I was not planning on coming to Vienna. In my geographically-handicapped mind, I connect Austria to the dreaded “Expensive Western Europe” and did not realize that Vienna was smack-dab in the middle of my travel path (well, it is Europe after all…everything is close by). Therefore, crossing through Austria worked out to be a better route to Slovakia rather than traveling through Czech’s eastern portion. So, here I am after a week in the Czech Republic…and I am welcoming the opportunity to explore the capital of classical music, the home to Gustav Klimt (The Kiss is here), and a city full of rich and interesting Hofburg heritage.
It is no secret that Austria is an icon on the world map for classical music: let’s see…we have the Vienna boys choir, the Philharmonic Orchestra, and of course, the world-renowned opera house (which I saw first hand with a night of MacBeth…more on that later). And the architecture was just jaw-dropping. I think that European architecture…and the statues and the carvings and the fountains…are making Chicago, as well as the rest of America, look very plain indeed! There was certainly plenty to keep me occupied during my two days in Vienna, Austria.
Since this was a last minute trip (and everyone and their brother seems to travel to Europe’s big cities on weekends) many of my first choices for cute, quaint hostels were fully booked. So- eek– I booked a few nights at Vienna’s biggest hostel, the legendary Wombats. This particular chain of hostels is huge, HUGE, throughout Europe, and just the thought made me grimace. Would I be able to sleep? Will there be quiet places in which to read, write, and have my two (three) morning coffees?
I still haven’t grown accustomed to the idea that locals (meaning all other Europeans) travel during the weekends to other international destinations (i.e – party cities). Whether it be a clan of excited German school girls, a group of Irish guys celebrating a bachelor party, or a couple of college kids from Paris, there seems to be, shall we say, more ‘roadtrippers’ in this neck of the European woods than backpackers. I am the minority here.
Back to my Wombats experience. Though the hostel is enormous, about 300 rooms, my stay wasn’t too bad. The hostel was very clean and the front desk crew knew their stuff regarding travel advice and helpful information. I saw all walks of life at the breakfast nook too: families with kids, business professionals, and yes, the typical groups of partying Irishmen. But it worked out just fine, I slept well, and the location was excellent. (No, there wasn’t a quiet writing nook, but I found a coffee shop, some apple strudel, and survived just fine.)
Anyway, Vienna, or Wien as it is called locally, was just beautiful and very walkable. I may have surpassed my usual 12 miles of sight-seeing/ day-walking as there was so much to see and do…and excellent coffee to drink…and yummy pastries to eat. So, let’s begin.
Starting off, I followed a Rick Steve’s audio tour that led me through the highlights of Vienna. I had to keep turning it off to take photos and stare. Just breathtaking. I gapped at enormous St. Stephen’s Cathedral and walked around the facade about ten times.
Holy cow, what a church.
The Gothic carvings, the 450 foot frilly spire that took two generations to build, and the interior that is more than a football field long were remarkable. Visitors could light candles, take tours, climb the 343 steps up the tower, or leave a note, thought, or inscription along the church’s pillars. It was enough for me to just sit back and people watch for several minutes.
Down the road a bit, I peaked inside neighbouring St. Peter’s Church and snapped photos of the gorgeous Baroque interior. Leopold I ordered this church to be built as a thank you for surviving the 1679 plague. The rose-gold ceiling, paintings flanking the pulpit, and dramatic alter make this one of my favorite churches thus far in Europe.
Early the next morning, I browsed the colorful Naschmarkt and befriended many of the overly friendly and eager-to-make-a-sale vendors. Mostly from Turkey and Egypt, these smiling men offered samples of cheese, dates, nuts, and sweets. It was a bona fide Sam’s Club ‘lunch’ in the middle of Vienna.
I thought briefly about doing a quick change of clothing and making another round through the market for more goodies! But, I think they would have recognized me, especially since I already had three new Facebook friends from my one trip through the market. I need to learn to NOT give out my real name.
Aside from friendly vendors, the market is known locally as Munchies Market and many of Vienna’s top chefs purchase their ingredients here. The cheese selection alone was incredible.
Later that afternoon, I took a break from the miles of walking and toured the lavish Hofburg Palace Imperial Apartments. It was raining by then anyway, and I was lacking a brilliant blue sky for photo taking and inspiration. These Imperial Apartments are a smaller version of the much grander Schonbrunn Palace, but they were located in central Vienna instead of an out-of-town location.
A one-way 11 Euro ticket gives a three part tour through a porcelain and silver collection, a museum dedicated to Empress Sisi, and a wander through the Hofburg’s luxurious apartments. Though it sounds boring, I actually enjoyed gawking at the Hofburg’s vast silverware and tableware collection which is said to hold over 7,000 pieces of porcelain, silver, and gold leaf ware. The array of opulent dishes, including those specially designed for traveling purposes, was astonishing. Who really needs that many serving spoons?
This napkin, the crowning feature of the Hofburg place setting is arranged in an elaborate Imperial Fold that forms a hollow to enclose a bread roll. The technique is a well-kept secret only handed down by word of mouth to selected individuals, and even today, only two people know the secret of the technique. The Imperial Fold may only be used on the occasion of state visits by crowned heads and presidents. I’m told that the napkin used for ‘the fold’ is over a yard long.
I took myself to the opera on my second evening in Vienna, . Though I love theater, I don’t particularly enjoy the opera, but I am always, always open to new experiences, and the opera in Vienna was indeed a new experience.
More about my opera experience in a later blog, but I certainly appreciated being in one of the planet’s premier houses of music. The Neo-Renaissance architecture was stunning, and though I left at intermission, I enjoyed my evening out. Waiting in line for the standing room only tickets itself was an opportunity not to be missed. I immediately noticed the locals that showed up for standing room tickets because they certainly knew the drill. I have no doubt that they turned up every weekend for they came prepared with books, folding stools, snacks, wine, and newspapers.
Even without a tour, a plan, or a guidebook, simply walking around Vienna is Euro-fabulous. The statues, carvings, and fountains located on every corner, park center, and intersection were amazing. My favorite fountain was the Neuer Markt where Lady Providence is surrounded by figures symbolizing the rivers that flow into the Danube. It was difficult to put down my camera while waltzing through Vienna.
I found the locals to be extremely friendly, and I loved watching the well-dressed men with their black overcoats, wooden-handled umbrellas, and top-hats or berets walking the city streets. The easy manner in which the gentlemen strolled with a lady at his elbow or his hands gently clasped behind his back had an air of sophistication and class that I haven’t noticed in other parts of the world.
Of course, the horse-drawn carriages were all over the streets of Vienna too. I carried carrots in my pockets to give treats to the horses once in a while…well, when the buggy-driver allowed me to do so.
I would have liked to spend more time in Vienna as there were so many neat sights that I missed. For instance, though I wouldn’t have visited the actual Spanish Riding School, seeing the stables of the world renowned Lipizzaner stallions would have been a neat trip. These highly prized horses have rich Arabian blood, and seeing these gorgeous creatures romp in their pastures would have been fun.
I also didn’t see the Vienna boys choir or the Philharmonic Orchestra – both musical events that I will put on my list for next time. I must have spent too many hours in the coffee shops for I soon ran out of time and was leaving for Bratislava. I must say that the coffee in Vienna was mighty fine, and the ambiance at the many long-established cafes was full of character. It took a few trials and errors, but I soon wrapped my head around the espresso-based coffee drinks and Vienna’s unique coffee terms. This morning’s treat was a Brauner: espresso coffee with a little milk.
And, alas, I did not see the The Kiss, Gustav Klimt’s most famous painting. Though he was well known as a womanizer and his erotic original paintings somewhat scandalized Vienna, his multi-media oil paintings are known worldwide and he is one of my favorite artists.
Just another reason to return to Vienna one day!