I used to play trivia in online forums and one day came across a British woman who was living in Vienna, the capital city of Austria. Her name was Sandra, but I called her Sans. Over the next couple of years, Sans and I became good friends and, in time, we discussed visiting each other’s homes on holiday. Strangely enough, Sans’s family came from a town not too far along the coast from where I lived, so she wasn’t as excited by the thought of coming to stay at mine, whilst I was keen to go to Vienna, as I had never been there. It was agreed I would go and stay with Sans and her son.
Over the next few months, a plan hatched in my mind: if I could save up enough money to go, I would visit Sans in August 2007. Then, another idea came to mind, which Sans agreed to. Over the previous 10 or so years, I had been chronically ill with Cholesteatoma, a tumour/growth which caused constant ear infections and perforations and which had eaten away at my hearing. It was my younger niece, Lauren, who always came to stay and look after me when the going got tough for me. I had already decided I needed to say ‘thank you’ to her in a special kind of way, but how? Eventually, when I realised I had sufficient funds to support Lauren on a holiday too, I asked her parents – my sister and brother-in-law – if they would allow me to take their then 17-year-old daughter away to Vienna. They agreed – and Lauren was over the moon when I asked her if she would like to go.
Lauren and I had several conversations discussing what we would like to do, where we would like to go, what we would like to see when we got to Vienna. We didn’t want boozy pubs and clubs – they weren’t our scene (she wasn’t old enough (in the UK at least) and I wasn’t much of a drinker). Eventually we came up with a plan: we both loved history, I wanted to see the architecture of the city, Lauren wanted to try to climb up Stephansdom (St Stephan’s Cathedral) to get a good view of Vienna and I wanted to go to the Swarovski shop if possible, as I had learned to love that crystal when I had lived in Berlin years ago. We both wanted culture from this holiday – something we perhaps wouldn’t normally opt for.
We had a rough idea of what we would hopefully do on our holiday; we told Sans and she came up with a game plan and flexible timetable. So, early in August 2007, we headed off for our 12 days away from home. Jim (Lauren’s dad) dropped us at Dover, where we boarded the coach bound for Vienna. Once on board, we found two seats, the last two seats. Sadly the seats were not next to each other, but once we started talking to each other thereby making it clear we were travelling together, one passenger offered to swap so that we could sit together. Now, we were much happier and we settled in for the long haul. We got off the coach on the ferry and did a little bit of shopping – we bought some more food and drinks to go with the sandwiches and drinks I had already packed, a game and some postcards, I think. Lauren had brought her mp3 player and her Harry Potter books with her for the journey, and she had some puzzle books too. Of course, by this time, I was a user of the Baha hearing system (bone-anchored hearing aid), so hearing anything on the coach above the noise of the engine and the chatter of my co-passengers was a bit of a problem, and there was no way I could listen to music on an mp3 player, so I just read and did some puzzles, too.
We stopped at various points along the way, picking up and dropping off passengers (Brugge, Brussels, Liège, Frankfurt Am Main, Würzburg, Nurnberg, Regensburg, Passau, Amstetten, to name but a few) and we had brief comfort stops along the way too. In Aachen, we were already feeling the summer heat that was prevailing over Europe, so we stocked up on cold drinks from the little shop at the petrol station at which the coach refuelled. Approaching the German/Austrian border, the coach stopped to allow us all time for a proper meal – I think this was at Passau – and we bought a few more drinks to take onto the coach, too. Lauren slept some during the journey. Her brother Scott had given her a cushion to bring with her to use as a pillow, and I think the familiar smell of home helped her through the long journey in cramped conditions. Whilst my darling niece slept, I was happy to read my books or do my puzzles, dozing occasionally.
The entire journey took 21 hours from Dover to Vienna, and we finally arrived at the Coach Station in the Austrian capital at around 7.30am on the Sunday morning. I texted Sans, who replied that she was running late, but was just a 10-minute walk away, and just as she promised, she was soon there to meet us. How good it was to finally meet her!
We took a taxi from the Coach Station to Sans’ home in Meidling in the 12th district of Vienna. Up several flights of stairs, she lived on the second floor of a block of flats. There, we met Robin, Sans’ then 14-year-old bilingual son, who gave me the biggest hug possible. We had spoken often via Skype and I called him ‘mein Lieblings Österreicher’ (my favourite Austrian) – and I still do to this day! Almost immediately, Lauren and I both fell onto the settee, so tired were we, but we decided that we didn’t really need to sleep too much, so we just had a bit of doze, resting a bit on our beds, before freshening up, and then having a bite to eat . We just chilled this first evening and then had an early night.
We decided the next morning that we would go to Schönbrunn Palace and what a dream this was... not so much the visit to the Palace or its Zoo Park itself (though they were brilliant, too), but the fact that we had to ride on a tram to get there. For months, I had been pestering Sans to make sure I got to ride on a tram as I had never done so before! So, our first venture out in the city was by this means of transport and I was over the moon. I don’t think Lauren could see what all the fuss was about haha!
So, on our first full day in Vienna, we started to work our way down the list of things we wanted to do: going to Schönbrunn Palace and its Imperial Zoo Park. During the coming days we would spend our time going to the Prater (built-in fairground); doing some shopping in the city; trying some of the city’s world-famous Sachertorte; going to see the Hofburg, where Hitler made one of his speeches to the people of Vienna, and going to see other historical sights from the Second World War era.
We also wanted to try to climb up the stairs to the roof of the Stephansdom (we girls were all fairly concerned about going up so high, but we wanted to give it a go.) I wanted to visit one of the Swarovski shops (and maybe buy a piece of the beautiful crystal); and I was really keen on going to Bratislava on a boat along the Danube. We all wanted to go to the Natural History Museum; to see the Mozart Memorial and his former house; and when we found out the Chinese Terracotta Army had come to town we all badly wanted to go and see it. It was on a tour of Europe and was in Vienna for about a week or so. (Sadly, we didn’t realise until afterwards that it was a copy of the original Terracotta Army, but it was still wonderful to see the replica models, weapons and horses – totally amazing!) We had an absolutely great time walking and travelling around the city and my darling niece was brilliant... never once did she complain that things were too ‘boring’ – not bad for a teenager! I did think we might have an occasion where we might clash, but it didn’t happen, and actually both teenagers were pretty damn good and so Sans and I decided to reward them. One day, we took time out of our list of things to see and do, and arranged for the two teens to go horse-riding. We found stables where the staff spoke English, so that Lauren didn’t feel left out as she spoke no German, and both the kids loved it – both loving horses as they do... I’m glad we managed to arrange this for them, I really am. It would have been great had we been able to get in to see the Spanish Riding School, but in July and August, they’re away on their holidays so there’s nothing to see there. I think this morning spent horse-riding made up a little for not seeing the beautiful white horses. Sorry Lauren – I tried.
Well, the weather held out for our holiday – it was gorgeously warm if not hot, the whole time we were there. We had a wonderful time seeing the sights we saw, doing the things we did and spending the money we spent. Sadly, before too long, it was time to pack our bags ready for our return journey to England. We thanked our hostess and her son for putting up with us, and for putting us up. We got a taxi from the flat, hugging Sans goodbye on the path outside her home – there was no point in her coming to the coach station so late in the evening, only to come straight back home again. Sat in the back of the taxi on our way to the coach station, I cried and my darling niece comforted me. I knew then that Sans was more than just a friend; she’s my best mate – and is like a sister to me. Sans and Robin, it must be said that Lauren and I had a wonderful holiday in Vienna – thank you both so very much!