November 4th-6th was a weekend I had been looking forward to since early September. I was about to spend an entire weekend in Austria with a girl I’ve known since I was in elementary school. Our families are both military, and our dads met while flying together with VP10 in Maine when I was five years old. For many years now we’ve lived no more than an hour away, but our lives went their own directions throughout middle and high school. Now, by the mere “coincidence” that we were studying abroad in the same semester, I was about to meet up with my childhood crush in two of the most beautiful European towns, Hallstatt and Salzburg.
Traveling out of Switzerland on my own for the first time was a little intimidating. Although I spent a lot of time carefully writing out each step of the journey, if one train was significantly delayed, or I missed a connection my entire trip to Vienna could have been really difficult, if not ruined. I allowed myself as much time at the airport as possible, but that was only a mere hour and a half. Still, much to my surprise, the travel seemed effortless. All the trains were right on time, the airport was easy to navigate, and buses taking me to Vienna Westbahnhof train station were really easy to find. It was unreal how smooth travel was all weekend long in fact.
I anxiously waited for Amanda at platform 1. Things had been going so well so far, I just hoped she hadn’t had any trouble getting here by herself. Sure enough there she was, right on time, and we sat down and began catching up while waiting for our train. She told me about some of her earlier semester travels, and of course the question arose: “what are the odds that two military kids who have moved all over the states in the past, attend different universities, and have known each other for over a decade would be sitting together in a train station in Vienna!?” Makes you wonder…
Before long, we were on our train to Attnang Puccheim where we jumped on our connection to Bad Ischl. This train to Bad Ischl always stops at Hallstatt along the way, but as the conductor checked our tickets he told us that tonight this this wasn’t the case. That could’ve been a huge damper on our weekend if it wasn’t for this nice couple sitting across from us who had a smart phone. They were kind enough to look up taxi numbers on their phone, and even call for us to do the speaking in German (the driver didn’t speak much English). Sure enough, as soon as we arrived in Bad Ischl, our cab was waiting for us at the station and drove us 30 minutes straight to our Bed & Breakfast (Gasthof Simony) in Hallstatt. Talk about a close call. The big man upstairs was certainly looking out for us this weekend.
On Saturday morning we woke up to the smell of a fresh Austrian breakfast – assorted meats (Amanda calls it all ham), cheese, bread, ripe fruits, eggs, and juice and milk. With just a few key ideas of what to see in this tiny storybook town we were out the door by 8:30am. Hallstatt is situated in the Salzkammergut Lake District. It’s truly a toy town (around 900 people), almost free of traffic, and squeezed between a mountain and a gorgeous lake where you can almost always see swans swim by – the perfect place to relax and commune with nature. This is a town you could tour in 10 minutes if that’s all the time you had, so there was no doubt that this was going to be the most laid back, lazy-like-Sunday-morning, carefree day of the semester – in other words: a REAL vacation.
We began our day strolling through the town, admiring all of miniature buildings and doors (perfect for Amanda, but a tad bit too small for me) the whole time thinking how lucky we were to be here outside of tourist season. It was like we had rented out the town for ourselves. Eventually we found ourselves at the park. There were a bunch of awesome swings and such like a zip line, a rotating double tire swing (Amanda’s favorite), a jungle gym, see saw, rock wall, and my personal favorite, the swinging hammock. But talk about a flashback to when we were little kids playing together on our family camping trips. Never would have guessed that 10 years later we’d be playing together on a playground in Hallstatt. We spent a good amount of time swinging on the hammock and gazing at the postcard view of the multicolored fall trees covering the mountains all around us.
Afterwards, we made our way to the other end of Hallstatt to see the Catholic church, laughing at the tiny doors along the way. Just before entering the doors of the church, who do we find?? A couple from Amanda’s school, Franciscan University, also spending the weekend in Hallstatt! Of all the places in Europe to go for a weekend, we never thought we would see anyone we knew here, it was hilarious. The four of us chatted briefly and then said the old “goodbye, but I’ll probably see you later today” goodbye. Anyway, the church was beautiful. There were two elaborate alters, a painted story of the passion on the back wall, and a powerful statue of Mary holding the crucified Christ which really seemed to strike Amanda’s interest. As I had usually done in past visits to the many awesome European churches, I took a moment to silently pray and thank God for all the blessings in my life, this semester abroad, and especially for this wonderful weekend in Austria with Amanda.
As I mentioned before, Hallstatt is a really small town crammed between a mountain and a lake. As a result, space is limited to bury the dead. Bones only get about 12 years at rest before making way for the newly dead. Right next to the Catholic Church is this bone chapel – each skull is named, dated, and decorated with ivy (for men) and roses (for women). Supposedly they stopped this practice around the 1960’s when the Church began permitting cremation. After walking a little more, we found the tourist information office and picked up a free map of the town, where we discovered the nearby 2 hour roundtrip hiking trail. Sounded like fun, and it couldn’t have been a better day for a hike. On the way up we would stop and read the signs telling about Hallstatt’s history as the salt mining capital of Europe. One of the world’s oldest salt mines (if not the oldest) is located here in Hallstatt, and there is even a 700 year chapter in Europe’s history known as “The Hallstatt Period,” which says a lot about the tiny town’s importance. Halfway up we came across a bridge overlooking a gorgeous waterfall where we each made a wish and tossed in a coin. Near the top we found a wooden gazebo and carved in our names - our everlasting mark on Hallstatt. The view at the top was phenomenal; to see all of the different fall colors on the mountains, the glassy smooth lake, and the entire town, it was as if we were looking at a giant painting.
By the end of the hike we were pretty hungry, and not much was open but for this one bakery. We took our pretzels and pastries back to our old park, ate in the hammock, and relaxed until it got too cold for us to be outside without coats. By this point in the weekend let’s just say that the girl who was once my first crush all those years ago was starting to become my current one. Walking back to Gasthof Simony, as we were both freezing (actually I’ll admit that I was the one doing most of the shivering), I put my arm around her for the first time. Had to keep warm somehow right? Right.
Thankfully there was a fire burning in the B&B, I was so excited to warm up that I forgot to close the door behind me. The next thing I know Amanda whispers to me: “Umm, Chris? A black cat just ran upstairs.” (*Face palm*) We had to go after it, couldn’t leave a stray cat wandering around the nice lady’s B&B. It wasn’t too hard to find once it started meow-ing. I drew it out from under the bed in one of the empty rooms, and as I was shutting the door Amanda had knelt down to beckon the kitty over. She seemed convinced that it wouldn’t bite her, and she grabbed it! I was beyond impressed. She’s certainly got some guts. Just like that she saved the day, and we said goodbye to the cat outside. To pass the time before our ferry would come to take us across the lake to the train station we looked around the local “sports shop”. There were a ton of cool little wooden carvings of nativity scenes, but best of all were the rocks and minerals collection. We found candles inside sculpted salt from the local mines. They were so cool – we couldn’t help but pick one up while no one was looking and lick it. Downstairs there was a customer book where we wrote:
“I licked your salt candle :)
Chris and Amanda”
There were actually some pretty cool things to see downstairs. There were preserved remains of an old Roman bath house and a bunch of old artifacts dug up from around the town. Finally, our ferry had come and we were on our way to Salzburg. At one of the train stops I saw a conductor outside who looked like he needed some cheering up, so I saluted him through the window. He saw me and seemed pretty amused, and saluted right back. There was hardly anyone on our train, and Amanda began to tell me about the different ways she would sleep on trains, buses, you name it - the sideways-on-the-seat technique, the handstand method, and my personal favorite, the lie-down-on-the-dirty-floor approach. I told her that I would rather sleep on the train’s luggage racks than on the floor. And what does she do? She climbs right up there, that’s what she does! You see, one thing to note about Amanda is her risk taking tendencies. She gets some kind of an adrenaline rush by breaking the rules. So, before the conductors came in and kicked us off the train I made her get down and she took a nap for the rest of the way there. Crisis averted.
Upon arriving in Salzburg around 11:00pm, Amanda led the way up the hill from the train station to find our second B&B that she had booked. It was quite a hill though, we paused and took a rest break halfway up, noticed that the stars were pretty bright that night (it’s funny how much you notice in life when you “stop to smell the roses”), and I gave her a big hug while we caught our breath and warmed up. This B&B had claimed to have a sign or a flag to make it stand out. Didn’t end up being the case, but a nice neighbor pointed out that the place was right next door. We hadn’t had anything for dinner that night so we just dropped our bags off and headed back out to find some grub. It was pretty late and nothing close by seemed to be open, so we assumed we would have to take the bus into town to find a McDonalds. 25 minutes and 6 taxis passed as we waited in the cold before the bus came. We each paid a Euro and sat down on the bus for literally 10 seconds as we rounded the corner to the next stop. Our McDonalds turned out to be a 2 minute walk from where we waiting on our bus. Oh, It’s funny now, but at the time…haha yea. The rest of the night was spent back at the room watching Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade in German – I did some translating because German is pretty much my second language…and I’ve seen the movie like 10 times.
The next morning began with Amanda breaking the rules again, this time by sneaking into the nice lady’s towel closet so she could take a shower. She got a much deserved verbal thrashing. We had towels in our room the whole time. The breakfast wasn’t bad, but our train into the city was pretty early, so we had to eat fast. One of the many highlights of the weekend was going to “Mozart Mass” with Amanda in the cathedral where Mozart was baptized. He would practice and compose here as well, and we sat right beneath the large dome where the best acoustics are. It was one of the most beautiful masses I have ever been to. The quality of the music does make a difference – the music at mass is supposed to help engage the body of Christ into worship – so when it almost brings me to tears you know they are doing just that, and doing it well. Once again we ran into a group of Franciscan students. It’s a Catholic university, so if anywhere you have a good chance of running into them at church, as we experienced twice in one weekend in two different cities. Still, it’s a small world. Following mass, Amanda and I were able to tour Mozart’s birthplace and browse the museum with some of his old pianos and samples of opera music that he wrote. It was getting close to lunch time, so we walked the streets of Old Town, keeping an eye out for a place to eat (she even let me hold her hand!). We stopped at a pizza place, and then made our way back to the river where we spent the last few hours of our weekend vacation sitting on the bank. For the first time all semester I forgot to get a postcard of the city I was in (Salzburg in this case). As the weekend progressed there was ultimately only one thing on my mind, and that was how fortunate I felt to have met this girl while overseas. She’s just an all around wonderful person, and I can’t believe how lucky I am to have crossed paths with her. The last hour on the bank seemed like a minute, and the next thing we knew we were about to head to our own train platforms back to Gaming and Riva San Vitale. We hugged, I kissed her on the cheek, and just like that one of the best weekends of my life so far had finally come to an end.
My 3rd visit to one of my favorite European countries on the weekend of October 28-30. The last time I was in Munich was for that one day at Oktoberfest. As awesome as that was, my friends and I agreed that we should go back to really experience the city. It was an 8 hour train with 5 changes, so not many opportunities to sleep, but we managed. On our last connection we actually met a Hokie in the army now who graduated in 2002. He was stationed in Germany near Munich. After we arrived and checked in at the “Wombat’s” hostel four friends of mine and I took our friend Kyle out to dinner for his 21st birthday at this authentic Bavarian restaurant called “Augustiner Stuben.” I got a mixed pan with two kinds of pork, roasted duck, mashed potatoes, and red cabbage, all for 10 Euros! We each ordered “Ein Maß” (liter) of arguably the best beer I’ve ever had and will ever have, next to the Czech beer in Prague of course.
Our Saturday in Munich was largely spent touring the nearby former concentration camp, Dachau. In 1933 on March 22, less than two months after the Nazis seized power, the Dachau concentration camp was set into operation. Some 42 - 43,000 died. This camp served as a model for all later concentration camps and as a “school of violence” for SS men in charge of the camp. In the 12 years of its existence over 200,000 persons from all over Europe were imprisoned here and in the numerous subsidiary camps nearby. Dachau was a camp primarily consisting of Catholics, as over 40,000 prisoners came straight from Poland, and over 2,700 priests were incarcerated. On April 29, 1945 American troops liberated the survivors.
We took a tour at 1pm, which was fantastic. Our tour guide knew his stuff and covered all the main sites while painting a vivid picture of life here for the enslaved. Some sites we covered on the tour include the “Jourhaus” - the sole entrance to the camp with a message in the gate: “WORK SETS YOU FREE.” We saw the maintenance building, today it’s a Dachau history museum, but was originally where the kitchen, clothing store, workshops, and showers were. On the roof was painted in huge letters: “There is one path to freedom. It’s milestones are: Obedience, Honesty, Cleanliness, Sobriety, Diligence, Sacrifice, Orderliness, Truthfulness, and Love of the Fatherland.” There was the bunker where terrible punishment took place - pole hangings and whippings with a bull whip (if a prisoner couldn’t count to 25 whippings out loud in perfect German they were done for. You would have to start again from zero if you simply mispronounced or forgot a number). He showed us the role call area where prisoners lined up mornings and evenings to be counted. Some prisoners were punished by standing motionless here for days and often died of exposure. The camp fencing was made of electric barbed wire, lined with ditches and the infamous grass strips - if a prisoner stepped foot on the grass strip they were shot at without warning. Many prisoners ended up committing suicide on the electric barbed wire (if they weren’t shot down first) to end their suffering. On the camp road between the barracks, strapped to a plow, the prisoners ran up and back “to smooth the gravel.” During this pointless labor they were spit on, beaten, sworn at, and essentially treated like animals. It was merely another way of dehumanizing the prisoners. The original camp barracks were all torn down in the 60’s due to their awful condition, but an exact replica was constructed in the first row demonstrating the living conditions between 1933-1938, 1938-1944, and 1944-1945 (a separate room for each time period). Designed to accommodate 200 prisoners, toward the end of the war they were catastrophically overcrowded with up to 2,000. It was extremely chaotic and unsanitary with disease breaking out and killing many. In the main camp there are 3 religious memorials - Catholic, Jewish, and Protestant. The Catholic memorial is in the center, due to the fact that in this particular camp the majority of prisoners were Catholics. In 1940 the SS had a crematorium built because of the dramatically increasing number of dead. In 1942-1943 a second larger crematorium was built with a gas chamber for mass killings. Executions like hangings were carried out right in the crematorium as well. There was also an SS shooting range where over 4,000 Soviet prisoners of war were killed in 1941. Toward the very end of the war when the Allies seized control of the Nazis’ sources of coal for the crematoriums, the dead bodies began to pile up until finally some 7,500 were buried in a mass grave just outside the camp.
This was a shocking and extremely sobering experience, but one that I will always remember. While it showed me the dark, cruel, and most evil capabilities of man it was also a powerful reminder of how precious life is and how much I have to be thankful for.
Later that evening Kyle, Steve, and I walked through Marienplatz and visited the famous Hofbrauhaus. Our last night to enjoy authentic German beer for who knows how long…I had a radler that night to mix things up. The place was absolutely packed - not surprising on a Saturday night, but among all the “prost-ing” Germans we found a table of American exchange students studying in Germany. Great way to end the weekend in this beautiful city.
Almost Everyone, including myself, had just stayed up all night finishing our presentations. After everyone had presented for the day we could hardly wait until that bus showed up outside the villa in the evening. We were on our way to see a European football match, but not just any football match…we were going down to Milan to AC Milan play, one of the best clubs in the world! The last thing on our minds was how tired we felt (or should have felt). It was a Serie A match against Parma. For the last month or two I had been in charge of the organization and communication between us students at the villa and the president of the local football club which sells tickets and organizes bus transportation to and from the stadium in Milan. I collected and safeguarded all of the money from 40 business and architecture students: 75 CHF per person x 40 students = 3000 CHF. Most people needed change, and many people gave me coins of all sizes, but when I counted it all out in the end I wasn’t short one cent - exactly 3000 CHF on the dot.
Finally it was 5:45pm, our bus was waiting for us right outside, and all 40 of us piled on fired up for an authentic European experience. When we arrived, almost everybody bought an AC Milan scarf, jersey, or even a giant flag to wave in the crowd! I got my brother John a Zlatan Ibrahimovic jersey. Once in the stadium (San Siro) the first thing we noticed was an entire 1/4th of the seats reserved for wild and crazy die-hard AC Milan fans. There were tons of giant flags, a sea of red and black scarves, jerseys, and I’m pretty sure I even saw a bonfire in the stands…it was insane! You needed a special entry card to get in that club, looked like a pretty wild time. My boy Zlatan Ibrahimovic ended up scoring a goal, but what really got the crowd moving was the mid-fielder Antonio Nocerino who scored a hat trick (his last goal a sick diving header)! He was on fire that night, and the final score was 4-1. AC Milan beat the cheese out of Parma. Forza Milano!!! (Go Milan!)