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Therme Erding, the Austro-Hungarian Empire and Iceland

Greetings! After spending four of the best years of my life living in Germany, I unfortunately had to move back to the US last August. This is my first trip back to Europe since leaving, and quite frankly, it feels fantastic to be home again! I'm using my vacation to explore some of the regions of Austria that I never got around to visiting while I lived over here. Particularly, the Hofstadt of Vienna, and the Bundesländer of Niederösterreich, Burgenaland, Steiermark, and Kärntern. Depending on how things go, I may make brief excursions into Slovakia and Hungary. And lastly, because the cheapest flights from Toronto to Europe fly through Iceland, I'm going to spend a few days there on the way back.

To start off, I decided to fly into Munich's airport, which as many seasoned travelers know, is actually located considerably to the north of the city, between Freising and Erding (two towns that produce internationally known beers, Weihenstephan and Erdinger, respectively). Why Munich? So I could visit Europe's largest and best indoor waterpark/thermal spa again. Yes, yes, the fabulous, the amazing, the one-of-a-kind Therme Erding! Getting there via public transportation from the airport is somewhat complicated, but if you don't mind springing for a taxi, it only takes about 15 minutes to get there. Since I've moved back to the US, the Therme has opened it's attached hotel, Hotel Victory, so all the more reason for me to re-visit.

Others (and myself) have described Therme Erding in greater detail previously, so I'll only write about the updates since I last visited. The spa section (FKK only) is the same. New additions: an indoor wave pool, a uniquely terraced pool, and outdoor racing slides. The hotel is themed after the HMS Victory, and the rooms continue a vague nautical theme. Breakfast buffet was better than average for Germany.

In summary... if you're flying into or out of Munich, there is no better way to get over jet lag than to spend your first/last night at Therme Erding. Forget Baden-Baden, Rickniks, this is where you should go to experience German spa culture, particularly if traveling with children. The kids can entertain themselves on the waterslides, while the adults (and mature teenagers) can relax in the spa area.

Next, Vienna. Others have written enough about this city before, so I'll only add a few details, other than to note that this is probably the most elegant city I have ever encountered. Highlights- I'm here in the week leading up to Austria hosting the Eurovision Songcontest. The Rathausplatz has been transformed into a "Eurovision Village", and nightly events are held there. The square in front of the Jesuit church is also hosting a fair that highlights the wines of Burgenland. You could not imagine a more smartly dressed and attractive crowd than that which congregates there nightly.

I'm somewhat of a zoo afficiando, so visiting the Schönbrunn Tierpark was a must for me. I found the overall lay-out and presentation to be about average, but three things makes this zoo stand out. 1) Not one, not two, but three giant pandas! 2) Not one, but two koalas! (is there another zoo in the world that features both of these extremely cute but rare species?) 3) A brand new litter of Arctic wolf pups. (cont.)

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A couple of questions about the Therme Erding which I am hoping to visit next month -

does it have a current river for swimming?

Do the the hotel and Therme have joint rates?

Is there a curative current area (where various parts of the body can be put in a strong flow and then another)?

Do you know what the mineral water is good for?

The reason I ask the latter is that the German Tourist office book on Spas throughout Germany doesn't have an entry for it.

It must be nice to be back. I think that's why we are concentrating on Germany this year.

When we lived on the West Coast the San Diego Zoo had both pandas and koalas. Don't know about now...

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Please post about Iceland, too. I'm trying to plan an early September trip there and am having more difficulty than usual -- I think because I can't pronounce or remember any of the place names!

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does it have a current river for swimming? If you mean like a lazy river, where you drift on an inner tube, no. But it has two pools with a strong one-way current, with alcoves where you can lounge. One is in the new section, the other is in the Textilfrei area.

Do the the hotel and Therme have joint rates? Yes, access is included with the hotel rate, but you pay a small supplement to enter the sauna area. Once you check in, the whole resort is cashless. Everything gets tallied on your wristband, which also functions as a room key.

Is there a curative current area (where various parts of the body can be put in a strong flow and then another)? Sort of. In the main "Vitalpool", there's various jets that go on and off that massage different parts of the body.

Do you know what the mineral water is good for? I don't know. Relaxing? Warm water in general helps with vasodilation, which can relieve some of the symptoms of peripheral vascular disease and muscle spasms. I'm not too convinced there's any real science behind the supposed curative effects of the mineral content of the water, though.

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A few notes on Vienna before I move on to my next destination.

The Albertina museum has a particularly interesting temporary exhibit right now. It features a selection of the some of the hundreds of watercolors commissioned by Archduke Johann of Austria (younger brother of Emperor Leopold II) to document rural life and scenery in the Alps, particularly Steiermark. There are also plenty of studies of Tyrol and Vorarlberg. It's really interesting to see some familiar landscapes from documented in the early 1800s. I'm pretty sure one of them shows the high Alpine valley that would eventually become the modern ski resort of Obertauern.

I also had the unique pleasure of attending the public viewing of the Eurovision Song Contest semifinals at the Rathausplatz. There were thousands of people there, and it was good-natured and festive (if a little beer-soaked and saturated with cigarette smoke). I'm jealous... in the US, if you tried to hold something like this, there would be a huge security line to get in, the queue for beer would be insufferably long because they would need to verify the age of everyone (no matter if the person is obviously over 60), and some @holes would take things too far and ruin it for everyone. Oh well, Europe always beckons...

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I titled this thread "Austro-Hungarian Empire" because I originally intended to spend several hours in Bratislava and briefly cross into Hungary. But it turns out this would raise the insurance premium substantially on my car rental, I would need to buy a Slovakian vignette and figure out the weird registration system Hungary uses on foreign cars. All in all, not really worth the effort. And, it was cold and rainy, which made the idea of walking around Bratislava substantially less attractive. So, on the way to my next lodgings in Podersdorf on the Neusiedler See, I decided on the fly to visit Eisenstadt and Furchtenstein instead.

There's really only one reason to visit Eisenstadt, and his name is Joseph Haydn. Schloss Esterhazy, where he worked as Kapellmeister for the most productive part of his career, is similar to just about every other Neoclassical Schloss I've ever visited... with a few exceptions. One, of course, is a multimedia exhibit devoted to Haydn. Two, the Haydnsaal, where he conducted and performed his music for the Esterhazys and their guests. Three- this is the first palace tour I've ever taken that shows you the servants quarters and the hidden passageways they used in their daily work. Fourth and final- you can explore the massive wine cellar of the Esterhazys. How much did these people drink, anyway? Part of the tour is led via audioguide, but the portion that leads you through the private apartments and the chapel is only available in German with a guide.

I didn't visit the Haydnhaus, where he actually lived. There's was more than enough on Haydn in the Schloss. Eisenstadt has a very pleasent pedestrian shopping street, but nothing to particularly distinguish it from towns of similar size throughout Austria and Germany. The weather kept me from exploring much further.

I still had some time to kill, so I decided to check out Burg Furchtenstein above the town of the same name. This is basically a shrine to the Esterhazy family, much as Burg Hohenzollern in Germany is to the Hohenzollern family. An unguided tour takes you through portrait galleries of the Esterhazy ancestors (including Vlad Tepes of Wallachia, better known to history as "Dracula", to whom the Esterhazy's claimed a dubious link, for some reason), various family relics and a huge collection of hunting weapons. I found it a bit charming that they even commissioned portraits of their favorite hunting dogs. You can also see an additional massive display of weapons, armor and family treasures, but solely by guided tour. These are offered irregularly throughout the day and only in German and Hungarian. Overall, Burg Furchtenstein probably won't satisfy those who insist that on only visiting purely medieval castles (there's a lot of latter-day additions), but overall, one of the more interesting strongholds I've seen. (cont)

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Next, I spent two nights in Podersdorf on the Neusiedler See. This is a large lake SE of Vienna that shares the border with Hungary. The lake is extremely shallow (less than 2m at its deepest), and therefore it usually warms very quickly in the summer. I didn't think it would be warm enough in May for swimming, but I at least hoped for some nice weather so I could walk along the lake shore. No such luck. It was cold and rainy throughout my entire visit (although this didn't stop plenty of people from wind and kite surfing on the lake). Podersdorf is the only village that actually sits directly on the lake- all the others are separated by a wide belt of marshes and reeds. Podersdorf was pleasent enough, but nothing too special. If you're not there for aquatic activities or cycling, there's almost nothing else to do.

WIth the heavy rain, there was really only one thing to do in this sparsely populated wine region of Austria- visit the St. Martin's Therme. A little better than your average Austrian-German Therme, but I wouldn't have bothered if the weather wasn't so bad. And unfortunately, the rain also meant that everyone else in the area had the same idea. They ran out of lockers by the time I arrived, and I had to wait in a long line that only moved as other patrons left. The Therme also has a hotel and offers some kind of a nature excurison, but this wasn't possible with the rain.

So there's Burgenland and the Neusiedler See. I can't really recommend going out of your way to visit this area. It's known for it's wine, but so is most of Austria. Perhaps if you find yourself in Vienna for an extended stay during the summer and you want to escape the heat. Or, if you want to try wind or kite surfing. (cont)

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Next up is Graz, capital of the Bundesland of Steiermark, host of a large university and Austria's second largest city. It sits in a valley surrounded by the Alps as they gradually fade away towards the border with Hungary- these are relatively low mountains, not the towering rocky peaks we usually associated with the Alps mountain range. They look more like the mountains of the Black or Bavarian Forests.

The city itself has a very pleasant and quite large Altstadt. A large hill called the Schlossberg sits in the middle of the city, and it provides a nice ascent (on foot or by funicular). Despite the name, there's no intact castle or palace on top, just some ramparts, a belltower and a scenic clock tower. Oh, and an outdoor theater, restaurants, flower and beer gardens. Great views of the city and surrounding mountains. You can even walk through some passages carved into the hill by the Third Reich as bomb shelters.

Walking through the town, it's filled with restaurants and ice cream parlors. Despite having a relative lack of museums or major monuments, Graz seems to attract quite a few visitors (I'm told, particularly from Slovenia and Croatia).

Let's call Graz a poor man's Vienna. It features much of the same styles of architecture, but generally slightly smaller and not quite as opulent.

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Nearby Graz in Stübing is the Österreiches Freilichtmuseum (Open air folk museum). I found it about average for these sorts of museums. There were only a few re-enactors there the day I visited, so most of the industrial buildings (which would have been the most interesting to me) were not in use. And only a few farm animals here and there. The best open air museums I've seen in Europe? Probably Domein Bokrijk near Hasselt, Belgium, and once it's finally completed, Hessenpark near Frankfurt will near the top of the list.

Next up was a drive along the Großglockner Hochalpenstraße. Quite simply, even on a day with less than perfect visibiltiy, this is an amazing experience. And it reinforced once again how the microclimates of the Alps are so unpredictable. My view of the glacier was nearly unobstructed. But going up the next mountain pass, I hit a heavy snowstorm that then became a thick bank of fog at lower altitude. The Alpine weather gods are a fickle lot.

Looking back, I don't think Graz merited two nights. I now wish that I had spent one of those nights in one of the guesthouses along the Großglockner. As it was, it was nearly 4 PM by the time I finished the Alpine drive, and I had to make it all the way back to Vienna that night to catch my flight to Iceland the next morning. So, my plan to stop off at Melk along the way had to go out the door. Oh well, I'll be back.

Iceland next...

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Iceland, land of ice, fire and nearly unpronouncable names (I've heard the name of my hotel spoken about twenty times so far, and I still can't manage it). This country looks like nothing you've ever seen before, unless you've spent time in the interior of Alaska, Arctic Canada or Mars.

I'm staying in Reykjavik, like most tourists who visit here. Few national capitals are situated in such a scenic location. The city itself, though, is nothing particularly special. It looks vaguely like some of the tertiary cities in Norway or Finland (those that don't have particularly long or well preserved histories). Nice enough with plenty of good restaurants, but Reykjavik isn't the reason most people visit Iceland... it's the natural wonders that await just outside the city.

Plenty of touring companies offer all kinds of themed excursions from the city, suiting everyone from adventurers to couch potatoes. I didn't come equipped for adventure on this trip, so my excursions have tended to lie on the mild side. First one was a bus tour of the Golden Circle, a route that links some of Iceland's most accessible sites from Reykjavik. For some reason, the first stop was geothermally powered tomato green house. Following that, a stop at a geyser field, one of which errupts every few minutes. Then, onto Gullfoss waterfall (even if you don't know the name, you probably know it by sight). The final stop was Þellir national park, which in addition to being stunningly beautiful, is also where the original Viking settlers held their parliament.

Today, I visited the famous Blue Lagoon, probably Iceland's most popular tourist attraction. There's enough written about this elsewhere, so I won't go into too much detail, other than to mention two things. I don't know exactly how the reservation system works, but it looks like this place has limited access at any given time. Think of it as the Mona Lisa of Iceland. Everyone wants to see it, but only a set number can enter at any given time. I think the number is set by the availability of empty lockers in the changing areas. I booked my visit through one of the tour bus companies and arrived fairly early. I walked in without any line, and it never felt particularly crowded while I was inside. However, when I left after about two hours of bathing, the line to get in was out the door, it didn't appear to be moving, and more buses were arriving all the time. So, the lesson? Get there early!

The other thing- I had read online that some tourists were a bit squeamish about the mandatory nude shower you need to take before entering. If you're on the shy side, don't worry. It's no different from showering at the gym. And unlike at German-Austrian thermal resorts, the sexes are segregated into separate changing areas. (cont)

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The Nordic food revolution has not bypassed Iceland. I've had nothing but excellent meals here, both surf and turf based. Yes, I tried the infamous fermented shark, hárkal. Verdict? Follow the advice of the Icelanders on eating this. If you take very small nibbles and chase it with liberal sips of brennivín to cleanse the pallate, it has a flavour similar to extremely ripe and rich cheese. Take too much at once, though, and the ammonia aftertaste overwhelms you.

This is probably one of the few places in the world where you can frequently find whale and horse on the menu. I didn't try the horse (had it before), but I gave the whale a go. Tastes like very dark, salty, fatty beef (cont.)

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My last activity in Iceland was a visit to the Fakasel Icelandic horse farm, which operates a horse show and restaurant/bar. If you have any interest in horses, the show displays some of the unique aspects of the breed and it's role in the history of Iceland. After the show, you can walk through the stables and meet the "performers" up close. I really enjoyed my visit, but people without an interest in equestrian activities probably wouldn't find it worthwhile. Afterwards, though, the tour company drove us back to Reykjavik through some stunning back country scenery.

BTW- I hear that Iceland supposedly has a much more mild climate than you would expect for it's latitude. Well, I wasn't there in the winter, but it was still rather cold. Even though I brought a pretty good windbreaker, I needed to buy a hat, scarf, gloves and one of those thick Icelandic sweaters to stay warm outside. According to the tour guides, though, the weather was much colder than normal for that time of year.