Sunday, May 23, 2010

Slovenia: piercings, babies and burek

Hello! It's time for the final installment of my Austria-Slovenia vacation recap: Ljubljana, Slovenia.

Al and I were both really excited about going to Ljubljana, mostly because we'd heard great things about it, and partly because neither of us had ever been to a city with so many superfluous j's in its name before. Ljubljana is the tiny, precious capital of Slovenia, which is a tiny, precious country. Ljubs is miniscule: only 250,000 people in the whole capital! It's also gorgeous, set along a river (the aptly named Ljubljanica) with weeping willows hanging down along the banks. Al said the city reminded him a bit of Amsterdam, because of the narrow houses with balconies lining the waterway. But Ljubljana takes the cuteness a step further, with such adorable flourishes as this "triple bridge" in the old town:

Ljubs isn't just cute, though - it's also way too cool. There's artsy graffiti everywhere (probably mandated by the EU), everyone wears skinny jeans and Chuck Taylors, and the facial-piercings per capita rate is sky high. Even the hostel we stayed at was edgy - it was a converted prison called Celica. Each of the rooms is a "cell" (complete with bars on the door) designed by a different artist. The hostel is also located in Metelkova, an "autonomous social center" in the middle of the city. I think this means that people within the seven-building range of Metelkova are allowed to do way more drugs than everyone else in Ljubs, but I'm not sure.

So, as we were checking in to Celica, we were told that for the first night, we'd have to share a room with some other people, since all the private cells were booked. Fine, I thought, no big deal. We'd probably just end up sharing with another couple, some European version of us who would probably end up becoming our best friends and whom we'd vacation with for the rest of our lives. It just seemed like the most realistic scenario. To my plainly undisguised horror, however, when we got to our room, we realized we were sharing with two Swiss women and a baby. That's right -- we had to share a room with what is most likely the only infant in the autonomous social district of Metelkova. I was not pleased.

Al initially was a much better sport about our baby roommate than I was, saying that he seemed "well-behaved" (he was Swiss, after all) and it would only be for one night. Just one night, how bad could it be? Bad, as it turns out. Apparently even polite Swiss babies cry inconsolably during the wee hours of the morning, which we found out the hard way. Not to be dramatic or anything, but that night was a six-hour long audible parade of horrors. There was, of course, the wailing baby. Then there was the drunken howling of inebriated Englishmen immediately outside our door, who ran up and down the hallway making weird hooting noises and pounding on the walls from approximately 4 am to 5 am. Then -- and this was the absolute worst -- one of the Swiss women started breast-feeding the baby (who was at least 18 months old, come ON) approximately 1.5 feet from my head, as I cowered into the pillow, squeezed my eyes shut and prayed for it all to be over soon.

The next morning, I realized that I am a person who is capable of shooting dirty looks at an 18-month old. "Stupid baby," I muttered under my breath, seeing him happily playing with his Swiss wooden toys on our dormitory floor the next day. But the real target of my anger was his mother(s), who seemed happily oblivious to the fact that it's wildly inappropriate to bring a baby to a shared dorm room unless you are escaping a war zone (and I don't think Lucerne counts).

Our visit improved significantly once we got our own room at the Celica. We spent the rest of our time in Ljubs walking around the old city, visiting the castle on a hill, drinking cheap Slovenian wine, and eating absurd quantities of burek, which is some sort of Balkan meat pie that is so fatty and delicious, I shudder to think what would happen if food courts in the U.S. ever discovered it.

Overall, it was a lovely time and we were sad to leave Ljubs, but we had an enjoyable (and Burek-filled) train ride back through the Semmering Pass and into Austria, where we spent our last night in Vienna. A good end to a good trip. Tschuss!

Monday, May 17, 2010

Adorable Austria

Time for Part 2 of my Austria-Slovenia vacay recap: the Wachau Valley, Austria. The Wachau Valley is a beautiful valley (as the name would suggest) formed by the Danube River in Lower Austria. It's known for two things: good wine and excessive cuteness.

We got there by taking a (cute) train from Vienna, arriving after a few hours in the (adorable) town of Krems an der Donau. The sheer unadulterated charm of this place was overwhelming: cobblestone streets, narrow alleys lined with pastel houses, an ornate church with with ivy crawling up its sides -- even the barbed-wire covered prison on the outskirts of town was adorable.

We stayed in a semi-weird but cool budget hotel about 10 minutes outside of town called, oddly, Orange Wings. We liked it because they had a vending machine in the lobby with mini bottles of champagne AND free wireless in our room! There was a (really cute) bus that ran from the hotel to the main part of town, which we took every day, along with ten or so spry Austrian grandmas and a few hipsters who were far too wholesome and non-dejected-looking to be convincing.

The main reason we came to the Wachau was not actually for the cuteness -- we came for the wine. Al and I are big wine people, meaning that Al is extremely knowledgeable about wine and I heartily enjoy drinking it (while remaining astonishingly ignorant about it). We also like mixing our boozing with light to moderate exercise, so on our second day in Krems, we decided to rent bikes early in the morning and ride them from adorable wine town to adorable wine town, following the Danube River. As we biked along the river, through the towns of Stein, Durnstein, Weissenkirchen, and Joching, among others that are too precious to even mention, we marveled at how each place we passed through was more charming than the previous one. It seems impossible, but the towns just kept getting CUTER. My favorite town was Joching, home to The Most Adorable Kindergarten in the Universe. I had to stop and take a picture, it was THAT cute. Everything was wooden -- the toys, the building, the floors, the broom that the pretty blonde teacher was using to sweep the floors -- and European and delightful. Definitely going to send my kids there. They can commute, right?

Our end goal for our bike-venture was the town of Spitz, where we were hoping to taste some wine and relax a bit. Unfortunately, no one clued us in to the fact that Austrians are actually Latinos, and take absurdly long afternoon siestas that start at 10 am and last until 3 pm. All these people do is sleep and make schnitzel, apparently. So, when we arrived in Spitz, expecting all of the wineries to greet us with open, boozy arms, we were disappointed to see that nothing at all was open. We went forlornly from winery to winery, hoping that someone would be willing to let us in and give us some wine, but most of the people who answered their doors seemed utterly perplexed by our presence ("Wine? Here? At a winery? Oh, goodness, no, no, we don't have anything like that here."). One man, though, seemed both confused AND angry that we had the nerve to ask if his winery, whose door was open and said "WINERY" on it, served wine. He said/roared something at us in what we think was a dialect of Austrian Ogre -- but might have been Western Austrian Troll, his accent was a bit muddled -- and we thanked him and backed slowly away, hopping on our bikes and pedalling furiously to safety.

After being turned away from a garden shop which in our desperation we mistook for a winery, we finally were forced to accept that nothing was going to open until 3 pm. Defeated, we sat down on a bench outside of a (closed) winery for our packed picnic lunch of cheese and bread and waited for the Austrians to wake up from their uber-siestas. At that point, though, the weather had started to turn nasty, and we soon found ourselves biking through cold, gusty rain showers back to Durnstein. Even though it was chilly and wet, it was sort of exhilarating to bike through lush green fields in the rain. It's amazing what an abundance of cuteness and charm can do for one's tolerance of crappy weather! In Durnstein, which was mobbed with slow-moving and bewildered (read: elderly) tourists in rain parkas, we finally had a few nice glasses of wine and, to top off the day, nearly died choking on a chocolate covered apricot seed (okay, that was just me).

After the unfortunate apricot seed incident, we decided to call it a day and head back to Krems, where we ate a meal that was 10% solid food and 90% cream. Al's dish, which was billed as pasta, was a bowl of cream with a few pieces of linguine floating in it. My meal, which I understood to be chicken when ordering it, was cream, a few pieces of asparagus, and what I believe may have been a poultry product of some sort, but it was hard to tell for all the cream. We also had cream of asparagus soup. You think I'm joking, but I'm not. Actually, speaking of asparagus, we noticed that in both Austria and Slovenia, asparagus (spargel -- one of approximately three German words I learned on my 10-day trip) was, shall we say, abundant. They LOVE them some spargel in Austria. I like when restaurants use seasonal ingredients and all, but I was a little spargel-ed out by the end of our time there. But I do like saying spargel. Spargel.

The next day, we ditched the bikes and took the train to Spitz, where we went on a little hike in the hills and woods surrounding the town and killed time until 3 pm before attempting any wineries. We had much better luck than the day before and it turned into a glorious, wine-filled day. We had some fantastic Riesling, Zweigelt and Gruner Ventliner, plus a delicious, fresh lunch that consisted of heaps of cold cuts and cheese and homemade, hot bread. Nom nom nom nom nom.

So, that pretty much sums up our time in the Wachau -- Al and I both agreed that it was the highlight of our trip. You just can't beat that cuteness.

Coming up, Slovenia!

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Schnitzel my nizzle

Hi loyal readers! I've missed you SO much. I've been off the radar for a bit because work was, as noted, insane in the membrane, and after the big hearing ended, I went on a lovely, idyllic vacation with Alastair to Austria and Slovenia and just got back last night. What a trip it was! Basically, it was 10 days of overwhelming cuteness and charm. The trip had three main components -- Vienna, the Wachau Valley, and Ljubljana, so I will describe the trip in three posts: first, Vienna.

Al and I got to Vienna in the afternoon after a long couple of flights from DC, and were completely wiped. We took the train and then the subway to Gumpendorferstrasse (not making that up) and checked in to the apartment we had rented for a few nights. Our hostess, a very friendly, lanky woman who wore a perma-fanny-pack, gave us the rundown on our accomodations and the neighborhood and handed us our keys. We promptly passed out in the apartment for several hours and got up for dinnertime.

Obviously, wiener schnitzel was high on the agenda for the Vienna portion of our trip. I had never had it before and, I'll admit, was unclear on what it actually was. I was picturing a wiener of some sort covered in sauerkraut, or possibly noodles with little wieners floating in them. Basically, I was expecting some kind of wiener. How wrong I was! Wiener schnitzel, for my fellow culinary ignuramuses (ignorami?), is a breaded and friend paillard of pork or turkey, served with a hot potato salad and sometimes a slice of lemon. Uh-may-zing. How can you not like a slab of crispy, breaded pork the size of a small woodland creature? Al and I each ate a schnitzel as big as our faces, washed down with large pints of beer, and then wandered off into the town.

Vienna is a beautiful city that really isn't afraid to throw some imperial grandeur at you. There are a lot of big, imposing buildings with ornate details, carefully manicured public gardens, and wide avenues that seem suitable for parades involving horse-drawn carriages and people wearing ermine stoles. However, as Al and I discovered quite accidentally, Vienna has its seedier side -- for example, the creepy, permanent carnival in the middle of the city. We foolishly took our landlady's advice and took the subway to what we vaguely understood to be a beer garden with rides, and ended up at quite possibly the Creepiest Carnival in All of Europe. The first thing that struck me about this carnival was that it was largely devoid of children. There were, however, several gangs of angry looking Aryan teenagers with shaved heads, and some competing gangs of angry looking Turkish guys in leather jackets. So, at least it was ethnically diverse, right?

Another thing about this place -- there was a surprising absence of any sort of jolly, well-lit beer garden. Instead, there were a bunch of what seemed to be spinal-injury-inducing rides, each blasting a different kind of intense, European techno. Fun for the whole family! We stayed a total of 10 minutes or so at the carnival, marveling at its sheer creepiness, then we walked quickly to the subway entrance, which is probably the one place in all of Austria that smells like pee, and got the hell out of there.

Scarred by our carnival adventure, we decided to try to get some culture in the city that's known for its opera, waltzes, classical symphonies, and Mozart balls (don't worry, they're chocolate!). We stood in line for the Opera, which sells really cheap, standing-room-only seats that you can buy 90 minutes before the show. We got in line at 5:30 for a 7 pm performance of Carmen, and were three people away from the ticket window when the show sold out. Foiled in our attempt to become cultured, we instead went to dinner, drank wine, and then headed to a seedy backpacker bar where we took vodka shots and wolfed down a microwave pizza before coming back to our apartment at 4 am singing songs and being completely obnoxious. I feel sorry for the quiet Dutch guy who, unbeknownst to us, was renting the other room in the apartment and probably wanted to murder us with his bare hands. Sorry, Dutch guy!

We did manage to get some modicum of culture while in Vienna - we went to a modern art museum, MUMOK, which had been billed to us as exhibiting naked people covered in salad, among other things, which was really all it took to pique our interest. Turns out that the museum just had a couple of small photos of naked people covered in salad, and then a lot of blocky, modern art exhibits for which my jet-lagged brain did not have the patience. Like, there was one exhibit that was a bookshelf leaning against a wall. I'm sorry, but that's just lazy. For the 8 Euros we paid to get in, I wanted to see real, live naked people slathered in Russian dressing. Disappointing.

So, that was Vienna in a nutshell. High points: wiener schnitzel, beer, pretty buildings. Low points: rain, sketchy carnival, lack of naked people. Overall, a good time! Next stop, the Wachau Valley -- wine country.