Impressions of Europe – Austria

The country which gave us Weiner Schnitzels, the Von Trapp family and a rather unpleasant fellow called Hitler is one of the smaller European Countries. It is quite long east to west while being narrow in the west and broader in the east. Formerly part of the Austro Hungarian empire, it was annexed to Germany during WW2 and gained its independence again in the post war period. Its capital Vienna also had quite a reputation as a city for spies during the cold war era being not so far away from the Iron Curtain.

Western Austria is quite like Switzerland with a sort of junior version of the Alpine landscape. In 1979 we had done a day return trip from Zurich to Salzburg just to photograph the trolleybuses which were running there – and still do.

The Insight Vacations tour in 2015 spent its first few days in Switzerland then followed the valley of the River Inn all the way down the valley from St Moritz down to Innsbruck (guess what that is named after?). The first sighting was during the brief morning tea/ passport stop at the border where a two Swiss post buses met up with one of their Austrian counterparts.

From Google Maps, I had previously identified two likely good photo spots, the main station and a largish tram junction near the river and the old town. Imagine my delight when the coach deposited us for the lunch stop exactly at the latter point. I spent the lunch hour photographing a wide variety of trams and buses here, including one tram route which was being bustituted while track work was under way (just like being home).

The really nice thing about European coach builders is that, unlike most of our locals, they are not frightened to purchase coloured paint.

Quite a few coaches and Post Buses also passed by. As in Switzerland, Post buses in Austria are yellow…. except when they are red…. or silver. Hmmm. Some have dual signage for Regio (Regional) Bus. The town buses also came in red and silver but all the trams (mainly Bombardier flexities) were red. Mercedes Citaros and MANs dominated the fleets and came in rigid, bogie (including some extra long 15.7 metre ones) plus articulated versions.

After touring the old town, we were bussed to the hotel – right opposite the main station! So an hour or so of peak hour pre dinner photography enabled an extensive coverage to be obtained, including some train shots from within the station.

Next day was border hopping between Austria and Germany to visit Oberammagau (site of the famous passion play performed every ten years) and two of “Mad King Ludwig’s” castles one of which was the inspiration for Walt Disney’s Sleeping Beauty castle. It was designed by a stage designer rather than an architect, which must have made things interesting for the builders. Now this guy Ludwig was weird. He hated to be around people so much that he lived alone on the top floor of the castle and had meals sent up from the kitchen below on a table on pulleys. He also seems to have had something of a crush on opera composer Richard Wagner. Funny he never married. He also didn’t like ugly people and made them wear masks. Eventually he was overthrown and sent to the madhouse. The village below the second castle at Neuschwanstein is a real Mecca for coach tours with much variety on parade. I went a bit medieval myself that evening playing the dress up lead role of the hero knight at a theatre style restaurant.

The following day we travelled to Salzburg via the Eagles Next at Berchtesgarten, the country retreat of that Hitler chappie. Here you leave your tour coach in a well stocked coach park and join one of a fleet of Mercedes Citaro and MAN rigid buses which run in convoys of four or five up their own single lane road to the entry point which is like a mine shaft. The buses then return down the hill pausing at the half way point, where there is a passing bay, while the next upward convoy goes through. A third convoy is loading at the bottom so about 15 buses are required in all. Now all the Nazi top brass residences here were destroyed by Allied bombing but Hitler’s meeting venue at the top of a long internal elevator remains and is now a restaurant. You can see the marble fireplace presented to Hitler as a present from Mussolini. Outside the views are spectacular… allegedly… in our case low cloud was blotting it all out.

That afternoon provided for a walk through old Salzburg, including the Mirabell Palace and gardens, plus gazing up at the window of the room in which Mozart was born. Then there was a couple of hours free time before coaching out of town to our overnight stop (unusual for Insight but a late substitution due to heavy bookings). The free time allowed plenty of opportunity to photograph the local system at several points along the river and near the coach pickup point.

Salzburg replaced its trams with trolleybuses from 1940 and they still rule today. There are 11 routes using 136 trolleys. The older ones were built by either Graf & Stift or Steyr whilst the newer varieties comprise MAN NGT204M, Van Hool AG300 and Solaris Cegelec and Trollino metros. For those unfamiliar with this marque, Solaris manufactures buses and trolleybuses in what was once the Neoplan plant in Poland. Diesel buses were the usual a mix of Mercedes and MAN and there was a good supply of tour coaches and the local round the town open toppers – coaches rather than deckers though.

The following day we covered the rest of the way to Vienna across a much flatter landscape than the eastern half of the country. We were supposed to view inside the church at Mondsee where the wedding scenes from The Sound of Music were filmed but oh dear, there was a funeral in progress for a local dignitary so no go there. Cool horse drawn hearse though. The coach park of our lunch stop, the monastery at Melt, also provided a nice variety of makes and operators. This monastery is huge. It used to house over 250 monks… today there are 12.

Vienna is a wonderful place for the transport enthusiast. Metro, trams (including many older high floor models still in service) the usual variety of buses and coaches and one of the best transport museums in the world. Our touristy stuff included a visit to the Schonbrunn palace the former home of the Hapsburg family. The building which was originally the stables now houses a wonderful coach and carriage museum (we’re talking horse drawn royalty carrying coaches here of course) so if you go here pass up the garden tour and take a peek. This was followed by a drive past the many historic public buildings on the ring road and a walk through the old city.

After this day the Insight tour ended but we stayed on a further two days here. On the Sunday we caught a tram around to the point at which an historic shuttle bus would take us to the museum.

It turned out to be a Graf & Stift rigid city bus of no great age (probably mid eighties). But the museum itself has to be seen to be believed, housing a wonderful collection of trams which must represent just about every type which has run there, some trains, including a metro carriage and several buses. These included a bonneted Saurer, a Bussing double decker and an experimental Steyr battery bus once used on services within the narrow streets of the old town. Nowadays these services are run by something between a bus, trolleybus and tram. They are essentially a battery powered 20 odd seat bus but fitted with a pantograph. They do their run using stored power then, while laying over at the terminus the panto is raised and draws power from a section of overhead connected to the tramway system. Thus the termini of these routes are where they meet the tram sys- tem at the ring road.

Vienna has had electric trams since 1897. The older type E1 and E2 were built from 1966 onwards and have the classic European tram look. Type A and B low floor trams date from 1995 onwards.

The remaining day was spent exploring the tram bus and metro systems obtaining photos at a variety of locations. This was also my first real opportunity to try the ISO range of the new Canon purchased just before the trip. Forget the old days of Kodak 25 or Agfa 64 slide film. The ISO settings go up to 13200. As I found here, and later on in Germany, this provides far greater opportunities for photography in museums, metro systems or in the underground tram stations which proliferate in the Ruhr valley towns. Vienna also has some underground tram trackage which includes a quite complex junction used by both the city trams and an inter- urban line.

A visit to a suburban terminus produced vehicles belonging to a firm called Dr Richard. This is Austria’s largest private operator founded by Dr Ludwig Richard after WW2, having run trucks during the war. The firm now runs over 800 buses and coaches from 9 depots along 200 routes. Like our own Driver Bros they have an historic bus fleet of nine dating as far back as 1905. The vintage buses were built by Steyr, Graf & Stift, Saurer and Setra. Google them and visit their website to see photos of these classics.

I also caught a glimpse of the refugee crisis current at the time. One side of the Westbanhof station had the usual long distance coach terminal. Checking the other side I found about 200 cops, forty of fifty police vans and a chained off area where refugees, who must have just arrived on a special train, were being transferred to coaches for delivery to a detention centre. A couple of surreptitious coach shots was followed by a strategic withdrawal, discretion sometimes being the better part of valour! Total number of times I was accosted about taking transport photos in Austria = zero!