Vienna – Life along the Danube, Part I

A main hub of activity along the Danube Canal on the inner city side of Vienna this time of the year is at Schwedenplatz. A lively pedestrian street emptied into this small plaza which is anchored on one corner by Castelletto, my favorite gelato cafe. In this eclectic Italian institution, a wide assortment of cakes and gelato, plus great people-watching, often kept me there for hours while I worked on the Internet.

Colorful trolleys, their bells clanging, moved people in and out of the waterfront area. The ubiquitous fast food wuerstelstand next to the bustling entrance of the U-Bahn (underground train) was always engulfed with customers, especially during lunchtime and rush hour.

Ferries plied the canal taking people to and from the nearby capital city of Bratislava, Slovakia. This grand city, which was part of the Hapsburg Monarchy from 1526 to 1918, was a fascinating place to visit for a couple of days. (more on this later)


The Danube River

The Danube River is the second longest river in Europe flowing from West Germany through the capital cities of Vienna, Bratislava, Budapest, and Belgrade. It empties into the Black Sea in Romania and Ukraine. The Danube Canal, an arm of the Danube River in Vienna, got its present shape in 1875.  It borders Vienna’s city center and flows approximately 13 miles through the metropolitan area.


When I started writing this posting about life along the Danube Canal in Vienna, I realized that the special time I had with all three of my English-speaking Viennese *Servas Hosts had exposed me to various past and present aspects of life along the river.

This is my story of the special experience I had with my first hosts, Christina and Michael. My experiences with the other two Servas Hosts will follow shortly.

Christina and Michael invited me to stay for a couple of nights in one of their two in-town, one-room flats which are located in a building that overlooks the Danube Canal near Schwedenplatz. They stay in one of them periodically, but spend most of their time in their lovely multi-family home on the outskirts of town.

Diagonally across the street from their building, on the site of the former Interpol Hotel, was the Memorial to Victims of the Gestapo. The hotel, which had been bombed during the war then later demolished, had been the notorious Vienna Gestapo headquarters during *Anschluss (Annexation)

Christina acquainted me with her historic neighborhood one day. Her building backs up to a steep wall which once formed part of Vienna’s inner-city Jewish Quarter. The climb up the neighboring stairs brought us to a cobbled street area that made me feel I had just stepped back in time. The hill where we stood at the top of the stairs was crowned by St. Rupert’s church, which is considered to be the oldest church in Vienna.

I was able to tour the huge, lovingly-restored Jewish City Temple (Wiener Stadttemple) nearby, dated 1825. Multi-lingual tours were offered regularly. The Synagogue was not completely destroyed during Nazi times, as most of the other synagogues in Vienna had been, because it had been designed to fit into an apartment complex so it wouldn’t be visible from the street. It was a legal requirement at that time.

Christina introduced me to two long-standing traditions of Vienna – the old Viennese coffee house (kaffeehaus) culture and the attire of attendees at Viennese traditional balls.

In an elegant, old-fashioned kaffeehaus I sipped tea while she drank traditional Viennese melange coffee (an espresso with steamed milk, topped with a little foam). We shared a decadent piece of dark chocolate cake. Sharing that moment with Christina, who obviously felt very much at ease in those surroundings, made me feel completely at home in old Vienna.

The tradition of Carnival balls continues to thrive in Vienna. The Vienna ball season reaches its peak every January and February. We strolled by fashion stores on the old town’s pedestrian streets with windows full of mannequins suitably dressed for a Viennese ball. She had attended many in her youth, she told me with a chuckle and a delightful twinkle in her eye. She left it at that.


*Servas is non-profit international organization of hosts and travelers.

**Anschluss (Annexation) – Uniting Austria into Nazi Germany (the German Reich) on March 12, 1938

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Introducing Vienna and the Hapsburg Legacy


I am currently in Brasov, an ancient city in the rugged Transylvania region of Romania. I have found a room with a view looking out over medieval German architecture, traces of the far-reaching Hapsburg Empire. This peaceful place has given me the inspiration I needed to stop my travels for a few days and begin publishing my writings on my blog about my recent European adventures in Vienna, Austria, and Bucharest, Romania.

Cool mountain air and a dramatic view of the tree-covered Tabor Mountain greeted me this morning as I threw opened my window. Wide pedestrian streets below, which fanned out from the old town square were buzzing with activity. People dressed in business attire were walking with purpose. Workers in orange jackets and hard hats were at work restoring old buildings. Bells tolled from surrounding churches and the clock tower of the Council House, formerly City Hall.

But wait – let me take you back to the glories of the Hapsburg Empire in Vienna for the time being. We’ll return to historic Brasov (and Romania) later.


I arrived late one afternoon at my hostel in Vienna after a relatively short flight from London. It was the dead of winter and bitter cold. The many layers of clothing that I had packed in my backpack prepared me well for this weather.

My well-priced hostel bed, which was US$20 per night in a female dorm room, was conveniently located. It was adjacent to Wein Westbahnhof (train station), just outside the historic center of Vienna, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It put me a heartbeat away from the celebrated Ringstrasse boulevard, the Hofburg (the former principal imperial palace of the Hapsburg dynasty rulers and today serves as the official residence of the President of Austria), and the labyrinth of intriguing pedestrian streets that fanned out from lively Stephanplatz square. I constantly enjoyed the intoxicating mix of international cuisine and delicacies which was at my fingertips.

A brief introduction to the Hapsburg Empire and Vienna’s Golden Age

*The Hapsburg Empire was the central European monarchy that ruled a collection of lands from the 13th century to 1918. **The Hapsburgs were the hereditary rulers of the Holy Roman Empire from 1438 -1740.

The late 19th century was Vienna’s Golden Age, as reflected by the magnificent architecture that lines Ringstrasse boulevard. In the 1850’s in place of where the medieval city wall once stood, massive civic buildings were constructed including the Opera House, Town Hall, and Parliament. Members of the imperial household, the high aristocracy, and great families of the new class of Jewish industrialists, bankers, and financiers, built magnificent mansions and moved in.

A free historic walking tour of Vienna

The meeting point for a ***free two-hour walking tour was in a square in the old town at the Monument against War and Fascism. Dana, our friendly, professional tour guide, was a local who spoke impeccable English. Introductions revealed that our small group of eight independent travelers represented five countries from three continents. She briefly reminded us that giving “free” walking tours was her livelihood, and that a monetary show of appreciation would be welcome at the end of the tour.

Our immediate surroundings set the scene for a discussion about Fascism in Austria during WWII and the tragic events that led to the elimination of most of Vienna’s 180,000 Jews who lived in the city before 1938.

The tone of the tour quickly turned to a more upbeat note when she gave us an overview of the expansive palace with its numerous museums as we stood in front of one of the beautiful gates to the Hofburg. We were especially encouraged to visit the temporary exhibit in the Australian National Library celebrating Beethoven’s 250th birthday. I put in on my list.

As we strolled around parts of the Ringstrasse, she pointed out an elegant palace house which had been built in the late 19th century by the Euphrussi family, an aristocratic Jewish family.  It was now no longer occupied by them.  Soon after the German Wehrmacht marched into Austria in 1938, their property was removed from their possession through the German policy of ****Aryanization. (more on this subject later)

When we stopped in front of the Staatsoper (Vienna State Opera), she encouraged us to purchase a standing-room ticket to an event there, as it was the easiest (and cheapest) way to see an opera or ballet on the same day. We were introduced to the nearby Musikverein (Vienna Concert Hall), and the Café Schwarzenberg, the oldest traditional Viennese coffee house on the Ringstrasse.

I would have a personal connection to many of these places in the coming days. Stay tuned!!!


* For an outstanding video showing the rise and fall of the Hapsburg Empire, visit the “maps” link at the top of this page

** For a basic introduction to the Hapsburg Monarchy, visit the following link:


****Aryanization: Forced expulsion of Jews from business life. It entailed the transfer of Jewish property into “Aryan” hands.

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London to Vienna, Austria

I arrived in London a few days before Brexit was to go into effect.  In the early morning hours on the first day of this momentous occasion, February 1, 2020, I received an email from longtime friend, historical author, and citizen of the United Kingdom, Lee Stokes, concerning his feelings on the separation of Great Britain from the Economic Union.

Lee stated: “Nations must work together at all levels to prevent war. This is especially true in Europe, where the peace has held (since WWII), thanks to the strong NATO military alliance and the economic clout of the European Union. Britain’s quitting the EU has made the EU weaker for me.”


London is young, international, and ALIVE!

During the evenings in London’s West End theatre district, buskers sang popular tunes in Piccadilly Circus to streams of passers-by and to the young perched under the fountain that graces the square. Street artists were hard at work drawing caricatures of customers. Theatres were packed. The streets, squares, promenades in Chinatown, and restaurants were bustling. I attended a couple of theatrical performances, both of which were under US$45.

Covent Gardens, an Italianate arcade square in London’s West End, was a great place for people watching and enjoying free outdoor entertainment. A highlight for me was when the harmonious music of a classical string quintet drifted upwards as I passed by an open-air food court which was below street level. I contributed a few coins in appreciation.

Historic Camden Town, easily accessible by London’s efficient underground transportation system, is well known for its eclectic, fringe marketplace. It is also a popular place to go to snack on international street food while watching Camden’s community narrowboats maneuver the surrounding canal waterways. My favorite fast food stall there sells traditional Venezuelan arepas, a small corn flour pita filed with a variety of ingredients. Lone lines were frequent, but it was well worth the wait.


I’m off to Vienna, once an Imperial Capital, now a major European city of culture. The historic city borders the Danube River and parts of the former East Bloc. It will be my jumping off point for my winter adventures this year as I continue my exploration of Eastern Europe.


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Post script from Newport, Rhode Island, USA – Navy War College & Ukrainian Student

The U.S. Naval War College* in Newport, Rhode Island, was established1884. The college brings 100 to 150 foreign officers to the U.S. from around the world annually, including military officers from Ukraine.

The Naval War College International Military Student Office (IMSO) manages the NWC sponsor program, which Merrilee Zellner, author of this blog, participates in regularly. One of the main purposes of the volunteer sponsor program is to “….provide a level of exposure to American life and culture that complements the official academic and social program for the course.”**

This program enriches both the lives of the sponsors, through interaction with special people from around the world who are serving their country, and the students they sponsor.

CDR Burdov Mykola from Ukraine and his sponsor Merrilee Zellner, at the Naval Staff College International Cuisine Night, November 1, 2019.




Saying Goodbye to Odessa, Ukraine

Following are a few photos in memory of my experience in Odessa, the former Soviet city on the Black Sea which is packed with Jewish history, and now holds a special place in contemporary Ukraine.


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Arcadia, Odessa, a Black Sea Resort

Arcadia is a popular resort area a few kilometers south of Odessa along the Black Sea where luxury buildings coexist with old Russian aristocracy houses and Soviet-era sanatoriums. The majority of Odessa’s beaches are at the foot of steep cliffs and slopes. In Arcadia, the wildly popular Arcadia Beach can be accessed via natural, gentle slopes.

Soviet sanatoriums, halfway between a spa and a clinic, were state-run institutions that provided workers with constructive rest. Hundreds of sanatoriums are still found scattered throughout Russia and the post-Soviet states.

There are two popular ways to reach Arcadia from Odessa. One is the pedestrian six-kilometer Route of Health that runs along the shore. The other is by trolley. I boarded the trolley near Odessa’s main train station for the 20 minute ride.

Mid-rise and high-rise hotels and apartment complexes, interspersed with construction cranes, dominated the Arcadia skyline. It was in sharp contrast to the low-rise, historic buildings of Odessa’s Old Town a few miles away.

I alighted at the end of the trolley line which was at the entrance to a wide promenade lined with cafes, bars, shops and modern apartment buildings. A few people were strolling on a long pier that extended from the end of the promenade. Construction workers were busily working on decks of restaurants, bars and clubs that lined the waterfront. Arcadia Beach, which was wind-swept and empty, stretched out on both sides of the pier.

I strolled the boardwalk. All the photos I had seen over the years of this famous Russian Black Sea resort with wall-to-wall people sunning themselves on the narrow stretch of sandy beach, suddenly seemed unreal. Off season certainly did paint a different, inviting picture.


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