Sunday, 17 April 2011

The Amazing Race 18, Episode 7

Varanasi (India) - Vienna (Austria) - Schallaburg (Austria) - Vienna (Austria) - Salzburg (Austria)

Hofburg Palace, Vienna
Hofburg Palace, Vienna

How many times do you have to go around the world before you start re-visiting the same destinations? That’s really a matter of personal taste. You might need to pass through some of the same transit hubs repeatedly, but there are plenty of places to visit in the world for you to sleep in a new town every night for several lifetimes. It’s a choice, not a necessity: Some people would rather keep going back to the same small town on the other side of the world, year after year or decade after decade, to see how it changes or just because they like it there.

This week, for no apparent reason, The Amazing Race spent the night once again in Salzburg, Austria, which was one of the “pit stops” in the race just a few seasons ago, when one of the same teams (Jen and Kisha) were part of the cast.

Until now, the few repeat destinations, much less repeat pit stops, from season to season of The Amazing Race have all been much larger cities that are transit hubs as well as tourist destinations. Salzburg is a popular spot on the standard “Grand Tour” of classical European cultural sites, mainly because of its association with Mozart and his music. But it’s a small city, and anything but a transit hub. The Salzburg metropolitan area has only about 200,000 people, and Salzburg itself has only a secondary airport. It’s not a place you’d find yourself changing planes, or even, in most cases, changing trains unless you set out deliberately to do so.

In The Amazing Race 14, the teams were instructed to drive to Salzburg from Munich. This time, they were told to drive from Vienna, which is in the same country as Salzburg but even further away than Munich. A train would have been faster, but it’s still a three-hour ride across Austria from Vienna.

So why Salzburg? It’s sometimes hard to know what combinations of location, promotion, and historical accident have put a place on the tourist map. Once that happens though, the reasons hardly matter. In a place as small and with as many tourists as Salzburg, especially in high tourist season, most of your interactions will be either with other tourists or with people whose job is to deal with tourists, unless you make a deliberate effort to get out of the parts of town most of the tourists visit.

But if you want to get to a place with fewer tourists, starting out by going to a city or town on the standard route of tour — especially a small city or town like that — is counterproductive. Better either to go to a place that doesn’t show up in the, “If it’s Tuesday, this must be Belgium,” tour brochures at all, or to a large city where even with a lot of tourists the ratio of tourist to locals is much smaller than it is in a typical small touristic town.

For example, Vienna — the other site of The Amazing Race 18 this week — has only slightly fewer tourists than Salzburg. But it’s a much larger city, and the tourists are far outnumbered by locals everywhere except around the Hofburg Palace complex, which houses the Kunsthistorisches Museum (KHM) as well as the Natural History Museum and the National Library where the racers had to pick up one of their clues

Built as the palace of the rulers of the Austro-Hungarian empire, the museum complex (pictured at the top of this article) is worth a visit, at least as much for its baroque architecture and ornamentation as for what’s on exhibit within it. Here, for example, is the interior of one of the grand domes:

dome of the KHM, Vienna
Inside one of the domes of the KHM, Vienna

But if you go to such a place, you need to be prepared for crowds of other tourists. And these days it’s not just, or even primarily, Europeans or Americans making the grand tour of a standard “must-see” list of European cultural monuments. The grand tour of Europe is becoming the same sort of ritual of acquisition of culture and worldliness for upper-class mainland Chinese that it once was for upper-class Americans.

In this week’s issue of the New Yorker, there’s a fascinating report by the magazine’s China correspondent, Evan Osnos, on the growing phenomenon of “Europe on 1500 Yuan a Day”.

tourists in the KHM, Vienna
On the “Grand Tour” of Europe at the KHM, Vienna

As with US visas, it’s easier for Chinese and many other nationalities to get Schengen visas if they’re on a package tour. But Chinese and other East Asian vacationers in Europe aren’t limited to package tourists. In Vienna in late December 2007, we saw lots of Asian backpackers and independent travellers. We shared a compartment on an overnight train from Amsterdam to Vienna with a couple of fairly typical (for those in Europe) young women from mainland China. Friends from Shanghai living and studying for a year in different parts of Europe, they had met up to make their fast-paced grand tour during Christmas school and work holidays.

My favorite shop in Vienna was Freytag & Berndt, at Kohlmarkt 9 on the pedestrian mall in the center of downtown Vienna, just steps from the Hapsburg Palace. It’s possibly the best and certainly one of the largest travel map publishers, importers, distributors, and retail map stores on the European continent. Consistent with Vienna’s long-standing role as a meeting place between Western, Eastern, and Southeastern Europe, Freytag & Berndt has exceptional map coverage for Central and Eastern Europe, but also has some of the best maps (and a substantial selection of guidebooks, most in German but also some in English and other languages), to other places worldwide including parts of the Middle East, West and Central Asia, and Africa. Their Web site has only a partial English-language version but the store is happy to deal with English-speaking walk-in customers. Give yourself plenty of time to browse, and check their opening hours if you’re there around a holiday: Rather than having extended holiday shopping hours as might be common in the USA, they keep standard local Austrian business hours. I was surprised and disappointed to find them kicking out a crowd of customers and locking their doors at 2 p.m. on the Saturday before Christmas (which was on Tuesday), not to re-open for 4 days!

Vienna is a center for classical music, of course, and Christmas week was a great time for free concerts, especially of organ music which rarely gets performed in secular settings.

As I mentioned earlier, however, Vienna is a large enough city that only very small parts of it are dominated by tourists and tourist sights and sites. Looking for neighborhoods that would be interesting to explore while the Christian districts were closed on Christmas Day, we found large sections of Muslim Vienna that were bustling with ethnic Turks, Kurds, Albanians, Bosnians, Macedonians, and others. The shops, ethnic restaurants, and cybercafes were open for business on Christmas, and there were no other tourists in sight.

The biggest problem in neighborhoods like this was communication. Recent immigrants to Austria and Germany have, quite logically, concentrated on learning German as a second language, and know English, if at all, only as a third language. It’s similar in Francophone Europe: native speakers of French are likely to have learned at least a little English as a second language. But recent African and other immigrants who’ve learned French as a second language are less likely to know English at all, or know it only as a third or fourth language.

We knew that such districts must exist somewhere in Vienna, given the size of the ethnic Turkish and Muslim population, many of them now native-born second-generation Austrians. But we had an interesting time locating any of these neighborhoods. None of the guidebooks to Vienna that we looked at mentioned the existence of a Turkish quarter, and we couldn’t find it on any map. Online searches for information about Turkish Vienna turned up only references to historical sites and to relations between the Ottoman and Austro-Hungarian Empires.

When we asked the (white Christian) concierge at our hotel for directions to the Turkish part of town, they looked askance and told us no such place existed. “That would be a ghetto, and we don’t have anything like that.” It wasn’t clear whether they really believed that, and never thought about where all the ethnic Turks who did their drudgery-work lived, or whether they just never went there themselves and thought it wouldn’t be a proper or safe place to send foreign tourists.

We tried to ask the staff at the kebab-stand across the street, but they knew no English and we didn’t know enough German to make ourselves understood. Fortunately, one of the ethnic Turkish maintenance workers from the hotel, who had come across the street for a quick cheap lunch, knew enough English to figure out what we were trying to ask, and pointed out one of the Muslim shopping and business districts on our map. This is one of the reasons I always carry a detailed map that isn’t limited to tourist districts. Without a map, there wouldn’t have been enough common language for him to have given us directions, or for us to have found our way to a delicious Bosnian Muslim dinner on a Christmas Day when all the Christian restaurants were closed.

Link | Posted by Edward on Sunday, 17 April 2011, 21:22 ( 9:22 PM)

There is no place like Vienna!!

Great Post!

Posted by: Sun, 28 April 2011, 11:17 (11:17 AM)
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