Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Orientation Week 2

The second week of orientation included another week of German class, as well as other activities around Vienna. Over the weekend we visited Schonbrunn Palace, the massive home of the Hapsburg dynasty:

There were a few rooms that really stood out inside the building. The Porcelain Room was decorated with over 200 pen and ink drawings in blue and white. The Lacquer Room was decorated with Chinese pictures and these amazing wooden panels. There were large dining rooms and huge ceiling paintings...but after you've seen enough palaces, they begin to run together. We also toured the gardens surrounding the palace. It amazes me that Vienna still has these enormous palaces and gardens inside the city when the rest of the city is so crowded.

On Monday we participated in a scavenger hunt covering the entire city. It was a good time, but the language barrier created some problems with a few of the activities. On Tuesday we visited the Opera to see Giuseppe Verdi's Simon Boccanegra. Vienna is most famous for its musical history, so this was a great experience. For 3 euros you can purchase a standing-room ticket--although it was a great performance, I was too tired to stand for 3 hours, so I left for home during the intermission. No photos allowed during the performance (for good reason), but here's one pic from the Staatsoper:

Wednesday was another party for the orientation program at an Irish bar in downtown Vienna. I was most impressed with the selection of food that was provided--buffalo wings, fries, and other American appetizers. I think the Europeans were a little offended by the amount of food that some of us Americans ate...but this was the first American food I'd eaten in a month, so I wasn't too concerned. Now if I could only find some barbecue and sweet tea here...

Thursday and Friday were the final two days of German class. Thursday included a trip to Kunst Haus in Vienna. The building, designed by Friedensreich Hundertwasser, is one of the most unique homes I've ever seen. They had a great collection of Hundertwasser paintings as well, which I enjoyed. At the end of the week, I also began meeting with my group for my first class in Vienna. The final two days of orientation included a trip to Munich for Oktoberfest, which I'll try and get up here tomorrow. Here's a shot from outside Kunst Haus:

Monday, September 29, 2008

Graz & Zotter Chocolate Factory

OK...back from Oktoberfest, so time to start updating this blog. Starting with our trip to Graz during orientation:

Graz is the second-largest city in Austria, and is located a few hours to the south of Vienna. Just like Vienna (and seemingly every city in Europe), Graz has a long history and a few major sights to see. The city has some beautiful architecture, including a few old churches and the ubiquitous Hapsburg castle. Inside the castle is this bizarre staircase from the 15th century. A little was lost in translation, but for some reason there is a place on the staircase where you can place your camera, take a picture, and then get this gun barrel-esque picture:

In addition to the classic architecture, Graz has a mixture of modern buildings and structures in the city as well. Here is the city's famous bridge that leads to an island cafe (the bridge apparently lights up blue at night, but I didn't have a chance to take a picture at night):

I then toured the Armory, which is a museum of weapons from Austria. The museum included swords, suits of armor, guns, helmets and other pieces of warfare from the middle ages. The entire collection was massive--thousands of weapons spread over four different floors.

Next I toured the Kunsthaus, which is the city's museum for modern art. When I heard that it was a modern art museum, I figured there would be artists like Picasso, Matisse, or Pollock in there (like the modern museum in New York). No such luck. There was one exhibit with different flashing neon lights and one exhibit that looked like a house of mirrors. One final "exhibit" was simply three rotating displays of post cards. When I looked at the postcards, a security guard came up and told me to "make a wish and pick two cards" in broken English. Needless to say, I didn't spend a lot of time in here. The museum itself is probably the better attraction. I'm not sure what the design in based on, but I decided that it looked like a stomach. At any rate, here is Graz's Kunsthaus:

After the museum, I went up to visit the Clock Tower at the top of the city. The clock dates back to 1712, while the tower was built in 1561. This is the place that most people associate with the city of Graz. There was also a great garden right underneath the tower where you can view the entire city. Here are some images from the long path to get up to the tower, and then the tower at the top:

After a visit to the park in Graz, it was time to leave for the Zotter chocolate factory. Zotter is a relatively new chocolate manufacturer located in Bergl. (At least I think it's in Bergl. It was at least an hour away from Graz in a very rural part of Austria.) The manufacturing process was exactly like one that I read about for my supply chain class last semester. We could watch through windows, but couldn't actually go down to see how the chocolate was made though. However, we did get to taste chocolate at each stage of the process, beginning with the imported beans:

We went through a long assembly line to taste the different types of chocolate that the company makes. Of course, I tried every single one--I didn't keep track of the number, but there were about 75 different kinds. It was a bit exotic for my taste, plus the tastes start to run together once you've tried that many flavors.

The final part of the tour was Zotter's hot chocolate cafe (Zotter also makes a wide range of hot chocolate products). We were served a glass of hot milk as soon as we entered the room, and then bars of chocolate came in on a wire that circled around the room. The whole process was similar to a ski lift. We picked the flavor that we wanted off of the "ski lift" and then mashed it into the milk to make hot chocolate. I have to admit I thought the hot chocolate was much better than the traditional chocolate bars.

So after a long day of travel, we left Zotter and returned back to Vienna. (More pics from both places in the gallery.) I'll get caught up with the rest of orientation and Oktoberfest/Munich in the next couple days...

Monday, September 22, 2008


First, here are a couple pictures from Schonbrunn Palace:

A few thoughts...

With the wide variety of cultures around here, you start to notice the subtle differences. So here are a few gross generalizations.

Americans tend to:
-Wear board shorts and flip flops
-Wear sneakers and white socks
-Hold the door open for other people
-Offer to give a subway seat up to a woman/child
-Block people from moving up the escalator
-Talk loudly on the subway
-Carry around numerous copies of Rick Steves' books

While Europeans:
-Wear tight jeans (guys or girls)
-Wear capri pants (guys or girls)
-Carry purses (guys or girls)
-Chain smoke cigarettes everywhere
-Bring their dogs everywhere (grocery stores, trains, banks, etc.)
-Love techno and American rock/pop music

I'm still a bit confused about holding the door open--maybe that's just from growing up in the south. If I hold the door open for someone here, I tend to get very strange looks. Oh, and white socks are a dead giveaway for identifying Americans too.

I'm in the second week of orientation and our intensive German class. We toured Vienna, took a day trip to Graz, and visited Schonbrunn Palace last week. It's been very cold and rainy for the last week, but everyone's enjoyed the trips so far. (I'll add pictures as soon as I get a chance.) Lots of students from all over the world here. Our scavenger hunt group today had five students--2 from the US, 1 from Russia, 1 from Denmark, and 1 from Holland. I'm in the introductory German class, and our group includes students from Italy, Russia, Portugal, Canada, Sri Lanka, and the U.S. We can only learn so much German in two weeks, so I'll be happy just to learn how to pronounce menu items and learn how to count!

Friday, September 19, 2008


I'm running about a week behind now, so here's a short post on my trip to Portovenere...

I hadn't really intended going there, but Ernesto said he preferred it even more than Cinque Terre. It obviously wasn't as rugged as the Cinque Terre (no trails here), and there were definitely fewer Americans here as well. It seemed to be mostly vacationing Italians. Basically the town has been around for nearly 2000 years, with castles dating back to the 12th century. There's a great rocky beach that I sat out on--the beach had a Riviera vibe to it, but it was a perfect spot to sit and relax. Lots and lots of fishing boats in the port. The local specialties are mussels and octopus, but unfortunately both were a little out of my food budget for the week...

Here are a few pictures. This is the Church of St. Peter, which was built in the 12th century:

These are some pics of Doria Castle, and from the top of Doria Castle:

Just like Cinque Terre, there's amazing water. It's a great SCUBA site, which is something I'll have to try out another time:

Of course, I was excited that there were plenty of kayaks around as well:

After Portovenere, I went back to La Spezia and had a great Italian meal at Ernesto's. We checked out the festival in downtown La Spezia again. It was Friday, so they had a few major concerts--I'm not sure who the bands were (nothing in English), but there were a lot of locals out downtown. We also saw a few more of the street performers, although I was a little concerned about these guys. I always tried my best to blend into to the crowd because the comedians particularly like to pick out audience members and speak with them (or make fun of them). I had no idea what was going on because of the language issues, so that was the last thing I wanted to do. Overall, it was another exhausting day, but a great end to an incredible trip through Italy.

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Cinque Terre

So after the train ride from Florence to La Spezia, I took another short train up to Riomaggiore. Riomaggiore is one of the five small towns that make up the Cinque Terre in Liguria. My real interest was kayaking by the five towns, so I rented a boat after about 10 minutes of looking around in Riomaggiore. The water in the Mediterranean was amazing, and it gives you a completely different perspective of the five towns too. I paddled from Riomaggiore up to Vernazza before heading back.

I really only wanted to kayak through the five towns, but I figured that I might as well hike the trail while I'm there. Although if I'd known that beforehand, I probably would have planned for the hike a little better. I was traveling with just my backpack, which was loaded with about 50 pounds of stuff by this point of the trip. My bad shoulders were already killing me from carrying it around all week. The hike wasn't too difficult until you get past Manarola, the second town. When you're going into Corniglia, you have to climb the "Lardarina." The Lardarina is basically 33 flights of stairs that lead into the town. I found it amusing that they actually have a name for the steps:

I think I may have nightmares about this part of the trail for a long time. By this point, I definitely just wanted to take a nap...but I figured I might as well finish the entire trail since I'd already started it. Even though the hikes from Corniglia to Vernazza, and from Vernazza to Monterosso had a ridiculous amount of steps, the view was definitely worth it!

You have to be careful because a lot of places have very small pathways and little or no railing. It can be a huge pain when you meet people coming from the other direction.

Anyway, so after the 11-mile hike, a few hours of kayaking, and traveling all day with my backpack, I was absolutely exhausted. Luckily I finished up the trail right before sunset.

The Cinque Terre is obviously a beautiful place, but there are some problems. One is that there are way too many tourists there. Even in September, the place was overrun by Americans. I saw far more Americans here than any place I've been to in Europe so far. It makes me wonder what the locals think of it all. Another problem was the Italian trains...but I'll get back to that another time.

I went back to La Spezia because I was staying the night over at Ernesto's apartment. Ernesto lends out his couch to couchsurfers--for those who don't know, couchsurfing is basically a hospitality networking system where you stay at other members' homes when you go to different towns. It's all free, but more importantly, it's a much better way to learn about local cultures than just staying in a hotel. The language barrier can be a bit challenging, but I guess that's part of the experience too.

Back in La Spezia, there was a street festival in town that weekend. We checked out a few different street performers around town--jugglers, comedians, etc. Then we met up with Ernesto's friends and I followed them around while they spoke Italian. Somehow we ended up in a 100-year-old movie theater at around 11:00. At this point, I had no idea what was going on. The movie turned out to be an Italian movie about a Sri Lankan handball team that defected in Germany. I'm completely serious. I couldn't understand any of the words, but at least I got that much out of it. At this point, it was well after 1:00 and finally time to go to sleep.

Monday, September 15, 2008


I had a week off before orientation started, so I decided to travel through Italy because that's the one place I've always wanted to see. Unfortunately the only train I could get was the 6AM ride, which meant that I had to wake up at 3:30 to get from my apartment in the 19th district to the train station. Not the best way to start the day! I got into Florence and checked into the Archi Rossi Hostel, which was a very nice (and affordable) place. (Recommended by NCSU Vienna alumni--thanks!)

I met plenty of English speakers at the hostel, and I went around town with Dave from the UK and George from San Francisco, who were both backpacking around Europe. It was a nice change of pace to finally be able to speak English. We checked out the touristy spots by the Dome and the Piazza della Signoria, as well as some of the local bars too. There are museums, statues, and other famous spots everywhere you look. Plenty of tourists too. One of the biggest hassles is trying to avoid getting in other people's pictures.

The next day, we checked out the major attractions in the city. First up was the Uffizi museum, which has the best collection of Italian art in the world. This is a place where you could spend the better part of a day. Hundreds of ancient statues, and a few very famous paintings. Botticelli's Birth of Venus and Primavera, and da Vinci's Annunciation were all here. We'd heard there could be a 4-5 hour wait, but it was only about 20 minutes to get in. Definitely well worth it!

Next up was the Accademia gallery, which is where Michelangelo's David is located. A very long line to get in, but you don't really have a choice--you basically have to see this if you're in Florence. The statue's a lot bigger than you would think, but it's amazing to see it in person. I managed to snap some illegal pictures while I was there. (There are basically 5 or 6 people whose only job is to make sure you don't take pictures. They do everything short of throwing your camera on the ground and stomping on it.)

After looking around the Cathedral and the Ponte Vecchio, my last touristy stop in Florence was to go inside the Dome. There is a long history with the building and the innovations that went into designing the dome, but you can read all about that somewhere else. Another very, very long line. As you get closer, people also start to drop out when they find out that there's no elevator to the top. 463 steps to the top...

but then you get to see Florence and Tuscany from the top...

After all of the tourism, we went out for a little while in Florence, and then I was off to the coast. I'll try and add the Cinque Terre/Portovenere section in here tomorrow. More pictures from Florence at the link on the top right (by my info).

Sunday, September 14, 2008

Vienna Pictures

Just got back from a week in Italy. I'll add those pictures as soon as I get a chance, but here are some more pics from Vienna.

Vienna is one of the greenest cities in the world with all of its gardens and parks. Houses and buildings are covered too: 
Here's the Klimt painting "The Kiss" from the Belvedere Palace:

I live in the 19th District, which is close to the countryside and vineyards in Vienna. Here are some views from that area:

Saturday, September 6, 2008

First Days in Vienna

Hey--I finally put aside some time to set up this blog!

I spent my first few days here in Vienna. Definitely a bit of culture shock...and it took a few days to get used to the 6-hour time difference. It's a beautiful city, but completely different from cities in the U.S. The first thing I learned is that there are no superstores here--no Costcos, Wal-Marts, or even supermarkets. I'm spoiled by going to one store and doing all my shopping. I had to go to different parts of the city just to track down everything I needed here. Everything is in much smaller portions, so I can't do all of my grocery shopping for the entire month. And be sure to bring your own shopping bag--I learned that lesson the hard way.

I'm not big on doing all the tourist traps, but I figured I should check out some of the major spots in Vienna to find my way around the city. The two places I checked out on my first day were St. Stephen's Cathedral and the Belvedere Palace. The Cathedral was built in the 12th century, and there can be no building taller than it inside the city.

The part I was most interested in seeing were the catacombs under the cathedral. Basically it's where they kept the tombs of the cardinals and royalty, as well as people who died from the plague in the 17th century. About 20 rooms underneath the building itself--no pictures allowed though.

I also checked out the Belvedere Palace as well. Basically Vienna has enough palaces that you could visit a different one every day of the week, but I had always wanted to check this place out. The gardens and the architecture were amazing, but I was most interested in seeing the art collection there. The Belvedere has the largest collection of Gustav Klimt paintings in the world...although I believe they lost five of them a couple years ago in a lawsuit over paintings that were stolen by the Nazis. You have to see these paintings in person to appreciate the detail. You could probably spend an hour looking at each one. No pictures there, but I bought some cards that I'll put up tomorrow.

Here are some pictures from the Belvedere:

They had plenty of other great pieces--Monet, Renoir, Degas. There was a special exhibition of Austrian Fantastic Realist painters that was great. I wasn't very familiar with the work beforehand, but the style is similar to surrealism. I'll try to put up some images of the pieces I liked best tomorrow.