1er classe tickets gave us a small six-seater cabin, and les quatre etrangers we were to share with from Munchen never showed, so we had the place to ourselves. We read, relaxed (even stretched out across the three facing seats for a snooze) and in the afternoon opened a bottle of wine from Strasbourg and toasted — tschus! — from our little metal camping cups.
As the train pulled in we got our first glimpse of the city: a ramshackle station undergoing repairs, all wooden boards, cable-ties and fluorescent-orange laminated paper signs pointing out der Ausgang. It was hotter than we’d expected, too, and so we worked up quite a sweat walking (the long way) past an “Erotikmarkt” and a garishly-lit casino to our “pension”, Hotel Adlerhof. After the simplicity of le 21er in Strasbourg, our hopes were high and expectations low — lower still once we saw the neighbourhood — but our room was simple and clean and could’ve been a whole lot worse. We’d both been secretly hoping it would be luxurious, as the pictures from the Internet showed four-poster beds and caviar (well…), so were a little flat. “Oh well,” we told ourselves, “We can always splash out for a last-minute five-star place in China or Vietnam.”
So we thought we’d go take a look around town, perhaps find something for dinner, then retire early. We didn’t even take the camera! Of course, the further into town we got (and further from the station), the nicer the place looked. We wandered around little cobblestone streets and great wide swathes of concrete, found the river that divides the Austrian city and walked over a handy footbridge towards impressive mountains and Disney-like mansions and castles.
By this time we were kicking ourselves for forgetting the camera, of course! After an unbalanced meal — Dee had an enormous salad, and I had an equally gargantuan schnitzel, so we swapped (a little) — we decided to find the famous Augustiner beer-hall, have ein mass (Foxxy will remember them from Munich) and call it a night.
Turned out to be quite a pilgrimage! The Augustiner Braustubl sits behind a church/monastery, halfway up the mountains to the north-east of the city. An unassuming door leads to a quiet, high-ceilinged hallway, patterned floor-tiles diffusing a soft light from the large semi-circular windows at the opposite end, revealing heavy iron-bound wooden doors and religious statues — Saint Augustine, patron saint of beer? Unsure we’re in the right place, we push through the heavy doors and into a long hallway: similarly tiled and ikoned, but with shops and stalls selling various foodstuffs along one wall and a series of “beer hall”-like rooms, all long wooden trestles and ceramic steins, leading off the other.
We consider stopping there, but are drawn along by the near sub-sonic murmurs of activity, enterprise, in direct contradiction to the almost empty “beer halls”. As we reach the end of the hall, sound growing louder and more like the happy burble of a large mob, we turn the corner and find ourselves looking out onto a carpark-sized garden filled with metal tables, chairs and the expected crowd of beer-drinkers. Literally filled! It’s almost overwhelming in scale — a football oval of shady trees, sturdy tables and people. Near the centre a stage has been erected, perhaps for entertainment later in the night; for now it has more tables, more people. We walk down the steps and into the chaos.
But of course it isn’t chaos at all — they’ve been doing this too long to NOT know how to deal with the subtly intoxicated (and downright drunk). Immediately we see how it all works: you line up, pay, get your ceramic mug and a token describing how much you’re allowed. This is taken to a serious-faced, moustached Austrian who fills said mug with the only thing on offer: beer, local beer and lots of it. I order us ein mass (1L) and a “half” — still 500mL! — for Dee. We find an empty table and drink in appreciative silence.
“I just can’t believe it!” I say in a faux South African accent, and I mean it. Nearby, a table of men is getting rowdy (they’re probably Brits, we think); another table holds an elderly couple, enormous mugs in gnarled hands, looking perfectly at home; whilst on a third a group of eighteen or nineteen year old girls is getting forlorn looks from the corresponding table of shy young males.
We drink our beers slowly — when they’re that big, you’ve got no choice BUT to pace yourself — and head contentedly for the door. We meander downhill, retracing our pilgrim-steps with a lot less dedication thanks to Austrian brew ingenuity, and as we cross the footbridge there is an explosion behind us. Fireworks! We stand and watch for a happy few minutes, wondering at happenstance and the probability that we would be in such a good vantage point — halfway across the river — at exactly the right time for the show. And cursing ourselves for forgetting the camera, of course.
The feeling of contentment carries us back to our hotel, where we decide to have a drink at a “local” bar: we step inside to see a bunch of older folk sitting around playing cards, and one of them pushes back his chair and comes ’round the bar to serve us. We get to talking (where we’re from, what we’re doing) and he keeps refilling our glasses. A couple of other locals — including a train driver who will be heading back to Strasbourg the next day! — take an interest, and before too long we’re having conversations in stilted English and drinking far more than intended. Eventually we take our leave. Luckily the hotel is two doors down — we haven’t really had that much to drink, but the combination of cheap beer and the day’s sun has left us particularly susceptible to its effects. We collapse into our double bed.
Yeah, a little hungover the next day. A little sunburnt too! Had the good sense to pack berocca, tho’, and so before long we’re back in town (and the blistering sun — I’m protecting my shiny dome with an “Australia” bucket hat) and taking the photos included here (and the rest on Flickr). We make it back to der Augustiner, but can’t bring ourselves to have another beer there, opting instead to sample the food stalls with extremely simple German and a whole lot of hand waving.
We’re on the train to Vienna by 4pm, in an extremely crowded carriage. There’s a reason it is called second class…
(Edit: I’m uploading the photos now — I’ll come back and add them to this post shortly, or you can watch a slideshow on Flickr.)