The 250 mile drive from Vienna to Prague was an all-day project, but a worthwhile one. Our route is shown in the map frame on the left. We never got lost except on city streets in Vienna and Prague. The Danube - Wachau Valley contains a wide variety of sights. The contrasts crossing the border and driving through the Czech Republic were memorable. Along the route, we only had time to visit a few places in depth, but the three pictures below give a sense of the scenery between stops. An investment of a week in this same trip would not be over-doing it.
Sunday May 13th
After a breakfast at a local cafe in Vienna, we picked up the rental car and headed out of town. There was a mountain of paperwork involved in getting a car that you drop off in Prague. The car theft rate is high in the Czech Republic so Austrian companies won't rent anything above a standard car and they have to provide a note to the border guards to inform them it is okay to take the car out of Austria.
The first stop was about two hours outside of Vienna along the Danube at Durnstein. It was described in travel books as the best example of a Danube city. The city itself was quaint (three pictures above), but the real treasure was medieval Kuenringer Castle, 520 ft above on the mountain. The steep walk up the mountain was worthwhile for the views it offered of the valley. The five pictures below show the castle and the perspective from the mountain.
The second stop was a quick one at Willendorf. Our goal was to find a quick lunch, but instead we stumbled on a bit of art history. This is the site of an historic archeological find, the statue Venus of Willendorf, dating back to 24,000 BC. The pictures below show the town museum and the site of the discovery.
The third stop was at Mauthausen Concentration Camp, near Linz. I had visited Sachsenhausen, near Berlin, a couple of years before so I knew a bit of what to expect. The two Concentration Camps I have seen are done well, keeping the stark reality of what happened very close to the surface. There's an eerie silence in these camps, even when other people are around. It is a more powerful experience than a holocaust museum, because you are standing where it actually happened only a generation ago. The four pictures below show the outside wall of the camp, the center assembly grounds, a small square plot where 10,000 people are buried and the wailing wall where incoming prisoners were chained to a wall for hours or days.
From Mauthausen, we drove west to Linz and turned north toward the Czech Republic. The border crossing was without incident, but the difference in the countries was clear immediately. All along the roads near the border were strip clubs and poorly maintained buildings. We saw two hookers working the main road in broad daylight. The scenery improved as we got further north away from the border. The Czech countryside was very nice and the roads were good. The main difficulty came from the old soviet-built cars that couldn't seem to keep up their speed on hills. We reached the outskirts of Prague around dusk.
In Prague, we got lost almost immediately. Prague is a compact city so we overshot our turnoff. Prague is also full of one-way streets and traffic restrictions. We circled the area around the Prague Marriott for about 30 minutes, unable to get in front of it. I made a a wrong turn and took a tram-only street and got my first ever (!) moving violation. The officer didn't speak English well, but kept saying "Problem, Problem" as he checked my passport and tried to explain what I had done wrong. I paid the 500 Koruna fine ($12 US) directly to him, but got my money's worth in clear directions that took us directly to the hotel.
We grabbed a decent dinner near the hotel accompanied by one of the worst bottles of wine I have ever had. It was a local Czech wine, but it smelled like the Monongahela River in Pittsburgh on a bad day. John tasted it and didn't turn it back, making his considerable wine experience suspect. That night the Czech Republic won an international hockey competition, so there was celebrating in the streets as we returned from the restaurant (left).