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Backpacking Central & Eastern Europe: Austria & Slovenia

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Vienna, AustriaA generation ago, young travelers hit the road with nothing more than a backpack, a few dollars and a Eurail pass to cover as many Western European countries as possible.

But these days, that Eurail pass can take travelers far past the west-to-east borders, all the way to the Black Sea.

Already jaded by her Western European experiences, Dara Bramson reports on her journey south and east as part of a new generation of intrepid backpackers.

At first glance, Vienna is unmistakably beautiful and clean; akin to Washington, DC. But with the exception of indoor smoking and a few stunning monuments, it could be any big city—and for me, that defeats the purpose of traveling to a new destination.

Vienna, AustriaAs with most travels, though, spending time with locals is the best way to uncover a city’s quirks and unique personality. While planning a two-month stint traveling through Eastern Europe, I promised myself I would make meeting locals a priority.

Case in point: Café Alt Wien, a local favorite that dates back to the 1930s, is less than a five-minute walk from my hostel, but the likelihood of finding it on my own (or to translate the menu) would have been slim.

Instead, I’m ushered into this late-night hotspot by a Viennese local named Sebastian, who displays almost stereotypical dreamy European qualities (tall, flowing hair and fluent in three languages). The room is already filled with smoke, which I loathe, but I convince myself it’s part of the authentic European experience.

“The music promoters have an ongoing war to take down each others’ posters,” Sebastian says, and points to a guy who just slipped in and is making a beeline to the colorful concert powers that plaster the walls.

Learn more with our Ask the Locals Travel Guides. Or get more on Vienna with our Off the Brochure Travel Guide to Vienna, Austria.

Vienna, AustriaSebastian orders our drinks in German and seamlessly reverts back to English: “Do you mind if I smoke?”

That night, after two full days in Vienna, I finally warm up to the city.

In Austria and Slovenia, where trains are notably clean and on-time, this mode of transportation is particularly easy. A four-hour trip from Prague to Vienna, followed by a two-a-half-and hour trip to Salzburg is seamless on the regional Eurail pass which I picked up from Rail Europe (note: this isn’t necessarily the case in Eastern Europe, but more on that later).

If you have at least a day to enjoy the city, consider the €22 (around $32) Salzburg Card for free and reduced prices on everything from museums to car rentals.

Video Tips: Cheaper European Travel & Are City Cards Are Worth It?

One might imagine that a trip to Mozart’s Birthplace would only attract uppity tourists. But the visitors span all age groups and nationalities, including natives enjoying something of a family pastime.

Mozart Sheet music and instruments are set up throughout the otherwise empty rooms of the house where Mozart was born in 1756 and lived until 1773. Of particular note is an oval-shaped listening room, filled with nothing but Mozart arias. Sitting next to me is a stranger, a native Austrian, and we silently and simultaneously nod to acknowledge our journal-writing heaven.

Later that evening, we are reunited at the Mozart Dinner Concert, a pricey but worthwhile three-course meal complete with elaborate, costumed performances
It’s sounds cliche, but Salzburg is practically quaint compared to Vienna; it’s undoubtedly smaller and more manageable. You can still enjoy the city if you aren’t a Mozart or Sound of Music fan, but expect to be inundated by both. (This is particularly true if you arrive by plane, which will land at the airport carrying Mozart’s namesake.)

The cleanliness of the city is Switzerland-esque; the unexpected French-inspired cafés peeking out of random side streets could be straight out of Italy. In short, while the city is appealing in its own right, I still don’t feel like I’ve stepped off the beaten path.

Learn more about Europe with our European Travel section.

It’s true that getting around in Austria, as opposed to, say, Romania, is cleaner and more reliable. But there’s no hiding the fact that countries farther south and east offer something that northern and western countries don’t: affordability. Austria isn’t cheap.

Yes, you can find the average hostel or inexpensive meal, but by no stretch of the imagination is even the best deal triumphant in the part Europe. In Vienna, the Wombats is a clean hotel that draws an international crowd starting at €16 (around $28) per night … and represented the most expensive stay in my travels. Compare this with later stays in Bosnia & Herzegovina, where a standard hotel—not hostel—costs about €10 per night. With the exception of Croatia, the trend of descending prices was evident as I headed south, and eventually east.

Graz, AustriaInitially, I consider my night in the Austrian city of Graz as a layover to Slovenia, but the city is surprisingly intriguing. Its history dates back to 1128, evident by the impossible-to-miss Schlossberg Castle on the mountain overlooking the city. But the city also has some of the most unusual, impressive modern architectural structures I’ve seen in Europe. Overlooking the city from the mountain’s viewpoints reveals a canvas of rust-red roofs and then these totally out-of-place but stunning structures peeking out between buildings.

Planning a backpacking adventure? Check out Backpack Reviews and the Best Backpacks for All Types of Travelers.

Graz staircaseA modern blue blob-like structure that appears ready to blast off at any moment is a perfect example. This is the Kunsthaus Graz, which houses a restaurant and lounge.

Ironically, my favorite landmark in the city is also one of the newest: Mur Island, which sits on the Mur River, was a temporary structure built during Graz’s 2003 reign as European Capitol of Culture which became a permanent attraction because of its popularity.

It’s architecturally akin to the Kunsthaus and houses a performance amphitheater and café, accessible by foot over a bridge. Sitting inside Mur’s restaurant is like being in a clear submarine above the water.

The train ride to Ljubjlana, Slovenia feels like the beginning of a less-trodden path, more akin to what I had envisioned on my gritty Eastern European trek.

Ljubjlana SloveniaAdmittedly, I’m already uneasy about traveling farther away from familiar ground as a single female traveler.

This feeling especially rings true when I make the call to book my hostel stay … in a former military prison. Hostel Celica, which dates back to the late 19th century, served as a military prison in Austro-Hungarian Empire and later fell into the hands of the Yugoslav Federal Army.

In the 1990s, a group of artists and architects transformed the once stark and harsh prison into a bright, colorful hostel to welcome travelers into the “new” Slovenia. At first glance of the brilliant graffiti covering the walls of the basketball-court entrance, my concerns about being in Slovenia fall away. Inside, it’s clean, with amazing food, and feels more like a meditation retreat than jail. Rates start at €16 (around $23) and include sheets, towels and breakfast.

Ljubjlana SloveniaThe city itself has the same dual vibe of funky and immaculate. In the charming town center that is reminiscent of Austria’s big cities, a chandelier hangs from the power lines outside a cafe and an old church. From this intersection, visitors can begin the trek up to the 12th-century Ljubljana Castle, another example of old, medieval architecture that has been updated and renovated to become a modern cultural attraction.

While the cities under my belt are undoubtedly impressive and culturally rich, I can’t shake the feeling that I’ve just barely scratched the surface. I have yet to discover something completely different from my past experiences in Western Europe. That sentiment, fortunately, dissipates quickly on my next stops: Croatia, Bosnia, Hungary, and Romania. Stay tuned for more tales from the backpacker …

By Dara Bramson for PeterGreenberg.com.

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