in English. Mitch went at great pains to explain this to Tam, how the “W” was pronounced “vee” – therefore we got “Vee-eh-nuh”. It didn’t really seem to sink in. Tam believed that it was easier to believe they really just liked wine in the city.

Arriving to door of the Hofburg Wien, we came across the famous Spanish Riding School. A couple of pensioners tapped Mitch on the shoulder and gave him a couple of German senior citizen passes to watch the horses practice in the Winter Riding School. After much gracious thanks, and putting on our best impersonation- we made our way to the upper levels. The horses and their mounts were dressed elaborately and put through a series of difficult maneuvers, we saw a small pirouette, an angled cross leg glide and a graceful dump of the morning hay on the floor. Even the little guy with the brush and shovel who dispatched the droppings was dressed like an Austrian Duke. There was strictly no photography in here. Sorry, no photos.

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The Danube River itself we had never seen before. Expecting an amazing waterfront vista, we found only a small walkway, with a few street art and graffiti installations. Happening across the famous Figlmüller resturant, we shared a Wiener Schnitzel far larger than the plate (pork loin smashed to a flat 30cm in diameter) and a Swabian potato salad.

While we rushed, the city we were keen to get to the next. Bratislava, the sister only 60km down the river is the capital city of Slovakia. Formerly known in German as Pressburg, the city has strong ties with Vienna, but were separated for half of the last century by the Iron Curtain.

As we left Vienna basking in the sun, we dozed for a few minutes before waking in the cold foggy Petržalka train station. Saliva dry on the corners of our mouths. Welcome to Eastern Europe.

Getting out of the station, we wandered aimlessly, hoping to see what the others on the train would do. They all looked to be locals, just one other couple stood out and looked as bewildered as us. Eventually moving through the mist to a bus stop. Tam struggled to open her makeshift coin purse, made from a sunglasses bag and euro’s were flung out, rattling onto the motorway. The locals had a small chuckle as we dived in and out of traffic trying to rescue our small change, partly out of being thrifty and in part because we don’t like to litter. The other tourist couple helped us with the last few euro cents, just in time for the bus to arrive.

 

Getting off the bus near the hostel, we unloaded our bags and set off back into the haze for some night time exploring. We were told that the fried hermelin (think camembert) cheese with onion and cranberries was a local delicacy and that the best place to get it was at Le Šenk. Unfortunately they were out of cheese and most other food, but craft beer was ‎€1.50 a pint and they were playing the ice hockey. Apparently the local team were playing , but most of the patrons didn’t seem too phased. Dinner at another location down the road consisted of a sour cabbage soup and goulash – was really good stock, but that might have been the beers talking.

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First thing next morning, we went for a run through the city. Most places were closed following the Christmas period. The trams were still running, but it was a good chance to see the place quite sleepy and experience a few trendy Melbourne style cafes. Some public spaces were filled with large beautiful structures, now a bit underused and derelict. Communist architecture contrasted starkly to the palaces and large administrative buildings of the western monarchies in Vienna. The castle atop the highest hill, once the capital of the Kingdom of Hungary, has only been recently rebuilt by the public in the 1950s.

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Corporate lunch location with fountain – Soviet Style

The buildings were a little too scary for some. When last in the area, Becky and James (an architect) were a little put off by what they saw in the central train station – mostly by the tough characters with automatic rifles. Would this time be any different? Meeting up with Tom and Lexi for the reception we didn’t seem to find it so bad.

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Piling in the van, we departed for the Tatras mountains for a few days of skiing. The forecast wasn’t promising, but hopefully the snow machines had been working their magic.

 

 

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