When I was on 3rd grade, our class had a tour in our school’s library. The librarian, Ms. Bautista, a stern-looking woman, probably in her early 40s, had just informed us that we were free to borrow books from the library. Each one received a library card to use for this purpose. I was so curious about the books I went back to the library after our class was dismissed. A book titled, The Little Match Girl caught my attention. I haven’t read a book in English yet at that time and I was still learning the language. I knew I may not be able to understand a lot of words, but that didn’t stop me from taking it to the librarian to borrow. She gave me a quizzical look but didn’t say anything and proceeded to stamping my card.
This is the first book that I have ever finished and the one that launched my love of the literary. It is also where I first learned about the existence of snow, those ice crystals that fall from the sky. When I went to Austria and experienced snow for the first time, I caught myself recalling this faint memory from my childhood. As I stood there trembling with my hands frozen despite my gloves, it was easy to imagine why the little match girl died in the cold.
Austria wasn’t part of the itinerary when I first planned my trip to Europe. I was supposed to go to Ireland, but my visa application was denied. Meanwhile, my friend, Patit, was also arranging her plans to spend the holidays with her Austrian boyfriend at that time. I suggested that I go meet her in Austria instead and wondered if her boyfriend would allow me to crash on the couch. She asked him and thankfully, he agreed. I knew it would be snowing in Austria and the thought alone that I’d finally see it in person had me anticipating the trip with bells on.
I took the Eurowings’ flight from Barcelona to Vienna and flew for 2 hours. The leg room was big, I was impressed. Most of the time, even with international flights, my knees would almost touch the seat in front of me and I’m not even tall.
Half an hour before we landed, I looked out the window and saw that the land is covered in white. Before this, the closest experience that I had with snow is when I entered Star City’s Snow World attraction. But this time it’s legit, I was about to see, feel, non-machine manufactured snow. It may sound silly but I think any person from a tropical country would understand how big of a deal this is for me.
At Vienna airport I was momentarily disoriented when I didn’t have to go through the immigration. I also didn’t have to pass through one when I crossed the border of France and Spain, but I didn’t give it much thought then. This is when I realized the power of a Schengen visa. Jumping from one country to another in a Schengen area is a breeze, you don’t have to go through the trouble of having to explain why you’re visiting every time you arrive in a country.
From the airport I had to take the train to get to Gmunden where my friend’s then boyfriend lives. This is where my “tanga” (stupid) moment began. It took me a while to figure out the train to take because Klaus (the friend’s boyfriend) had been telling me to take a specific train that doesn’t appear on the screen of the train schedule. I grew frustrated and angry that I almost didn’t want to go. In another chat group with friends I ran expletives over this guessing game that lasted for almost an hour. I checked booking sites to see if I could just reserve a room somewhere in Vienna but the rates were beyond what I could afford so I told myself to stop acting like a baby.
So I paused and ate a chicken. Yes, I went to a McDonald’s and ate through my frustration. The chicken wings were so small but they were really delicious. How come we don’t have this in McDonald’s Philippines?
After I have fed myself, I went back to the ticket vending machine with a cool head. I googled how to get to Gmunden and the instruction shows that I should take the one with the Attnang-Puchheim Bahnhof route. Just to make sure I wouldn’t end up somewhere else, I confirmed this with Klaus. When he said yes, I immediately purchased my train ticket.
I went to the train platform and read all the signs to ensure I would be taking the correct train. Finally, the train has arrived, I got in and saw that there are only two rows of single seats on each side of the train. The seat was big and quite comfortable too and sitting there felt like I was on a private screening of a movie. The view outside was absolutely amazing; everything was covered in snow. A few stations later, the conductor approached me to inspect my ticket.
“This is first class, you should go to regular class,” he said.
Oops, my bad. So that explains why the seats are big and comfortable, I have accidentally entered the first class coach. I muttered my apologies and asked where I should go. He motioned me to the end of the coach, past the cafe. With my luggage in tow, I walked my way to where us, the regular paying folks should be.
In the regular coach, there are 3 seats on each row. It also had more people in it, but I managed to find myself a seat. I kept a close eye on this screen that shows the current station. The train ride took almost 3 hours, I could very well sleep if I wanted to. At long last, I reached my destination; I saw Patit and Klaus waiting for me on my last stop. I was suffering from migraine and asked Patit for a paracetamol, what she gave me instead was an aspirin that I had to dilute in water.
Klaus’s house is almost an hour drive away from the train station. I sat on the back of the car suffering from migraine in silence. When we reached the house, we had a very Filipino dinner of tinolang manok, rice, and omelette that Patit cooked. It was one if not the most delicious tinola I have ever tasted in my life. The broth was hot and very flavorful, the ginger taste was strong but not overwhelming, perfect for this weather.
The house is big with a second story, a basement, and several bedrooms. The homeowner told me that I could just drop the tissue in the toilet, the drainage could take it. However, I still found myself throwing tissue paper in the garbage bin as I am not used to flushing it. All accommodation in Europe, including this house didn’t have a bidet. Hence, I had been using an empty water bottle as a portable bidet, because you know, just wiping is not cleaning.
The most interesting thing that I saw in the house is its own heating system from this machine where they incinerate chopped woods that Klaus harvests from their forest. Yes folks, they have their own forest. I saw a mountain of these chopped woods in the basement.
That night I slept on the huge couch that can be converted into a bed in the living room.
The next morning, we set out on a tour around Gmunden, Klaus’s hometown in the upper part of Austria. It is known for their lakes, brines, and salt industry in Salzkammergut.
We were joined by Klaus’s kid, as well as his friend. This is northern Europe and I noticed that people here have light-colored hair and fairer skin. Majority of them also have blue or green eyes.
On the road we saw some people operating these machines that put salt on the snow. Salt, I learned, is an anti-freezing agent that can melt the ice. They do this to avoid the hazard of slippery roads.
During the drive, I did my best to ignore Klaus’s son and enjoyed the view out on the window. It’s not that I am being a snub, just that the kid was hitting me with his toy for unknown reason. Also, he had been bugging me to play with my phone, which I was reluctant about as it might die from battery drain.
We passed by buildings and houses completely blanketed in snow. The sun is in hiding, the weather is gloomy. It had been snowing and raining a little bit.
We started the day with a brunch at Gasthof Silbermair where the women staff are wearing dirndl, a traditional dress worn by Austrians. I noticed that most of the diners were wearing formal clothes, like they were all going to the office or to some posh event. The menu is written in German so I based my order of a fish dish on a photo. This costs 12 or 13 euro if I remember it right and the serving is big. Austrians seem to like to wash down their food with ice cold beer as in the case of Klaus and his friend. Patit and I, on the other hand, preferred wine.
Our next stop is Schloss Orth, a castle on the Traunsee lake. It was built around 1080 by Hartnidus of Ort and today it serves as a study center of the Federal Ministry for Land and Forestry. You have to walk on a bridge to get there.
It was too damn cold that I started having migraines again. Taking photos became such a challenge because every time I pulled out my hands from my coat’s pockets, they would harden from the cold. I was wearing heat tech gloves that I got from Uniqlo yet they did nothing to warm my hands. It was really painful, like my hands would fall off. I don’t even know how people there endure this kind of weather.
My winter experience in France and Spain was nothing compared with what I had gone through in Austria. I began to associate my stubborn headaches from the cold, I think it was too much for me and my body could barely cope.
When we walked on the bridge, a golden retriever casually sauntered over to where I was posing for a photo. The dog doesn’t seem to mind the weather, if at any, it seems to be enjoying it. I never thought I’d ever be jealous of a dog until that moment.
Inside the castle, I saw a huge pine tree beside what looks like a tub filled with snow. I told Patit that I should have a picture with a real Christmas tree so there’s me smiling like an idiot in the photo below.
There is a restaurant and we got in for some drinks. The two men had their usual beers, while Patit and I had coffee. In another table are some well-dressed people who seemed to be having a wedding reception. As I sat there enjoying the coffee more for its warmth than the taste, I wondered if I could ever get used to this level of coldness. You see, one of my ultimate dreams right now is to live in Europe. It used to be such a romantic idea for me to vacation during winter but now that I know how harsh it actually is, I realized that it’s not as fun as I thought it’d be.
When my French professors learned that I was going to Europe in December, they asked me why with such confused expression on their faces. Europeans usually go on holidays to escape winter, yet there I was, visiting in the time when most of them go to countries with warmer climates. Now I knew why they stared at me like I was out of my mind.
The next day, we explored the hometown of the musical genius, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Salzburg. Salzburg in English means salt fortress. The city is known for its baroque architecture that it’s been listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1996.
The Mozarts Geburthaus was the house of a merchant named Johann Lorenz and where the Mozart family used to live. This is the place that saw the beginnings of Wolfgang’s passion for music.
The museum holds some mementos of the Mozart family such as portraits, documents, musical instruments among others. None of us felt compelled, however, to pay and see the exhibition. Personally, I was just happy taking some photos outside.
We passed by a bridge filled with padlocks. They call these love locks and there were so many of them I wonder how long the bridge could hold all of these.
Here are some other photos that I took while we were walking around. I caught myself imagining how these sites look like sans snow. They probably look more beautiful especially the garden (third picture on the right) in spring time. As you may notice, the pictures are gloomy. I didn’t bother editing them to show how Austria actually looks like in winter.
My Europe trip has finally come to an end. Patit and Klaus drove me to the train station the next morning so I could catch my flight back to Manila. I noticed there weren’t a lot of Filipinos in Austria, in fact I only met one in Vienna and he’s an airport staff.
To conclude, I am grateful for how my entire European holiday turned out. Each country I visited has given me experiences that are unique and memorable.
If given a chance to return, I’d like to go when the sun is shining or when the flowers have started to bloom. Experiencing winter and seeing snow for the first time are amazing, but next time, let’s just say I’d like to travel Europe with fully functional hands.