Biggest Surprises of My European Vacation

One of the things I love about traveling are surprises. You never really know the experience you’re going to have until you’re in the middle of it. (Ironically, one of the things I hate most about traveling are also surprises. When you think everything’s going to zig, but it does nothing but zag, that can be either very good or very, very bad.)

This past trip, I was revisiting a lot of places where I’d already been before. Salzburg. Vienna. Prague. I didn’t really think I’d get too many surprises out of those places, but I was okay with that, since they were some of my favorite places to visit. And yet they still managed to surprise me. In Salzburg, I read in advance about how incredible the Untersbergbahn was. Supposedly it was a gondola ride up a mountain.

I’ve done some of those. They’re fine, but I didn’t know if I really wanted to do another, especially when there were so many other things I could be doing, and this would require a special trip out of our way. But all the reviews I read of it said it was great, so we tacked it on at the last minute. As we followed the GPS to the spot, I was impressed by the mountains. We were in the Austrian Alps, and those peaks are pretty tall. I kept looking for a small peak where the gondola would take us, but I couldn’t see it.

When we were ten minutes away, I saw a tiny little house perched near the top of the biggest peak in the area. Surely that couldn’t be the . . . But then I saw the gondola heading up the mountain, and I knew it was. 4,300 feet up into the sky in under 10 minutes, leaving you 6,000 feet above sea level at the top. It was gorgeous and exhilarating, and I can’t believe it took me three times to Salzburg to find out about it.

Likewise, the trick fountains of Hellbrunn were a great surprise. I’d been there before (it’s where the “Sixteen Going on Seventeen” gazebo resides from The Sound of Music), but somehow never checked out the fountains. They were made hundreds of years ago, designed to spurt out water on unsuspecting guests. They’re very successful in that task. I thought I’d be smarter than the fountains, but I got quite wet through the course of the tour. Each time you thought you’d escaped the worst of the water, but there was almost always a fountain right where you’d run for safety, and it would only turn on once you’d stopped to catch your breath.

The kids loved it. Salzburg was already a favorite city. To find two new fantastic experiences there was a real treat.

But the biggest surprise of the trip for me was a new city: Krakow. I’d never been to Poland, and Krakow was just about 3.5 hours from Denisa’s mom’s house, so it seemed like an easy trip to make. I didn’t know much about the city. It was nothing much more than a somewhat familiar name on a map. My expectations weren’t extremely high. It was just something to do, some place to go.

But it was absolutely charming. It’s got a compact old city, packed full of beautiful churches and buildings and a castle. It’s walkable, with great restaurants and a fantastic central square. It also feels very Eastern European, with the architecture and building design. We stayed right in the middle of the old city (had to walk a half mile to the parking lot where we stashed our car, since there was no parking or driving where we were). Sure, there was no AC at night, and the apartment was a bit run down, but the city itself was marvelous. I definitely want to go back. It didn’t dethrone Prague as my favorite European city, but I still loved it.

As for worst surprises of the trip . . . the last apartment in Budapest probably wins that award, but we won’t dwell on that. Remember the positive, I say. And nothing’s better than a really great surprise.


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