Wieners, Kaesekrenner and Brats, oh my!

Trip Start Aug 08, 2006
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Trip End Oct 18, 2006


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Tuesday, September 19, 2006

September 19-23
 
I sat on the steps in front of the Venice rail station and watched the boats pass up and down the Grand Canal. They were interesting, but oftentimes the people around me took center stage. Ah, the Italians. Ya gotta love 'em despite all their faults. It occurred to me then that, in many ways, Italians are like the popular kids in high school. They look good and are oh so cool, but you just know they're not going anywhere in life. I mean, it's not like the Italian economy is exactly a juggernaut like Germany or the UK. A civilization who's best days are behind them for sure. But God is the food good.
 
I had a little bottle of wine with me to ensure that I would fall asleep on the train. The whole couchette thing, while better than trying to sleep in a seat, didn't sound terribly comfortable. Not to mention the bouncing and the starting and stopping of the train itself. So I sipped the cheap red vino and soon struck up a conversation with a young Canadian named Alex. He was a good guy and we traded travel stories for a little while there on the steps of the rail station.
 
When it came time to board the train we each bought a couple of cans of beer inside the station and then located  our respective compartments, which happened to be very to close to one another. We sat on the jump seats in the hallway and talked until the beers were drained and I decided to give sleep a shot. I woke up several times throughout the night with all the jostling, but it was better than sleeping in an upright seat (a pleasure I would have a few weeks down the line).
 
When I began arranging this sabbatical last summer some friends of mine from college days, Rick and Nikki Fox, reminded me that Nikki's good friend Kari (but everyone calls her Pippi), had been living in Vienna for the past seven years. Pippi and I had become friends too through Nikki, but we only saw each other occasionally through college and for a year or two after until she went overseas. I hadn't seen her in almost nine years at this point, but immediately added Vienna to the itinerary as a must see.
 
I got in touch with her months before embarking on the trip, so my visit to the home of Freud was penciled-in right from the start. Like I said, we hadn't seen each other in a long while, but she graciously offered me a place to stay without hesitation. As it turns out, she and her roommate Karin live in a three bedroom apartment, so I was able to rack out in the spare room. Kari also offered to pick me up at the station when I e-mailed the week prior to confirm the dates I'd be in town.
 
I let her know that I would be arriving around 8:00 am at the Sudbahnhof (south train station), just as the schedule I was carrying with me clearly indicated. It was right there in black and white. Mm-hmm. SUDbahnhof. Well, upon arrival I looked around and there was no Kari. "That's odd," I thought. And then I saw the sign. I was at the Westbahnhof. I looked at my ticket and sure enough, it didn't match the schedule book. So after a quick call to her mobile and a couple of minutes waiting for her to make her way from the other station, we connected. I felt bad about making her late for work, but she told me Nike's corporate culture was pretty laid back and not to worry about it.
 
She showed me around her place quickly, told me to make myself at home and provided me with a guide book for the city and a wonderful little cake-like pastry from a shop down the street. Very kind of her to have thought of breakfast and everything. Then she was off to work and I was left to relax. It was nice to be in an environment other than a hotel for a change. I took advantage of the opportunity to do some laundry and then just vegged-out until it was done. Thank God for satellite TV. After a couple of hours I had recovered from the night train and I set out to explore.
 
Vienna is a coffee lovers dream. They have some of the best tasting brews and the most glorious coffee houses in the world (some even require reservations). After a quick stroll through the Naschmarkt, towards the center of town, I came upon Café Museum; one of the city's best known purveyors of the mahogany elixir. I'd read about this place in the guidebook, so I decided to go in. After all, I'm always up for a little caffeine fix. I ordered their 'special' coffee which adds a shot of booze (kirsch or schnapps or some such) and is then slathered with schlag (whipped cream).
 
Just down the road from the café was the Opera House. I took a couple of snaps of the exterior and learned that a tour would be available the next day and made a mental note to return.
 
I was shooting from across the street and as I walked on, a shop caught my eye. There were all kinds of shirts in the window with different funny sayings on them. I went in just thinking I'd browse and leave. I learned that you could pick your article of clothing and choose from books full of 'motivs' to have emblazoned on your chosen baby-doll or wife-beater. I found this great long sleeve that was lighter than a sweat shirt, but heavier than a tee and really filled a gap in my limited wardrobe now that it was turning colder, so I decided to get it. I had it imprinted with, "Betty Ford Clinic. Outpatient." Subsequently, I've had several complements on the shirt and comments of concern alike. Probably best, I've learned, not to wear it into hotel bars and such where the patrons tend to be over a certain age.
 
Just beyond the shirt shop is where Kärntner Staße begins. So I took a stroll down the famous shopping avenue with no particular destination in mind. Off of one of the side streets, I spied a watch in a shop window. I came to learn it was crafted by a Scandinavian design firm I'd never heard of. It was a huge hunk of stainless steal, very minimalist, very cool. I had to have it, so I gently inquired about the price and braced myself for a huge number. It wasn't a bad though, so I popped for it (my weakness, timepieces, like shoes for many women). I hadn't intended on going shopping when I set out that afternoon and I had bought so little else the whole trip it kind of surprised me that I'd just made two purchases so, I resolved that there would be no more.
 
I continued down Kärntner Staße and despite my earlier cup of kafe found myself dragging a bit, likely the result of a poor night's sleep on the train. So I stopped off at a little sidewalk joint for another infusion. It also gave me time away from any other shopping-related temptations.
 
When I started up again, I wound my way around the shopping district a little while longer, ending up by the front gates of the Hofburg (more on that later), taking snaps as I went. I really had no idea where I was or what I was really seeing, but for today I was content to wander a little blind. Eventually I circled back and found myself in front of the Stephansdom; the great gothic cathedral that dominates the central square of Vienna. I say gothic because that is the style of the façade, but through re-working over the years, the interior has come to be decorated in the baroque style. It was one of the most impressive churches I'd seen to that point (although that would change soon enough).
 
It was drawing near the time I was to meet Pip in that same square, but I had a few minutes to grab a beer at an outdoor café and to scribble some notes in my journal. We soon met up and walked back to her place and cleaned up a bit in preparation for dinner.
 
We met up with a couple that Kari is good friends with named Jen and Christoph. She is American and he Austrian, though he speaks flawless English as a result of having worked for an investment bank in the States for several years.
 
We went to restaurant just around the corner form where they all live. It was absolutely fantastic. I had the best pumpkin soup ever followed by Tafelspitz, which is boiled beef (better than it sounds) served with an apple and horseradish sauce alongside some julienned vegetables and a hashbrown-esque potato pancake. Christoph and I both started with some fine Austrian beer and between the three of us (Jen's pregnant) we killed a bottle of Riesling with the soup and a nice local red with our entrées. The wine in Austria was much better than I had expected; a well kept secret. The four of us split desert and then continued the nice conversation we'd been having back at Jen and Christoph's place. He dug into his extensive wine cellar and brought back a Bordeaux of a quality beyond our requirement at that point, but we were grateful nonetheless. It all made for a very nice evening.
 
The next morning I went for a much needed run. Afterwards, I did some more laundry. Their washing machine is about the size of a poodle kennel and it doubles as the dryer (huh?). But the latter function does little more than make your clothes hot and wet, so air drying and small loads are de rigueur. I'd intended to go to Schönbrunn, the Hapsburg's summer palace, that day, but after a late start and finding myself near the Karlskirche while searching for the train station, I changed my plans.
 
I had a nice lunch outside in a park near the grand church and then headed over for a tour. In the courtyard fronting the church there was an interesting display of painted bears; one from each member country of the United Nations. The bears have been touring the world, and were completing their European leg in Vienna. Each had been painted by an artist from the respective country.
 
I went inside the church only to find a major repair effort underway. They'd erected a large tower of scaffolding inside and, at first, I was disappointed that it would ruin any photos that I wanted to take. However, I quickly found that incorporated into the scaffolding was a lift that went all the way to the top of the cupola. I rode it up and upon exiting, found myself within spitting distance of the immaculate painted ceiling (not that I would spit in a church). It turned out to be very cool (see pics).
 
The Karlskirche had been even more impressive than the Stephansdom. It started to feel like a phenomenon to me that every successive church I saw seemed to be better looking than the last. I wondered if perhaps it was simply a failure of recollection. In any case, this was the tops at that point.
 
When I'd had my fill of the place, I remembered that there was a 2:00 tour of the Opera House and it was only a 5 minute walk, so I made my way over there. I bought a ticket and spent what was probably no more than 10 minutes waiting in the lobby, but it seemed longer as there was nowhere to sit and nothing to do while I waited for our guide to show up. Except marvel at the ornate decoration of the marble columns and guided chandeliers. Stunning, but after a few minutes... I enjoyed the guided tour though, learning a lot about the history of the building and its modern uses.
 
As I sat in the auditorium listening to my guide, the stage crew worked to change out the set used for that morning's dress rehearsal in exchange for the one needed for that evening's performance. It's quite a high tech. affair, actually. I watched as a set of steps over 40 feet high was lowered beneath the stage proper and replaced by a cityscape pushed from behind where the steps had been moments before. In fact, the stage is twice as deep as the seating area to allow for this stacking of sets and that entire area is replicated below deck as well. Learn something new everyday on this trip, I guess.
 
After the tour ended, I exited the palatial music house wondering what to do next. Well, it just so happens that right across the street from the Opera House is the Hotel Sacher; home and namesake of the famous chocolate torte. I took a table street side and ordered a slice along with a kafe. Ahh, simple pleasures. 
 
I walked over to the Albertina museum just down the block and noticed a new Picasso exhibition was opening in two days. Interesting... Then I remembered I had made plans to meet Pippi back at her place for dinner so I headed off in that direction, but found I had enough time to stop at the Secession Building, which happened to be en route to her place. The Secessionists Movement is a school of artists that originated in Vienna who count among their most famous members Gustav Klimt.
 
I don't recall the year, but at one point Vienna hosted a grand exhibition celebrating the music of Beethoven for which Klimt created a large frieze that served as the entryway piece. Quite accidentally, it was preserved. You see, the whole exhibition was being torn down when a collector who was taken with the piece inquired about and purchased it. He promptly placed it in storage and forgot about it. Upon his death, it was rediscovered and bought back by the Austrian government. When the building dedicated to the Secessionists movement was built, a special room was designed to house this one piece. It is a rectangular room measuring about 60' by 20'. The piece itself is an homage to the 4th movement of Beethoven's 9th symphony; the Ode to Joy - my favorite piece of music ever composed. I sat there on one side of the room first, then moved to the other side after 15 minutes or so to admire the other half. It was calming, intriguing and inspiring all at once.
 
Back at Pippi's apartment, she suggested we walk over to the Naschmarkt and buy fixin's for dinner there. The Naschmarkt is a long double alleyway of merchant stands where one can procure any type of vegetable, cheese, bread, meat, fish, wine or fruit imaginable. We bought some great olives cured in lemon, two types of sausage, four kinds of cheese, fresh red and yellow bell peppers, cherry tomatoes, zucchini, and some fantastic crusty bread and headed back to Pip's. Well, after we stopped off for a beer first (a real Budweiser Budwar, not to be confused with the stuff brewed in St. Louis). We also picked up a couple of DVDs to make a night of it with her roommate Karin.
 
Once back in the apartment, Pippi opened a bottle of really nice Austrian red wine she had on hand and we prepared our feast - essentially just cutting everything into bight size portions and ripping the bread into pieces. Done. It was fantastic. As long as you have good, fresh ingredients, sometimes the best preparation is just getting out of their way.
 
We had decided not to go out that night because the next day we were getting up to go hiking in Pogusch. Pip took the day off and rented a nice little Audi A3 which she proceeded to put through the paces on the Austrian highways and little winding mountain roads as if she were Michael Schumacher. As we wound our way through the foothills of the Alps outside the city, I closed my eyes and imagined I had my M3 back and was taking those hairpin turns for all they were worth. She was a good driver and didn't shy way from accelerating out of a turn so, it left me time to gape at the amazing scenery instead. There were mountains on all sides and beautiful little villages almost the whole drive.
 
Pogusch is about an or so out of town, but worlds away from modern day Austria. We parked the car and hit the hiking trail around mid-day. The mountain air (I know Pip, just the hills, we weren't really in the "mountains") was crisp and felt good on my lungs. It wasn't a particularly hard hike overall, but parts were steep and this girl keeps a stiff pace. I kept up alright though. We came upon a little church in the woods with an outdoor pulpit and pews. I had Pip take a picture of me in the pulpit invoking the spirits of my grandfathers (both of whom were Lutheran ministers).
 
A bit further up the path we came upon a little Gasthaus. There I had my first ever glass of Most. It's kind of like hard cider, but a bit more tart and slightly cloudy. After drinking about two thirds of it, I found it was much stronger than cider as well. We sipped our drinks and watched the chickens roam around the tables out back where we were sitting. The view of the Alps was astounding. A couple at a nearby table noticed we were speaking English and struck up a conversation with us. It turned out that he worked for Daimler-Chrysler (which I guessed as soon as he told us, in a heavy Austrian accent, that they lived in Bloomfield Hills). They were very friendly and we had a nice chat for a while. Pippi alternately spoke German with them or our waitress. The couple from Detroit, by way of Salzburg, were the first ones I heard, but not the last, tell her that she spoke the language flawlessly.
 
We continued our hike and I just soaked in the views. It's a different type of mountain range from some others I've visited; the Andes, the Rockies. But equally stunning to be sure. I don't really know how long we walked for, but it was the most pleasant afternoon I'd spent on foot since Cinque Terre.
 
We returned to the car and crossed the road, heading over to a restaurant Kari had pointed out to me when we pulled in. We would be returning for dinner that night, but now we needed libations and chairs after our full day of walking.
 
After a bit of a rest, we drove down the road a ways and, after a wrong turn or two, found the Gasthaus where we were to spend the night. We cleaned ourselves up and returned to the restaurant, which is called Steirereck am Pogusch. The proprietor of the Gasthaus was kind enough to drive us up there - we were in the sticks and this kind of courtesy was just second nature to them - and he asked how long ago we'd made our reservations for dinner. When Kari told him she'd called just the day before to see if there were any tables available, he was stunned. Apparently, despite being far off in the woods, better than an hour from Vienna, it regularly books-up weeks in advance. There must have been a cancellation, I thought. Kari told me that after reading the first few of these Travelogues, she was determined to show me what Austrian cuisine was all about. Ok, let's dance.
 
Though not strictly a traditional Austrian/Viennese restaurant (they had a few nouveau cuisine tricks up their sleeves) it did not fail to impress. We began with a glass of Sekt (Austrian/German sparkling wine like Prosecco or Cava) at the bar while we waited for our table. Once seated, I began to peruse the daunting menu. Those of you who have spent time with me at restaurants know that making choices is not my strong suit. When faced with an inventive menu chock-full of high-end ingredients, things slow down even further.
 
Finally, I settled on a starter of foie gras perched atop half a baked apple with a berry sauce and brioche toast points. This was followed by quail with herbed bread stuffing, tender Brussels sprouts, trumpet mushrooms and caramelized onions in a savory pan sauce. Yikes! So, good. The entrée I chose consisted of venison medallions topped with small squares of (yet again) foie gras alongside a venison egg roll of sorts - a thin strip of perfectly seared veni. wrapped in phyllo dough - all set over a sweet, yet slightly sour berry sauce. I literally don't know what to say about this dish it was so good. Who would'a thunk that a place where the waitresses wear Dirndels could roll out this kind of fare. One other very cool aspect of this place is the way in which you choose your wine. While we waited for our first courses to arrive, we were able to get up and stroll through the wine cave to pick out the bottle(s) that would accompany our meal instead of perusing a boring old wine list. Great concept.
 
Instead of dessert, both Kari and I opted for the Käse Duell (cheese duel) pitting Austria against France. I have a sneaking suspicion they selected poor French cheeses in a deliberate attempt to fix the bout. No matter - we were both stuffed. And I could definitely declare Austrian cooking on par with the other countries I had visited so far, if not better. But Kari had no reason to worry. I know where Wolfgang Puck hails from. With a dude like that on the world stage, Austria already had plenty of street (or kitchen) cred.
 
The next morning we got up very early - 5:30 or 6:00 I think - because Pippi had to get back for work. The owners of the B&B had asked us when we arrived what time we would be leaving so that she could have breakfast ready for us. But seeing as how we had just finished gorging ourselves less than 6 hours prior, neither of us had much of an appetite that morning. I made an attempt, choking down a soft boiled egg and some coffee, but Kari couldn't eat anything. I felt bad for this nice lady who'd prepared a full-on spread for us. She seemed to understand though as practically everyone in Austria knows the restaurant we had been to and I think she put 2-and-2 together.
 
I had already decided by now not to go to Budapest, which had been my next tentative stop, due to the riots that had broken out there. It probably would have been fine, but Pippi told me Budapest was, "...just like Vienna, but with crime," so I decided to skip it. Besides, I was loving Vienna and having a great time hanging with Pippi and Karin. Knowing I had yet another full day in town, I put off Schönbrunn yet again and headed to the Hapsburg's winter residence, the Hofburg.
 
The Hofburg was originally a medieval castle, but today only the castle chapel ('Burgkapelle') demonstrates its medieval past. The Hofburg was expanded over the years into a sprawling residence as the Habsburg's power increased. That's why one can find almost any architectural style, from gothic to art nouveau, represented within it's walls. Nowadays the enormous complex is home to "Österreichische Nationalbibliothek" (National Library), "Schatzkammer" (Imperial Treasury), and houses a collection of musical instruments, another collection of weapons, a "Museum für Völkerkunde" (Museum of Ethnography) and famous "Spanische Hofreitschule" (Spanish Riding School).
 
The tour I took began with a stroll through, what?, 30 or 40 rooms filled with service sets for the one-time-rulers of the better part of the western world. Silver, gold, porcelain. Plates, chargers, knives, forks, elaborate centerpieces. It went on and on. So much wealth concentrated within one family. Astounding. From there, one proceeds upstairs to the Imperial Apartments, which are done in the style of Albert and "Sissi" (the last Emproer(ess)). They ruled beginning in the late 19th century until 1918. The tour only grants access to a sliver of the place, bedrooms, studies, the grand ballroom, private dining room for the Imperial family, etc. But the whole complex is massive. One whole wing was never inhabited because the interior was still under construction when World War I broke out. After that, well, no more Emperor. That section is a museum today, I believe.
 
I left the Hofburg to stroll through the adjoining Volksgarten and on up past some gorgeous theater building. Opposite that, sits the Rathaus, or City Hall. My Dad worked in two City Halls in Minnesota; Columbia Heights and Hopkins. And let me tell you this, they bore absolutely no resemblance to this building. What a beautiful pile of bricks (see pic.).
 
Later that afternoon Kari and I met up to take in the Picasso exhibit at the Albertina Museum. It was the opening day for this particular show. I don't think I'd ever been to an opening day for an art exhibition before. Well, in any case, it knocked my socks off. After years of being thwarted in my attempts to view his work, I finally got to see some of the master's best cubist pieces (remember, even in Barcelona it was still primarily his early works on display). Not only were the pieces in the exhibition fantastic, but the curating was top notch with lots of informative written commentary (in German and English). It went on forever too. There were far more pieces than I had even hoped for. We spent, what?, an hour, two? in there. I don't even know. In addition to the fabulous paintings there were sculptures and tons of drawings and etchings from near the end of his life on earth. I think the drawings were the biggest eye opener for me as to the depth, complexity and scope of his body of work.
 
Afterwards, Pip suggested we stroll the Museum Quarter and I had no argument. There are more than just museums in this neighborhood and I found it a very chill sort of place. We stopped off for a beer (for me) and a Radler (for her) and copped a squat on one of the interlocking, cubist-esque, bench-type things in the middle of a square housing a theater, museum and I think part of a University.
 
We resumed walking after a bit and just meandered through the Quarter for another hour or two, finally making our way back across the city, via a beer garden stop here and a wine bar stop there. I got a real sense how of this city lives and breathes that afternoon. To top it off, we stopped at a little tavern in Kari's neighborhood that serves a mean Wienerschnitzel. I mean, this thing was bigger than my head. Pounded thin and fried crispy, it was perfection with a squeeze of lemon and a cold Budwar.
 
Day 5 in Vienna. Far longer than I initially intended on staying here and I was still loving it. I had a pretty good guide to show me around, so that didn't hurt. It was to be my last day though, so I figured I'd better go see the big palace and boy, was I glad I did.
 
We started the day, the three of us, in the Naschmarkt for coffee. I left Kari and Karin to their shopping or whatever it is chicks in Wien do on Saturday mornings and caught the U-bahn to Schönbrunn. The train system in Vienna is very user friendly. In fact, everything in Vienna was. Unlike Spain or Italy, you can reasonably expect things to work the way they are supposed to in Austria - all the time, which is nice. So, after a quick ride I hopped off the Austrian El, walked a few hundred meters down the line and, bam. There in front of me was the biggest yellow palace you ever saw (might'a made Joni Mitchell change her song). The weather was absolutely splendid. In fact, it had been since my second day in town. It was maybe 70 degrees with bright sunshine all around - hardly a cloud in the sky.
 
It took a while to get in. They stamped your ticket with a time you were allowed entry to the Imperial Apartments to avoid overcrowding, so I went out back to see part of the gardens first. It's a huge spread, roughly modeled after the layout for Versailles. All the way to the rear of the gardens is the Glorietta; a large series of connected archways topped with the Austrian eagle. It is a monument to the Austro-Hungarian Empire and the Hapsburg's themselves. Between the Glorietta and the palace proper is a huge man made lake, an impressive fountain and flower beds interspersed with walking lanes, all very symmetrical in the style of 17th century design.

I went in for the tour and was duly impressed, even though there had been some overlap with the tour of the Hofburg. They even used the same voice talent for the audio-guide at both places and more than once he told the exact same story. I ended up having lunch at one of the restaurants on the property out in the gardens near the zoo. Karin had told me the zoo there was excellent, but I didn't have it in me at that point. I'd been on the grounds for several hours at this point and besides, once you've seen one tiger in a cage, you've seen 'em all. So I headed back to town intent on finding an internet point to type-up some of this here Travelogue.
 
Apparently, the Viennese are too wealthy to need public internet access points, because I couldn't find one anywhere. So instead I went to the Naschmarkt, got a glass of white wine and did some more writing in my journal.
 
That night, the three of us went to dinner together. We hit up a pizza place that also offered pasta and other Italian dishes, but the girls told me this was the best pizza in town. Let's just say I think Pippi's been away from America too long and doesn't get to Italy nearly enough. Of course, being a Chicago transplant, I'm a bit of a snob when it comes to pie, but this was just passable in my book. We had a nice time together though, except that toward the end of the meal Karin began to feel ill. So she begged off afterwards.
 
Pippi and I decided to go for a drink at an infamous ex-pat hangout. It was all dark wood panels and alcoves with little tables in the corners, but we sidled up to the bar. They had a cocktail menu with over 400 drinks listed. It was just silly really. I mean, how do you wade through that? We both ordered old standby's, but then amused ourselves by looking over the ingredients for the more colorfully named libations. Kari asked the barman (who she was affectionately referring to behind his back as Antonio Banderas by this point), "Who makes these up? And who gets to name them?" He told us all the bartenders there were well traveled so, if they hadn't invented the drinks themselves, then they'd brought back the recipes from some trip or another. I joked that they probably just Googled 'cocktails' every couple of weeks and updated their list. Antonio was not amused. And at 12-14 euro a pop for drinks, neither was I, so we decided to go somewhere a bit more downscale.
 
We made our way over to a place called Boof (phonetically spelled anyway) that was jammed with 20 & 30-somethings downing beers instead of rarified concoctions. This was more like it. We were lucky enough to snag a table as a group near the door exited. We sat and talked for a long while and finally Pippi coaxed me out onto the dance floor. It was shoulder to shoulder out there and almost impossible to move at times.  We were able to box some people out after a while and when she did get some room, I noticed Pip can really shake it. It was late by the time we left the dance floor and Boof altogether. We walked home and hit the sack, exhausted.
 
So the next morning, after five days in Vienna, I took my leave. Kari walked me to the U-bahn where we said our goodbyes. It was nice to have re-kindled our friendship and I was grateful to her and to Karin for showing me such a great time in Wien.
 
I waited there no more than a minute for the subway, hopped off to switch lines once, and again a train appeared within a minute. I arrived at the train station, found the correct platform for the next train out and hopped on board just as the Porter was blowing his whistle for departure. Smoothest exit from a city yet.
 
I didn't see anywhere near all that Vienna has to offer, but thanks to my wonderful guide(s), I feel like I got to know the city in a way I hadn't with any of my other destinations. I would definitely like to go back someday. It was also good to be in a German speaking country where I could at least get by if the locals didn't speak English. So, a great introduction to Austria. Now, let's see what Salzburg is like...
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