Chasing the Total Eclipse of the Sun

(August 11th, 1999. Wiener Neustadt, Austria)

While backpacking in Europe during the summer of 1999, I found myself in Vienna on August 11th--the day of the total solar eclipse! Well, it wasn't total everywhere, and Vienna wasn't in the path of totality. Vienna was close, tantalizingly close--it was going to get a 99% eclipse. Observing the eclipse in Vienna would be like guessing 5 out of 6 numbers right in a lottery and missing the last number by a single digit. I knew I would not forgive myself later if I didn't make an effort to get into the path of totality, which was only 40km south of Vienna. As long as you are in totality zone, it doesn't really matter where to observe the eclipse--a city, a town, a corn field, a railroad track--the view is the same, the only difference is the duration of the eclipse, from several seconds to up to 2m. 25 sec. Of course, we (two friends and I) faced a problem of getting to the totality zone. And it was a serious problem. The closest town in the totality zone with a view lasting at least a minute was Wiener Neustadt, about a 45 minute train ride from Vienna. However, when we checked the train ticket booth we were told that every train going there was reserved long in advance. In fact, every train to ANY southern destination in the totality zone had been reserved long in advance.

The situation didn't look good. We inquired about the cost of taking a taxi, but when we heard $150 one way, we decided to pursue other options. One of the remaining options was to ride a bicycle. Not a completely preposterous idea. There were only three minor problems with it: we had no idea what roads to take, no idea where to rent a bicycle, and even if we solved the first two problems, there was no way we would have made it back to Vienna in time for our 15:25 train to Prague (the eclipse was around 12:40). This last problem eliminated our other option--walking. To top all this, there was perhaps the ultimate problem--weather. It rained most of the previous day, and we were not sure whether the eclipse would be visible at all.
Wiener Neustadt's Main Square. Two hours before the eclipse.
Wiener Neustadt's Main Square. Two hours before the eclipse.
Special glasses to look into the sun
Special glasses to look into the sun.

Taking everything into consideration, my friends almost gave up on the attempt to get into the zone. But I was still hopeful. On August 11th I woke up at 6:30 in the morning while my friends were still asleep, looked out the window and found the skies completely covered with clouds. This didn't look promising. Nevertheless, I packed all my stuff in the backpack and took a metro to the Sudbanhoff (South Train Station). I was astonished when I approached the ticket booth and asked if there were any tickets available to Weiner Neustadt the clerk said "YES". At 7:45am I boarded a commuter train to Wiener Neustadt, which surprisingly wasn't even completely full. When I got into town, around 9am, it was chilly and cloudy. I thought to myself, "Well, at least I did everything I could, and I can't blame myself for the bad weather."

Miraculously, as I was walking from the train station to the main town square, the clouds started to dissipate. The feeling of the possibility--even a small chance--was incredible. By 10am it was mostly sunny. There was 2 hr. 45 min left till the total eclipse of the sun. I could hardly believe it. As the time of the eclipse approached, more and more people packed the square. I thought to myself, "This must be this town's 15 minutes of fame. When else will so many people gather here? In a sea of people I ran into my friends. They woke up shortly after I had left and took a later train. At about 11:30 one could already see a small piece of sun "bitten" by the moon. (We had special glasses for looking straight at the sun.) As time progressed, the moon covered more and more of the sun, but even with 90% of the sun eclipsed it was just as light as if the sun was 100% clear. It started to get noticeably darker only about 10 minutes before the total eclipse, and it got darker, and darker, and darker...until we took our glasses off--this was it, this was the moment--there was no visible sun--just a dark circle for 1 full minute. As soon as the sun disappeared a flock of birds flew by. It was an indescribable view. It wasn't totally dark; it seemed like a twilight.
About half hour before the eclipse. Without glasses, it seems that the sun at 100%
About half hour before the eclipse. Without glasses, it seems that the sun at 100%.
Total Solar Eclipse
Total Solar Eclipse.

But at 12:40 in the afternoon???!!! I'm thankful that Vienna was my home base for the eclipse, because most of Western European cities in the totality path, including Munich, Stuttgart, and south of England were all cloudy. Observing the total solar eclipse was without a doubt one of the major highlights of this trip--it could very well be a once-in-a-lifetime experience. After all, the next total solar eclipse in Europe will not happen till 2081.

Immediately after the sun reappeared, we walked to the train station. The train back to Vienna was packed like a tin of sardines. We arrived in Vienna about 14:30, ate lunch, and boarded a 15:25 train to Prague. But that's another story.


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