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European Xmas Markets Tour

When did we go:

  • Nov 30 – Dec 12, 2018

 

Why did we go:

  • my wife had been reading up on European Xmas markets and thought they would be a fun thing to see
  • she decided to steer away from Germany where the markets are quite popular and leave that country for Octoberfest sometime in the future

 

How did we get there:

  • on the way over we flew Air Canada from Calgary to Toronto (4 hours) and then Austrian Air to Vienna (8.5 hours)
  • on the way back we flew Austrian Air from Vienna to Frankfurt (1.5 hours) and then Air Canada to Calgary (9.5 hours)

 

How did we get around:

  • my wife researched tour companies and came across a company called Movis Private Tours out of Slovenia who offered a package that would take us to six countries of which five we had not been
  • we put our travel agent (Erin from Tier One Travel) in touch with Movis, and she worked with the owner (Roc) to lay out a schedule that met our desires
  • our driver, Matej, was amazing as he was knowledgeable, a great driver (we had a spacious Mercedez van) and fun to be around (somehow I became King Edward by the end of the trip)
  • Movis presented us with a small gift bag of local items on arrival in Vienna and again in Ljubljana which was a very nice touch

 

 

General notes:

  • we covered 13 cities and towns in 10 days but never felt rushed
  • border crossings were mostly seamless given that all the countries are part of the EU
  • the currencies were the Euro (Austria, Slovakia, Slovenia), Forint  (Hungary), Kuna (Croatia), Koruna (Czechia) and this made it a bit challenging to be continually dealing in different exchange rates
  • the weather was generally around 0 to 10 C with no snow (this was very pleasant and while the locals had their winter jackets on I was predominantly in my Kuhl sweater)

 

Accommodations:

  • Vienna was Hotel K+K Palais on the first stop and Hotel AM Parkring (also known as Schnick) on our final stop (both were very nice, and the K+K had one of the best hotel fitness facilities)
  • Budapest was Hotel Moments on the Pest side near the Danube and the Jewish Quarter where there were numerous restaurants and bars
  • Zagreb was Hotel Dubrovnik on the main square (Ban Jelacic) in Old Town (it was a bit dated but a great location and quite quiet considering it was right in the heart of the action)
  • Ljubljiana was Hotel Cubo on the edge of the older part of town (very convenient location, well-appointed hotel, great breakfast)
  • Salzburg was Hotel Mozart which was our least favorite hotel (it was on the furthest end of the downtown, was quite dated, the rooms had a strange set up of the toilet in one room and the bathtub/vanity in another room)
  • Prague was Hotel Kings Court which was on the edge of the old part of town and had a heated outdoor terrace that overlooked a major square (it was nice to sit outside in a short-sleeved shirt to enjoy breakfast, late afternoon drinks, and a nightcap)

 

Vienna, Austria:

  • population of 2.6 M people and is concerned one of the best places to live in Europe
  • on the afternoon of our arrival, we enjoyed the funky art of the Hundertwasserhaus building, bought some amazing chocolate at Schokov Rudolfsplatz and visited the Albertini Museum which included a Monet exhibition (huge lineups, many famous artists)
  • after dinner we enjoyed some libations at Delirium Café where we had a very friendly waitress from Budapest which as it turns out was a welcome sight given the general grumpiness of most establishments servers
  • on our return trip (last day of our tour) we had a guide by the name of Marieta who was incredibly proud of her guiding badge as she considered it a great honor to be a local guide
  • the city has an amazing number of historic buildings in the old town area that are all well preserved despite 30% of them being destroyed in WW2
  • the Hapsburg family ruled the area for over 600 years, and they were great collectors of art and artifacts as well as lovers of music
  • we also ventured out to the Schonbrunn Castle where we had an informative tour seeing what some of the 1441 rooms of this large castle were used for (the Empress Maria Teresia built the property as her summer castle in the mid 18th century)
  • Vienna is known as the coffee house capital of year, and they originated when the Turks seized the area (the waiters are often somewhat rude but this is all part of the cultural experience where you are served coffee with a glass of water and can lounge as long as you want)
  • it is also known for producing wine since BC and is where the waltz originated

 

 

 

 

Bratislava, Slovakia:

  • we only stopped for a few hours to tour around the old town with our guide Peter
  • population of 650k people and the capital of Slovakia
  • it was formerly the capital of Hungary but is now the capital of Slovakia, and it borders Austria and Hungary
  • this was one of the coldest days and within minutes of getting out of the vehicle we texted Matej to sheepishly retreat to the underground parkade and put on more layers of clothing
  • we enjoyed the old historical buildings and quaint Old Town area with bustling Xmas markets as well as the view from the castle overlooking Old Town and the Danube River
  • Slovakia is home to the towering Boston Bruins defenseman Zdeno Chara

 

 

 

Budapest, Hungary:

  • population of 3.3M people and the capital of Hungary
  • the city is separated by the Danube River with Buda on the West side and Pest on the East side
  • our guide Andrea toured us around Gellerthegy Mountain, Matthias Church, thru the Jewish quarter, and the Parliament building (third largest in the world)
  • the city gave up 2/3 of the country at the end of WW1, was heavily damaged in WW2, but is now regarded as one of the most beautiful cities in Europe
  • the city is known for their natural hot spring bathing spas, and we went to the famous one called Szechenyi (the water was not as hot as we expected and it was super expensive to rent towels, so we ended up sharing one – should have brought them from the hotel)
  • in recent years they have turned some run-down buildings into what they call Ruin bars, and we spend some time at Szimpla Kert which is the original one and was very funky with various rooms filled with different artifacts and graffiti on the walls
  • we took a one-hour boat cruise along the Danube at night which showcased some beautiful light displays on several of the prominent buildings

 

 

Zagreb, Croatia:

  • population of 1.1M and the capital of Croatia located on the Sava River
  • the weather was spectacular as it was 15C when we arrived
  • our guide Ivana toured us around the small, quaint old town including the shortest funicular in the world
  • this was one of our favorite Xmas markets with more unique stands than the other cities
  • our guide recommended an old style restaurant, called Purger, that had traditional Croatian food but the service was also very old school which made for a quite hilarious dinner watching the owners spend more time organizing the bar and visiting with friends than serving the tables

 

Ljubljiana:

  • en route to Ljubljana, we stopped at the Hotel Grad Otocac (spectacular castle that is a Relaix Chateaux property) for coffee and chocolate
  • our guide, Matej, took great pleasure in gifting me a Relaix Chateaux hotels property book with a personalized note to his royal Scottish friend
  • population of 300k located on the Ljublijanica River and is the capital of Slovenia
  • this city was the most pleasant surprise as it is rich in history, has beautiful historic buildings, and has a great vibe to it
  • we enjoyed a nice dinner with Matej and his partner Anja at the Spajza restaurant where one of the waiters toured me thru their underground wine cellar
  • the second day we went out to the Postojna Caves which was the most amazing geological site we have ever seen and I could have spent several days admiring the amazing structures
  • after the cave we went to Lake Bled and enjoyed the view of from the Medieval Bled Castle overlooking the picturesque lake and Bled Island that is often seen on Instagram
  • at the castle we also had fun experiences bottling some wine with a monk in a cave cellar underneath the castle as well as a historic printing press shop
  • Melania Trump is from Slovenia as is the Los Angelos Kings forward Anze Kopitar
  • the country is 60% forest which makes for a serene landscape
  • it is considered quite prestigious to own an Audi and people will forgo other life essentials to invest in this brand of vehicle

 

Salzburg:

  • population of 200k people
  • our guide, David, toured us around the old town on both sides of the Salzach River
  • the city name means ‘salt castle’ as mountain salt was their primary industry although sea salt is now cheaper to harvest
  • it is the home of Mozart, and his legacy still generates $6B in worldwide revenue
  • our first night we enjoyed an authentic Austria meal at a hole in the wall pub where the waiter (Mr. Grump Pants) was wearing the traditional garb of Lederhosen shorts
  • we enjoyed our evening drive one hour away to the mountain town of Wolfgansee
  • Wolfgangsee was our favorite Xmas market as it was part of the quaint town with Bavarian style buildings throughout which gave it a more traditional feel (this is the area where the Sound of Music was filmed)
  • Salzburg was the only city where we should have booked a dinner restaurant ahead of time as we got curtly turned away at 10 different establishments before settling for a not very good Japanese joint (all part of the experience)

 

 

Prague:

  • en route we stopped in Southern Bohemia at the historic town of Cesky Krumlov on the Vltava River where our guide Eva gave a nice overview of the city
  • the town is stuck in a time warp as it has hardly changed in the past 50 years which gives it a special charm and is a UNESCO World Heritage Site
  • Prague (referred to as Praha) has a population of 2.6M and is located on the Vltava River
  • our guide Evana toured us around the old districts where we enjoyed the Astronomical Clock, Old Square, Charles Bridge, Prague Castle and especially the funky John Lennon wall
  • Prague was not heavily damaged during WW11 and hence is a historic gem and one of the most visited cities in Europe
  • when we departed Prague for Vienna we stopped in Kutna Hora at the Bone Church which is an incredibly unique collection of human skulls
  • we also stopped in Mikulov, an area known for it’s wine production, for lunch and a quick view from the local castle
  • Czechia is home to the long time NHL star, Jaromir Jagr

 

 

Interesting stories:

  • the Xmas markets were generally pretty similar in nature and we did not spend a ton of time at them (Wolfgansee in the mountains outside of Salzburg and Zagreb were our favorite markets, it seems like the locals use the markets to gather to enjoy each others company along with various forms of mulled wine and local sausages and pastries)
  • the history is somewhat overwhelming as the governing powers in this area have changed numerous times over the centuries as have the boundaries of the countries
  • thankfully things are very stable at the moment, and we never felt unsafe anywhere or any time of day
  • the architecture is a mix of influence from centuries of each governing power wanting to put their stamp on the area and the impacts of wars destroying areas that have often been rebuilt or refurbished numerous times
  • we walked into an Irish Pub in Budapest and looked up to the TV showing NHL highlights which was a nice treat
  • at breakfast at Hotel Mozart in Salzburg, we sat beside and chatted with Dave Gant who has been Garth Brooks bandleader/keyboardist/fiddler for 30 years
  • there were many occasions where service people were not particularly friendly (at least to the standards we would expect in North America) which our guide attributed to a carryover from the times of Communism
  • we had a flat tire en route from Budapest to Zagreb, but luckily were able to safely pull over onto a ramp where Matej and myself struggled to figure out how to find all the tools, how to lower the spare tire, and then we had to reef on the screws to get them off (truth be known I could not get three of them off but Matej, a vegan, muscled his way to success)
  • I had one pretty good fall as we were walking along the Danube River in Budapest and I stepped on some misplaced stones where I promptly fell forward followed by a tuck and roll onto my back (thankfully I had zero soreness or injuries which I attribute to my yoga training…ha ha)
  • we walked over 100 kms (roughly 10 km’s each day) but it never felt like too much as we had lots of breaks for sightseeing and meals

 

What did we not do that is on the agenda for next time:

  • it would be nice to explore the countryside particularly in the mountainous areas of Slovenia and Austria
  • we did not hit up any of the famous Austrian opera shows so that would be a must for next time
  • spending more time in each city to explore the whole city and their respective cultures
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